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Miriam Haque plays Louie Hooper in FOLK by Nell Leyshon
Picture credit: Robert Day

Nell Leyshon: Putting Louie Hooper, Lucy White and Cecil Sharp on stage

Nell Leyshon talks about her new play, FOLK, her fascination with source singers, Louie Hooper and Lucy White, and the difficulties inherent in bringing Cecil Sharp to life on stage.

In the summer of 2021, my dyed-in-the-wool folkie uncle (everyone should have one) sent me a link to a new radio play called FOLK. Written by the playwright and novelist, Nell Leyshon, the piece looked at the relationship between controversial folksong collector, Cecil Sharp, and two of the women he collected from – Louie Hooper and Lucy White. I put my earbuds in, whistled for the dog and set off for a memorable stroll across the North Wessex Downs.

As Nell Leyshon explains in this interview, summing up a play of this nature can’t really be done in a few pithy sentences. The inner world of Louie Hooper is a complex place, and Leyshon explores it with a poignancy that touches on a kind of pastoral magic realism, imagining Hooper’s repertoire of traditional songs as living things that evolved with the land. Similarly complex is Cecil Sharp himself – a man driven by a need to prove himself against a cultural landscape in which he had so far failed, subsequently given to perhaps claiming more credit than he was due. And, of course, wherever Cecil Sharp goes, whispers of nationalist leanings soon follow. Finding space for all of this in a 90-minute radio play was no mean feat, but Leyshon managed something that most writers long to do: her work lingered. It profoundly altered my mood, and I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards.

This week I was reminded of FOLK when I found an article written by Leyshon on the Guardian website. I was pleased to see that the play had moved to the stage, where it had originally been heading until the pandemic had its way, and had now taken up residence at Hampstead Theatre, where the production, directed by Roxana Silbert, runs until February 5th. Fascinated to find out more about this story, I quickly found Nell Leyshon on Twitter and asked if she fancied a Zoom chat. She responded within minutes and, less than a day later, the following conversation occurred.

Let’s start by sumarising the play for readers who know very little about it. Can you do that?

It’s an exploration of folksong collecting down in Somerset, but it’s from the point of view of the two sisters, Louie Hooper and Lucy White, but particularly Louie. The two sisters’ mother has just died, and in the middle of their grief, a visitor comes, and that’s Cecil Sharp collecting folk songs.

Very brief. Very good!

[Laughs] The trouble is, you either do brief or you spend ten years writing a play, and there’s nothing in between. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written because you have to please the people on the Sharp side and people on the Louie side. To get it right for both of those, that was what was really tough.

And have you had responses from either side of your audience?

They both seem to really like it. It was a tightrope walk, and hopefully I got it right.

You were keen to point out before we started recording this interview that you’re not a folk expert. Did you grow up with any interest in traditional music? Was it around you at all?

I’ve always been interested in traditional craft. My brother was a thatcher, and we moved to this farming village on the edge of the Somerset Levels. But all the songs had gone, so Cecil Sharp was right. There wasn’t one left. When we moved, it was just at the end of the traditional harvest, so we joined in. And I don’t remember any singing. It was all radios and tractors, and the songs had gone. So, I didn’t have a particular interest in folk music, but I really love it. I’m fascinated by the difference between orality and literacy.

Orality and literacy?

Yeah, really interesting subject matter. I did a very big work project – I wrote a play for Theatre Newfoundland, and I went over to Newfoundland five times, and I met a singer called Stephanie Payne. Very modest, and I think she knew 200 songs off by heart. I don’t even know if she’s done anything with them. It was incredible. I remember being really struck by the thought, “What does it feel like to have that in your body?” I don’t have that in my own mind. I don’t have access to reams of quotations or songs. You become your own expert, don’t you? Your own entertainment machine.

Yes. I talk to quite a lot of people who make it their business to have these vast traditional repertoires. There are two ways that they seem to come into existence. Some people consciously think, “I’m going to sit down and learn that many songs”. And then you have the likes of Louie Hooper, certainly in your portrayal of her, who was more sponge-like and just sucked them in.

“Catching songs”, she called it. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

It really is. My friend, Jackie Oates, the traditional singer, seems to be very like that. She just seems to sponge them all up and suck them all in. And they’re just there. She’s like a walking tradfolk jukebox.

