Folk singer Sam Lee tells Tim Hughes of his research into long-lost songs and tales
There can’t be much left to say about the Great War, can there? We know about the mud and carnage suffered by those in the trenches; about the grand folly of their leaders, about the patriotism, camaraderie and heroism, and how the consequences of victory and defeat would go on to cause another even more destructive conflict just two decades later.
What is less well documented is the impact of the Great War back home. How did events in Belgium and France affect life in our towns and villages?
What did our great-grandparents make of the ‘war to end all wars’?
And, more poignantly, how did our communities deal with the sorrow of so many of their folk never coming back?
It is these untold stories which have inspired folk singer Sam Lee to embark on his most ambitious project yet — to unearth the wartime folk songs and personal stories of people in four rural communities, including Witney and West Oxfordshire.
Two years on from the Mercury Prize nomination for his debut album, Ground of its Own, which retold the songs of Romany gypsy and Irish travellers in Oxfordshire and neighbouring areas, Sam has returned to the county to speak and to collect more songs and tales — this time passed down second or third hand from our relatives of 100 years ago.
Having trawled West Oxfordshire — and communities in Wiltshire, Devon and Cornwall — Sam is presenting his findings this Sunday, at a night of song and storytelling at Cogges Manor Farm, in Witney.
Called Forever England, the show will also feature multi-instrumental-ists Nico Brown, Cosmo Sheldrake and Gwendolen Chatfield.
“This is my way of marking the centenary of World War One,” he says, speaking from Braunton, near Exmoor — where he has also been collecting songs and stories. “I am doing a series of concerts based on accounts, reminiscences, songs, stories and experiences.
“The effects are still in living memory and marked the lives of people still alive. Everywhere we went we heard stories from people whose fathers and grandfathers fought.”
Sam continues: “The experiences of people directly involved are well documented and their stories told many times, so we are not delving too much into the details of the war. We are looking more at the effects at home, and, specifically, how the war affected families back here.
“There are lots of wonderful stories from people who remember being told not to ask dad about the war, and of parents never talking about their experiences. It was taboo, and there was a silent honour.
“But there was a lot of cheerfulness as well. Music was a celebration. They were hard times but there was a sense of empowerment, especially for women, and a lot took pride in stepping up to the mark. “And while there is no one alive old enough to have fought or worked, their children certainly remember hearing about it.”
A recurring theme is the loss of traditions brought about by the loss of so many people from the same gener-ation. Morris dancing sides died out when men failed to return from the front, and with them vanished the songs, tunes and dances which had been passed down from father to son. “I listened to the songs of the Ducklington Morris who revived their dances after learning routines from one survivor who came back from the war. And then there were the songs I heard from a Witney man in his 70s, passed down from Freda Palmer of Leafield.”
The oldest person he met was a 102-year-old woman in Devon who recalled seeing a zeppelin.
The show features music written by Sam and the other artists, putting tunes to the words they have collected — including letters home from the trenches to families and lovers and those informing wives of the death of their husbands.
“There are some emotional stories,” he says. “But there is also some humorous and filthy stuff. It’s interesting to see how much music was used as propaganda and comparing that to the poetry — which was full of mud, dirt and blood. There’s definitely no romance there whatsoever.” He said Cogges was the perfect location for a night of this kind. “It’s an interesting, historic place of work,” he says.
As well as the sung and spoken word, Sam has also encouraged local people to lend the museum personal artefacts and memorabilia connected with the First World War, as well as local archives.
This is not the end of the project, however. Sam will continue collecting material, and this autumn presents a larger scale show of bigger venues with North Eastern folk singers The Unthanks.
“These are beautiful local stories we are setting to music,” he says. “We are showing what happened when the French mud was brought home.”
* Forever England is part of the Imperial War Museums’ Centenary Partnership Programme.
Cogges Manor Farm, Witney
Sunday at 7.30pm
Tickets: £10 for adults/£8 for concessions/£6 for children
Call 01608 642350 or visit www.cogges.org.uk