Ben Edge appears on my Zoom screen looking exactly as he did in the press photos announcing his Ritual Britain exhibition earlier this year. A bequiffed gentleman in a polka dot shirt buttoned up to the chin, he’s nothing like the stereotype many people might associate with folk traditions. Clean-shaven and sharply dressed, he looks like someone you might find at a rock’n’roll revival evening rather than hanging out with the Abbots Bromley horn dancers.
However, to many people of his generation, Ben Edge has become the go-to guide to England’s folk traditions. An estimated 10,000 people turned out to his exhibition at The Crypt Gallery in June 2021, in which his paintings and films – inspired by the esoteric rituals that he has spent the last five years exploring – shared space with costumes and artefacts from Simon Costin’s Museum of British Folklore collection.
As Edge explains in this in-depth interview, he believes that the revival of interest he is seeing, both at his exhibition and across countless folk-related Instagram accounts, is symptomatic of a desire to reconnect in a world that seems fraught and lost. By looking back, people are finding new ways to link arms and face an uncertain future.
I think it’s no coincidence that we are dealing with the climate crisis and people are looking for immediate ways to reconnect with nature and have a sincere concern for the land.Ben Edge
There are so many avenues you can go down when you start with phrases like “folk culture” or “folk customs”. What do they mean to you?
So folk culture for me, certainly before the recent projects I did, wasn’t so specific to Britain. It was this idea of passing down stories, and a sense of family identity as well. I come from quite an eccentric family of storytellers that would pass down these great stories. My grandfather was a butcher working at Smithfield Meat Market, and I was aware of the fact that Smithfield has been involved with that same industry for over 1,000 years. So, when he used to tell me these great stories, I loved the idea that he’s connected to thousands of years of heritage. On top of that, he was really interested in the figure of the Green Man – he used to make carvings and he really believed in this nature deity. He would take us to the woods to look for the Green Man and things like that, which was quite, you know, terrifying and exciting all at the same time.
So, despite not having a “folkie upbringing” at folk festivals and the like, it was very much a sense of family history being passed down?
Yes, and also to do with London. I’m from a little town in Kent called Southborough. I lived there with my mum, and my parents separated when I was quite young. My dad was in East London and we’d go up to stay with him most weekends and summers. And at that point, areas like Shoreditch, where my dad lived, were pretty much being knocked down and rebuilt. So all these big foundations were being put down for the big towers that you see now. Amongst all that you’d have these streets like Norton Folgate down in the Old Spitalfields area. So it felt like you were walking in Jack the Ripper days, and then you’d walk around the corner and there’d be all these modern buildings going up. And while they were digging them up, there’d be the remnants of the London Wall being exposed. So that would take you back to the Romans.
So, I think for me it was a combination of all those things: my sense of family identity, storytelling, the history of where I came from, the way stories evolve and change, but also just the environment I happened to be in growing up and the people I was around.
Was there a point where the folk culture – the rituals and ceremonies – began to become important to you? It’s such a huge part of the art you create.
In 2016, I had just done a solo show called Folk Renaissance. That was about the life stories of individuals. I suppose I was looking into the folklore of people and how they became who they were, and what stories created their identity. I was putting them into an almost religious painting setting, telling an overview story about a person.
Peter Ackroyd and really getting involved in that feeling of the ancient. I always say that anybody interested in London folklore will end up at the gates of the Tower. I went down there to try and approach the Raven Master and talk to him about painting a portrait, when an unexpected thing happened. I came out of the station and saw in the distance this druid ceremony taking place. I went to watch from the fringes. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the big impact it had, but it woke something up within me – this feeling of belonging to the land we’re in, and that there’s something ancient about it – where, before that, I think I was more into the idea of, you know, American culture and the romantic nature of all that.
I’ve also got cousins in Canada, native people, and they still practice some of their ancient culture. So I was exposed to that growing up, too, which made me kind of envious. I loved watching it; it felt amazing. It was powerful. I always thought I’d love to be there and be part of this ancient culture. So, I think, when I saw the Druids, it woke that up within me. Like, OK, we do have something here… but what is that, exactly?
From there, I began researching folk customs. I came across the photographs of Sara Hannant. She wrote a book called Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the English Ritual Year. That book really had a big effect on me. I started going to many of these things, these events that were in her book, at first, just to be there, not really thinking about making art off the back of it. It was really just to see what it is. Soon after, I started making pictures based on these things, and I started to think about other mediums, too. When I was actually at these folk customs, I couldn’t help but want to film them. It was remarkable to see the kind of ancient and the modern taking place in one under one roof.
