Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The Folker

For a reluctant introvert who is happiest in his own company and resolutely unfond crowds, I've always had an odd attraction to standing up in front of them and performing. I blame my parents. I guess. Dad does say there's something of a family history of this. On my mother's side, at least. Through their interests I was certainly raised in the company of performers, of folk clubs, community choirs, amateur dramatic societies and the like.

By age 7 I'd already been put into tights and pushed onto stage as part of the kids' chorus of a Christmas pantomime.

Growing up in Kuwait, in the late 70's, along with Company yacht club it has to be said, the local expatriate amateur dramatics society, the Kuwait Little Theatre or "KLT" as it was affectionately known, was the hub of my parents social life and therefore mine.

The previous year I'd simply accompanied them to the rehearsals and shows whilst they got involved in the whole tramping around on stage in tights bit themselves. For the first few nights of the production they sent me out front to sit and watch. It was pretty much a gated, privileged community back in those days, and folks could afford to let their kids pretty much run wild and unsupervised. By the second sitting, I'd memorised all the lines, and was sat out in amongst the audience reciting them milliseconds ahead of the actors actually delivering them, to the frustration of all concerned except myself. I was enrapt.

I got into a bit of trouble over that, it really wasn't the done thing to steal a pantomime dame's punchlines, and so wasn't allowed out audience side of the stage again. And the following year I was, as mentioned, put out on the stage myself.

I'm pretty sure my debut, tights, tunic, stage paint and all, was as one of a crowd of minions of the Gnome King in the pantomime Cinderella. There was a song involved, cunningly entitled "The Gnome Song". I seem to recall we didn't actually sing it, but danced on stage as the Gnome King performed it for us.

I've never been much for dancing, but needs must. It was, after all, pantomime. We've all got to start somewhere.

I am moving to a point here, some kind of segue into the actual purpose of this post.

The Gnome Song was by an irreverent English West Country comedian and folk singer called Fred Wedlock. Or, at least if it wasn't written by him, it was certainly performed by him. I discovered later that Fred, just like most of his comedic contemporaries of the time, was, well, "artistically light-fingered" when it came to lifting material from other sources making it his own.

Anyway. Mum couldn't sing and Dad couldn't play, but a musical instrument is, essentially, a mathematical and mechanical puzzle, and Mum was a smart lady with both gift and taste for such a challenge. So we had a full piano sized electric keyboard in the house, a "Bontempi" if I recall, and a guitar or two.

Mum never really took to the keyboard, although I was given free reign with it and by the age of 6 or 7 had deciphered where to find middle C, worked out the basics of a scale on both paper and keys and was picking out the melody to the Beatles "Yesterday" for my own amusement. Not because I knew who the Beatles were, or particularly liked them, but rather because it was in the song-book Mum kept on the music stand of the piano.

Meanwhile Mum was deciphering the chords and transcribing the lyrics so she could accompany Dad on the guitar singing various folk songs, both of the serious, "finger in yer ear" kind like Barbara Allen and The Water is Wide, and the less serious, tongue in cheek parodies penned or so skilfully adopted by the likes of Fred Wedlock, which included sophisticated titles like the afore mentioned Gnome Song, or The Bantam Cock, or The Frog and the Vicar, or An English Country Garden or The Widow and the Cat. Or British Rail:

"In the carriage there is a chain / And if you pull it it stops the train / There's a twenty-five pound fine if your unwise / So ladies if you're being molested / Wait until you've been divested / It ain't worth five fivers otherwise"

Sorry, I was tripping down memory lane for a second there. I'll stop. Self-indulgence ill becomes me. In any case, that gives you an illustration of the quality of wit involved in this stuff.

Anyway, skip forward some five or six years. I'm now into my early teens. I've had half a decade's worth of piano lessons but, like my Mum before me, have discovered that the guitar is so much easier and so much more versatile. Not to mention cooler. And you can (or could back then) carry it on board an aeroplane as hand luggage, and for most of my early teen years I was doing a lot of air travel, back and forth between my boarding school in the UK and my parents who were still working in Kuwait.

