If we regard folk music as a spectrum, then Fay Hield leads an extraordinarily busy life at the performing end of that spectrum; another in the middle as an organiser; and at the other end as a well-respected academic in the music department of the University of Sheffield. These roles have never been mutually exclusive for we have performer-academics and organiser-musicians – but rarely have we had someone who fulfils all three roles.
Looking back to one of the albums she was involved with previously for a moment, the highly acclaimed The Full English, that was the result of bringing together a bunch of performers to explore the wealth of material from earlier collectors placed online by the EFDSS. Wrackline, Fay’s latest release, is a much more personal view of the songs and ballads found on the CD, and for the first time marks a change, because as well as songs by other collectors and writers and traditional songs and ballads, this is the first recording to include some of her own written material. She has also learnt to play the banjo, and that appears on the front and back cover of the CD. I asked about the banjo and practising.
“I'm not a practicer,” she tells me. “It's the reason I have never learnt an instrument. What I do is sit down and play, make noises with it, fiddle about, just enjoy making sounds. I do practise a little bit before gigs now, so I can remember the chords and what's going on, but I am not a natural practicer.”
Seeking the literal meaning of the title of this latest CD is a simple task with a dictionary – a wrackline is the edge of the highest tide on a beach where the material ejected from ships, the flotsam and jetsam of the sea, seaweed and mixed detritus ends up and makes a dark, uneven line along a shore.
For Fay, the thinking goes much deeper. Inspired in part by the Modern Fairies Project she had worked on, she has sought an understanding through song and music of another part – a more supernatural part. “The indefinite quantity I am more interested in, is the space between that line and the sea. A bit of no man's land, because at times it is land and at times it is sea. And for me, that is where art sits. So you have the human world on one side (land) and the supernatural world (the sea) on the other. And for me that supernatural world is ghosts, witches, superstitions, and generally things we don't understand. And that little gap in the middle is where you can play with explaining human things to the supernatural world and supernatural things to the human world.”
“I am fascinated with the meaning of things, and with traditional songs in particular, I think it is really important. You've got the words and the music – a song – and they tell a story and form a complete unit, but if that was all people drew on, that would be a bit sad and, anyway, that's not how it works. You make connections with a song, for instance, from previous versions - who the singer is, who has sung it in the past, about the song's journey though the tradition from where it started. You might make connections with your own life if the song is about love or rejection or work, for example; it all ties in with material that is outside the song and, to me, that's how meaning is made.”
“To make a record and simply give people songs seems a little doleful. People do find it interesting to discover where a song came from, and what sort of meaning the words give the singer; and in addition what they might mean to the audience, and to help people find ways of connecting with the meaning of a song.”
I asked Fay if this was why there is so much additional material in the way of blogs about the songs, for example, on her website. After all, people do listen in very different ways, so is this a way to help them? “Of course,” she said. “They might never listen fully to the words but be mesmerised by the voice and music together. They might listen to words in a foreign language, we don't know what the words are saying but we love the emotion that they generate with the music. We tend not to separate them. Some of my songs are very wordy, and the words are terribly important; in others, the words are almost a throwaway; some songs seem to be there purely to encourage people to sing together and that's a great value to a song, even if the words are not especially profound.”
Fay pointed out where this linked into her academic activity. “Part of my research has been to look where meaning is in songs and in the last album I did a lovely study with Dr Sarah Price and a focus group of audiences about how they got to know the songs and what meaning they found in them. So for Wrackline and for the Modern Fairies Project, it is about how artists engage with material and what they find interesting about it.”
“On a personal level, I needed to look closely at what I was doing and why I was doing it, so I made the music, if you like, in a more heightened way. I think all artists do this, consciously or unconsciously. But I was keeping diaries and writing blogs and keeping a record of how I built songs in a way I wouldn't do normally. Externalising all that has helped me articulate it, in other words I have spent a lot of time learning how to talk about it and finding ways of explaining things!”
“There are different ways to study folk music and people sometimes get confused with what I do as an academic. Generally speaking, I am not a song historian, I don’t dig into the provenance of songs any more than any other folk artist would, often less. I am much more interested in the social side of music, why we do this music and what it means to us, and what engaging with the music does for us. Some of that does link to the history of a song and as a musician I am interested in where the songs come from and getting hold of the background, but otherwise I don't approach the songs with any more academic rigour than any other artists would. I reflect more on what I am doing and why I am doing it.”
We went on to look at two songs from the album as illustrations of this. First of all, we looked at how the Pig Song came to be on the album. “I had written a tune and I needed some words for it and a man called Rob Jones emailed me. He had been looking through really old newspapers and copying out words to songs he had found. In one of his selection of songs were the Pig Song lyrics which struck me as funny. I altered the words slightly to fit the tune and there it was, finished. Apart from looking through the selection of songs – which took half an hour or so - the process was fairly simple. So sometimes the little hook of inspiration finds you.”
