The Living Tradition
|CHRIS FOSTER By Vic Smith||
Chris Foster It's January 1973. Jim Marshall and I have invited Chris Foster to Radio Sussex to record for "Minstrels Gallery". Chris goes into the studio, we get a balance and he reels off eight stunning one-take performances - "When A Man's In Love", "The Golden Glove", "The Banks of Newfoundland", "The Flower of Servingmen" - Jim and I catch one another's eye; we are aware that something very special is going on. Chris comes back through to the control room. Can he listen to the playbacks? Well, we had expected to spend the evening getting three or four songs on tape and inside forty minutes we have eight remarkable performances. We listen in silence to all of them. Chris relaxes. "That's a relief!" he says, "It sounds OK. I've never heard myself singing before." What?
The man had been singing in public for nine years by then and was already a professional singer. How things have changed! This simply would not happen today. Anyone contemplating professionalism now would be circulating demos to seek work; in many cases they would have a CD released before they even though about gigs. Not our Chris. "I actively resisted putting out an album in fact. People were asking me why I hadn't recorded. I just felt that I hadn't learned my craft enough, so I didn't do it. My first album came out in 1977 and I had been touring constantly for five years before then."
Now, this does not imply reticence on his part. In fact, the first time he went to a folk club, he sang. Most of Chris's early repertoire came from records and the Penguin book. The singing came first, and then he took up the guitar as an accompanying instrument. This was the Yetties' folk club at Yeovil where visitors like Cyril Tawney, Tony Rose and Louis Killen were to make a strong impression on him as did Packie Byrne. "That was interesting because a lot of the performers who came were just a few years older than me as a sixth-former. But then Packie came. To me as a teenager, he seemed like an old man. He arrived in a suit and we were thinking, 'Blimey, what's this?' but then, of course, he was an astonishing performer."
After a 'false start' on a science degree, Chris studied at Norwich School of Art. He met Nic Jones during his time there and they became firm friends. Post-graduate study was to be in London. Chris had met up with John Kirkpatrick at Sidmouth Festivals, so visits to John's London folk club, Dingles, were natural and he was quickly asked to become a resident. It was one night there that his singing career got the sort of boost that could not be replicated today. "At that time Jane Winder and Jean Oglesby had built up their agency and that was a sort of who's who of the scene at that time - Boys of the Lough, Richard & Linda Thompson, Dave Burland, lots of people. One night at our club, Sean Cannon turned up and he had Sara Grey as his driver. Jean came down to see him, and then also saw Sara and I sing. She asked me if I would like to join her agency as the cheap end of the list. So when I left college, I became overnight, a professional folk singer. Initially, I was not known, but because the agency had such a formidable list, and they were good agents and because the folk scene was really flourishing at the time, I started picking up late cancellations, clubs that had been too late to book the people they wanted and things like that. I picked up a lot of bookings by default as it were." I don't know how many of those rough Gestetner-copied agency price lists are still in existence, but this collector of folk ephemera has it squirreled away amongst his vast collection and here it is. Boys of the Lough £80, Watersons £80 all the way down to Chris Foster £10.
From then Chris had eight years touring as a full-time pro. Two fine vinyl albums on Topic date from these successful years, but the life was never going to be enough to satisfy a person of Chris's intelligence, range of talents, and radicalism. "It was becoming a treadmill. I couldn't see how it was going to pan out. The fees were at a level where you had to be constantly working to make ends meet. You never had a chance to go away and have fresh thoughts. This was around 1979. The music was too important to me for me just to churn it out. If it was going to be that, then I would prefer to go and do some other kind of job." Chris had moved to Leiston in Suffolk in 1977 and had spent much time in the company of the area's traditional singers, particularly Jumbo Brightwell and Percy Ling. He feels that he learned a great deal about performing the songs from great characters like these, but also he became aware of the role and status that men like these had in their own communities and saw how different it was from the way he was working on a national scene. "I wanted to have an ongoing social context for my work and going around as a solo artist is a pretty isolated kind of life and it didn't seem to hold that possibility. Also it became clear that the folk clubs were going down the tubes, relatively speaking." His university training in visual arts was not getting full use. Politically, Britain was entering the Thatcher era and we were all being asked, by Gaughan and others, 'Which side are you on?' Chris knew and a progression into Community Arts became almost inevitable.
