There’s an understandable worry in the traditional folk world that there may not be enough enthusiasts among the younger generation to take the baton and keep things going. The generation that lived through the 50s and 60s Revival appears to have had folk lovers a-plenty, but despite specialist university courses at places like Sheffield and Newcastle, the generation currently in their 20s and 30s feels sparsely populated by comparison.
So it’s a relief when you meet people like Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp, a couple who appear to live and breathe folk music. Indeed, anyone who has ventured down to the Vaughan Williams Library at Cecil Sharp House over the last few years will probably have bumped into Laura (from Lancashire) – now the senior librarian – who spends her days surrounded by the books and manuscripts that fuel her passion, and will always take the time to fan the passion flames of anyone who dares to show an interest. Not a bad way to make a living if you’re also traditional folk singer. Ted (from East Anglia), also a librarian, is just as enthusiastic, specifically about the Revival singers and the records they made over half a century ago, and his love of history drives him to find out more and more about the genre. Together, they specialise in what you might call a minimalist form of folk music – singing the songs without heavy adornments, often completely unaccompanied.
Having recently released The Poacher’s Fate, an album that we praised here on this website last month, they agree to meet for an interview in the Vaughan Williams Library one November evening. Over the course of a jolly hour (Laura, in particular, is a constant source of dry humour and raucous laughter), we chatted our way through their beloved Revival period, their relationship with Stick In The Wheel (Ian Carter recorded their album), the Pendle witches, life on a London narrow boat, the best websites for folk song collecting, and the unfortunate similarities between Steeleye Span and Status Quo.
It’s probably best that you settle yourself down once again and bed in for the night. This interview is a bit of a folkie ramble…
You were saying to me before I turned the dictaphone on that you have been playing the songs on your new album for a long time.
Ted: It certainly feels like it. Some longer than others.
Laura: A couple of them we were actually playing when we recorded the EP, but because we had a pretty good idea about what we wanted – five Lancashire songs – the others didn’t cut the mustard in terms of their credibility and relevance. So yeah, we’ve been singing some of them for a long time. ‘Cecilia’, for instance – I love it, but I have been singing it since 2012 because I learned it specifically for the book launch – Steve Roud’s New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
Ted: And the song that you wrote on the album as well.
Laura: ‘Alizon Device’?
Ted: That’s from around 2010.
That’s an interesting one. There are a few regular themes that seem popular with people who write ‘new folk songs’ – writing within what you might call the style of the tradition – and those Pendle witch trials seem to come up quite a lot.
Laura: I know. George Hoyle has done one too, hasn’t he?
Didn’t someone do a whole album of them recently?
Laura: Well, have you heard of The Folklore Tapes?
I’ve not, no.
Laura: So, there’s this guy based in Manchester – David Chatton Barker – and he started doing these compilations. I guess it was like he was commissioning people to create music around different themes of folklore, and the first thing he put out was all about the Pendle witches. He’s done it on different things over the years. His compilations are super niche and rare. He’ll release it on a cassette tape, and then he glues all the pages of a book together and then cuts out a little chunk for the cassette to fit in, and then puts some leaves with it! [Laughs] It’s really nice as a package.
Ted: It’s a piece of art.
Laura: It is a piece of art! But, yeah, he did one on Pendle so there’s a whole album of stuff there. There’s some poetry reading about [adopts witchy voice] “Lancashire… the devil’s county”, or some such.
What brought you to the Pendle witches as a theme?
Laura: When I was a teenager I heard about them, and with my boyfriend of the time we’d just drive up to Pendle every so often and just drive round the hill and follow the Pendle Witch Trail. You can see signposts all around the hill, showing a little witch on a broomstick. [Witchy voice again] “Follow the trail…”
Did you ever see anything?
That’s not the right answer!
Laura: Sorry! We saw a really cool shop called Witches Galore, all full of witch tat. [Sarcastic] That was great… [Turning to Ted] But we’ve been up together as well, haven’t we? We had a look round and then we actually walked up the hill.
