Now then, it wouldn’t take a clever person to perceive that the most challenging part of producing an article on the mighty John Kirkpatrick would be finding something to say about him that hasn’t already been said by greater mortals than I. However, I am ready to accept the challenge with both humility and enthusiasm for John Kirkpatrick is, and has always been, one of my greatest inspirations as an English folksinger/musician.
Indeed, of all the considerable number of what we’ll term ‘UK Folk Greats’ of the last 50 years or so, JK is the one that has reached me on every level and I therefore feel moderately validated in, at least my aspiration, to indulge in such a task. Though not being a great intellectual or literal expert – I intend to conduct the whole process driven by enthusiasm and personal experience of ‘roughly’ the same historic timeline as our illustrious subject.
When I’ve had my say, it is my intention to get John himself to talk as much as possible about anything he wants to say about anything. I am particularly keen to attempt to get inside the man – private as I know he is and should be – in the sense that whatever such a folk celebrity might be known for in the public sense, I have never seen any article about John that has dealt with other aspects of his being – maybe such a domain exists though I haven’t myself seen it. I mean, does he do anything else but music? Does he have other hobby interests/pastimes or has he had or does he have other career ambitions? If he had his time again, what, if anything, would he change? What are his socio-political beliefs and preferences? Who are his greatest influences and heroes? What are his thoughts on the way the folk world has developed since he became a (not insignificant) part of it?
That’s for later. For now, here are my own thoughts and observations about John’s approach to his music.
Certainly one of the things I have noticed, learned from and delighted in over the years (as a pro singer/musician myself), is his extraordinarily and unmovable metronomic capability. It is clear that he is (and has always been), acutely conscious of the need to set and harness the tempo of a piece – or, at least, not to gradually gather pace or slow down (other than deliberately, of course), when executing any piece of material – be it a song/accompaniment or dance music and dance music in particular.
So many musicians (but not all, by a long chalk), simply can’t wait to play the next note which so often results in exuberantly shortening the silence gaps and shifting the pulse until the melody, rhythm and coherence is all but lost, potentially giving the entire offering a bland (but fast) linear character to it rather than a lifty, exciting, dynamics filled experience. John can, of course, play at speed and may frequently choose to do so but is by no means a slave to that philosophy – usually preferring to keep a control on the speed and exploit the melodic and chordal qualities of a piece. In my humble opinion, he is a proven expert at this and no-one does it (consistently) better than he. I guess this is why he has always been attracted to Morris music and dance because it always requires such control and expression to execute it functionally well. If (sorry, WHEN), you buy his newest CD, Tunes From The Trenches, you will hear a perfect demonstration of all I’ve talked about here and indeed, of course, on ALL of his many splendid recordings.
JK is what I describe as a ‘complete musician’ in that he has a total understanding of the entire music spectrum and structure, can read it and write it and has a finely tuned ear and memory. He therefore has a detailed understanding of both fully chromatic chording and modal structure and a sixth sense of when and where to employ each to ultimate effect. It’s these highly developed, intuitive talents and skills that make him the unbeatable champion of English folk song and dance music interpretation that he unquestionably is. What’s most irritating is, he’s been this good at what he does, virtually from the off – I think from the age of about 14!
Many entering the folk world within the last 20 years, will likely not know that John has other highly developed musical talents and capabilities, some of which he rarely exploits now, like: clog dancing (something to behold – I can tell you), a walking, breathing, one-man percussion kit, in-depth music tutor, actor, theatrical musical director - you name it, he can likely do and has done it but, what else is he, I wonder? What more could anyone want or expect from the man?
Now before we dive in, I know that many of you will know that his dear love, Sally, left him/us in fairly sudden and tragic circumstances at the end of 2014 and John expressed an understandable desire to speak about this publicly and I’m honoured to be the one to offer him the platform to do so. Here’s what he said:
“Sally had been kind of under the weather for a couple of years with low blood pressure and low iron and regular dizzy spells and tummy pains. She’d been tested for this and that over a year to 18 months and it appeared no-one was joining up any dots until suddenly, in November 2014, pain from these spells began to intensify and she was rushed into hospital. Scans revealed she had cancer in three or four places. This led to an urgent, massive operation and I was told there was only a 50/50 chance she would survive. But, she did come round, did survive and appeared to be recovering quite well and quickly. She was awake, eating, drinking, joking – just being Sally. The problem was that there was more inside that couldn’t be clearly seen or viewed – she suddenly went into decline and they had to operate again but her organs were just shutting down; the shock to her body of such a huge procedure was just too much and she was out like a light really.”