“On the other hand, the legend of Sir Launfal provides a complete contrast because it was a clear and definite task. I liked Thomas The Rhymer and Tam Lin, and whilst there aren't many big fairy ballads, there are plenty of fairy legends. I deliberately sat myself down to turn a legend into a song. The original had all the ingredients you'd expect to find, such as love and seduction, so it was an exercise in a way, and a measured one. I had an idea and I wanted to work at it, and it took months and months to create that song.”
Fay described the process. “I started with over 6,000 words of the story in Middle English and eventually that's been condensed into a song that is just over seven minutes long. If you look at the original, it has a number of sub-plots and they explore the values of love, loyalty and generosity over lust and wealth. Each of those had to be evaluated with a view to how they would fit into the final piece.”
“I started by translating the whole story into more recognisable English, using a glossary at times. Then I had to look at what the actual plot was. Then, what was important to keep and what could be rationalised out. It took a while to get to grips with the full story and I used a spreadsheet. Analysing the result, I felt it had become formulaic and I realised the artistry had gone. So then I had to go back and look again at the story and what was important in there and what I wanted to actually ‘say’ in the song. This, again, was a long period of hard work to finish up with the artistic product at the end.”
We turned to her work as an organiser, to Soundpost, which for those not familiar is an organisation that runs a series of themed weekends – mini festivals if you like - with well-known artists sharing their skills, weekly groups for adults and children, and various one-off projects including local carols events and schools work. I asked how it came about and where Fay saw its place in the folk world.
“It derives from the work I did on my Ph D,” she said. “I wrote there about folk music and community; that the folk scene is a really tight community and how those involved really love it. I grew up in it, and the people I knew felt like my extended family in lots of ways. So the question I set out to answer was, why is it that when you are involved in the folk scene you feel like that, but from the outside it has this cliquey reputation and when people try to get involved they often find it difficult? One of the things that came out of this for me was that you in fact learn how to do and enjoy folk music by doing it, and this makes the route in very complicated.”
“If we look at other genres for a moment, then classical music and jazz are complex and understood as such. You can simply listen and enjoy them with any level of knowledge, but it is recognised that the more you know about them, the more deeply you enjoy them, and that only people with a reasonable degree of proficiency can actually perform that music.”
“Compare that with folk music. It is presented as accessible - open to all, anyone can do it, come all ye. But to do folk music is actually very complicated. What do you sing? When do you join in? Do you have to wait for a specific invitation? Why can't you join in on a verse? Why do people frown at my classically trained voice? The parameters of accessibility are really nuanced and to learn those parameters can be complicated, but they are not appreciated as complicated. There are so many little rules, that people who are familiar with folk music don't even bother asking themselves what the rules are. There is a lack of recognition of how complex it is; indeed, people are conversely told that is it simple.”
“What I wanted to do was to create a series of stepping stones, a space where people could come and learn these skills. For example, people come to Soundpost to go to a fiddle workshop and you get them in on that basis, they are comfortable in a workshop, they are aware of the rules in a workshop and they will then, perhaps, enjoy a session in the pub at lunchtime. They will have learnt as much from being in the session as they would have from having someone teaching them the fiddle. So Soundpost is about enculturation, creating space for the gradual learning through culture, where people can learn the steps into folk music without worrying if they are doing it wrong.”
I asked Fay if she was doing anything special during the current pandemic. “The main thing I have started, under the banner of Soundpost, is Covid Sings,” she told me. “I noticed quite early on in the pandemic that people had material they had videoed at home and were putting out on the internet; people you would perhaps find in an open mic. But I was aware that singers who were less natural ‘performers’ were missing - folk clubs and sessions weren't happening, the more informal community aspect had been totally shut down, so I started an online singaround. Communication with each other is based on Twitter and the performances are done via Zoom. It is interesting how it has expanded and we now have a world-wide group of singers – people from America, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Wales as well as English singers, and this is despite all the time differences. After all, in a broader sense, it isn't just about singing. People have bonded so well that this may well continue even when we are no longer in lockdown! This grew out of Tradsong Tuesday, a weekly online sharing on social media which concentrates on themes – for example Child Ballads or transport - and this gives people a chance to explore these themes in traditional songs.” Fay has set out a ‘How to… guide’ on her blog to encourage similar groups and this is freely available.
In current circumstances, it is hard for anyone involved in what might be called ‘the general folk business’ to look into the future - even someone with expertise and foresight. However, it seems that innovation, adjustment and exploration will continue to be the watchwords for Fay, in all areas of her performing, organising and musical life.
Photo: Claire Stevenson
Published in Issue 136 of The Living Tradition - December 2020.