People start to understand that it’s something more profoundly human and universal, and I think they start to connect to it on a deeper level.Ben Edge
You’ve been working on actual films about this, too, haven’t you?
The film side of my work evolved from just sending clips to my family. I started to put them on Instagram, and I noticed that people were responding quite strongly to the footage and becoming fascinated by it. So, from there, each year I kept going back, almost looking for a reason to go back to these traditions and adding to [my archive]. So it started with little clips. From there, people started asking me to give talks about folk customs, and I only had upright films from mobile footage. I thought, I’m going to go back and get some proper footage of these events and actually interview people and get the stories. So I went back again, and that was in 2019. I decided that I would like to make a film of the ritual year, looking at 20 customs that I’m also painting. It became an accidental document of the ritual landscape pre-COVID. In that sense it’s kind of a historical document.
I’m so interested in the way that storytelling ties into this for you. I’ve had a similar experience. I did a gig at St Pancras Old Church a couple of years ago. In my set, I often tell the stories of the people that sang the old songs – the source singers, as they’re known. After the gig, a small group of women in their late teens/early twenties came up to me and asked whether the stories were true, and where could they find out more about them? For whatever reason, they couldn’t get their Google Maps working, so they asked me to draw a map of the route from the church to Cecil Sharp House, where they could begin exploring for themselves. I think they must’ve been struck by the music, but it seemed to be the stories that really grabbed them. I wonder if that happened to you in some way – whether you found people very quickly responding and beginning their own folk culture journey?
Yeah, I did. When I first got involved in Instagram and uploading these videos and pictures, you soon become connected to a world of people you didn’t know existed. It kind of reminds me of when you start going to your local rock’n’roll club, when you’re in your teenage years, meeting like-minded people. You suddenly don’t feel like an outsider for what you find interesting. That’s not to say that people weren’t laughing at first a bit – like, look at these Morris men with all their bells and things. But, then perhaps they started piecing the wider picture together. People start to understand that it’s something more profoundly human and universal, and I think they start to connect to it on a deeper level.
And I think that it’s no coincidence that we are dealing with the climate crisis and people, subconsciously or consciously, are looking for immediate ways to reconnect with nature and have a sincere concern for the land. It’s quite easy to become disconnected from it. I think the power of folk customs and folk culture and traditions is that they can genuinely reconnect you; “re-nature you”, in some respect. So, people that are 15 stories up in a tower block who were never taken out to the countryside by their parents, perhaps it’s hard for them to connect. But some of these folk traditions offer them a chance to begin seeing a bigger picture of folk culture, and maybe allow them to start seeing something that they hadn’t seen or understood before. I think it can have a sincere, positive impact on the way they feel about the land. Does that make sense?
Yes, I think it does. I’ve been reading a book called The Seasons: A Celebration of the English Year by Professor Nick Groom. It goes through the year, month by month looking at the rituals and traditions – wassailing, Bringing in the May, that kind of thing. Much as you’re saying, Groom points out that these rituals are so often connected to the land and to the seasons. The book is a kind of manifesto – a call to connect to the land via these customs, learning to respect it and be in awe of it as you do so. I certainly feel that the simple act of observing and marking the turning of the year fundamentally changes you. I look forward to May Day now as much as I looked forward to Christmas as a child.
Here’s an interesting quote from the folklorist, Bert Lloyd. “To our toiling ancestors, these customs meant everything. And in a strange, irrational way, they can still mean so much to us.” I wonder if that resonates with you in some way.
For me, the universality of folk culture means it exists everywhere. But within that you have the never-ending creativity within the region, or within the individual. So folk culture is a celebration of everyone. It’s a never-ending creative spiral of stories, and, you know, a celebration of being alive, really. It has always been like this, but I think the importance of it now is that it’s about community and bringing community together, whether it’s people from all over the world, or whether it’s people that have always lived in the same village. I just think it’s about the strengthening of community, the connection to the land. And it’s about forging new identities as much as it’s about keeping old identities alive.
So you don’t see, for example, any issues around inclusivity? I know from experience that coming to folk traditions for the first time can sometimes seem like trying to infiltrate a tight-knit circle.
At the end of the day, these folk traditions are living, breathing things. They would have evolved and changed in order for them to survive and keep relevant. They have to adapt to the environment that they find themselves in. Take Boss Morris, for example. They take inspiration from RuPaul’s Drag Race for their outfits. They’re an unashamedly all-female side – they’re not waiting around to be accepted by men-only Morris sides. They’re just creating a counterpoint, really. And, you know, I think they’ve woken people up to folk culture in a way that’s really refreshing and very inspirational. So, I think it’s the idea evolution, with one foot in the past and one foot in the present, that makes them important. It’s not like you’re going to a medieval reenactment, and neither is it like some fad, some new thing. You’re going to see a side that says something about who we are today and who we are tomorrow.
