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SIDMOUTH FOLK WEEK - Sidmouth, Devon 29 July – 5 August

A large, week-long festival such as Sidmouth is made up of a very large number of constituent parts, some of which interlock, while others can stand PST as individual festivals in their own right. One such is the social dance. “If they want to,” social dance director Gareth Kiddier told me, “the dancers can start at nine o'clock in the morning and dance right through until 1.30 at night.” And, of course, participants can come and go as they choose, taking part in other events - dances, concerts, displays and pub sessions. The programme is nicely structured. Mornings was ‘homework’ with an emphasis on learning, improving and understanding the historical context of dances, with the chance to learn new material and get a deeper understanding of where it came from. The remainder of the day was geared to entertain, with a variety of different dances, bands and callers. This already popular strand is gaining even more fans with increasing numbers of young dancers and musicians attending and gifted dancers both participating and teaching.

One of the early workshops demonstrated this. This workshop was re-examining the dances published in Henry Playford's Dancing Master (editions published between 1651 and 1728) and looked at how the dances were originally perceived and performed, stripping away the interpretations of collectors such as Sharp (whose ideas are seen as a distinct genre in its own right). The band was one of the most pleasant discoveries of my week. Playford's Polyphonic Party sounded ravishing, with their unusual line-up of Viola d'amore (John Dipper - seemingly trying to beat Saul Rose's record for being in the most number of bands), nyckelharpa (Vicki Swan) and keyboard/guitar (Jonny Dyer) sounding ravishing in the acoustics of the room and absolutely fitting (although historically totally inaccurate!) for both the dances and the dancers. I look forward to hearing much more of them.

In contrast the ‘ceilidh’ scene is in crisis, with falling numbers and poor bands. The trouble is that most of the top bands in this genre are perceived as ‘too old’, so younger bands are being booked. Unfortunately, only a handful of these bands are very good and the dancers are voting with their feet by staying away - very few of the good young bands have yet built up enough of a following to compensate. Not just a problem at Sidmouth, but around the scene generally as dance series dwindle and events fade.

The rest of the festival carried on as ever with as good and wide a selection of artists as you could wish - Lynched (now called Lankum) particularly impressed, giving fresh energy to a range of traditional songs all too often overlooked by performers.

Paul Burgess