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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Fagan and Kerr issue denial at Warwick folk festival

Of all the denials parents might reasonably anticipate having to make, this was none of them.
James Fagan and Nancy Kerr made two appearances at the Warwick Folk festival yesterday, their second to last in public before Kerr gives birth to their second child, whose arrival is anticipated in three weeks. They're also at Sidmouth this week. I take my sun hat off to Kerr for having the strength to make her lungs inflate to pretty much their normal size despite the limited amount of space available *awe*

It probably helps (psychologically, at least) that she's got a team of people pulling for her. Her partner, Fagan, who's Aussie, issued a denial on behalf of both of them last night from the main stage, after a very warm day.

"Our little boy, Hamish, is two. He's been seen carrying two hankies around the festival site today and waving them around. A lot of people have been assuming that we've been training him, cruelly, to the ancient art of morris dancing. This isn't the case.

"It's an Australian thing. I gave him the hankies, hoping that he'd wave them in Nancy's general direction - to cool her down. He hasn't got the hang of it yet."

Kerr looked a bit spooked by the possibility that she has a nascent morris dancer pitter-pattering about the place. "Whatever he's doing, that's his business," she clarified. "We'll always love him."

Here's Queen of Waters, which I somehow only heard for the first time yesterday, despite it being nominated for Best Song at this year's folk awards. Love at first encounter.

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Saturday, 30 July 2011

Earlsdon morris enjoy wearing their hats very much

As if in answer to the question: how many morris dancers can you fit in a white van? a transit pulled up outside the main bar at the Warwick folk fest last night and about 15 young Earlsdon morris dancers piled out. It looked like a visual gag of some kind, as if they were getting out the back and going back round to the front again.

And what hats! They're the best I've seen for a while. Earlsdon weren't dancing, though, by the time I caught up with them - they were drinking - so I couldn't speak for the headgear's adhesive qualities. It looks as if there may be a weighting issue.

The scene in the marquee grew increasingly chaotic as the evening wore on, aided by a re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo up one end. I think the French won on this occasion, but there was a big crowd of burly men in the way so I couldn't be sure. There was also a lad who wasn't in morris gear who kept bouncing and leaping up and down, as if he'd come to the festival to be talent spotted.

At one point a gaggle of Spooky Men entered the tent by stealth, spotted a long-lost friend about half way down and ducked down below head level, the better to avoid being spotted before they reached their goal. This led to a rendition of the Jaws music by several onlookers as Spooky Men propelled themselves, crouching, through the tent, before positioning themselves behind their mate and shouting "Shut the f--- up" very loudly at him before he knew they were there.

At some point in the evening the Earlsdon Morris melted into the crowd, by which I suppose I mean that they must have taken their bonnets off. Leaving me wondering: do their mums make their hats?

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Friday, 29 July 2011

Mr Forbes Legato is at the Warwick Folk festival

The other day I wrote about Pilgrims' Way and their first album, Wayside Courtesies, which I liked very much. So it was good to run into Lucy Wright and Edwin Beasant very soon after arriving at the Warwick Folk Festival - about an hour ago.

They're here for their official album launch, which is tomorrow. And Edwin is also here working in the tent belonging to The Music Room instrument company.

However, so far it's been a slightly bitter-sweet experience for me.

In my review of the album I said something about what I thought the producers, Forbes Legato and Jon Loomes as identified on the CD cover, had been up to in the studio. So when Lucy and Edwin's friend, Gill Loomes, asked if I'd like to meet Forbes Legato I said yes.

She scurried off and I wondered briefly whether she was expecting me to follow her or whether I should stay put. It turned out she'd gone to fetch Forbes.

Yes, that's right. Forbes is a stuffed toy, developed by Jon Loomes as a means of avoiding difficult conversations. "I'd love to be able to help you, but unfortunately Forbes won't let me..." That kind of thing.

And if that sounds slightly bizarre, you should hear Gill being Forbes.

I'm wondering whether this qualifies as a legitimate management technique, cos I once worked in an office in which a colleague went off to do a course called "How to have difficult conversations" and what he came back with wasn't noticeably less sensible than the stuffed cat idea.

A legend is born.

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Thursday, 28 July 2011

That's Dr Fay Hield to you

Fay Hield has received her doctorate from the University of Sheffield. After five years, including two bits of maternity leave, the folk singer who is the partner of Jon Boden (Spiers and Boden, Bellowhead) has produced an 80,000-word, 256 page thesis called English Folk Singing and the Construction of Community about the folk scene in Sheffield.

"I was very worried about writing about it," she said. "Because if I made enemies, that would be my employment and my social life gone in one. But so far everyone seems chuffed that I've done the work and am speaking up for the area - though I'm not sure anyone's read the whole thing." There's a link in the first paragraph if you feel like rising to the challenge.

"Jon and I celebrated with curry and a bottle of champagne, then the following evening we spent  singing in The Royal at Dungworth with a load of people who participated in the study."

The thesis concentrates on social singing, rather than music in which someone is paid to stand on a stage and others pay to listen, so it's not hard to imagine that a lot of people feel a kind of ownership of the subject matter - anyone whose done any social singing at sessions in Sheffield over the past five years, in fact.

