Thursday, 18 April 2013

Be a Sizzler this summer!

FolkCast needs your songs and poems of the summer. 

Sumer Is Icumen In!

Well, OK, not yet. Not by a long way; but it jolly well will Icumen In before you know it!

As you may know, we produce seasonal special shows - here's the Spring 2013 edition: - as well as our regular monthly podcasts.

We're now inviting all musicians and poets to submit music and works about the season of summer to us at FolkCast. See this page - - for various ways to get your sounds to us! 

We're looking for original works, rather than covers. While we can't guarantee to include them in the show, we'd love to hear any recordings you wish to submit. Again, they should be original - written by you, played and sung by you, owned by you - and broadly in a folk, folk-rock, singer-songwriter or roots style. Traditional folk songs are very welcome, too.

Poets? Oh yes, we include poetry in our shows, too. But we don't want your actual written poems - we want recordings of your poems being read aloud. Or recordings of you reading a poem by someone else that's in the public domain (out of copyright). So, if you're not a musician or a poet but fancy getting involved in FolkCast, that's one way that you can do it. If you want more info, drop us an email.

Here's last year's Summer Sizzler to give you an idea of what we do:

(OK, not many poems in that one, but we want to include them this year)

So, think of the crazy, hazy, lazy daze ahead, send us something that celebrates the season and become a Sizzler  by helping us to compile the soundtrack to Summer!


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher's massive contribution to folk music

Not since Napoleon has one individual been the subject of so many songs. Margaret Thatcher may have divided the nation that she governed for 11 years, but she united musicians - united them in protest, mockery, sadness and anger. To mark the passing of this massively important figure in the world of folk music we say: 

Margaret Thatcher: Thank you for the music...

  • The Grand Correction by Chris Wood
  • Hilda's Cabinet Band by The Watersons
  • Who'll Take The Ball From Maggie Thatcher by The Corries
  • More Tea Margaret? by Rob Johnson and The Irregulars
  • Thatcherites by Billy Bragg
  • Johnny England by Little Johnny England
  • Remembrance Day/Harry Stone by John Tams and Barry Coupe
  • Waiting For Margaret To Go by Chumbawamba

Saturday, 13 April 2013

What a Ding Dong debacle!

FolkCast Comment  

The decision not to play Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead in the BBC Chart Show this weekend is a classic BBC fudge - soft, sickly and full of crushed nuts.

Flying Monkey: Deeply offended...
By attempting to do the impossible and please everyone, the BBC has pleased no-one. While attempting to balance respect for the dead against respect for free speech; the sanctity of a period of mourning against the sanctity of the pop charts; the aggrieved feelings of the few against the passive aggressive schadenfreude of the many, the BBC has slipped, done a comical somersault and fallen flat on its corporate backside between the two stools.

But you've got to feel for poor old Auntie Beeb; there was no way of winning this one. The situation was nuanced, partisan ... and as downright silly as a minute-long song about an ex-Witch.

On the one hand, the Ding Dong song - or, rather, the sentiment that has become attached to it following the death of Margaret Thatcher - is seen by some very powerful people as offensive, by others as being in bad taste, and by many more as downright annoying and silly. In a blaze of self-rightous fury, certain sections of the right wing Press have put pressure on the BBC not to play it (something that really is offensive!). 

On the other hand, the BBC doesn't want to censor the news. And have no doubt: the revelation of the weekly pop music chart is news. It's usually entertainment news rather than political news, but news it remains. Once the BBC starts to censor the news, even such a lightweight bit of news as which records have sold the most copies in the last week, can they be trusted to report accurately and fairly on anything else?

Oh, what a terrible dilemma for new BBC Director-General, genial Lord Tony Hall! 

Lord Hall
Should he take on the Tory Establishment and, even more ominously, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, by allowing the silly little song to be played on the Radio 1 Chart Show? Or should he decree that it be banned from the airwaves, and so begin his term in office by censoring, wilting under the glare of governmental pressure, and by lacking the editorial independence that is the bedrock of the BBC?

A decision like this can potentially have massive consequences for a BBC D-G. Hall's immediate predecessor, George Entwistle, was done in by his own (lack of) reaction to the Jimmy Savile crisis, and another previous Director-General, Greg Dyke, was done in by political pressure from the government and his own over reaction to criticisms of BBC reporting that, indirectly, led to the death of Dr David Kelly. You can be damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

This is Hall's first crisis as head of the BBC, and while Ding Dong might seem like small potatoes compared to paedophilia or the suspicious death of an arms inspector, the last thing Hall wants to do is make an enemy of both the government and the Tory Press before he's even had the chance to get his nameplate glued on to his new office door.

