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20 Years of Baring-Gould weekend

It has attracted and inspired some of the biggest names in traditional folk music, and, in October, the Baring-Gould Weekend celebrates its 20th year. Today, the folk festival takes place at venues in the Dartmoor town of Okehampton in West Devon, but for the first few years, it was held in the nearby rural villages of Lewdown and Bratton Clovelly. An odd setting for a musical festival, perhaps, but one that made perfect sense.

The Baring-Gould Folk Festival - as it was then called - was named in honour of the prolific song collector from Dartmoor, the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould. The squire and parson from Lewtrenchard (1834-1924) spent many years in the latter part of the 19th century, travelling around Devon and Cornwall, collecting traditional folk songs directly from the voices of the people who sang them.

The volume of his song collection wasn’t realised until the founders of Devon-based music and education charity, Wren Music, started to do some digging. By the time they’d reached the end of their search, Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker had discovered almost 1,000 songs.

The collection forms a significant part of ‘The Full English’ - a national collection of traditional songs managed by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. And, says Paul: “In terms of the melodies, it’s the most beautiful of all the song collections in England. Baring-Gould saved them, and we found them.”
Which all goes to explain why, when Wren were asked to organise a folk festival, they decided to stage it in Baring-Gould’s parish. Among the performers at that first Baring-Gould Festival in 1999 were folk grandees, Martin Carthy & Norma Waterson, Anita Best, Cyril Tawney and Newfoundland folk singer Jim Payne.

Twenty years on, and the event has evolved into the Baring-Gould Folk Weekend & Song School. The 20th anniversary event takes place at locations in Okehampton on 25-27 October, with the song school on 21-25 October.

“We quickly outgrew the villages,” said Paul. “The country lanes couldn’t cope, and neither could the pubs!”

There have been other changes along the way, too. A few years ago, the event underwent a name change to dispel any idea that it was a typical festival in a muddy field: “It’s not like any other folk festival,” said Marilyn. “Our venues offer an intimate setting so the audience is really close to the performers, and you can appear alongside the festival artists at some of the gigs. You can sit and listen, or you can take part. And we create an orchestra and a choir over the two days that anyone can sign up to, and they get to perform at their own special concert at the weekend. It’s the spirit of the event that’s so different and unique.”

While it might not be as big as some of the UK’s other annual folk festivals, its influence in promoting traditional music and providing a stage for emerging singers can’t be over-stated. It has been the inspiration behind many of today’s brightest young folk stars, such as Sam Lee. For Sam, the Baring-Gould Folk Weekend and Song School is something of a spiritual home. He attended the song school as a student several years ago and returned as a tutor in 2014 and again in 2016.

Regulars down the years include the festival’s patron, Phil Beer, from the folk duo, Show of Hands, and legendary American folk singer-songwriter, Peggy Seeger, who is patron of Wren Music. Artists from the new folk generation who have appeared include Georgia Lewis, Lady Maisery and Jim Causley.

There’s usually a different theme to the festival each year. Last year, it featured up and coming young folk singers; this year, it has an international flavour, with the return of overseas artists who’ve appeared before with great success: Sos Cantores from Sardinia, Dandari from Latvia, and Funi (Chris Foster and Bara Grimsdottir) from Iceland. Also lined up is Thomas McCarthy from Ireland, multi-instrumentalist Lauren Eva Ward and English folk singer James Findlay, who took the song school last year.

The school is always led by a leading personality in the world of traditional song and this year, Wren have secured Tim Van Eyken, who was one of the first to play Songman in the stage production of War Horse. After years of acting in theatre and on TV, Tim is returning to his roots as a folk singer.

“The reason the festival is going stronger than ever is because folk music is now so huge,” said Marilyn. “There’s been a folk explosion in the past few years. When we started the festival, you couldn’t find a folk club anywhere. Now they’re everywhere. And we’ve got people like Jim Causley and Sam Lee bringing it to a big new audience."

“I think traditional English folk music is in safe hands. And the Baring-Gould Weekend is playing its part in the revival.”

A Baring-Gould weekend ticket is £50, with a 4-for-3 offer. Visit the Wren Music website to book tickets and for details of all the performances and individual concert prices.

wrenmusic.co.uk