I had a fabulous time at the Derby Folk Festival. At one point it did not look like it would go ahead, after a fire at the Assembly Rooms, however a large marquee in the market place saved the day. Bill toppers included Steeleye Span, Show of Hands and Kate Rusby. Lower down the bill however there where some real showstoppers including an outstanding performance from the wonderful Martin Simpson and a lovely laid back slot from Americans Dana and Susan Robinson.
The most moving performance by a long way however was that of In Flanders Fields by vocal trio, Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson. They have been stalwarts of the festival for a long time and one of my personal favourites. That is not just because they release their music on the co-operative No Masters Voice label their vocal harmony singing is sublime and they combine a mastery of the genre with tremendous wit and biting social commentary.
The folk world generally has produced some of the best musical offerings to mark the centenary of the First World War and as you would expect from folk artists generally from the bottom up. Rob Johnsons with Gentle Men his family history of the war to end all wars is very good indeed so is Show of Hands Centenary a mixture of song and poetry from the period.
Coope ,Boyes & Simpson’s is a very substantial piece of work it is both moving and funny and marks a twenty year collaboration not only with the history but the place of Flanders itself. Piet Chielens, Co-ordinator of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres argues that they have been at the forefront of the commemoration in the West Flemish Front Region for twenty years. Their body of work on the war can be seen as a “lieu de mémoire”. Indeed in Flanders, he says, no artistic initiative seems to have been more successfully involved with the theme than that of this trio.
In their show they bring together eye-witness accounts, contemporary poetry and songs specially commissioned for the town of Passchendaele’s Peace Concerts. The albums title, In Flanders Fields takes its name from the poem written by John McCrae who was killed on the Western Front in the First World War. Ironically the poem was used in army recruitment and its references to poppies made them an important part of later commemoration.
In the live shows the pieces between the songs are as well chosen as the songs themselves quips from contemporary music hall song, to extracts from the Ypres Times, the satirical paper produced by the soldiers in the trenches, as well as poetry and letters home.
They give voice to the poor bloody infantry and their contempt for the sergeant majors and officers. Never afraid to prick the bubble of the pompous they create a rounded image of the war that is deeply moving.
Visiting Belgium for twenty years changed the life of Jim Boyes in particular who now lives there. Going over regularly since the 70s, but by becoming involved in Peace Concerts Passchendaele, he got to know a lot of people in Belgium and it soon became his second home.His involvement with the Flemish folk scene began when he had released a solo album called Out The Blue, it was the first thing he had done on the co-operative No Masters label which he had set up with John Tams.
Piet Chielens who wrote for the Flemish folk magazine called Gandalf had known of Jim since his time in Swan Arcade. He reviewed the album which contained a song Down On The Dugout Floor that he had written after a visit to play the Dranouter Folk Festival, near Ypres.
When Piet started the Peace concerts he invited Jim to go over and play with some Flemish musicians. Once there he was asked if there was anyone else that Jim would like to involve. He had just started working with Barry and Lester eventually they took part in five different Peace Concert productions in Belgium and England, performing on former battlefields like Hill 60, among the memorials at Tyne Cot and at the request of the town of Passendale for their eightieth anniversary commemoration of the battle. Many of these performances are now contained on In Flanders Field also working with Piet there is also an impressive book to go with the two CD’s.
At Derby they mocked the Guardian’s description of their work as post-modern folk. More like ‘post-mortem’ they said. Sadly there is nothing post about this work, as we embark on another war, it is strikingly contemporary.
This work is beautiful, funny, passionate and angry and a terrific antidote to much of the jingoism that marks the centenary. They argue that, “the more we learn about war, the more important it becomes to sing about peace.” Get to see them perform if you can and lets hope that’s what everyone who hears them learns too.