• Photograph of Sandra Kerr with concertina in hand

Sandra Kerr - Rebel with her Chords

Mon, 04/20/2020 - 17:22
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I was in a skiffle group at school. Then some other friends who were also in a skiffle group took me to The Singers Club when I was about 17 and I was immediately converted. I heard Ewan (MacColl) and Peggy (Seeger) and Bert (Lloyd). I can remember thinking what extraordinary tunes the songs they were singing had; they did things that other tunes I knew didn't do. I know now that this was because they were modal, but I just remember their strangeness. There was no instrumental music, just songs, and one that stuck out in my mind was Van Diemen's Land - Harry Cox's version which Peggy accompanied on the guitar and Ewan sang. I was struck by its beauty.

Interviews! They can take place in the oddest of places! A recent one was conducted sitting on the floor in a corridor of a town hall in Kent at the end of a Saturday concert during a festival. This one with Sandra Kerr was in a rather plusher setting; it was a Sunday morning in June in the residents’ lounge of a hotel in Fitzrovia in Central London. We were both involved in the traditional song and tune weekend organised by the Musical Traditions club and the nearby King & Queen.

Transcribing it later, I was very aware that I had been talking to an articulate, intelligent but well-grounded person. I started with the obvious question about how she became involved in the first place.
“I was in a skiffle group at school. Then some other friends who were also in a skiffle group took me to The Singers Club when I was about 17 and I was immediately converted. I heard Ewan (MacColl) and Peggy (Seeger) and Bert (Lloyd). I can remember thinking what extraordinary tunes the songs they were singing had; they did things that other tunes I knew didn't do. I know now that this was because they were modal, but I just remember their strangeness. There was no instrumental music, just songs, and one that stuck out in my mind was Van Diemen's Land - Harry Cox's version which Peggy accompanied on the guitar and Ewan sang. I was struck by its beauty.”

I reminded Sandra that it was 30 years this year (2019) since Ewan died, but somehow, he still manages to be a controversial figure.  “Always was; always will be,” she said. “I'm not actually sure that he didn't court controversy. However, there is a lot of misconception about where he was coming from, but for all his contentious nature, I would not have missed the chance that I had under his kind of teaching; he was wonderful. I was so lucky because I was only 20 when Ewan and Peggy asked me to go there and live with them in Beckenham. I was a kind of live-in au pair to help with the children, but at the same time I was having one-to-one lessons from both. It was amazing; to this day, I can't believe that this happened. It was wonderful.”

It must have been around these years that Sandra became involved with The Critics Group. I had a feeling that the approach they adopted was very different to the usual folk song and music workshops that are run today; like, for example, those on song accompaniments on concertina which Sandra would be running in my home town, Lewes, exactly a week after our conversation.

“The Critics Group was different in the sense that it was a passion, a renewal, to learn from the tradition, to go as far back as we could go so that we could hear what these great singers were doing, the likes of Joe Heaney and Elizabeth Cronin. We could hear what they were doing and try to emulate that, try to get it back. I think that at that time there wasn’t a lot of discussion about how you should sing those songs, without being dictatorial. People can spend hours talking about a fiddler's technique and style, but I don't think that at that time people were thinking about vocal style in the same way. So that was a revelation, and was totally encouraged by Ewan.”

“We spent a lot of time during that seven or eight years listening to the field recordings that Ewan and Peggy had in their wonderful library. This led to all sorts of exercises. Ewan brought to the group the things they had been taught at the Theatre Workshop by the best movement and vocal teachers, so we were taught all that, as well as relaxation exercises, how to improve diction and projection, using Laban’s Theory of Efforts in singing - he transferred all of this into vocal terms, which was a very useful tool in describing how a singer was using their voice; how the voice was moving through the air.  It was fascinating stuff, and I still use it to this day e.g. using Laban’s terminology to describe what a singer is doing: things like ‘this is a gliding effort’ or ‘he’s using a thrusting effort’.  It's all very useful.”