It’s such an amazing thing. I run The Outsiders Project, working with very marginalised, unheard voices, and I work with a guy who composes orally, so he never writes it down. And he has instant access – instant recall to all of his pieces at any one time. He never puts them on paper. The only time they’re put on paper is if I write them down. And that’s where my interest gets really piqued. So, it would be disingenuous if I said, “Oh, I’ve always been a folk music fan.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t love it, and I don’t really appreciate it.

Louie Hooper, source singer who sang songs for Cecil Sharp
Louie Hooper was born in 1860 and baptised at Hambridge Church, Somerset. A "collar worker" by the age of 10, and a "buttonhole worker" by 21, she was known locally for the songs she sang while working. Said to have around 200 songs in her repertoire, she sang to Cecil Sharp in 1903 when she was 43. Sharp collected 33 songs from Hooper and her half-sister, Lucy White, 27 of which came from Hooper alone. Songs including 'Henry Martin' and 'The Sign of the Bonny Blue Bell' were published in Sharp's book, "Folk Songs from Somerset". Sharp inscribed the sisters' copy with the words, "exchange is no robbery". Louie Hooper was recorded by the BBC in 1942. She died in 1946.
How did you come across Louie Hooper and Lucy White, the two source singers at the centre of the play?

It was at an exhibition at the Somerst Rural Life Museum. I went to that exhibition and I saw the photo of John England [the man who Cecil Sharp overheard singing ‘The Seeds of Love’]. Even I’d heard of him. Then I saw Oliver Shutler [another of the source singers who sang for Sharp], a stone breaker from my village, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness. This is really incredible. Sharp was collecting where I’m from.”

And then it was just this weird thing. I saw these two women. It must have said how many songs Sharp had collected from them. And I realised they were the main women that he’d collected from in Hambridge, which is where a friend of ours had lived. I used to go there and it was just… wow. All of this is in front of me.

And then my sister gave me this. [Nell holds up an old envelope with Oliver Shutler’s name on it.] This was an empty envelope that had been passed to my sister, who gave it to me. So Oliver Shutler, in fact, actually lived next-door-but-two from our house, and that was where Sharp had collected the song, ‘The True Lovers’ Farewell’. And that’s the song that finishes the play.

I knew instantly that I should write this play when I was in the exhibition. You know, when an idea comes, it just goes off in your head like a firework. And then it was a question of doing a little bit of research. There was definitely something there.

So, that sense of place was vital?

Yeah, completely. Absolutely. We moved there when I was 11, so I was there for all my formative years, formed in Glastonbury and then in this village, and it’s that rootedness to the actual land and the shape of the land which is in the play as well.

I know quite a lot of people in the traditional folk world that came to it for similar reasons – that sense of place, that affirmation of who you are and where you come from. For me, I sing traditional songs from the Midlands, which is where I’m from, because I find they connect me in a way that nothing else ever has before.

So, you’re singing your identity, aren’t you?

I suppose, in a sense, I am.

It does feel that way. There’s a scene in the play where Louie walks in the field, and she’s teaching Cecil Sharp how he should sing the songs. Not how he sang it, but how he really should sing it. She actually ties the song to the land, into the location where she is, and that’s her identity as well – where she is.

The song and the land are one.

Bruce Chatwin

That part of the play really resonated strongly with me – that she ties the songs to the land, making the land and the songs inseparable. I found that really profound, really beautiful. I wanted to ask you about that – about whether that was something you found in your research, or something that you imagined for the Louie character.

I made it up. What was so interesting about writing this play is that I did too much research. I had to learn in order to write: I had to learn about folk music, I had to learn about classical music. I had to understand the differences. I’m not musical in any way. I have no musical background. So I had to learn these two worlds.