This meant another move, this time to Salisbury and the all-embracing work with Mobile Arts working on multi-disciplined community arts projects around South Wiltshire and parts of Hampshire. He was working with photographers, writers, artists, musicians, dancers, designers and makers of all sorts. Lots of socio-political issues were being addressed; Greenham Common was in the locality and the anti-Cruise missile campaign was one of the focuses. There was still the possibility of using traditional music and song. "Unlike a lot of community art groups at the time, we drew on our own vernacular folk traditions. A lot of community arts groups tended to look overseas. We did that as well but we looked at home as well. We used traditional music in a street band, for instance."
One effect of this was that quite quickly he had a much lower profile around the clubs. "I would say I was disconnected from the folk scene throughout the '80s. I did a handful of bookings in a few folk clubs that basically sought me out - Garland Ox, Bodmin, The Black Diamond club in Birmingham, Lewes and so on. I was just so involved with Mobile Arts in an all-consuming way." I suppose he might not have come back at all, but love of the tradition and of performing never went away. Then his circumstances changed. A funding war between the various support bodies led to the Mobile Arts grant being cut; Chris was jobless and on the move again, this time to Burton-on-Trent and to work on the opening of the Brewhouse Arts Centre there. They were heady, exciting days and Chris looked forward to more community outreach work, but he had a building that represented a huge investment on his hands. "Inevitably, the building sucked me in and I was programming the art gallery and the music. That was a good experience and it made me think. I started to be inundated with demos and promo packages from all sorts of people and music. Quite a lot of Rhythm and Blues bands. I had played bass in a R'n'B band in Salisbury. I was putting on quite an interesting variety of music, all kinds of stuff. I made a pledge that I would listen to everything that came in. There was some good stuff, but a high percentage of garbage. A lot of it was competent, but not more than competent." It was these thoughts that turned his mind back to thoughts of his own performing career. Back to the folk clubs? Well, this was not as easy as it seems. The scene had shrunk considerably in the decade he had been away and his name did not register strongly with a new generation of organisers. Bookings at prominent festivals like Sidmouth and Towersey were a great help, but the scene was very different. Chris had to think of another way of reaching an audience.
Here the experience and knowledge of Arts funding and organisation proved very useful. Along with Chris Cheek, a colleague from Mobile Arts days, he developed a show called "A Sting In The Tale". This was a full performance with a set and props all about animals, songs, stories and poems and the performances were part of several rural touring schemes. A couple of songs had been commissioned from Leon Rosselson but the majority of songs were traditional including songs that he has sung for decades like "The Coasts of Peru" and "The Fowler". It was missionary work. "I did about 30 performances of it in 18 months. It went down great - very mixed age audiences, families coming out together and lots of people that you would never see in a folk club - wouldn't have a clue what a folk song sounded like; completely fresh audiences. Then we did another show in which Chris Cheek and I performed together. That didn't get so many bookings. That was "Travellers' Tales" songs, story telling, spoken links, slide projections, and everything from "The Flying Cloud" to Edward Lear's "The Jumblies". We did each of the shows at a couple of festivals but otherwise it was outside the folk scene."
Then out of the blue came a Canadian tour that included a couple of festivals and a visit to Cape Breton. This came indirectly from a "Whatever happened to Chris Foster?" enquiry on the Mudcat Internet chat group. The prospect of this tour became the incentive and the deadline for the CD that Chris had been working on. This was the superb 1999 album "Traces" with Chris singing in that totally distinctive manner that combines power and passion, with clarity and warmth and those highly individual, inventive accompaniments that really add to and grace the singing. The album is self-produced on his own Green Man label and stands as an example of what a many-talented artist can do when he has control of all aspects of production.
I note that four of the songs on this album were also on his first Topic album - on his radio session for us as well. Yes, the arrangements had changed and developed with the years but he is very loyal to the songs he has learned. Chris picks up my copy of "Layers" and scans the titles. "Let's see... Yes, I still sing more than half of these. I sang four last night at your club. I still sing "The Banks of Newfoundland" now and I had been singing it for ten years before I recorded it on this first album. I have always been fairly picky about songs; I have never learned a huge number of songs to performance level. To do that, I have to like it a lot for the song to stay." So what are the Foster criteria for choosing a song? What's more important, melody or words? "It's got to have all of it in buckets for me to bother to learn it. Sometimes I love the tune but think some of the words inappropriate and so on. I might sometimes set words that I really like to a different tune to make a song better for me. It also has to be something that I think that I can do something with. There are great songs that I wouldn't sing, simply because I think that I couldn't do them justice." All the albums, all the performances as far as I can remember, contain at least one song by Leon Rosselson and that starts the pair of us off on long paeans of praise to that songwriter. Perhaps not the place for it here, but suffice to say, we both hold him in the very highest esteem.
