Saturday, 9 August 2014

Traveller's Tales

Talking of field recordings, I'm grateful to my friend Jamie for sending this archive recording of my playing at the Newbury Bypass anti-road campaign in 1996.


I can't remember who the other musicians were, though I'm pretty certain Olly (also singing and playing mandolin) was one.

The song is 'Traveller's Tale' by the Space Goats, written by their hammered dulcimer player, Krismael. I'd misheard the lyrics so they should be 'I am a young traveller' rather than 'I am the gallant traveller'. Read into that what you will.

As should probably be obvious, I'd not long been singing or playing the mandolin but I made up for a lack of technique with sheer rumbustious enthusiasm. In any case, this was music made with a specific political purpose – both to provoke the authorities and to entertain the protesters in the trees –and not to be listened to at home. It was therefore quite a surprise to be brought face to face with my younger self, and on first listen I felt a mixture of fond nostalgia and squirming discomfort.

But, as I've said before, there's something powerful about field recordings and their ability to capture moments in time. And now that I've listened a few times, and got over my initial embarrassment, the contrast between the optimistic lyrics of the song and the cold snarl of the chainsaws strikes me as especially poignant.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

In the field

Work, parenthood and the peregrinations of summer have left little time for blogging, but I have been listening to a lot of music. My beachcombings through the detritus of the internet have turned up some real treasures.

Folkcatalogue's blog is dedicated to the now defunct British Argo record label. During the fifties, sixties and seventies it not only released some of the major folk and early music artists of the time – Shirley Collins, Peter Bellamy, David Munrow – it also put out some real oddities: obscure folk acts like the Druids and their album 'Burnt Offering' (sadly, not as freaky as it sounds), recordings of Shakespeare, recordings of trains, and field recordings of world music made by the intrepid but poorly known Deben Bhattacharya. It's been a delight to discover his work, especially his recordings of folk music from Bulgaria, India and Iran. That he was able to travel as freely as he did at the height of the Cold War seems remarkable now. There's a biography I'd love to read.

There's more Deben Bhattacharya and more vintage field recordings at the World's Jukebox blog.

And finally, if obscure musical releases from the East float your boat, then check out Oriental Traditional Music from LPs & Cassettes. Where else can you hear classical masters of the Uzbekistan maqam system?

In this age of digital recording, where all natural 'imperfections' of pitch, timing and musicianship can be autotuned, quantised and comped away, there's something extremely refreshing about the realness of vintage and field recordings. As you listen to long dead musicians, recorded by long dead ethnomusicologists, you can't help but be reminded of the ephemeral nature of music; that so much of its power comes from its fleeting existence in the moment.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Changes

In 1976, when I was 8 years old, BBC Children's TV broadcast one of the most terrifying sci-fi programmes ever made – The Changes. It gave me nightmares for weeks. Along with other classics such as The Children of the Stones, and various Public Service Broadcasts, graphically warning, amongst other things, of the dangers of flying kites near pylons, The Changes inspired a generation of Acid Folk bands, not to mention the ubiquitous Scarfolk. Apocalyptic, dystopian, the memory of it haunts me still.

In The Changes, a mysterious force causes people to run amok, smashing all technology. The heroine, Nicky, gets left behind when her parents flee, and she has to somehow find the cause of the changes. I watched through my fingers.

However, I'm delighted to learn that the BFI are finally putting to rest the conspiracy theories, that the programme was simply too frightening to be shown again, and are releasing The Changes on DVD.

For after nearly forty years, I might just find closure.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Glastonbury 2014

Telling the Bees played Glastonbury this year, two gorgeous gigs courtesy of the Toad Hall stage in the Green Futures field.

I took the family too but whereas I had to wait twenty one years for my first Glastonbury, Minka had to wait just six months. I don't remember much about mine other than that we camped in the King's Meadow (what's now the Stone Circle field). I wonder how much Minka will remember of hers?

We thought long and hard about whether we should all go, but as we were staying nearby at a friend's house, and as we tend to lurk up in the Green Fields out of harm's way, we figured it was ok. Minka slept through most of it.

Going to a festival as a parent is undoubtedly a very different experience but I've never had much interest in the Glastonbury you see on the telly. I didn't feel I was missing anything. I prefer to give myself over to the festival gods and let them direct me where they will. With so much creativity on hand, there are many strange and wonderful experiences to be had.

Three stand out. I'd not long arrived when I met a friend under the spreading branches of the King's Oak. In a moment of real connection we shared tea and sympathy. That encounter helped me arrive.

The next day I got chatting to one of the inventors of the Anthropical Organ, a midi-powered mechanical organ that plays drum 'n bass rather than the Victorian oompah music you'd expect. It delights me that there are people out there inspired enough to work for months just to make such an extraordinary device. 

And finally I met a man who was recovering from a major stroke. We got talking and he told me that as it happened he had a near-death experience. He found himself flying high over the fields of England in a state of utter bliss. Now he's lost his fear of death completely.

So I say, trust in the festival gods and they'll always smile on you. The Glastonbury magic is there if you look for it.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Summer Solstice sunrise

Sunrise from Nattadon Hill
The Solstice Horn

Sun over the graveyard

Back in the village

Friday, 13 June 2014


It's easy to miss the sign for Altarnun as you hoof back up out of Cornwall on the A30, just another colourfully named village that you know you'll never visit. In my case, however, I've been trying to get to Altarnun for years. Once I made the detour only to find that the way was blocked with roadworks. More often I've been in too much of a hurry to get home. Well, last week, and in spite of some less-than-helpful road signs, I finally got there. It was well worth the wait.

I wanted to look inside the church for in bagpiping circles it has totemic significance.

Why? Because on one of the bench ends there is a stunning, late-medieval carving of a bagpiper.

It was rather difficult to photograph on my crummy phone but you can perhaps get an idea of the detail. The pipes even have fingerholes. What has excited organologists is that these bagpipes have two chanters, so our Altarnun piper was probably playing rudimentary harmonies. That he is in Cornwall has led many to suppose that these were Cornish bagpipes, and consequently there's been a Cornish bagpipe revival with various attempts to reconstruct the Altarnun pipes.  

In fact – and with all due respect to the land of my forefathers – there's nothing especially Cornish about two-chantered pipes (event though there are several other examples in the Duchy). As representations of them are found across England (and in Wales too, I believe), they must have been a reasonably common occurrence before bagpipes started to disappear from the Southern soundscape. Not that this matters, as in my book a bagpipe revival is always a good thing.

Nor does it take away from the skill of the wood-carver, one Robert Daye (if wikipedia is to be believed) working between 1510-30. What I hadn't realised is that the church is simply brimming with his beautifully carved bench-ends - 79 in total.

My favourites included a fiddler (holding the fiddle just as they do in Eastern Europe today)…

…and a fool, so vivid you can almost hear his bells…

…and some kind of sea monster, like a modern tattoo…

They reminded me of a set of tarot cards, and like the tarot these carvings are little windows onto a forgotten world, one that's been quietly preserved in an enchanting Cornish church on the edge of Bodmin Moor. 

I should definitely make more time for detours.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Museum of British Folklore

I first came across Simon Costin's Museum of British Folklore a few years ago, when Telling the Bees played Festival at the Edge. Then, the Museum was just a beautifully decorated caravan, filled with rare objects from our islands' strange and colourful folk history. I could see that our heritage was in safe hands.

Now the Museum is looking for your help to raise the money for a permanent building to house its growing collection. Obviously, this is a subject that is close to my heart but I think such a museum would have national and international importance. It needs to happen. So check out this promo video, spread the word, and see what you can do to get this invaluable project off the ground.