Hall is no muddle-headed Munchkin, and his first response to the Ding Dong debate was to see both sides.

While describing the campaign to get the song into the charts as "distasteful and inappropriate", he added: "However, I do believe it would be wrong to ban the song outright as free speech is an important principle and a ban would only give it more publicity."

So, he knows the arguments. Sadly, knowing the arguments doesn't solve the problem or avoid the pratfalls he himself identified.

But hang on.... What if there were a Third Way? Maybe the BBC could play the song and yet NOT play it! Why not talk about it in a news item before the Chart Show, and play a snippet then, but omit the song itself from the chart? Brilliant! A compromise!

And yet, not so brilliant. It's a terrible compromise that satisfies no-one. It's not clever, it's not logical, it's not principled. It's as brainless as the Scarecrow, as lost as Dorothy, as yellow as Oz's famous Brick Road.

A BBC executive yesterday...
By talking about it (and not just before the Chart Show on Sunday but in news bulletins across the Corporation for days before) they've given far more to publicity to the song than simply playing it ever would have done - just as Lord Hall warned would happen!

Every time its title is mentioned the coded insult is delivered. Every "ding" and every "dong" spoken by a straight-faced newsreader is a repetition of the anti-Thatcher joke at the heart of the controversy - and the BBC is dinging and donging like the clappers, dozens of times a day! 

Meanwhile, they haven't managed to dodge the other bullet either – they are still censoring the chart, they are still buckling under pressure, they are still breaking the bonds of trust for straight reporting that the corporation should have with the people who pay for it to exist: the British public.

So, in the short term the BBC has managed to amplify the offence felt by Thatcherites by shining the spotlight of publicity on the song, while also offended those on the other side of the fence by massaging a news story.  And in the long term, the BBC's reputation for fairness and independence has, like the Tin Man, suffered yet another ugly dent. What a Ding Dong debacle!

This isn't the first time that songs have been censored by the BBC, of course - but until now the censorship has been because of naughty words or overt political messages, never before because of the perceived motives of the song's purchasers.

This is something new. Ding Dong doesn't contain any rude words or overt political messages. It doesn't encourage violence, it celebrates the end of a hated person. The song's lyrics are completely inoffensive unless, perhaps, you are a wicked witch ... or one of her flying monkeys. 

Here, read them for yourself:

Ding Dong! The Witch is dead!
Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch! 
Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead!
Wake up you sleepy heads, rub your eyes, get out of bed.
Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead! 

She's gone where the goblins go,
Below - below - below. 
Yo-ho, let's open up and sing and ring the bells out.
Ding Dong' the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low.
Let them know 
The Wicked Witch is dead!

So, there's absolutely no reason for the BBC not to play the song ... other than the perceived connection to Thatcher. And if songs can be banned for a perception then we're on very dangerous ground indeed because what you're banning isn't crudity or bad taste or even free speech, it's the freedom to think.

Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead is simply the latest example of a long tradition of using music as a humorous protest against a hated figure. Think of the British PoW's whistling Colonel Bogey as they marched into the camp in Bridge On The River Kwai - the mix of defiance and a sense of humour was typically British. We all know the unofficial words to that tune, even if no direct mention of testicular deficiency is sung out loud. And we know the subliminal message: up yours!

Like Colonel Bogey, Ding Dong is a music V-sign to those in power. If they find it offensive, good! It's meant to be. And if you are offended by it, maybe you should ask yourself why. Could it be that you just don't like it that you are on the wrong side? If you followed the Wicked Witch then you are seen as one of the bad guys, and only the real psychos actually enjoy being bad.

But here's the rub: while the perceived message behind Ding Dong is deliberately offensive, the song itself is not, and if one non-offensive song can suddenly become offensive just because some people intend it to be taken that way, why not other songs? Maybe what the BBC and Thatcher's Flying Monkeys fail to realise is that - clearly - lots of other songs in the current Top 20 are also be being bought as a protest against Margaret Thatcher.

Last week's Number 10, for example: It's A Beautiful Day by Michael Buble. Well, that's clearly all about the day Maggie died, isn't it?

Nelly's ride?
As for other charting songs, Hey Porsche by Nelly is obviously all about the Thatcherite yuppies' sports car of choice. Isn't it?