"There's some confusion about community folk singing and why people enjoy it so much. I mean, if you took a picture during a session you'd probably find that everyone looked very sombre. But very often you'd also hear those same people saying afterwards that they'd just had one of the most enjoyable experiences they can remember."

Static crackles about dry wit and it being grim oop north are nearly audible on the line. "I'm not saying that all social folk singing is miserable by any means. It's just that everyone who will be doing it understands what's going on and it doesn't make much sense if you come fresh into it."

So you don't need to be grinning like a loon in order to enjoy yourself in Sheffield.

Which is probably just as well, because in a household containing two touring musicians and two small children - Polly and Jacob - it's hard to imagine she'd have the time. "When we first had Polly it was difficult. But we've worked out how to manage now."

So what's the secret? Full-time nanny? Accommodating parents-in-law? Prescription drugs? "Google calendar," she explains. "Everyone's got a copy. Me, Jon, our agents. There are still clashes but having it written down like that means it doesn't become a problem. I mean, we know what we're doing as far ahead as 2013.

"It's good in a way because it's a result of Jon being offered so much work. As a self-employed person it's your goal to reach a point at which you don't have to say yes all the time, to have a day when you can afford to pick and choose."

And what will she choose for herself? Will there be more academia? "I love ideas. I love reading other people's good work and reading things written by people I disagree with. Also making little connections in my head and having an original thought every once in while. I might apply to do a post doc in a year or so. And I thought about trying to incorporate my working life as a musician more closely into my studies. I'm still doing little bits of teaching.

"I think academia is very similar to being self-employed, in the sense that you're constantly creating your own way of doing things. I'm very much an Excel spreadsheet kind of a girl. I like lists and planning and I enjoy keeping my head on who's thinking and saying what in my field, making connections between them."

There's a new album on the blocks, ready to be recorded in September, following Looking Glass, which was out last year. "There's going to be a bigger band - although not quite so large as Bellowhead. My passion is for English trad folk, so that's what to expect."

Does she have a personal theory about what constitutes "folk music" then? And her answer, while probably true, reminds me that I'm talking to someone with academic detachment who is also nervous about making enemies. "I don't really get the label. There is so much that folk could mean that it seems kind of pointless to make those distinctions: lots of people create systems within which some things are allowed to be folk. But I can't be bothered to start thinking about it."

When she's relaxing she listens to Thomas Tallis, medieval music and Dolly Parton. "She came to Sheffield a few years ago but it was Jon's 30th birthday so I couldn't go. It was very inconsiderate of him."

And it would be remiss of me not to ask about her name but I think I can hear a sigh at the other end of the line as I raise it. "My parents didn't really notice [that it's a spoonerism of hay field]. But by the time I was about seven, people were starting to mention it. I've always thought that I should be a gardener really - like Pippa Greenwood, Bunny Guinness or Alan Titchmarsh. And then I've had a few people who assumed it must be a stage name. But no."

Many congratulations, Dr Hield, on a hard-won reward for all your academic endeavours.

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Monday, 25 July 2011

Folk by the Oak drink all the beer

Hatfield House is half an hour from King's Cross by rail and it was a beautiful Sunday, so a one-day folk festival - the fourth of its name - surrounded by classic English landscaping should have been quite a lure. Around 4,500 were there, though surprisingly few - around 100 - bought tickets on the gate.  I wonder how many Londoners knew how close it was? It's called

(love the art nouveau logo, by the way) because Hatfield House is where Elizabeth Tudor spent much of her childhood and heard of her half-sister Mary's death under one of its vast oaks, meaning that she'd be queen. For the literal-minded there were a bewildering number of candidates for *the* oak about.

That one was rather lovely, to the right of the arena entrance, though this one

was closer to the stage. I made a few inquiries, however, and understand that the tree in question is far more likely to have been this one

because it all happened in 1558, the tree must have been mature back then and the lifespan of an oak is 600 years at the outside. Still, Ade Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds have been playing the same set for nearly that long, so it's in good company.

Scoping out the stalls, I overheard Sean Lakeman having a conversation with the lady behind the main CD counter that went something like: "So would it be OK if you sold it for a tenner and took two off the top?" which seemed like an insight into how these things are run, especially when, if I continued around the arena I soon discovered that Show of Hands, ever well-organised, had their own tent and two dedicated CD sellers.

First up, Tyde were nice - and I use the term advisedly, having been told the same thing about that word by my primary school teacher as everyone else - as I have to admit I was still feeling delighted to have hooked up with some friends and we talked most of the way through the set. Kathryn Roberts' voice, when she appeared with the aforementioned Sean Lakeman, was rather lovely but nearly entirely in the service of downbeat songs. Every once in a while there would be an exciting guitar lick that caused a meer cat-style diversion of our attention and I really like Cassie Love, which is a domestic take on the miners' strike. But it would have been good to have lifted the mood a bit, not least because then I could stop repressing the delinquent desire to shout "Cheer up, love" like an idiot.

By the time The Bad Shepherds appeared we'd discussed all the good jokes they'd done on previous occasions. My favourites are the one about how bad they are - "no sheep" - and their punk version of All Around My Hat, which is a song with a great punchline. However, they didn't do that one - complaint from Steeleye Span? - there wasn't much talking between songs - which you would have thought would be one of the advantages of having a comedian as a front man - and I'm pretty sure there was no new material since the last time I saw them, two years ago. They're musically accomplished but I'd love to see them with a rhythm section, allowing them to really rock out every once in a while. It might make them more than a novelty cover band.

