Tim Lane’s New Songs From the Lockdown or What do Robert Kett, Albion Fairs, The Sherringham Mermaid and Henry Blogg Have in Common?
I’ve made a new album! I don’t think anyone is going to forget this year but one of the few upsides for me was that, during the first lockdown I had time to not only sit down and write some new songs but also to take the time to record them. This is the material that forms the backbone of this latest album “As Sure as the Sun Rises in the East”, a collection of songs about, or at least connected to my home county of Norfolk.
If have read some of my previous blogs you will be aware that this is not a recently acquired obsession. The idea to make an album entitled “As Sure as the Sun Rises in the East” is one I had a few years ago, intending at the time to make it using the sort of “folk orchestra” setup I did for Crude Apache’s production of Peter Bellamy’s ballad opera “The Transports” back in 2013. This never got beyond a handful of demos but did, indirectly, lead to the formation of The Punch House Band for whom most of these songs were composed. I hope at least some of them will go in the band’s set when we’re finally allowed to play again. In the PHB we consider it a central part of our mission statement to write and perform songs with a local East Anglian resonance, (alongside the dark gothic folk stuff, the odd comic song and a few folk standards), so naturally I was going to write with this in mind. What follows is a rundown of the songs and some explanations regarding where they came from.
If you’re going to take your inspiration from local stories and you live in Norfolk, you are inevitably going to consider Robert Kett and the 1549 rebellion as subject matter at some point. In case you don’t know, Kett led a peasants revolt sparked, among many other things, by land enclosures. In the summer of 1549 some 16000 rebels stormed Norwich, set up camp on Mousehold Heath, defeated a royal army and were eventually defeated on the 27th of August at the battle of Dussindale. Kett was captured and later hanged for treason from the walls of Norwich Castle.
There are many written accounts of this story but one particularly fired up my interest and that was C. J. Sansom’s historical crime novel “Tombland”. The book’s plot is intricately woven into the events of that summer and the rebellion is brought to vivid life in a way I had not come across before. Sansom’s historical notes for the novel are in fact a fascinating essay on the subject, which is worth a read on it’s own, providing as it does a pithy explanation of the event, it’s context and its legacy. It was no great artistic leap to see connections between then and now, particularly the often questionable actions of the tory members of Norfolk County Council, many of whom hold similar “landed gentry” status. This provided the hook I needed to write “Rebel Bones”.
A Bough of Mistletoe
There’s a highly entertaining podcast called Weird Norfolk (it’s also a facebook page, a newspaper column and probably a weird cult somewhere) and they ran a piece about the well-known folktale “The Mistletoe Bride”. The Norfolk connection was that one of the many great houses laying claim to the story is Brockdish Hall near Diss. That was enough for me to set about making it into a song. I’m not the first and I very much doubt I’ll be the last. Interestingly, the first time I came across the story was in Terry Pratchett’s “Lords and Ladies” where it’s mentioned in passing in a conversation between nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick.
Fish Out of Water
This song is also based on a Norfolk folktale, namely that of the Sheringham Mermaid. In All Saints Church, Upper Sheringham, there is a mermaid carved into the end of the 15th century pew nearest the north door. The story goes that the mermaid was swimming around off the coast at Sheringham when she heard the sound of beautiful singing coming from the church. She was so entranced by this music that, despite the fact that she was ill-equipped for any kind of land-based cross country ramble, she hauled herself up to the church and banged on the door. The church beadle opened the door and when she asked to come in he turned her away because mermaids weren’t welcome in this particular establishment. Cleverly she waited until he went back in and then found a way into the church anyway and sat at the back listening to the music. And there she remains to this day.
A Very Fine Pie
There are two songs on this album with no connection whatsoever to East Anglia other than the fact that they were composed by me. I was idly browsing the internet and came across a site which collected folk stories from all over the world. The story in this song is just one scene from a Hansel and Gretel type story the further details of which I’ve completely forgotten. The scene which inspired this track was just one part of a longer tale all of which would make the most hard-hearted reader wince. I like a bit of dark comedy especially when it has a culinary setting, and even more so when it turns the “Wicked Stepmother” stereotype on its head.
Pull Boys! Pull!
