The Living Tradition
|Dave Webber & Anni Fentiman by Bob Walser||
Warm and open like a hillside in the summer sun, Dave Webber and Anni Fentiman sing songs of the old and new tradition. Mostly unaccompanied, their repertoire ranges from traditional songs of England, through vintage songs from Tyneside in the North-East, to newly-written material; some of this is written by Dave himself. An evening with them includes solo songs from each, but when they sing together the sound is magical. Usually, Daves rich baritone takes the melody. Anni complements the song with strong harmonies that first guide the audience into the song then embellish it with lovely moving vocal lines and graceful arabesques. Both are masters of their instrument with power and control shaped by a deep knowledge and love of traditional song. Youll find them at clubs and festivals at the centre of a roomful of glorious song as well as on several recordings. But who are these singers (and lovers, too, now married ten years) and how did they come to their special way of presenting traditional song?
Anni Fentiman is a Gateshead lass from the south bank of the River Tyne who first discovered folk music through a friend who took her and her mates along to folk clubs. She fondly remembers The Barleycorn Folk Club run by Stefan Sobell, The Gosforth Folk Club and, a bit later, the singaround in the Baltic Tavern in Newcastle where she first started singing about 1973. She quickly started to sing Tyneside songs, and they've become a hallmark of her repertoire. "In the early 'Seventies a lot of people didnt sing them because they were old hat and wed all learnt them in school", she says, "but I thought I could sing them differently to that, and could put a bit more into them."
In 1976, she moved to London and began going to the Herga folk club where she found a number of good singers which made her dig more into the Tyneside songs. It was one way of doing things that was different from other people, and they went down well. Her attractive Tyneside lilt might have had something to do with that! However, with known authors and histories, much of the Tyneside material fell outside some definitions of 'folk'. Of this, Anni says: "I thought they were traditional just like Lancashire industrial revolution songs from the same era whose authors are unknown." What matters to her is that "songs tell of how life was they take you into that time without it being a history lesson, so that you are almost in the middle of the time looking out of it rather than in a history book, reading about how things were." She's drawn to songs expressing a very personal point of view. "As an example," she cites "here's the "Gallowgate Lad":
Its five years since we first got acquainted
"That just says such a lot its like bringing that way of life [right down to wearing stays] closer to you. Amazing stuff. Brings it all more alive." Personal connection to a song is important to her: "Thats a huge thing for me, to be able to touch something past and then pass it on Its a fantastic feeling when you get up and sing an old song and you can feel people understanding it because of the way youve sung it."
Her first solo booking was in 1978 at a London folk club, Southwark. "I nearly fell over when they asked me", she recalls. "I did the whole night. I was absolutely terrified, I stood and shook the whole time." Nonetheless, she recalls being encouraged early on by Peter Bellamy, "getting support from a traditional singer as good as Peter was probably the biggest boost I ever had."
Southerner Dave Webber, from Swindon, developed his taste for traditional music at Ted Pooles Swindon Folk Club. He fondly remembers the significance of a floor spot almost 30 years ago: "You went there, you were asked to sing, you approached it with fear and trepidation, went along and did your piece and nobody mentioned it again for maybe a month. It wasnt a question of Im here, so whens my turn?" Like Anni, his first solo booking happened after he moved away from home territory, in this case, to Devon where he was invited to do a 'Feature Night' at a club in Braunton. He modestly says, "I was awful. I still have the set list I look at it and cringe!" But hes put that experience behind him and developed his skill as a singer of traditional song. He now says that "you sing songs a long time before you become a singer." For him, singing is about interpreting a song: "I think thats where you kind of break through and find the crock of gold in a song. You can go along the track of the tune and the words but there comes a point (and its only with some songs) where somehow you get through to the treasure Its largely a people thing for me. There has to be an individual in the song somewhere that I can characterise and relate to... writing's like that for me too, because I write from the standpoint of a particular character."
He sees his role as interpreter of songs: being able to take a piece and to communicate it to other people. "Thats where I see people like Peter Bellamy and Martin Carthy particularly as very skilled because theyve got that ability to take a traditional piece and package it in such a way that it drops in the lap of the listener."
In 1986 Anni and Dave joined forces with Charley and Cathy Yarwood to form the powerful harmony quartet Beggars Velvet which ran for eight years. The groups professional career began in a naturist camp. Dave recalls, "I approached that gig with a great deal of fear and trepidation, fortunately it was in October and they were fully clothed!" In August 93, circumstances forced the group to break up, and Dave and Anni began working as a duo.
What shapes their sound? To start with, they are both good listeners. While they cite bands like the Watersons, Young Tradition and Swan Arcade as influences, their singing owes a lot to hours spent listening to older singers, absorbing the nuance and flavour of traditional song. More than big name artistes, the ordinary floor singers in the North-East were Annis main influences though she remembers being unexpectedly "totally blown away" by Bert Lloyd. Dave agrees, and also names Louis Killen and Roy Harris. Of the latter, he says: "There wasnt anyone else doing a night of 'a capella' English material, and I always found him an inspiring performer to listen to."
The pair are solidly established on the folk scene with club and festival bookings as well as recordings done together and with other singers. When asked about their success they seem rather non-plussed. Reflecting a bit, Anni remarks "if theres anything that contributes to any success that we have I think its because we love what we do." Dave also puts it down to the friendship of some great people. He feels the sense of a wider folk community: "Weve got to work some really good places for some really good people. It's a two way process."
Because the music is so important to them, Dave and Anni have strong values for their own work and the world of traditional song. "I think that participation is the greatest strength of folk song," says Dave. "I think its also one of our biggest weaknesses - because at the moment theres an awful lot of people out there not worrying about the quality and the standard of what theyre doing. I think this whole anybody can have a go attitude is absolutely right and proper on one level, but there needs to be some kind of sensible balance about it. Otherwise, all we do is compound folk musics rather naff image and drive people away. Quality isn't about having a good singing voice rather, Im talking about taking some care about the song, to learn it properly, to find out where it came from, to understand something about the style that youre trying to enter into and just generally putting in some effort'. It's about taking responsibility for what youre doing. I think as a performer at whatever level, whether you're a paid artiste or just getting up to do your turn, the first consideration before you open your mouth needs to be, How am I going to reach the people who are here listening? How am I going to get this song out to those people?'. Because if youre not going to do that, then why bother going out? You could have stayed at home and sung to yourself in the bath."
Together with Newcastle friends Joyce and Danny Mcleod, Dave and Anni have recently embarked on a new venture called The Old and New Tradition. To begin, they've created a record label that isnt strictly traditional, nor strictly revival, but works through the continuation of the tradition. As Dave says "We want to see the good stuff from the revival, the good songs, co-existing with traditional material." The venture is primarily focussed on helping artistes produce their own albums with the benefit of Dave, Anni, Danny and Joyces skills and experience. Quality' is the keyword. Dave doesn't mince his words over the need for it: "The whole folk movement needs a serious dose of quality control, and not only in performance, it needs it particularly in respect of recorded material too."
His and Anni's approach to this issue, as to so many others, is well summarised by Anni: "If you love the songs and sing them with feeling and respect then the chances are good that they will strike the same chord in other people as well."
Links, further information and recordings:
Website: Old and New Tradition