A couple of years ago I met Ed and Will (Ginger had not yet joined them, and I gather has now left them) on what I believe was their first excursion; a walk that took them from Canterbury to Cornwall then back to Somerset. Some friends of mine (who are particularly magnetic to these kinds of experiences) met them in town and invited them to eat and sleep on their houseboat. I happened by and we shared a meal. They told us of where they had been and what they had experienced. I remember that one of them was eloquent and very willing to speak and that the other was more reserved. They both wore clothing that mixed deliberately antiquated garments in traditional colours with practical items.
I liked them, but I can’t say we became firm friends or made much of an impression upon each other. I don’t know why that was exactly, it could have been my reaction to the challenge that their enviable (and commendable) lifestyles presented me with, or my antipathy to the traditional music they sang, or the way they carried themselves. Listening to this album, which collects the lyrical ballads they have sung for supper and shelter around the country, sent me off to find out where they are and where they have been. By clicking here you could look upon the website through which they explain what their constant wandering means to them and why it arose.
It would be easy for me to sneer at the poses in the photos, their use of the internet and mobile phones and cringe at sentences like “We carry everything we need on our backs, and stout staffs in our hands”… easy that is, if there were not clearly an earnest motivation and enthusiasm at the root of it all, as well as a sober level of self-awareness which manifests in sentences like,
“This is not a re-creation of theoretical nomadism, but a modern attempt to merge the tenets of historical sustainability, with the possibilities afforded by our present world’s state of development. To put it simply, we’re not really sure what we’re doing, and are basically winging it, but: it seems to work.”
Like many of us, they’re clearly on their own trip; but like they say, why not? They’re clearly enjoying theirs more than most of us enjoy ours, and they have broken step with this deranged economic systems marching drum; the one that so many have grown so used to that they have begun to believe it to be their own heart beat, their own desire. It also appears that they don’t have any of that nouveau-Eco hypocrisy about them, the kind that characterises the current crop of back-to-the-land posers.
So, to the music that makes up this forty two minute collection. Let me start by saying I haven’t given this record a high rating because of my respect for their way of life or their approach, though that does play a part. A lot of traditional British folk song does nothing for me, or else turns me off completely but I am greatly enjoying these ballads. Their singing voices are rich and the three part harmonies are passionately rendered. They are as convincing at making eloquent enunciations of antiquated words as they are at rendering the subdued and mournful tones of ‘Albert Berry and the Coal’ or the rousing and lusty humour of ‘Barley Mow’.
Strange Glue is to an extent centred on Indie Rock and as such I imagine that many of you might bear similar prejudices to traditional ballads of the British Isles as I do on occasion. But if you have ever felt inclined to find out more about our indigenous culture, felt the pull of these old songs but have been repelled by the folk-revival culture of the 60’s through which we see our musical, then I urge you to have a listen to this record (spell-check is adamant that I should change urge to “urges”, perhaps even that piece of automata is getting into the regional swing of things…).
The melodies are intrinsically hummable and frequently uplifting; the emotion is affecting. There is often much argument about relevance when it comes to folk music. How many times have you heard someone claim that this or that new genre is the “new folk music” because of some implied relevance to “modern living”? The thing is, if you think that modern living is largely based on delusional behaviour but you don’t feel like donning a green felt harvesters hat and speaking in an archaic meter, you are left to seek relevance beyond stylistic links to your lifestyle and find some deeper, universal relationship with lyrics.
‘Diggers Song’, an incitement to resist the encroachment of the gentry and lawyers on the land of the poor, could be spun into having some revelatory ties to the media's current channelling of emotion against the bankers, which I see as a semi-conscious attempt to divert attention from the root cause, i.e. the whole economic system, that old dog that goes by the name of Neo-liberal globalisation. The various fights taken up by such disparate movements as the Diggers, the Luddites and the Levellers were very different expressions to what we could clumsily (and mistakenly) construe as our contemporary equivalent. People politely requesting that banker’s bonuses be slightly curtailed or (shock horror!) returned on a Radio 4 phone in could hardly be confused with agrarian or economic reform.
Songs like this remind me that there used to be movements that did not see fit to divert their quest for justice, honesty and fairness through a media system that only accepts the correct applicants, something which today can only be avoided by radical actions that are all too easily crushed by the system. This is the relevance I find.
‘Fiddlers Green’ reiterates a song heard by a man who had taken a walk by the dockside on an “evening so rare, to view the still waters and take the salt air”; he tells us he heard it sung by an old fisherman who announces that his “time is not long”. He asks that his friends be informed that he is on his way to “fiddlers green” where he might see them again.
“Fiddlers Green is a place I’ve heard tell
Where the fishermen go if they don’t go to hell
Where the weather is fair and the dolphins to play
And the cold coast of Greenland is far, far away.”
It goes on to describe this fisherman’s Valhalla, a non-religious heaven as a place where the fish jump on board, bottles of rum grow on each tree and where “there’s pubs and there’s clubs and there’s lasses there too”. The dying man doesn’t want a halo or a sweaty nook in God’s right hand, he wants his life to continue with a few less of its pains and little more of its fun and natural beauty.
How many people feel like that about their desk job? This music brings to life that deep seated knowledge that not so long ago people did Real things and lived outside of this endless bureaucratic maze that we are born into (but not inextricably tied to). They weren’t all bound by the church or by strict feudalism and they didn’t sit around wishing they could waste their lives on the internet. If you know what I mean by that distinction, between what is real and what is illusion, you might find this music to be an inspiration.
They include a few of the more famous old songs, ‘Leaves of Life’ and ‘Spenser the Rover’. The latter is chock full of rambling themes in which Ed, Will and Ginger surely find much to relate with. Spenser is a well-sung character, a man who becomes disillusioned with his life and leaves his family to walk through the countryside of Great Britain and Wales. On the journey he rediscovers the joy and value of simple things:
“At the foot on yonder mountain, there runs a clear fountain,
with bread and cold water, he himself did refresh.
It tasted more sweeter than the gold he had wasted
more sweeter than honey, and gave more content,”
But having found this essence he becomes plagued by dreams of the family which lament the loss of him. I won’t ruin the story for those unfamiliar with it by revealing what happens, I should let these boys, or John Martyn or whoever else, do that in song. While Ed, Will and Ginger traverse the countryside thoughts of “settling down” must arise frequently. I read on their website that they are making their way to Scotland, where they intend to winter in a semi-sedentary fashion, I wonder how long they will be able to remain in one place. Perhaps they will put down some roots, with another person, or a place. It’s an age old story.
Having spent much of my day listening to these songs I have to say that I can see why so many people I know take an aversion to them. Although they are not the zealots you might encounter at some folk festivals (perhaps this is tempered by their actual immersion in the landscapes, rather than the theoretical engagement of so many other folkies) there is a hint of the convert about them despite the humour which blows away the cobwebs of evangelism. But none of that matters much to me as the end result is that this collection has left me feeling alive in a world where there are many more possibilities than the ones that are shown to us by our schools and on our screens. I’m glad they update that website with their mobile phones.