Sidmouth 2010: In search of Nic Jones

In search of Nic Jones

                                                                                                                   Last week witnessed my first visit to an English folk festival in thirty eight years. The whole idea began with a chance invite from an unknown and faceless person on Facebook who impressed upon me that it was really of utmost importance for me to get myself down to Sidmouth in Devon for the 4th August to see Nic Jones. Now Nic was a singer who has been a seminal influence in my life since my chance discovery of him on vinyl during the mid-seventies  at a time when my life’s course and my sense of personal identity were swinging around wildly. His music deeply inspired and moved at that time, a offering a still and seemingly timeless space amid all of the turmoil I seemed embroiled in. 

I remember a time on a darkest winter’s day in a cottage in Lancashire that then served as home  when I was meant to be packing  before heading off with my then wife for Christmas holidays with the in-laws. I had that very day bought Nic’s unpromisingly entitled album ‘The Noah’s Arc Trap’ as a present to myself then taken it home to listen – then listen and listen again as his riffs filled the beamed cottage fit to bursting with its life and sense of invention. I forget now who originally recommended the album but I will remain forever in their debt. The freedom with which Jones interpreted and enlivened traditional song was transfixing.

I was disturbed from my reverie by my then wife, hands on hips, not unreasonably protesting ‘Come on, come on. Take the needle off that record! You have sat there listening to it three times already while I have done all the packing and wrapping. You are just being difficult, not wanting to see my parents’.’No it is not that I am being difficult’ I said, lamely. But in truth I could not even say what it was that had inhabited me except that this music had me rooted to the spot. I knew that I would be at deep loss during a week of turkey eating without it. Cold turkey indeed.  I needed this music to seep deep in my soul before the journey that would render me apart.

I learned about ten years later with a sense of profound shock that Nic had been involved in a car accident that was to take him out in his prime and that his existence had been hanging since.  I had never seen him perform live and the promise that he would be there at this event ‘In Search of Nic Jones’ helped me understand just how much I wanted to pay homage. Perhaps I also wanted to be in search of the me that was back then,  to establish whether even a shard of that younger self that resonated to his music was still accessible after all these years.

 Great though my initial enthusiasm was to make this pilgrimage to Sidmouth, it was tested by the discovery that the Sidmouth festival was a week long, with Nic’s elegy occurring towards the end of the festivities.  But I reminded myself that this call had come from seemingly nowhere, and I have learning of late to respond to such calls. I wished to discover where these synchronicities might land me; for just as folk music is imbued with ‘call and response’ themes, so here was I enacting a twenty first century parallel process of responding to an isolated – probably random – electronic signal. From the devil to a stranger.  I cleared my diary and awaited my fate.

A flurry of preparatory activity ensued, it being a long time since I had been camping and kit needed to be bought. It was also a long long time since I had been to a folk festival . How would it be and how might it have changed? And where might I fit in at all? Over the years I have remained a folk aficionado but I am not active in clubs or with a band right now, since my last great Irish experience nine years ago. And English folk is quite different, I know. Would there be a place for hangers on such as me or would I be cast to that outer darkness beyond the Morris ring among the ice-cream eating lollygaggers? 

The reality involved a week spent in a field perched high above an untouched Edwardian seaside town with a view across hills though with the ocean tantalizingly beyond sight. The camp site was some distance from town so we revellers were somewhat incongruously bussed into town each day and back again every evening by a continuous relay of yellow double-decker’s piloted by local bus drivers. These seasoned souls seemed glad to be relieved of the tedium of their regular routes for the somewhat more colourful transportation of roots people to their place of desportment.

As the week wore on this bus journey became an increasingly more enjoyable part of the whole experience. Living alone in a tent meant that it was not always easy to strike up conversation with fellow campers who bedded down in twos or more, nor was it that easy for me to chat at the festival events where people were preoccupied with rehearsing, or rushing at break neck speed towards their next encounter with lyrical enactment.

