The Froggatt Twins, now aged 88, share more memories of the Minor Bird Folk-Song Club. This time Jack and Norman focus on the many musicians who played at the legendary Warrington folk club from influential greats such as Ewan MacColl, Nic Jones and Alex Campbell to local ‘floor singers’ such as Dave Speight, Dave Clare and Graham Sowerby who cut their teeth at the club and have kept on performing. Interview recorded live in Radio Warrington’s studios on Thursday 3rd November 2022.
The former librarian has spent more than 50 years compiling the Roud Folk Song Index, cataloguing 25,000 traditional songs. So how did he do it? And what exactly is a folk song?
By Andrea Valentino
When Steve Roud was young, he began collecting records. Hardly unusual for a child of the 1950s – but this boy from south London was different. Not content with just listening to LPs, Roud began indexing them – his own and ones he found mentioned in newspapers and magazines. He used old shoe boxes as a primitive filing system and wrote the titles on 5×3 inch record cards that his mum bought him once a week. He soon realised his hobby was turning into something more. “Without knowing it,” he says, “I was becoming a librarian.”
Soon enough, Roud would become one for real, working much of his career for the London borough of Croydon. His infatuation with indexing would persist too, those shoe boxes finally swelling into something remarkable. Even as a teenager, Roud had been fascinated by folk music – how across the centuries, dozens of voices could send songs shooting countless different ways, their titles and lyrics shifting even as their cores remained the same. As he grew up, armed with proper training and new technology, Roud took to collating this bounty in earnest, hunting down leads and developing an elegant method to trace a song’s heritage.
The result, the product of 52 years of effort, is the Roud Folk Song Index. Including hundreds of thousands of references to tens of thousands of songs, Roud’s work spans the anglophone oral tradition, taking in English villages, Appalachian hilltops and harbours in the Caribbean. The index has become indispensable for folk fans worldwide, bolstering genealogy projects and inspiring musicians. In its size and ambition, Roud’s project speaks to the challenges of constraining such a varied tradition – and even to deciding what folk music actually is.
People have systematically collected traditional English music for more than a century. In the years before the first world war, enthusiasts such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp scoured country lanes and village inns for people to record, worried that industrialisation and urban life would soon wash traditional tunes away. Musicians both, Williams and Sharp also wanted folk melodies to inform English classical music, just as Sibelius did in Finland or Antonín Dvořák in Bohemia. Visiting King’s Lynn, in 1905, Vaughan Williams spent time at the Tilden Smith, a pub where local fishers were sheltering from January storms. The songs Vaughan Williams heard there may have influenced some of his most famous compositions, appropriate for a man who once called music “the expression of the soul of a nation”. These early English collectors, for their part, were shadowed by colleagues across Britain and Ireland, and in the New World.
Nora Brown is a poised and talented teenager from Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Not the usual bio from a solo banjo and unaccompanied ballad singer specializing in the music of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Her sound is amazingly authentic having gone to sit and learn from the masters of old-time music like the late Lee Sexton. Her latest EP, “Sidetrack My Engine”, released recently on Jalopy Records was recorded in her basement; not your average basement mind you. Her parents distribute cheese that they age in the century-old lagering tunnels beneath their building. This cave-like structure is the setting for the latest recording. Recorded on an ancient Ampex reel to reel with old RCA ribbon mics, the songs sound timeless. Our segment begins with the old time tune, “Wedding Dress” which she learned from one of her mentors, John Cohen, of the New Lost City Ramblers.
Our conversation touches on many subjects including her love for the mournful ballads of the South, her collaboration with Alice Gerrard, pioneering bluegrass performer, who produced her first release, “Cinnamon Tree”. We talk about the unusual sonic qualities of the cheese/beer lagering tunnel, her work with Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton who plays the bones on a few tracks.
Of course, we ask Nora to tell us about her trio of banjos and their unique styles they give her music. The release is only seven cuts because of the tunnel/analog equipment used there is another release in the works recorded in St Ann’s church, the site of the Brooklyn Folk Festival.
