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Folk By The Oak

Venue: Hatfield House
Town: Hitchin
Date: 16/07/17

I must confess that this was only the second time I’ve been to Folk By The Oak, though they have been running the event now for a decade.

Last time I went, I do seem to remember that there was quite a long drive from once you arrive at the site to the car-park, but I’d forgotten quite how far it was. We arrived very early, and on arrival at the site drove through a little goat farm, so thought we’d park up, then wander back to look at the goats, but as we were then driving for almost another quarter of an hour before reaching the car park, sadly we didn’t get to visit the goats. Maybe next year, if we aim to get there even earlier, might stop off to visit the farm.

The car-park might be a long drive after having passed through the main gates, but it was a very short walk from there to the field. We joined the queue, waiting for the gates to open. To prevent the queue from getting too long, though, volunteers kept herding people from the back forward, so as to create a shorter, but wider queue, which meant that getting there early didn’t necessarily mean that you got to the gates first, but nobody minded. Everybody there was completely relaxed and in a really good mood.

There are two stages at the Folk By The Oak: the Main Stage, and The Acorn Stage, with the better known names playing on the Main Stage. The schedule is that the main acts play for 45 minutes, with the performers on the Acorn Stage playing for 25 minutes during the change overs.

One of the main reasons I’d gone to Folk By The Oak this year was to see Sam Kelly play on the Acorn Stage. He is one of the performers from The Company Of Players, but wasn’t able to be there the night that I went to see them, so I kind of felt I owed it to myself to finally see him. The trouble is though, when you go to Folk By The Oak, you tend to go quite laden, carrying fishing chairs, blankets, picnics etc, so once you’ve settled on a spot, you tend to take root and stay there for the day. As a result, I didn’t catch a single act at all on the Acorn Stage. Which means that I’m going to have to wait for another occasion to finally see Sam.

First act on the Main stage was Leveret. They are a three piece instrumental band, comprising Sam Sweeney on violin, Andy Cutting on melodeon and Rob Habron on concertina. Sweeney is the current BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards musician of the year, and Cutting has twice previously held the title. Habron is a member of The Full English, who were declared Best Group in 2014 by the BBC Folk Awards. Their music, some ancient, some modern, is gentle, relaxing and a gorgeous way to open a day’s festival.

This Is The Kit followed. At the heart of the band is Kate Stables, from Bristol. She writes their material, sings and plays guitar. On their website, the band is described as comprising Kate, along with Rozi Plain, Jamie Whitby-Coles, Neil Smith and Jesse D Vernon, but on stage there were a total of seven musicians, (two saxophonists, a drummer and four other guitarists), so I’m not sure who were guests and who were regulars. One thing I can say though is I thought they were superb. From their first note, I was smitten. So much so that as soon as they finished, I rushed round to the merchandise tent to try to buy a CD. They told me that so far nobody from the band had yet been round to drop off any CDs to sell, but they were expecting that now they’d played their set, someone would be round soon. Sadly, no-one turned up. Went back in the interval after the next act and still no “This Is The Kit” records had arrived. So at the moment, my CD collection is definitely short of a couple of This Is The Kit albums. A situation that needs to be rectified hurriedly.

Still, wandering to the merch tent did give me the opportunity to look around the festival a bit and to discover how truly wonderful an event this was, especially for children. There were all sorts of free entertainment there. People were teaching them how to juggle, there was archery, there was even someone teaching them how to grind wheat to flour using rocks.

As well as organising a folk concert every year (with a hefty percentage of the takings going to charity), Folk By The Oak are also involved in other events, such as in 2015 “Sweet Liberties” in which a group of folk musicians, including the wonderful Maz O’Connor, were sponsored to write songs, (and perform at the parliament speaker’s house), to celebrate key events in democracy since the signing of the Magna Carta 800 years before. Sweet Liberties performed at Folk By The Oak last year, which sadly I didn’t go to. As well as Maz, Sweet Liberties also included Nancy Kerr, who was also involved in this year project, “Shake The Chains”. Shake The Chains took their name from a line from a Percy Byshe Shelley poem called The Masque of Anarchy: “Shake your chains to earth like dew, Which in sleep had fallen on you, Ye are Many – they are few” and their remit was to celebrate protest songs.