“It was an unbelievable shock to me at the time. She died at the end of November. She was 50 years old – loads younger than me. Now, on reflection, I’m just relieved that she didn’t have to suffer the indignity of her hair dropping out and all that horrible stuff that people go through; that she went as quickly as she did – she may not have wanted any therapy and it would have just been horrible.”
“If it was going to happen anyway, perhaps it was better that way, and now that the shock has eased a little, it’s a comfort to recount what a wonderful time we did have – we were together for well over 20 years and she was….well, I’ve been like a baby – I’ve just had to learn everything again from scratch because we did everything together. Apart from teaching and workshop commitments, we were always together. It’s been such a test just to work out ways of ‘getting on’ without her. In terms of my work, she was my multi-faceted support group – helped with driving, encouragement, CD sales at gigs and all kinds of logistics, helped with sound balance issues – you name it – such a massive help to me in an endless variety of ways – just such a rock for me in everything I did.”
“She even sang backing vocals on several of my recordings and she was a great talent in her own right but she never wanted to be the centre of attention, very quiet and modest, never seeking the spotlight. She did however really love the music, was very happy to sing and always worked really hard at getting harmonies right and knowing what she had to do and getting it banged to rights every time. So it’s been terrible, really terrible, swimming about without a lifebelt – very, very difficult.”
“We came together through the Morris teams - Sally was a member of Martha Rhoden’s Tuppenny Dish, so that has always been central to our lives together in Shropshire. It was particularly hard to go back into that, but I made myself go back the very next week and, of course, everyone was in shreds because everybody knew, liked and loved her. She’d been the senior teacher of the side for quite some time and played for the dancing. Sally was a fantastic melodeon player – particularly in terms of understanding what was required for a dance, not flashy – she played the kind of dance music that you don’t notice because it was so bang on right. As I say, she hated drawing attention to herself but you knew that if Sally was playing, it was going to be perfect. I miss all those things – none of it was anything to do with me, she just understood and got it all. The hardest thing, though, is no longer having her company and companionship. She was also, by the way, the percussionist in Mr Gubbin’s Bicycle.”
Keith: “That MUST have been amazing – of all the units you have put together, that is the only one I never saw – to my deep personal regret.”
John: “Thank you, it’s no more now. There were five of us: myself, Sally, Jobie and Benji (my two oldest boys) and one of the Morris team, Martin Britnell, who now, sadly, has Parkinson’s Disease so can no longer play and was replaced latterly by either Paul Burgess (Old Swan Band) or Shane Brennan (Brass Monkey). But, Sally, of course, would also help with demonstrating couple dances – Benji would play the tune and we’d have a dance - she was lovely at that too. Her percussion playing was once again not flashy, but on the money, on the beat, no razzamatazz - she just understood how to play for the dancing.”
“Well, there are all the big things, apart from all the company and domestic stuff around the house, she was just a great person to be with for all of those reasons. And also, apart from not having someone to cuddle with all the time - there was a keen interest there obviously. (John smiles thoughtfully.) I really miss her good taste and common sense – we could chat about anything and I would discuss with her anything I was thinking or planning. I would play a new song, tune or a recording to her first. I really valued her judgement and her opinion and there’s no-one else at the moment I value/trust that much/enough – well – up to now and I don’t really want to have anybody, if you see what I mean, her boots can’t be filled. Above all, it’s just bloody hard work going into a gig, arriving in a room and you can’t even say: “this is a nice room” or “this is going to be rough” or “Christ, look at him” ...(another wry smile from John)… you know, just someone to confide in.”
In the months since this interview was conducted, much to his surprise and delight, John has found a new lady friend who has helped to put a smile back on his face.
Keith: “OK – so, my next big question then is…What, if anything, do you do other than music? Are there any sideline hobbies, pastimes – I mean ‘What D’yer Do in the Day’ mate?”