What About Us by The Saturdays appears to be a crudely worded plea for sexual relations, but it might be a heartfelt cry for recognition of the sectors of society abandoned by the government under Thatcher's doctrine. And Need U by Duke Dumont - sitting at No 1, pop pickers - might seem to be a plaintive love song, but the subtext is clearly a comment about the Iron Lady's lack of ability to change her policies to reflect the facts. The lady wasn't for turning, even though she was in Need of a U...

Once you start looking at the chart, just about every record in the Top 40 can be seen as a comment on the Iron Lady's political record.

Does Pink's Just Give Me A Reason question Maggie's socio-economic policies?
Is Bastille's Pompeii a sly reference to the dramatic eruption of Mount Hilda, and the subsequent wiping out of society?
Was PJ and Duncan's seminal Let's Get Ready To Rhumble really about the hungry tums of striking miners' children?
Does Macklemore's Thrift Shop reflect the economic retail choices of those left behind by Thatcher's Big Bang?

Others need no explanation. These titles are obviously all subtle Thatcher protests:

Taylor Swift's I Knew You Were Trouble 
Will.I.Am's Scream & Shout
Pitbull's Feel This Moment
Christina Perri's A Thousand Years
Bruno Mars' Locked Out Of Heaven
Emeli Sande's Clown
Imagine Dragons' It's Time

Once the Flying Monkeys realise the true meanings, are  all these records offensive too? The fact that they were all written, recorded and released before Thatcher's death doesn't matter. It certainly didn't save the 51-year-old Ding Dong. So, you know what to do, Lord Tony. Ban them! Ban them all...

Or not. Come on, wake up you sleepy head! The Wicked Witch is dead - and the days of cutting off the "oxygen of publicity" to her opponents should die with her.

One final thought: the BBC is censoring a song because some people find it offensive, yet the Corporation will give hours of uncritical, blanket coverage to an unprecedented, politically-motivated not-quite-a-State-Funeral-but-near-as-damn-it; an event which, due to its scale, style and public funding, is enormously offensive to far more people than any silly song. This is an instant illustration of just how stupid and indefensible the Ding Dong decision is.

Oh, Lord Tony - by half-banning Ding Dong you've dropped a right clanger!

Historical footnote:
Ding Dong reached Number 2: a very suitable number to remember Lady Thatcher.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Anniversary Feast was a banquet!

Feast of Fiddles 20 Year Celebration Concert

Alban Arena, Hertfordshire,  April 2, 2013

Review by Carys. Photos by Sophie Watson.

This show was billed as "All Hands On Deck" – a one-off event to celebrate Feast Of Fiddles' 20th anniversary, featuring many of the musical crew who have done duty aboard the good ship HMS Feast over the last two decades. 

It was something really special, attracting musicians and fans from around the world, though the arrival of my friend Sophie and I with less than ten minutes to spare and with no time for a drink was not exactly part of our carefully laid plans. See below for the reason why we were almost late, but we were hugely grateful to have got there! 

We did however manage a quick stop at the merch stand where we both availed ourselves of the retail opportunity of new CD and fully-signed A4 souvenir booklet, on offer for just £20 the set (even if we were in such a rush to find our seats that Sophie almost ran off without handing over her money). A swift chortle about the fact we were in row DD, and less than a minute later the concert began.

Before the show: lots of kit
I'd forgotten Richard Digance was compere for the night. Mr Digance is somewhat like Marmite. You either love him or ... you want to stick a knife in him and swirl it around. I shall leave it to your discretion to decide into which camp I fall. He started proceedings by coming onstage, deciding there wasn't enough applause and then coming on again, panto-style. The audience responded, but the excitement was mainly for the expected musicians rather than the introduction. 

Feast of Fiddles' 20th anniversary tour began with a distinct lack of fiddles for the first couple of minutes. Masters of building the tension, the music began with guitarists John Underwood and Martin Vincent, Dave Harding on bass, Dave Mattacks on drums and of course Hugh Crabtree on melodeon before no less than seven fiddlers took to the stage; Brian McNeill, Ian Cutler, Phil Beer, Peter Knight. Chris Leslie, Garry Blakeley and Tom Leary, and the scene was set for a night of joyous, infectious music that could have you wanting to leap up and dance one minute and bring a tear to your eye the next. 

The first section – for there were not just two, but three halves to this game – consisted of the current lineup performing songs from their previous tour and some new additions, most notably “Rise Above It”, the title track of the new Feast of Fiddles album. 