Ted: Yeah, at my insistence.
Laura: Yes, because before we’d just driven around and around it [laughs].
But have you been up at night?
Laura: No, but one time we drove there on Halloween thinking it was a really good time to go – it was a spooky night and we thought we’d go along. It was rammed! There were people everywhere. That was at night time, but we didn’t actually get to do anything because the atmosphere wasn’t right. It wasn’t the right vibe, really.
Did you write any other songs on the album, or is that the only one?
Laura: That’s the only one.
So, Laura, you’re working here in this amazing library, surrounded by the nation’s folk songs.
How do you pick the ones to sing, and how much say does Ted get?
Laura: Ha! Well, as I think we probably mentioned, we tend to look for stuff from our home regions, just because it makes it easier as a starting point, really.
Ted: Yeah, there’s such a vast amount of songs you could potentially sing. And I suppose it’s important to us to try and find interesting and varied versions of songs. It’s always been a big part of what we’re trying to do.
Laura: I think we approach it in different ways, don’t we, as well? How we find material, I mean. I guess I have done a lot of using the resources that we have here, looking for what has been collected around the northwest and then just reading the lyrics, looking at the tunes and seeing whether it looks good or no – trying to decide whether I want to do it. But I don’t get that much time to just go browsing in here.
That’s disappointing! I imagined that’s what your job would be!
Laura: I know. Sorry to disappoint you, but I actually work really hard! [Laughs] I don’t get that much time to just sit and read books. But I must admit that if I’m in here and I’m doing some work and happen to spot something, then I do have a folder where I’ll just make a copy. I could leave it and I might not look at it again for months, maybe even years, but I might come back to it a few years later and think, “Oh yeah, there was that song which at the time I thought looked quite interesting and maybe it’s worth having a look at.”
Ted: We tend to bring our own songs to each other and then work on them together at that point.
How are you finding songs, Ted?
Ted: Well, through books we have at home; using the Full English website; sometimes from recordings from Suffolk – there are recordings done by Peter Kennedy that we’ve used as sources, and more recently John Howson.
So when you say you’re looking for songs that have variants…
Laura: If there’s a song I really, really like that’s in someone else’s repertoire, then I might start doing searches using the Roud Index, trying to look for variations of that song. Have you used the Roud Index? You know how it all works?
Ted: I suppose, performing traditional music, inevitably you’re doing some of the same repertoire as other people. So if you find unusual version, it’s a way of sort of marking yourself out and doing something new.
I wonder if it’s actually possible to sing a traditional song that Eliza Carthy hasn’t already recorded!
Ted: Haha! I think not. Or Jon Boden with his Folk Song a Day collection.
That Jon Boden thing is quite useful. Let’s face it, he’s not got an awful voice, has he! You can quite comfortably sit and have it on in the background. But then, I suppose, you do have to find a way to try and make the song your own.
Laura: Yeah. And that’s when you would then go away and say, “OK, I quite like the story of that song, but I’ll see if I can find another version of it.” [Turning to Ted] That’s what you did with Mariah Martin song, isn’t it? It’s a song that is commonly sung to the same tune, in most places.
Ted: Yeah. We went to the Full English website and looked through all the versions from around East Anglia.
Laura: We narrowed it down with that geographical boundary and then looked for a different tune, or an unusual one, that we liked.
Ted: Part of the fun of it, I suppose, for us, is trying to seek out these gems that no one else has actually discovered or recorded yet. There’s definitely still stuff out there.
Laura: I think most traditional folk singers do that, though. I find it kind of hypocritical of us, in a way. That’s what everyone’s mission is, isn’t it? But, surely, the whole point of folksong is that you’re carrying on a tradition. So it’s kind of stupid, in one way, that we’re like, “We’ve got to find out the new unique stuff!” These are folk songs – we should sing someone else’s version and want to carry on that tradition.
Ted: But then everyone would just end up singing the same versions. It’d get boring.
Laura: I know, but what I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be the mission. If you’re searching around all the time and the other versions really are shit, and that’s why no one sings them, then I think that’s fair do’s [laughs]!
It’s survival of the fittest, isn’t it? Some songs last and others don’t.
Laura: Exactly! ‘Here’s Adieu To All Judges and Juries’ – that song – we learnt that from a Revival singer. I’m not ashamed [laughs].
Ted: It’s nice to have a mixture.
Laura: Yeah, exactly.
You sing ‘The Wild Rover’, right Ted?
Ted: Yeah. Well, that’s a good example. It’s a really well known song – maybe the most well-known folk song – so that became my mission: to find an unusual version.
And what is the difference with your version? Is it a version from Suffolk?
Ted: Yeah, it’s from Suffolk. It was recorded by Peter Kennedy from a singer called Alec Bloomfield, back in the 50s I think, and it’s broadly similar but there are just slight variations to the melody and the structure of it. And I suppose it represents a point before the song became that standardised version that everyone knows.
Laura: Brian Peters wrote a really good paper on ‘The Wild Rover’. He does a very good talk on it, and he explores the different versions and tries to find out where the Dubliners got their version from. And I think it’s actually from a Louis Killen recording or something like that. That was quite interesting.
So, does anybody know where it actually comes from – where its origins were? You’re a librarian, Laura. You’re supposed to know these things.
Ted: I believe it was a temperance song, but I’m not certain.
What’s a temperance song?
Ted: The Temperance Movement in the 19th century was an anti-drinking movement to make people aware of the ills of alcoholism – a big problem in society at that time. They encouraged people to give up alcohol. I believe the song was associated with that. Is that right, Laura?
Laura: That’s what I’ve heard, yeah. It’s all hearsay. It’s folklore [laughs]!
Ted: These interviews get a bit scary when you think the facts might be printed somewhere…
What tends to happen is that you write about, put it online, and then five people within 24 hours write to you to say you’ve got it wrong.
Laura: I know. It can be so annoying.
Well, I quite like it. I like that they’re that picky. I often wonder about the next generation of folkies. Who are the people who are going to correct us immediately 10 years from now?
Laura: I’ve met a few people who are like that, so I can assure you, they are around.
Have you met the chap in Germany who runs MainlyNorfolk.info?
Laura: Oh, I’ve not met him, but I’ve had correspondence with him. He’s really nice.
Ted: He’s a librarian as well, isn’t he?
Laura: No, no. He works at a university. I think he set the website up for the university students. He’s so nice. He put our record on it, and I felt like that was such an achievement.
Me too! When my version of ‘The Sandgate Dandling‘ hit MainlyNorfolk.info, I was so proud.
Laura: I was checking our new album and he’s already listed it, and he’s included all of our lyrics on all the different pages. I was like, “Woah! Get in there!” [Laughs]
Yep, I had exactly the same feeling. Nobody needs to buy my album. It’s listed on MainlyNorfolk.info, so it has already achieved everything it ever needs to.
Laura: Yep, it has reached that status.
Ted: When you first start searching for songs when you get into traditional folk music, I think that’s one of the first websites you stumble upon. It’s fantastic, but it’s like, “Why is there this German website?”
Laura: And why is it called Mainly Norfolk!? It’s totally confusing.
Ted: It’s to do with Peter Bellamy.
Laura: I know that now, Ted, but at the time…
Yes, a lot of people have asked me about that because I mention that website in every blog post that I write: “If you want to learn more about this song, don’t rely on what I’m writing. Go and read these other websites, because they really know a lot more than I do.” They’re usually curious about why it has that name, though.
Laura: Yes, well we know now. What I particularly like, as well, is that when he first put our EP on there, he put next to our names, in tiny writing, “Librarians rule, OK!” [Laughs]. That website is something that needs to tick over, because it’s really good.
