Senior Programme Producer Phil Johnson reflects on folk music and why it sounds great in St George’s, and previews a cracking new season full of acoustic acts from home and abroad.
When I saw Bob Dylan at Cardiff’s arena last month, sitting in a little Bristol programmer’s posse with my counterparts from Colston Hall and Watershed, he encored with a lovely country waltz version of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, for many his most famous song. It reminded me that when I was a kid in junior school an energetic student teacher had taught us all the song and we trilled along to it as he played the chords on his guitar. Later, at university, I was surprised to turn over the exam paper for my Practical Criticism Eng Lit finals and find the ‘unseen’ text was Bob’s ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’: I spent the next hour tendentiously bemoaning the fact that it was, like, a song and the cadences of Bob’s diction made the words sound quite different than they looked on the page, which I’m sure my examiners found most entertaining.
Through Dylan, I got into yer proper folk music, which wasn’t hard because folk clubs were everywhere back then, with five or so in my small Tyneside town. Usually held in the back rooms of pubs on slow midweek nights, they appeared to be perfectly democratic institutions (which I’m sure they weren’t), open to ingenues and no-hopers as well as seasoned amateurs and ambitious semi-pros, as well as providing a national circuit for better known professionals beginning to make a name for themselves. Although my interests were ‘contemporary’ folk, which often meant versions of Dylan songs or attempts at Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory’, the clubs tended to be dominated by skilled locals singing traditional ballads. There was always something about nineteenth century weavers or navvies or emigrants off to Ameri-cay, so the content wasn’t too different to the social and economic history I was studying for A-Level at Tech College. Folk music also had a radical edge and dealt with social justice and equality. I listened to Dylan’s ‘Oxford Town’ while struggling through ‘Soledad Brother’ by George Jackson or Eldridge Cleaver’s ‘Soul On Ice’, and discovered the early songs of Gil Scott-Heron at around the same time. Were they folk, soul or jazz? Like encountering Terry Callier years later, it was hard to tell.
My contemporary folk interests had also been looked after by folk-rock, with package tours of Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and the like appearing at Newcastle City Hall, where I also saw Pentangle, the ‘supergroup’ that blended traditional folk songs with virtuoso acoustic picking and interests drawn from jazz and what would now be called Americana. Since beginning programming at St George’s I’ve put on all of the original Pentangle members except drummer Terry Cox, with John Renbourn (dead now, like his fellow guitar genius Bert Jansch) appearing many times. Their great double-bassist, Danny Thompson, is due to come back in a special show as part of our Spring relaunch programme.
I lost touch with Dylan’s albums not long after ‘Blood On the Tracks’, and for years forsook folk in favour of jazz and soul, but St George’s has paved my pathway back to the source, as predominantly acoustic music played by soloists or small ensembles is what sounds best in the very reverberant setting of the hall. Folk bands tend not to employ heavy tub-thumping drummers, either, which is a definite plus point, as a thwacking percussionist can sabotage even the most otherwise well-mannered of performances. Folk music is also about words as much as music, and a good lyric can be delivered to devastating effect in the sermon-friendly setting of St George’s. Folk’s transatlantic cousins work well in the hall too, and the fast-paced acoustic picking of bluegrass and acoustic Americana form important parts of our latest season.
Just as the poor will always be with us, there is always going to be a social and political context of injustice for folk to address, for wrongs to be righted and comment to be made through the writing of new songs and the adapting of old ones. And just as there was once a regular vacancy to be filled for “the new Dylan”, there’s always the need for a new protest song, now more than ever some might say. In this respect, the season is exemplary, as we open with a solo performance by the best socially-committed singer-songwriter there is: Chris Wood, who appears on Thursday 5 October. Listen to his award-winning song about the shooting of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, ‘Hollow Point’, here. When he sang it as part of a group performance at St George’s when the song was brand new, there was a chilling silence as we very gradually realised what the song was about, and where it was going. There’s a lovely, lighter side to Chris Wood too, as shown by this unlikely but equally contemporary song about middle-aged love and allotments, ‘My Darling’s Downsized’.
Chris Wood once played in an early incarnation of Oysterband, who appear at St George’s in an independently promoted show celebrating their 40th anniversary on Wednesday 22 November, followed on the next night by their famous counterparts Steeleye Span (in another independent promotion). My own choices include two interesting twists on traditional instrumental English and Scottish folk: the new wave traditionalists of Leveret, who appear on Thursday 12 October, and whose delicate interveaving of fiddle, melodeon and concertina could be custom-made to suit the acoustic characteristics of the hall, followed on Thursday 30 November by the very contemporary sound of Lau, great St George’s favourites who blend fiddle, accordion and guitar with electronic add-ons into a wonderfully theatrical form of what’s sometimes referred to as folktronica.
There’s also a strong suit in American folk-related acts, with the return of Hot Club of Cowtown on Wednesday 25 October (hear their mix of old-time country, hillbilly jazz and rockabilly here), plus a debut for young West Country bluegrass combo Cardboard Fox alongside (and featuring) the perfect sister-harmonies of The Carrivick Sisters. For serious devotees of old-time picking and fiddling, a real bluegrass coup is the appearance on Friday 24 november of Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, an absolutely state of the art trio led by the legendary Bruce Molsky, who can play just about anything with strings, as well as singing far better than he needs to. In fact Molsky is so amazing, here’s another clip, with the Drifters’ Allison de Groot on banjo and John Reischman on mandolin. Hear it and weep. How English, Scottish and Irish folk music got to the Appalachians to become bluegrass and country music, and to eventually influence Bob Dylan is probably another subject.
Folk at St George’s – Sept-Dec 2017
Thu 5 Oct, 8pm / Chris Wood
Thu 12 Oct, 8pm / Leveret
Wed 25 Oct, 8pm / Hot Club of Cowtown
Wed 15 Nov, 8pm / Cardboard Fox plus The Carrivick Sisters
Wed 22 Nov, 7.30pm / Oysterband
Thu 23 Nov, 7.30pm / Steeleye Span in Concert
Fri 24 Nov, 8pm / Molsky’s Mountain Drifters
Thu 30 Nov, 8pm / Lau