And I wanted to perform. I've always been drawn to that spot in centre stage. It's not about me, it really isn't. And that's not false modesty. Sure, I'll happily talk, or preferably write about myself until the cows come home, I'm very familiar with my own opinions and my ego; next to sailing I'm possibly my own favourite subject.

But really, honestly, that spot on stage is about anything but the actor, the band or the musician. It's about the song, the verse or the play, about the escape; immersing yourself in something that's entirely external to you, and drawing in, feeding off and living within the reaction and participation of the audience.

I'm very much of the opinion that art is intrinsically worthless in and of itself. You may have a different opinion and I can respect that. I think certain members of my band have a different opinion, although I suspect that's just a limitation of their particular perspective. They're artists. But whatever slim pretence I may have towards that, it's quite secondary to my role as a performer.

And in my view, a singer is nothing without the song, the song is nothing without the gig, the gig is nothing without the crowd. The validation of an audience is everything. Though don't get me wrong: a crowd can be a crowd of one or a multitude. I've performed to both. I've had gigs good and bad before both. The quality of a crowd is not a simple, numerical metric.

To return to my original thread however. The trouble was, I'd figured I could just about string together a few picked chords, sing a steady note and had a definite gift for remembering lyrics and a tune. But I wasn't centre stage material, I was more pantomime chorus or third guy on the right in the crowd of extras. I don't walk into a crowded room and immediately draw attention. If I talk, more often than not I'll get talked over, unless I force the issue.

Which is perhaps why I prefer to write.

But I'd found this raft of comedy folk songs, hand written or occasionally typed chords and lyrics deciphered by Mum all those years ago when she used to accompany Dad at those monthly KLT folk nights. And Dad had all these tapes of this bloke Fred Wedlock singing these songs in a comfortable, familiar, West Country Bristolian accent, and to my delight I discovered they were bloody hilarious.

The realisation hit me that even if I couldn't sing and I couldn't play guitar, I could at least learn these chords and these lyrics and hammer out these old Fred Wedlock tunes and if the quality of the performance, of the singing or the playing couldn't justify or hold the audience, then the comedy of the material still would.

In pursuit of the limelight I've never really been bothered about whether people laugh with me or laugh at me. Because if they have to laugh at me, I've always been able to still laugh along with them.

This has to be the longest winded introduction to a song I've ever given. I'd never get away with this on stage. If you're still with me, congratulations; in this new age of quarantine and self isolation, you must really be running out of things to read!

There was one Fred Wedlock song I always loved, but Mum and Dad never covered it themselves, which meant that, unlike the rest of Fred's repertoire, I had no easy access to the chords and lyrics having already been transcribed for me. So, in a pre-Internet age, when you couldn't just look these things up on Google, I continued to love and admire the song from afar, but never actually put in the hard graft to learn it.

I've always meant to, it's just one of those things I've never gotten around to.

The song is a parody of folk clubs and the pub-gigging rock 'n' roll lifestyle and desperately trying to "make it big", put to the melody of one of my absolute favourite Simon and Garfunkel tunes, "The Boxer".

Actually, I love pretty much anything Simon and Garfunkel ever recorded, so could easily call any of them my favourite. But Fred only nicked the tune to The Boxer, so it's special.

One of the advantages of my current situation at work is that when the rest of the staff go home at 5pm (ie. by "the rest" I mean my mate Matt) and I can relax my vigilant watch over our company networks, I have the entirety of this old mill to myself, with nary another soul within earshot.

That's a rare treat for me. I also keep a couple of guitars in the office, always have.

So last Thursday, after work, I stayed on a little late at the mill and finally worked out the chords and lyrics to my favourite Fred Wedlock song, "The Folker".

It's not the sort of song the band would ever let me play at a gig, but as a suddenly socially distanced, involuntary solo performer with a camera phone and the length and breadth of social media spread out before my digital feet, there was nothing but my dignity and self-respect to stop me.

They never really stood a chance.

A quick word of caution. Whilst not exactly justifying an "Explicit Content!" warning that so many of these up and coming youngsters in the charts seem to actively aspire to these days, the content of the song that follows is a little coarse in places. And I don't (just) mean the production values . . . .

So, without further ado, I give you "The Folker"

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