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Sheffield as a city is renowned for its eclectic music, and in particular its folk music; “The epicentre of the folk universe” as it was once described. A number of well-known folk artists live in Sheffield, and the university music department has a reputation for encouraging young folk performers along with an M.A. in Traditional Music of the British Isles. There are two of the surviving British traditional longsword teams; what often seems like innumerable morris, rapper and clog teams; and a pair of processional giants modelled on those found in Spain; add in The Sheffield Carols sung from November to New Year and it all makes for a very healthy scene.

Sheffield also regularly wins the annual CAMRA survey for the widest variety of beer on sale, has very folk friendly public houses and for those from elsewhere in the UK especially from the more southern areas of our nation, terrific value for money when buying beer.

There had been a couple of attempts to set up a festival in the past. There was one in the late 1968 organised by the late Malcolm Fox that was really an extension of his very successful Barley Mow Folk Club. The Orlyk Ukrainian Dancers and Bob Davenport were amongst those that appeared. There was another organised by Radio Sheffield, centred on the Crucible Theatre on a much larger scale with Barbara Dixon and Tony Capstick. Neither of these went into a second year.

A few years ago there was another attempt to get a traditional style festival going, this time centred around Burton Street Centre and organised by Jim McDonald and Mike and Brenda Steel. And yet this event of Jim and Mike and Brenda’s has morphed from its small and little-noticed beginnings over the space of a few years into this year's festival, now known as the Sheffield Sessions Festival. Participants come from all over Britain and one regular flies over from Toronto.

The actual idea, at the start, was the stuff of legends. Jim was listening to a landlord bemoaning the lack of customers over the Easter period (offices shut, students at home). “I'll see if I can get a few musicians in for a session,” suggested Jim, and the festival was born. One of those approached was local melodeon maestro Richard Arrowsmith of the Melrose Quartet and Hekety, and his enthusiasm and the empty pub got the event off to a flying start. Accidentally almost, this pattern took advantage of the strengths of the city in regard to the friendliest of pub management and some empty rooms at Easter time.

It means a festival without any big names – although some of the local performers like Richard are involved in the organisation and/or running sessions. It means a connection with the community because a lot of the rooms are just part of the pub and would have a session anyway. There are a few non-plussed local citizens who are inclined to question precisely what is happening – but in people's experience, generally there is a positive attitude. Others have reported that some local people have really got into folk music through coming across this event in their local pub.

Some sessions are simply musicians only, some are singers only, and there are sessions that cover both. For each of the past few years there has been a steady expansion, usually involving an extra pub coming on board. It has led to small clusters of pubs and people don't have to travel too far from one to the other. And there are buses and trams to transport people.

One session was entitled “Rude Songs by T'Management” and people sang a selection of material perhaps not normally heard in a folk club, though some of it had a great literary inheritance – songs of a more colourful nature by Burns for example. Another session, and just as equally not for the faint-hearted, was the instrumental Eb/Bb session or as it is now billed in the programme: The Famous Eb/Bb Session.

Financially there is not a huge amount of outlay which means the festival is reasonably secure for the future and takes away one large headache for the organisers. There are the ubiquitous red buckets marked “Sessions Festival” and people contribute as they please. So far this has been sufficient to keep the event running. “There are no stars or headliners,” said Paul Davenport, who with his wife Liz, Richard Arrowsmith and the aforementioned Jim MacDonald do the essential organisation to get the event up and running each year - and the necessary running around to keep it going once it starts. Most of the promotion is done by word of mouth and social media. “It's pretty unique as a festival,” added Fay Hield, who is both a nationally-known local singer and an academic in the university music department. “It's all about getting together with friends, both new and old. Many people just want to get out and play together, and the festival appeals precisely to this audience.”

Some parts of the varied programme follow the pattern you might get at a large festival. There are workshops about technique, both instrumental and vocal; there are sessions with themes, “Songs of Protest”, “A Journey to Asturias”; and there are slow, Irish and Americana sessions amongst the total of 65 events over the weekend. There is the Sheffield heat of the John Birmingham Cup (a competition for newly composed songs, sung unaccompanied) and there are two “Late Night Extras”. Generally speaking, experienced leaders run all the events – and for the singarounds they go around the room each person taking a turn, or passing the metaphorical baton as they wish. One noticeable thing is that young, talented musicians get a chance to shine as players or singers whereas in other circumstances they might disappear.

There was a “surprise concert” billed each year, at first with a charge but this has since been dropped. “Whilst the audience was happy about taking a chance on who would be there, on some occasions we were flying by the seat of our pants,” said Paul. “And it meant we had charges and tickets, a sound man, sound checks and so on, and we were trying to keep administration down to a minimum.”

Planning has already begun for the next Sheffield Sessions Festival and the dates are easy to discover. Good Friday afternoon until Easter Sunday evening, 19-21 April 2019. Bring your instruments and voices and come along.

by Dave Eyre