Music as Local Produce

Mark took this photo of me a couple of weekends ago; the gentleman in the photo is from the Alvechurch Morris side. I learned in this discussion that in former times, his black-face and raggedy clothes were a necessary disguise. Apparently border Morris (from the Welsh/English borders) originated in cold Winter months, when agricultural labourers could eke no sort of living out of the land and were forced to find an income through other means. Starving and cold, they made themselves unrecognisable with goose fat and soot, donned raggedy clothes, and wandered to neighbouring villages to dance in exchange for pennies. This was a perilous and competitive pursuit, so sticks were often taken to beat off aggressors, and it was necessary to go in disguise, as it disgraced a Landlord for his tenants to be effectively seen out begging. I had no idea before going to the Oxford Folk Festival of the origins of different styles of Morris dancing and I found this – and other customs that I learned about – very interesting. Some of the Northern sides take their inspiration for dancing rhythms from the relentless clicking and clacking of industrial looms and spinning machinery in the Northern counties of England, during the Industrial Revolution. I was pleased to spy genuine mill bobbins amongst the dancing apparel and several fine items of knitwear, which I interviewed the wearers about as part of my reportage on the Folk Festival for The Hub.

This is a photo of some fine clogs, taken by Mark, who galliantly joined me in my folk-festival adventures for the Saturday.

One of my other favourite things about the Oxford Folk Festival, was discovering local bands like – The Mountain Parade and Telling the Bees.

We met with Mountain Parade right before they went onstage and then sat through the first half of their set before we had to get to another interview. We loved them so much that we immediately discovered when they were next playing and organised to go to that gig.

Here is Roxy from the Mountain Parade, singing at the Oxford Folk Festival and below are the band again, last Thursday, playing at The Jericho Tavern.
(Yes, I am now officially a Mountain Parade fangirl.)

I especially love the sense of community surrounding Mountain Parade. Their large range of instruments (cello, ukelele, violin, drums, accordion, guitar, etc.) and harmonious vocal arrangements lend a generous warmth to their songs, which are well-crafted and gloriously geeky in places. Mountain Parade sing of things like The Black Country Museum, and Canal Boats; of riding bicycles and dreaming of space, of apple trees and books, and of the dangers of time travel. There is something really playful and celebratory about their music, but also something surprisingly moving. I love the voice and presence of Roxy, their lead vocalist, and the conviction and poetry in ‘Pioneers’ makes it my favourite Mountain Parade song – although ‘Awesome Wonder’ is also amazing. You can download some of their music at bandcamp for free!
Telling the Bees are less rowdy than the Mountain Parade, and they have a more traditional range of instruments, but I have been absolutely loving their CD and it was really lovely to meet them and discuss why so many folk songs begin with ‘one May morning,’ and how playing the bagpipes can end up in true love.

I have gone on and on about my obsession with blackbirds here, so a highlight for me during our interview was when Andy of Telling the Bees told me the story behind ‘Blackbird: (A Crumb for a Song.)’

When I met with my PhD supervisor Paul Whitty earlier this week, I recounted to him how much I had enjoyed meeting these two bands in particular. Although their musical styles are very different, I find that both bands express an appreciation for everyday moments and a celebration of recognisable places, which makes me love their music and which makes me somehow by extension love Oxford more. One of the conversations about the folk festival that didn’t make the final edits for The Hub feature was a discussion between me and Mark about the softening effect of the Folk Festival on Oxford. I must confess that I find the veneer of academic brilliance, the intimidating array of buses, and the crowded bustling of Oxford to be in general quite terrifying. When I first moved there I couldn’t walk very far and I have somehow never gotten over my first impressions of the place as an intimidating and inaccessible city full of awkward architecture, people in a hurry, roads where there are always inconvenient roadworks, and narrow, inhospitable, walking-stick/mobility-scooter-averse pavements. However during the folk festival I found myself having a very different impression of Oxford and experiencing it instead as a sanguine place where bands meet in each others’ houses to sing about Museums on their ukeleles, and where songwriters take quiet lunches in hidden corners and listen out for the songs of blackbirds. I loved the adhoc morris-dancing lessons that struck up along Broad Street and the impromptu music that appeared all over the city… and the afternoon spent in the Head of the River pub drinking with Loz and Paul Sartin of Bellowhead was the mellowing magic that I needed to fall in love with Oxford afresh and put our difficult past behind us.

I failed to make it to the famed May Day celebrations of Oxford this weekend as I need the quiet of a weekend in Reading without any travel, but I have enjoyed reading about the festivities on various websites, and I like very much what Paul Whitty said during our chat, when he pointed out that lately he is enjoying thinking about music as local produce.

I am loving this new idea and filling up my mp3 player with things that are made around the city where I work and study; all I need now is to find the Reading musicians for a fully connected sense of place and song for all the spaces I regularly commute in and inhabit.

In the meantime, if you want to experience for yourself some of the magic of local Oxford talent, I am uploading all 3 sections of my Folk Festival feature here for your listening pleasure! If you desire to hear The Hub’s Folk Festival Special, it will be up on the BBC iPlayer until this evening. At 9pm tonight, a new episode of The Hub will be up, featuring further small snippets from the joy that was The Oxford Folk Festival in a knit weekly special, exploring the relationships between knitting, folk music, and May Day.

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