On a pleasant autumn day in late 2017, I found myself kicking about in the fallen leaves outside Cecil Sharp House, killing a little time before I was due to meet the chief executive and artistic director (all one role) of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), Katy Spicer.
I found myself reflecting a little on the year I’d been through with this blog. Initially, I had started working on it as a way to educate myself about a genre I felt I knew far too little about. I’d known about Cecil Sharp House for many years, having discovered that my grandparents had got to know each other better at ceilidhs there in the 1940s, but until this year I’d never been. Since dropping by to interview Stick in the Wheel, back in February, it had become a kind of home from home whenever I was in London, in part because of the sense of history that it exudes and partly because everyone always seemed so very welcoming.
One of the smiley characters I’d seen and occasionally waved hello to turned out to be the boss. I’d even been up to say hello to her (and her life-size cut out of a flower-waving Morrissey) in her office when I interview Steve Roud in August. She had an impressive office on the top floor, surrounded by some seriously hefty tomes, and it was from here that she had run the EFDSS for the best part of a decade. Indeed, her 10th anniversary was just around the corner.
Outside in the leaves, I pondered what else I could do with this blog. I’d interviewed some of the best-loved performers, some of the key people working in the wings to keep the legacy of traditional folk music safe and sound, and now I was interviewing the woman who – to a certain extent – had the responsibility of shaping how it will stretch on into the future, and how the next generation comes to engage with it.
It felt like a bit of a climax. I walked up the steps to the front doors slowly – keen but pensive – ready to find out what the future might hold.
You’ve been here nearly 10 years now, is that correct, Katy?
Yes, 10 years as of the 18th of February. Not that I’m counting… [laughs]
What brought you here in the first place.
A bit of a strange one, really. My professional background had been in dance and theatre.
As a performer?
No, as a manager – various different roles in the early stages, but always on the admin side. I started off in marketing and then moved over into general management. I had a background working with theatre and dance companies, and my previous job I was in was at Rambert. When I started looking around for a different job, I saw this one. I thought it sounded quite interesting; it was a venue, a dance form, so I was used to that. I really didn’t have any “folk” in my background other than being old enough to have done country dancing at school. I’d also done, rather curiously, some marketing for the first two years of what was then called the Southend on Sea Folk Festival, simply because it was held at the theatre that I worked in at the time. But that was it, really. I suppose I got the job because they were not actually looking for someone with a hugely folk background – rather, someone who had the professional background of being an arts manager. So I arrived here.
Do you feel that, 10 years on, you’ve become an accepted folkie?
[Laughs] Oooooo… I think it might be a question of whether you ever get accepted, you know? It’s like, “How long do you have to live in this village before you’re accepted?” That’s a really interesting question. I think there’ll always be people who appreciate what has happened and how EDFSS has developed while I’ve been here – which is not by any stretch entirely my doing, by the way. I’ve had a great team of people, some of whom have been and gone in that time. They’ve come up with some fantastic ideas, run them, developed them – it’s a team effort, and I truly mean that. There are people that say to us, “It’s amazing what has happened at EFDSS. It’s such a different organisation. It’s fantastic”, and of course there are others for whom we’ll never quite do whatever it is that they want us to do. I’ll be a bit radical here and say that that’s because their view of what EFDSS should be doing is probably related to something they were doing 40 or 50 years ago. With the best will in the world, it could never be replicated.
What does that tend to be? What was EFDSS 40 or 50 years ago?
Erm, I think it’s probably something to do with the relationship with the club members. That relationship has shifted, not just in the 10 years that I’ve been here – I think it was already shifting. The society used to have districts, up until around the 80s. They used to have people on the ground across the length and breadth of England. So it meant that if you were really involved in the folk scene in your area, whether it was through a dance club or a folk club or just as an individual, you had a local place and a local person to identify with – someone who could perhaps help and would have the local knowledge of that county or that region.
Those posts started to disappear, I think, as people started to retire from them – they simply weren’t replaced. I think EFDSS became, I suppose, a bit more distant – geographically as well, because now they were dealing with people in this building here in London, whereas before they’d have been dealing with someone who lived around the corner from them. So I think that’s the major shift, and as I say, that had already started before I came. It had been happening for a long time.
And more recently?
I suppose the biggest change over the last 10 years is that we’ve professionalised the organisation. That’s without wishing to sound detrimental to anyone who came before, because there were all sorts of levels of knowledge and expertise back then. However, we moved it – with the board’s permission, which is why they advertised for my role in the first place – to being a more professional organisation, and one that could have a relevance in the folk sector again, which it had started to lose mainly because it wasn’t doing all that much.
It became focused on a wider sector. The ambition was that we should aim to have a place alongside other arts organisations. If we have a place alongside other arts organisations, that means the art form does. It’s not just seen as, “something that isn’t proper music or proper dance – it’s just done by amateurs”. That, essentially, was the plan – the ambition: to develop what we had into a professionally run arts organisation, with people joining because they had the right skills and knowledge of the area of work they were in.
I suppose the tricky part was, and has always been, the balance between whether you need to know about folk or you just have to have sufficient interest, as well as an understanding that you’ll learn about it once you’re in the job. I hope that’s what the team has managed. We’re constantly striving to improve and deliver more, but I think that’s really been the big shift. We’ve gone from an organisation that had slightly lost its way, lost its position and relevance, for whatever reason. It wasn’t really delivering that much in terms of activity or advocacy.
Do the society members tend to be of an older age? Do you struggle to bring in younger people?
Yes. I think the whole modern concept of membership (and I’ve heard this said by experts who work in the membership field more broadly) is that – with the obvious exception of a group like the National Trust who have 4.5 million members and rising – people have become far more transient. They have far more things that they’re interested in, and so they don’t necessarily want to completely sign up to one thing or another – especially in their younger years. So they move around at different levels for a while, then they might move on to something else, or perhaps come back to something. The whole landscape is far more fluid than perhaps when people used to get really interested in a particular subject or activity and really went for it, joining the association that looked after that interest. Really, apart from the National Trust, the only bodies that keep thriving are usually those that are professional associations – you have to join them if you want to be a professional in that industry.
So, the bulk of our members are really incredibly loyal, because they’ve been members for 40-odd years. And they stay members, so I don’t know if that means that we are doing something right or that they just live in hope! But they support us, year in, year out, financially and by other means. Even though it’s a declining membership, it is still incredibly loyal, and it’s still very important to us.
So you have to think of society membership in different terms?
Yes. I think where we are probably developing is among our supporters – people who come regularly to gigs or come to education activities. On a more national basis, we have the Folk Educators Group, which is exactly what it sounds like it might be. People support us through coming to their events – not necessarily financially, but by coming to support the activity. So it’s support in a very different way, and that’s something that we, as an organisation, have to work with and see what’s next – looking at whether it’s about trying to develop membership as it is now, or perhaps continuing to serve as best we can those loyal members, while at the same time looking at a different system that we’d at some point transition to.
People are perhaps coming to expect something different from an organisation. In London, for example, the more popular ones are those memberships where you’re effectively getting a lot of benefits for some sort of regular annual fee. Our current members obviously get some benefits, but it’s a lot more about supporting what we do through regular financial contributions rather than hoping for discounts on tickets, or whatever it might be.
Our treasurer pointed this out not very long ago: the relationship between members and EDFSS has changed on a very pragmatic financial basis. At one point, a few decades back, membership was a much higher percentage of the turnover, so it had a higher stake, you might say. While it still brings in a very tidy income that we would not want to dismiss overnight, as a percentage of turnover it’s relatively small now. So, again, that relationship has changed. You have to view that there are other people and organisations that we are perhaps answerable to in a way that the society perhaps wasn’t 20 years ago. We are probably answerable to the Arts Council as our major funders, as well as other funders that might come and go depending on what projects we’re doing, than perhaps we were before. We might be more answerable to the regular users of this building, whether they’re audience members or people who come to classes, or to the organisations that hire it on a very regular basis throughout the year. So we’ve got more people that we’re dealing with now – more groups, more organisations. It’s quite a different situation.
