Ring the bells for The Imagined Village

The Imagined Village project grew out of a discussion prompted by the BBC Radio 3 documentary 'A Place Called England' which addressed the blind spot amongst many of the English concerning their own musical heritage.

The Imagined Village is also influenced by Georgina Boyes’ eponymous book that examined the pivotal impact the Edwardian song collectors, most notably Cecil Sharp, made on the development of an English folk music repertoire. Alongside some invaluable retrieval and archiving (which of course is well known to your readers) Sharp and certain of his colleagues also actively perpetuated the romantic notion of a “Merrie England”.

They extolled the virtues of a pure and untrammelled rustic life against the corrupting influence of mass industrialisation, Music Hall and other manifestations of urban popular culture. Often surrounded by controversy, and sometimes dogged in their orthodoxy they were the original folk revivalists whose work left an amazing legacy for future generations. As with most legacies, the treasures within are open to re-examination —and as society and music change the song may not always remain the same.

The English ‘folk’ were singing songs but the subject matter was as much about war, death, enchantment, betrayal, poverty, incest, and infanticide as it was about love, nature and the carefree life. By drawing into question the twin concepts of curatorial authority and authenticity and critically examining the whole idea of an English folk tradition The Imagined Village seemed like a perfect metaphor for a group of modern musicians to reassess what it is to be part of tradition now. In the early 21st Century there has been an astonishing re-surge of interest in folk music and this has coincided with an academic and populist re-interpretation of the nature of “Englishness”. Pundits ranging from Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton to Jeremy Paxman and Peter Ackroyd have all interrogated the issue, the latest manifestation of this postcolonial identity quest —some may say crisis— being Billy Bragg’s 2006 book “The Progressive Patriot”.

The Imagined Village perform John Barleycorn live in The Big Room at Real World Studios

Simon Emmerson had often found that the African and Asian musicians with whom he worked were interested in finding out what his own roots were. A move from London to Dorset in 2005 re-affirmed his interest in the English tradition— he had quickly formed a “village band” and researched local history and folklore. This led him to look deeper for the riches in his own soil, a process that began way back in post punk London when Martin Carthy’s concerts at Cecil Sharp House in Camden attracted an eclectic audience of avid fans including the younger Emmerson and members of the group Scritti Politti. Previously of course, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had been to England and collected tunes and lyrics from important second wave revivalists such as Carthy and Mike Waterson, picking the songs up and re-interpreting them as they trawled through the folk club boom days of the early 1960’s. Ironic, perhaps, that whilst many British musicians were embarking on a transatlantic love affair with the Blues our own tunes were being fully admired from across the pond.

"I started The Imagined Village project because I knew a lot of folk musicians who wanted to work with other English musicians. I was brought up musically as a punk, and there was also the London sound system culture I used to go to as a lad. You had the Wild Bunch in Bristol, there's a dubby "Bristol Sound" and here is a "Birmingham Sound" —two tone and heavy metal. This was very regional music. Most English musicians know more about regional music than they do about folk music. Folk music is also the last outpost of "world music" and I find that idea kind of intriguing." Simon Emmerson

Folk music is usually referred to as the people’s music but is often perceived to belong to some people more than others. The Imagined Village takes up the “songbook” and opens it wider than before, inviting everyone to accept the music as his or hers. Alongside Sheila Chandra and Benjamin Zephaniah appear Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Martin and Eliza Carthy whilst Johnny Kalsi’s Dhol drums and Shema Mukherjee’s Sitar accompany Chris Wood and the Copper Family. Tunng, meanwhile, take up the baton for a new generation with “Death and The Maiden” a cautionary tale of how best to avoid the attentions of the Grim Reaper.

Passing on the baton, that essential and generous part of the traditional music scene, did not always confine itself to the folk world. British group Traffic heard the song “John Barleycorn” from Hull singer Mike Waterson. The song was carried out to a rock and pop audience on the band’s classic “John Barleycorn Must Die” LP released in 1969, which is where Paul Weller picked up on it. The latest recorded version is heard here on The Imagined Village CD.

Chris Wood on stage with The Imagined Village, WOMAD UK 2007. Photo credit: York Tillyer.

