Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sam Lee

Bristol Folk House

Memo to Folk House management: when you have sold this many tickets, take on more bar staff and bake some more chocolate brownies. Folkies like cakes and ale. I must remember to keep it in my head that the Folk House cafe is open when there isn't music: a good place to get a coffee and a bun which isn't the Boston Tea Party. Maybe I can persuade Brian to come and listen to some country music with me.

The crowd was caused by Sam Lee, new to me, but has appeared on Radio 3. Winner of the Froots "best album" prize.

First there was a man with a big African thing.

Then Sam came on. Sam is young, with something of the 1950s in his hair, and, get this, one of those knitted white sweaters, as if someone in 1972 had been briefed to do an impersonation of a folk singer. There is a brief moment of panic. Is this going to be one of those middle class music students having a sort of go at that folk stuff because its cool? Evidently not. The first thing he does is introduce Thomas McCarthy, who he describes as a national treasure. Thomas isn't the support act: he is sitting with the band, interspersing his numbers with theirs. I have heard him a couple of times before, at the Cellar Upstairs Folk Club and way back at the Folk Against Fascism benefit. He's one of the last people to genuinely grew up in the oral tradition, performing songs, or versions of songs, that he learned from his grandparents. He was raised as an Irish traveller, which, as a lady who has slightly missed the point explains to me in the interval, means he isn't really a gypsy. He gets a small round of applause when he mentions that the makers of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding were successfully prosecuted for racism. "The whole country has gone mad; they think that travelling people are some lost tribe; we've always been here." He sings in a style that you probably thought only existed on wax cylinders. Everything has roughly the same tune; hovering part way between song and poem and recitation. His mouth quivers at the end of lines, giving a strange, vibrato sound. He does the one about the man who wakes up in bed with a pig and the man who marries a lady who turns out to be ninety, not nineteen as she had claimed and the woman who married a man with no balls at all. They aren't all bawdy: there is also a quite chilling one about a lady having a conversation with her dead husband. I sometimes say of a support act that I could have listened to him all night. In this case I probably couldn't have. But I bought the CD.

Thomas's presence is important to the way that Sam Lee is setting outs his stall. Sam has a very specific relationship to folk music. Lots of folk singers tells us where they learned their songs: but they are usually talking about current folk performers, or archive recordings. Sam seems to have collected his songs first-hand; he talks of songs he heard from working shepherds and songs he collected on traveller sites. But (despite the sweater) there is no sense that he's doing a pastiche of the source singers. They're his songs now. His voice is sweet, rather alien. His movements can be a little fey; part conducting, part dancing. He ends the first set by encouraging the audience to sing along to a traveller song called Phoenix Island and for once the audience is sweetly adding to the performance, which I'm sure is due to Sam's gentle, swaying movements. 

Sometimes there is a sense that we are listening to a relatively traditional folk singer, performing in a relatively style while a band gently improvise around him. It's not quite like anything I've heard before; not like Jim Moray recasting ancient songs in a modern idiom, or Ian King trying to reinvent folk music for the twenty first century, More like dressing the old songs in a fresh suit of clothes. Possibly the climax of the evening is his  chilling performance of the Jews Garden. When he played it on the radio, he says that there were complaints ("written on paper") because it is a version of Little Sir Hugh of Lincoln -- the blood libel, the tale of the supposed killing of a Christian child by an evil Jewess. It's a stark, disturbing, uncompromising rendering, with jews harps twanging all round it. The story goes back to the sixteenth century, but is still known by Romany and Scots travellers today. Sam says that if the story is not told and the song not sung, we might forget about the murders and pogroms it provoked. He's from a Jewish background himself.

This is not what I usually think of as traditional music. Sam is not the sort of person who is going to produce a clever new take on Clyde Water or Two Sisters. These are songs you haven't heard before (or at any rate, songs that I haven't heard before); even the time honoured tale of the girl visited in the night by her dead lover is an unfamiliar one. This a a man who has taken the oral tradition, grabbed it with his hands, and done something with it; there is a sense of him immersing himself  in orality and then bringing his own musical sensibility to it -- as if he's a link in a chain, not a revivalist. That's why the presence of Thomas McCarthy is so important. (Sam listens, intently, eyes closed, whenever Tom is singing.)

I shall be honest: I need to listen to this again before I decide how much I like it. But I have no doubt that we were in the presence of something new, exciting, important.


Anonymous said...

Lovely Sam, of the glancing eyes, and the flashing smile, the dancing hands, and the sweet voice that does my heart beguile...

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, quite.