Can you imagine a day that switches from cucumber sandwiches to strippers? Can you take the cultural shift from powdered ladies to drunken knights? It’s easy – if you are a folk musician!
Let me set the scene for you: It’s a sunny day in June, the English sun has fought through the early morning cloud to quickly evaporate the scant puddles left from a brief rain shower. The English countryside is enjoying a warm spell, with droughts and floods all in the same week. A fairly typical summer, I suppose.
My husband and I are both musicians, and though we play together sometimes, we are both in different bands. In fact, we play with all sorts configurations of the same and different musicians. For example, today I was deputising for Bryan and playing with Penni as he had another gig that had been moved and he couldn’t change. So at the crack of dawn this same, June summer day, he headed off to Newcastle and a music festival with his band, whilst I was set to drive to London with Penni. Penni and I were playing at an afternoon garden party, for the ‘Friends of The Red House’. No, not some obscure religious sect, but those dedicated supporters of the residence of one William Morris, designer, architect and artist – the man many feel responsible for the launch of the arts and crafts movement.
A long drive down the M11, under the now blistering sun, and into London. Well, the suburbs of Kent that may as well be London these days as the city continues its urban sprawl. We came into the small town of Bexley Heath, and down one of the quiet residential streets off the main broadway, we drove through two large white gates and into the grounds of the Red House. Early, we had plenty of time to set up, and I was given a quick tour of the house. It was – of course – red brick. Inside were many ‘Morrisy’ things – examples of his fabric, some extraordinary furniture he and his cohorts had made, and some wall paintings that reminded me of the kind of decoration seen on 16th century church walls. In the main bedroom was a window seat, and behind the door of a cupboard, upon the old plaster wall, a faded picture painted, reputedly by Lizzie Siddel. Now by coincidence I knew of this woman – the artist Rosetti’s wife and the first model to have been described as a ‘stunner’. She, as our first ‘supermodel’, was also the first to self-destruct through abuse and eventual overdose of laudanum. In that brief moment of standing in that room, I saw her at the window, looking out as if posed. An image my mind constructed, but one that even now I can recall. Of course, whilst I was enjoying the tour, Penni was unloading the car with all our gear.
We stet up in the porch, a lovely brick archway (well, it’s all brick, but there were nice tiles on the floor too and a great oak door) with a view onto the small but neat garden. Around us the ‘Friends’ were setting up small gazebos for the food, for selling plants and books, for the general comfort of the forthcoming visitors. Our immediate view was of a large well, with covered roof and wrought iron, and a bench surround. The main door was closed so that visitors would not try and stumble through us, sitting in the porch (it was barely big enough for us and our guitars). We were ready, the guests began to arrive, and a most convivial afternoon commenced.
Penni and I played a wide range of very laid, back, easy listening folk songs like ‘Molly Malone’, lots of Penni’s songs (and my own song about Lizzie Siddel), but as the average age of the audience was probably around 70, we tried a few old 40’s songs too. We only knew choruses mostly, but ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and ‘Show me the Way to go Home’ were certainly appreciated. No clapping, no cheering, but the audience enjoyed the music because it was non-invasive, pleasant and – I have to say – appropriate to the setting. During our break we enjoyed ham, beef and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, some nice fruit punch, and strawberries and cream. The property is National Trust owned and one of the volunteer guides came over and told us how he used to sing with Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger (great names of socialist folk from the 60’s). But later I heard him say ‘Kirsty McColl, she was lead singer with the Pogues’. That shattered his folk credibility completely.
We played, we finished, the afternoon was a wonderful success. A quick drive (hour and a quarter) back up the M11 and it was time to go off to the next gig. We had time for a cup of tea at my house before reloading all the gear into Penni’s car (including my stand up bass which doesn’t fit in my car) and then off to Twinwood Medieval Fair.
We have a whole series of Medieval Fair gigs, Penni and I. We did have a band to do them once, but it split, so now Penni and I do them with whatever musicians we can find. Sometimes it’s my husband, but tonight it was Fran, a fiddle player that we play with in yet another band. Oh yes, and Baz – whom I adore deeply. Only because he’s a wonderful drummer, of course. So tonight’s band was a four piece; Penni on guitar and singing, Fran on fiddle and singing, me on bass and guitar and singing, and Baz on drums and – yes even Baz too – sometimes singing. Bob (Penni’s husband) was there to operate the PA – we were allowed to make a loud noise and were going to take full advantage.
This is where the whole thing became a little surreal. We set up in a small open fronted marquee (familiar to us now from other medieval fairs) and below us the view was a patchwork of tents – some striped, but most plain – those of the reenactors and the stall holders. The occupants and proprietors were to be entertained by us now that they had completed their entertainment of the Public. We were next to the bar (a good place to be) with tables and chairs placed here and there, in a random and casual manner. Many of these chairs were filled with said reenactors, dressed still in their medieval garb. No armour, but plenty of coarse linen and wool, funny hats and the occasional fancily embroidered surcoat (well, just Duke Henry’s, which I get the feeling he probably wears around the house too).
We played a few lively tunes, sang a couple of songs, the sun gently set on the warm day and the audience got louder as the mead, beer and cider flowed. Oh, it was lovely cider, I wasn’t driving, so I know. Fran had never played with this line up but was doing fine – it’s a highly improvised set always so you never know what’s coming. But what came next was a little out of the ordinary, even for us. About nine men appeared dressed in drag. Not medieval drag, but dresses, hats and tights sort of drag. We carried on playing, but during a short break I had to ask – why? It turned out that one of the girls was having a hen night, and the boys had dressed up so that they could crash the hen party. Imaginative! Well, it got more raucous, and we played more tunes and songs (including me singing a soppy romantic one which they danced to, and another romantic one which Penni sang that the bride to be danced with some chap who was not her intended).
But the real anachronism was when the Gestapo turned up. Now, I’ve seen WWII planes flying over a medieval battle scene, but this is the first time that the soldiers turned up too!
It just so happens that Twinwood was the airfield that Glen Miller was based at for a while, and Glen Miller 40’s weekends are a regular occurrence. I’m not sure whether they were rehearsing or having another event nearby, but the Gestapo and British Tommy uniformed soldiers were just reenactors, like the medievalists. The music got louder (I got just a little drunker, but not so that I couldn’t play – just enough to be rather naughty verbally with my fellow band-mates), and we were asked to play something that the 40s fans could jive to. OK, we were ostensibly a folk band, but we obliged. Penni sang “I Saw Stars…” and the dancers jittered on the grass in normal clothes, uniforms and ancient costumes. The whole atmosphere was getting very lively and somehow we ended up playing “The minute you walked in the joint…” Penni sang, I played the bass, and the German soldiers and the drag queen started to strip. For the German, down to his rather large and ungainly looking underpants. The drag man down to his suspenders and bra. We ended the night playing rock and roll – Blue Suede Shoes and stuff like that. Again we didn’t know all the words, but what the hell – it was loud and mad and they loved it. We had great fun – but it does have to rate as one of the most peculiar gigs I have played in a very long time.
Home at about 1 am and Bryan is there to greet me. “How did your gig go?”.
“It was illegal. They lost their licence the day before and the Police were on TV telling everyone not to come, but they let it happen anyway.” So whilst I was playing to the Kent gentry, Bryan was playing to a very few brave souls who had ventured to this benighted festival near Newcastle. And whilst I was playing rock and roll for knights, soldiers and wannabe transvestites, Bryan was back home, drinking tea and waiting for me to come home.
I wonder what the next gig will be like? It’s a hell of a life, playing folk music.