Livin' the Bardcore Life
- Bob Dylan (1966)
"It should be called arsenic music or perhaps Phaedra music. I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plaques and it revolved around vegetables and death."
Recently on BBC Radio 3 there was a very fine evening of discussion and music based on what constitutes the contemporary folk tradition. Among all rather academic and cerebral debate, Norma Waterson was heard to say, "We do all this because it's fun," a seemingly obvious statement but one of the few remarks of the evening that actually referred to the experience of playing folk music rather than the concepts that surround it. The beginnings of my own relationship with English Folk are rather obscure and bizarre but apparently I share them with, amongst others, rising new English folk musician Jon Bowden, superstar DJ Norman Cook aka Fat Boy Slim, UK dance act Groove Armada, internationally renowned journalist and broadcaster David Aaronovitch, Marianne Faithful, Jack Straw, Michael Portillo, UK hip hop producer Louis Slipper and the organisational backbone of the '80s and '90s free festival movement (stand up Rupert and Tracey). What we all have in common is an organisation called Forest School Camps, a radical alternative to the scouts that grew out of a movement called the order of Woodcraft Chivalry, set up by radical Quakers in 1916.
At the age of six, in 1963 when Dylan was hanging out with Martin Carthy in English Folk Clubs learning songs like 'Boy From The North Country Fayre', I was sitting around my first camp fire, getting bitten by mosquitoes and feeling rather homesick and scared. In those days the camps were held in the grounds of the Old Forest School, an independent organisation based in the New Forest, Hampshire, England. The school's philosophy was to educate children via the ways of nature and in particular the practices and customs of the native American Indians. Far out stuff of 1963 you may think, but the founder of this movement was an English born American called Ernest Thompson Seton who was hanging out with Native American tribes as far back as 1900. In fact he met up with Baden Powell in 1906 and Powell basically stole Thompson Seton's ideas before writing the truly awful 'Scouting For Boys'. In reaction to this, Thompson Seton set up his own US based movement Cos Cob which had 200,000 American youths recruited to the Woodcraft Indian Schemes by 1920. The tradition of summer camps continues in the USA to this day.
Being a precocious little brat, I was thrown out of the scouts for refusing to swear allegiance to the Queen but thanks to Forest School Camps, myself and my mates would while away those long, hot summers sitting in fields or open woodland singing the Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger song book and checking out the latest Martin Carthy, Watersons and Youth Tradition tunes. Rather bizarrely we also got to learn all those natty Scottish and English dances, such as Cumberland Square 8, Caucasian Circle and Strip The Willow. Believe me, I could do a mean little Patter Cake Polka and, believe it or not, country dancing was also our theatre of romance. We were angst ridden teenage wallflowers at the local disco, but put us in an English ceilidh and we just busted our moves and rocked the house. The girls all thought we were really cool too.
Did we do this so we could uphold the correct interpretation of English Folk Music? Did we do this as aspiring candidates for the Radio 3 World Music Awards? No. We did it because it was fun.
I also had some of the wettest, windiest, coldest and most miserable mosquito-bitten moments of my life at Forest School Camps. At times it got frightening. In my early teenage years a group of us decided to do one of the many FSC test and trials. This one was called "Night Vigil'. We had to go out alone into the woods, make a fire, stay up all night and then by first light of dawn bring back the embers of the fire to the camp chief. Being the New Forest, the trees were huge, dark, silent and foreboding things. The stillness brought out all my paranoia.
Sleep was impossible.
Time stood still.
At first I felt I was being watched by a group of brooding, unforgiving skinheads, the kind I spent most of my teenage years trying to avoid on the football terraces and in the estates around where I lived. The trees weren't there to protect me, they were a community of critical adults and parents slowly swaying in judgement, creaking and tutting in the wind, whispering all their disapproval and disappointments. I wanted to tell them all to fuck off and leave me alone, but knew I'd only get zapped by some projectile poison blasting out of their nasty little scratchy, twiggy fingers. Then the sun started to creep trough the branches. The first few blackbirds and robins began to sing. As the light grew I had this overwhelming feeling of peace, beauty and an inexplicable sense of belonging or returning. I felt connected or 'earthed' by a very real and tangible love. As I walked back to the campsite with my embers still glowing I was heralded by a deafening dawn chorus of birds all chanting my name like a crowd of football supporters as their team runs on to the pitch at the start of a game. I'd done it and the birds had been with me all along.
Back at the campsite, Beefy, the camp chief (real name Ron Brand), was waiting. He threw our embers on the main campfire and welcomed us on the start of our path into adulthood. To this day, when I get stressed or overwhelmed by the demands of adulthood, I visualise that grove of pine trees silhouetted against the first light of morning and I'm back there again filed with light, energy and love.
When Beefy died a few years ago, a ceremonial fire was lit for him and the ashes from his very first campfire were thrown on to it, ashes that had been passed down from camp to camp over 70 years. The journalist David Aaronovitch was so moved by this ceremony he wrote a heartfelt tribute to Beefy in the guardian based on his own experience on Forest School Camp.
All this might sound completely bonkers, especially to those more used to the rock and roll lifestyle. Most musicians I know yearn for the spiritual solitude of a 5-star hotel room with a well stocked mini bar and 24-hour room service. The quest of life is best travelled on an air-conditioned tour bus with a super efficient tour manager to cushion the blows. Yet I feel privileged to have sat round a camp fire at 2am, feeling the earth buzzing beneath me, watching the shooting stars fly through the open skies of some rare, forgotten English wilderness. It's at times like this you can sing your heart out and your soul opens up without fear or judgement or criticism. It's at times like this the song resonates from a deeper place. This is our pagan heartland unmediated by priest, prophet, politician or journalist.
Iarla O Lionaird once told me that traditional music is nurtured in the small spaces of our lives: people's living rooms and kitchens, village halls, pubs and other informal gathering places where audience and performers are one. It's an inclusive, public language not an exclusive, private one. Ironically traditional music is best performed by the people who are happily ignorant that they are playing 'traditional music'. They do it because it's fun and they do it for themselves, their friends, family and immediate community, not for the critics or folk police.
Last Whit Monday I was in Bampton, Oxfordshire for the oldest convention of Morris dancers in the world ever. I haven't got the details exactly right here but the West Side Morris Crew go back 600 years and the East Side Crew 400 years. They have free access to the gardens and private property of the village. So you get to see inside all those huge walled gardens you normally drive past thinking "that's a bit posh!"
The two sides have been locked in combat for hundreds of years. Nevertheless the revelries take place on the streets, in the pubs, in the gardens without crowd barriers, bone-headed bouncers, security fences, back stage crew passes, VIP guest passes. It's genuine anarchy in the shires. As yet there have been no drive-by shootings. Forget the ghetto-fabulous style of So Solid Crew or hip hop artists from Compton, LA. The Morris Men were the first to mark their tribal differences with handkerchiefs and bling bling bells. Watch the catwalks next spring for John Paul Gaultier PVC, pointy breasted Morris outfits.
At least the Morris Men do it because it's fun.