Other than Boss Morris, are there other people you’ve come across that you’ve found inspiring in a similar way?
Yes. Over the years, I’ve been going to these folk customs and there was a guy I met called Jamie and he’s been creating these amazing beasts – things like the Dorset Ooser [recreated as The Darkest Ooser]. I was at these rituals with a clear idea of what I was doing, I suppose, and he seemed like he was just there to kind of enjoy the folk traditions. But recently, last year I think it was, he’s actually started his own border Morris side, Blackthorn Border Morris, based in Hereford, and they’re actually creating incredible, really elaborate rituals, following the whole way through the year. They’re really doing something quite amazing, I think. And it’s very much about spirituality, really, for them. And I think it’s about reconnecting with the past, but doing it in a modern way.
It’s interesting that many of these people, yourself included, don’t have what you might call – for want of a better phrase – a formal folkie background.
Maybe there are sometimes generational gaps. But new ideas can form quite quickly in this internet age, and rather than waiting around for the world to change I think these people are starting to recreate things in the way they want them to be. And I think that that’s really healthy for the future of folk culture. And, of course, they’re starting the way they should, by going back to the old ways and building on top of that with more modern ideas – more inclusivity; not so male-dominated.
And also, I think there has been a lot of academia associated with folk customs. A lot of academics insisting on certain dates, like, “this only began in the 1840s” or whatever, and I think that’s not why people are getting interested in it. [The academics are] stealing the mysticism and the magic, and those are the things that people are really attracted to.
Do you find much resistance to what you do and what you talk about, then?
Yeah, I do. I had some people telling me the projects I do are pointless. I go directly to the source for the story – to the people that are keeping it alive – and I’ve had academic types saying, “Well, it’s pointless talking to them. They’re talking a lot of nonsense. It’s not based in history. They’re just making it up.” They kind of miss the romance of it, of these life stories. And that’s kind of why we butt heads slightly. But, on the other hand, I think they see the documentary element and think that that’s quite important. So I’m not completely being dismissed. But I think the more elaborate storytelling side of it is what I’m particularly fascinated by, whereas I think a lot of the academics are fascinated with trying to debunk those myths. I’m more interested in keeping them alive. Without wanting to sound too New Age, I think it’s important to connect with the past, with our ancestors, and with the land without it just being a bit of fun. I’m interested in what the deeper human meaning is behind it.
I think I understand where you’re coming from. “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?” springs to mind. If storytelling is the glue here – the substance that engages people – then that’s what they’re going to connect with, rather than a fusty, dusty academic book in the library.
Tell me about Ritual Britain, the exhibition you put on recently in London.
I started to cross paths with Simon Costin, the man behind the Museum of British folklore and also the director of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. I thought that not only would it be exciting to work with this really creative man, but I also felt that he got my perspective. So I approached him about doing a show together, where we would have his objects alongside my series of paintings and film that I was then working on. So I went on a bit of a rampage, approaching every gallery and museum in London, and got a lot of feedback – people saying, “Well, I really like the work and the idea, but you know, we don’t know if people are interested in this type of thing”. We ended up thinking, let’s just do it ourselves, and we did a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money for their costs and a catalog. We hired the Crypt Gallery, and we just did it all ourselves.
I did all the press myself, with a bit of help from a friend at the Museum of London. It was very much a DIY thing. And, you know, despite being told it wouldn’t resonate with people, it was a huge hit. We had people queuing right around Euston Road to get in. We estimated that 10,000 people came. It was a huge turnout, and it showed how fascinated people are in this right now.
And do you feel that the people who came along left wanting to explore folk culture further?
Absolutely. I’ve since noticed a lot of people on Instagram that are going to the events we covered. They’re actually going to the ceremonies, which is great. Also, I think it’s very appealing to artists, and some artists would have discovered these things at the exhibition. Maybe they’ve gone off and done their own research and done some of their own unique work. Unless you’re deliberately copying someone, if you’re going into this subject matter with an open mind, it really highlights the individual because it’s a world of imagination. You can interpret the magic of it all any way you want. So I think the exhibition had a big impact on people, and I’m really proud of that.
Did you stick around and talk to the visitors?
I was there the whole time, to make sure that I could meet the people that were coming and chat to them. The gallery system in London can be very intimidating for people – I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t know about art, so I can’t go to art exhibitions,” and you walk into a gallery and there’ll be someone there that doesn’t even lift their head. So it’s all very intimidating. But art is for everybody, and I think that it’s a big lie that you can only know about art if you if you studied it. Anybody that’s ever had a feeling by looking at a piece of art knows something about art. So that whole show was meant to work on many levels. It was installation, and it was an immersive experience.
So, if somebody comes to you who’s a bit of a newbie to all this and they want a sort of gateway into it, are there any particular rituals or customs that you send them off to see? Do you have any favourites?
I think the one that really captivated the imagination and stands out as an experience for me would be May Day in Padstow. You’ll be moved. It’s a very emotional thing to see how much it means to people. It’s a mind-blowing experience. Also, the Burryman, for different reasons. It’s on a much smaller scale. There’s a small party that walks through the town and it’s quite magical to give yourself over to this kind of Green Man entity that you just follow for the day. Your problems seem to dissolve and you just really feel you find yourself in the moment. Those two are quite magical. I also think the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is… you can’t quite help but get caught up in this feeling that you’re part of something huge and far bigger than yourself.
The idea of being involved in something far bigger than yourself… that’s something that I totally understand from playing traditional songs. Playing that music, for me, involved a kind of loss of ego. Whenever I’m playing I feel that the song has come to stay with me for a brief period, and I’m just sort of looking after it for a little bit, and then somebody else might hear it and the song will go and stay with them. In that way, it just keeps moving forward through time. I’ve heard people describing themselves as being a vessel for the song, which is a great way to put it. The song becomes the most important part of the picture, rather than the performer. It’s very different to performing a song you’ve written yourself. You always have the knowledge that so many people before you, possibly over hundreds of years, have looked after this song in their own way. It’s incredibly humbling. I find it incredibly moving.
Yeah, it’s brilliant isn’t it?
It’s really lovely. But I wanted to ask you about how welcomed you felt when approached these traditions. When you get into folk culture, you meet a lot of people for whom this is part of their family history. For me, coming to it in my mid-30s, walking into a folk club for the first time was a bit like walking into a Western saloon. You know, the piano stops playing and everyone turns to look at the newcomer. And then it becomes quite welcoming once they realise, you know…
…that you’re sincere?
Yes, exactly. Did you find that when you began showing up at these rituals and ceremonies?
Yeah, it can be a closed shop. But I think it means so much to the people involved that they don’t want you just to, you know, use it, I suppose. They want to make sure you’re sincere. I understand that. And I have had experiences where I was interrogated while I was there, or, you know, the Old Oss party can be quite aggressive. But it’s kind of like they’re testing you, at the end of the day. And I think the more you stick around and show that you’re there for the right reasons, the more welcoming people become.
And isn’t it amazing that the community you’re now such a key part of speaks directly to that mix of the ancient and the modern? It seems as though Instagram is a booming place for celebrating folk culture. There appear to be hundreds of accounts springing up that are connected with it. Is that something you’ve seen growing?
Oh, completely. It just wasn’t there before. There was obviously Boss Morris, and I remember thinking when I first started doing it how nice everyone was, because it was clear I’d just become interested in it. I had people like Alex Merry, a brilliant artist and founding member of Boss Morris, messaging me and encouraging me. It was a very small community at that point. Now it has grown massively. And I don’t know whether it’s all sincere, if I’m honest. When something else becomes popular, perhaps those people will move on. But a lot of them seem to be sincere, and I like to think that a lot of it is a bit deeper than a simple fad, because it’s of genuine importance.
So, you think there are the small inklings of a revival out there?
I think it’s a genuine revival. I think people like Zakia Sewell, myself, Boss Morris… we’re on a journey that is sincere and is not going away just because the fashions change. We’re not the kind of people who are interested in what’s fashionable anyway, but we just happen to be in fashion… for the next 15 minutes, probably!
There’s one particularly thorny issue that I know a number of people involved with English folk traditions have come up against, and that’s the spectre of nationalism. Since you became prominently connected with folk culture, have you had to deal with that?
I haven’t actually, to be honest. Perhaps some people might think, “Oh, I don’t like to be involved with that because of nationalism,” but I don’t think that’s the right approach. People will put whatever they want on it, so at the end of the day, they’ll always be someone trying to make it fit their own agenda. You just have to make your voice louder, really. It’s about inclusivity, while they’re trying to make it about exclusivity. I suppose the more you learn about Britain and British history, the more you realise that the native people of Britain are a mongrel nation. We’re from here, there and everywhere. That is who we are. We’re a nation of people coming and going, settling and leaving. That’s what Britain is.
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All photos on this page are published courtesy of Ben Edge.