Bella Hardy dedicated a song about herring girls to me, on account of having asked whether there was anyone in from Great Yarmouth and me being from somewhere about those parts, as conveyed by waving my arms in the air. But hers was another downbeat set and by this time I was realising that the landscape, the weather and the company were mainly why Oaky Folk had been fun so far.

Then, rather brilliantly, Show of Hands came on and did one of the most relaxed turns I've seen from them. Phil Beer looked fabulously happy, Steve Knightley had a tan and Miranda Sykes shimmered enigmatically. The show included a snort-inducing joke with an extended set-up involving Phil Beer's family having a beach hut called The Ponderosa that went up in flames, and a 100-year-old lady observing that they'd "never had so much violence during the war". They play music, they tell jokes. What more could you want?

In particular they did two covers - Don Henley's Boys of Summer and Springsteen's Youngstown - that made me wonder whether there's something transatlantic afoot for them. I heard that they're having Richard Shindell to support them on a tour starting in October (he made what has, for some years now, been my favourite album, Courier). He's an American guitarist who lives in Argentina, he has a similar approach to song-writing to Steve Knightley and plays some pretty large venues in the States, judging by his live recordings. So he's akin to Show of Hands with their Albert Hall adventures. I guess that if the British tour goes well there's a possibility he'd return the favour... which would be one answer to the question of what to do next when you don't fit the Jools Holland mould.

However, light hearted stuff aside, at some point during Show of Hands' set the real ale tent ran out of beer and shut its tent flaps, which was an epic folky fail: the kind of acoustic-music-related trauma that could easily drive one to, you know, drink lager. Obviously it was a hot day and people were thirsty, but this really threw down the gauntlet to other festivals. It was all gone by 6pm.

Heidi Talbot, John McCusker, Roddy Woomble and Kris Drever did something fine, if slightly disjointed, in the sense that everything went well but it felt like they were getting together to play songs they'd ordinarily do separately. Kris Drever's Shady Grove went down a storm, John McCusker can really play the whistle and Roddy Woomble has some memorable tunes, even if My secret is my silence prompted the thought that it was a bit of a crap secret really, especially now he'd told us all about it quite loudly.

Seth Lakeman was headlining, which had my friend Rosie racing to the front of the stage and her partner, Doug, lying down, the better to feign nonchalance. There was a kind of squealing noise when Lakeman was introduced, to which he responded "thanks, guys", in a bizarre moment that reminded me of the bit in Life of Brian when the women put on moustaches so they can throw rocks.

By song three, King and Country, Doug was on his feet looking pleasantly surprised (he hadn't heard Lakeman before), and we all found our eyes torn from the stage momentarily when something that appeared from our perspective as a near-miss between two medium-sized aircraft happened directly overhead.

That weirdness past... With phenomenal energy Lakeman did the one about the man who shoots his girlfriend under the mistaken impression that she's a swan, which can happen to anyone. During The Riflemen of War a woman started twirling fluorescent ropes with lights on them in the gloom to one side of the stage, which seemed a more appropriately grandiose response than the usual clapping and whooping. And the almost unbearably tense Kitty Jay cast a powerful spell as a finale, transfixing one between an urge to dance wildly and to stop completely still, in the forlorn hope that if you stare hard enough at him you may understand how he does it.

And to finish, there were fireworks. Really big ones.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Pilgrims' Way bestows Wayside Courtesies

At the Bristol folk festival Pilgrims' Way had no CDs for sale. Although their performance was early in the day - the first coffee was still going down - they'd pulled out the stops like the Phantom of the Opera on the organ. But folkier. So when their first album, Wayside Courtesies, eventually arrived through the post several weeks later, sent by Jane Brace who also does PR for Show of Hands, it had a gentle press of expectation weighing upon it.

It could be Lucy Wright's vocals, which are feminine without being childish - some female folk voices make me grit my teeth and fulminate about passive-aggressiveness. Or it could be Tom Kitching's rhythmic, occasionally jazzy, fiddle playing, or the fact that Edwin Beasant numbers among his instruments "the feet". But there's not much quite so delightful as hearing trad folk sounding completely fresh.

To say that Wayside Courtesies repays repeat listening would be to undersell it. After elbowing its way to the front of my CD shuffle on the strength of its noises, I eventually plugged into the album on a train, heard the lyrics properly and was gripped. There's a unifying sensibility that is playful and brave, intelligent and sensual, emotionally turbulent but optimistic. There's also an interesting amount of gender-bending on the album, making Wright - since she says she was mainly responsible for the choices - possibly the first female, red-headed, metrosexual folk musician from Macclesfield.

Track one, Only a Soldier, is a witty, real politik tale about why you should never underestimate a man who kills people for a living. It's an old story: girl meets boy, boy is social inferior who wields a mean cutlass, father attempts to prevent marriage by sending a posse after the would-be son-in-law, boy kills posse and terrifies the father, so much so that the father throws in his entire fortune for good measure. Love conquers all, eh?

To ring the changes, track two is sung from the point of view of a handweaver living on the cusp of the industrial revolution who falls in love with a factory girl with lovely breasts: cue saucy metaphor about keeping their shuttles in play. Track three, Martinmas Time, is about a farmer's daughter who cross-dresses and wins a game of dares with an entire troupe of soldiers, galloping out of their barracks spurs-a-jingling with her maidenhood in tact. ("Woo!" we're exhuberantly told.)

