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Fancies flee away! I'll fear not what men say (with Kelechi Anucha)

Not everything held in common can be seized so readily. An immaterial vessel for narrative and melody, the supposed low-cultural form of English folk music has weathered countless cultural upheavals over the centuries. These songs have also travelled with colonialism, accreting newer contexts that call us to attend to the negations and absences co-constructed through and with the English folk imaginary. It is these songs and their potential radicality as a sonic commons that have formed the focal point for the audio, sculptural and live works we   have produced for The Commons: Re-enchanting the World.


Where in the hazily bucolic and familiar sounds of English folk does this radicality reside? In important ways, there is something that is inherently anti-capitalist and anti-individualist in all traditional song. You can copyright a recording of these songs but you cannot own the song. You pick it up, add your take on it and then pass the story on to another. You become a collaborator or maybe a co-author, with thousands of other singers, but never the owner of the song. Carriers for meaning, these stories , forms and vessels are shared, updated and disseminated as required.


They are a reintroduction to a sonic commons – things that cannot be owned by an individual and are publicly available for all who need them.


The listening posts we have produced for The Commons: Re-enchanting the World are both updatable broadcast posts, playing new recordings of a range of folk songs and sculptural translations of each song’s narrative content.


As the different works sing in the space, the sculptures become a provisional choir, temporarily vocalising recordings that are enmeshed with vitally distinct tales of loves lost, industry, faith, emigration and working the land.


Notes on the songs:


Our Captain Cried All Hands / He Who Would Valiant Be

A well-known hymn, He Who Would Valiant Be came about when Vaughan Williams set John Bunyan’s To Be A Pilgrim lyrics to the melody of traditional folk song Our Captain Cried All Hands. Wanting to look more closely at the passage of “pagan” song into church hymn and what the two shared, we interbred the differing sets of lyrics and generated a version that prioritised girlhood knowledge:


There’s no belief in men, not my own brother,
so girls if you can love, love one another. 


Wanting to both reference the historical femicide that accompanied the Enclosures Act and to draw a lineage into contemporary realms of girlhood knowledge, we decided to make a percussive Morris stick. However, as opposed to the traditional bells and ribbons, our version makes its clatters and tinkles using hoop earrings, false nails and alcopop bottle caps.


John Barleycorn

A very famous old tune with countless variations, John Barleycorn focuses on how specifically English notions of the pastoral, the spiritual, the pagan and the Christian are irrevocably embedded in the literal landscape. Essentially a song about turning barley into beer, the anthropomorphised barley goes through countless forms of violence and resurrections until transforming into beer.


However, it might also be about competing belief systems between both the pagan and the Christian, the material and the divine, where John Barleycorn is an iteration of the ancient Corn God, and the three human protagonists are the Holy Trinity, attempting to bury the old gods into the soil of England. Inevitably John Barleycorn cannot be suppressed, and that most ubiquitous of English materialities, beer, is the byproduct.


The Spermwhale Fishery

Wanting to work directly with one of the objects held in The MERL’s collections, we decided to link our version of the whaling/heartbreak song The Spermwhale Fishery with a unique item held in the Lavinia Smith archive – a glass bottle, filled with salt and 16 pieces of ribbon, brocade and silk that is believed to be a traditional marriage gift, also sealed with a copper coin.


With a range of fishing wire, pitch tar and wedding linen we have made a laced bridal surround, a doily for the absent glass bottle to rest upon, stitched with the pitch and wire that has taken the protagonist’s lover away from her.

Fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say
Morris stick, false nails, costume jewellery, ribbon, alcopop bottlecaps, plastic loom bands, audio player and speaker looping recording of Our Captain Cried All Hands / He Who Would Valiant Be­­ with field recording from Cowplain, Hampshire

Duration: 20 min
Vocals: Kelechi Anucha and Carl Gent
Morris stick: Kelechi Anucha
Battery-powered organ: Carl Gent
Production: kyle acab

Nor shall I lie with any young man until the day I die
Bridal lace, pitch, sea-fishing booms with beads, thread washed in seawater, audio player and speaker looping The Spermwhale Fishery with field recordings from Petersfield, Hampshire and Bourn, Cambridgeshire

Duration: 20 mins
Vocals: Kelechi Anucha
Keyboards and drum: Carl Gent
Production: kyle acab
The Spermwhale Fishery contains samples from whaling documentary Barbed Water


I met a young lady, a-making her mourn
Barley, glow-in-the-dark polyester friendship bracelets, plastic loom band friendship bracelets, viscose / polyester top washed in beer, audio player and speaker looping Sweet England and John Barleycorn with field recordings from Bourn, Cambridgeshire

Duration: 20 mins
Vocals and percussion: Kelechi Anucha

Vocals and organ: Carl Gent
Production: kyle acab

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