And then I saw a guy on Twitter saying, “No! The two sisters liked Sharp!” Yeah, I know they did. The problem was that I had to find out the facts and then, having found the facts, I needed to change them to make a good play. And that is really challenging because, for someone like me who would actually be mortified if I got something so wrong, if I’d upset people in the folk world, I would be really upset. And I really wanted to honour what you love about those folk songs. So I was scared all the time. But, essentially, if you look at anything that’s been made about Cecil Sharp before, it’s actually quite boring because what he did was he went to the village, and then he went to house one, house two, house three, house four, house five… and he did 10 houses in a day. That doesn’t make a play. It’s really boring. That’s what we call an episodic drama, and it just doesn’t work. So, you have to actually make a decision, right? And obviously, in order for me to explore some of the things I wanted to explore, I had to sort of sit with Louie and Lucy. So, I do know that they were really happy he collected the songs at the time.

The appropriation, in a way, is me thinking about life now and appropriation now and going backwards. So, all of that goes back to what you were saying about the scene in the field. That was an act of imagination for me. And I was slightly worried about that as well, because I thought, “What if the folk people ask, ‘Where does that come from?'” But, sometimes you just make things up and you just have to go with it because that’s creativity. And for me, there was something truthful about that. So, if I feel that it’s truthful, then I have to go with it.

I read a book last year, a novel called The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons. It comes from a similar world. It’s to do with a kind of gentrified song collector in Edwardian times collecting songs in the West Country, and it’s clear who it’s modelled on. There’s a similarity in the way that the author has imagined, quite rightly I think, that the people who sang these songs felt a strong connection between the songs and the land. Those songs were intrinsically part of rural life and they evolved with the seasons. You only have to listen to Frost and Fire, the album of ritual songs by The Watersons, to hear that these traditional songs were spokes in the wheel of the year.

Absolutely. Do you know about the Aboriginal songlines in Australia?


They’re really extraordinary things. They’re songs and stories, and the indigenous people use them as maps and instructions on how to cross Australia; how to survive in the wilderness. I’m re-reading The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, this amazing book that I read when I was about 25 or 26. So, here’s a section where they’re talking about these songlines: “‘Yes’, said Mrs. Lacey, sighing with satisfaction. ‘The song and the land are one.'”

I read that when I was young and I was really taken with it. I probably took that idea in somewhere. Writers are terrible magpies. We haul up little ideas and they cook like a cauldron and then something spills out eventually.

I think it’s spot on, and I think it has relevance now, with so many people looking for a more organic, less digital way of life.

I agree with you. I think people have become dislocated from something very essential. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that recently.

I’ve been writing a lot about wassailing, so it has been at the forefront of my mind.

Oh, people are wassailing all over the place! That’s connecting songs to the land, through the trees. That’s in the second play I wrote, Comfort Me With Apples. It’s all about apple orchards, cider, and wassailing. That was back in 2005, I think.

Returning to your current play, obviously there’s a difficult theme at the centre of it all which could perhaps be summed up with the question, “What to do about Cecil?”

[Laughs] Yes. What to do about C. Sharp?

He is a really difficult historical figure, isn’t he? He has been accused of publishing some of the songs under his own name, and it has been said that he wouldn’t collect from people of colour. On the other hand, without him, we wouldn’t have many of the songs that we love so dearly.

I wouldn’t have been able to write the play without him. There was a double challenge. There were the points that you’ve just summed up perfectly, and there was the point about nationalism and how we express our love for our country without becoming nationalistic. And in the end it seemed that if I could succeed in showing a balanced view of Cecil Sharp, accepting the fact that yes he took and pinned down the songs, but he also saved them, then I could show a way of saying through my characters’ voices, yes, I do love my country, but it’s not straightforward.

It’s a really tough one, isn’t it? If you take the countries neighbouring England, each with their strong folk traditions and sense of identity, they don’t appear to have this difficulty.

No, and Sharp said that, too. It’s in the play. He said, “We English are very bad at saying how much we love our own country.” And, at the moment, we’re asking some very deep questions about what it is to be English, and what it is to have an identity within a multicultural country as well.

I recommend that you seek out the work of Angeline Morrison, who is using her music to look at the way in which the black experience in the UK seems to have been excluded from our singing tradition. She’s releasing an album called The Sorrow Songs which aims to right that wrong.

That’s really brilliant. I don’t know if you’ve seen the photographs from the stage version of FOLK. The two sisters are played by women of colour: Sasha Frost and Mariam Haque.

Yes, I did see that. I was going to ask about that.