Adieu Lovely Nancy is heartbreaking, Young Men are False is true, Tarry Trousers is a paean to sailors, whose advantage is that they don't stick around for long. It contains the line "Give me the lad whose tarry trousers shine to me like diamonds bright", which is the best description of female stupefacation in the face of her beloved that I've heard since "With his hammer in his hand he looked so clever" (The Blacksmith). I didn't know whether to laugh or sigh.

Pilgrims' Way and their producers - Forbes Legato and Jon Loomes - have used the studio judiciously to heighten their live effects without mutating the experience much. I mainly noticed vocal overdubs. So what we get is an ornate chapel of sound, in which minute social distinctions are understood but often ignored, the girls are as fickle as their lads and there's a Jew's harp being twanged in the corner.

Speaking of which, Wright is studying in Manchester for a PhD in ethnomusicology and comes from an extended family containing a couple of professional musicians. "My uncle Michael is active on the international Jew's harp scene. And I did a study at SOAS [the School of Oriental and African Studies in London] of how the instrument's used all over the world." She was on the phone, explaining that a Jew's harp looks like a mushroom-shaped bottle opener and that it isn't necessarily a small harp for those disinclined because of their ethnicity to buy a larger one. "It's called lots of things all over the world. In Italy it's known as a scacciapensiere, which means 'thought dispeller'. We tried not to over-use it on the album, though, because it's not everyone's cup of tea."

Between the three members of the band there is no structured musical training. "We've all felt for a while that we're a bit outside the mainstream folk scene because we're of the generation that might have done the Newcastle folk degree or attended Folkworks." Lucy is 26, Tom 28 and Edwin 31.

"We met at sessions in Manchester: there's one called the dulcie session that is younger than average. I'd always loved unaccompanied singing but decided when I moved there to go to more sessions. And it was Edwin who really brought things together. He's great at supporting people musically and he engineered the meeting between Tom and myself. I'd seen Tom around before but was too shy to speak to him because he was a professional musician.

"I'm always just amazed by their musicality. I take a song that I think they'll never be interested in and they turn around and do something really clever and unexpected with it."

The band's name and the name of the album come from track ten of eleven, A Pilgrim's Way, which is a version of the Rudyard Kipling poem set to music by Peter Bellamy and described on the sleeve notes as a "great humanist anthem [which] means a lot to us". It reminded me of A 17th-Century nun's prayer, a framed copy of which I have on my fridge: it used to belong to my grandparents. The song is the most lyrically dense on the album but deeply moving, offering a framework for a way of life.

In the land through which The Pilgrims' Way passes the taverns ring with song, the young eye each other speculatively and it's all to play for. The music is fine, delicate, accomplished and coherent. They've made a terrific first album.

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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Who are the mysterious FLK?

OK. Someone calling themselves The FLK, who wear cow-head masks and generally go to some trouble to hide their identities, set fire to a stack of Fairport Convention's finest Leige and Lief LPs in the name of fun, boredom or crypto-fascist intention. One or the other. Then they put the film on YouTube.

So I was asking around and the first thing I heard, in a can't-reveal-my-source type way, was that The FLK are unlikely to be well-known folkies. Someone who knew someone who was on stage at their Cecil Sharp House gig back in May said that they'd met the two guys in the cows' heads through an extremely well-known artist some years ago.

This will come as a relief to Show of Hands who have had the digit of blame cast in their general direction, partly because they've dabbled in spoof YouTube material before (see earlier blog). Thanks to Harry Broad for the interesting information about "Phil Beer's very distinctive fingers", which he thought he'd spotted in the video. However, the bigger picture suggested otherwise. Wrong wrists, you see?

Then there was Simon Emmerson's contribution, which began by suggesting that the video was an 'omage to something done by the music/art outfit The KLF. They once set fire to a million quid apparently and the joke would be that no one on the folk scene would believe that, because there isn't a million quid in the folk scene.

Emmerson knows exactly who the FLK are because they were at Cecil Sharp House supporting him for his Lush gig and because he's clearly enjoying himself. He's also very keen to defend them, saying that setting fire to Liege and Lief was "nothing to do with having a go at the Fairports".

Not that it matters. Despite my best efforts to rouse the Fairports from their Arthurian slumber - I'm imagining a gigantic all-year-round luxury glamping experience in a field somewhere in Oxfordshire, empty bejewelled tankards scattered about the place - the most coherent response I could get was this: "The point is lost on me." That was Simon Nicol btw. Leave him alone. He's getting on a bit...

In the end it was the practical stuff that identified the LP burners, I think. The first thing on The FLK's Twitter feed is something produced by KLF Communications. Similarly there are retweets on The KLF's Twitter feed of The FLK's stuff. Plus the logos are similar - and frankly it's exactly the sort of thing that a former art-school muso of a certain age would do, isn't it? In the same way that DJs who were once prime time Radio One - Simon Mayo, I'm talking about you - have got in touch with their essential folkiness upon entering their middle years, and a musical comedian - Ade Edmonson, that's you - might start a folk band to do punk covers, setting fire to Liege and Lief would only seem funny to someone who knows what it is. A certain level of music industry knowledge is implied.