You said that you’ve had teams over the years that have come in on the understanding that they’re going to learn about folk traditions. Does that come naturally and easily to them? Did it come naturally and easily to you?
I think that if you’re interested in the arts, whatever the genre or art form might be, you can learn. Everyone gets involved as much as they want to or need to, and some people will get more swept up in it and really go, “Wow! This is revelatory!” Others will be highly appreciative but may not leave here absolute hard and fast folk fans. I think it’s really about how professional people are in their jobs, and I think we’ve been very fortunate in that. I’d say people have come in and given it 100% regardless of whether they’ve become a complete convert or they’ve just developed a new appreciation for it.
And where do you sit? Are you a convert?
I think I’m somewhere in the middle, really. I certainly know a huge amount more than when I started. I’d never say I was anti-folk beforehand. In the art forms I like, I have quite Catholic tastes, so it wasn’t a question of having to be converted. I just had to know more about it – know who the up-and-coming singers were, know about the different dance styles. I was brought up in the 60s, so I was brought up around Morris dancing. One of my earliest memories was seeing a Thaxted Morris side when I was only about four or five, so it’d always been there in the background, but it’d never had an opportunity to come to the fore.
So I think what I have now is a huge appreciation and respect for it all, and an understanding that, like so many art forms, you say “folk” and it’s as wide as anything. It’s the same as people thinking of classical music. Most people would think of Tchaikovsky or Mozart, but if you think of the modern composers who are stuck in that box – the Harrison Birtwistles of this world – they couldn’t be further away. Folk is exactly the same. From the unaccompanied traditional singer, where it absolutely feels as though it has been handed down through the generations for a couple of hundred years, to artists who take those original songs, tunes or lyrics, and take them somewhere entirely different.
I’ve also developed a particular understanding of the dances, which I wouldn’t have developed had I come to work here and understood it. Even within the form of Morris, which you assume is incredibly traditional. You imagine that they’re dancing exactly the same way as they did hundreds of years ago – and to some extend they are, but it’s almost like that Chinese Whispers game. It will change because that’s the nature of something being handed down. It slightly changes every time. But I also realise now that lots and lots of sides were actually making up new dances – they were choreographic new things completely based on the language of Morris; the vocabulary that they had from the steps, patterns and rhythms. So it wasn’t completely preserved in aspic. It’s a living, breathing tradition, so it’s constantly evolving. That was probably the biggest surprise.
In that case, does the society specifically support the traditional side of what you might call folk? For example, if you have a singer who actually writes their own stuff in a style that you might associate with the folk tradition, but it isn’t traditional, how do you view that in terms of lending them your support?
That’s where we get into the grey area of the singer-songwriter. We have supported a number of singer-songwriters, and we’ve commissioned people to write new songs on particular themes, and it’s certainly a tricky one. I suppose, for me personally – and this is absolutely my personal standpoint or guideline – I think we want our creative bursaries to go to people who really consider themselves folk artists. Within that there will be singer-songwriters, instrumentalists and traditionalists.
What I look for in, say, an application or the info they put on their website, is a real feeling that they do actually know what English folk music is about. They need to have that understanding, or to have done some research, or to go back to the source material for their inspiration, tunes, lyrics, or what have you. They can play around with it, yes, and they might take themes and write something new, but it needs to have that ingrained knowledge, and that needs to come through in their music even if it’s a completely new piece of work.
It is a grey area because we get a number of applicants who, when I listen to their music and read what they’re talking about, I just feel that, for me, in comparison to someone else, they’re interested in folk but they might not be a folk artist. They might be interested in playing all music genres, which is great, but somewhere I’ve got to draw a bit of a line – a wiggly, bendy line occasionally. And it’s a hugely controversial area. If you want a huge debate about what is or isn’t folk, that’s where it all sits – that whole area of the singer-songwriter.
