It was another good weekend in the Borders, due to the good weather and it being hot, very hot. Like with heavy rain the hot weather kept punters away, and who came were more into playing music and talking about music. The pubs were quieter, less drinking and trouble in the evenings (which is a common hazard with the Border towns) and people got round to singing, playing and meeting old friends they had not seen for 30 years.
This year there was a different type of organization at the festival and some thought had been given to who and where people meet, it was less “organic” when it came to singarounds, although the musicians still congregated where they wished. A room/s had been set aside for singers to meet and some well known names had been invited down to sing and to organize singing sessions throughout the day (and night). Singing sessions started at 12noon and finished at 2.30am
I am a newbie when it comes to singarounds, I was brought up with sessions where you “got stuck in” and joined in if and when you could. Singarounds are different, the singers sit around the room and each take it in turn to sing their song, when finished it goes to the next person sitting next to you (often clock-wise!!) and each person gets a chance to sing. This can be quite strange at first especially to one who is not into anything “formal” and if there is a large group in a large room, you can sit and wait a long time, but I can see its purpose as everyone get a chance to have a go, and is not crowded out by groups of people who dominate the session.
In the instrumental sessions, you can sit for hours without getting a chance to play or you end up walking from bar to bar looking for equally lost (musical) souls to play with. This dominance by certain musical styles or groups of musicians is getting bad; I have seen ongoing sessions broken up by a hoard of musicians just marching into a room where a session is going on, planting themselves down in an opposite corner and playing jigs and reels ignoring the people around them. These sorts of mafia tactics are becoming more noticeable and are boring, only interesting to people who know nothing about folk music (the drunks) or the egotists themselves who are doing it.
This year I frequented the singarounds more than the sessions. Trying to understand its “unwritten rules” and differences; I got the feeling that in some singarounds musical instruments are not welcome at all. “I thought it was strictly a singing session” one of the compares said. I was pleased to hear that “no, instruments are welcome; it is the noisy musicians which are not encouraged”. So if this attitude was adopted more openly then solo musicians as well as singers can get an equal chance to play and be heard.
The wealth of songs that were sung that weekend was amazing. General themes of the songs were: drink/drinking/beer and relationships: failed love/marriage/anti marriage, some local songs from the Borders as well as Cumbria (hurray) and some Border ballads; some self-penned songs and modern songs unaccompanied. Death and supernatural themes, war, anti war, and sex were also being sung about…what does that say about the society we live in?
I played mostly Northumbrian Small pipes, playing the 1 octave melodies that people are forgetting to play, and this fitted in nicely I felt, with the whole singaround atmosphere. This “strictly no instrument policy” if adopted in singarounds is just as mafia as the ignorant group of musicians who dominate sessions. Control the session by all means, but not exclude people who are serious about their music and are left out in the cold (literally in this part of the world) and who have come from all over the country to share their music. Let’s make festivals/sessions inclusive not exclusive.
The Small pipe workshop I gave on Sunday was a success also, the people who came were genuinely interested and I believe they left with a greater appreciation of the Small pipes. There was enough sets to go around and one boy who came with his father (he had heard me play in the concert on Friday evening and had asked his dad to stay at the festival until the Sunday so he could try them out) had never heard them before, let’s hope he continues with it.
The Festival committee had also tried to include local and not so local school kids to play in the concert and workshops. This added to the atmosphere and it was nice to see young musicians walking around and joining in. I think in general the new ideas that the Festival committee had introduced this year changed the feel of the festival to a more song based festival and more open to a “family festival” than a drunken-session-style Border event that I knew as a teenager.
For these type of festivals to succeed there needs to be more younger people getting involved, and I know families are discouraged if there are drunks drowning the performer out, or no sessions to go to as it is dominated by mafia musicians/singers who only care about how fast they can play or how “traditional it is”! Because let’s face it “folkies” are a minority, we do not need to exclude people for the sake of our fixed beliefs, let’s keep it open and keep it fluent. There is a difference between having rules and people who dominate and control; and rules that make it easier for to express ones musical talents.