If you are going to Folk East this coming weekend (17-19 August at Glemham Hall), you may be looking forward to seeing nationally known acts such as The Oyster Band, or The Young'uns or local acts like Harbour Lights Trio or Capstan Full Strength. But whoever else you see, try not to miss Kath Tait, a singer-songwriter originally from New Zealand but now from London. You may have seen her last year on the Hadleigh Folk Club stage. This year she's appearing twice, first of all on the Broad Roots stage at 2.55 - 3.40 on Saturday afternoon and secondly, back by popular demand on the Hadleigh Folk Club stage (also Broad Roots) at 11.20 on Sunday morning. I predict you'll want to see both her performances.
Here is an article I wrote about Kath for Living Tradition Magazine a couple of years ago.
Kath Tait - Diva of the Dysfunctional
Kath Tait is not the easiest singer to track down, but tracking her down is well worth the effort. Refreshingly, she seems quite content to be below the radar. I came across her in a rather roundabout way: at a folk club one of the guests sang two of Kath’s songs: Poor Dim Sally, about a young girl who gets taken in by the Moonies, but eventually forms her own religion; and The Right Time of Year which gives women advice about when it’s best to leave their husband – it turns out there isn’t a right time.
Kath was born and brought up in New Zealand and sings a poignant song about planning to return there to die when she’s 93. She now lives in London and has a day job looking after old ladies in their homes and sings mainly for pleasure. How did she end up in England?
I decided to go travelling - as you do. Everyone said ‘don't get stuck in London’. So I came to London and got stuck here. That was 40 years ago.
To be honest, my singing has not been what you'd call a career. There's been a steady trickle of gigs, mainly to audiences of 7 in the back room at the local. And I’ve had hundreds of day jobs. The singing and song-writing is more of an obsession or an addiction, I think.
When I was young, I couldn't concentrate on anything but songs. I got lost in a dream world. Discovered Woody Guthrie. Hopped a freight train to Rotorua and hitch hiked-home with a broken ankle and a black eye. Started writing songs while recovering in hospital. I wanted to emulate the great songwriters of the day, but the songs came out all wrong - sort of wonky and eccentric.”
For me, Kath has emulated some of the great songwriters, but “wonky and eccentric” is the perfect description of her performances and many of her songs. She introduces her song Strangers and Foreigners, for example, like this: “My first husband was a fascist and died of spontaneous combustion.” The first verse goes like this:
Lots of people think, when they own their own homes,
That they can keep the immigrants out of their living zones.
Strangers and foreigners are everywhere
But they don't bother me, no I don't care.
If you look at yourself you just might find
A stranger or a foreigner in your own mind.
So be kind to yourself and have some care
For strangers and foreigners everywhere.
Another, The Hole in the Hedge, tells of the passionate relations between neighbours. Again the first verse gives a flavour:
She snuck through the hole in the hedge
So she could visit her neighbour's husband.
She got through the window and into his bed
And they flopped around like two fish out of water.
Then she came home to her own dear one
Who stood there solemnly watering cabbages.
He'd not an inkling of what she had done
But her mind was full of love's rampant ravages.
Her song Lentils gently mocks her younger self (I think)
Life was cheap, our thoughts were deep,
We did not wash for forty weeks.
We ate the brown rice and the lentils,
We thought we were so existential.
We did not weep, we took a leap
To the bottom of the social heap.
The view was clearer than from the top,
Our wisdom flourished, our wealth did not.
Social realism and the ironies of human behaviour are the subjects she finds most interesting. She says: “The human condition is quite ridiculous and extremely comical. But also quite profound.”
Some of Kath’s songs are probably autobiographical. In her moving song, The River of Life, she muses about what her life could have been like. The Childless Mother is about how she grew up in a wild, natural part of New Zealand.
I was born way down in a valley,
I was born in a valley so small,
Far away from civilisation,
Hardly knew the wide world at all.
When I was a child I played by the river,
I played in the river so wild
Then I grew up to be a childless mother,
Childless mother and a motherless child.
In the case of other songs, we’re never quite sure - songs like The Cyclist from Hell:
I cycle bravely and I cycle without fear,
I cycle with the sounds of road rage ringing in my ear.
Cycle for the planet, cycle for the trees,
Cycle so that we can have, more fresh air to breathe.
But mostly I just cycle cause I can't afford a car,
Can't afford a bloody car and walking is too far.
Audiences react in a range of different ways to Kath’s songs. There is always plenty of warm-hearted laughter, but sometimes this is mixed with embarrassment or even shock. This may be because of the apparent mismatch people perceive between her appearance, the subject matter of her songs, and her skill as a singer and musician – she accompanies herself expertly on guitar, concertina and harmonica. I asked her about her image. “If you're referring to what I look like, I'm not aware of having any kind of image. I used to wear crimpolene suits on stage but they gave me a nasty rash. Sometimes I wear an eccentric hat. That's all. If you're referring to the “deadpan Buster Keaton” approach, it's not deliberate. It's just me struggling to play and sing and concentrating on what I'm doing, because I find it quite hard.
Personally I find her whole performance hilarious, but also very strangely moving – I’m never too far from tears. According to Kath, this reaction is not uncommon and is no accident: “My songs are deliberately bitter/sweet. It's the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the profound. You don't know whether to rejoice or shoot yourself. I have a dark sense of humour. There are some lines in my songs that I find gut-wrenchingly hilarious, but nobody laughs.”
Then there’s the shock element. The mention of “golden showers” in her song about the life of a prostitute caused a mixture of mild amusement, hilarity and embarrassed shock at one of her recent gigs. When I asked Kath whether she ever got complaints, her reply demonstrates her absolutely sane, balanced view of the world and human nature.
“People like to be shocked. It's good for their circulation. Even if they complain about it, I still think they secretly like it. And I do get complaints sometimes. But I'm one of those people who likes to be naughty every now and then. Life gets boring if it's always clean and shiny and wholesome. And, to keep things in perspective, you get people chopping each others heads off, murdering babies etc in traditional songs. “Golden showers” is harmless compared to that sort of stuff.”
I wondered finally what Kath gets out of singing in public. “I sing because it calms me down and because it keeps the neighbours from getting too friendly. But also because song are a powerful medium.
She says she came to England because “English people have always encouraged me. Even in New Zealand it was the English who picked up on the humour and individuality of my songs and pointed me more in that direction. I’m a bit of a musical curiosity. You can be one of those in England.”
So what type of gigs does Kath get to do? Quite a variety it seems. “I perform at Folk music venues when I get invited, but otherwise I play at Poetry clubs, Acoustic clubs and Community events. Last week I did a gig in a telephone box and got a full house. I’ve also performed outside the Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House, and I still like doing floor spots.
Would she like to do more? “Oh well,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind a few more gigs … but not too many. I wouldn’t like to get over-exposed.”
At the end of her gigs audiences are sometimes left wondering, among other things, how many times she’s been married. In answer to my question “How long do you practise before a gig?” she replied: “Not long enough, unfortunately. My 8th husband shot himself during one of my rehearsals, so I don't like to go on too long in case there are any more casualties.”
Get to see Kath if you can – you won’t be disappointed. In the meantime, you can find the lyrics of twenty-three of her songs are on her website: Kath Tait. And there are wonderful versions of her songs Bastard (Bastard The Movie) (https://youtu.be/xoRFS70uK0c) and Lentils (https://youtu.be/IFUiO-DkAwk) on You Tube.
Alvar Smith - An appreciation by Derek Simpson
Alvar is not quite certain where he was born but he knows that he was born on 23rd August 1942, within the District of Wickham Market. The only child of Florence May and Thomas William Smith, he attended Tunstall School and then The Wickham Market Regional School until the age of fifteen. His father had been a career soldier in The Royal Artillery, and Alvar wanted to follow in his footsteps. However, after a month he had decided that it wasn't the life for him, and asked for a discharge. But the Army's loss was Marlesford Service Station's gain - as that's where he learned his skills as a mechanic. It was at this time he began to take an interest in music; playing guitar and singing in a local rock 'n' roll band The Spiders who performed at village hops.
The route to Wissett on Wednesday August 1 may have been tricky because of road closures, but the evening itself in the village hall was inspiring.
Megan Wisdom, who has been on the local East Anglian folk scene for many years now, lives in Wissett and has just released her first recording: an EP called Tracery, five tracks of traditional songs either unaccompanied or accompanied by a sweet-sounding table harmonium.
Extracts of Megan's songs accompanied by the table harmonium.
The little village hall was packed with Megan's friends, relatives and fellow local musicians all eager to hear the songs on Tracery. When guests arrived they were served coffee, tea or a cold drink by Megan's mum Tracey. Everyone milled around chatting for half an hour or so before Richard Cove explained how the evening was going to run and introduced Megan who then performed the five songs without amplification. Her voice has developed in strength in recent years and her words were perfectly audible even at the back of the hall. By the time she finished, to rapturous applause, it was almost dark outside.
There was then a break for more drinks and cake, of which there was a plentiful supply, all made by Tracy. People were also invited to purchase CDs during this break. There followed a joyous session involving musicians from the area who have followed Megan's career with great interest. Megan was persuaded to sing Betsy Bell, accompanied this time by Lou Beal's skillful step-dancing, then Will Podd, sang the great Stan Rogers' song, Barrett's Privateers - everyone in the room seemed to know the chorus and joined in with gusto. More chorus songs followed with a large number of those present standing at the front belting out Sydney Carter's song John Ball and other songs.
It was a great evening which, in my humble opinion, contrasted very favourably with the sometimes stodgy proceedings at traditional folk clubs and festivals. This was a community event celebrating the achievements of one member of that community who is making inroads into the national folk scene but who remains firmly rooted in her native Suffolk.
There is much more about Megan's life and music-making on her website.
In the early-1970s I lived in Devizes, Wiltshire. It was then that I became interested in folk music and went to my first festival. The year was 1972 and it was the first Chippenham and Lacock Festival - held in the delightfully picturesque village of Lacock. Among the guests I remember well were June Tabor, The Ian Campbell Folk Group and the hilarious John Alderslade, who went on to become the organiser of Trowbridge Village Pump Festival. But for me the star weekend was Tony Rose. After watching his set I decided I had to have a concertina like his. Of course I knew nothing then about the different types of concertina or where one could buy one. Someone told me the best places to look in were junk and antique shops, something I dutifully did wherever I went. There were plenty of ancient, battered one-row melodeons, mostly with leaky bellows and broken reeds, but could I find a concertina? Finally I did find one in an antique shop in Bath but, at £30, it was out of my price range. In the end I gave up and made do with a a leaky old melodeon my then brother-in-law had bought me one Christmas. After weeks of futile attempts I finally managed to play Monks March - after a fashion.
UPDATE - 3 August
The stepdance day duly took place in a not-very-big marquee behind The Ship in Blaxhall. This wouldn't have mattered too much if the warm weather had held, instead of which the rain set in and quite a few spectators had to stand outside the marquee and get wet to watch the show. Nevertheless the event went ahead as planned and both competitions were held with EATMT trustees Ivan Cutting and Lindsay Want-Beal and administrator Alex Bartholomew taking charge of proceedings. One or two of the dancers listed had to be called in from the bar to do their bit.
The competitions were followed by a great session in the bar with lively music and more step dancing.
Some photos of the afternoon:
Received from David Cain, the new Operations Manager of East Anglian Traditional Music Trust:
Don’t forget to join us at the Blaxhall Ship! Everyone welcome to dance, take your first steps go or just watch and enjoy some top stepping. As always the event is free, and there will be free parking at Blaxhall Village Hall. The Ship Inn is a short walk from the car parking area. The competitions and music take place in the marquee area behind The Ship Inn. The workshops this year are to be held in the Village Hall. This year please bring with you portable chairs and seating. Should it be wet the event will take place at the Village Hall.
Food will be available on the day from the fantastic kitchen at The Ship Inn. And of course the bar is open!
People of a certain vintage will remember Hunter Muskett playing the folk circuit alongside Fotheringay, Fairport, Pentangle and Steeleye way back in the early 70’s. The band comprised Terry Hiscock, Chris George and Doug Morter and following their debut album release, Every Time You Move with Pentangle’s Danny Thompson, Rog Trevitt joined on bass guitar.
The four-piece gigged at home and abroad for five years releasing a second album, Hunter Muskett, produced by Keith Relf of The Yardbirds. During that time they claim to have played virtually every club in the British Isles whether invited to or not, including a major UK concert tour with Ralph McTell. Eventually Doug joined Magna Carta and the Albion Band among others but the group reformed when Cherry Red released the albums on CD in 2012.
The village of Blaxhall, south west of Aldeburgh and Leiston, has long been associated with traditional Suffolk folk music. Cyril Poacher, Wicketts Richardson, Geoff Ling, Fred Pearce and many other now-departed old-timers brought considerable fame to Blaxhall, and specifically The Ship Inn, in the 1950s – 1970s when their rich tradition of folk singing – stretching back into the previous century – resulted in visits to the village by individuals and organisations who wished to record this musical heritage before it disappeared.
Bob Scarce and Albert Wickets Richardson - The Ship 1953
The history of traditional singing, playing and step-dancing in Blaxhall and the surrounding has been well documented by Keith Summers in his book, Sing Say or Play A survey of East Suffolk Country Music, which is now available to read online in its entirety on the Mustrad.org website, here and here.
THE POTTY MORRIS & FOLK FESTIVAL CELEBRATES IT'S 25TH YEAR
WITH ATTEMPT AT GUINESS WORLD RECORD
THE 25th POTTY MORRIS AND FOLK FESTIVAL, SHERINGHAM, 7th & 8th JULY 2018
As its a special birthday for The Potty festival this year, we are celebrating it with a Guinness World Record attempt. The largest Morris dance. The current record stands at 144 Morris dancers dancing a border dance called Tinners Rabbit, organised by Stone the Crows (Border Morris) in Preston on 5th September 2015. We will also be using the same dance for the attempt. The name of the dance refers to the three hares symbol from the west country. Originating in Devon, the dance is now widely danced throughout the U.K. This is a dance for sets of three, facing inwards in a triangle.
An event to celebrate the life and music of Julia Clifford will be going ahead on the weekend of 26th-28th April 2019 in Suffolk, organised by Katy Howson.
"We are thrilled to be able to announce the first of our special guests for “I Looked East and I Looked West”. We will be welcoming from Ireland: Billy Clifford, Matt Cranitch, Jackie Daly, Bryan O'Leary, Gerry Harrington, Peter Browne and Jerry O'Reilly for starters! Alongside them will be many musicians and friends of Julia’s from England, and there will be more invitations going out when we are a bit further along the road."
This is a fantastic line-up of brilliant musicians, not to be missed. Melodeon / Button accordion fans should not miss the chance to see Jackie Day and Bryan O'Leary, grandson of the great Sliabh Luachra accordionist, Johnny O'Leary.
Tickets for the event are likely to be available in late 2018.
Not sure where this photograph was taken, Ciarán MacMathúna in the background, so in Ireland c. 1982. Any more information welcomed!