But the liminal space that waiting for the bus and traveling on the bus afforded lots of room for casual and not so casual encounters.  I grew to realise that this time on the bus signified an important transitional marker between the partial construction of the various performers within the confines of their tents and their full blown and often dramatic revelation to their awaiting public once down town. On the camp site we were a distinctly unglamorous and sometimes even surly lot, attending to the basic functions at the bottom of the needs hierarchy;  dumb witness to each other going through the same primitive rituals of publicly washing or tooth brushing while sharing the same scarce water; or heading resignedly towards the barely functional toilet blocks and showers. 

This limp and largely silent procession was all the while accompanied by stray chords of muted music struck or blown on instruments of all types, with players half visible through the entrances of tents tuning up and practicing for the day ahead.  Some were simply practicing for practicing’s sake. The man in the tent next to me played only Leonard Cohen’s ‘Alexander Dreaming’ at just above my hearing threshold for three days on three different instruments purely for his own delectation.  

Between the flapping of tent doors there was revealed to the inquisitive eye – and who can resist staring into neighbours tents? –  tantalising glimpses of people’s preparation for the transformation of their hitherto lumpen forms into the exotic and very un-British dancing creatures resplendent in the full regalia that the rites of Morris and other traditions demand.  And some of the younger and more impudent among us were creating before our very eyes their own new traditions, involving costumes that seemed to incorporate artefacts stolen from the modern idiom as well as invoking a nod to the past.

By the time the need to be getting on the bus came around  these rare creatures were almost fully but not quite assembled as there were last minute adjustments to be made on the trip to meet their respective audiences. In these moments you could still see the joins between 21st century man and the medieval players that they were soon to be transfigured into.  The I-phone action for example – as they checked whether the accordionist has in fact been rescued from the pub the night before – tended to be a bit of a giveaway. For one marvellous heart jolting moment I was disturbed from a dreamlike state on the top deck of the bus by the  sound of a thousand bells clanging in unison as an unfeasibly large Morris troupe raced as fast as their costumes and boots would allow towards our soon to be departing charabanc. Breathlessly alighting the platform, they then clanked up the stairs in glorious cacophony to join us rudely awakened on-lookers. This was no less than the sound of war that had brutally disturbed our peace, a rallying cry that stirred the blood as the protagonists – uncompromising  and fierce in full war paint – breasted the top of the stairs in menacing procession.

Once decanted off the bus into the town square these creatures assumed their full majestic plumage, dramatically realising their altered identities, silently looking each other in the eye; perhaps quietly incanting whatever the medieval equivalent of ‘This is Show Time’ might be. Rival dancers from other troupes observed then obliquely, comparing costumes in a posture of cool scrutiny – while the tourists – the much maligned  ‘grockles’ of which there were many – gawked in slack jawed astonishment at the sheer volume and colour of the pageant that was unfolding in front of them. It was clear from their reaction that this was not at all what they were expecting when they sleep-walked in search of candy floss into this quiet sea side town.  

I was much taken by the power of the Morris men en masse, and by the more modern extravagantly costumed and facially coloured variants such as the Mollies who outrageously included women among their number.  Amid the somewhat rutted ritual of stick upon stick and boot upon cobble there remained still freshly beating among the clichéd clatter a sense of the fecund, a latent sexuality in these warrior encounters that seemed a throwback to something quite primal, quite other. 

Past the thronging square where these different worlds were colliding I found myself in the heart of the festival proper. I experienced the sensation of being pulled between wanting to take in as many of the enticing formal concerts and billed events as possible and on the other hand to simply meander the streets and the splendid Edwardian  promenade, soaking up the sunshine while playing a small and entirely invisible role in this unfolding theatre.  The truth was that with everyone playing such an active part in the proceedings I was feeling an impostor.