I asked if what Sandra had learned then had been useful in the way she has run community choirs and week-long festival events, both of which she has been doing for many years. 

“No, I wouldn't say that necessarily; because the Critics Group finished in 1971 and I have done and learned a lot of other things since. But where it has been most useful has been in talking to university students about approaches to singing. Let's say that you are singing a ballad; let's say The Banks Of Green Willow. You have to think about who you identify with here, what sort of mood you want to create with the ballad. You take them back to, let's say, the wonderful singers that Cecil Sharp recorded in the Appalachians. One singer had just sung Henry Martin to him. When she’d finished she said: ‘When I am singing these songs, I feel like I'm the feller it’s all happening to.’ That's wonderful, that total identification.”

The Critics Group and the Singers Club were not just about studying the tradition, they were also trying to encourage creativity.  “Absolutely!” said Sandra. “Ewan encouraged this to get people to write from their own position, their political stance. The first song that I ever wrote was when I was living with them, pre-Critics Group, but that was one of the tasks that Ewan gave me. He asked me to find a theme that you would find in a traditional song and then bring it up to date, so I wrote a song called What’ll The Neighbours Say about a young girl getting in the family way and saying, ‘This is my child and I don't want all this...’ and so on. Anyway, 15 years later when Frankie Armstrong, Kathy Henderson and I were putting together a song book, My Song Is My Own (Pluto Press), someone sent us that song from Scotland saying, ‘You ought to put this in your book; it's traditional’.”  In some ways Sandra ought to have been delighted. “I was delighted. It was the best accolade! A song that you have written to be regarded as traditional!”

Just before we leave the Critics Group behind, back in those days Sandra worked in a duo with John Faulkner and now, decades later, they are going to do some gigs together again.  “It has been very interesting and very pleasing to do,” she said. “John is a very good musician and I have always loved his singing, and this came about because of the resurgence of interest in Bagpuss, which he co-wrote and acted in. Last year, Earth Records released an album of the music of Bagpuss by John and me and it flew off the shelves and created a lot of interest, so that's what we are going to do, as well as lots of traditional songs and new songs by both of us. Fortunately, we both like one another's song writing, which is not that surprising (though it is 45 years since we performed together, but the background, the training, it's all still there).”

“Recently, we were part of the Sea Change Festival down at Totnes in Devon and they said that they were very proud to welcome the original music creators, that was John and me, to perform the magical songs of Bagpuss live.  In the big top we sang the songs and this was interspersed with an interview with Stewart Lee. When speaking to people at the end and in the streets, it was extraordinary to see the effects that series had on people and, of course, I've had students come up to me on the course and say that those programmes were their introduction to traditional song and music. I'm very proud of that, and very pleased about it. The programme's message, its environmentalist message amongst the lovely stories and wonderful jokes and costumes, is reuse, recycle, work together. You know? It's wonderful stuff.”

“When we toured it as a live show (in 2002, I think) I had one young man come up to me saying, ‘Madeleine the Rag Doll’ - that was my character- ‘was my surrogate mum when I was a child.’ But children were getting a bit more than good stories and fun music. They were getting something that was significant. It was set in Edwardian times and it had that handmade feel to it, and it took some well-known fairy tales and turned them on their head. It had depth; it wasn't just on one level. One message was that this was the past, and that we can learn good things from it.”

Another aspect of Sandra’s career has been working with Sisters Unlimited and they were all there during the weekend I interviewed her and had given a stunning performance the previous evening. For me, it was a treat to see them perform again. I said that I felt they were an important group, who took a broad approach to being a female group - never preachy and often very clever - celebrating women.

“I'm glad you said that, Vic. I'm glad you put it that way. People don't learn from preaching, they really don't. They can be cowed by preaching but it doesn't make them learn or change. We just went with songs that we thought were absolutely beautiful and expressed what we think as women ourselves. There are so many songs in the tradition that express a direct experience and that was what we were after in the Sisters' songs... and it's great fun as well.”

