Interview: Folklore Tapes - Setting to song a dark period of English history

Contemporary musicians using music to explore ideas of place, landscape, history

Interview: Folklore Tapes - Setting to song a dark period of English history

Rob St John

As long as musicians and storytellers value the immediacy and intimacy of the oral tradition, folklore and the histories it contains will live on in new and refreshing guises. One such musical endeavour that fits this idea is Folklore Tapes. An ongoing research and heritage project by a collective of like-minded musicians, it documents stories from British folklore released as a series of limited edition cassette tapes lovingly swaddled in bespoke packaging and accompanied by rare booklets, photographs and art works. Started in Devon, the project has migrated steadily north, gathering stories along the way.

The musicians behind Folklore Tapes are not folk musicians in the traditional or the contemporary sense, and are unlikely to describe themselves as so – rather as composers, experimentalists and multi-instrumentalists. Almost all original work, this is music that looks at history afresh without ties to a particular genre or medium.

‘I guess that I am less interested in updating folk songs than using them as part of a swathe of information – field recordings, maps, historical information – and exploring and writing about a place, landscape, history or story,’ says Rob St John, one of Folklore Tapes’ prominent members. ‘I don’t necessarily see myself, or ourselves, as part of a debate about the rightful sound or aesthetic of modern or traditional folk music, as I don’t see us as folk musicians per se. But there are huge overlaps in what we are trying to do in understanding, exploring and documenting places, and the traditional role of folksong and oral tradition. Regardless of whether we’re playing distorted samplers or singing unaccompanied, it’s to a similar end.’

Born in Lancashire and now based in Edinburgh, St John got involved with Folklore Tapes in 2012 when he curated a boxset release Pendle, 1612, about the 17th century witch trials in East Lancashire, one of the most notorious and brutal in English history. Ranging from heavy, atonal drone to sparse, brittle minimalism, it featured contributions from Dylan Carlson (Earth) and Yorkshire guitarist Dean McPhee. St John went to Pendle to research the trials and find out more about what people living in the town today know about the events which led to the execution by hanging of ten men and women.

‘You tend to find that people know a lot about their local history; after all, they have grown up with these stories,’ says St John. ‘But it’s also interesting to find that stories are often preserved as they were first handed down; in this case, by an authority-led, male-dominated system that marked these women as evil. You have to think: how do stories survive this way? If nothing else, when one of us gets a daft idea to do a folklore project then it’s a great opportunity to immerse yourself in some history. We are just a group of people interested in exhuming and retelling, and perhaps even mythologising these stories so that other people can know them.’

For Folklore Tapes’ first Scottish dates, St John unveils his new single ‘Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey/Shallow Brown’, a double helping of traditional Northern English folk songs, played as lo-fi, scratchy kraut-pop. The single is released on Edinburgh’s Song, by Toad records. Folklore Tapes founder David Chatton Barker will perform his new Iona Magnetic project, the product of a month-long field trip to the island. Edinburgh-based Folklore Tapes regulars Ian Humberstone and Malcolm Benzie, meanwhile, will play a debut live version of their long sold-out release Songs for Mariann Voaden.

Folklore Tapes, The Glad Cafe, Glasgow, Wed 24 Apr; Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, Thu 25 Apr.

Folklore Tapes – Only Timelessness

Folklore Tapes is an ongoing research and musical heritage project covering and sound tracking the folklore of the UK in volumes of tapes housed in bespoke books, boxes and hand stamped envelopes. The live performance will include both the audio and visual material from the upcoming release, as well as a short factual…

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