Oxford Contemporary Music is a city-wide organisation dedicated to producing innovative and varied musical events, working closely with Oxford Brookes University and the City Council. Their latest event featured folk sensation Fay Hield. Hield is one of the UK’s great traditional singers: she was involved in the Full English project by the English Folk Dance and Song Society; is a lecturer of ethnomusicology at Sheffield University; and has released three major albums with her band The Hurricane Party.
The beauty in folk music is that it allows so many avenues to research and explore brilliant old music to produce fresh new interpretations, which were very much in evidence here. Much of Hield’s music is very traditional in form — her major passion is exploring the origins and sources of the songs she performs. Her set on this particular evening included several Oxford songs, as a welcome nod to her location. This focus on old songs with a great deal of exposure in the folk repertoire allows the comparison of Hield’s style with the interpretations of other artists. One particular example was ‘Queen Eleanor’s Confession’, which Hield aptly introduced as ‘one of the Big Ballads’, of which the most famous version sung at the moment is probably Maddy Prior’s (recorded with Tim Hart originally in 1969). Hield’s version was slower and in a minor key, playing up the more menacing and sinister aspects of what is generally presented as a comic song. Many of her songs, particularly ‘Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’, are not the versions that are commonly sung today, but have definite historical provenance (a beautiful animated video of her rendition of ‘Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’ can be found here).
In Hield’s hands, the folk songs became powerful components of a living tradition. Hield’s version of ‘Old Adam’, a traditional song collected by Cecil Sharp in Oxfordshire, is a good example. I had not appreciated that the chorus to the song (John Ball’s famous rallying cry from the Peasants’ Revolt, which has probably been used by every radical movement since, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’), was added by Hield herself. This put a new slant on the song: where previously it criticised human wickedness, Hield used it to imply that evil comes from hierarchies of power and inequality.
Supporting music by the Hurricane Party was, of course, excellent (they are all brilliant musicians in their own right). Particularly unusual was their use of Ben Nicholls’ double bass and Toby Kearney’s thunderous drums to build an air of menace, especially for ‘Pretty Nancy’ and ‘Little Yellow Roses’. Their main chance to shine, however, was in the old Oxfordshire Morris tune ‘The Princess Royal’. Morris tunes are always good fun, but it was particularly apt to hear a local tune played.
The next OCM event is on the 4th November, where Thomas Strønen, the Norwegian drummer, will be performing at the Holywell Music Room. Furthermore, Methera, the folk tune band will be playing at Corpus Christi College Oxford, 24th November. Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party’s tour has just ended, but will be resumed in the spring.
Kit Peter Finn