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Archives for June 2008

Tunes: a musician's thing?

Mike Harding | 17:36 UK time, Monday, 30 June 2008

I've spent the last few weeks travelling on a publicity tour for some new books I've just had published; not bodice rippers or mysteries based on Mary Magdelen being the great grandmother of Che Guevara...


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It's Festival time!

Mike Harding | 16:53 UK time, Friday, 27 June 2008

They come with the swallows and stay all summer - festivals, that is, and we in these islands are blessed with a plethora of folk festivals great and small that all have one thing in common...

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Radio Ballads celebrate 50th anniversary

Mike Harding | 15:25 UK time, Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Fifty years ago next Wednesday, the BBC broadcast The Ballad Of John Axon, the very first of what were to become known as The Radio Ballads...

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Brilliant new CD from Crooked Still

Mike Harding | 13:31 UK time, Monday, 23 June 2008

Several years back in the cause of great art and the folk show I went over to San Diego, California...

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Fundraising folk

Mike Harding | 13:22 UK time, Friday, 20 June 2008

It's interesting that some of the busiest people on the folk scene still seem to find time to work for nothing...


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Traditional sword dancing under threat

Mike Harding | 14:37 UK time, Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Let me tell you a story.  Many years ago, after a good session in one of the pubs in Manchester I found myself, with a handful of other musos in the home of one of the blokes who had been listening to the music from the bar.

It was only when I saw him try to uncork a bottle of poteen with a screw held between his teeth that I realised my host was off his skull.

As the other musos got out their instruments and started up again into the tunes, my host told me he was a Kendo sword fighter. "Wow!" I said, feigning interest. "I've got a priceless sword right there in that case." He went over to a glass fronted box and took out a long, curved, steel sliver. "I've trained for twenty years in Kendo schools - been to Japan and everything." He began to swish the sword around his head, slicing the smoky air in the room. One arc of the sword took the tips of three hairs off the top of my head.

"Take it easy pal!" I hinted, thinking of the family on the other side of Manchester that relied on my head and neck still being close friends. "No worries mate. I'm trained to a thousandth of an inch. Watch this..." He disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a melon. He put it on the coffee table. "I'll stop a thousandth of an inch off it." He swirled the sword around and brought the blade flashing down stopping a thousandth of an inch above the middle of the coffee table. Two pieces of melon rolled onto the floor. The oblivious banjo player looked at one half of the melon and said, "I'd rather have a bacon butty if you've got one."

I tell you this because Kendo swords (which are capable of causing damage) are going to be legal under the proposed Violent Crimes Reduction Bill, whereas Rapper swords (blunt, bendy and harmless and used in traditional Morris dancing for the last several hundred years) are to be banned. Kendo is a sport whereas Rapper is not. Swords are allowed in sport and for historical re-enactments, Morris dancing is as yet unclassified. The Civil Service have not got round to hiring consultants to invent a term for it.

There is a petition which you can sign, if you feel strongly enough about England's traditional customs. It is at: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/dancers  The closing date is 25th June 2008.


Watch The Demon Barber Roadshow perform at the BBC Folk Awards 2005 


Watch The Stevenage Sword Dancers perform the Newbiggin Rapper Dance


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Great music and theatre from Ireland

Mike Harding | 12:52 UK time, Monday, 16 June 2008

As regular listeners to my programme will know I spend much of my time in Ireland and when there, I tend to look out for stuff for the programme in the shops in Galway and Westport - my house is half way between those two metropoli. Last week in Galway I picked up the new CD from Karan Casey, Ships In The Forest. I put it on the CD player when I got home, and played it through three times over. She is in even better voice than ever and the choice of material is superb. A tad more reflective than some of her albums, it is chock full of great songs, mostly traditional, though there is a brilliant version of Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle And The Drum. Get the album if you can - it is beautiful. Musicians on the CD by the way include three of the Vallely brothers, Donald Shaw and Kris Drever. It is also produced by Donald Shaw - quite brilliant.

That night I went to the local arts theatre in Clifden to see The Tailor and Ansty, an adaptation of the book by Eric Cross. It is a terrific piece of theatre and is coming over to London soon. The story is a simple one: an old couple in the glens of Cork open their house to all and sundry; it is a rambling house full of laughter, song and wisdom, then along come the clergy. I think you can guess the rest. The acting is superb, great comic timing and the play gives a real sense of what traditional Irish storytelling and music making was like in the middle of the last century.

The play is coming to the UK but unfortunately only to London. If you get a chance, do go and see it. It will enrich your life.  Visit The Old Red Lion's website for more details.

Sessions: an elusive beast

Mike Harding | 14:55 UK time, Friday, 13 June 2008

I was thinking this morning about sessions - the free musical gatherings, usually in pubs, where people get together and perform or jam. They differ from folk clubs in that nobody gets paid and usually there's nobody in control; the performing baton goes round the room in a sort of unwritten etiquette, with people playing solos or leading the room in a set of tunes or a well known song. Many of the sessions I cut my musical teeth in were Irish sessions in Manchester in pubs like the Ducie, the Clarence and the Salutation. There, small boys still at primary school like Dezi Donnelly and Mike McGoldrick could be heard playing alongside old timers like Roger Sherlock and Tony Howley.

