A Prior Engagement

As far as villages go, Fairmile in East Devon is fairly nondescript. But its modesty, tucked away by the side of the A30, belies its recent past. Here, in the mid 90s, I interviewed a young man camping with his mates in a field. They’d vowed to stop the road being widened, and were among the first of the modern age “Eco warriors”.

I politely listened to what this bloke had to say, then – not quite knowing where it would go – returned to the office and told my boss I’d got a good interview, but there might be a problem with identification. This guy called himself Swampy. We couldn’t possibly use that on air. Could we?

For the next few weeks, Swampy was rarely out of the headlines. Digging tunnels, disrupting construction and generally becoming a folk hero. Which is somewhat ironic, because if his campaign had succeeded, it would have taken a damn sight longer to get to Fairmile this weekend to see some genuine heroes of folk music.

Beautiful Days isn’t a folk festival as such. Nor is it a pop, rock, jazz or punk festival. But you can find all of these genres and much more, thanks to this annual event masterminded by The Levellers.

Regular visitors to the blog might remember that, but I’ve been persuaded by my brother once again to slum it out in a tent in the name of art. And I’m not disappointed.

Big - in Devon : Land of the Giants
Big – in Devon : Land of the Giants

Plymouth based Land of the Giants are among the early acts on the main stage. And they’ve earned their place here, having already played Glastonbury as well as a host of smaller gigs across the region. They have an infectious, raucous and often smutty sound (turn the subtitles off if you have young children) – but are just what’s required to get the crowd in full party mode. And – just to show their rebellious side, SOME OF THEM TAKE THEIR SHIRTS OFF. Rock and roll.
As nice as all this to look at, my real interest here is the second stage, housed inside the big top. To say that Courtney Pine “plays a bit of jazz” would be an understatement, though when I mention his name to my brother, I get a blank look. Followed by “is Courtney a man or a woman?”
I’m too embarrassed to stand with him during the gig, which is just as well as he hates jazz. Courtney and his band get the crowd into a real frenzy, with a set based on a calypso carnival theme, complete with brilliant steel drums. The audience isn’t disappointed. But in a twist of fate they will be later.

My brother’s knowledge of folk is almost as shameful as his take on jazz. “So, Steeleye Span – did they sing something about a hat?”
Maddy Prior and her gang started doing this in 1969. Their combination of prog-rock inspired mixes and traditional folk still baffles many people today. And, I’ll come clean, I can’t say I’d know much of their stuff beyond Guadete and All Around My Hat. Sadly, there’s no time for either of these as the Spans’ set is cut short. Evidently, Courtney Pine went on for too long. Backstage, Maddy is visibly fuming. But despite being in a field miles from any significant population! the timetable must be adhered to.

And then, Bellowhead happens.
“Happens” is probably the best description I can manage. There are eleven members of the band. Fiddles, guitars, mandolins, whistles, cowbells and just about anything brassy and loud mix to form a brilliant, tent filling sound. This is how folk should be – traditional, accessible and vibrant. By close of play, everyone’s very happy. And mostly drunk. And ready for bed.
If only I didn’t have to sleep in a tent.

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