How often do you see a statue of a fiddle player? Seeing just such a statue, at Sidmouth, in Devon, recently, made me think about the role of musicians (especially fiddlers) in history and memory.
The part of Ireland in which I grew up, Sligo, is renowned for its fiddle players. Sligo gives its name to a distinct style of fiddle playing, distinguished from other Irish local and regional styles. It is also home to a fictional fiddler of some renown, the eponymous subject of Yeat’s early poem, The Fiddler of Dooney.
That particular poem has given its name in turn not only to a traditional Irish music competition but to a near life-size sculpture by Imogen Stuart, created in 1964-65, and sited at a shopping centre in Co. Dublin. Stuart also created an audience for her fiddler of small children dancing – as Yeats puts it in his poem – ‘like a wave of the sea’.
The bronze statue at Sidmouth (also near life-sized) is similarly located in an accessible and much-used public space, by the seafront at the western edge of the town. Sculpted by Greta Berlin, the Sidmouth Fiddler was unveiled in 2004 by guitarist and singer Martin Carthy. The occasion was a notable one, the fiftieth anniversary of the town’s annual folk week, held during the first week of August. Carthy is a patron, and also a regular performer.
I holidayed at Sidmouth in August, 2015. I’d never previously visited. Of Sidmouth folk week I knew nothing. It was a big surprise, then, to encounter a town so given over for the duration to performers of song, dance and story. The streets were thronged. There were events everywhere – in pubs, clubs, hotels, church halls, in purpose-built marquees and also outsdoors in streets, public parks, and on the esplanade. I’d not encountered anything quite like this in an English town before.
Each year in Ireland a nominated town hosts a national and international traditional music festival: an Fleadh Cheoil. The 2015 Fleadh took place in Sligo and attracted (I am told) about 400,000 visitors. Sidmouth folk week is not a ‘national’ event. Though performers and visitors come from near and far, the folk week seems thoroughly integrated into the town’s fabric. For all that, the relationship between festival organisers, local authority and local businesses has not always run smoothly.
What, I wondered, was the history of the event, and what connection did it have with the history of folk music in Devon and beyond? The term ‘folk music’ suggests a cultural activity that has been handed down over a long period of time, often much altered in the process. Many modern western ‘classical’ composers, from Bartok to Schubert, from Copland to Vaughan Williams, have incorporated folk idioms into their music. Yet, to some aficionados, folk music at its purest may embody the lives and hardships of ‘ordinary’ people, most notably in ballads and shanties. In reality, folk music belongs to everyone – and no one.
In some circles there may be argument about origins, provenance, use and misuse. In Sidmouth, I found that people enjoy their music, take an interest in it, and are knowledgeable about it. At one open ballad session, there was discussion as well as singing. I discovered that, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there had been in England, the United States and other countries a surge of interest in folklore, in reclaiming elements of the past soon to be lost forever (it was feared) under the onslaught of industrialisation and urbanisation. Much of what is now known as folk music was created, or even invented, during that period.
Part of folk music’s appeal, of course, is the way in which its practitioners take elements from the past (spoken and danced as well as sung) and interpret (or reinterpret) them for present-day audiences. Not the least interesting aspect of folk culture is the way in which it offers sometimes disquieting glimpses into the past, and present. The most astonishing sight I saw at Sidmouth was that of the Britannia Coconutters. From Bacup in Lancashire, and formed in the 1850s, the Coconutters perform Morris-type dancing – as do many other folk dance troupes. But they do so in blackface. For that, they have attracted strong criticism. In appearance they resemble ‘negro’ minstrels. Are they racists? They are probably not. They explain their appearance in terms of a ‘tradition’, whose origins are obscure and (they admit) open to debate. It seems to me that they cherish, above all, their distinctiveness, and are committed to maintaining it.
There are many folk festivals throughout the British Isles. Judging from the crowds at Sidmouth this August, the folk week there appeared very successful, even though one local man told me that – in his view – numbers were down on previous years. But the festival continues. The festival dates for 2016 are already known: 29th July – 5th August.
The Sidmouth Fiddler has become a kind of logo for the week’s events, its image reproduced on posters and postcards, carrier bags, key rings and fridge magnets. Revenue-generation is a vital part of Sidmouth folk week, and local businesses undoubtedly benefit.
In terms of popularity, folk music may be seen as a ‘niche’ activity. But it has a notably rich history into which people, if they choose, can dip or immerse themselves, totally or otherwise. Folk music is everyone’s, and no one’s.
John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University
Some useful websites:
Sidmouth Folk Week 2015:
Fleadh Cheoil 2015:
The Bacup Coconutters: