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Jackie Oates, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards | reviews, news & interviews

Jackie Oates, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards

Jackie Oates, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards

Winners at the BBC Folk Awards - and on the road with folk's new star

West Country Tales: Jackie Oates

Since releasing her first solo album in 2006 while still a member of the acclaimed Northumbrian group Rachel Unthank and the Winterset - who also garnered three Folk Award nominations for themselves this year – Oates has developed a unique repertoire of English balladry to which her clear, richly emotive voice is so suited.

That repertoire largely comes not from books or records but from years of taking part in folk sessions in pubs, clubs and homes around Devon, where she has lived since 2000. The tragic, dark-hearted ballads that stud her three solo albums come directly from a remarkable continuation of a living oral tradition that many assumed had died out near the beginning of the last century. “I try and find songs that aren’t circulated in the scene, to add something new to the repertoire, so that those songs come alive,” she says. “And the songs that I’m singing are as much alive now as they ever have been. They’re living documents.”

It’s the first Sunday of the month, and local singers and musicians have gathered in The Devonshire pub in the village of Sticklepath on the edge of Dartmoor, to sing the old songs back to life. “I was 18 when I first came to The Devonshire,” Oates remembers. “And a lot of the songs I do on stage I’ve learnt here - I’d record them on my phone, people scribbled them out for me, or I’d take notes as they’re were sung.”

Hearing the gusty harmonies of 30 or so singers on the chorus of a West country carol or local seafaring ballad certainly brings the folk tradition up close and personal. “You get a much better feel for a traditional song when it’s sung live.” One of her key song sources is local singer Sean O'Shea, of harmony group The Claque, and one of the mainstays of The Devonshire pub sessions. “He’s a stalwart of the underground folk scene and he’s been singing for more than 30 years and collected all these songs along the way.”

Sessions at The Devonshire have been running since the early 1990s, but the last few years have seen a remarkable renaissance across the region. “It is really thriving,” agrees Oates. “It’s young people coming in and older people coming back, which keeps it all very healthy. Devon’s a very strong area for music,” she adds, “because it’s quite cut off from the rest of the country.”

tad_walking-on-dartmoorIndeed, the landscape west of Dorset has a distinctly different feel to the rest of Britain – on Dartmoor, you can find yourself at the furthest point from any road than any other place in England, and both Devon and Cornwall are geographically sealed by a paucity of major roads. Outside of the summer tourist season, you feel as if you’re entering a hidden kingdom. “There’s a mysticism around Devon. It’s not beautiful in the classic sense – there’s something very dark and intense about living here. When you get here you don’t want to leave. You end up staying.”

To the outsider, some traditions may seem a trifle bizarre. There is the all-female Morris dancing troupe, the Doris Dancers, who practise at the Finch Foundry, the last water-powered forge in Britain. Every May Day they congregate at five in the morning at the Nine Maidens stone circle on Dartmoor and dance the Morris to mark the beginning of summer, with just a lone piper, and a bleary-eyed husband or two in attendance.

Not all gatherings are so singular. “There’s an organisation called WREN in Devon that goes round schools and sets up choirs and workshops and employs people like me to teach,” says Oates. Established in the 1970s, WREN plays a significant role in the oral health of the West Country music scene. “It keeps young people in the know about what their music is. I haven’t found that so much in other places. It was very difficult where I grew up [in Staffordshire]. It didn’t have the strength of heritage that Devon had. Or the landscape, the Dartmoor tales, the folklore and mythology. It makes you feel you’re in a magical place.”

The Devonshire pub’s regular song sessions are one of those hidden cultural treasures that rarely make it into tourist brochures. Walking through its doors is a bit like entering a time machine. The antique wall clock could have stopped sometime in the 1870s, and the pub, along with Sticklepath itself, seems to have idled behind the times with it. There’s no gastro menu here. The landlord’s terrier roams free among the singers, while on the bar top stands a plate of dog biscuits, a tin of snuff and a bowl of chestnuts. A welcoming log fire glows in a stone fireplace, and by mid-evening the first song begins, a local woman singing a farmer’s song in a high keening voice that sounds as if it came in with the wind through the door, or from another world, a lost world literally being sung back into life.

Jackie takes the next song, a leave-taking ballad which her unaccompanied voice inhabits with expressive intensity. What draws her to such material, and what does it draw out from her? “I sing songs because they contain something that I’d like to say about myself but could never express any other way,” she says. “That aching feeling of being in love that you can’t express unless you’re expressing it through some sort of art form. I sing it because it makes me feel alive.”

There are melodeon players, harmony singers, balladeers, bellringers, fiddle players, trombonists and guitar pickers – when they all play at once it’s called Dartmoor “Pixie Band” style. Outside, the deep midwinter weather wavers between windy squalls of rain and a black night sky from which the brilliant stars seem to hang like bunches of grapes. Inside, for the next few hours euphoric and spellbinding traditional music fills the Dartmoor inn that’s as old and as welcoming as some of these songs.

“The songs you get here have been learnt through the generations,” says Oates. “The people here learnt them from their parents and heard them sung in public half a century ago. There’s very few learnt from books or records.” Though plenty of commentators regard folk music as a museum culture, and a musty museum at that, (As Charles Hazlewood charmingly put it "What passes for folk tradition has been taken over by dysfunctional men with bladder issues...smells faintly of warm beer and piss and nobody wants to go there...") Oates’s experience belies such assumptions. “It’s as alive as it’s ever been, and the people singing them, it’s their heritage. You sing a song because you relate to it. It says something about you within it. That feeling you have when everyone’s singing, the harmonies, that power, it’s very earthy, euphoric really, to be a part of that.”

The next morning, I’m travelling with Jackie down the A38 past Plymouth and over the Tamar river into Cornwall. “There’s a very distinctive Devon style,” Oates explains. “There’s the Dartmoor Pixie Band style that we heard last night, which is a bit Victorian and a bit fairgroundy, while Cornish music is a lot more Celtic – darker, and similar to Breton and Welsh music. It has a real earthy quality. Cornwall and Devon people are quite separate,” she adds with a smile. “There is a rivalry and the two styles are very distinctive.”

In the hilly, whitewashed town of Liskeard, folk sessions take place every other week at the Barley Sheaf pub. Back in the 1990s, the musicians who came here only knew a few local tunes set around the wider repertoire of English or Breton folk song. Now they can play Cornish tunes all night. One of the mainstays of the sessions is Neil Davey of the highly influential quartet Dalla (to dazzle, in Cornish). They play a repertoire of Noze Loan dances (a kind of Cornish ceilidh), as well as ritual songs, shanties, and carols that are like nothing else in Britain - a quicksilver, thin wild mercury sound redolent of the peninsula’s famous natural light, played out in complex, interwoven time signatures by a Cornish string band of guitar, mandolin, bazouki, fiddles, hand drums and clarinet (or clarionets as they were once called).

Davey’s interest in the lost music and songs of Cornwall goes back to the late Seventies, when his older brother Merv combined a day job as a social worker with that of field recorder and song collector among the old folks he saw on a regular basis as part of his work. “Back then it was only me and my brothers who could play any of the music,” Davey remembers. “Then people got the idea that if they came across them they knew we’d be interested.”

Since then, bands such as Dalla have reignited a sense of Cornish culture and identity in much the way that Patrick Street or Planxty did for Ireland in the Sixties and Seventies. Tunes revived by Della are being picked up and adapted by other musicians, many of them steeped as much in jazz, rock, world or Americana as they are in Cornish folk. In Jackie Oates’s young guitarist, James Dumbleton from Totnes, you’ll even find an enthusiastic proponent of West Country throat-singing - picked up from members of Mongolian band Yat Kha while they were in residence at the nearby Dartington College.

The evening session at the Barley Sheaf sees Dalla joined by musicians ranging from their early 20s to their 60s, with Jackie Oates singing the occasional unaccompanied ballad and working her fiddle like a musical bridge between the very different worlds of Devon and Cornwall . Musically and culturally it has the celebratory, intimate atmosphere of a homecoming.

“When I was growing up there was something a bit shameful about saying you were into folk music,” she remembers. “Until I found my own kind at university, I wouldn’t admit to my own age group what I was doing.” A strange admission from someone nominated as the best singer of the year. “But within the 21st century it’s become really cool to be a folk singer, even if the songs you’re writing aren’t folk. And people like me are second-generation folk children. Our parents were brought into it during the revival, so it’s accepted that you can sing these songs. It’s self-generating, and it’s a very exciting time to be in. I feel very proud to be given the platform to sing the songs and be appreciated  - and not shunned.”

  • Hyperboreans is released on One Little Indian.

Overleaf: listen to the title track

The Devonshire pub’s regular song sessions are one of those hidden cultural treasures that rarely make it into tourist brochures

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