So I'm going to stick my neck out and say that I think the folk scene has attracted the attention of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, aka The KLF.  The question is, then, what do they want? It's unlikely to be money, as they nailed their colours to the mast when they set fire to the cash - and, anyway, there isn't any. The Fairports spent it.

However, I'm feeling quite entertained. I've always liked my humour a bit on the dark side and whichever way you look at it setting fire to other people's creative output really is quite dark. Perhaps The FLK will be putting in an appearance at Cropredy? Just a thought...

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Monday, 11 July 2011

A necessary outbreak of journalistic self-loathing

As a breed, journalists are not overly given to introspection. The trade is populated by those who prefer to look outward at the world, rather than inward. How could it be otherwise?

But this lack of reflection is at the heart of the problems over at Wapping. Perhaps it's wrong that 40 per cent of the British national print media is owned by one person. But if the newspaper industry were as critical of itself as it is of, say, MPs and their expenses, this wouldn't be quite so salient.

The crisis at Wapping was created by a small number of editors tacitly redefining what "journalism" is and their fellow employees going along with it. So how did this happen? Was it just market forces? How many journalists knew about it really? And if we didn't know about it, shouldn't we bear a share of responsibility for not having worked it out? What kind of journalists are we?

Whatever you may have heard, there are no courses at journalism school devoted to how to hack into mobile telephones. Clive Goodman, the former royal correspondent for the News of the World who went to prison, and any other journalist who wrote a story arising from illegally acquired information, was basically window dressing for private investigaton. This man, the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, was not a source, he was employed by News International, remember? The result was journalism to the extent that it was printed in a newspaper - but then so are advertising and graphic design and we call those what they are. The decision to turn a blind eye to the provenance of such information was certainly taken at the highest level of News International but anyone who read the resulting stories, week after week, and knew anything about the inner workings of newspapers should have wondered about it.

I say that with some self-consciousness because I have an admission to make. When I heard how the News of the World was getting all those stories about the royal family - among other people - I felt oddly vindicated professionally.

As a youngster, I spent five or so years working on diaries at The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard, which are the parts of the newspapers generically known as gossip columns. It isn't a job that many enjoy or are any good at - and there was always a procession of "young hopefuls" passing through to bear this out. But I did enjoy it, partly because I was moderately good at procuring useful tidbits from relative strangers. Good enough to make a living at it on a freelance basis. But I also liked the challenge and the wide variety of people I met. I realise this makes me sound like an air hostess.

I learnt who was likely to have something to gain by talking to the press - PRs, anyone with something to sell and people who liked seeing their names in print, mainly. But I also learnt that there were fairly clearly defined limits to what people were prepared to tell you under normal circumstances. Making good contacts helped. But one generally found that the more money and influence involved in an industry - football, movies, the royal family - the less inclined people were to talk. There appeared to be a point at which people calculated that they simply had too much to lose by discussing anything controversial.

And this is what often puzzled me about many celebrity stories in the News of the World and elsewhere. Apart from the kiss-and-tell variety of tale, where money had evidently changed hands, there were other stories, the ones without the posed photographs, whose provenance was far from clear. In them money, entertainment and prurience went hand in hand to an extent that puzzled and dismayed me because, like a magic trick, I couldn't understand how it was being done. There just weren't enough disgruntled former employees in the world to account for it all. Yet to say so felt as if it would have been an admission of professional incompetence, lack of imagination or stupidity.

The thought crossed my mind that I was simply being out-classed. I knew there were diary journalists who were better than me. But I also knew, realistically speaking, that this was because they were prepared to go the extra mile, to hang around in bathrooms at parties frequented by Kate Moss, sit opposite Johnny Depp for several hours without telling him who they really were or attend three parties a night for fear of missing a "crucial" celeb appearance. These things just made me weary, physically and existentially. Two hours at a book launch after work hobnobbing with writers was fine but giving up one's personal life entirely in pursuit of something fit only for the red-tops wasn't why I'd chosen journalism.

I also knew that the higher up the office food chain you were, the more likely it was that someone would invite you to lunch because they had something delicate that they'd like to see alluded to in print. And that sometimes the police have motivations for telling journalists things off the record.

But when I looked at the News of the World on a Sunday I often found myself completely at sea. For years I was haunted by the possibility that I was still in the foothills of what was possible journalistically, that my contacts book was poor, or that there were stories brought in at executive level that just came with the territory. The latter appears to have been the explanation - because the executives concerned were prepared to step outside of what I actually understood to be journalism. I was naive but they had cheated.

To feel a little vindicated professionally at the same time as realising that you've been subconsciously comparing your work to that of criminals is a sullying experience. But to what extent does the industry share the blame for what happened?

As pointed out in the Fleet Street Blues blog the other day, there are things that reporters do habitually that non-journalists - as well as journalists who have never been general reporters - see as beyond the pale. Knocking on the doors of recently bereaved families - death knocks - is the big one.

No one goes into journalism to do this part of the job - that would make you a psychopath - but you do it because you have to. Your boss tells you to, so you go and do it. You don't like yourself very much at first, but after a while you get used to it and even learn to take a little pride in managing a difficult situation well.