Nora Brown will be appearing at Northampton’s newly-reopened Parlor Room on January 30th. Tickets are on sale.
To hear Gwenifer Raymond perform is to be swept up into near-orchestral tapestries of noise.
It’s remarkable, then, to step back and fully realise that those cyclones of melody are being generated by one person, and one instrument.
Predominantly a guitarist – although she’s also a noted banjo player – Gwenifer Raymond is a phenomenal instrumentalist, someone who is able to blend different traditions and techniques into a highly personal landscape.
Releasing two albums along the way, Gwenifer Raymond is one of this country’s most-noted guitarists working in a so-called Primitive Style.
Ahead of her set at EFG London Jazz Festival this weekend, the Welsh-born, Brighton-based artist breaks down what Primitive Guitar actually entails – and why it’s moniker belies the open-ended, highly complex artistry underneath.
The first player I ever heard that could be inarguably categorized as ‘Primitive Guitar’ was John Fahey – inarguable because, as a man at a loss for a genre, he came up with the term ‘American Primitive’ to describe his own instrumental fingerstyle compositions. Prior to this he’d been regarded as a ‘jazz guitarist’, but the term ‘primitive’ seemed to apply more accurately given his strong influences from pre-war blues and Appalachian folk music and how that could tie in more generally to the art primitivism movement.
I entered the world of Primitive Guitar on a tangent from youth playing in punk and grunge bands. Alongside this healthy appreciation of a racket I was also brought up with the records of Dylan, Young, The Velvet Underground etc blaring through the house. At some point I discovered that a common influence that threaded through these seemingly disparate musics were the early American blues players. I bought a bunch of cheap compilation CDs, and from about one verse into Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me’ I was a goner.
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Having taken up the acoustic guitar for a few years I became especially obsessed with the alternating thumb technique popular with country blues pickers of the pre-war period. Being very impatient at learning other people’s songs and having a vocal talent in the category of ‘burning sack of caterwauling cats’, I had resigned myself to composing solo fingerstyle blues guitar instrumentals. I didn’t know that was a thing that might interest other people until another Cardiff guitar player played me my first Fahey record. It was at that point I became ‘American Primitive’.
More recently the term ‘American Primitive’ has become increasingly contentious due to the problematic connotations the word ‘Primitive’ may have in the context of predominantly black and/or poor musicians. It seems quite reductive to describe the sophisticated and adept finger-dancing of blues players like Blind Boy Fuller as ‘primitive’. It also limits the scope of the associated guitar soli movement to ‘Americana’, whereas in reality it draws influence from pretty much every nation imaginable (and some unimaginable – just to make matters even more complicated psychedelic also has a strong presence in a lot of Primitive Guitar music). That said, we all need a section on the record shelves, and the differentiation between primitive and folk art often seems mostly driven by whatever’s popular at the time. So I find myself quite happy to ascribe my own through-line from punk-rock to psychedelic-blues-jazz as a Primitive journey of the guitar.
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My first album ‘You Never Were Much Of A Dancer’ is definitely an American Primitive record in that it is very heavily drawn from the traditions of American blues and folk music. However, I think my second (most recent) album, ‘Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain’ is a departure from the strict Americana labelling. I’d been listening to more avant-garde works while I was writing it, which somehow put me in mind of the strange land and folklore of my childhood in the south Wales valleys. Dark forest misted in low sun, breath in the air and wild roots grabbing at my feet. From that pervasive landscape I think I formed something a little more my own; a Welsh Primitive sound.
On that I’m going to leave with a list of four guitarists that influenced me, in the order that I first heard them. Within each of them is a mish-mash of what in my opinion define the four humours of great guitar: Minimalism, racket, dissonance and scandalously catchy hooks.
Blind Boy Fuller
Master Wilburm Burchette
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Catch Gwenifer Raymond at Kings Place, London on November 12th as part of EFG London Jazz Festival // full ticket information.