During the 90s Chris gradually reduced his commitment to Burton Brewhouse, considering that the future was in freelancing, including short-term community arts project work, art consultancy work and a renewed commitment to performing. Since September 1999 Chris has been the Co-ordinator of the Baring-Gould Heritage Project working in Devon with Marilyn Tucker and Paul Wilson of The Wren Trust. The project is using live performance, community projects, recordings and publications with an aim of bringing the wealth of material in the Baring-Gould archives into the public domain locally, nationally and internationally.
Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould was squire and parson of the village of Lewtrenchard in West Devon from 1881 until his death in 1924. As well as his duties as a parish priest he was also an antiquarian, hymn writer and author of both fiction and non-fiction, publishing over 400 books and articles in his life time. Unusually among the song collectors of his day, Baring-Gould sought to place the songs in their social and cultural context and took a great interest in the people who sang for him. His note books contain many word pictures of the people from whom he collected and these accounts give a unique insight into the lives of working men and women of Devon and Cornwall in the late 19th century. The main event in the Baring-Gould Heritage Project calendar is a week long study break and festival each autumn.
Baring-Gould had links with Iceland which Chris pursued, resulting in some Icelandic musicians appearing at the festival This led to a musical partnership between Chris and Icelandic singer and composer Bára Grímsdóttir. Bára is one of the finest interpreters of the traditional folk songs of Iceland, perhaps one of the least known song traditions in Europe. It was while she was singing with 'Embla' at the Baring-Gould Festival in October 2000 that Chris met Bára and they started to explore the possibilities of combining Chris's 'open tuned English style' of guitar playing with the modal melodies of her traditional Icelandic songs. Chris and Bára have since put together a programme of songs which has already been performed in 2002 at Towersey Village Festival, at Chard International Women's Music Festival in the UK and at the Siglufjord Folk Festival in Iceland.
In a further collaboration with Sheffield based songwriter Sally Goldsmith. Chris provided guitar accompaniments for a set of eleven songs based on Sally's experiences and the stories from groups of older people who go rambling in the Peak District National Park. This was part of Year of the Artist project by Sally called 'As we walked out'. Following the success of that project Sally was invited to write a song to mark the 70th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass which took place on 24 April 1932. It was this event which prompted Ewan Macoll to write one of his best known songs 'The Manchester Rambler'.
Sally and Chris performed the new song, 'Trespassers will be Celebrated' along with some of the songs from 'As we walked out', at an event held at Bowden Bridge where the mass trespass started from on Saturday 27th April 2002. It was a very moving occasion, compered by Mike Harding and attended by over 1000 people including Michael Meecher the Minister of the Environment who steered the new Countryside Rights of Way act through parliament and The Duke of Devonshire who publicly apologised for his grandfather's conduct in 1932. Following the performance and speeches they all went on a five mile hike along the route taken by the trespassers in 1932.
The experiences that his long and varied career have given him put Chris in a unique position to comment on the folk scene, both as an insider and a passionate enthusiast for traditional song and music and for the folk club system at its best and as an outsider as a man with vast knowledge of the broader world of performing and expressive arts. Coming back to the scene with a fresh eye, he saw that the folk scene had shrunk considerably, but that it was also less open and less visible. "I believe that the music is incredible and accessible but where is it on the mainstream media? The vast majority of people do not hear it. It is invisible. English people do not know what English traditional music sounds like. They may have an idea of what it is like, but it is likely to be way off the mark. They have no concept of how deep or how broad it is."
The latest "twist in the tale" and perhaps an indication of the importance other people put on the English Tradition is the recent re-release of Chris's Topic albums by a company in Japan. The covers are CD sized facsimiles of the original LP sleeves with full text and song notes printed in Japanese.
DISCOGRAPHY Solo recordings:
2002 LAYERS Japanese
import VSCD-832 CD re-issue of the original Topic Records Vinyl album