John: “Yes, I remember somebody asking me that a few years ago and it took me ages to think. I suppose it seems a very weak thing to say but Morris dancing is my only real hobby, given that I don’t earn any money from it except in as much as I play the tunes occasionally at gigs and I’ve recorded one or two.
Keith: “Please forgive my somewhat questionable journalistic endeavours but, I’m bound to ask…how and when did it all start?”
John: “Well, I was very lucky to have had music in my life from as far back as I can remember – I was born into a family that loved and lived music. Every family gathering was a sing-song around the piano. It was fantastic when I think of it – everyone could play or sing something, so direct engagement with it was ‘normal’ behaviour from the off. The piano was in the room and we all had a go on it – some better than others, of course. So, I’ve always loved it. I sang in the church choir as a child and others later and if I hadn’t ended up with music as a job, I would have played and sung anyway.”
“Then I joined Hammersmith Morris Men who were formed originally as an offshoot of a country dance club made up of the Hammersmith Broadway church regulars, including my parents. Myself and my sister both sang in the choir there (this would be around the late 50s). Somebody in the church had done country dancing when they were younger so they said, ‘Let’s have a country dance club.’”
“I was about 12 then. You see, there was a Mothers’ Union, a men’s social club and a youth club, but nothing that brought everybody together - apart from worshipping the Lord, that is (respectful chuckle). So someone came up with the idea of a country dance club so everyone could join in – brilliant! We got somebody from Cecil Sharp House, Hugh Rippon, to come and show us some dances, and then he said: “We have all these young boys here – let’s start a Morris team!”
“I didn’t like country dancing much. I’d done it at primary school and hated it. Dancing with girls, God Almighty, and you didn’t get to choose which ones either (more laughter). And the teacher, Miss Melville, was the size of the Titanic and she was ‘orrible! (laughs again), but then Hugh started the Morris team. I didn’t go the first week but somebody broke a finger in a stick dance and I thought – this sounds more like it - so along I went, still wearing short trousers and I was hooked! It was fantastic and as you say, Hugh Rippon – of all the people in all the world – you know? Hugh was in his twenties at the time, full of missionary zeal, a great teacher and a real inspiration. We were all young lads – the oldest was just 19 and he was the Squire, being the eldest. I was the youngest for a long time and Hugh encouraged anyone with a musical bent to come along and play something, so I went along with my recorder and felt a bit of a pranny (Keith: “wish now I’d asked John what a pranny was – should’ve been quicker!”) ‘cos I thought it was a bit feeble. Hugh then lent me a melodeon and said: ‘Here you are, have a go on that’. My one and only melodeon lesson lasted about five seconds. He said: ‘When you push, you get one note, when you pull, you get another, off you go!’ THAT WAS IT! That was my lesson!”
Keith: “WOW! Roger Watson was somewhat kinder to me with the English Concertina but I had to find my own way round the Anglo – I can’t remember anyone showing me what to do with that.”
John: “Well, I was lost, I can tell you, for a while, but I just loved the dancing and I loved the music - still do – so, I suppose that is still my principle spare time hobby. I still dance every week with the side I started in the early 70s, the Shropshire Bedlams. I was with Hammersmith Morris Men for about 12 years until I left London. Then, I had a year in Wolverhampton – cheap curries, that’s the one good thing I have to say about Wolves, I think - so at that time, I was looking for somewhere to settle. Taffy Thomas offered the advice that if you’re going to travel around the country doing folk clubs and the like for a living (which I was by then), you should probably live somewhere around the middle. That turned out to be great advice, which I took. I’d had a few day outings into Shropshire (easy access from Wolverhampton), made a few friends and ended up living there.”
“I totally love Morris dancing and, in a way, it drives everything I do. I especially love dancing with the Bedlams; that’s such a wonderful thing to have in my life; it’s such an earthing activity. Just lots of local people, all doing their best, no airs and graces – just really good friends – my life-line to ordinary life if you like, and as you know, Keith, the razzmatazz, tinsel and glitter of a show-biz life as a folky can go to your head sometimes (raucous laughter) so it’s good to have an antidote to that and just be part of a local team. We do lots of local events year on year and occasionally we’ll dance at festivals, but we are principally a community based side, absolutely rooted in the community and 2015 was our 40th birthday - imagine that!”