Yes, I’ve spotted a lot of that, especially on the Grizzly Folk Facebook page. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, is it?
No, I don’t think it will. And as I say, it’s just how I guide my own thinking around things like bursaries or applications, where you’ve somehow got to make those decisions.
You mentioned creative bursaries. In what ways does EFDSS support up-and-coming folk performers? I’m not specifically talking about singers or musicians, I’m talking about dance or any other of the folk arts as well.
We’ve run various projects and schemes over the years, one of those being the bursary scheme. Usually, anybody can apply for a creative bursary. That’s where we try to widen the opportunities a bit. Generally, what we’ll look for in a creative bursary application is somebody who wants to work with the folk arts – it could be music, dance, storytelling, the whole raft of customs and traditions that they want to feed into their work. It could be a visual artist, a composer, an actor – it could be a choreographer.
In those cases they don’t necessarily have to view themselves as a folk artist. Part of our artist development programme, and really what we try to do in all of our activities, is not just to support those who consider themselves folk artists or engage with people that are already interested in folk. It’s about how you get out to the people beyond that. So we do offer bursaries to those who wouldn’t consider themselves folk artists, but would be interested in looking at folk material to inspire their own work so that it’s broadening out.
We’re not necessarily trying to create more folk artists. We’re trying to have a bigger pool of artists out there who have an appreciation and understanding of folk materials as incredibly rich sources for creative ideas. The more people at a professional level, and the more artists out there who are thinking about folk traditions – whether they’re English folk traditions or from across the British Isles – as a source of creativity and inspiration, then we feel that it has to be a positive thing for the folk arts in general. We want people to know that there’s this rich seam that they could be drawing on. So in those bursaries, often as not, we’ll get a mix of types of artists. We’ve supported dance projects, visual arts projects, cross-art projects, as well as the more straightforward music projects. There’s been a variation across the years.
Here’s something that interests me when you talk about the rich seam of source material. When we talk about “Englishness” in this day and age, we’re talking about a rich, ethnically diverse thing, and the “English folk traditions” must surely have to develop to include that. You think of what Cecil Sharp and the other collectors were interested in, and you’re obviously thinking about white, rural or working class music. Is EFDSS looking at how that ethnic diversity has integrated into “English folk traditions”?
That is a really, really interesting question, and one that we’re increasingly juggling with – agonising over, even.
As you say, historically – and we’re talking about recent history – you’re talking about a very white art form, by its very nature. We’ve had these discussions internally about whether we’re the English Folk Dance and Song Society, or are we the Folk Dance and Song Society for England? Now, I’m quite clear on that in my own head. I think, firstly, if you go back to the two parent associations – the two that merged into what is now EDFSS – they were talking about the English Folk Dance and Song Society. And we still have to talk about “English”, although that’s hardly clear-cut around the edges.
We know that all the music, dance and various traditions, not just in this country but across the British Isles and the rest of the world, have all influenced each other from time to time. You have pockets of folk music down in Cornwall that have Celtic traditions, with similarities to Irish music. You’ve got all of this – music, dances, what have you – that went across to the Americas and came back again. Nothing is pure in any of its forms.
Where I put the line in terms of whether we, as an organisation, can start being the folk body, or folk representatives and development agency for all the folk traditions now practiced in the UK (or even just England), is simply that we can’t. There are too many of them, and we’d end up not being able to serve any of them. It would be futile.
What we are trying to do – and it’s just tiny steps; trying this and trying that – is to bring together the older English traditions with whatever is being practiced in this country at the moment. You could be talking about Irish traditions that have been here, through migration, for centuries, or you could be talking about some of the other European or African traditions that have arrived here more recently. We’re trying to find a way of bringing those different experiences together, at a grass roots level, and placing them together on the same platform to explore all the similarities and differences and stories. I’m not just talking about doing a showcase with a Somali dance group or a Bulgarian choir, and then having a bit of English folk thrown in, but really finding ways to explore with people what the incredible commonalities are within the dance steps and the storytelling, and so forth. At a professional level, what we’re trying to do is find ways of crossing over and engaging artists from different backgrounds and genres, and having those musical exchanges and getting a greater understanding.
