How has Blaxhall village hall become a ‘must-play’ for Britain’s best folk acts?
- Credit: PAUL BLAKEMORE
Modest Blaxhall village hall is fast becoming a ‘must-play’ venue for the nation’s top folk acts. What makes it so special? Words: Lindsay Want - Photos: Paul Blakemore & Paul Penso
On the darkest, most overcast sort of night, it's amazing where the promise of seeing some of the country's foremost folk stars can take you.
Clip Snape's eerie common, brush past Tunstall Forest, edge along the Glemham estate or bounce down over Beversham Bridge.
Whichever way you go in search of the east Suffolk village of Blaxhall and its famed folk sessions, somewhere along the narrow, sandy lane, you'll question whether there is light at the end of the tree tunnel.
Its village 'hut' (hall) is purposefully poised at a junction maybe, but well hidden behind the highest hedges. Never has a brim-full little car park been such a welcome find.
But there's not a moment to waste wondering if it's the right one, or whether you're going to walk in on an outrageously popular Friday night whist-drive. With a bit of luck, there will be the chance of a drink before the stars come out to play.
Then beneath little more than a modicum of bunting, three of Britain's finest folk musicians - ex-Bellowhead fiddler, Sam Sweeney, concertina king, Rob Harbron and melodeon maestro, Andy Cutting - are deftly fine-tuning things as they chat away with inquisitive individuals who have discovered the Blaxhall Sessions' secret.
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For less than the price of a ticket to much grander venues, you can enjoy a relaxed and intimate evening with a top act like Leveret that's usually haring about on some major European tour, and join them down the pub for a drink, or perhaps even a tune, afterwards.
"It's such a wonderful opportunity," enthuses a smiley lady, making room for a little one in the back row. "Well, you've just got to do it. And you've got to want to be here. I mean it's in the middle of nowhere, isn't it?"
The uplighters on the bright wooden-panelled walls dim and the air in this warm and tiny Blaxhall bubble is quivering with friendly anticipation.
Then out spill the tunes. Twisting, turning, chasing across strings and buttons, their joyful notes dancing in and out of every gap in the bunting.
Somewhere in the room, a tapping foot joins in and soon becomes two. Yet here, an amateur musical addition such as this doesn't raise a scowl, but is tolerated with the same smile set to greet cheeky little tune endings or shared insights into the performers' intricate artistry.
Lyrical, sea-inspired phrases send fiddler and his fellows literally rising, falling and swaying with the motion of the melody. It's all round uplifting stuff.
As the tunes get pulled this way and that in a playful tug of war, the much-loved lads exchange knowing glances and boyish grins which crack and crescendo to a full-blown, infectious laugh.
The sense of achievement and togetherness is almost tangible. They are in good company.
And isn't that, along with a healthy helping of nostalgia and tradition, what the spirit of Blaxhall is all about?
"This place really reminds me of my teenage ceilidhs," shares Rob candidly from the stage in the humble hut, "only it hasn't got the sheet-steel roof and all the drips!"
Down the road, the Ship Inn witnessed a certain rite of passage too.
There, generations of local young men earned themselves acceptance and social standing by proving their worth as 'good company', able to engage in lively conversation, offer up a good song or tune for the entertainment of themselves and others.
Some even found their feet with the occasional stepdance.
During hard times some used their talents as performers to do greater good for the community, such as in the 1920s, when frozen sugar-beet fields put paid to local farm labourers' wages.
Teaming up as a concert party, they raised their own poor relief by touring local villages, a tradition which spawned the Blaxhall Rovers.
In the 1950s, the village became an historic beacon of folk culture when oral history pioneer, George Ewart Evans, recognised and recorded the intact nature of Blaxhall's old rural ways, putting its late mechanisation, and survival of bygone customs, down to its remote location.
In the `60s and `70s, song collectors followed in his wake. Then the old inn and the old boys rode the rough tides towards the millennium.
Finally, in 2007, current owner Terry Davey saved the sinking Ship, championing it as a special place, respecting its tradition of colourful characters, robust humour, music and song.
"The Blaxhall Sessions are a three-way deal," explains Blaxhall resident and FolkEast founder John Marshall-Potter.
"It's between us, the Ship and folk-programmer Alan Bearman. He has fond memories of listening to old Blaxhall singers like the Ling Family and Percy Webb and reckons it deepened his interest in traditional music.
"The thing about the Blaxhall Sessions is they don't just bring in the occasional top performer. They're a whole series of big names. That's how we differ from the fantastic local folk clubs, like the Everyman at Stratford St Andrew.
"The ticket price is different too, sure, but the low overheads and monies ploughed back in from the cash bar helps keep them affordable.
"The main aim of the sessions is to galvanise the village and make it come to life."
And so far, the great and growing names from the folk world, like Martin Simpson, The Wilson Family, the Melrose Quartet and Leveret, have drawn crowds to fill the venue (80-100 people) and at times continue the evening with some serious impromptu sing-a-longs in The Ship.
After season one, some celeb acts were clamouring to be put on the waiting list to perform.
So, how to align all this awesome, professional artistry with the amateur folk traditions noted for generations as Blaxhall's precious, unpretentious heartbeat?
"I think what we're doing here is providing a service," says John.
And perhaps by that he is reiterating the sentiment behind those early 1920s concert parties - it's only by reaching out and sharing, by creating a platform for engagement that you can really bring the benefits home.
Make a date at the Blaxhall Sessions
Info & booking: folkeast.co.uk
Folk at The Ship
Weekly - Blaxhall Folk Mondays 2.30pm
Alternate Thursdays - Open Mic Night 8.30pm
Monthly - third Wednesday - Traditional Folk Night 8.30pm
More event details, including Sunday Specials: blaxhallshipinn.co.uk
More folk info
What's On mardles.org
East Anglian Traditional Music eatmt.org.uk