Keith: “THAT is truly amazing! So, we’ve established then, that John Kirkpatrick’s job is music and singing, and his spare time hobby is Morris dancing. That’s it, that’s the story – there’s no time left for anything else! But are there any career ambitions that you have and not yet fulfilled?”
John: “It’s a very interesting question. I’ve always got 3 or 4 ideas for the next album and I’ve always got projects forming in my mind. In terms of collaborations, I’ve certainly played with some amazing people, many of whom were quite a long time ago now like, for instance, Richard Thompson, who I toured and recorded with on and off over 15 years in his live band and though I’ve not had any contact with him for a long time now, if he were to call me now – I know I’d say yes because he was the one out of all the people I’ve played with that stretched me most. I had to find a new way of playing to fit in with funny keys – he doesn’t just play in G and D, I mean, who ever heard of anyone playing in more keys than G and D. What’s THAT all about, I wonder?
Keith: “OK – so, greatest moments, then. RT must certainly qualify?”
John: “Yes indeedee, Richard is right up there but, equally, other moments for me just as great have been people dancing right in front of me to the music I make for country dancing – there’s not much to touch that. If you hit the right stride and there’s a room full of people, it’s not so much that they know the dance, but that your music is actually telling them where and when to do the steps, and when it all clicks it’s so glorious to see a hundred or so people dancing around and actually drawing something from the way that you are playing – such a satisfying thing to do.”
Keith: “Now, I’m so glad you’ve touched on that because I want to broach the subject of playing more slowly for country dancing which brings me to the ground breaking English country dance band, Umps & Dumps. Absolutely amazing they were. Now, I’m not suggesting you/they played everything slowly, you didn’t necessarily. That, of course, depended on what dances you were playing for, but it always seemed that when U&D were playing, you were almost dictatorially inviting/encouraging people to dance because they couldn’t walk or run to that pace – they HAD to dance, they HAD to get off the floor and yes, tiring it was, but it was loads more fun and you could always sit the next one out to get your breath. I’m interested to learn what the hell happened to all that? That philosophy only lasted a few years until the semi English/Celtic brigade turned everything back from key C to the Celtic D, G and A, and moved the pace up again because some of the old school dance callers were starting to work with the new wave English bands and instructing them to play faster because they said people couldn’t dance to the slower pace. In our case, I would say, yes they can – you’re just not asking them to – you have to ask them to do it and I quite simply thought that what U&D were doing was right and good for the dance and for the music. That unfortunate ‘C’ change (pun intended) was obviously good for those musicians and callers, but it wasn’t good for me. I didn’t appreciate it at all and I was disappointed, to say the least, to see it gradually subside – although, thankfully, it hasn’t gone altogether – I’m still doing it and will continue. I think you are too when you can; maintaining that link between English social dance and the Border Morris attitude of movement that makes people lift their feet off the ground, implying that everything can be done to varying paces of hop-step if you wish it. So, I’m just interested in what YOU think about that - have I got it right? I just think, basically, you challenged people and they largely rose to that challenge but the next wave coming through appear to have wimped out.”
John: “When I’m playing for country dance, I do very deliberately try to make people dance a little more slowly, though not as much as I’d like of late – I’m hoping to address that and perhaps we’ll come back to that in a minute or two. I have to admit I’ve always enjoyed dancing slowly enough to be able to put in steps and be more expressive. As I said earlier, I really didn’t enjoy country dance when I first came across it because we were all just walking or running around and nobody said, don’t walk, I mean, the music was played at a speed where all you could do was walk or shuffle.”
“And then, of course, I did the Morris and I just loved that; in particular the way the dancing matched the music and vice-versa. It had big expansive movement – this fabulous slower speed that was really hard to play because there was so much space you had to fill note by note. It was a real challenge to find a way to make musical sense of this dance accompaniment stuff and I absolutely loved that. Hugh was so great at getting a good speed for a dance. He taught Hammersmith – a lot of the other teams around were dancing a lot quicker than we were. I think it’s just about, with Morris, the very slight variation in speed and the things it makes you do just by dancing to a different speed. What it allows you to do, what it leaves you room to do is so interesting, and then there’s a certain point where you can do those lovely, aforementioned big expansive moves as in the Cotswold style and fill the space. Then there are faster bits where you have to snatch it and it becomes something slightly different and you’re scurrying about like a mouse. Whereas, I’d rather lumber about like a cart-horse – that’s always appealed to me…this may be partly because I’m quite big made, I mean, I have a long distance to move my legs – a shorter person goes ‘bu-bum’ where I have to go ‘boom-boom’! Giant Dullboot, I go on a long way before I stop and in many different intriguing ways, Keith, but perhaps we shouldn’t go into that right now!”
