We chatted to James Bell about his upcoming album launch here at the Old Fire Station, asking, what prompted him to do the album now, his reasons for looking into the Bodleian archives, and why there are folk songs about transvestite highwaymen…
This is the first album you’ve released; it has just been EPs up until now. What sparked off a full-length album?
Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: three EPs of songs that I’ve written and one LP of purely traditional music. That’s been the plan for a while; what took so long was getting the other EPs done first. And I was really hoping to do this album in a band rather than solo, but that didn’t work out for various reasons, so I thought I’d record it as a solo project.
Solo rather than band was a bit of a challenge, because it meant I had to play all of the instruments and there are a lot of instruments on this album! – Guitar, melodeon (button accordion), fiddle, bass, recorder, harp, concertina, harmonica, glockenspiel and various forms of percussion. Even the kazoo makes a brief appearance! Some of these I played before I started the album, and some of these I didn’t.
A lot of the songs that you’ll be playing on the 21st September and on the album you have discovered in the Bodleian Library and haven’t been performed in over 100 years. That must be really exciting… How did that come about?
Up to this point I’d mainly been getting the folk songs I’d perform from other artists, or from hearing them at folk sessions. I’d usually find myself putting my own spin on them, and adapting them to highlight a particular tune or lyric or rhythm or something. But for this album I thought I would go back to the archives and find something totally new. (By which, of course, I mean incredibly old!)
The Bodleian Library has an extremely large collection of ‘broadside’ songs: essentially mass-produced sheets of song lyrics. They generally didn’t have any musical notation on them, although they would sometimes indicate that these words could be performed to the tune of another well-known song. And this was basically the music industry in England from the invention of the printing press to the rise of sheet music in Victorian times.
What makes you pick a certain sing when you find one and what is the process from finding one to performing it?
When it comes to choosing a broadside to perform or record, the first thing I’ll do is flick through the collection, seeing if anything catches my eye. A good title helps, and if a tune is suggested to go with it then even better. I’ll read the first few lines, and if there’s something that immediately looks intriguing then I’ll read the whole song (which is not always easy, as the prints are sometimes very hard to read!) And then I’ll weigh up whether I think the song is interesting enough for me to live with it for the next few years.
If there’s something about it that hooks me, the next thing I’ll do is try and research as much about it as I can. Are there any other versions? Do we have any idea who wrote it, and when, and where? Then I’ll concentrate on the tune. If no tune is suggested on the sheet then I’ll go through my iTunes library (I’m sure Edwardian folk collector Cecil Sharp used the same method) and see if I can find any good tunes from around the same period that fit the words.
And if none of that works then I’ll just give up and nick something from Martin Carthy.
Songs about jealous lovers, devious doctors, lethal mermaids and transvestite highwaywomen – that all sounds a bit dark! Has all folk music got such bizarre themes?
Ha – that does not even *begin* to scratch the surface when it comes to the weird stuff! Just off the top of my head I could have chosen love affairs between the living and the dead, a woman tricking the devil by rolling in chicken dung, and any number of euphemisms for sex so bizarre that I sometimes wonder if they’re written by spies communicating with each other in code.
But the songs on the album are actually not that dark. Most of the songs are actually fairly upbeat, although they often have a black sense of humour running through them – which perhaps says more about me than folk music as a whole!
I think it’s important to make the point that, with at least four hundred years of songs to choose from, any singer of English traditionals will always pick songs that speak to their own tastes and personality. We could never ever give an accurate picture of everything, any more than a singer in the future could pick songs that sum up music in the twenty-first century. Some songs are dark, some are funny, some are sweet, some are obscene, some are just plain bonkers. (And, whisper it if you dare, a lot of them are actually badly written and really quite boring, but I try to avoid those.)
The songs on this album that I’ve been particularly excited about are ones that seem to be based on real events. The transvestite highwaywoman is a good case in point. It seems she was a real person, and her name was Miss Hughes (it doesn’t give her first name), and because of some undisclosed scandal she ran away from home and made her living as a highwaywoman. Or rather, as a highwayman, because she dressed up in man’s clothes and pretended to be man.
This was actually quite common: there are all sorts of folk songs, and references in historical records, about women unhappy with their lot who dress up as men and become soldiers or sailors or criminals. Miss Hughes, the song states, robbed a man called Mr Witcomb of £220, which in 1820 would have been a vast sum of money. And then she gave it to the poor. I’m not going to tell you how her story ends though – you’ll have to come and see the performance on the 21st!
We’ve heard that you’re keen we sing along?
It’s totally optional, of course. But the band – the Half Moon All Stars – is basically a choir of 8 or 9 people who also play instruments. Singing is right at the heart of these songs, and I’m sure any audience members who are familiar with folk clubs and folk sessions will know what to do!
And finally, Morris Dancing if you turn up at 7.30pm before the performance on the 21st, what’s that all about?
I play melodeon in the band for Armaleggan Border Morris (http://armaleggan.org/). Alas, I won’t be playing myself as it requires a costume and make-up that I would have to take off before the main event, but I’m very happy that they’re up for it, as Morris dancing, particularly the Armaleggan way, is a thread that runs right through the folk music I play, and through this album in particular.
Incidentally, if anybody reading this has an epiphany and realises that the one thing that would make their life complete is to paint their face, wear a top hat with pheasant feathers in it and go round the pubs of England drinking lots of beer and hitting other like-minded people with sticks, we’re always looking for new members! Because the more available dancers there are, the more often the rest of us can sit down and drink. Which, as every Morris dancer knows, is really the point of the exercise.