FROM BERBER RHYTHMS TO BRITISH ROOTS
Dave Swarbrick’s Swan Song finds a home on new folk album/novel:
Captain Swing and the Blacksmith
‘In love be I, fifth button high, on velvet runs my courting…’
Seven years ago I invited Emmie Ward and Gili Orbach to my house one evening, to sing a few songs. I knew them first as my students of North African dance. The music of the Maghreb, Balkans and Middle East had been my food for fifteen years and their rhythms were a way of life for me yet I had a yearning for the music of my own cultural heritage; melodies that I had only encountered by way of vague whisperings over the years.
On our first get together Emmie sat on an armchair and sang A North Country Maid. Her soulful folk sound filled the room – why had she been hiding that voice in a shower? Emmie had a wealth of songs to share and introduced me to the jewels of the British folk scene. I became an obsessive Shirley Collins fan and the stirring Turkish 9/8s and rolling Algerian 6/8s became replaced by the ethereal whispers of Shirley, singing of forgotten wars, abandoned lovers and the last pleas of Highwaymen as wooden wheels scraped through the mire on their journey to the scaffold. Her version of Salisbury Plain, struck me as it was unusually told from the woman’s perspective. I began to analyse the lyrics, the characters, the untold story that hovered behind the verses. Salisbury Plain, with a little of my own imagination, became a tale and received a good reception at Short Fuse, a short story event, in Brighton. Spending most of my time at home looking after my young children made time difficult to dance – but I could find moments to write. I decided to write a string of short stories, each one inspired by a song yet the second ballad had more to say.
The Blacksmith was an inspiring choice. The abandoned lover had attitude, used sarcasm and her heart was full of vengeance. It was going to be a bawdy tale where my clever heroine got her own back on her errant, blacksmith lover. After reading A.L.Lloyd’s Folksong of England, I decided to set my short story in 1840, a time of melodic and political change. I grafted other songs on to The Blacksmith to develop the narrative and soon had a novel. This rough first draft I brought to an MFA in creative writing at Kingston University where I developed a ‘folksong/prose voice’ and stumbled on the Swing riots of 1830 – Britain’s forgotten agricultural uprising.
During the time of writing Captain Swing and the Blacksmith, I lost a step-brother, a step-father and a father. The city I had lived in for twenty years was changing rapidly; greed was spiralling, friends were losing their homes, artists seemed stigmatised and costly, unnecessary wars had resulted in world-wide violence – especially towards women. Suddenly the Swing riots became a very important point of comparison for the times I was living through. My bawdy tale was turning into a story of epic proportions; embracing personal loss and betrayal, extreme poverty, injustice, the long term effects of enclosure, the workhouse system, sexism and survival. And while I was researching social change during the 1830s and 40s I was watching the great post-war social reforms unravel in front of my eyes in the present.
The Blacksmith has an engaging melody and surprising slides, that enchant the listener. I didn’t know when I chose that song from Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L.Loyd’s collection: English Folk Songs, that the story mirrored Emmie’s own beginnings. Nor did I know that Dave Swarbrick, the feted folk violinist, was her father. Emmie was raised by her mother and stepfather, whom she calls Dad. She has had only fragmentary interactions with her real father over the years and her musicality and expression she has developed herself.
The novel deals with fathers in many forms: absent, accusatory, remorseful, regretful, violent, neglectful, damaging and loving. Originally the title was simply, The Blacksmith, until the ambiguous figure of Captain Swing emerged as hero, anarchist, aggressor and courageous protestor.
British folk song is rich in character and deals with about every possible human drama and catastrophe. I have only scratched the possibilities of creating historical novels from their verses. What has been crucial to this project is using the songs as my primary historical source as I wanted those who were often illiterate, or did not have the opportunity to record their own history, to speak first. Additional historical research came later to illuminate events. Our ancestors talk to us through these songs, passed down from generation to generation and thankfully preserved for us by the great folk collectors of the early 20th century.
Captain Swing and the Blacksmith is intrinsically linked to the songs and recording an album to accompany the book became inevitable. This decision inspired new tunes. Violinist Frank Biddulph, who accompanies Emmie, wrote a plaintive waltz that describes a scene from the novel but also has become a theme, extemporised on by pianist/accordionist Pete Watson. The idea grew to turn the story of the novel, itself formed of many songs, into one. Along with the skills of singer/songwriter Rebecca Hollweg, an eight verse ballad, a new song for the folk song canon, was born. All of the singers and musicians involved performed at The Ivy House, Nunhead, along with readings from the novel. More gigs are upcoming and there are exciting plans to develop this in to a bigger show.
Journeying into the music of my own roots has not been without confusion. The music of North Africa and the Middle East had been a physically cathartic experience. This language of movement enriched my life; I connected to another culture through dance but I was distanced from my mother tongue in song. During the time of writing I immersed myself in British folk song and the sound of the darbouka was pushed away to gather dust when for years it had been a daily drug. Now the book is finished and going to print I am seeing connections between these two musical traditions that intrigue me. Approaching North African and Middle Eastern music with some knowledge of my own roots gives new possibility and discovering what our traditions have in common, in these times of polarisation and fear of the ‘other’, seems almost radical.
Delving into my own folk music has sometimes been a painful experience. It is my identity, and surely if we don’t have a knowledge of our own music how can we fully appreciate the folk music of other cultures? Early industrialisation has often been accused of this separation from our own music – it is time perhaps to cleave back our own inheritance. My own personal grief, I believe, subconsciously made me respond to British folk, in a way that previously I had no need for. I needed that connection, that rootedness to centre myself again. It touches me deeply when I find a song, for example The Young Girl Cut Down in her Prime, that was recorded in 1890 in the village of East Meon, Hampshire. I know that my ancestors were recorded as farming in the Meons in the 1790s. Did they hear this song? Did they sing those verses? Quite likely, and I’d like to sing it too.
Throughout this time Emmie’s own singing career has gone from strength to strength. In 2015 she won the Trad2Mad folk singing competition and had been performing as a duo with esteemed Orkney folk singer and musician, Aimee Leonard. Yet one of the loveliest things to develop from this project has been the discovery of an old nursery rhyme, Betsey Bobbin. My heroine dreams of being dressed in fine silks and taffeta, adorned with pretty buttons. They form a strong metaphor throughout the novel: ‘My life and all that is ill with the world could fit on a button, a mere trinket of tragedy that matters not to any soul, living or dead.’
The words of the song were a perfect backdrop for my story. Emmie found it on the Full English, EFSDS library, but missing a tune. She had been in regular contact with Dave Swarbrick in the months before he died and told him about the project and the rhyme which intrigued him. At this point his wife said that he couldn’t sleep as he had a creative outpouring of tunes. One of these melodies he wrote for Emmie, a haunting tune that wisps around the words as if the two were always synonymous – Betsey Bobbin. It is a testament to his talent as a tune-smith and a fitting gift from a father to his daughter. A swansong that she was not to know would be his last.
Beatrice Parvin is a dancer and writer and has worked with Balkan band Mukka and North African Al Andalus. Captain Swing and the Blacksmith is her first novel and is accompanied by an album of traditional and contemporary folk songs.