It's all about chain of command. Although journalists like to bitch and moan after work as much as the next person, the industry is so competitive at a national level that if you want to keep your job you quickly learn to do exactly what your boss asks you to do. And any pragmatic deviations from this had better meet with his approval eventually. Journalism may be the fourth estate and have a function in a proper democratic society but I don't think I'm sharing any secrets when I say that there is nothing democratic about the way a newsroom, or a newspaper, works. The editor is always right, even when you suspect he's actually wrong. This is because he can fire you - and may well if you whinge in such a way that it gets back to him. It's like most other jobs, but more so.

So newspapers are an industry full of people who joined it because they were interested in questioning authority, but who have found that in order to be able to do so in the wider world they have to learn to keep a lid on it in the office.

I'm not soliciting sympathy. Learning to compromise is part of being an adult. I'm just saying: if journalism is to be held accountable for the inexcusable behaviour at News International, these things are relevant. I suggest that overweening fear of losing one's job could be partly responsible for the industry's lack of self-examination. It's a small industry at a national level and bullying managerial behaviour and top-down-ism are - whisper it - deeply ingrained. It's inconceivable that Rebekah Brooks didn't know what was going on but also understandable that no one blew the whistle for so long.

Newspapers, it is said, are haemorrhaging money - or readers at any rate - because of the internet. Yet oddly there is never a shortage of buyers when a newspaper goes up for sale. This is because for the most part wealthy men don't buy them with business concerns at the front of their minds, they buy them because of the political leverage they confer. If The Times goes up for sale because the News of the World was considered to be keeping it afloat, a buyer will be found and the best long term business plan for any struggling paper is to get a richer owner (I'm only partly joking).

The managerial chain of command in newspapers is the conduit of the proprietor's wishes, which is why it's perceived as being inviolable: what good is buying influence in the form of a newspaper if the correct messages aren't sent? So we have to hope that the people who own the papers have more than their own interests at heart and that this is part of the definition of being a "fit and proper" media owner, because an industry-wide culture of unhealthy acquiescence has played a role at Wapping without a doubt. And it sits unhappily with the media's wider purpose.

An outbreak of journalistic self-loathing over events at News International is to be hoped for. It is the beginning of a correct response to what's happened because only if newspapers are capable of thoughtful self-analysis do they have a hope in hell of being able to regulate themselves. We failed, as an industry, in our most basic task, which was to take a realistic look at ourselves.

* If you enjoyed this piece you may also be interested in this, about the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Spoof folkies set fire to Leige and Lief

A video was uploaded onto YouTube earlier today of the FLK, who are spoof folkies, burning some vinyl copies of Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief album, which is regarded as one of the most influential folk albums ever recorded.

I really like the album. But even if I didn't I wouldn't set fire to someone else's work, for the same reason I don't think burning books is a good idea: it's the fruit of other people's creativity, the flowering of something ineffably human. Burning a CD seems provocative and rude at the least and at its worst rather sinister. We know the precedents.

Obviously this is a joke of sorts, intended to create a stir, and I guess I'm rising to the bait somewhat, having previously asked Simon Emmerson for more details about the FLK, only to discover that the idea was intended as a tease. There was a vague suggestion that Bill Drummond of the KLF might be involved, but only a suggestion.

But the question is: is it actually funny?

I previously came across the FLK when it was supporting Walking with Ghosts, an Emmerson project, at a concert in Cecil Sharp House back in May for the Lush spa music.

They appeared on stage wearing cows' heads with two of members of The Belles of London City. Here's a video. The belles in question were having some difficulties seeing each other through their own fake horses' heads, which meant that their usually spirited dancing was rather subdued.

Jackie Oates was also there but not looking very happy. All in all it was a rather interesting occasion: a bit surreal but I enjoyed it.

It also crossed my mind that Steve Knightley might be involved, mainly because he has form with this kind of thing (I'd link to it directly on YouTube but there seems to have been some kind of clearout of Downfall spoofs from there recently, so one via my former blog at the Telegraph will have to do). Also I believe Simon Emmerson has been producing something recently for Show of Hands, so it's conceivable that it's a joint effort. If I hear from either party I'll let you know.

I also put a call in to Stevie Horton of Iconic Media, at Fairport Convention Towers. But a couple of hours later I understand she's been unable to get hold of anyone for a response.

Watch this space.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Afghanistan, where a violin may arouse

I have a friend called Padraig who is a bit of an idealist on the quiet. He is in his 30s, claims to be completing postgraduate degrees at a couple of highly regarded universities, speaks unfamiliar dialects of several Asian languages and has many thousands of friends on Facebook. It wouldn't be a stretch to call him "a character".

Last week I went to a meeting, at Padraig's invitation, at the House of Commons where a man called Dr Ahmad Sarmast made a presentation about a music school in Afghanistan that he is attempting to place on a long-term footing. It was fascinating stuff.

It turns out that Dr Sarmast, an Afghan, went to music school in Moscow in the years following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 but found himself basically exiled from his homeland after 1992, when the cultural forces at play in that part of the world created what Dr Sarmast describes as a profound "discrimination against music". The country's one music school closed, its teachers were dispersed and those playing music found that they were at risk of being punished for doing so, in a scenario not unlike that of Raymond Bradbury's sci-fi classic Farenheit 451 - only instead of it being books that were outlawed it was musical instruments.

