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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

I’m staging a folk festival in my home town of Walthamstow, London. I tell you this not as a shameless plug for the event, which takes place on August 26th, but because it’s given me an insight into how traditional music is perceived by those outside of our lumpy, peculiar-smelling bubble.

When I approached the music programmer of the historic 1930s cinema that will host such artists as Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Stick In The Wheel, Khiyo, Kathleen MacInnes and many more, they were hearteningly enthusiastic but admitted to having little comprehension of what a folk festival actually was.

The staff at the newly reopened and renamed Mirth, Marvel & Maud venue are the kind of cool cats whose favourite bands you’ve never heard of, and whose favourite craft ale you found too fizzy. But they’re good people. And when I explained to them that I’d like a late-night ceilidh where a DJ might normally spin dub plates, they surprisingly agreed. They’re good people who are open to new experiences that sound absurd and commercially ­foolish.

There was some bewilderment when I spoke of tune sessions. “And they’d require amplification?” they asked, furrowing a brow. “No, they’ll just play or sing wherever they’re sat and other people will join in,” I replied. Adding, “It’ll be fine,” in the hope it would reassure them it’ll be fine.

“I could get some hay bales,” offered the venue manager, excitedly. I smiled and nodded in a way that communicated my appreciation for their willingness to contribute while firmly putting the idea in the bin. “Yes that would be great," I said, making my displeasure palpably clear. “And there’ll be absolutely no bunting,” I insisted silently in my head, several hours after I’d left the meeting. But how interesting that their one certain notion of folk is that it’s a countryside pursuit.

I want my folk festival, which takes place just three minutes’ walk from the 24-hour bus and tube service at Walthamstow Central Station, to be rooted in city-grown traditions. I don’t hate the countryside but I grew up there and it tried to kick me in the legs for being weird. I belong in built-up areas.

The rural idyll remains a powerful trope in trad, as if life for a peasant were more pleasant spent with pheasants. But as the Brutalist cheerleader Jonathan Meades once wrote, “the land was a factory without a roof”. And yet the industrialised city still looms darkly and satanically in our imaginations; a flywheel in the ointment of folk fiction.

The bushes and briars have gifted us many a song, but so have the alleyways and gutters. Perhaps on the very site of the festival, which will also feature dance displays and music from Alden, Patterson & Dashwood, Brìghde Chaimbeul and Nell Ní Chróinín, sooty urchins once sold broadsides bearing ballads about sailors leaving sweethearts at Chingford Docks, the rising price of beard oil, and a hanging outside the sourdough pizza pop-up.

My hosts are staging their own cheese and cider festival to coincide with this day of music and morris that makes little sense to them yet. It’s a harkening to a life my village ancestors never lived that I’m prepared to accept. After all, fermentation is a great leveller.

[That’s enough shamelessness… Ed]

Tim Chipping


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