Well, it’s a play, clearly, about identity and Englishness, and I wanted it to be relevant. There were some conversations around that, but if you’re putting on a play in London and you only have an all-white cast, that’s not reflecting London. So, it was quite a simple decision, actually. Amazingly, Mariam, who plays Louie, had been singing folk songs all the way through lockdown. She had been singing all these traditional folk songs and had become obsessed with folk singing, and then this play landed on her desk.

That’s extraordinary.

Isn’t it? You should interview them both. They’re really brilliant.

Sasha Frost as Lucy White, and Mariam Haque as Louie Hooper, in Nell Leyshon’s FOLK. Picture credit: Robert Day

I shall try to. In the meantime, back to Cecil Sharp.

Oh yes. “What to do about Cecil?” Well, I think we say he was a man of his time. My hypothesis is that he was 41, he was unbearably ambitious, he was so driven. He wanted to be a famous composer and it wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t have the talent for it. So, once he found folksong collecting, he put all of his drive and ambition into that. And he became very overbearing with it and became the very controlling expert.

When I first thought that that was the case, after reading extensively about him at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, I checked with Malcolm Taylor who used to be the librarian there. Malcolm said, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s about right.” So I kind of went with that.

My job as a writer is to try and understand what a character’s motivation is. So, my job didn’t feel like it was to really judge him. I think it would have been too simplistic. You could so easily bring someone down like that. You can just say, “Oh, yeah, he was a terrible man.” And the reason that we can’t is that we wouldn’t have all those songs.

Do you believe that that’s the case, that the songs would’ve been lost without him?

I do. They were gone from my village. The Industrial Revolution really finished in the 20th century, didn’t it? That was the tail end of it. The songs had gone. There were other collectors who collected songs, sure, but nobody else collected like he did. I think a lot of those songs would have gone. Correct me if you think I’m wrong.

I agree with you, to an extent. I have this romantic sense that traditional music and traditions will always find a way, but I doubt they would’ve found a way in such volume had it not been for Sharp and his contemporaries.

I think the trouble was that the world changed so fast. If the world hadn’t changed so quickly, maybe those songs would have stayed around a bit more.

I had a conversation with somebody recently who was of the opinion that Cecil Sharp House should change its name because Cecil Sharp ought to be cancelled. They felt that EFDSS should no longer be associated with what they believed were the unpleasant aspects of the man.

I didn’t come across anything damning enough to say that. I had a really interesting email from David Sutcliffe. He’s a historian who actually moved into the Reverend Charles Marson‘s old house in Hambridge. David wrote a book about Marson, and he did a huge amount of research. So, as part of my research, I read this book and I got in touch with him because originally Marson was a character in the play. (I’ve done so many different rewrites of it.) I got back in touch with him when I started working on the play again, and he had taken over the work of CJ Bearman, a defender of Sharp. Bearman did a big PhD on Sharp and actually proved that some of the theories put forward by Dave Harker [author of Fakesong, published in 1985, and vehement critic of Sharp] were too extreme. Bearman was trying to bring balance back. He died quite unexpectedly and David Sutcliffe took over his research. He’s writing a new biography of Cecil Sharp.

That sounds very interesting.

Now, Malcolm Taylor told me that he thinks it’s really good, and there’s some really good work in it. David has been an amazing person for me. He reads everything to make sure I haven’t made any terrible mistakes. He’s brilliant, actually, as was Malcolm. As I say, he sent me a really interesting email two days ago defending Sharp and saying he wasn’t quite as misogynist as people say, and he certainly wasn’t as much of a racist as people say. When his book comes out, David may actually be able to put some of that to bed. What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t find anything bad enough for him to be cancelled.

Our views on cultural appropriation have developed and changed. We really know, now, about who can tell which stories and when they should shut up and someone else should speak. There are a few people around who still haven’t got that, but a lot of people have understood that, I think.

The play is running at Hampstead Theatre until February 5th. Are there any plans for it afterwards?

Well, the reviews have been amazing, but it’s really not my decision. I just have to kind of wait and see. It’s very early days. The press night was two days ago, so we’re still just getting all the reviews through. Fingers crossed.

For more information on FOLK, head to hampsteadtheatre.com. To find out more about the playwright herself, head to nellleyshon.com.