Dr Sarmast sought and received asylum in Australia where he found that his Russian qualifications counted for very little, revisited large portions of his education and ended up as a research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne. He remained there while decades-worth of militia, mujaheddin, Soviet, Taliban and western troops skirmished across his homeland.

In 2006, five years after the US invasion and by then with a wife and family in Australia, Dr Sarmast created a project called ROAM, which is short for Revival of Afghan Music. A year later he was invited by the Afghan Ministry of Education to return and attempt to open an Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). The idea was to give children a vocational music education, doing academic lessons in the morning and devoting the afternoons to music - not unlike the Purcell School in the UK. However, differences include that ANIM reserves a certain number of places for girls, who might otherwise find themselves seriously discouraged from becoming musicians, and the same goes for orphans. After three decades of war Afghanistan has an estimated two million orphans.

Dr Sarmast's project looks increasingly as if it may be a success - he has the support of the World Bank, the British Council and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, among many others. His is not the only music school in Kabul - there is also one sponsored by the Aga Khan that specialises in traditional Afghan music. But ANIM is different because it also teaches in the classical western tradition, meaning that there will be a generation of widely trained musicians emerging from there - and returning to make Afghanistan a place deeply and culturally connected to the outside world - and because of the younger age at which its pupils can start, getting them off the streets.

To suggest that it was the Taliban that attempted to stifle music in Afghanistan would be oversimplifying matters. Dr Sarmast told me that he considers music to be an essential part of a functioning civil society and that "taking away music is a genocide against the culture of a nation". But for more about politics I turned to a British musicologist. This is because Dr Sarmast has been able to get as far as he has with ANIM by negotiating his way through the complicated political landscape of present-day Afghanistan. I wouldn't want to create any hostages to fortune for him.

Professor John Baily, head of the Afghan music unit at Goldsmith's in London, wrote a paper for Freemuse in 2001, called Can you stop the birds singing?, about music censorship in Afghanistan. "There has been a long-standing debate within Islam about the lawfulness of music, although there is nothing in the Koran about it," he said.

"Many Wahabis - a conservative sect - are very much against it, whereas Sufiism leans strongly towards music as means of expression." For instance, Richard Thompson the British musician, guitar hero and former member of Fairport Convention is a Sufi muslim (see him below, collecting an OBE from Buckingham Palace last week).

"A lot of Wahabis went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet troops after they invaded in 1979, which changed many things - before then Sufiism had been the more influential doctrine. In 1992 the existing government was overthrown by a coalition of resistance groups and for four years the mujaheddin ran the country. During that period Afghanistan became literally ruined by fighting. Then the Taliban came along in 1996 and banned all musical instruments - although unaccompanied singing wasn't counted as music. People were imprisoned and beaten for playing music. If you were caught with cassettes in your car you were in trouble. People used to hide them when they reached Taliban checkpoints."

I was fascinated to discover that stringed instruments were singled out by the Taliban as being particularly "arousing", as I really love the sound that a fiddle makes and, now I come to think of it, find myself drawn to fiddle players. I even play a little myself. The devil is said to have all the best tunes and when he went down to Georgia - according to The Charlie Daniels Band at least - it was his fiddle that he took with him. Wicked, arousing fiddles (and guitars) are a cross-cultural phenomenon, it seems.

Since the US invasion of 2001 matters have improved considerably for music and musicians, although a look at the Afghanistan page of Freemuse's website demonstrates that it's still not plain sailing, not least because the Taliban is not a monolithic organisation and many of its strands of thought are alive and well in the general population. "But there are music programmes on Afghan television these days that are like Britain's Got Talent, so if anyone chooses to get violent about their anti-music beliefs there are much more high profile targets than ANIM," says Professor Baily, not entirely reassuringly.

Three decades of exile for Afghanistan's musicians - there is a 60,000 strong community of Afghans in Freemont, California for a start - has meant that many things have been lost from their homeland, including the accumulated knowledge of how to teach several of the traditional instruments that are essential to Afghanistan's classical repertoire. Dr Sarmast mentioned the sarod and the dilruba in particular.

By coming to the UK and explaining what he's up to, Dr Sarmast was hoping to strengthen ties between British music schools and musicians with ANIM, as well as to encourage any Afghan musicians with a  surviving traditional expertise to get in touch.

* His email address is Do let him know if you are interested in sponsoring the school, making a donation or building international ties.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Songs from a Somerset shed

I would think that musicians get Jon Earl and his Songs from the Shed because in many ways he's doing what they're doing. 

Granted, to the naked eye if looks as if he has turned his garden shed into an impromptu and very low tech recording studio for acoustic sessions. Professional musicians - or sometimes would-be professional musicians, if he likes what they do - rock up to his home near Yatton in Somerset to perform. He records them in one take per song with a handheld digital video camera that looks like something you might take on holiday for snaps - but smaller. (It's a Canon Ixus, an older one because the newer ones do something fussy and automatic to the sound levels.) The result is a growing online archive of music: a shedly YouTube for acoustic music lovers. It's been going for two years, it's had 375,000 viewings and there a susurration of media attention that is, I think, about to become a roar.

But on another level - a more personal one - he has decided to spend his time and energy on music, only realising while he was doing it that he has to find a way to make it pay otherwise - oh bugger - he's going to have to stop when someone notices that he's enjoying himself too much. He just likes music, and the simplicity and alacrity of his approach demonstrate this beyond any reasonable doubt. My point is that he is in a very similar position to the musicians he records and they like him and his shed for it. Increasingly they're not the only ones.