“Now, because I was so involved with Morris dancing and before I got the point about country dancing and holding girls’ hands and all of that, I read a three part article in one of the early EFDSS magazines by Patrick Shudham-Shaw about English country dancing where he said: “There’s no doubt that English country dancing was a stepping tradition,” and every picture you see, every reference to it, Thomas Hardy, all the historical references, everything you come across – people are dancing, they’re not walking or slithering about or running. Suddenly, all that made blinding sense to me and I was trying to find a way of playing that was different to the EFDSS sponsored excessively bland style of music that everybody was dancing to when I got involved in the 1960s. Then, when all the English Country Music records of all the traditional players like Walter Bulwer started coming out in the early 70s, I thought, that’s it – he’s playing at that speed because that’s the speed people danced at in his day and before so, THAT’S why you do it; when you play at that speed you CAN dance, you have these lovely big steps and you can fill the air with glorious movement. He’s obviously spent a lifetime playing that way and so, it all clicked into place.”
“That’s when Umps & Dumps formed, in a wave of all that stuff, this explosion of a revived approach to dance music, and because I’d done lots of dancing myself, I knew exactly what it felt like to do such and such a step. I also realised that if you play the music in a very dancey way, the caller doesn’t have to say - we’re not going to walk backwards and forwards in this, we’re going to skip or polka – if you put it into the music, you don’t leave people any choice. And, if you play the PTA annual dance or the school dance where all the parents have an evening once a year, it’s called a dance, so they expect to come and dance and if they’re not expert country dancers, they’ll naturally start skipping about, because no-one said ‘walk’, and if people don’t know otherwise, they’ll start dancing, obviously – it’d be insane not to; it’s insane that people walk. It’s always desperately puzzled me and then disappointed me, that so many people are happy to just bash out the tunes and think - oh, it’s only a PTA, what does it matter? So, if you play dance music at a bland, insipid walking pace/speed, people are going to dance bland, insipid, walking pace dances.”
“It drives me to despair. In fact, one of my major regrets over my career is that I haven’t had more time to slap people round the face about country dancing and say: ‘Stop! It’s all absolute crap what you’re doing, because it’s blindingly obvious it should be like this!’ Cecil Sharp published a book of 18 country dances that he collected himself around the villages and 150 or so Playford tunes out of a book in the British Museum. So he’d seen what was happening and then thought, oh, that’s crap – let’s have a look at these lovely interesting tunes and let’s publish all of them…and so completely screwed up the country dance aspect of the folk dance revival from scratch.”
Keith: “Oh, hear, hear! My band, Ram’s Bottom, picked up on the Walter Bulwer thing and we ended up with a very strident percussionist, Rick Scollins, of Ey Up Mi Duck dialect books’ fame (R.I.P.) and we ended up sounding like a cross between a North West Morris band and a fairground organ. Looking back, it might have been perhaps a little too slow at times; we kind of over-egged it a bit and we realised that, but we didn’t advance it much because we thought it was important not to get carried away with speed.”
And that is where we leave the conversation between John and Keith for now. We will rejoin them in LT112, where they continue their musings about John’s career in the folk world - talking about his groundbreaking work with Sue, his theatre career, his thoughts on the political nature of folk song, his recent CD release and plans for the future. But the last word here is for Keith:
“I conducted this interview with John at the glorious home of Lester and Val Simpson and am thankful for their kindness and hospitality. It perhaps should be mentioned that quality red wine was indeed free-flowing throughout the entire event…but NOT while I was composing the resulting article…what larks, me boys!”
by Keith Kendrick.
Published in Issue 112 of The Living Tradition. Part 2 will be published in Issue 113.