More mixed sessions, from Irish to Skiffle, Music Hall to Rock and Roll, happened on a haphazard basis in pubs like The Helwith Bridge in the Yorkshire Dales, where anything went, from the local window cleaner belting out blues on the piano, to members of more established bands hammering into folk standards like the Belfast Hornpipe.

There are still great sessions, but they are hard to find (they are there, but they are like the Unicorn: an elusive beast) which is a tragedy because from them come the musicians of tomorrow. Summer schools and folk camps do a great job, but you can't beat a session where people of all ages and all abilities get together simply for the craic.

Perhaps there ought to be a Good Sessions Guide and a Campaign For Real Sessions perhaps, sponsored by CAMRA?

Watch an example of the traditional pub session on YouTube



EFDSS in good hands

Mike Harding | 15:21 UK time, Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Way back in the mists of Aunty Kitty I spent many long hours in the library of Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Like many young revival singers I was looking for material - in my case traditional Lancashire folk songs - and the library at Cecil Sharp House is without any doubt a true treasure house of material from original manuscripts by people like Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams to collections from more recent workers in the field.

I would see Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention in there most days, books and manuscripts piled all around him mining the seam for material. The results of course were albums like Liege & Lief and the wonderful outpourings from Steeleye Span which Ashley formed soon after leaving Fairport.

After Steeleye he went on to work with Shirley Collins in the Etchingham Steam Band which in turn gave way to the Albion Band.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the impact the library at Cecil Sharp House has had on the musical life of this country and now I read that Shirley Collins MBE, Ashley's ex-partner, has been nominated as the president of the EFDSS with Eliza Carthy as her vice-president. Eliza has been a member of the EFDSS since she was in nappies and Shirley, as well as having worked with Alan Lomax, the great American collector of folk music, is one of the great voices of English traditional music.

So the EFDSS and its great library are in the hands of two great women. If Hillary Clinton had got her act together that would have been quite a triple.



Skiffle, folk and anarchy

Mike Harding | 13:34 UK time, Monday, 9 June 2008

I read a long article in the Observer Review recently which warmed the old cockles somewhat. Written by Mark Kermode, the film critic, it extolled the virtues of a branch of the musical tree which many of us swung on in our musical kindergarten days - skiffle.

Like many kids in the fifties and sixties I cut my eye teeth on a cheap piece of Japanese plywood and some brass wire, sitting in our front room with the Bert Weedon Play In A Day book, working my way through Tom Dooley and Rock Island Line, fingers bleeding and vocal chords shredded. My mother turned Two-Way Family Favourites up full blast to drown out what sounded like her first-born being stretched on the rack. Three chords, a load of Brylcreem drawing my hair up into a quiff and a Manchester/American accent singing songs about murder, booze and railway disasters. Heady days.

A dozen years later I was lead singer and blues harp player in the Eddison Bell Spasm Band with three other lads: Stephan on jug, John on Guitar and Dave on washboard. We played everything from Jesu Joy Of Man's Desiring to What's That Tastes Like Gravy?, though not at the same speed.

It warmed my heart when, a few years ago, I watched the great celebration procession at Sidmouth Folk Festival and saw Dave our old washboard player, marching along dressed as a Mafioso playing his washboard with one of Morris Dancing's more esoteric teams. 

Skiffle, folk and anarchy - they go together well somehow.


Read Mark Kermode's Blog post about Skiffle on The Guardian website 



Chris Foster back with a great new album...

Mike Harding | 17:00 UK time, Friday, 6 June 2008

In amongst a bundle of CDs that arrived at the studio the other day was a new album from Chris Foster called Outsiders. Many of you will remember Chris from the folk scene of the seventies and eighties and will remember him as a fine guitarist and singer, up there with Nic Jones and Martin Carthy. The last album I'd had of his, Jewels, came out in 2004 and included a terrific version of the traditional night-visiting song (where a dead lover returns to haunt the loved one) The Grey Cock - I played it on the programme alongside the Salsa Celtica / Eliza Carthy version which they call Grey Gallito.

This new CD, which arrived from Iceland, where Chris is now living, shows that the last four years have not been barren. I don't know whether it's living in the land of Sagas that has done it, but the album is full of great songs, most of them with a strong narrative base. My own particular favourites are Lord Bateman and The Cruel Mother, two of what I would call the Big Ballads.

Chris is playing and singing beautifully on this new CD - it is a real gem. I am especially in awe of his version of the Leon Rosselson classic Song Of The Olive Tree.


Mike Harding | 15:18 UK time, Wednesday, 4 June 2008

I'm Mike Harding and you are very welcome indeed to the Folk Blog.

A few times a week you'll be able to check out my musings, ramblings and mumblings on various topics of the folk variety - new CDs that I've been listening to, folk stuff in the news, artists on tour and anything else that's been occupying my thoughts. It will also be a good opportunity to give a bit of extra coverage to live events such as the Cambridge Folk Festival and the Young Folk Award and to expand a little on things featured in my programme.

We're also going to have guest bloggers - John Tams will be here in a few weeks to coincide with our broadcast of the Radio Ballads Live concert. I'll keep you informed of who's blogging and when, on my programme.

Please feel free to leave any sensible comments of a clean nature below and
I'll be back here with a new post on Friday - see you then - well I won't be able to see you - but you know what I mean...

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