It’s a really important resource that sits somewhere between something like Mudcat and something like the Full English. I imagine most modern folk singers go to that website to see who else has done the songs they’re interested in.
Ted: It’s like a modern index.
Laura: It’s a really good indicator for that.
Ted: It’s impressive considering one person seems to have done it all themselves.
Coming back to you two, was it a conscious decision to go and get Ian from Stick In The Wheel to record your album, or was he just hanging about at a loose end?
Ted: Well, we already knew him. He mastered our first EP.
So you knew he had a folkie bent?
Laura: Yeah, because he and Nicola came here a number of years ago. The first time I met Nicola and Ian was when EFDSS put out an advert asking for someone to write a blog for the EFDSS website. It was an open call, and Nicola and Ian responded to that. They came in and they interviewed Malcolm Taylor, the previous library and archives director here, and they were asking him about folk song and folk music. Malcolm was sat over there talking to them and I’m sat here, and I’ve got a big mouth! [Laughs] I was shouting and interjecting and they were like, “Woah, who’s this? Who’re you?!”
They said that they were in this band and they were interested in doing folk music. So, at that time, Ted and I were trying to run a little singaround in this pub called The Pineapple in Kentish Town. We called it Pineapple Folk. [Sighs] Ohhhh, how I hated that name!
Ted: It was memorable. Pineapples and folk don’t normally go together.
Laura: We got kicked out of that pub not long after we started, so we ended up having this name, Pineapple Folk, which didn’t relate to anything anymore, and it followed us around from venue to venue. Anyway, Nicola and Ian came along to our Pineapple Folk singaround.
Ted: Yeah, they sang a couple of songs and it was the first time I heard them.
Laura: They gave us copies of their EPs and stuff like that. Nicola was very nice. So when we did our first EP launch we asked them if they would do it. We wanted the full band, but only the two of them turned up! [Laughs] So, we gradually got to know them a bit more and and they would come in here, and when we recorded our EP we needed someone to master it, and because we knew that Ian was a sound engineer, we asked if he would do it.
Ted: About two years later we were thinking of recording again, and I guess just knowing someone that we were already friendly with…
Laura: And their EPs and albums are not overproduced.
Was that important to you?
Both: Yes, yes. Definitely.
Ted: I think they’re sort of outsiders from the folk scene, and I think they value the same things that we do in terms of the music.
Laura: We’ve always been very much into the early Revival – the 60s Revival singers – and that’s how we’re mainly interested in approaching the songs ourselves. We just love people like Frankie Armstrong and Louis Killen – those people who were singing unaccompanied. Very simple stuff. It just sounds totally different from a lot of stuff that’s out nowadays. So, yeah, we did want to try and recapture that kind of style and atmosphere. Stick In The Wheel seemed to have got something that was quite raw with their recordings, so we thought it would be best to go back to Ian.
Ted: Definitely. And he’s good to work with as well. Very patient.
Laura: [Laughs] I don’t know if he’ll work with us again! Oh my God! I’m surprised he didn’t lose his rag!
Ted: He was kind of an ally for me, helping me to try and convince Laura that she was actually giving a really good performance and that we could move on from doing take after take.
Laura: It took so much longer than we actually intended. We started recording it in November last year, and we’d set aside a week to record it. I think we recorded five songs, and then we went back and re-recorded three of them anyway.
Ted: We really underestimated how long it would take. I think we realised, probably as we were going in, that we weren’t as ready as we thought we were going to be. And then we actually ended up having a break for about two months in the middle of it all. We lost momentum.
Laura: Why did that happen again?
Ted: I think we were getting disheartened [laughs].
Well, we all go through that…
Laura: Yeah, well considering that the music is pretty simple, it was bloody hard work.
Ted: It’s more exposed, though, when you record like that.
