Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gary Thomas from Broadstairs - Round Two

Aug. 13, 2009
Broadstairs, England

I continue to be amazed at what a learning experience the Broadstairs festival is.

I'm a big fan of Irish music (not to mention our own country/bluegrass, of course). This morning I attended a workshop on traditional Irish singing. It is known as “sean nos'”, or “old way” or “old style” of singing. It is unaccompanied, ornamental, and sung in Irish Gaelic language. It is stunningly beautiful.

Now, I don't speak Irish. (There are those who would claim I have problems with English.) But the teacher, the brilliant traditional singer Mary McLaughlin, managed to teach some 15 non-Irish speakers several songs in Irish by phonetic pronunciation. I will now embark on a personal learning program of several Irish language Christmas songs for the holiday season. (Mary has some books and phonetic tapes on her own Website.)

I went to one of the traditional “singarounds,” where everybody sits around and does a song. The crowd, primarily a bit older, displayed an amazing array of songs -- some funny, some touching. One fellow -- clearly an ex-British Army type -- performed a couple of really humorous military songs. And one white-haired elderly fellow stood up and out of his mouth came the most beautiful tenor voice. He turned and took his wife's hand and sang a tender ballad to her. Not a dry eye in the house (including mine). She responded with a song in kind. Whew!

I should also mention a fine American singer who was there, Debra Cowan. Blessed with a lovely voice and a fine sense of interpretive style of traditional song, she should not be missed if she comes around your area, in America or Britain.

Not to say there haven't been missteps. The center of this tiny seaside town gets overtaken at night by young people whose interest is clearly more in drinking -- and each other -- than folk music. But there are plenty of pubs and venues to take refuge and hear the squeeze of the concertina and the drawn bow of the fiddle.

And there was one performance called “The Liberty Tree,” billed as a tribute to Thomas Paine. Paine, who emigrated from England to the American colonies in 1774, was an intellectual godfather of the American Revolution (and the French Revolution as well). This was of particular interest to not only me as an American but to the English attendees as well -- the house was packed. I went expecting a life appreciation of Paine -- it is the bicentenary of his death this year -- with period music. But the performance was a keen disappointment. Paine was merely used as a vehicle for a slew of modern antiwar songs and similar political statements. You can't talk about Paine without politics, I know, and much of folk music is inherently political. But I really wanted more history and less sloganeering. I didn't necessarily disagree with the views expressed, but I found it jarring and greatly disappointing. OK, I'm just one heathen American visitor. My two English hosts who accompanied me agreed that I am an American heathen -- but they also heartily concurred with the assessment of the Paine show.

American music played by English groups is of astonishingly good quality. There was even a great workshop on jug band music! My interest was raised by my long affiliation with the Philadelphia Jug Band (they're off at the Philadelphia Folk Festival this coming weekend, which is more like the festivals I talked about in the last blog). Well, the Refried Ginger Jug Band taught a large group of jugheads methods of playing the jug and the washboard in a room with the worst echoing acoustics in the world. Very educational and great fun, but it was akin to listening to a dozen scraping washboards in a cathedral. Not recommended if you have a hangover (not that I had one, of course).

For you foodies, British pub food has come a long, long way. Fish and chips can be had, of course, but there are better options. I had some local Whitstable oysters --fresh and briny -- with a pint of local Shepherd Neame Spitfire bitter. Great combination -- and I didn't even mind that the beer was a good deal warmer than what we drink in the US. But the tepid temperature is far more tolerable when the beer has far more flavor. (Sad fact: the biggest selling beer in Ireland now, the home of Guinness Stout? -- Budweiser!)

More and a sum up later -- Friday is the final day.

Gary Thomas

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