In a corner of an East Oxford pub sit a dozen or so people. They’re drinking pints, gossiping and laughing like the other punters, but they’re also holding instruments: a fiddle, a squeezebox with rows of pearlescent buttons, a battered penny whistle. If you watch carefully you’ll see someone scan the group to make sure it’s a good moment, then begin playing a tune. Maybe eight bars of melody, repeated, then another eight, and another, with a rhythm that bypasses the brain and goes straight to the feet. If they know it, the other players join in with the melody or improvise a harmony, reacting to each other, communicating the beat, weaving variations, conversing in winding phrases. After a few minutes, at the smallest of signals from the person who started the set, the tune is brought to a close and the conversation melts back into words. On the surface of it, such a simple, normal thing - it happens in folk sessions every night in thousands of pubs across Europe – but so beautifully illustrative of the astonishing human capacity for wordless consensus, and such a strong and humble expression of the vitality and relevance of traditional culture.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Oxford, an international and culturally-curious city, boasts a wonderful variety of sessions. There are nights dedicated to traditional music from England, Ireland, France, Scandinavia, Galicia and America, and there’s space in many sessions for anything else that floats your boat.
One of Oxford’s most established instrumental traditions is the music played for Cotswold Morris dance, and there are various sessions in and around the city where you can play these tunes (without the dancing) plus other English tunes. These include the Ducklington session, which apparently is often full of members of the Morris team, and the Cherry Tree session in Steventon.
Oxford also has a very strong singing scene, and many sessions here encourage a mix of tunes and songs. The Half Moon is one of these; it’s led by Mick Henry who is a great proponent of the elaborately ornamented Sean-Nós style of singing, but is also frequented by tune players who enjoy the Irish repertoire. Song/tune sessions also include the wonderful Ian Giles’s Red Lion session in Eynsham and the Shoulder of Mutton session in Wantage (for great English songs and tunes), and the King’s Head and Bell night in Abingdon (‘an eclectic mix of music, song, poetry and anything else’).
Also included in the calendar are two events which aren’t strictly sessions, but might be of interest. The first of these is the Oxford Sacred Harp meet. Sacred Harp (aka Shape-Note) is four-part unaccompanied American folk psalmody. It’s loud, intense and beautiful stuff, and, in my experience, newcomers are always made welcome. The second is the Harp Session at the James Street Tavern, which Steph West, the founder, says is ‘more a friendly tune-share’.
Some sessions are not exclusively dedicated to folk music. Notable among these is the Bastard English session, which is fun, irreverent, loud and apt to include fusions of traditional tunes with Dire Straits riffs, and renditions of Lady Gaga hits accompanied by concertina and mandolin. It has been described as ‘folky pop and poppy folk, young crowd and a high energy level’. Helpfully, lots of the music which is played at this session has been made available here.
Another session which has a digital tunebook is the James Street Tavern Scandinavian session (click here). And there’s a cherry on top too: Ed Pritchard, who runs this session, says, “A regular feature of the session is the ‘Ten o’Clock Duet’ when we sight-read our way through a tune in two-part harmony (which is a feature of particularly Swedish fiddle music). But ability to sight-read is not a prerequisite of attending the session!”
Some of the European musical traditions, such as those of Brittany, the rest of France, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, are inextricably linked with dance. Accordingly, dancing is encouraged at both the French and Scandi sessions at the James Street Tavern, so the floor's yours if you know the steps for a mazurka or a schottische and can find a willing partner. If you don’t know how but would like to learn, then your best bet is to find an event near you on this handy calendar. Oxford also has an International Folk Dance Group.
Balfolk Oxford is one group which organises dance workshops and clandestine mazurkas. These free, informal, often fairly spontaneous events are for folk musicians and dancers. French/ European tunes are typically played. Find out about these events - or suggest them - on this Facebook group or through firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sessions are open to anyone who wants to come and play or listen, and that spirit of inclusion is absolutely fundamental. However, a session only really works if everyone involved approaches with sensitivity, and focuses on what they are adding to the group sound. Two useful websites, if you’re unsure of session etiquette (for both players and listeners) and would like to know more, are Nigel Gatherer's and the Wiki article, though neither is comprehensive and each session is unique. If you want to join in a session but you don’t know the tunes yet, going along with a recording device can be a really good start. Make sure you ask the players first, though.
A really useful resource for tune players is Folktunefinder.com - you can search for tunes by name or by melody. The Session is also good, especially for Irish tunes, and Folx is really useful for European repertoire. There's also a really lovely Folk in Oxford website which covers all things folk in the region.
And of course Oxford’s own folk festival is unmissable - a fantastic collection of gigs, ceilidhs and sessions!
- King's Head and Bell, Abingdon. Every week. Songs and tunes, broad repertoire.
- The Red Lion, Islip. First Monday in the month. Broad repertoire.
- Harp Session, James Street Tavern. First Monday in the month. Friendly tune swap.
- French and Breton Session, James Street Tavern. Second Monday in the month.
- Scandinavian Session, James Street Tavern. Third Monday in the month.
- Eight Bells, Eaton. Every Tuesday. Equal measures songs and tunes.
- French and Breton Session, The Woodman in Fernham. Third Tuesday in the month.
- Sacred Harp, New Road Baptist Church, Bonn Sq. Second and fourth Tuesdays in the month.
- The Plough, Long Wittenham. Every Wednesday. Songs of all kinds.
- Galician session, James Street Tavern. Last Wednesday in the month.
- The Greyhound, Letcombe Regis. First Friday in the month. Not only traditional music.
- The Bastard English Session, The Isis. Second Friday in the month. Folky pop and poppy folk.
- Abingdon Arms, Wantage. Third Friday in the month.
- Shoulder of Mutton, Wantage. Every Friday except the third in the month. Songs and tunes. Relaxed.
- The Red Lion, Eynsham. Every week. Led by Ian Giles. English songs and tunes.
- The Half Moon, St. Clements. Every week. Led by Mick Henry. Irish songs and tunes.
- The Bell, Ducklington. First Sunday in the month. English tunes.
- The Cherry Tree, Steventon. Third Sunday in the month. English tunes.