Back to that grass roots thing: it’s also about making sure that some of these traditional songs are there in the schools, that they’re not forgotten about or ignored. Not to make it a big thing, but just to make sure that it’s there – part of what you do at school, or outside school in youth groups. Then you increase the chances of a much more diverse group of people making use of it or taking an interest in it, or taking part in it in some way.
So, is that the way you get a younger audience to engage with folk music? Is it through schools?
Yes, partly through schools.
People like Rosie Hood and Emily Portman talk about being “bitten by the bug”. How do you get that bug out there, biting everyone?
Yeah – it’s partly doing projects with schools, and partly doing more projects outside with young people. Working with the increasing network of music education hubs is crucial, trying to ensure that folk music is looked at alongside all of the other music forms – that it’s not just forgotten about.
It’s one of the reasons we started the National Youth Folk Ensemble. That was a process of doing youth holiday courses and building that up to the London Youth Folk Ensemble – a completely non-auditioned, anybody-can-join ensemble – and then finally getting to the point where we pitched to create it at a national level (currently curated by Sam Sweeney). The idea was not just about having that group of 17-20 young players, who are absolutely the best we can find and will create a fantastic sound, but it was about them inspiring other young people to play.
Also, and possibly more importantly, it was about alerting the key movers and shakers in music education hubs or schools or funding bodies, and having them go, “Actually, that’s pretty good. I always thought that folk was the easy music option for those who couldn’t play classical. But now I’m listening to it I’m thinking, that’s really quite complicated – not quite as easy as I thought it was, and there isn’t a single music stand between them so they must’ve learnt all of this playing by ear, and arranged it by ear. This is really not what I thought it was.”
“I thought that was jazz!”
Exactly. “I thought that was jazz! Maybe I would like some of this at my hub.” So the idea is that, over the years, the ensemble will be a sort of up and down movement. It’ll inspire more youth activities, and by getting more youth activities off the ground, we’ll have more young people being channelled into it. It was always the idea for it to have that two-way movement. And although it’s only in its second year, it’s doing exactly that already.
Last year’s cohort did their first performance at the Met in Bury, effectively supporting Leveret, and the local music hub came along. The next thing we know, through the Met’s director, they called up wanting a project with us. So, this term and into next term, Miranda Rutter and Rob Harbron, who have been the two behind Sam on the ensemble, are going up there to bring folk into their youth ensemble. So, that was like, “Wow! We did what we wanted to do at the very first performance!”
There’s a kind of irony, isn’t there, that traditionally this music would’ve been everywhere because people would’ve just sung it, but now you actually have to try and coax people into actually hearing it. But they often get it quite quickly. In the town that I live in, I went in to talk to the music teacher at the local school about the songs collected when George Gardiner came through the area. Gardiner collected 11 songs from a chap called Henry Lee. The music teacher didn’t know anything about any of this, and after listening to the stories and the songs, he became determined to try and change some of the syllabus for the first years so that they learn some of those songs.
Wow! That’s incredible!
Yes, but as I say – all you have to do is tell people!
You’re absolutely right! There’s a huge element of that – rooting it in people’s lives and connecting it with where they live and making it tangible.
The first education and library project that we did when I arrived (which I can’t take credit for in terms of getting it off the ground – it was something that our library director at the time, Malcolm Taylor, began) was called Take 6. It was the first project where we had the funding to start digitising some of the collection, including the Hammond Collection, and then do some work in schools.
Paul Sartin was running some of the workshops down in Hampshire, down in Andover, and he was telling the primary school children about who these songs were collected from. He gave them some easy worksheets to take home, and one child came back the following week and said, “My mum says that this is our great, great uncle!” Paul had been teaching them this song, and he’d said that it was collected from a man called so-and-so, and this child was related to him! The family were still living in that immediate area. As you say, it suddenly becomes real. It becomes completely tangible.
Yes, it’s almost as if you can touch history through folk song.
