There have been many emotionally charged responses from the music world to the pandemic lockdown – but one of the more poignant is the Folk On Foot Front Room Festival, taking place this Easter Monday.
It features a collection of British – and British-resident – folk singers broadcasting from their homes, but it will also highlight an extra sense of pining for the freedom from confinement, because it has emerged from the Folk On Foot podcast, a series of interviews and performances recorded during walks through the UK's landscapes.
Folk On Foot is the brainchild of Matthew Bannister, a man probably best known for his time as controller of the UK's main pop radio station, BBC Radio 1. In the early 1990s, he was at the heart of huge upheavals as he tried to revitalise the station: a surprisingly byzantine and political process, as documented in Simon Garfield's brilliant and eye-opening 1999 book The Nation's Favourite: The True Adventures Of Radio 1.
Caption: Matthew Bannister (right) is seen here with Peggy Seeger.
But following his time at R1, Bannister carved out a career as a talk radio broadcaster in his own right – notably he is now the host of BBC Radio 4's weekly obituary show “Last Word”.
This in turn led him, in 2018, to start a podcast with producers Sally Spurling and Natalie Steed focusing on his twin private passions: walking and the folk music of the British Isles. In a very short time, he's recorded a huge array of major names walking, talking and playing – from newcomers like the self-explanatory trio The Young'uns through established acts like Seth Lakeman and The Unthanks, to folk royalty like Peggy Seeger, Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson.
Folk On Foot isn't just about idealised arcadias, mind you: its recordings have taken place in cities and even abandoned factories as well as in rural idylls and wild landscapes.
The podcasts now take on an extra evocative quality, a precious reminder of the simple pleasures that are denied us by the current situation. But the Folk On Foot festival is a celebration too, and an important fundraiser for musicians impacted by the inability to ply their trade: folk perhaps more than any other form is built around live gigs, after all.
From an initial target of raising £5,000 to split between the performing acts and other musicians, the crowdfunding effort has now reached a little over £26,000. The goal however, is £30,000.
The current line-up includes Bella Hardy, Beth Porter plus the Bookshop Band, Jon Boden, Kris Drever (pictured in the lead photo), Martin Simpson and many others – all playing sets of up to 30 minutes each in their front rooms.
Here, we spoke to Bannister to find out more about what had led him to this moment.
You've talked about playing and loving folk music in your teens, and more recently you've engaged closely with the folk world – but how has that evolved through your life since? When you were working in pop radio, was it separate or part of your wider sense of the music world?
Well, as you say I got the folk bug as a teenager growing up in Sheffield and it has never really gone away. It just went dormant and private while I was at Radio 1 – because the changes I made to the station were aiming it at a younger audience and were pretty controversial, so the last thing I wanted was one of my many critics in the press saying I was a closet folkie! I do still play the fiddle, but only for my own personal entertainment – I wouldn’t inflict it on a wider audience... and given some of the amazing artistes I’ve been walking with recently I’d be far too embarrassed to expose my amateur scrapings.
But really, I suppose I reconnected with folk music after I left Radio 1 when I met a band called Show Of Hands – two musicians called Steve Knightley and Phil Beer – who came to perform on a Radio 5 Live show I was presenting from the upstairs room of a pub in Devon in the early noughties. I thought they were brilliant and started looking around at what else was happening on the contemporary folk scene and collided with Eliza Carthy, Seth Lakeman, the Unthanks and so many more who I felt were injecting a new energy and contemporary edge to the long-standing traditions.
Did you keep in touch with the folk circuit all this time? Any thoughts on how it's developed and ridden trends over time?
I’m not a slavish follower of fashion when it comes to music – and there are lots of debates about what exactly constitutes folk music. For example, we’ve just recorded an episode of Folk On Foot with Frank Turner who thinks of himself as a folk artiste but comes from a punk background. He started out playing sessions in the Holloway Road in London with Laura Marling and Marcus Mumford, so that’s one strain of folk. And if you listen to Sam Lee’s new album Old Wow – which by the way is a big contender for album of the year in my humble opinion – it's a unique combination of traditional song with a flowing, sinuous, absorbing vocals and arrangements that sometimes owe a debt to jazz. And it was produced by Bernard Butler from Suede who also plays on it.
So, folk can go off in all directions... but right now I think it is a really vibrant scene and when you see the artistes that are playing at the Front Room Festival you’ll not only hear some exceptional musicianship, but truly accomplished and heartfelt songwriting addressing contemporary issues and the human condition as well as innovative arrangements of traditional music.
The idea of walking, talking and folk music in the outdoors seems like such a natural fit, it's surprising it's not been done before. Did you have any precedents in mind when you created the format of the podcast?
Well, no, it’s not a revelation to spot that folk music has always had a connection with the outdoors. Way back, it comes from a rural tradition and many of the original folk singers were shepherds or farm workers, because that’s where the work was before the industrial revolution. And folk music has always had a strong sense of place – it’s rooted in the area it comes from. Someone in Northumberland where we went to walk with, The Unthanks, said they didn’t need to have a folk revival there, because folk music never went away. And there’s a really vibrant scene in Scotland where it seems to me that traditional music and its relatives is still more accepted as part of the mainstream than in England.
