The Living Tradition
I Love Sidmouth
- by George Frampton Issue 20 March/April '97
saw my twentieth consecutive year at the Sidmouth Festival of the Folk Arts
as it is now called. I know many more can boast a greater number, but it
is worth examining why the festival appealed to me in the first place and
how it has maintained its position as sole choice for my annual holiday.
Before 1977, I had the impression that this festival, which was then organised by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, was a stuffy affair imbued with all the worst dimensions of said organisation. Being a bachelor then and with holiday time to spare, I put prejudices aside and have never looked back. That year witnessed the honing down of some of the rougher edges of the English revival with the birth of the Old Swan Band and Flowers and Frolics having passed some years back. The Morris dance scene was at that time progressing from "black shoe and baldricks" into something more exciting. Topic Records were still putting out archive discs by which we could benefit.
To one degree or another, Sidmouth championed each of these and became the cutting edge of the Revival. There was Taffy Thomas' "End of the Pier" show in the drill hall on the Esplanade which featured the new wave of English country music bands including as it did, the Wednesday night Music Hall overspill from the Manor Pavilion - the latter of which in those days "didn't have a bar" as Taffy gleefully reminded us punters. The Morris workshops were just getting over the shock that the EFDSS and Sidmouth Festivals were open to all regardless of gender - still an issue then, and inroads were being made into Welsh Border and North-West traditions which were generally undanced at that time. Lunacy reigned on the seafront with all manner of dancing in the sea. It was surely Nirvana!
The fringe seemed bigger than the festival itself. At that time, and it is still true today, you didn't just look at the guest list and make up your mind to go or otherwise. If you enjoyed singing (as a performer or listener), there were singarounds in "The Anchor" or "The Horse and Groom". If you enjoyed Irish music, you'd make for "The Swan". If the newfound English style was your cup of tea, then "The Old Ship" was for you. It was something for everyone.
Concerts were never really in it. The one focus for all was the Beach Store which, like its name suggests, was a repository for deck chairs in winter. This was the venue for performers. Anything even vaguely "contemporary" was frowned upon at this chapel of tradition - I remember scant applause being delivered e'en to the classiest of bluesman on the infrequent occasions they were booked at the festival - a great pity since I happen to like the music as much as I do English fayre.
But when all was said and done, Sidmouth is an international festival, although the global aspect was mainly confined to the colourful entourage of dancers who would take part twice daily at the Knowle arena, together with selected display teams from this country. I had the honour to be included among these on three occasions when I danced with the Seven Champions molly dancers in front of all those people - a helluva place to cock up a dance you had only just learned as I remember it on my first outing in 1983! This international aspect has never changed, and indeed is the one attraction that pulls in visitors by the bus-load in this Devon seaside town. My favourite teams this year were the France/Canadian team from Montmagny in Quebec, who mix the courtly dances from the eighteenth century with a vigorous clogging style; and Cancioneiro de Cantanhede from Portugal who sing as they dance in a cajunesque polka. It was a French team from Berry by whom I was introduced to the delights of hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe music years before Blowzabella championed the cause. I still dream about the Ponte Caffaro carnival dancers from Lombardy who performed back in 1985 with their unique shrovetide country/morris style complete with boots, masks and hats weighed down with a few kilos of ribbon!
The years on from there saw gradual but notable changes. The Beach Store became the site of a hotel, and nothing ever replaced it. The clientele were now ten years older, and with no new generation interested, numbers had started to fall off. Two bad summers saw the campsites turned into quagmires by day two. An uninspired choice of guests, both up-and-coming and established, was particularly memorable for the wrong reasons. And more significantly, its sponsor (the EFDSS) was on the threshold of bankruptcy. Enter Steve Heap.
However, there was still enough enthusiasm in the festival for it to regenerate itself and provide future appeal. Mrs Casey Music took over the running of everything, and has progressively streamlined both the song and dance side to ensure its prosperity rather than survival. This has witnessed a shift of the "dance for dancers" from centre stage towards periphery. The guest list now reflects the rising interest in International "Roots" music. The burgeoning interest for musical tradition too is well catered for. Families have their evening ceilidhs on the edge of town which include the top bands on the main list. New trends such as West Gallery music and Appalachian clogging are fostered - this year included Gregorian chant in Latin among its workshops!
