Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2016 is a popular event. I know this because upon arriving, at about half eight on Friday night, I am told by a friendly steward, and they're all like that by the way, that the overflow campsite is already overflowing. He advises me to try my luck on the main site, but I must confess that after a few fruitless laps I'm getting a bit fraught at the prospect of never finding a spot. It's not as if they are pushed for space; you'll find the festival on a show ground on the edge of the town. It's vast, green and has a river along one side. If that's not enough, the centre of town is a ten minute walk away. As festival sites go, it's a best of both worlds situation, which might explain why it is proving so popular. I do eventually find a spot, and it's in an area so plush, that had I been a bit more clumsy with my tent poles, I could have damaged about 300 grand's worth of luxury winnebagos. Urge resisted, tent pitched, and feeling like a bit of a proletarian interloper, which is a strange thing to feel at a folk festival, I set out to find the reasons for the allure of Shrewsbury.
Now I'm pitched up I must confess to being quite relieved that the campsite is so packed, for the publicity leading up to the event was far from positive, it having banned black faced morris dancers because of some unfounded concerns about racism. I can't imagine this festival ever being the same again without the likes of The Shropshire Bedlams, The Seven Champions, and the Ironmen. Furthermore, I can't imagine the nation ever being the same again if our culture ignores the origins of the face-blacking habit; namely that morris dancing in the borders, performed 'incognito' during the winter to obtain money when work on the land was scarce, was outlawed by a tiny ruling elite, who had written the rules in their favour, ignoring the welfare of the populace in general. If you can't see the contemporary relevance of that, you might want to switch on the news.
Shrewsbury, you see, is strong on dance. Dance sides, social dance, and pissed up boogie-ing in the aisles, it's all here. There are workshops and a social dance programme, all taking place in a dedicated venue. It's the first place I head to when I arrive and ironically, it's All Blacked Up, who are providing the entertainment. The interval morris display is courtesy of the aforementioned Ironmen and Severn Gilders. It's a relief to see that the morris dancers are blacked up, but if you look closely, you can see flecks of red on their faces, their side colours in other words. Later I discover that the Seven Champions are painted a shade of dark green and the Shropshire Bedlams are wearing ornate bandit masks. They've all pulled off the neat trick of respecting the wishes of the festival whilst preserving the disguising intent of the original act of face blacking. Perhaps there was no need to worry; something that is centuries old is obviously adept at surviving.
Whilst I'm on the topic, I've never met a less racist group of people than the those in the folk community, and to reflect their tastes, the festival features a diverse musical lineup. You'll find Raghu Dixit rubbing shoulders with Show of Hands, Sheelanagig, and The Wilsons. You'll find The Urban Folk Quartet, demoing rave moves in multiple European languages, and if you keep an ear out, you'll hear people raving about Dila V and The Oddbeats, who are Turkish in tone, with a fine line in Gypsy music. For folks who like things French Canadian, Ten Strings and a Goatskin are back by popular demand, and are going for it. They are down to seven strings at one point, but it doesn't stop them whipping up a dance frenzy: there is steam coming out of the tent. If Americana is your thing, Barnstar! are all you need, c'mon. But there's more in the shape of Roseanne Cash & John Levanthall, who follow them on Sunday night. Barnstar! are also back by popular request, as are Lady Maisery, who manage to pack out the their tent when, all around them, venues are emptying as folks flock to Show of Hands. The main tent at Shrewsbury is about as big as it gets, but it's rammed for Show of Hands: they might need to look for a bigger one when they come back.
If concerts are your thing then there's plenty at Shrewsbury for you, but if you're more of a do it yourself kind of person then there's a full programme of workshops too. Over my morning coffee, I've often been intrigued by the sight people criss crossing the festival site carrying musical instruments of all shapes and sizes. Wondering where they were going, I'd often thought that I was missing out on a large part of the folk festival experience by not joining them. So this year I decided to give it a go, attending beginner's melodeon with Mel Biggs, and beginner's fiddle with Kitty Greenwood. I'll admit that I've never been a huge fan of workshops, mostly because of events advertised as ‘beginners' that turn out to be anything but. It's a bit different at Shrewsbury though. Firstly, the workshops are structured in a progressive way, and beginners means beginners; you literally could buy an instrument 10 minutes before, head into the workshop and not feel out of your depth. Secondly, Kitty and Mel seem to have an almost sixth sense of the speed to go at, and they have all kinds of tricks for breaking things down into manageable chunks. There are five sessions throughout the festival, each one a bit more advanced than the last. People talk, in hushed, fabled tones, of ‘making it to the fifth session', as if it's a lofty goal, but most do. Complete beginners obviously need to be at the festival on Saturday for lesson one, but those who have moved on a bit can drop in on later sessions.
Talking of moving on, Tuneworks are at Shrewsbury too. Tuneworks are a bit of a festival subculture, appearing at various events throughout the season. They produce a tune book which you download from their website, and print out. Then you gather in the bar and play the tunes in a big session, with expert help at the front to guide you. The tune book contains 27 tunes, or sets of tunes, so learning them all is possibly a bit of a winter project, but you'd be far from a beginner once you were done. And more help is at hand, for it also points you in the direction of a Facebook page called BITS (beginners and improvers tune sessions) which let you know about similar things in your local area. There really is no reason not to give it a go.
After 3 days of Shrewsbury, I must confess to feeling a little spoiled. Many festivals merely involve the act of sitting on the grass, getting pissed and listening to music. People love them, and why not? But here, and in the folk scene in general, you get much more. You can learn new moves and make new friends in the dance tent. You can learn a musical instrument in the workshops, or you can simply do the aforementioned getting pissed and listening to bands thing. On Saturday evening I wander into town to find a cash point, and hear in the distance the strains of the Frumptarn Guggenband. I immediately head towards them, for they have that effect on people, and find some of them in the street outside the Prince Rupert Hotel. In fact, I find a dance party in the street, in full swing, involving some dancers from Martha Rhoden's Tuppenny Dish and assorted members of the public who've wandered up and joined in. It looks like a good bunch of people, having the best of times. And I guess that sums it all up.
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