John Copper, scion of the famous Sussex singing family whose ancestors had lovingly collected and transcribed the songs of their Rottingdean farming community for many generations, bemoans the march of “Ouses, ouses, ouses” across the beautiful landscape of the South Downs. The past, though, echoes in the present as the great grandsons and daughters of the clan nurture the canon by singing it live as The Young Coppers. A love of landscape is also redolent in Emmerson’s original track “Pilsden Pen” —named after a Dorsetshire Iron Age Settlement— its lush orchestration drawing on the pastoral romanticism of Ralph Vaughan Williams himself a major participant in the song-collecting spree at the beginning of the 20th Century.

It was Martin Carthy who suggested to Simon that he seek out the original version of Tam Lyn and invite Benjamin Zephaniah to re-tell it. Simon returned to Cecil Sharp House, to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library no less, with Tim Whelan from Transglobal Underground meeting librarian Malcolm Taylor who lent his support and resources to the task. Tam Lyn is an epic early 15-century poem telling the tale of a feisty young woman having an affair and falling pregnant with a cursed and enchanted noble man she has met in the forest, then saving his soul from the devil though the power of love. Benjamin sets the story in the urban jungle of London club land where the timeless power of the yarn still resonates. The resulting musical style clash is English Dub Poetry meets English Roots Storytelling and in many ways encapsulates what the whole project is about:

"I actually think that most stories have been told, we've just got to find new ways of re-telling them. If I was in Jamaica I would have written a slightly different version. If I was living in Bosnia I would have written a different version. But I do think it is a metaphor for what is happening now. We have to retell stories and make them relevant to people today." Benjamin Zephaniah

Tim Whelan also had a favourite song and built up a new arrangement of it from a Martin Carthy guitar line, Chris Wood’s plaintive plea in “Cold, Hailey, Rainy Night” (first published 200 years ago) is framed by dub soundscapes and bhangra beats to give it a proper Anglo-Bollywood feel. Billy Bragg, meanwhile, jumped on the merry go round by re-telling and updating the Copper Family favourite “Hard Times Of Old England” to include Tony Blair (remember him?), the Countryside Alliance and Tescos.

The Imagined Village is a huge construction that has been building for well over the last five years, it has been a labour of love and discovery built out of a deep respect for the tradition and a wish for its continuing future. Simon Emmerson and friends have brought together an album and live show, which had an acclaimed world premiere at the WOMAD Festival this summer, appearing like Brigadoon (I know that’s in Scotland) for one night only —but to return.

The concert show presents a stellar cast of village people including Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Sheila Chandra and Chris Wood backed by a band featuring Simon Emmerson, Johnny Kalsi, Mass, Francis Hylton, Andy Gangadeen, Shema Mukherjee and Barney Morse Brown. Benjamin Zephaniah and John Copper will appear on screen. The Glow Worms and Young Coppers will accompany on some of the dates.

"The only harm you can do to traditional music is not to play it or sing it." Martin Carthy

Featured release

  • The Imagined Village

    The Imagined Village

    Released 14 October 2007

    Gathering together an array of brilliant and challenging voices, and setting them in a musical framework that honours the past while updating it with breathtaking confidence, The Imagined Village is arguably the most ambitious re-invention of the English folk tradition since Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief.

By Alan James

Originally published in 2007.

Main image: The Imagined Village at Real World Studios. Photo credit: York Tillyer.

Published on Sun, 11 November 07

Further reading

Adrian Sherwood presents Dub No Frontiers album & debuts ‘Meri Awaaz Suno (Hear My Voice)’ by Rita Morar

Dub No Frontiers is inspired by and features women vocalists Adrian Sherwood, the On-U Sound produce...

New reissue series ‘Africa Sessions at Real World’ out this June

Celebrating Africa Day 2022, we're pleased to announce a reissue series focusing on African artists.

Track of the day: ‘Gnawa Beat (Bayaka Remix)’ by Bab L’ Bluz

A new remix of 'Gnawa Beat' by Italian DJs and producers Bayaka.

Africa comes to Real World: revisiting albums by six legendary artists

Jane Cornwell explores our new reissue series 'Africa Sessions at Real World'.