The New Lark Rise Band (featuring Ashley Hutchings)
at the Electric Theatre,
Guildford, England
(15 February 2008)

Not too long ago, the British government started making noises about teaching "Britishness" to students, stating that citizens here take far less pride in their country than denizens of other nations, including the United States. As a college lecturer in England, my initial reaction was rather cynical, thinking that perhaps my literature syllabus might be adjusted to teach details of empire. However, a recent concert experience has made me reconsider my position, although what I wish to teach might not be exactly what the government seeks.

"I'd like your to cast your mind back to 1978," said Ashley Hutchings, he of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Albion Band and Morris On fame, among other bands. He then joked about how many of us present could remember that year. Nonetheless, it was in 1978 that the Albion Band worked at the National Theatre in London to write music for the stage production of Flora Thompson's Lark Rise for Candleford, the classic tales of what it was like to live in an Oxfordshire hamlet in the 1880s. Two years later, an album was recorded, and only last year Hutchings decided it was time to re-release that recording and to re-form a band with a "new generation of musicians." He swears the BBC's recent 10-part adaptation of Thompson's stories is a mere coincidence. "We were the first," he declared, and I have a feeling he was right.

This new band features Simon Care on squeezeboxes, Guy Fletcher (from Little Johnny England) on guitar and vocals, Ruth Angell on fiddle, psaltery and vocals, and Judy Dunlap on vocals and drums -- along, of course, with the Guv'nor himself, Hutchings, on vocals and acoustic bass. All five of them would participate in making music and reading extracts from the book to try to re-create the late 19th century in both song and dance. The readings between songs reminded us of the overall theme and purpose and, as the night progressed, the idea of remembering a lifestyle that had ended by the time Thompson wrote about it in the 1940s seemed extremely important. The roads then, as Hutchings' first reading indicated, were for walking, not for automobiles.

Hutchings' voice, by the way, is fit for such readings, drawing out the descriptive and attracting the listeners' ears.

Generally, the New Lark Rise followed the set-up from the previous group, opening with the first song on that album, "The Girl I Left Behind Me," a fun tune for dancing. Following it was Judy Dunlop on vocals and a more feminine perspective on "Lemady/Arise & Pick a Posy." All sing, choral style, on "Tommy Toes" (about that new fruit, tomatoes) and "John Dory," and Angell took over vocal leads on a new song about Queenies' bees, to which she accompanied herself on psaltery.

The men occasionally would rise and take parts downstage, acting out reaping as they sang "All of a Row." Fletcher and Hutching marched downstage in a sort of music-hall style with "The Scarlet & the Blue." Hutchings performed a broom dance (after jokes about how he was 63 and needed a much smaller broom to dance about) as part of the Plough Monday Mummer's Play. Care, although younger, may have surpassed him as he played accordion and performed a Morris dance over clay pipes, explaining that if we saw him stepping on a pipe, he'd have to buy us drinks. "So, go to the bar after the show and give them my name: John Kirkpatrick," he said with a laugh, referencing a well-known fellow folk musician and Morris performer. His sense of humour continued when Hutchings wound him up about rolling up his trousers, telling him that wasn't cool. "I'm about to do a Morris dance; I'm really not concerned about being cool!" he exclaimed.

The thing is, though, Morris dancing is cool. The music, and even simply the folk life performed and discussed that night, perhaps is what needs to be taught to children as a part of being British. It's part of their heritage, their past, their folklore, and, as the audience showed when they eagerly arose to partake in a simple circle dance (Hutchings taught them the steps), it's fun. I think, what struck me the most about this evening, besides the excellent musicians, voices and dances, was the whole idea about preserving our past: how necessary it is that we know from where we came.

by Ellen Rawson
12 July 2008