Sunday, 4 August 2013

Mortality and folk music in Trelawnyd

Up to Trelawnyd Memorial Hall yesterday for Folk at the Hall, which ran from one o'clock to eleven o'clock. Trelawnyd is a village not too far from Chester; the fact that a day's music performed by some highly-regarded and accomplished singers and musicians is to be found in such a modest setting in front of a small audience is entirely down to the skill and enthusiasm of one family and their helpers. They don't make any money out of their ventures - at best they break even. Lovely people, lovely day, very reasonably priced. Thanks to you all. 

But my subject today is less this generous spirit than the nature of much of the "folk" music that we hear today, and how it just might relate to perceptions of mortality and human continuity.

Eliza Carthy, talented scion of trans-generational folk heroes Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, once summed up the difference between pop music and folk music: pop music, she felt, is most concerned with expressing individual, personal feeling, folk music with telling a story. So if this idea works, in folk music, perhaps the feeling is expressed more in terms of events and less as direct statements.

 Folk music which originated in the tradition (however modified) seems to me to have a distancing effect - yes, there is often more of a story, and that can generate a strong feeling of continuity.

Yesterday I heard a folk trio called Faustus sing the old ballad "The Banks of the Nile." The song presumably originated during the Napoleonic wars. It was very well arranged, sung and played.

The song is about a parting between a soldier and his love; she says she'll disguise herself and come with him, he says that's not possible, and off he goes. Then these words, which jumped out at me:

Oh, cursed be those cruel wars, that ever they began  
For they have robbed our country of many's the handsome men  
They've robbed us of our sweethearts while their bodies they feed the lions  
On the dry and sandy deserts which are the banks of the Nile.

Or on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, or the Rhine, or the Somme, or....

Human continuity, and the realities of war, down the centuries. This isn't an introspective exploration of individual feelings; it sprang out of a simple, anonymous, archetypal story. 

Perhaps a realisation that people have been suffering the same tribulations and griefs, celebrating the same joys and delights, for many many generations, helps us to take a quick look in the general direction of our own mortality? I can't see that getting locked into an individual self-absorption with the facts of mortality is going to do much to help.

Here's Faustus with the song, not in Trelawnyd but in the wonderful "Songs from the Shed" series. Poor sound quality, but it gives you an idea.

Back to Folk at the Hall - it was noticeable, in a tiny venue, how friendly the musicians were, with each other and with us. No narcissistic vanity, self-dramatisation, posturing and competing. Non of the stuff that can often crop up with pop/rock. Strong musical personalities all, clamorous egos none. 

Songs from the Hall, songs from the shed - I love this directness, this simplicity of approach. It relates to the world we live in, even if the song is about the Napoleonic wars. 

Oh, and two of Faustus are also in Bellowhead. Quality will out.

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