Some relief to this social oblivion was afforded through the conspicuous presence of my vivid orange wrist band denoting my status as hard-core season-ticket-holding campsite crusty. Folk would notice this splash of colour and comment, recognising that I was in this for the long haul and not just passing through.  I would nod eagerly when campsite conversations were struck, grateful for this unearned recognition that a casual ‘well how is it up there this year?’ comment afforded.

The concerts were magnificent, with my long-time favourite players and some artists hitherto unknown to me never disappointing. What seemed common to each artist was a shared modesty even to the point of humility in the face of the antiquity of the tradition that they were upholding. As I listened old songs were gratefully recognised and their choruses gladly sung along to. These old favourites were heard alongside of unfamiliar songs some of which I appreciated first time out, some of which left me thinking that I would need to hear them a lot to make them familiars.  At first I resisted queuing for the top acts – trusting my luck as a ‘single’ to squeeze in somewhere – until i realised that the queue could prove a rich and often amusing conversational source. Inevitably the conversations fell to consideration of the act to come; and also the acts and activities that had preceded them. 

There was a natural tendency to compare this year’s Sidmouth to others. Not having been to the others I could not really join these competitive exchanges.  It was clear that I was amid the cognoscenti, among the folk connoisseurs who were quick to sniff out your credentials early in the conversational proceedings.  Major claims and bragging rights centred not only on how often you had seen a particular artist or ensemble, but also in the revealing of how personally well-known you were to that person or even that you were related to them – as many of these folkie families seem to have inter-married or to have clustered in the same towns and neighbourhoods, perhaps to retain the purity of the tradition or simply to cling together for comfort in the face of all the pressures to wipe out or deride what they stand for.

As the week wore on I grew to cherish my early mornings at the camp site staring at the canvas if it was raining or else perched on my chair outside enjoying the procession of campers going about their ablutions. It proved most relaxing to sit and read while allowing the many tunes of the previous night to ring in my head, these resonances often triggering tunes of long ago. Sometimes a simple fragment of music leaking from a nearby tent would trigger an emotionally drenched memory.  I noticed though that by day three I was suffering from a mild form of squeezebox saturation, of  fiddle fatigue, of accordion attrition, of ensemble exhaustion. 

The once relished mono- diet of stuffed pork rolls and double Devonshire ice cream was beginning to take its toll also.   It felt that I had less and less room to squeeze in any more material – musical or nutritional –  and I found my mind drifting in anticipation of the Nic Jones concert that would bookend this experience, signifying the moment when I might depart, having savoured what attracted me in the first place.  Folk folk had travelled from far and wide for this Nic Jones  event and the build-up in the town and then in the queue evinced a quite tangible clamour of expectation.  The word on the street was that Nic – despite still suffering from the after effects of the  car crash in the Eighties – would be appearing, and that every folk star that ever there was would be in town to pay homage and also to sing their favourite Nic song.

 To a packed audience on a hot afternoon then about twenty of folk’s finest crammed on stage to take their turn to serenade a beaming Nic.  A number of these seasoned artists confessed to an unaccountable nervousness attached to performing in front of the master; to having his ghost behind you in animate from as you interpreted – or attempted to stay faithful to – his renditions. I was moved to spontaneous tears by the striking of the first song, we all of us joining a chorus of ‘Farewell to the gold that never I found’ a song of palpable loss but strangely of hope too.  At this performers and audience alike seemed to settle as each artist took it in turn to sing, with Nic behind them grinning in happy communion, his lips soundlessly tracing the lyrics as his mind and heart went who knows where. 

The stage then was set for an afternoon that had an uncontrived sense of sacredness about it, a preciousness that left my heart full. Too soon then it was time to hit the streets and wrestle my much lived-in tent into the boot of the car. My gear had all seemed much smaller when I first unpacked it but then so had my experience of modern folk.  I didn’t have to go. My ticket lasted for at least another day and breaking camp was accompanied by a visceral sense of loss. But Nic had sung, we had all of us sung, I had sung and now I was ready to go. Until perhaps until next year. Daniel DohertyAugust 2010     l 

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