'If you hear a tinkle on the knee, a Morris dancer it must be,' this is not a Chaucerian cant, or even a line from a Thomas Hardy novel, but something I just made up to accompany the cover photo of Folk Weekend: Oxford. For a pair of slightly knock-kneed, bell clad knees apparently, say it all. Except there is a lot more to this 3-day event than Morris dancing. As well as the Celtic fringes, there were Scandinavian and French performers represented as well as some big names like Eliza Carthy. Ticket holders also had the opportunity to hear and join in with harpists, sea shanties, ceilidhs, dulcimer players and troubadours of all kinds.
I caught but a few of the bands playing at this year’s festival (now in its seventh year) and saw plenty of folk-weekender Morris dancers from walking around central Oxford on Saturday. The festival for ticket holders is organised in a few main sites; the Wesley Memorial Church, the Quaker Meeting House and St Barnabas Church in Jericho are for the bigger audiences. On Saturday, in the Wesley Memorial Hall where I used to take my kid to pre-school play meets, we see Banter, a band who had played along to a ceilidh the night before. Boy, was I gutted to have missed that, for even sitting in the little hall, surrounded by fairly non-descript Oxon sandal-and-fleece wearers, Banter was on fire. Their lead vocalist and pianist had a voice poised somewhere between Dolly Parton and Adele, and the accordion player might just be the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion world (in the sense that he gave the onlooker the feeling that his chosen instrument might just be the most important relationship in his life). He told the audience: 'Gyrate if you want to, otherwise just shift your buttocks from side to side!' Good advice, for it is difficult to sit through this performance without wanting to sway and stamp like the best of them.I also saw the main Sunday evening set; firstly, Mary Bateman who played last year at Blackwells, was now bumped up the programme to play at the Wesley Memorial Church. This Somerset-based singer played a few traditional songs as well as her own arrangements. ‘The Wyvern Song’ was about the Mendips, dragons and Arthurian legend, which I thought could well be the theme tune to an advert promoting Cheddar cheese as it was so regional in its concerns. Sweetly, she misconstrues the calls for the encore ('How embarrassing,' she tells us) and when I ask if I can buy her CD she tells me she's sold out: 'I was making them myself and didn’t think they’d go!' Even if you don’t like folk music much, you’ve got to admire its lack of ego. Perhaps because it is not so ‘cool’ - the types that go to these gigs are just there for the music. One folk band that must surely be cool is The Furrow Collective. They’ve had rave reviews in the Guardian, they’re on their third album, and as far as I know, at least two of its members had flourishing careers before forming as a group. But no, they are musicians, telling stories to music, and doing it well before going back to everyday things such as sleepless nights caused by motherhood (not partying) and excusing coughs on stage as 'I missed my flu jab'. Well done to the organisers of this weekender, for modesty aside, you deserve it.