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Rowan Piggott - next generation

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Rowan Piggott is the fiddle-playing and singing son of Charlie Piggott of De Danann fame. He is currently making a name for himself around the folk scene in England as a solo musician and also as a member of the Georgia Lewis Band and as half of a duo with Rosie Hodgson. He is the next generation, not just of a family of musicians, but he is also part of the next generation of folk musicians, festival and club goers, working in the scene and making it their own.

Too often, we hear people complaining and worrying about the lack of young people in the folk scene and in our clubs. But here is one of a new generation who is passionate about the music and who, as well as sharing his music in the way many others do, is putting his money where his mouth is and getting stuck in to organising his local club. We are right to moan sometimes – there aren’t enough of the next generation getting involved - but we should also get excited when we see things like this happening – people like Rowan coming into the clubs and festivals and becoming an integral part of them.

Rowan grew up in the west of Ireland. He told me a bit about his time there and how he came to be so immersed in the folk scene on the south coast of England.

“I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a famously musical village called Kinvara at a time when the likes of Jackie Daly and Sharon Shannon played regularly in the pubs there. A great fiddle player called Máire O'Keefe was actually my primary school teacher and she taught us a ton of songs in between each lesson. Both my parents are musicians so I was taken out to trad sessions every week since I was conceived. My mum, Frances, taught me the fiddle while my dad, Charlie, was a founding member of De Danann and I'd often get taken along to gigs that he was playing. He tells a great yarn about a certain four-year-old sitting on the front of the stage and heckling him!”
“I moved over to Brighton and attended a boarding school in Sussex called Christ's Hospital where I became a chorister and studied classical violin, voice and piano. After that, I studied Jazz at Trinity College of Music in London. It wasn't really until I left that I picked up the fiddle again when I started running sessions in Brighton. I felt immediately at home and already knew hundreds of tunes so it was natural for me to head back into traditional music.”

In 2016, Rowan won the “Future Of Young Folk” award at Bromyard Folk Festival. This is a competition at the festival open to any singer up to the age of 25, and has been won previously by artists such as Georgia Lewis, Cohen Braithewaite-Kilcoyne, Rosie Hood and Niamh Boadle. Though perhaps a reluctant applicant, the award opened up some new opportunities for Rowan.

“Well, I was always pretty hesitant about music competitions,” he says. “I’ve played at New Roots, but that feels like more of a showcase where every participant gets opportunities. However, in 2016 I was playing at Bromyard with Georgia Lewis & Friends and they sort of pushed me into it. I was the only qualifying member of the band - me being ‘young’ - and they thought it would be great craic to haul me onto the stage with a raging hangover. As it turns out, they did me a favour I’m immensely grateful for, because the reward included gigs at Bromyard and Warwick the following year, so it really spurred me to get my own set together and my solo album out.”

Rowan recently released this album, Mountscribe, and has some solo gigs in the pipeline, but he still remains part of several other outfits - with partner Rosie Hodgson, as part of Georgia Lewis’ band and in sessions and ceilidh bands.

“I met Georgia about five years ago,” he explains. “She came into a trad session I was playing and asked whether I’d play fiddle in her band. I found out about our first gig on the day and had about five hours to learn all the material – I hadn’t really played folk on stage before, so Georgia can definitely take the credit for that! In the band we mainly re-work traditional songs, editing the lyrics, writing new tunes and arranging them to suit our way of playing.”

“Georgia can also take credit for introducing me to Rosie Hodgson, my partner, who I tour with quite a lot now. We were both booked for a ceilidh (Rosie is a caller) with what is now The Causeway Céilí Band, and she had to give me a lift to Birmingham which is about a three hour drive! Rosie’s background is in traditional English music (she’s even roped me into her Morris side!) so we spent the whole journey singing different versions of the same songs at each other (her, the English tune; me the Irish). Needless to say we haven’t looked back!”

Rowan, along with Rosie and Tom Evans, has taken on the running of the Brighton Acoustic Club. “The whole prospect of taking on the club was much less daunting because there were three of us,” he says. “Tom, Rosie and I all agreed to take on organising roles and were lucky to be handed over such a well supported club, which was started by Stuart Reed over 10 years ago. It’s your familiar folk club set-up, with floor spots and a guest act each month, and we will certainly try to continue Stuart’s support of very local acts - we have all benefited from this policy, having all had gigs there in the past! There are a few blues/Americana acts and we’re certainly not a trad-only club, but we don’t let anyone use a mic / PA, so the music has to be the focus, not the effects!”

Most folk clubs are still being run by the ‘older generation’, many of whom have been doing so for years, and the lack of younger people in clubs is a big problem in places. It is a concern that is having to be dealt with all over and I wondered how Rowan feels about the issue.

“It’s certainly a problem that younger people don’t frequent the clubs, and we’ve been guilty of it ourselves, especially considering we play at them all the time. I think there’s a real lack of understanding about what traditional music is among the younger generations in the UK, and why it’s valuable. There’s very little in the way of exposure through education and I rarely encounter people of my own age on the folk scene who weren’t born into it. I really see this as a worthwhile area of outreach for club organisers - especially as funding for music in comprehensive schools has been seriously diminished of late.”

“Having said that, I had the pleasure of teaching alongside Anna Tabbush last year on a great folksong outreach project in local primary schools. It was funded by the Southdowns Folk Festival to get a younger generation involved and it proved a great success by all accounts!”