As well as Nancy, the band features Findlay Napier, Hannah Martin, Greg Russel and Tim Yates. I’m afraid that I didn’t quite get Shake The Chains. Not that they weren’t good: I adored Hannah Martin’s voice and her song “Yarl’s Wood”, and I adored Findlay Napier’s voice, and his song “Building Ships”. To me, though, the whole idea of a protest song is to protest about something. Sometimes songs can be effective, such as “Free Nelson Mandella”. The idea of singing protests songs just because you like singing taht genre seems to me to devalue the concept. It is like going on a protest march because you fancied a walk. By all means, set yourselves up as a band whose ethos is to highlight social injustices via the medium of song. I just couldn’t get my head round the idea of protesting for the sake of protesting rather than protesting in the hope of initiating change. Nancy’s song “Poison Apples” is a case in point. The song is about the way that the law treated Alan Turing as a result of his homosexuality. Good song. Good subject matter. Couldn’t see the point of protesting about the way that homosexuals were treated in the past, though, because that was one battle that has been won – at least in this country.

In some circles, folk music has a reputation of being sung by men wearing Argyle knitwear, usually with a finger in one ear, and generally singing about some fishing disaster. However, I think it might have been Louis Armstrong who said “All music is folk music”, and, by including Eric Bibb on the bill, Folk By The Oak demonstrated that their definition of folk music definitely stretched beyond that of the sea-shanty. For Eric Bibb plays pure unadultered blues. I thought he was fabulous.

His uncle, was John Lewis, the founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, He was born in New York and moved to Paris at the age of 19, and from there moved to Sweden. He has been making music for almost fifty years, but looks about half that age. Probably quite brave to be playing blues at a folk festival, but having made thirty-six albums, he probably knows his audiences very well. The audience at Hatfield House loved him.

Loved him even more, as I contacted him afterwards to see if he'd mind if I posted any videos of him on youtube, and in response, he called me 'brother'.

A decade ago, I was at Cropredy for Fairport Convention’s 40th celebration and Show Of Hands were on the bill, but I can’t really recall much about their set. Directly after them, the Fairport Convention line-up that made the ground-breaking album Liege And Lief (with Chris While instead of Sandy Denny) recreated that album and it is possible, I guess, that somehow that eclipsed Show Of Hands in my memory. Quite possible though that I had wandered back to my tent, or was looking at the stalls, or eating, when they had been on. Been wanting to see them again for years, and as they were at Cropredy again this year, I’ve been lucky enough to see them twice this year now.

From their performance at Folk By The Oak, I thought that they were stunning and feel certain I’d have remembered them from Cropredy 2007 if I’d been paying attention. All three were excellent musicians, and all three had beautiful voices, particularly Miranda Sykes. Felt that Show Of Hands should use her voice more, as she mainly just provided harmonies to Phil Beer and Steve Knightley.

Loved their songs, particularly “A.I.G”. ( which stands for arrogance, ignorance and greed), and loved the way that they admitted that although the song was a protest against capitalism, they too were a part of that and were trying to promote their latest album. More humour from them in their song "The Next Best Western", in which they use the word 'truckers', and make you worry about what they'll rhyme it with. Much of their material is very beautiful, particularly the song, "The Old Lych Way"

Apart from Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys, (who I didn’t get to see), the other main reason we’d gone to Folk By The Oak was Kate Rusby. My wife first came cross her through watching the Jennifer Saunders comedy “Jam and Jerusalem” as Kate’s cover of the Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” was the theme tune, and we’ve loved Kate ever since. Quite amazing really that Barnsley’s finest was at Folk By The Oak, because it was just a few days before her own “Under The Stars” festival, and I’d have imagined that she would have been too knee deep in preparations to have been able to devote time to travel to another event.

Glad she did though, because she was brilliant. As usual, she arrived on stage clutching a mug with “Yorkshire Tea” printed on the side. She reminded everyone that as well as a beer tent there was also a stall on site selling Yorkshire Tea. Sadly she’d tried to book them to her event, but hadn’t been able to manage it.

To further promote her home county, Kate played a song called “Big Brave Bill”, about a hero, from Barnsley, who drinks Yorkshire tea all the time. Amongst the other sons she played were “Hunter Moon”, “The Ardent Shepherdess”, “The Lark”, “William and Davy”, “We Will Sing”, and, to promote her own event, “Under The Stars”, the song from which her festival takes its name.

Didn’t hang around for the final act, as it was a long drive home, and a very narrow road out of the site, and didn’t want to get caught in the traffic leaving. As it was, there were a lot of parents there with young kids, many of which left when we did. Hopefully there were enough people remaining to see The Levellers.

Have to say, although we didn’t stay to the end, so things might have changed, this was one of the very few festivals I’ve been too where nobody seemed to be discarding rubbish everywhere. In addition, I didn’t see one person smoking, either cigarettes, vapes, or anything else of a more herbal nature. Nobody seemed to be drinking themselves into oblivion, and all told, it was an amazingly well behaved audience.

Pete Bradley

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