Somerset Folk Songs for Midsummer – Yvette Staelens writes…

_DSC2565Wow – the alchemy of song never ceases to amaze me. Somerset Folk Songs for Midsummer at Halsway brought together twenty strangers to a Somerset Manor House, plus two exciting tutors with their stash of ancient ditties, ballads, chorus songs plus bags of enthusiasm.  Yvette Staelens is our guest blogger this week, and here she tells us all about the wonderful weekend of Somerset Folk Songs for Midsummer…

Friday evening, we settled in the bar after a lovely dinner and discovered the incredible folk song legacy of Somerset. I presented slides and stories of the collectors who shared a passion for seeking out and recording ‘the songs of the people’ and then introduced those who sang to the collectors. Wonderful photographic portraits of singers and sometimes their families, taken by collector Cecil Sharp. We saw the, now famous, John England, gardener at Hambridge vicarage standing proudly in the vicarage garden, hoe in hand, having sung ‘The Seeds of Love’ to Cecil Sharp and his friend Reverend Charles Marson. A song that was to start the two men on a collecting journey seeking out the songs of the villagers and towns and hamlets nearby. We met Emma Overd of Langport who gave Sharp over 50 songs and who now has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for her contribution to English cultural heritage. We saw photos of Louie Hooper and her half-sister Lucy White of Westport standing outside their cottages in pinafores and shawls. We heard about Sharp’s visit to a gypsy, Lucy Carter, who set off a musical box playing

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‘The Bluebells of Scotland‘ which despite, at the request of Sharp, her best efforts to stop it playing, continued for 15 minutes almost driving him mad! The evening ended with conviviality in the bar!

Saturday brought more sunshine and lots of people who said that they had slept really well in the peace of Halsway. It was our chance to become a shanty crew and to sing sea songs and shanties from John Short of Watchet and others, followed by William Woolley‘s un-censored version of ‘No John No’, ‘The Beggar’ and then some work on harmony singing. Lots of other songs were explored including a rousing version of ‘Dicky of Taunton Dean’. There was lots of laughing too when things went a bit…er ..awry and there was a bit of ‘part swapping’ too, and why not?

_DSC2654The evening concert was a blast, I took the part of MC and welcomed the audience and thanked them for their support for Halsway and later conducted 25 members of the Halsway Choir squashed together on a very small stage through a folk, african-american, Baka people, English repertoire ending with Sezenina ‘What have we done?’,. A South African song  from the apartheid era in one of the Zulu languages. It included the verse ‘Wenzenina u Mandela’ and we felt incredibly emotional as we remembered the man and his struggles for his people and with lots of encouragement, the audience joined in with choruses which was wonderful! James Findlay’s set wow-ed everyone, powerful voice, great instrumental skills and lots of stories and cheeky banter…and CDs only £10!!! – according to the advert on his Mac Airbook which he placed on stage for all to see!!

_DSC2674Sunday brought real treasure. The course participants were invited to bring a song to share. We learned about the legend of the ‘The Halsway Ghost’, then stunning twin female vocals accompanied by autoharp, then ‘Johnny’s lost his marble’ had us singing along. There was a little Somerset song about pancake days and the accompanying fun had at Chilton Polden in the early 1950s, and some lovely classical guitar. The temptation to check on the ‘Murray match’ at Winbledon proved too much for some; the library TV was switched on and there was a run to the library to check the score. We finished the day learning the four-part west gallery song ‘Halsway Grace’. It sounded wonderful. The sun shone, lots of friendships were made, people smiled and laughed a lot and the traditional Halsway Sunday afternoon cream tea ended what was a magical weekend.

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Halsway has the ability to draw you in and then somehow, you never want to leave, but we had to. My best memory of the weekend? The spirited singing of ‘don’t go kissing the girls at Bridgwater fair’.

All images kindly supplied by James Findlay, who when he wasn’t playing or singing, was photographing! Thank you James!

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