Although many clubs are struggling to attract the next generation, there doesn’t appear to be the same problem for some festivals. “I absolutely agree,” says Rowan. “There's a great young folk scene in England, though you'll see the same faces everywhere – the young Morris dancers, the session players and the festival-goers are all one and the same it seems! I think that when you go to a folk festival, you know that your friends are going to be there from all over the country, but when you go to a club you might be the only ‘young’ person there. At the moment, I’m trying to guerrilla-plant folk music in less obvious places... As an example, I’m booking the music for a small festival in West Sussex called Alested, which isn’t overtly marketed as a folk festival, and most of the people who go (a lot of whom are young!) aren’t ‘folkies’, but they really loved it last year, so it’s a great way to expose more people to traditional music!”

Between playing in different groups, running a club, organising music for a festival, and doing outreach projects, it is a wonder that Rowan has had time to make any of his own music at all. But he has, and his Mountscribe album has been described by FolkWords thus: “...not only does Piggott demonstrate a deep understanding of and ‘feel’ for tradition, he also exhibits a fine ability to add his own edge to the music.” He tells us more about his music, his fiddle style and his use of a five-stringed instrument.

“My fiddle style is a weird amalgamation of (and reaction to) all the musicians I've ever spent any amount of time with - I'm pretty sure this is the same for everybody. My style is obviously fairly Irish, but there’s a smattering of Swedish ornaments that have crept in since I’ve been touring over there. I got introduced to Swedish fiddle music by Ben Paley (another friend and musical hero) and ended up collecting and transcribing a whole book of traditional Swedish tunes from my trips. It was really to try and get all my friends into it, but since it was published a few years ago, it’s proved really popular all over the world – apparently there are people as far away as China and Australia who are really into Swedish tunes!”

“As for the five-string, I quickly decided that viola lends itself much better to accompanying female singers, sitting lower tonally. It means that I can play long low accompaniments through verses and then launch into a fiddle tune without changing instruments. I do have a violin / viola pair in a double case, but it’s pretty heavy to be carting around festivals. I’ve finally got the sound balanced on my 5-string by using a ‘harp’ tailpiece (quite often the top string can sound dull or the bottom like a rubber band!).”

“I have sung since I was a very little lad. I keenly feel the pull of sean-nós – though I have never set out to learn it, a lot of my favourite singers have elements of the style: Johnny Moynihan, a great family friend and musical hero; Joe Corcoran, who played with Dad in The Lonely Stranded Band; Paul Brady, of course! As I mentioned before, I was a chorister and I find harmony singing a real draw too, so The Voice Squad are firm favourites.”

As well as playing and singing traditional material, Rowan has written several songs and tunes, and it is testament to his abilities that it is often difficult to tell the traditional and the original apart.

“Since I started gigging on the scene with my various outfits, I had been quietly writing away whenever an idea struck. I suddenly realised I had a notebook full of songs that nobody ever heard so my album was really just an excuse to get some of them down while they're still in their prime!”

“Quite a lot of what I do is adapting traditional songs, whether that’s writing new words to a traditional tune (e.g. Old Mountscribe) or a new tune for traditional words (e.g. The Roslea Farewell), but I do occasionally dream up a whole new thing (e.g. A Royal Game). I’m probably most proud of a song I wrote for the Songhive project called Queen And Country... it’s like a traditional working song but it’s about bees labouring out in the fields. I enjoy playing with images that have many interpretations so that different people find their own meanings. That’s not to say that I don’t like obvious songs though – I love a good narrative ballad any day. My favourite traditional song today is probably Willy Taylor, which I do with Rosie.”

The Songhive project which Rowan mentions is a folksong project concerned with raising awareness of the current plight of our native bees. He tells us more. “Bees are responsible for 80% of pollination in the UK, are essential to biodiversity, and ultimately the future of humanity. There has been a great break-through recently as the EU has announced a ban on neonics (a kind of bee-harming pesticide), but there’s still a lot to do and many problems they face.”

“I started the project when I noticed more and more folk artists including songs and tunes in their sets which referenced the bees. It seemed to me that almost every album I bought in the last year has had some mention of them. We started singing The Bee-Boys Song (Kipling/Bellamy) and, before it, we would ask if there was anyone watching who kept bees - there was nearly always one at least and it sort of became a thing!”

On his Songhive website he says: “Bees crop up in the prose and poetry of every language, and even in everyday sayings: we can be ‘as busy as a bee’, we ‘make a bee-line’ for things, we can get ‘a bee in the bonnet’, and the term ‘bee's knees’ now famously refers to something fabulous, although originally it referred to something small and insignificant.” So Rowan began collecting together all the folklore, songs and tunes that he could find that referenced bees. “From nursery rhymes and comic ballads to love songs and working ditties, bees have a long history in song. There's even a lovely old Sussex tradition that the bees sing their own carol on Christmas Eve!”

“I thought it would be great to get an album together to sell in aid of The Bee Cause (a Friends Of The Earth campaign that is trying to reverse the decline of bees in the UK). Thanks to the EFDSS, who awarded me a creative bursary, it’s nearly out (it should be back from the printers by the time this article is published).”

Rowan is playing a gig at Cecil Sharp House in London on 6th June, and plans to launch the album then, and will be performing as much material from the project as possible. “I’ve also been encouraging people to learn a song or tune from www.songhive.co.uk to perform at their local folk club or session in order to start conversation about the issues (and the project!).

So with all this going on, what’s next on the cards for Rowan?

“Ace of diamonds! Well, the Georgia Lewis Band has new material in the works, so we’re looking forward to gigging that this year; Rosie’s started writing again after a brief hiatus and some of her new songs are incredible, so I can’t wait to share those. I’ve also started working on an album with one of my favourite songwriters ever, Nick Burbridge, which is very exciting - but I probably shouldn’t say too much about it just yet...”

I, for one, will be watching to see what this next generation folkie will get up to next. But one thing is for certain – the scene today is much better for having people like Rowan in it.

by Fiona Heywood

Published in Issue 124 of The Living Tradition - June / July 2018

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