Yes, that’s a big part of it. First of all you’re trying to create the arrangements, aware that you’re about to do it without any adornments. You have a certain vision in your head, but then you end up doing 50 takes to get it right.
Laura: Definitely. It’s funny, because certain songs we’d been performing for years. Decisions were made years ago about how a song should go, but over time it changes. When it came to recording – and I think this is what pissed Ian off – we’d do five takes and then I’d shout, “Wait a minute! Weren’t we supposed to do it like this?” Then I’d make him re-record us [laughs].
A lot of those old Revival records were recorded live, weren’t they? I don’t think they had enough time or tape to keep re-doing them.
Laura: I dunno. Ian would get us to listen to some of them and you’d hear all the splicing.
Ted: Yeah, he was pointing out that they’re not as live as you might think they are.
Laura: His point was that what we were doing was good – that we should be pleased with our performances. He was very encouraging. He’s good to record with. Lots of eating cheese toasties.
I love the idea that the laid-bare, stripped-down thing is becoming popular. It’s one of the reasons I was attracted to your album.
Laura: Oh, well, thank you. I’m surprised though. I had read that it was becoming popular again, but I wasn’t aware of other people doing that.
Well, it’d be interesting to know if it’s part of their aesthetic, or whether they’re doing it because it’s easier or cheaper. Whatever it is, it appeals to me. I think I was originally put off a lot of folk recordings by a kind of production twee-ness that overtook the music for a while – although that may have been more singer-songwriter folk.
Ted: For a long time, I think we thought we were the only ones that were still interested in that style – maybe us and a few people from the Revival generation that were still around. Amongst the younger people, there wasn’t really anyone doing it.
Laura: It’s not a conscious thing like, “I know a bunch of people and we all thought this would be good.” When we first got into folk music, we were guided by much older people. We started going to this singaround, and the people there were saying, “I think you should have a listen to such and such.” We were going home and then buying these albums and realising that they were right – the stuff was amazing!
How did you get into folk music? Are either of you from folkie families?
Ted: No, not at all.
Did you discover it together as a couple?
Laura: I got into it through Steeleye Span. I was listening to alternative music, and a friend introduced me to Steeleye Span. I immediately went to HMV and bought The Best Of . The first album, Hark! The Village Wait, is really good.
I find them a bit bizarre. When they’re singing ‘Hard Times of Old England’, and they’re bouncing along as if they’re Status Quo. I mean, it’s not a happy song, is it?
Ted: I’m with you on that. It’s not a good combo.
Laura: For me, I found them and realised I’d never come across anything like it before.
How old were you then?
Laura: 18. So, I thought, “Well, people call this stuff folk music”, so I started to look up other folk. At the time there was a kind of resurgence in folk – people like Devandra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens – and they were all calling themselves folk. I tried to listen to that stuff, but it didn’t seem the same. I think the difference was that they weren’t doing traditional stuff. I very slowly discovered, over a period of three years, that I liked traditional folk music. I was trying to find other bands on MySpace – going out and buying their CDs – and realising that, no, this wasn’t what I was after.
Ted: Spotify has made that easier, hasn’t it? You don’t have to risk buying something that you won’t want to listen to. So many things are described as folk, without being what you’re looking for.
Laura: It did take a long while. And then I met Ted at library school.
Ted: I guess I’d been into older folk stuff. I’d also been into the Americana – the Neil Young kind of stuff – and I’d learnt a few English folk tunes on guitar, just to practice playing something. I suppose I’ve always been really interested in history, so the settings of a lot of the songs immediately appealed to me. Together, we discovered this singaround in South Manchester, and we started going there, and that was how we learnt a lot about this whole world. That’s where we started getting recommendations, as Laura says, and we heard a lot of really good singers there as well.
Laura: This was about five years after I first heard those folk songs I mentioned. That’s when we started meeting people who were interested in folk songs. I didn’t know that anyone else on the planet actually liked this stuff!
Ted: It’s such a hidden world if you’re not aware of it.
