Meet the London group reclaiming the radicalism of traditional folk
The Prospect Of Whitby pub on the banks of the Thames was once known as the Devil’s Tavern, such was its reputation as a meeting place for smugglers and cutthroats. A replica gallows and noose hangs by the window (overlooking a landscape once sketched by J. M. W. Turner), commemorating the custom of the legendarily ruthless ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries, in the 17th century; pirates he condemned would be executed nearby at Execution Dock. The pub has been burnt down and rebuilt more than once since its founding in 1520, but the original flagstone floor survives, feeling like a paper-thin barrier between present and past.
Shovel Dance Collective’s cellist, guitarist and cittern player Daniel Evans has spent the hours before his bandmates’ arrival at the pub mudlarking. He places the handful of clay pipes he found washed up on the shore in the centre of the table as we speak – a particularly good haul.
It’s a fitting place to meet the nine-piece folk band, for whom the links between past and present are of utmost importance. They play traditional folk songs, but not as if they’re museum pieces. They take the emotion or politic at the core of a song and present it as still relevant. They do not base their arrangements on any previous recordings, and performances are dramatic and intense, more indebted to avant-garde drone or noise music than Fairport Convention or Pentangle.
“It’s not attempting to replicate something,” says trombonist Tom Hardwick-Allan. “If you did that, you’d just end up with some half-baked revival thing.” As harpist Fidelma Hanrahan explains, the written words “are like our raw materials. In trad music there’s always been people trying to be weird, to entertain or surprise people with the little ornamentation you’ll use.”
Some of Shovel Dance Collective had grown up with an interest in folk. A staunch Marxist, singer Mataio Austin Dean was immersed in the Guyanese stories and songs of his grandfather from a young age and later the role of folk songs in workers’ movements; Hanrahan grew up playing trad in her native Ireland, the rural village of her youth having had a particularly strong musical tradition; flautist Alex McKenzie had played in a church folk band growing up. Some came to it a bit later, like Hardwick-Allan, who played in brass bands in his adolescence before a communist friend showed him folk’s more radical possibilities, or violinist Oliver Hamilton, who was classically trained and encountered American folk traditions along the way. Others, however, had roots elsewhere. Jacken Elswyth was playing an experimental set at the outsider festival Supernormal when she first met members of the group; her interest in the banjo was primarily due to its capacity for droning. It was not until drummer Joshua Barfoot acquired a bodhrán and a hammered dulcimer as an adult that he started to explore how percussion could relate to folk, and Evans and organ player Nick Granata played in an indie band at college together.
The diversity of their musical upbringings is one of their greatest strengths. “It’s really exciting when you’ve got people bringing their own rich and interesting musical past to the arrangements,” says Hamilton. “It’s not that I’m conscious of it, thinking ‘Well, that’s because of your drone background!’, but it’s certainly exciting.” It makes for ambitious and multifaceted instrumentation, and an inclination to experiment. “We have things on our cards that wouldn’t necessarily be the cards of Pentangle or something.”
Even those who grew up on folk had long since branched out before Shovel Dance – Hanrahan was playing in indie bands; McKenzie, Barfoot and Hardwick-Allan were all in the chaotic improvisational avant-rock band Gentle Stranger. All of them express variations on the phrase that it was Shovel Dance that ‘found them’, rather than any concerted effort at assembly. Beginning as casual jams between Evans, Barfoot and McKenzie, it evolved like an organic entity, growing over the course of casual improvisational gigs under placeholder names.
Over time the collective picked up one member after another, until the band as it stands today was solidified in dramatic fashion – baptised by torrential rain that hit during a Christmas show in 2019 at the Lewisham Arthouse. The gig, their first as a nine-piece, was a few days after the general election that had seen Jeremy Corbyn – for whom many of them had canvassed – defeated in a landslide by Boris Johnson, and emotions were already running high. A smoke alarm had been set off by someone vaping in the bathroom, prompting an a capella set to the audience left waiting outside in the rain. Then, they were struck by a flash flood. With their harps and hammered dulcimers hauled above their heads, they led an exodus of fifty people through knee-high water back to McKenzie’s house to finish off the show.
Coincidentally, their forthcoming release will be an EP of folk songs unified by themes of water – as if the flood has been following them ever since. It’s made up of medleys recorded in a series of different locations across London and beyond, from a ferry from London Bridge to the water that runs through tunnels under Elverson Road DLR station.
“A lot of folk songs are about going out to sea, going out to war,” Barfoot says. “And then there’s the Thames, an ever-present symbol.”
“So many water songs are about ghosts,” adds Evans, citing ‘The Grey Cock’, about a dead person returning to visit their love who must traverse a Thames engulfed in flames. The EP, says Hardwick-Allan, is “about how to dwell with the dead in a way that doesn’t relegate them to history. It’s closer to the dead; the membrane feels much thinner. There’s a sense that you can travel right into it, and right back again.”
For Shovel Dance, none of whom were raised in London but all of whom gravitated towards the capital in adulthood, the Thames is of particular importance.