The Sisters have so many good components - all four have good voices, and there are lovely harmonies and fine musicianship. Sandra is joined by Janet Russell’s lovely Scots voice and Peta Webb does such great things with Irish and English songs. Rosie Davies’ dancing is the icing on the cake. At the concert the previous night their rewrite of Blood Red Roses as The Child Bearing Shanty was hilarious as well as spot on.

“It's a song that we wrote together,” explained Sandra, “sticking closely to the shanty form, based on Blood Red Roses. Some shanties had put our backs up because they were so anti-women, so we wrote a song about women doing the most extreme bit of work and 'bearing down'!  I feel that it's a group that has had a strong impact and that we have made a contribution, but there are some great young performers out there, singers, dancers, musicians...”

I was reminded as I transcribed this section that I had written an article on Sisters Unlimited in 1992 for fRoots. I feel that the final sentence which went to Peta Webb should be quoted here.  “We should not be branded as a feminist group; we are a group of singers who have lots of interests and feminism is just one of them.”

We moved on to talk about the Newcastle Traditional Music Degree. “I think that the course has been important historically in the development of the folk movement and of the tradition,” said Sandra. “But for me it has been a wonderfully creative time and to work with those young people has been delightful.”

How did Sandra become involved?  “Alistair Anderson had been pushing the idea for years and if we didn't have Alistair, we wouldn't have the degree course. But at the time it was set up, decisions had to be made about who was to be asked to teach, so Alistair sort of went ‘you... you... you… you…’ It ended up being Karen Tweed, Catriona MacDonald, Kathryn Tickell and myself. There were so many young people who really wanted to study this music and it's not just a conservatoire course, it's an academic course as well. All the students in the course are introduced to lots of ideas and research, so it is innovative and exciting.”

I said that I remembered Alistair talking about his assessments from the powers that be, and they always wanted evidence of academic rigour.  “Absolutely! And it has worked! People like Fay Hield, for example - within a few years of leaving the Newcastle course she studied for her Ph.D. and now runs courses at Sheffield University. It does hurt when people are critical about the course, often with no idea of what it consists of. You would think that people would be delighted that the facility is there, and that people are getting a concentrated education in this music that we all love; there can be no question about that.”

I wanted there to be a mention for Hannah Hutton. Sandra had shared evenings with her at our folk club in Lewes. The wife of the piper Joe Hutton, one of the famed Shepherds, she was also a fine singer in her own right.  “She's lovely!” said Sandra. “She's in a care home now as it was clear that she wasn't doing very well on her own, but she’s so admirable; a very practical farmer's wife, but strong and very intelligent, and there was great depth in her conversation. She was a great observer, though she had little or no education because she was from a farming background and that was her role. It was prescribed for her, and I know that she found that hard. She did write about that, but if she'd started singing in public when she was younger, she'd have been a force to reckon with.”

I had been looking for an opportunity to interview Sandra for a while, and happily, this interview just happened to coincide with the release of a new album. “I think that I wanted to do at least one more album,” she said. “I haven't done many on my own and with my concertina. The concertina has become the main instrument for me. I've been playing it for a long time, but I now see it as the most important instrument for me, my main thing. I just love it, so what I wanted to do was to have an album that has the concertina at its heart.”

The title tells us that, doesn't it? Rebel With Her Chords, with that lovely 'Workers Playtime' illustration going back to wartime.  “Well that's Rosie the Riveter but she is playing a concertina. I wanted to do something that included traditional and contemporary song and instrumentals - about a third each, so there's Whittington Fair, a Northumbrian version of Scarborough Fair, and a song I love, Must I Be Bound, and then there are instrumentals on my own and with Nancy and James. But the title, incidentally, was not mine. I was going to call the album Solace, which is the name of one of the instrumentals on it, but then Tom Wright, who recorded it, said Rebel With Her Chords just out of the blue, and then the idea of the Rosie character for the cover came straight after.”

