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Rev Hammer performing in Freeborn John
The tale of Freeborn John
Devon-based singer songwriter Rev Hammer brings his folk opera about English Civil War firebrand John Lilburne to a new audience.
Mention John Lilburne's name to many English people, and they will say: 'John Who?'.
Otherwise known as Freeborn John, Lilburne is regarded as England's first democrat, having been a radical during the English Civil War of the 1640s.
His story was told by Devon-based singer songwriter Rev Hammer in an album which was released in 1996.
The album featured folk artists such as Maddy Prior, New Model Army, Eddi Reader, Rory McLeod, and the Levellers.
Almost a decade later, in 2005, Rev Hammer was commissioned to perform the album as a folk opera at the Beautiful Days festival at Escot Park in East Devon.
It was a huge success and prompted him to go about transferring the show to indoor venues, and Freeborn John is being staged at six theatres in February 2008.
Maddy Prior in the play at Beautiful Days in 2005
Amazingly, many of the original artists return to recreate their roles on the 1995 album.
John Lilburne is played by Rev Hammer, while Maddy Prior is Elizabeth Lilburne. Rory McLeod also stars in the show, as do The Levellers, who play the Leveller Mutineers.
But of all the characters in English history, why did Rev Hammer choose John Lilburne as his subject?
"I was looking, as a songwriter, to write about an English hero or somebody that we knew enough about, but not too much," Rev told BBC Devon.
"It was a meeting in an English country garden with Mark Chadwick, who's the lead singer of The Levellers, that brought John Lilburne to my attention.
"He was the first English radical is many ways, and there's an argument to say he was probably the first English democrat, or trade union leader, that we know about.
"He was instrumental in forming The Levellers - who were, before they reincarnated themselves 360 years later as a pop combo - a political force within Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army.
"He fought on the winning side in the English Civil War, the Parliament side, but didn't shut up after the Civil War ended, and he became a thorn in Cromwell's side."
The show features more than 50 singers and musicians, and the music is a mix of rock and folk.
"I wanted to use folk melodies, and I wanted the instrumentation to be modern," explained Rev.
"I never expected to do it live. Then the organisers of the Beautiful Days festival commissioned it. They built us a stage in the hills at Escot and it was very successful.
"To be honest, I could have left it there, but I thought we could take it to indoor venues and play it at historic theatres.
"I've written some new material for it and there is an extra character, but it has pretty much the original cast.
"If you surround yourself with the right type of people, I think the show will speak for itself, and I hope and pray that the songs are strong enough to carry it."
Use the weblinks on this page for more details about the Freeborn John tour.
The live performance of the musical at Beautiful Days 2005 is available on a double CD/DVD - more information can be found on Rev Hammer's website.
last updated: 15/02/2008 at 16:49
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