Brian McNeill (ex-Battlefield Band) swapped his fiddle for what appeared to be a double-necked mandocello and the unmistakeable fiddle of Steeleye Span's Peter Knight accompanied Hugh Crabtree's perfect diction on this lovely new song. 

Next up, in a night full of surprises, Hugh made his performance debut on the keyboard. In a sequence worthy of any village pantomime, Phil Beer helpfully explained what he was supposed to press and which way up the music needed to be ... not that Hugh really needed any assistance, of course.

They concluded with “Thunderbows are Go!” before Mr Digance returned to the stage. “Wonder what this is...” he muses, sampling a random glass of something that was left on one of the stands. “Ah. Turps.” It came as quite a surprise to discover that he also has a couple of new songs; one about the first cartoon character (clue: it wasn't Mickey Mouse) which, naturally has a chorus we were encouraged to join in with, and the second about lookalikes, the last line of which I shall NOT repeat, just on the off-chance Her Majesty might be reading! 

After an interval in which there was just sufficient time to visit the bar, it was back to what was dubbed “Digance's Folk Club”. Starting with 22-year-old Sophie Crabtree (Hugh's daughter) who, after a somewhat unusual introduction, performed a self-penned number about her friend's lost love, expertly accompanied by Peter Knight. We were then treated to a section of solo and duet performances by past and guest members of the Feast Of Fiddles.  

Deirdre Graham, harpist and graduate of the Royal Scottish academy of Music and Drama, hadn't been able to bring her harp with her on the plane, instead treating us to a Gaelic walking song accompanied by Brian McNeill on the two-necked thingy. Her lovely voice suited the song perfectly. 

Next up was Guy Fletcher, who thoughtfully subjected the “backing band” of two guitars, bass, keyboard and drums – just the one kit for now – to the Little Johnny England set Swine/UHT, a number with a fiendishly unusual rhythm which they had, apparently, heard for the first time that afternoon.

Guy Fletcher (fiddle) and Dave Harding (bass)

This was followed by Simon Mayor switching to mandolin for a lovely song called “Maple Flames”, accompanied by Ian Cutler, Brian and Peter. Tom McConville (with Chris Leslie, Hugh and Brian) played “Tune For Jerry” (Jerry Holland, the Canadian fiddler who died in 2009) This was one of the really beautiful moments of the night, when three fiddles weave their separate melodies over and around each other.  

“It's more of a banquet than a feast really” said Sophie at this point.

Last, but certainly not least, was Joe Broughton of the Urban Folk Quartet. He was hysterical. If he ever decides to stop playing fiddle (and he should NEVER stop playing fiddle, because he's brilliant) he could do stand-up comedy. “Clap along!”, he encouraged as he introduced his tune set.  “You can clap in Bulgarian, can't you? Oh – and it's in 11/8”. Joe, the only actual soloist of the whole night aside from Digance, set the stage alight with his energy and enthusiasm. 

Richard Digance came back to close this second act, accompanied by Fairport Convention's singer and guitarist Simon Nicol as they sang Sandy Denny's “You Never Wanted Me”. There was scattered applause at the mention of Sandy. 

“We liked her better than THAT!” yelled a chap in the front row “Tell them then!” Digance said. So the man did – stood up, turned round, and yelled "CLAP!" and everyone clapped and cheered for Sandy. 

Mr Digance proudly told us of his favourite claim to fame – that after one folk night when Sandy had missed the bus home and had to stay at his mother's house. “My mum made Sandy Denny a bacon sandwich!” At this point even I was starting to warm to him a bit. 

After the second interval it  time for the third and final act, the one everyone was really excited about. You could almost taste the anticipation in the auditorium. As well as twelve fiddlers and the previous backing band (now joined by Simon Nicol on guitar and Carlton Hunt on a second drumkit) there was the brass section of Gabriel Garrick's trumpet, Chris Gower's trombone and of course Allan Whetton on saxophone. 

A feast? A banquet? An all-you-can-eat buffet of fiddles!
At this point, my notes contain not an animated description of how wonderful everyone sounded together but - and I'm really, really sorry about this: “I like the way all the bald guys are up the same end of the stage!”. I'm afraid such silliness tends to occur when I'm excited. 

“Are there any Morris dancers in the audience?” Hugh asked. “Yes!” yelled Sophie with much enthusiasm ... the only person to respond! 

They proceeded to play “Princess Royal/Battle of the Somme” – the former a lively arrangement, the latter beginning just with Hugh on melodeon, then the fiddles, and culminating with the full brass section. Sophie and I were gripping each other's hands in ... well I'm not sure of the exact mix of emotions, but they were all good ones! 