Yes, but all that said, it’s difficult. Schools projects, out-of-school projects, the Youth Ensemble – we hope all of these will be a big part of promoting traditional folk music to younger people. It’s one of my big personal frustrations that almost anywhere you go in the folk world, you’ll be watching an artist in their twenties or thirties on the stage, with an audience of effectively their mums, dads, grandmas and grandpas. It’s great, obviously, that those people are still coming and the artists are getting an audience, and I have to remind myself – having worked in other art forms – that this is pretty common across the arts, with one or two exceptions. How do you get your peer group, when you’re in your twenties, thirties or even forties, to come and listen to you? I wish I had the answer, because if I did I could probably make a small fortune for myself and for EDFSS.
As I say, it’s not exclusively a problem for folk music. If you go to a classical performance, it’s the same. We have to keep doing what we’re doing – take soundings, asking people. Last year we set up a youth forum here, which only has a very small membership, but the idea is to gradually help them to organise events themselves. They already do it, in fact. They organise ceilidhs strictly for teenagers. They’ve done some concerts with the London Youth Ensemble. Once they’re more settled, I want to say, [raps knuckles on table], “Come on! You’re young people! How do I persuade you and your friends to keep coming to concerts and get involved?” Because it’s not just a price thing. We do a youth ticket and under-26 tickets, and that’s gradually getting more people in each time, but it’s a small handful.
Sometimes I remember when I worked in the theatre world in the 80s. It was always the 60-plus age group that took advantage of the subscription seasons and dictated what we did. But the thing is, theatre never really crashed, even though there was always this fear that there’d be no audience once the older members were gone. Somehow the audiences come from somewhere. I think that might be because theatre is, in some shape or form, more present in peoples’ lives. You’re more likely to do drama or go to plays while you’re at school. You watch the TV, and you’re watching drama and actors. Somehow that audience reappears. Maybe it’s that usual thing where people come when they’re students, then go off and have families and don’t have the time or the money, and by the late forties or fifties they start going again.
My very anecdotal view on folk music is that there’s this fear that there’s a generation missing here – if not two, depending on how long you define a generation as. My generation had folk at school. I may not have been that involved with it after school and beyond, but somehow it was always there in the background, so I could recognise things. It was there in my heritage DNA somewhere. But the following generations didn’t have that, so if you don’t come from a family that’s involved in folk, you’ve got that gap. Your school isn’t providing it. Your out-of-school isn’t providing it. Are we the art form that is going to suddenly find that – bang – there’s an audience cliff? There may be a gap of a couple of generations who don’t have folk music in their personal histories.
I think I might be part of that missing generation. Having just turned 40, I don’t have many memories attached to folk music. If you talk to Ian Anderson at fRoots, he talks about running a column in the 80s – which was when I was a child – called ‘The Press Gang’. In each edition they would round up the latest derogatory, anti-folk stereotypes being mocked the media. That reflects the views I would’ve heard when my generation were coming of age – that hatred of pewter tankards and big woollen sweaters and singing with a finger in one ear.
I remember seeing Eliza Carthy at a festival in the 90s – or rather, being aware that she was there. She’s my age group and she was known for really standing out among folkies, but to our age group she’d have looked like any other grungy kid onstage, so we – typical 6th form kids – would not have noticed her unless she was playing something we were interested in. And we didn’t notice her. At my age now, it’s still pretty difficult to get those older friends into traditional folk music. They’re slightly too tainted by the old stereotypes. The ones who are naturally interested in history, maybe, can see the appeal, but it’s very much the stories behind the songs that grab them first.
Talking to someone like Andy Bell, this concern spills over into the running of folk record labels. Folk music must be one of the last genres that relies almost exclusively on CD sales. So how do you make use of digital streaming trends to elevate the popularity of traditional folk music? Can EFDSS work to try and develop a relationship with companies like Spotify to help try and promote stuff?
