Bath International Music Festival 2009
Folk songs are in all of us. Not everyone realises this and some people can go through large parts of their lives without experiencing what are essentially everyday human stories. Then … wham.
Such was the life-changing effect that hearing Anne Briggs singing The Snow It Melts the Soonest had on Mary Hampton. Recently feted by journals including Mojo, Uncut and fRoots and lauded by deep in the blood tradition bearers such as her fellow Sussex chanteuse Shirley Collins and scion of the Waterson:Carthy folk dynasty Eliza Carthy for her singing of folk songs old and new, Mary had somehow managed to avoid any connection at all with folk music until her university years.
Growing up in Brighton, the London-born Mary had studied the concert harp and written chamber music, receiving guidance from the composer, conductor and director of the Yehudi Menuhin school, Malcolm Singer, before going on to the University of Sussex to study 20th Century Music.
It was towards the end of her time at Sussex Uni that Mary’s Road to Damascus experience with Anne Briggs occurred. “I’d done my degree, which basically involved writing a lot of Stockhausen pastiches,” she says. “But then the whole thing became so intellectual that it turned me off music.”
Until along came a recording of Briggs, the enigmatic muse of folk-blues guitar hero Bert Jansch, whose all too brief recording career from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s left a small but perfectly formed catalogue of beguiling recordings.
Mary, like so many before her, was smitten and immediately had to find out if there were any more songs and any more singers who could captivate her with the power of a Briggs. The answer was, songs abounded, and Mary voraciously took in the contents of the Vaughan Williams library at Cecil Sharp House, the London headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Singers were a different matter – although there were lots of them, too - and it soon became apparent that, if she was going to find her own way in this music, Mary would have to find her repertoire in books, rather than run the risk of imitating other performances of the songs that appealed.
She hunted through second-hand bookshops for old books of British ballads, building quite a collection, and began visiting The Pond, the Brighton pub where traditional music sessions feature the cream of musicians passing through, plucking up the courage to sing in an environment that’s notoriously daunting for singers. She also formed the Sussex Anarchist Singers, specialists in six-part a cappella folk ballads, and as a true upholder of the tradition, she enrolled on the old London College of Furniture’s musical instrument making department, specialising in wooden whistles under the tutelage of Dave Armitage, box player with the great English folk dance band Blowzabella.
Within a remarkably short time, Mary’s performances of traditional songs, accompanied by her own guitar and tenor guitar playing, began to get her noticed. Her EPs, Book One (6 songs of refusal) and Book Two (6 songs of hunger), led to a deal with Navigator, home to folk scene wave makers including Lau, Chris Wood and Bellowhead, and her debut album, My Mother’s Children, was released to enthusiastic reviews in August 2008.
Mary has also recorded with Eliza Carthy as one of The Ratcatchers on Carthy’s Rough Music album, co-written and sung with members of ground-breaking band Stereolab, and shared stages with St Etienne, British Sea Power, Bellowhead, Alasdair Roberts and Shirley Collins, with whom she’s currently working on a new project.
She’s joined tonight by Seth Bennett (double bass), Jo Burke (fiddle and vocals) and Alistair Strachan (horn and percussion) and as to the music you will hear, we felt it was best to end by letting Mary explain it in her own words:
“I am very interested by the possibilities of the traditional song form, and I will be
performing a combination of traditional songs, new songs I write from scratch and settings of poems from an era in between, which further unfold certain themes that interest me. I like the idea that there is a kind of on-going dialogue between the stories told throughout history, as though they learn from each other and evolve to serve the time they are told in.
“The old songs I arrange are usually tales of extreme human reaction, told dispassionately, as is the way of old songs. They are about how people attempt to deal with their own desires; I find the relevance of these stories to our own sensibilities always surprising and strangely reassuring. The new songs deal with the same theme, a little more personally and retrospectively. The poems I set deal simply with our desires in themselves, which is the domain of poetry.”