High ceilinged and wood panelled, Kennedy Hall could pass as a civic meeting place from times long past. But aspects of this space, which sits within an imposing brick building just north of Regent’s Park in Camden Town, point to a more artistic use. A huge colourful mural runs along the length of the room, comfy-looking ledges line the edge of the room and bunting hangs subtly along the walls.
Any search for the spirit of English folk music in London begins in this hall and at this musical institution, Cecil Sharp House, named after the English folk song collector of the early 20th Century. Kennedy Hall was specifically designed for folk dance and today is used for the increasingly busy music schedule of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which runs the building, including its library and archive of English folk arts.
The society’s marketing and communications director Sophia Linehan gives Londonist a tour of the sprawling building (it’s a good tip for Open House Weekend next year). “The society’s overall mission is to promote and preserve English traditional folk arts,” she explains, and that includes programming a full series of music that ranges across different styles of roots music. It is clearly a successful programme. Cecil Sharp House was recently voted second best music venue in London by Time Out readers. The venue is just one part of the picture though. “English folk has its home here, but it’s definitely been embraced and supported by a whole load of other venues,” comments Linehan.
Folk music in London is booming. A younger generation of musicians and bands is making the case for old songs to be as radical as other forms of contemporary music. Arts venues like the Southbank Centre and Kings Place are taking folk seriously, and a new breed of energetic promoters are shaking up the pub scene. At the forefront of the movement is Sam Lee, recently nominated for the 2012 Mercury Prize for his album ‘Ground Of Its Own’. As well as being a singer, promoter and general folk music evangelist, Lee, like Cecil Sharp before him, is a collector of folk songs.
You would be forgiven for thinking that song collecting would involve tramping around remote rural communities. After all, English folk — from sea shanties to Scarborough Fair — is popularly seen as music of the countryside. But old customs and stories live long in London (as shown by Londonist's own celebration of the city's folk history).
“One of the last communities to be singing in the oral tradition, the old singers, are Irish and Gypsy travellers, both of whom are well established in London,” Lee explains. “I’ve been to Gypsy communities in Wood Green and Shepherd’s Bush, recording old singers who have kept songs alive in their families.”
Many of the songs kept alive in traveller communities derive from London’s own unique folk culture, from the broadside ballads of the Elizabethan Age to Victoriana Music Hall songs. “London is rich in song,” says Lee, an expert on the subject. “They have come out of the river, the trades of London, the legal system and courts, and all sorts of other interesting places.”
21st Century folk
This heritage does not mean that folk music is a museum piece. Contemporary culture is saturated with folk references. Sophia Linehan points out that both hit National Theatre play Warhorse, with its famous central song, and Billy Elliott were researched at Cecil Sharp House. "People were talking about the Olympics as being what Great Britain is all about and I feel that really resonates with what folk is — it’s relevant to everyone," she says. Sam Lee, meanwhile, argues that his music can be relevant to a 21st Century world city like London. The role of folk today is to “make radical new music using folk songs at the core,” he says.
Lee promotes a series of venues across town called The Nest Collective. “Our motto is ‘New folk, old folk, no folk’, so it’s very much about honouring all aspects of that spectrum, from the radical to the traditional to the contemporary,” he says. Promoters like The Nest Collective have plenty of venues to use across town, including the Old Queen’s Head in Islington, the Bedford in Balham, Green Note in Camden and Slaughtered Lamb in Farringdon.
Leading arts centres present folk too. Mike Green is marketing director at Kings Place, near King’s Cross, and programmes roots music at the venue. “I would say it’s stronger now that it has ever been,” he says of London folk. “What we are seeing is the after-effects of the folk resurgence that happened in the UK about five years ago with swathes of new and interesting younger bands appearing on the scene. What I find particularly interesting is those artists that are embracing both traditional and contemporary folk music to make something sound completely different.”
As a mainly small ensemble music, folk is flexible and can be performed indoors and out. Jimmy Cannon is a jazz singer who has been exploring folk (“I’m trying to find an English sound — to find my roots”) under the pseudonym Burton Bradstock. “I’m really interested in performing at different venues,” he says. “I want to try to approach places that don’t promote just jazz or folk — like The Forge in Camden.”
Sam Lee goes further: “I’d rather find wacky disused churches and do outdoor gigs at reclaimed gardens. Folk comes from such unusual places that I feel like when the environment is unlikely, people feel like they’re experiencing extraordinary music in an extraordinary place.”
How to grow
Kings Place and EFDSS are part of a collective of promoters, the London Folk Guild, and Mike Green comments on the “collaborative spirit” between folk music bigwigs in the capital. But English folk, and roots music from further afield, noticeably lacks one moment in the music year. The Bedford hosts a three-day Folkfest in the summer, but a festival of the scale enjoyed by jazz and classical music does not exist. “I’m always pleasantly surprised when I go to Celtic Connections [roots music festival in Glasgow] to see those large venues totally packed out,” says Mike Green. “I’m convinced it could work in London. There’s nothing on the scale of either the BBC Proms or London Jazz Festival, but watch this space.”
With the growing presence of the EFDSS, which celebrates its 80th birthday with a four-day festival at Cecil Sharp House in November, the energy of promoters and artists like Sam Lee, and the buoyancy of the scene as a whole, it may not be too long before a big folk jamboree takes shape.
Four English folk songs featuring London
- English traditional song ''The Ballad of George Collins' is sung here by Sam Lee. This is the opening track on his recently Mercury Prize nominated album, 'Ground of Its Own'. London makes an appearance in the final chapter:
- 'The Mermaid of Hampstead Heath' is an original song by Pete Berryman, sung here by Burton Bradstock, taken from his album 'All Upon A Lovely Summer’s Day':
The English Folk Song and Dance Society celebrates its 80th birthday from 1 to 4 November at Cecil Sharp House.
The winner of the Mercury Prize, for which Sam Lee is nominated, will be announced on 1 November. Buy his album here.
Kings Place hosts world-class roots music every Friday in its Folk Union series, as well as programming other one-off events.
Burton Bradstock launches his new album at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, on 30 October.