I wanted Tom to be mentioned. I heard him as a fine young musician, but he seems to have become more interested in sound production and recording and he has already produced some excellent albums with brilliant sound quality.  “He's very, very good indeed,” said Sandra, “and when this 77-year-old woman came into his studio, he was just wonderful. He was very professional but also very warm and welcoming. Studios can be very stressful, but it wasn't with Tom.”

Sandra had mentioned writing songs adapted from the tradition and the first track on her new album, well, I knew where that came from...  “Well, yes, Young Girl On The Road; it's about the work of Greta Thunberg and what she is doing to encourage young people to act on the climate emergency that we are facing. Again, this is so Ewan... This is what he would have encouraged. So I went to the tradition and I looked at The False Knight On The Road and I used that as a structure for my ballad, and then I listened to some Swedish traditional ballads and found one that was so exciting, it moved me tremendously, so I incorporated ideas from that and that was how the song came about.”

I noticed that the first pair of musicians who are credited on the album are daughter Nancy and her husband James. The first time that we booked Nancy Kerr and James Fagan at Lewes was as a duo, then they came back as a trio with Sandra as Scalene.  “It was lovely playing with those two, I adored it,” Sandra said. 

I mentioned another of Sandra’s recent tracks, recorded on one of Stick In The Wheel’s From Here albums, with Sandra and Nancy - which I thought was one of the outstanding tracks. There were two mother / daughter duos singing together at the weekend event we were at - Fran Foote and Belinda Kempster, and the Americans Sandy Newlin LaPrelle and Elizabeth LaPrelle. There is something very special about close blood relations working together. It feels effortless. Sandra called it “organic” then went on to talk about Nancy.   

“When I look at what she is achieving now I am amazed. I never thought that she would want to be a performer, she was such a shy child. Then she and Eliza (Carthy) got together and the whole thing just took off. I always knew she would be a good fiddle player because she started very young and had a good aptitude for it straight away. I think that she chose that instrument because her dad was a Northumbrian piper. He also played banjo and guitar and I played several instruments, but neither of us played fiddle and I think that it was important that she was the family keeper of that instrument. So I always knew that she would be good on the fiddle, but her song writing I find extraordinary, it's so good, but different. I can see the roots of it in the tradition, but she just goes somewhere else. Her structures are different.”

But her songs could not be written by someone who has not been immersed in the tradition. “I agree with that. She has that core.”

All this reminded me of a concert at Sidmouth festival, perhaps seven years ago; a ‘generations’ concert. As I remember it, there was The Copper family, Martin and Eliza Carthy, John and Benji Kirkpatrick, and Sandra and Nancy. Nancy was at the microphone telling everyone what an inspiration her mother had been, how close they were… Sandra was sitting holding her concertina, listening to all the praise, then she leaned forward to her mic and said, “She’s a lot taller than when I last saw her!” The capacity crowd erupted in laughter.

I always finish interviews by asking the interviewee if they had anything else that they want to say. Usually, I am told that I have covered everything or given a summary of what they have said, but Sandra had an admirable finishing statement. 

“People often ask me what I feel about the music today and I think that it’s an important question. I personally feel very optimistic. I don't have to like everything that is going on or what direction people are moving in because there are enough young people who are in touch with the tradition and who will carry it forward. It will change, but I still feel that it has a function to perform in our lives, artistically and politically. If you want to go back to first principles, there is much easier access now to all the important material than you and I had when we were young. It's all there and it's all accessible and we need to be encouraging young people to be doing that. And to go back to Ewan who we started with right at the beginning, he said, ‘This is not easy. These songs are not easy – but what did easy ever achieve?’ Yes, I'm optimistic.”

by Vic Smith

Photo:  Pete Heywood

Published in Issue 131 of The Living Tradition - December 2019.

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