Friday, April 08, 2016

The No Frills Band & 20 years of South London folk sessions

The No Frills Band are playing at the Birds Nest (Church Street SE8) in Deptford on Saturday afternoon  - April 9th 2016 - so expect some fine traditional folk music. Check facebook for details, but they should be up and running by 4 pm

Last time I saw them play was only last Saturday on the steps outside Carnegie Library on Herne Hill Road, occupied in protest at its planned closure by Lambeth Council.

The band can always be relied upon to turn up at community events in the South London area, but more than that the members of the band have been at the centre of an ongoing series of folk sessions in the area stretching back for over twenty years...

Last night's fun

In 'Last night's fun: a book about music, fun and time' (1996), Ciaran Carson muses on simultaneous Irish music sessions in different parts of the world as 'starry fragments of a great galactic internet which shimmers over all the shebeens of the earth... Across the many time zones the same tune might be bi-located at the same time, in the same time'.

But while the pub session scene might have started out with Irish music, Carson suggests that the origins of the Irish session are in London rather than Ireland. Traditional Irish musicians back home used to mainly play at weddings and other community functions, rather than in the public bar. The large number of Irish migrants who moved to London for work after the Second World War were separated from this circuit so musicians began gathering in pubs to play. This practice of fairly informal drop in folk music pub sessions eventually spread back to Ireland itself.
There's an interesting discussion about this history at The Session website, including a list of London pubs that hosted Irish sessions in the 1950s and 1960s. South of the river this included The Admiral Duncan in Deptford (New Cross Road), Duke of Gloucester in Walworth (Gurney St SE17), The World's End in Newington Causeway SE1 and The Black Prince (Kennington Road SE11) - of which only the latter survives.
Mandolins and me
My initiation into this scene came when I took up the mandolin in the early 1990s. I had been listening to a lot of Irish and Scottish music, and the instrument had gradually entered my consciousness,  creeping up on me until one day at a now-vanished shop in Camden Lock I just went for it and bought one. I'd never even picked one up before. My first mandolin was made by Ozark in Romania. For some strange reason it featured the design of a palm tree on the front, something I assume is rarely seen in its country of origin.

It was back up to Camden again to learn how to play it. At that time the Working Men's College was a major source for the diffusion of Irish music. Pete Cooper ran a fiddle evening class, whilst Mick O'Connor ran a combined tenor banjo and mandolin class.  His technique was simple - no fiddling around with scales or theory, just learn the tunes. He would stand at the front with his banjo and very patiently play slowed down versions of jigs and reels, with  the rest of us attempting to follow using the hand written tabs Mick supplied. Many of us also brought in cassette recorders (remember them?) to help us remember the tunes for practising at home.
Mick O'Connor
As we grew in confidence, a group of us started meeting up to play together. We began in a room above a pub in Southwark, the now demolished St George's Tavern, opposite The Imperial War Museum and next  to the Roman Catholic St George's Cathedral on Lambeth Road SE1. Before long we had migrated to the bar downstairs for what became a regular Sunday lunchtime session. There were a couple of experienced musicians, but most of us had never played in public before. Someone came up with the name McGonagall's Revenge, since our shambolic offerings were on a par with the rudimentary poems of the Scottish amateur, appreciated after his death for being so bad they were almost good. The  line-up usually included mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo and bodhran, sometimes with more than one of each depending on who turned up. On one occasion we even stretched to uilleann pipes. There was a regular core of people, but anyone was welcome to drop by. Sometimes you would get some random tourists over from the Imperial War Museum joining in - I remember some Danish guys coming by and singing a song.
We had a regular repertoire of songs as well as tunes: 'Back home in Derry', 'the Fields of Athenry', 'The Rocky Road to Dublin', 'Flower of Scotland', 'The Lark in the morning' etc. But in that period singing Irish songs in public was a tricky business even if you avoided the most obvious republican rebel songs. The cathedral next door had hosted the funeral of Terence MacSwiney, the mayor of Cork who had died on hunger strike in Brixton prison in 1920. Every year there was a memorial mass in the Cathedral, with an overspill of veteran republicans into the pub afterwards. In 1993 this coincided with the weekend of the terrible bombing of a chip shop in Belfast Shankhill Road, in which nine people died (an attack which may have involved a British state double agent within the IRA). I recall the nervous landlord in the pub asking us to stick to tunes and to leave the songs alone. During that period too one of our group, a young Irish guy,  was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism of Act - though I don't think it was his music that drew the attention of the police (he was released without charge).
There were many other Irish sessions across London. There were some great playing, but the atmosphere was sometimes a bit intimidating - if you had to ask what the tune was, you probably shouldn't have been there. I recall a particularly high speed session at The Telegraph pub on Brixton Hill. I didn't dare get my mandolin out there!
Brixton Sessions
But the core of what was later to become the No Frills Band had started a different kind of session in Brixton pubs like the Windmill and the Duke of Edinburgh (Ferndale Road SW9). Many of the people had their roots in the local squat/punk scene, and there was less preciousness about the repertoire than in some traditional sessions: a core of Irish tunes to be sure, but also music from around the world.  Well national authenticity in folk music is often bogus anyway - 'Irish music' has always drawn on Scottish reels, Bohemian polkas, Polish mazurkas and English hornpipes, with tunes travelling across borders as readily as itinerant musicians.
Last session at the Grosvenor in August 2014
(photo by Mike Urban at BrixtonBuzz)
This session later moved on to The Grosvenor in Stockwell until it closed in 2014, and continues to this day as the No Frills session on the second Sunday of the month back at The Windmill off Brixton Hill, starting at around 7 pm: 'All musicians and all styles welcome. Irish, Welsh, English and Scottish, American old time, bluegrass and western swing, French, Yiddish, East European, Scandinavian, Greek, Turkish, Balkan and more. All abilities tolerated. Come and swap tunes and songs, meet people and learn stuff. Or, do what most people do and just grab a beer and enjoy the music. See you in the Windmill!'. Next one is actually this forthcoming Sunday.

I played a few times in those mid-1990s sessions at the Duke of Edinburgh, but then headed off through a period of house and techno obsession followed by parenthood in which my never more than basic mandolin playing got very rusty. I did have a go at one of the Grosvenor sessions a couple of years ago, and at another session upstairs in the Old Nun's Head. Maybe I'll get back into it again properly some time, when you start playing the fingers remember the tune even when the mind doesn't... 
Scores of  musicians must have taken part in those sessions over the past 20 years, passing through and picking up tunes, the definition of a living music tradition.

Magdalena Marmot (Maggie), a regular at those Brixton sessions who sadly died
in Calderdale Royal Infirmary in 2012

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