“It’s ancient and also always changing,” says Barfoot, which fits neatly with their view of folk music. Like an artery through the city, its water brings prosperity, labour, life and death. “We’re not just singing about the nice stream that goes round the back of your cottage. It’s a river that’s always worked. We’re singing about the big evil sea, people lamenting death and the hardships of work.” He gestures to the windows of the Prospect Of Whitby, toward the shells of former industry that surround us. “There’s a presence of working-class culture in the docklands that often just isn’t there anymore.”
That Shovel Dance Collective look beyond the pastoral is of crucial importance. The ‘shovel’ in their name is designed to recall their music’s inherent ties to work, and ‘dance’ to the release that workers found in music and celebration. The way folk music has always been tied to labour is the kind of thing often overlooked by lesser groups more concerned with conjuring a simple air of bucolic prettiness, and by embracing it Shovel Dance’s performances bristle with an extra depth.
There has always been a transgressive potential when it comes to folk music, a platform for those so often written out of history to record their stories. For Dean, for example, “I’m really interested in the English folk song as a way of accessing black history in England.” His father’s side can be traced back through generations of Dorset farmers, whereas on his Guyanese mother’s side, when it comes to official records, “it’s slavery, then nothing. You might have the odd bit of record about people as property, but you don’t know what their names were, or where they were born. Oral history is really important because it’s compensating for the lack of any other kind of history. It’s an inherent response to grief.”
The way in which the British Empire colonised the world, attempting to repress and subsume other cultures in order to impose its own identity, saw English folk song become diluted, Dean argues, whereas Celtic traditions were strengthened in the act of resisting those colonisers. Hanrahan says she “took it for granted” that there was so much trad music around her growing up in rural Ireland. “I kind of forgot that there would be a trad tradition here as well!” Reviving English songs as the songs of ordinary people, rather than of jingoism, Dean says, is therefore an act of decolonisation. “A way of taking apart this imperialist thing and thinking about what was there before,” he says. “And also looking at the forms of blackness and brownness in English folk song.” Sea shanties, for example, which are commonly held to have originated mainly from Black sailors in the 18th century, “are a form of Black music, but also the kind of thing that Cecil Sharp or Ewan MacColl would call ‘English’ music.”
The same can be said of queer narratives. In folk music there has long been tradition of men singing from the perspective of women and vice versa, an inherent subversiveness that Shovel Dance are happy to pick up. In the songs’ words too, they seek signs of queerness. Whether or not the original authors were queer themselves is not that important, argues Granata, “because we know that there were queer people. The thing I like about folk song is that really, perhaps it’s more accurate to make it up.”
When queer figures in folk songs are presented as figures of ridicule, the act of Shovel Dance – some of whom are LGBTQIA+ – singing those songs can be an act of reclamation. Picking and choosing, and filtering these ancient songs through your own lived experience, is what folk music essentially is, McKenzie points out. “We’re reading it through our own lens. Authenticity is essentially impossible anyway.” As Dean surmises, “History is made up anyway by the ruling class. So why not make up history in response?”
On first glance, there’s a paradox inherent in Shovel Dance’s work – taking the oldest and most traditional music, playing it authentically, but in doing so presenting music that is absolutely progressive and forward-thinking. Yet as Dean argues, “I just don’t think there’s a conflict between progressive and traditional. There are forms of class solidarity and lost liberties that are written into folk music, songs of the commons and songs of festivals that were part of a bigger culture of communality and solidarity that have been fractured by capitalism.”
Experimental instrumentation is nothing new either. “When someone learns a song they become part of it,” says Elswyth. “They might make weird accidents when they learn that then become part of the song, things that are unmusical that become incorporated by the tradition.” Adds Hanrahan, “these songs and tunes are raw materials, there’s a lot of freedom within that. People are always trying to be weird, or entertain or surprise with the ornamentation they use.”
Looking at folk tradition as a linear narrative – a song passed down a generation at a time – misses the point. “We’re trying to preserve folk music, but we’re also thinking about it laterally,” says Evans. “We’re going to the core of the songs, finding the essence of them, and then pushing that as far as it’ll go,” adds Hardwick-Allan. “It means that, somehow, we’re in communion directly with people stretching back a long time. That’s not linear; it’s circular.”
It is a communion that, in keeping with the group’s political principals, is made open to all. There is no fixed hierarchy to the band. “It’s important that it’s always horizontal,” says Hamilton. Wherever possible, they remove the barriers between the songs and a listener – for whom inherent knowledge of folk tradition isn’t a given. Performing live, they’re theatrical and intense in a way that transcends the nature of the music they’re playing. They’ll provide a booklet for everyone in the crowd, featuring lyrics and contextual information that provides an air of inclusivity.
“Everyone in the band is keen for it to be generous,” says Granata. They refer to the booklets as an ‘order of service’, which is fitting, Dean says. “Because it references this feeling of a congregation. We’re bringing in the audience to be a part of this conversation.”
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