The list of great East Anglians is extensive; Boudicca, Nelson, Kett, Cromwell (a bit controversial), Tom Paine, Edith Cavell, Benjamin Britten, Stephen Hawking, Allan Smethurst and many more but to my mind the strongest candidate for the title of Greatest East Anglian Ever must be Henry Blogg. Known as the “greatest of the lifeboatmen” Blogg, a crab fisherman from Cromer, was coxswain of the Cromer lifeboat from 1909 until 1947. He was much decorated for his services as a lifeboatman having led a number of legendary rescues over the course of his career and to my shame I’d never heard of him until a few years ago. I’m certainly not the first to write a song on the subject but I wanted to do it anyway. I tried and failed a quite a few times, the problem being that despite him being a quiet and retiring character, he did SO MUCH! In the end I decided to write about just one of his great rescues, namely the Pyrin and the Fernabo in january 1917. Google “Henry Blogg, Cromer” and you’ll find any amount of information about this extraordinary man, all of it facinating. When you’ve done that, and when conditions allow, visit the Henry Blogg Museum in Cromer; you won’t regret it!
As Sure as the Sun Rises in the East
This is the oldest song on the album. I wrote it when I had the original idea for the album a few years ago and, looking back, I think I was trying to write an exile-type folk song as a way of talking about how I feel about my home. When I wrote it I had recently left The Rum Brothers, a fine country and Irish band who worked a lot all over the eastern region playing a mixture of traditional Irish music, country, bluegrass and folk to (generally) very appreciative audiences. I left because my mental health was a bit here and there at the time but since then, particularly after getting involved in producing a version of Peter Bellamy’s ballad opera “The Transports”, I’ve found myself thinking that perhaps I might try playing and writing songs that link more closely to my own geographical location. This song is one of my first attempts at writing with this in mind.
Another much more recent piece of East Anglian history is the Albion Fairs. This extraordinary counter-culture movement had its heyday in the nineteen seventies and eighties at various sites in Norfolk and Suffolk. The website broadlandmemories.co.uk describes them thus:
The memories have become a bit hazy over the years, but the best way I can describe these events is to liken them to sort of mini Glastonbury festival where an eclectic mix of hippies, bikers, punks and the general public gathered to live an “alternative” lifestyle for the weekend. Camping facilities were always somewhat basic (ask anyone who attended an Albion Fair about the infamous “long drop” toilets!), the music was sometimes dodgy, there were often far more naked people than a 15/16 year old girl really wanted to encounter at the water standpipes in the morning, but the real ale was always plentiful and in an era when Mrs Thatcher was teaching us all to think of “me, me, me” and where riots had become a common occurrence in the major cities, there was something quite special in being part of several thousand people gathering together in our little corner of rural England to live for a weekend in peace, love and harmony …… yeah man!
I only ever went to one but in various ways my own personal history is tied up with “The Fairs” as they’re known round here. No Name Community Arts , the company which did so much to shape my career and how I think about art and politics started out performing at them, my friend Bruce Lacey was a major part of the movement and many, many friends still go a bit dewy-eyed when you ask them what they were like. This song was inspired by watching “The Last Barsham Faire” from the East Anglian Film Archive.
Deep Lane is a farm track in Wymondham, the town where I grew up and lived for many years. As far as I know there’s nothing actually uncanny or eldritch about it but I wanted to write a song with that kind of dark, gothic folk feel that is superficially light but has sinister undercurrents. I chose Deep Lane as the location because when my family first moved to Wymondham in 1970 one of the first school trips I went on was a class nature ramble down this track which happened to be near the school. For some reason it established the place in my imagination as somewhere a bit strange and otherworldly. God knows why; perhaps it was the move from a comparatively built up town in Hertfordshire to what was (then at least) deepest rural Norfolk. Who knows? The other thing this song represents is my deep love of Led Zeppelin and in this case their acoustic, folky stuff. The guitar part came from messing about with the open tuning Jimmy Page uses on The Rain Song.
Time Stay Your Hand
This is the other not-from-round-here song. It’s kind of self-explanatory; I just wanted to capture that feeling you get when you’re experiencing something so good you don’t want it to end.
The Spark That Lights the Fire
Sometimes songs take on a life of their own once you’ve started writing. This began as a straight-forward love song but insisted on becoming something else as well, a companion piece to “As Sure As The Sun…” Insofar as I’m any judge of these things I consider this to be one of the best songs I’ve ever written, particularly the lyrics. I actually wrote it a few years ago and it sat around doing nothing for quite a while. It found its place in the world when back in 2019 my good buddies Panda Monium and Jo Edye and I had to extend a Crude Apache play called “At the Turning of the Tide” into a full length piece and it became clear that a big closing number was called for at which point “Spark” put up it’s hand and stepped forward.