A journey by Sam Sweeney to buy a new violin, revealed an amazing connection to a fallen First World War soldier. Tim Hughes hears the compelling story behind the musician’s new show
When folk musician Sam Sweeney bought a fiddle from a violin shop in Oxford, he had no idea it would be the start of a musical odyssey that would change his life.
The artist, a member of folk supergroup Bellowhead, was told the instrument was new, but was intrigued by a label inside, giving the date 1915 and the name Richard S Howard, Harehills, Leeds.
Investigating further, he discovered it had been made, but never finished, by a music hall performer called Richard Spencer Howard, who had been called up to join the Army in 1916, aged 34.
He was killed just over a year later at the Battle of Messines in Flanders.
The carved pieces of the violin lay in a brown envelope for nine decades, before finding their way into the hands of Oxford luthier Roger Claridge, who runs a business in Poplar Road, Botley, who finished the fiddle and put it on sale.
Sam spotted it soon after — though, he insists, it was purely by chance.
“I went into the fiddle shop and tried about 30 instruments. But this one had an amazing melancholic tone and I fell in love with it.
“It appeared to be brand new, but it said it had been made in Leeds in 1915. it was a bit of a mystery, so I decided to research how this violin could look new but be so old. And I count myself lucky to be able to tell this story.”
The fiddle is the inspiration for a show of music, storytelling and film, called Made in the Great War, which, by another coincidence, coincides with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
Sam plays the fiddle throughout — starting with songs popular at the time, before moving on to a set telling the story of the fiddle and its original owner.
The show comes to The Theatre, Chipping Norton, on September 9.
“I can’t really believe this project is about to start,” he says. “I can’t get my head around it. It has consumed my life for two years and has taken an enormous amount of work.”
The project was made possible by a grant from the Arts Council England. Sam says: “The whole point was to do something out of my comfort zone. I had this amazing story, and wanted the world to hear it. So I applied for funding to take it on the road and tell it to the country.”
He got in touch with storyteller Hugh Lupton, who narrates the story of the violin. He also enlisted the help of concertina, harmonium and fiddle player Robert Harbron and multi-instrumentalist and fellow Bellowhead member Paul Sartin, who join him on stage.
Music includes upbeat early 20th century music hall favourites, which Richard Howard would have played, songs referencing the war and encouraging men to join up. It moves on to later pieces which give a more jaded and cynical view of life in the trenches — songs such as Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty and What Did You Do in The Great War Daddy. Taking inspiration from military music of the period, Sam weaves in rearrangements of The Wellesley — the marching music from Richard Howard’s unit, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment.
He also reworks the old folk ballad The Cruel Sister — which features a talking fiddle made from the bones of a corpse — though sets his version in the trenches.
“It’s gloomy, but an amazing thing to tell people,” he says. “Some of the music is traditional and some is composed, but it’s all really powerful. And it’s not too sad.”
The show culminates in footage of Sam playing the fiddle at Richard Howard’s grave. “It’s the moment where the whole thing comes full circle,” he says. “There was something ethereal and cathartic about taking his legacy back to where it began.
“He never got the chance to finish his fiddle, dying in one of the deadliest conflicts of all time. The one thing that lives on though is this instrument, though his family knew nothing of it. When I got in touch with them, they were blown-away. They were totally overwhelmed.”
He insists the timing of the show was not deliberate. “It’s totally by chance that it happened this year,” he says. “But the centenary commemorations have stoked people’s interest in the show.”
He adds: “The First World War is a ridiculous thing to try and get your head around, but really this is the story of one man, a violin that was never finished and how I found it by chance.”
“Or perhaps the violin chose me. It spoke to me — and I knew it had something to say. It’s unbelievable — but it’s true.”