Well, one of the plans I have for next four-to-six months is to do a survey with the professional artists, agents and managers, to find out what it is that they would like EFDSS to try and focus on and develop, in terms of artist and professional support. We’ve done a lot of that in the past, and it’s relatively easy to do that with new and emerging artists. We do en masse training in all sorts of things, where we spend a weekend throwing everything we think they need to know at them until their heads explode! Everything from how to run yourself as a small business, right through to how you survive on tour.
What I still want to do better is working out how we can support the mid-career artist, for want of a better word. What kind of support do they really want? What can they use? I’m also hoping that they will tell us what we shouldn’t be doing – what we shouldn’t be wasting our money on! A lot of it comes back to funding, but we’re looking for more of a steer – getting that real feedback and seeing where that takes us.
Let’s get back to your big anniversary. In your 10 years here, what have you been most proud of?
I knewyou were going to ask me something like that, and I was desperately looking back over the last years and thinking how awful it would be to have to pick one particular project! Gosh. [Raps table with knuckles again.] It’s really difficult to pick one thing. Can I have moments?
You can have moments.
Thank you. The first moment would be when we won the Mayor of Camden’s Unsung Music Award a few years ago. The mayor at the time was a music fanatic, so he decided he’d have awards that went towards all sorts of music people in Camden. That was lovely because I think it was in about 2010 or 2011, and I only started doing a performance programme here in 2009.
Being a folk-specific venue means that it’s not like we’re a general arts centre, or even a general music venue, where you hope to attract lots of different audiences with lots of different music. The downside is that you have one genre within one art form, so you have to attract people to that. On the other hand, it makes it a lot easier because you’re not thinking that you have to juggle classical and jazz and what have you. But the fact that we made a mark locally in that relatively short space of time was like, “Woah! OK!” The following year we were number two in the Time Out awards for best venue. When you look at all the venues in London, we were like, “Wow! Amazing! Does anyone know how the voting works on this!?” [Laughs] It was real recognition. And we saw a pick up in visitors for a while. It did help.
Then there have been these really beautiful moments around the youth activities and their concerts. When we did our final schools’ concert for The Full English at the Town Hall in Birmingham, there were little five-year-olds right up to 18-year-olds all performing whatever it was that they’d done as part of that project. There were tinies playing little plastic accordions, right up to B-Tech and performing arts students doing this amazing dance/drama piece to a traditional song. And there was everything in between. You just go, “Wow! We did that!”
Probably one of the recent moments was seeing Jane Harbour from Spiro being commissioned to do a piece for the BBC Concert Orchestra for Radio 3. We were involved in that and I got a shout out on the radio from Verity Sharp because Jane had been my suggestion. We’d not really had anything to do with the main process other than at the beginning, and in holding the concert here, but to hear what Jane had done – a musician I have huge respect for… I’m a huge fan of Spiro, but I’m used to seeing her playing with a fiddle in the context of Spiro. Suddenly, there she was having taken complete advantage of having a whole orchestra! She asked if she could have some singers, so they threw in a dozen BBC singers, and she’d taken some early field recordings and overlaid them with this live music. It was absolutely amazing. And to think back to me sitting in this room that we’re in now with Verity Sharp, and saying, “How about Jane Harbour?” That was a very proud moment, to have had a little hand in that.
Then there are the more pragmatic moments, like getting Arts Council funding and becoming one of their clients in year two. I’m not sure everybody here got quite as excited as I did, but I’ve spent my entire life working for what are essentially subsidised art organisations. We were just leaping around! Everyone else was going, “I think it’s got something to do with money…”
But it’s not just about getting EFDSS to the table itself. It’s also about doing it for the art form that it represents. For all the plusses and minuses that having regular funding has, it does get you to the table, and people start to say, “Oh, well if they’ve got Arts Council funding, maybe it’s not so weird and amateur as perhaps I thought”.
And are you here for another 10 years?
Oh, flip! Probably! [Laughs] I’m not sure if it’d be good for the organisation, but they might have to put up with me. Who knows?
For more info on EFDSS and Cecil Sharp House, head to efdss.org. The pictures in this article were taken by Rosie Reed Gold.