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by Pete Heywood
Folk Opera
ere’s an old question.
What is folk music?
“If, as I would contend,
Answer; who can
say? But I know it when I
‘folk opera’ was born out
hear it. The same is true of
the more recently coined ‘folk
of the pioneering work
opera’. This has been around
long enough for most to have a
of Charles Parker, Ewan
notion of what the term means.
For me it is storytelling using
MacColl and Peter Bellamy,
song, music, verse, dialogue
(occasionally) and monologue
then we all have a great
(more often). Generally, these
shows explore some aspect deal to thank them for.
of social history and contain a
good deal of ‘testimony’, either On a personal note, I
in the form of direct quotes or
paraphrased in verse and song.“ should thank Graham
Mick Ryan has been around the Moore for the call.”
folk scene long enough to know
about definitions and pigeon
holes, so when asked to describe
‘folk opera’ it is not surprising
that he is relaxed with a broad
definition but also that he claims
that he ‘knows it when he hears
it’. Mick holds the view that
‘folk opera’ was born out of the
pioneering work of Charles Parker,
Ewan MacColl and Peter Bellamy.
Whilst he thinks that we all have
a great deal to thank them for,
Mick credits his own continuing
involvement with folk opera to a
phone call from a friend, Graham
point of view. Namely, that a well while the need for variety within but what do cast members and
“In 1989, my friend Graham Moore chosen subject provides plenty the overall structure of the show audiences get out of it?
asked me if I thought it might be of ideas for songs and gives you develops an awareness of, and
a good idea to write and produce something substantial to write perhaps skill with, keys and time “Very often, the casts of these
a show on the subject of the about. signatures.” shows consist of non-professional,
‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’, and whether but nonetheless talented and
I would be willing to write the “Once deeply immersed in the Strong subjects certainly sit at skilled local performers who are
songs for it. In the end, the show, research, I feel as if I am writing the heart of the folk operas that not necessarily much challenged
‘A Tolpuddle Man’, contained from within the topic, from within Mick has been associated with. by the prospect of singing and/or
roughly equal proportions of the drama and the characters The history of the Tolpuddle playing at local sessions or clubs.
my songs, Graham’s songs and who, as it were, populate it. Martyrs in ‘A Tolpuddle Man’, the Perhaps this is why you’ll see
collaborations.” Mick mentions Also, it is surprising what good background of The Great War people you know to be good
the authorship of the songs in the songs can be generated by in ‘A Day’s Work’, the theme of singers or musicians listening,
show because while he had, at such practical considerations as emigration in ‘The Voyage’ and but not otherwise participating,
the time, already acquired some the need to bring characters on the story of Dorset’s ‘lost village’ at such events. Similarly, there
useful experience writing songs for and off stage or cover a scene of Tyneham in ‘Tanks For the are folk who are talented, but
radio, musical theatre and for his change. Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Memory’ all provided him with reluctant, for whatever reason, to
then band ‘Crows’, Graham had Old Town’ is famously supposed plenty of stories to tell, contexts to push themselves forward. I have
never written a song before. The to have been written for just such explain and emotions to express. found that some welcome the
fact that his first contribution was a reason. Similarly, the technical His latest show, ‘The Navvy’s opportunity to stretch themselves,
the superbly anthemic ‘Tolpuddle challenge of providing songs Wife’, gives him lots of scope while others, once persuaded
Man’ illustrates what Mick thinks which emphasise the strengths as he explores the history of the to participate, can reveal gifts
is one of the most useful things of particular singers develops, I navvies. Clearly, then, folk opera beyond everybody’s expectations,
about folk opera from a writer’s hope, an awareness of singability, is highly stimulating for the writer, including their own.”
The Living Tradition - Page 26
Issue82.indd 26 24/2/09 13:56:53
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