Laura: It’s so hard to get into, isn’t it?
It’s a bit like being in need of some kind of support group.
Laura: “Hi. I’m Laura. I like folk music. I’m sorry.”
Hahaha! It’s strange, isn’t it? When you first say you’re into folk music, people naturally assume you’re talking about singer-songwriter stuff.
Laura: Yes, I’ve had that experience. I was talking to someone and I said that I like folk music, and they were like, “Oh! Me too!” And I said I liked Fairport Convention, and they were like, [disappointed tone] “Oh, right…”
Yeah, when you say you like traditional stuff, it’s almost as if you’ve just put on an anorak.
Laura: Yeah! It took a while for me to work it out. “So, this describes itself as folk, and this describes itself as folk, but I really much prefer this over this.” It always comes back to the stories.
Ted: Yes. For want of a better word, folk songs are more ‘real’. They don’t deal in clichés or generalities that you get in a lot of pop. These songs are specific in their events and emotions.
Although, that said, they have their own clichés to contend with. There’s quite a lot of roving out on May mornings…
Ted: Yes, but that’s almost like an introduction.
Laura: It’s like when you start a letter with, “I hope you are well”. You don’t know how else to start.
Ted: It’s just a convention.
I love those songs that start, “It’s of a… such and such.” It’s like your calling card. “This is what we’ll be singing about for the next few minutes.”
Laura: I find it much more engaging. And when you discover that you’re attracted to those songs and you start listening to more and more of those singers who sing the songs as if they’re telling the story, and you find you’re able to really engage with that story… that’s pretty good.
Which of the revival singers do you really get that from, Laura? Who really strikes you most?
Laura: Well, like I said – Frankie Armstrong, Louis Killen, Peter Bellamy.
And now? Is there anyone doing it well that are of our generation?
Both: [A long silence…]
Ted: That’s difficult. As I said, we’ve felt very alone. Having had the experience of going to festivals and not finding very much that resonated with us, and sometimes feeling a bit sad that what we liked about folk music didn’t seem to be valued anymore…
Laura: Hold on! Let me think about this for a minute. There are definitely still people doing it, but they’re not of our age group, and maybe not really very well known.
I love Stew Simpson on the Stick In The Wheel compilation, From Here. The guy that sings ‘Eh Aww Ah Cud Hew’.
Ted: Yeah, he does a great version of that song.
Laura: I’ve not really listened to much of Stew’s stuff, but he seems pretty good. Then again, everyone on that compilation sounded pretty good. And I should say, I really do like Fay Hield’s first album. It’s really stripped back – she does some unaccompanied songs on it, and if she isn’t unaccompanied, she might only have one or two instruments. I think she definitely conveys the stories – she is storytelling on that album. I don’t know about that question, though. I think we need to get out and listen to more people. We’ve been stuck in our Revival bubble.
Given that you live together on a boat, it must be non-stop folk! Your own personal Revival.
Laura: Hahaha! It seems to be a lifestyle choice, doesn’t it?
Does the boat thing influence what you do? Have you any plans for an album of whaling songs?
Ted: I dunno. There aren’t many whales along our part of the Thames. The album would have to be about less glamorous things, like breaking down or emptying your toilet. That kind of thing.
Laura: You might catch a pike, I suppose.
That boat must be folk from morning to night…
Laura: Hahaha! No, because we’re not in it most of the time. I must admit, it’s quite attractive the idea of having a narrow boat and thinking that it must be really folky. Unfortunately, we bought one of the least folky-looking narrow boats you’ll ever see.
So, what do Laura and Ted do when they’re not doing folk? Is there another side to it? You work here in the folk library, you play together as musicians…
Laura: I know… and I clog dance. I was doing rapper dance until recently, but I realised it was way too much to handle. What do we do, Ted?
Ted: I dunno. Sometimes we watch TV [laughs].
Laura: [Laughs] Yeah, mainly we just watch Sharpe.