A typical day for me at Sidmouth would see me start at a 9.30 am workshop on Cambridgeshire Molly dancing, meander around until noon whenupon I'd arrive at "The Volunteer" for John Howson and Dan Quinn's "In the Tradition" lunchtime sessions and a good sing, after that a hike up to the Council Chamber for one of Dave Townsend's West Gallery music workshops, then on to "The Radway" to see who's around and join in with a music session, before meeting up with the family for a "Meet the Team" at the Dance Tent at the Knowle area, tea, and the St. Francis Hall Ceilidh with bands as diverse as Banjax or Bampton's Woodpecker band. Enough to keep me busy at any rate!
The Children's Festival functions as a co-running entity. Back in 1977, this comprised the EFDSS's Hobby Horse Club and Uncle Cyril. Within a few years of this, Dave Hunt had exploded onto the scene as his alter ego Doctor Sunshine and his Pavement Show ("they wouldn't let us perform on the street!") which gave a whole new dimension to children's entertainment. Today, there are circus skills to learn, as well as any number of dance and music workshops. My eldest daughter Amy this year took part in a French/Canadian workout, and hopes to perform the dance she learned at a ballet competition in October. Hints that something more manic would shape the future occurred this year with the Chipolata Five taking centre stage at a speed and with a breathlessness that only children can cope with.
I dare say other commentators would wax lyrically about the concerts at other venues, which this year comprised Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Loudon Wainwright, Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, and many more excellent performers. In fact, I only went to two concerts all week, both good value in their own way. The first of these was "Frost and Fire" which was held at the Knowle Arena on the Wednesday, which was a celebration of theatre, dance and song co-ordinated by Mike Bettison (formerly of Flowers and Frolics/Salami Brothers, etc.) featuring Waterson:Carthy and their various offshoots playing the music, with a cast of hundreds who had attended workshops to make props, act or dance to a programme based on seasonal customs from the Plough Monday sword dance, Valentine's Day, Easter, May Day, to Harvest and Bonfire Night. It was incredibly imaginative. The highlight for me was the song "Bright Phoebus" - Mike Waterson's song, being given a rare outing by his sister and brother-in-law accompanying a wickerwork "cheese" rolled down the hill then reset up as a sun with blades inserted to look like rays beaming down on the 3,000 plus audience. The other concert I went to was "When the May is all in Bloom" which featured the Cooper Family, Ron Spicer, Bob Lewis, and Louie Fuller - again packed to the gills.
As a performer, concerts were to me a distraction, even after paying o79 for a Season Ticket - there was so much else that was interesting going on! My favourite memory of the week wasn't on the programme. Sessions in "The Radway" peak and trough and go on all day, thanks to the changes in the licensing laws. At about 5 o'clock on the Monday, there were only a few musicians left, myself included. One of these was a guitarist called Simon who, perceiving a lull in the proceedings struck up with a twelve bar blues, and to his surprise found willing participants in myself on concertina, and an accordion player who was also present. Flos Headford turned up with his fiddle, and stayed until closing time! On another occasion, I found myself the only box player at Bluegrass hootenany which was on the programme as an American Old-Timey session - it was all fiddles, banjos and mandolins. Well, if it's good enough for Alastair Anderson to guest in on Bill Spence's "Dookin' for Apples", it's good enough for me, I thought at the time.
The week after Sidmouth, I invariably go into a deep depression reminiscing about what I was doing seven days previously! I have dreams going back twenty years to cherish, whether they be Macbeth performed in seven minutes at the Drill Hall, the cheese and wine parties on the camp site, playing in a session at the former Mason's Arms pub which was so small that you couldn't fall down, dancing on stage at the Knowle Arena, taking part in the "Ritual Dance" competition which the Champs won in 1986, watch Andrew Jones of the Mr Jorrocks Morris Dancers go into orbit in a leapfrog dance over 5 feet 10 inches of Bob Piggott who refused even to duck his head, the ceilidh in the ford, the late Billy Bennington's hammered dulcimer crashing to the floor at a "Meet the Tradition" event at Sidford Village Hall, the international dance teams, the sarcophagus and mummy prelude to Wilson, Keppel and Betty's sand dance routine as performed by my present team "The Fabulous Fezheads" - the list is endless. I have made friends at Sidmouth from all across the nation who likewise identify Sidmouth as their annual holiday - need I say more? Next year's Festival begins on Friday 1st August. I have nothing else planned.
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