Colston Hall, Bristol
Last night, I caught a glimpse of a dancing collection of musical strands that have flowed through history for centuries, trickling across the globe via England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Colonies, even into the French diaspora. They were woven for me with intricate care using a splendid variety of instrumentation – a concertina, guitars, a fiddle, other oddly strung instruments, sympathetic percussion, a Hurdy Gurdy even – and presented by a band of enthusiasts who all clearly delighted in the process. At their centre was a woman of 81 years. A woman whose work first graced records played long ago in a million bed-sitting rooms, in student digs and bohemian tenements, records upon whose inner sleeves she appeared, alongside her sister, rubbing shoulders with Pink Floyd, Quatermass, Roy Harper and the mighty Tea & Symphony among others. The occasion was the live presentation of her most recent album, whose cover photo I have shown here in tribute to its miraculous existence. The music, a straightforward unfolding of the wonders on the album, was accompanied on a big screen behind the band by the most marvellous video footage and animation; the strongest visuals of the night were, for me, the footage from – I think – Hastings or Lewes in the cold deeps of early winter, the wassail and the burning cross, costumes and torches, the heat of the flame in the chill of the night, pagan Gods glimpsed from the corner of the eye in the flickering orange light from the fire.
A thinly populated main hall where I confess I’d expected a full crowd. Tempting perhaps to think that the thoughtful, arcane, weirdly magical world of folk song, especially English folk song of the kind celebrated by Shirley and friends, might not have too many listeners from the attention deficit generation. Too sobering, perhaps, to think that those of us who had grown up listening to her rounded Sussex burr and falling hopelessly for the dark magic of it all have, by now, started to shuffle off, reluctantly committing our treasured vinyl to Death’s boot sale. Encouraging, then, to see amongst the scattering a decent range of ages. Hobbledehoys and ragamuffins barely into their teens, some in rags and some in jags and one in a velvet gown. Albeit with the majority of the humble multitude even older than your scribe, there is young hope still abroad in these streets and fields.
It made me think..
How lucky I was to have witnessed the event, and to have heard this stuff, this sorcery, this history, summoned once more from the depths of the wood by the very people who had discovered that it was still there and made it known to us mortals in the first place. If you can see them on this pilgrimage, please do make the effort.