The Memory Band: Folk on Film - an outline

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Folk on Film - an outline

"The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments"
Lindsay Anderson

The Bold Grenadier - Folk on Film rehearsal excerpt by the memory band

Taking place on Friday 27th January at London’s King’s Place, Listen To Britain: Folk on Film is a programme of film and live music by The Memory Band, continuing its practice of putting together multi-media performances with a rolling cast of guest performers around band leader Stephen Cracknell. This show features with a special guest appearance by acclaimed folk-singer Lisa Knapp and specially commissioned arrangements by F-ire Collective member and pianist Fred Thomas.

The show will re-create and celebrate majestic moments where artists from the post-war British folk revival brought their talents to bear in motion pictures and helped to indelibly define so much of our visual perceptions and collective memory of folk music.
Two of the most pivotal figures in the early folk revival were Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd, who, along with others, combined a critical study of folk song from source singers all over the World with contemporary performance techniques from theatre and radio – to help trigger renewed interest and energy into British folk music.

A.L. Lloyd appeared in the 1956 version of Moby Dick, directed by John Huston, singing the sea shanties Blood Red Roses and Heave Away My Jonny. The song Blood Red Roses, which Lloyd had recorded with MacColl, has become the subject of much discussion. It is now generally accepted that although the source of shanty was old, the use of the phrase Blood Red Roses was of Lloyd's own invention, despite his suggestions otherwise. Thus proving perfectly how authenticity and creativity are often a fine line to walk for any folk performer. Authentic or not, it's powerful stuff:

Another singer who had recorded and collaborated with Ewan MacColl sang "O Willow Waly" from director Jack Clayton's 1961 classic film The Innocents. The singer was Isla Cameron, born in Scotland but raised in England. She met MacColl through Joan Littlewood whose Theatre Workshop she participated in, and Cameron always combined her career as a singer with that of an actor. O Willow Waly dominates the The Innocents right from the opening credits and it's haunting, disturbingly seductive refrain presages those of later films such as Rosemary's Baby and Nightmare On Elm St. and creates a near-perfect template of spooky-folk. Although an original song by Georges Auric, its childlike singing and modal variations hint heavily at the secular folk tradition.

Isla Cameron's also played a significant role in the majestic score to John Schlesinger's 1967 version of Far From The Madding Crowd, which mixed Richard Rodney Bennett's incredibly lyrical yet modern score with songs collected by the likes of Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams. It also featured pre-Fairport Convention Dave Swarbrick as the fiddler and a young Trevor Lucas who ghost-sang for Terence Stamp in the role of Captain Troy. The Australian Lucas went on to marry Sandy Denny and together they formed the Folk-Rock band Fotheringay. But once again it is Isla Cameron's voice which dominates, no better than in this rendition of The Bold Grenadier, so wonderfully amplifying the stunning photography of Nicholas Roeg.

The heightened realism and panoramic of Far From The Madding Crowd was taken to further extremes by Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon, perhaps his most British of all of his films, which painstakingly recreated famous paintings of the time and allied it with a detailed period score which included contributions from The Chieftains. This passage combines the military standard The British Grenadiers with the fantastic jig The Piper's Maggot to great effect.

By 1973 folk music was emerging from the psychedelic melting-pot of the late sixties and begun to forge new directions. Somewhere out of this heady mix came the score to Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, a film made in the French form of cine-fantastique which was to sneak up over time and emerge as a major work of soundtrack history. Crafted so playfully by American Paul Giovanni, aided by the playwright Peter Schaffer and the musicians of Magnet, the score merrily mixed up sources, cultures, fact and fiction to make a strange hybrid which has stood the test of time.

Folk on Film will include live performances of many of these songs to the original films as well a montage of clips from key documentaries accompanied by a new score based upon traditional melodies by Memory Band leader Stephen Cracknell.