The Full English archive has been a major cultural heritage exercise pulled together by the English Folk Song and Dance Society, resulting in a gigantic online resource of songs, tunes and dances that were originally assembled by some of the most renowned late Victorian and Edwardian era folk song collectors. There have been numerous spin-offs from the project, including study days, schools programmes, not to mention an album and a live band.
Academic and performer, Fay Hield, was commissioned to pull the musical project together and assembled a band with some of the key figures from contemporary folk. Joining Hield were Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Ben Nichols, Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney. A successful tour and album followed, so successful in fact that they’ve all got together again a year later for another tour which culminates in tonight’s performance at the Centre Stage venue at Butlin’s Skegness. Although this is very much a folk gig rather than a folk-rock gig (acoustic instruments, no drums), it is impossible to overstate the sheer instrumental power of the band on stage tonight. The quality of the musicianship and the singing is absolutely superb but the Full English was always about celebrating the songs and they have the most brilliant set of songs to offer.
As with the album, the band opens with Awake Awake. The sound (which had caused problems for other acts over the weekend) was perfect, the atmosphere was electric and it became clear that this performance would be the definite highlight of the 2014 Great British Folk Festival. I have played the Full English CD over and over again this past year but those watching the live show are treated to additional songs as well that are not on the original album. This includes a wonderfully eccentric version of King of the Cannibal Island sung by Nichols. Apparently, 19th century missionaries had a vested interest in whipping up public hysteria about cannibalism as it was great for the fundraising for future missions. This song has its roots in such propaganda. I Wandered By a Brookside and High Banbaree are other welcome additions. Fans of the album, though, will have been pleased to hear Simpson sing Creeping Jane, Portrait of My Wife sung by Lakeman and Hield and Kerr’s wonderful duet on Arthur O’Bradley, the traditional tale of the archetypal wedding from hell.
Not all of the songs are actually from the original archive. Fol-the Day-o is a new song written by Kerr to celebrate the traditional songs and music in the archive while Linden Lea (a song I remember learning at primary school for an evening of patriotic songs to celebrate the Silver Jubilee) the William Barnes poem that Ralph Vaughan Williams set to music. Both are there to demonstrate that folk music survives and thrives well beyond the era of the golden age of Edwardian folk-song collectors.
Coming back on to rapturous applause they encored with Man In The Moon, an old music hall song who’s lyrics and tune somehow became separated but were re-united once more thanks to the Full English archive. It’s one of the most memorable songs on the album and this long lost song is well on its way to becoming a modern-day folk classic. We were all encouraged to sing along enthusiastically, perhaps demonstrating Cecil Sharp’s maxim that it’s the selection for community singing that makes a song a folk song, rather than the format for which it was originally written. Or maybe an out-of-season performance in the main show-bar at Butlin’s isn’t too far from music hall anyway. Whatever, it was a great song to finish a spectacular performance of one of the most significant folk music projects in many, many years.