So yesterday I wrote about telling it like it is and today I want to extend part of that argument to the practice of song. The photo was taken in our garden in 2015 and I asked for the band – Big Sky – in the faint hope they might turn up for my leaving party …. and they did! When I said in the caption that they’re local – there’s no sense in which that could be described as damning with faint praise. They often played for our events and they were always brilliant fun; doing covers crossing decades and whole genres. People loved them and – when they knew the words – sang along with gusto.
I thought of them last night when we went to a concert at the Bath Forum. ‘Show of hands’ is doing a farewell tour for their present lineup because Miranda Sykes is leaving to work with ‘Daphne’s Flight’. The other two members, Phil Beer and Steve Knightley are going to concentrate on solo projects (they say – but don’t bet on it!). You’ll have to forgive a bit of bragging here because all three of them played separately and together in St Helen’s Church (my old gig) where we hosted a mean folk evening. Our idea of a full house was about 120, but last night the Forum was stuffed with 1000 fans. It was, Steve Knightley said, their biggest audience since they played the Albert Hall! We had some fabulous but much smaller events in the church; another supergroup, ‘Gigspanner’ did a memorable show for us. It was a special pleasure for me last night because I didn’t have to turn the building back into a church and act as general help after the concert finished. We were in bed by 1.00.
Music is just about the most life enhancing activity I know. I wore out my joke about the government banning it altogether if they knew how much fun it was – from constant repetition – and it was true every time. From carol services which were always sung in the noisiest pub style, to musicals; we lowered the religious tone to the point where anyone could connect.
Last night – if you’d looked around – you’d have seen around 1000 people and the average age must have been well over 60. Retired middle class people many of whom – like us – would have been touched by the folk revival of the 1960’s, diverse as it was, went from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez through to Sydney Carter (whose son was there last night) and the Watersons who could blast the back wall off the Bathurst Hotel (as it then was) with a single acapella chord. Show of Hands have spent decades weaving these and many other threads into pure cloth of gold.
But there was something else in the air last night. For a start, the majority of people there seemed to be superfans who knew all of the words of most of the songs and who joined in the choruses and occasionally verses of many of the songs once permission was granted (we’re talking polite middle classes here). Many of the songs and much of the linking intros had strongly political undertones. There were heaving shanties, songs of press-ganged soldiers; Cousin Jack is a powerful evocation of the toil of miners. There were several excellent jokes at the expense of the government which were noisily and rapturously cheered. The choruses were sung with such ringing audience commitment it began to feel like a revivalist meeting. One or two of the songs morphed into hymns that carried the audience into a rather different headspace but it wasn’t a religious space at all. There was a tangible longing for a temporal release from this political and economic place of suffering. I’d love to see them play at Gwennap Pit! And running through the audience was an obviously radicalized thread that you never have thought possible, looking at us all, and yet should terrify the wits out of anyone hoping to win an election.
Is there ever a moment at which you can say with certainty that change is in the air? This could have been a small portent, just as Mark Jenkins’ film ‘Bait’ is another. The point here is that creative arts can change the world by working through the imagination and the emotion. When we sing a song in a community of shared values we all derive strength and determination from it. Questions about economics and politics, housing or unemployment can be answered through Royal Commissions and legal enquiries, but mostly we don’t change our minds about the way things are around here by reading reports. Most economic and political questions turn out – on closer examination – to be cultural questions. Last night there were songs forged out of meetings with Chilean refugees from General Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Migrants always bring songs with them and we could learn so much from singing them. Folk music occupies a very distinct and happy place in our culture because it’s not high art and neither is it vacuous pop, but songs about lived experience in a world of poverty, inequality and injustice. True enough the young are more likely to find love on a dating app than wandering beside a river waiting for a tall sailor, but the challenges of trust or the tragedy of abandonment don’t change. Singing it like it is – even if the words have survived from the eighteenth century – gives us historical and geographical anchorage, and provides a fulcrum for action. In a culture that lives in a perpetual state of chaos, one point of anchorage can be the beginning of the end for a whole deranged way of life. That, I’m sure, was the elephant in the concert hall last night.