But what’s interesting now is that a new generation of performers – perhaps inspired by their fears about climate change – are embracing the natural world as a source of inspiration and raising their voices to urge us to cherish the connections we make with nature that are so uplifting for the human spirit. But anyway, the idea for Folk On Foot was born out of my own passions for folk music and walking, and a sense that in a globalised digital world there is a thirst for a connection with the outdoors and with authentic music making which is absolutely reflected back to us by our listeners – who use words like “inspiring”, “restorative” and “transportive” to describe the experience of listening to Folk On Foot.
As someone who had dedicated most of your working life to old school, over-the-airwaves radio, were you a keen adopter of podcasting or did you think of it as a threat? What place does it have in the media landscape now?
I love podcasting! It makes radio, which has been my passion for over forty years, democratic – and is a breath of fresh air in an industry that can sometimes be depressingly conservative. And podcasting is also connecting a younger audience with talk radio. It used to be the received wisdom that young people listen to music radio and old people listen to talk radio. But podcasting has proved that if you create talk radio that young people find entertaining, engaging and approachable, they’ll flock to it. And the great thing is that anyone can put a podcast out there and try to get noticed. There’s no real economic barrier to taking part – which is brilliant.
Any personal favourite moments from the podcast?
So many. A curlew circling overhead as I walked on Fala Moor in Midlothian with Karine Polwart. Sam Lee singing a duet with a nightingale in a Sussex wood in the middle of the night. The fiddle player and composer Duncan Chisholm standing on a remote white sand beach called Sandwood Bay on the far North Western tip of Scotland and playing the music he was inspired to write by that beautiful and deserted location. Jon Boden in the ruins of a disused brick factory covered in florescent graffiti in the Loxley Valley outside Sheffield singing Dancing In The Factory – which he wrote there. Eliza Carthy and her legendary folk family – including her parents Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson – sitting round the kitchen table of the farmhouse where Eliza grew up near Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire all singing their hearts out. Seth Lakeman standing on Dartmoor silhouetted against a bright blue sky singing Kitty Jay – his song of the servant girl who got pregnant out of wedlock when such a thing was a scandal and then took her own life. She is buried on that moor. I could go on and on…
Of course the current crisis has suddenly brought home broadcasting to everyone's attention. Do you think this is going to make for a seismic change in media consumption?
It's hard to say what the long term effects of the lockdown will be. I think the first thing it has done is to make us all really aware of how important the BBC is at a time like this. Before the virus the vultures were circling around the Corporation saying it should become a subscription service like Netflix or Amazon. I’m not saying it is perfect, mind you. But we are so grateful now for a source of reliable information in this unsettling atmosphere. Netflix might be keeping us entertained but it doesn’t bring you comprehensive, independent news on radio, TV and the web or the BBC’s full range of incredibly popular national and local radio services, or the Proms or the World Service and so on.
And I think people have begun to appreciate that more. When they can’t go out, people do rely much more heavily on the electronic media for information, entertainment and education. We’ve certainly seen an increase in listening to Folk On Foot as stressed people look for a relief from the gruelling treadmill of daily news and take solace in the sounds of nature and beautiful music.
How has the Easter broadcast come together? What were your challenges, and what are you hoping for from it?
I was really conscious of the blow that the cancellation of all their gigs had dealt to all musicians, not just the ones I know in folk. We often associate musicians with pop stars who have made millions, but the real truth is that most musicians are just about getting by on really low incomes, creating music because they are passionate about it, not because they expect to make a fortune. So when the gigs you rely on to keep your head above water are suddenly stripped away, that’s a crisis. I was also conscious of a creative head of steam building up as the lockdown came into force: really talented people who live to play, suddenly finding themselves without an outlet.
So I got in touch with the artistes who have walked with us on Folk On Foot and asked them if they’d like to take part. And they were all enthusiastic. Some couldn’t make it work technically or were in isolation away from their bandmates, but fourteen solo artistes or duos agreed to take part. It’s an amazing line-up that people would pay loads of money to see at a festival. We decided that we wanted to raise money, not just for the participating artistes, but for the community more generally – so we launched a crowdfunding appeal.
Half the money will go to the Front Room Festival performers, and half to the charity Help Musicians UK which offers grants to musicians who are experiencing financial hardship. The response has been amazing! We raised £10,000 within 48 hours of launching and we keep pushing our target up, because people seem to want to contribute – and every penny we raise will benefit musicians who are raising our spirits in these terrible times.
On the day I’m hoping people will gather in their own front rooms to watch – with me linking it from mine – and the artistes playing in theirs. It’ll create a powerful connection right across Britain because we’ll hear from artistes who are in places like Topsham or Dartmoor in Devon, Shetland, Sheffield, London, Inverness, Midlothian and so on. I want people who’re watching to send us photos on social media of them in their front rooms so we create a huge virtual family all brought together by music. You asked about challenges... well, as we speak the technical stuff is just starting, but I’m sure we’ll deal with that and make it a resounding success!
You can watch the Folk On Foot Front Room Festival for free on Easter Bank Holiday Monday from 2pm on the Folk On Foot YouTube channel and Facebook page. You can find more details of the line-up, how to watch and how to donate at folkonfoot.com/festival.
If you missed the live Folk On Foot Front Room Festival performance, don't fret. You can still catch it, as it has been archived in full. Have a listen in the video below.
Cover Image: Kris Drever by Andy Sheppard/Redferns via Getty Images
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs