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A folk session in the Shakespeare's, Gibraltar Street. Photo credit: Ben Potton

Sesh Fest: the festival where everyone gets to perform

This Easter weekend (29th-31st March) will see Sheffield’s pubs filled with the sounds of traditional folk tunes and songs as Sheffield Sessions Festival returns to the city. It’s the first festival since 2019 (for obvious reasons), so what can you expect from a festival where the acts are also the attendees?

Now in its 11th year, Sheffield Sessions Festival (or Sesh Fest as it’s known colloquially) is a participatory festival that attracts hundreds of folk enthusiasts from around the country and from within Sheffield itself. The city has a thriving and diverse folk scene that is strongly participatory; from its unique village carols tradition at Christmas to the regular song and tune sessions, as well as the many morris teams that practice and perform weekly. Walk into certain pubs in Sheffield at any given time and, if not likely, it’s at least possible that you’ll run into traditional songs, music or, if you’re particularly unlucky, dance.

What’s different about the Sesh Fest weekend is that this scene takes over an entire quarter of the city, sending those suffering from weltmusikophobia (look it up) scampering to pubs free from melodeons and fiddles. Sessions take place in various pubs focused around the city’s Kelham Island area, including the Kelham Island Tavern, Shakespeare’s and the Gardeners Rest. As anyone familiar with the area will know, these venues highlight the correlation between excellent beer and the likelihood of a folk event taking place.

What is a folk session?

It’s unlikely you are reading this website and not know what is meant by a folk session. But just in case you’ve wandered in unawares from Twitter or some other dark place on the web, here’s a quick overview.

A traditional folk session is an open, participatory event, usually held in a pub. The session can be focused on either tunes or songs, or sometimes a bit of both. However, singing is almost always unaccompanied. Sessions are usually based around a theme: Irish or English tunes, certain types of instruments or songs with a particular subject matter. Session etiquette is important, such as not taking a seat if a musician needs it, not talking during solo songs and taking turns when starting tunes.

What to expect from Sesh Fest

Sesh Fest features a range of sessions focused on different aspects of folk music and song. And, being held in Sheffield (the epicentre of English folk, if you ask me), you can expect sessions led by and featuring a variety of locally-based stars of the folk scene. These include a singing session with Jon Boden, a fiddle session with Nancy Kerr and Jess Arrowsmith and a mixed session with James Fagan. There will also be a sea shanty session, songs about industry, a Morris tunes session (led by Ray Cunningham of Five Rivers Morris), sessions exclusively for specific instruments, and even a nod to the aforementioned carols tradition at the Carols at Easter singing session.

The festival is organised by a volunteer committee of folkies (Richard Arrowsmith, Nancy Kerr, Ray Cunningham, Jim McDonald and Ed Wynn) and is completely free to attend. Pubs are usually packed out and space is always at a premium, so get there early if you have your heart set on a particular session. Alternatively, wander between the venues, enjoy a drink or two and hover in the doorways as the waves of folk music wash over you (not recommended for those suffering from weltmusikophobia).

The festival kicks off with music and song sessions in Shakespeare’s and the Kelham Island Tavern respectively at 3pm on Friday 29th March. The full programme of sessions is available at sheffieldfolksessionsfestival.co.uk