Then Phil Beer produced a fiddle case and looked knowingly around, before handing out several glasses and a bottle of something which he, Hugh and Dierdre drank. I don't think Dierdre was expecting whatever-it-was to be quite so strong! 

There was a moment of confusion, as if we were waiting for something – then Phil walked over, offered DM a sip... “That was the deal”. Yes, we had a drummer who wouldn't play without being plied with alcohol first! A particularly silly rendition of the James Bond theme followed, with the aforementioned three singing “dum dum dugga dum...” at the appropriate moment!

Dierdre, Hugh and Phil enjoy Bonding during the Feast of Fiddle show.
Next came a tune I knew from hearing it numerous times at the Steamboat, our local session, but I never knew what it was called. “Ciel d'Automne” by Andre Brunet. It was like being reunited with an old friend and we both got rather emotional again. This was followed by Phil Beer singing “Arcadian Driftwood” and most of the audience joining in the chorus, and then Chris Leslie leading “Geronimo's Cadillac”. Mr Beer was observed to swap his fiddle for a mandolin at around about this point. 

Just before the last song, Hugh announced “if we all went off and on again, after we'd finished tripping over all the cables and instruments you'd all have missed the last bus home, so we're going to stand here, you can clap and yell for more, then we'll do two more numbers, okay?” We all obliged, and were rewarded; firstly with a rousing rendition of “Pirates To Morrisons” which, disappointingly, is not a song about Blackbeard doing the weekly shop.  Still, you can't have everything. 

Well actually, we could. We were situated up in the balcony, which had given us a perfect view of the entire stage, but as we were in the second row we didn't think there was much hope of getting up and dancing. However, there were two free seats in the row in front, and we had A PLAN! I wasn't actually thinking at this point though, because I was so overexcited I was shaking uncontrollably and absolutely desperate for the final encore to be what I had been looking forward to since seeing FoF at the Great British Folk Festival last December. The moment saxophonist Alan Whetton stepped to the front my brain started shrieking “OMG! They're going to do it! Yes! Yes! YESSS!” Fortunately for the rest of the audience I didn't share this out loud. 

I'm actually shaking again as I type this. I ADORE FoF's version of the theme from “Local Hero” and, given Mr Digance likes to engage the Cropredy audience as seagulls in his own rendition, it was only right that he and his guitar made up the 25th member of the band as they played their fantastic second encore. 

(A video of the full band in full flow, posted by FolkCast friend Paul Hunt)

Sophie and I were up, leaping over the empty seats and dancing, and here we discovered the really fantastic thing about the Alban Arena. Forget acoustics, ample legroom or architecture – behind the last row is a space approximately four feet wide extending the whole length of the theatre, just right for two overly enthusiastic dancers to really express themselves at the end of the evening without disturbing anyone else! 

It was an unforgettable night. But my last word of congratulation is due to Paul Smith. You haven't heard of him? He's the sound engineer who was responsible for 53 input channels last night. Fantastic job, Paul!  

A genuine feast and an unforgettable night
PS: As I say, it was an unforgettable night, one that we wouldn't have been part of if not for my mother Kay, our very own local hero(ine).

Late on the afternoon of this momentous show there was a very real chance we might not make it to the concert at all! Beloved husband sent me a text saying he was still stuck in the work car park, traffic was terrible, and did I need the car for anything this evening? Well yes, I needed to get to a concert 86 miles up the road, nothing special... 

One step away from blind panic I called my mother, explained the situation and begged for assistance. Bless her, she immediately jumped in her car, drove over to mine and handed over the keys, so Sophie and I were on our way just 20 minutes later than originally planned (beloved husband eventually got home an hour later than usual and immediately had to take mother home again!). Thanks mother!

The Feast Of Fiddles 20th Anniversary Tour
(note: these dates with smaller, touring band, not the mega-lineup as above)

Corn Exchange
01392 665938
Haywards Heath
Clair Hall
01732 440470
Town Hall
01672 512465
The Roses Theatre
01684 295074
Charter Theatre
0845 344 2012
City Varieties
0113 243 0808
Gala Theatre
0191 332 4041
Lincoln Drill Hall
01522 873894
01543 262223
Milton Keynes
The Stables
01908 280800
Huntingdon Hall
01905 611427
The Brook Theatre
01634 241108
Village Club
01628 636620
Village Club
01628 636620