Sidmouth Folk Festival: Singing 'like a bloke' and celebrating life and music

All the musicians gather at the end of the Norma Waterson musical tribute

All the musicians gather at the end of the Norma Waterson musical tribute - Credit: Paul Strange

“Ear To The Past, Eye On The Future”, has long been the watchword of the Sidmouth Folk Festival, which distinguishes itself by the number of participatory events it hosts.

Almost half the programme comprises workshops and open sessions offering the opportunity to learn new music and dance styles, from Lancashire clog dancing to the mysteries of the hurdy-gurdy. It’s even possible to attend daily workshops to learn how to play an instrument from scratch, and then perform in a concert on the final Friday.

But in all the years we’ve been covering Folk Week, we’ve never attended any workshops ourselves, so, feeling it was time we did, we signed up for Sing Like A Bloke, hosted by Monday’s Ham headliners, the Spooky Men’s Chorale. Known for their sublime harmonies and raucous Aussie humour, the Spookies have become such a fixture that Sidmouth wouldn’t be the same without them.

The Spooky Men’s Chorale leading the “Sing Like A Bloke” workshop at the Ham Marquee

The Spooky Men’s Chorale leading the “Sing Like A Bloke” workshop at the Ham Marquee - Credit: Paul Strange

The audience doing the “Man-carena” dance moves at the Spooky Men’s Chorale “Sing Like A Bloke” workshop at the Ham Marquee

The audience doing the “Man-carena” dance moves at the Spooky Men’s Chorale “Sing Like A Bloke” workshop at the Ham Marquee - Credit: Paul Strange

Once inside the Ham Marquee we laughed our way through some vocal warm-up exercises before our initiation into harmony singing, Spooky-style. By the end of the session, we were all surprised by how good we sounded, and having mastered the “Man-carena” (with dance moves) the assembled throng were led forth to perform in the Market Square...

With an eye on the future, Shooting Roots is the festival’s own dedicated workshop programme for young people aged 12-17, aimed at passing on the best of folk tradition to the next generation; while we were with the Spookies, the Shooting Roots Funky World Band were busy rehearsing at the Guide HQ.

Nor have the little ones been left out. Small children have their own mini-festival, with activities and entertainment of their own. This year it was at the Peacock Lawn and was buzzing when we passed by en route to the Blackmore Gardens to catch Laurence Marshall’s One Man Band and Gemma Khawajas’s innovative puppet show Up Jumped The Crab.

Gemma Khawad performing her innovative puppet show “Up Jumped the Crab”

Gemma Khawad performing her innovative puppet show “Up Jumped the Crab” - Credit: Paul Strange

Gemma Khawad’s innovative puppet show “Up Jumped the Crab”

Gemma Khawad’s innovative puppet show “Up Jumped the Crab” - Credit: Paul Strange

In the afternoon we returned to the Ham for A True-Hearted Girl, a celebration of the life and music of Norma Waterson, who died earlier this year. One of folk’s most respected names, Waterson has been described as “the matriarch of the royal family of British folk music”.

Martin and Liza Carthy at the end of their emotional musical tribute to Norma Waterson

Martin and Liza Carthy at the end of their emotional musical tribute to Norma Waterson - Credit: Paul Strange

Jim Causley and Fi Fraser at the musical tribute to Norma Waterson

Jim Causley and Fi Fraser at the musical tribute to Norma Waterson - Credit: Paul Strange

Martin Carthy (left) and John Kirkpatrick at the musical tribute to Martin’s wife, Norma Waterson

Martin Carthy (left) and John Kirkpatrick at the musical tribute to Martin’s wife, Norma Waterson - Credit: Paul Strange

Eliza Carthy performing at the musical tribute to her mother Norma Waterson

Eliza Carthy performing at the musical tribute to her mother Norma Waterson - Credit: Paul Strange

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In honour of her memory, her husband Martin Carthy, daughter Eliza Carthy and numerous esteemed musicians – including Yves Lambert, Martin Simpson, Sandra Kerr, John Kirkpatrick and Devon’s own Jim Causley – assembled to share memories and to play some of her favourite music.

With Martin (guitar) and Eliza (fiddle), accompanied by David Delarre (guitar) and Saul Rose (melodeon), the Carthys’ own songs included “Prairie Lullaby” – which Norma once sang to baby Eliza – and a magnificent rendition of “Bold Doherty”. The concert concluded with Norma’s favourite song, “Midnight On The Water”.

It was a deeply emotional tribute, and at times voices cracked and eyes moistened, both on stage and among the audience, leaving no doubt of how much this legendary lady will be missed by the folk community.

Our final stop was the Methodist Church to see young, West Midlands-based choir Stream of Sound, supported by talented young Cumbrian ballad singer Holly Clarke.

Stream of Sound have developed over the years and now take a proactive role in involving teenagers in the folk scene, leading youth harmony workshops at Sidmouth and hosting singing days throughout the year. And it’s their wonderful harmonies – scored by director Caroline Price – that keep drawing appreciative audiences. They sound great anywhere, but the church’s acoustics particularly suited them.

Stream of Sound performing at the Methodist Church

Stream of Sound performing at the Methodist Church - Credit: Paul Strange

One thing we’ve learned about Stream of Sound is always to expect the unexpected, and we weren’t disappointed, with an eclectic programme encompassing Samoan love song “Minoi, Minoi”, “Oak, Ash and Thorn” (adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “A Tree Song”), and Joni Mitchell’s hippy anthem “Woodstock”, as well as traditional favourite “Bread and Roses”. So good to see the folk tradition not only thriving but developing and expanding in new directions.

Laurence Marshall’s One Man Band in the Blackmore Gardens

Laurence Marshall’s One Man Band in the Blackmore Gardens - Credit: Paul Strange

A dance class during Sidmouth Folk Week

A dance class during Sidmouth Folk Week - Credit: Paul Strange