"The genesis of it was that my wife and I bought this house and the shed that came with it had all sorts of things in it," he says. "I tidied it up, kept some of the old stuff (see below for his most consistently attentive audience) and put it on a big dresser that my dad gave us but which was too big for the house. Initially three friends and I wanted the shed for a kind of cheese and cider society, where we could do as men do: sit in the shed, eat cheese, drink cider and talk rubbish." I like the idea that this is what men do in Somerset.

"But one of them said 'Let's get a musician in for the first meeting'. We did, I recorded it and I just thought 'Oh. That's what I'm going to do. I'll be videoing musicians in the shed then'."

He made his own website, using a software package that guided him through the process and started putting sessions online. Then - stand back, chaps, this could be dangerous - the internet magicked him.

"I was thinking that I'd just do local musicians, but then I was contacted by the Water Tower Bucket Boys, who were from Portland in Oregon, to say that they'd found the site, loved it and could they come and do a session?" He says that this has turned into a noticeable pattern: that the music industry, and particularly the portion of it known as alt-country in the US, cottoned on to the potential of his shed even before he had much of an audience. He's had a stream of American musicians on UK tours passing through his delightfully well-tended garden, sent at the suggestion of their wily agents. During my visit yesterday I met Jan Bell and Will Scott (below), from Brooklyn, partners in life who also share the same agent. They did a session each, giving them something neatly and honestly produced to which they can point people online if they're considering hiring them.

The Water Tower Bucket Boys became session number five of 112 so far in the actual shed, although he also recorded 52 in a replica of the shed at the Bristol Folk Festival in May, where I met him, including Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands and Belshazzar's Feast. He has a backlog of 30 waiting to go online and a maximum of 99 that can be up at any one time due to software limitations, though everything remains available on YouTube. All songs must be original, although he's applied for a Performing Rights Society licence that will allow the recording of covers.

"I'm telling people at the moment that it could be six weeks before their session goes up, although if they've got an album launch or something I try to be accommodating. My son, Joe, has said he'll help over the summer holiday, so perhaps by September the backlog will have gone."

In addition to the 99-at-a-time restriction there are two other limiting factors. Firstly, time. Earl's day job is a family-run copy shop, which means that the shed and the extent to which it is a hobby or a business is, not unreasonably, the subject of discussion between himself and his wife.

And then there is technology. Each session takes four or five hours to put online because they first have to be edited (though not much), ripped into a usable format (which takes the most time) and then - BT please get your act together - it takes about 25 minutes to upload because, believes Earl, of the distance between the house and the telephone exchange. Each shed song finds its way onto the internet through a wire between two poles, on which birds perch, singing a song of their own. "When I went to Bristol they only took five minutes to upload," he says, looking a bit wistful.

On the one hand it is precisely these kinds of obstacles that makes Songs from the Shed the unique proposition that it is. Personally I'm a little sceptical about the quest for "authenticity" that grips many people these days. But there is no denying that there is a simplicity to Earl's idea that is very appealing. It would work for any band or musician who can actually play or sing, regardless of whether they ordinarily use gigantic amps for stadium appearances or just sit on a stool and hold forth.

Among those who are rapidly coming to appreciate Earl's shed is the media, who have made a great deal so far out of how watching music recorded in a shed is the Next Big Thing. An announcement that the recently de-woodwormed shed has been shortlisted in Cuprinol's Shed of the Year competition (and, perhaps felicitously, that one of the judges is DJ Simon Mayo) has meant a flurry of interest and a learning curve in media relations for Earl*. "There was a feature in the Western Daily Press the other weekend. I'm just learning to swallow it when people make stuff up," he says. The local journalist had taken some speculation about the shed's history, firmed it up into fact and then added some more for his own amusement. "But on the whole it was a very good piece," Earl says, looking irritated. (Sorry I can't link to it: oddly, the paper doesn't seem to have a website.)

"Whispering" Bob Harris, from Radio Two, has been much more helpful, championing the shed on air and passing musicians Earl's way. And with the media interest have come sniffs from potential sponsors, one of whom - a beer company - sounded quite promising before it materialised that they wanted to turn the shed into some kind of Tolkien-esque delight, installing a magical creature, or a non-magical one in a costume at any rate, to caper around. I'm not making this up, honestly.

For it struck me that whatever comes next, there is already something about the shed that is worth preserving - and I'm not talking about its collection of marmalade jars, elderly hard-back books and first-in-show certificates. Spending time around the shed is a very calming experience. "It's often described as being 'zen'," says Earl, making me wonder whether the people who say that have been subliminally affected by the Buddhist paraphernalia with which Earl's house is decorated.

Each song is preceded online by a short clip of his garden, complete with birdsong and his daughter, Georgia, who is running through it, pursued by some chickens. "She was quite impressed when someone who's supported Justin Bieber asked to come and record - I can't tell you about that yet because it's not confirmed. But she wants me to take that clip down, now she's three years older and thinks it's not cool," he says.

I think that if he gives it another three years he may find that she's changed her mind.

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* It was announced on Monday July 4 that the shed has, in fact, won Shed of the Year.

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