“Authentic Magic”: Angela Carter’s Folksong and Music Session

Sunday 5 March

We are delighted to present a video recording of the ‘Angela Carter’s Folksong and Music Session’ which took place in March 2017 during the Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter Exhibition at the RWA Bristol (co-curated by Marie Mulvey-Roberts and Fiona Robinson).

Here, performing Angela’s songs are successors of that revival; the musicians playing on traditional acoustic instruments in the spirit of the Bristol folk club which Angela and Paul founded. Her interest in the creative potential of oral traditions grew alongside her expanding repertoire of song material.  Her ingenuity with the folk-tale may be traced back to this time in Bristol where she developed her understanding of traditional folksong through performance.

Angela Carter is best known as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, but she was also a singer and musician who played an important role in the national Folk Revival of the 1960s while living in Bristol. For the first time in fifty years, singers who knew Angela Carter performed songs sinister and comic, ribald and romantic to recreate a typical session of ‘Folksong and Ballad’, which took place once a fortnight at the Lansdown, Bristol. As her friend and fellow singer Chris Molan noted:

“Communal as it was, all of us who performed there knew it was Angela’s club!”

Angela’s curiosity in folk music was sparked in 1959 when accompanying her first husband, Paul Carter, a singer and sound-recordist for Topic Records, on his field-recording trips to singing pubs in Sussex. Recordings of authentic singing styles – then on the wane – were driving a 1960s folksong ‘revival’. These rare tapes, stored at their new home in Bristol, inspired Angela’s study of early folksong texts at Bristol University. In 1964 – the same year that she was writing her undergraduate dissertation on the etymology of the English folksong text ‘The Streams of Lovely Nancy’- Angela’s article ‘Now is The Time for Singing’ appeared in Bristol University magazine Nonesuch:

“It is difficult to sing without love and knowledge of the form… the revival is in such an infant form that it has produced only a handful of singers who have worked hard enough… to learn the authentic magic that transmutes old songs from books into songs freshly new-minted” (Angela Carter)

Produced by Mulvey-Roberts in collaboration with Christine Molan, this was an historic event which brought together musicians and singers who played with Angela Carter at the fortnightly ‘Folksong and Ballad Club’ above the Lansdown pub in Bristol in the 1960s. The session also included Polly Paulusma’s first performances of folk material that later went on to inform her Invisible Music album. Recreating a typical traditional music session, often on the instruments they were playing back then, the programme included ballads central to Angela’s studies at Bristol University, which she wrote about in the student magazine:

“Folksong has its own historicity, which is not necessarily that of the history books, having been composed for other purposes. Armies are enlarged or shrunk … all to suit the singer” “… the richness and allusiveness of imagery in folk poetry, which reaches on through singing almost on a subliminal level, means one’s appreciation grows with one’s knowledge …. One’s imagination, one’s ability to think in images oneself…” “One learns more about the importance of style from hearing Davey Stewart, the wild and passionate Scots tinker singer, than one ever will learn from looking at books…”(Angela Carter, ‘Now is the Time for Singing’, Nonesuch Magazine, University of Bristol, 1964)
Angela began to sing in 1964. Marie Mulvey-Roberts introduces the only known recordings of Angela Carter playing polka tunes on the English concertina and singing ‘The Flower of Sweet Strabane’, heard for the first time in over fifty years. Listening to her reed-like voice singing amongst artworks inspired by her writing is incredibly poignant. It is also wonderful to hear the memories of Angela Carter and the club, as well as the history of the ballads themselves. This includes Christine Molan describing Paul Carter’s archive and recollections of field recording jaunts by Tom Randall. 

The songs range from the jaunty and comic (such as ‘Fare Thee Well Cold Winter’ and ‘The Bonny Bunch of Roses’ sung by Danny and Rod Stradling) to the dark (such as ‘Fanny Blair’ sung by Rosie Upton, which touches on child-rape and ‘Lucy Wan’ sung by Polly Paulusma which features incest), both of which flavour Carter’s later writing. Highlights include two “Transvestite songs”, ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ sung by Dave Byrne and a haunting interpretation of ‘Jackie Monroe’ sung by Polly Paulusma, both acknowledged to be favourites of Angela Carter’s, with the theme of cross-dressing and transgender identities clearly informing her fiction, such as the androgyne and her niece Anna in the short story ‘Reflections’ collected in the Fireworks collection and of course The Passion of New Eve. Marianne McAleer sings ‘Reynardine’ and ‘The Maid on the Shore’, two beautiful ballads featuring “maidens” attempting to defend their virginity from “dastardly” men. Interspersed amongst the songs are instrumental tunes, a medley of polkas and waltzes, including ‘Golden Slippers’ and ‘The Briar Bush’. The session ends with a rousing rendition of ‘Kind Friends and Companions’ led by Marianne McAleer. Huge thank you to Christine Molan and all the singers and musicians for giving us such a unique insight into the ‘Folksong and Ballad Sessions’ and keeping the traditional alive.
IMAGE: © Christine Molan / Country dance tunes, Reg Hall and friends / Oil Painting/ 2012

Harry Langston – concertina, John Shaw – dulcimer, Geoff Woolfe – melodian, Dave Byrne – guitar, Brian Ainley – fiddle, Tom Randall – concertina

Rosie Upton, Danny Stradling, Rod Stradling, Marianne McAleer, John Shaw, Dave Byrne, Polly Paulusma, Geoff Woolfe

PDF of the programme

IMAGE: © Christine Molan / Country dance tunes, Reg Hall and friends / Oil Painting/ 2012