Unicorn is a quarterly magazine covering all things folk related across Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire. The October 2016 edition includes an interview with Jon Bickley where he talks about reinterpretations and updates of traditional folk songs.
Jon Bickley is a folk singer and songwriter based in Chesham, Bucks. He has nine albums on iTunes, some are solo, other recordings are with his band Pagan Harvest or collaborations with Only Human and The Beekeeper. I saw him play Chesham Folk Club recently and while he was unwinding afterwards I took the opportunity to have a chat.
I was particularly interested in his re-telling of stories from traditional folk songs. On the Pagan Harvest album I was intrigued by his song ‘Rebecca Falls’ that seemed to be about a police investigation into a missing persons’ case. There is a woman on the moors and a suspect who might be a fox. This had a familiar resonance and I wondered about the inspiration.
It’s actually based on Reynardine which was very popular from the early sixties. Anne Briggs did a version, so did Bert Jansch and Fairport did their iconic version on Liege and Leaf. One of the great things about our folk songs is that they’re a bit like a poor man’s Shakespeare in that they can be reinterpreted for each generation.
I began to think about how Reynardine could be interpreted in 2016. We are constantly being shown detective stories on TV so I wondered what a policeman would make of the story if he was dropped in the middle of it. The first thing to emerge to me was that the original is full of mystery. Is the suspect really a fox? Or does he just appear in that form to the woman? Does he cross over from the spirit world? Does he come from the same place as Titania and Oberon? Or the same place as Queen Mab? Has the missing woman gone to that kingdom?
Traditional songs are often vivid but vague, this encourages alternative interpretations or embellishment so the songs endure and inspire. There are many recurrent themes.
There are songs where a young couple have to separate so the boy can go and seek his fortune elsewhere while the girl must remain behind and await his return. They often exchange a token as a remembrance. In 2016 you could have a song about the socio-economic circumstances of the couple. He could be an economic migrant because there isn’t the opportunity to earn enough at home. Or maybe the girl could go and earn the money?
I think the audience’s sympathies are with the girl left behind, presumably in the poverty that drove them to this decision. I had been singing the traditional song ‘John Riley’ for some time. It’s about a faithful wife who’s waited 7 years for the return of her betrothed. When I was separated from my then girlfriend I wrote ‘The Other Half of the Moon’ which imagines a sailor on deck at night pining for his beloved. The first line of the song sets the scene, ‘The half-moon in the winter sky is like a token given to a husband far away at sea.’ I wanted to look at it from the guy’s point of view because sometimes we find separation difficult to deal with, we feel lonely, we’re human too!
We ran out of time on the day but in a subsequent conversation Jon talked about another of his re-writes. An update of Black Jack Davey has the well-bred lady of the manor and the handsome gypsy replaced by a couple of burglars and a Duchess in modern day London. The Duchess, who has just stepped naked from the shower, is ‘bored of the Duke’ and begs the villains to take her away and she’ll show them ‘all the wealthy house from Lambeth to Bow.’ The new angle is of course the posh girl’s frisson of excitement at the prospect of joining the criminal fraternity!
Traditional folk songs endure because they tell dramatic stories that can be relevant in any era. If you want to hear Jon’s versions and re-interpretations of traditional folk songs, or hear his original songs of love and protest then book him for your folk club or download his albums from iTunes. He can also be hired to run a song writing workshop for your club or festival.
Rebecca Falls https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7KsGTgD0MU
Rebecca Falls – The Forensics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwKN_jPvfoA&list=PLyk0u1VG010Pz9FWyA5vJlU_mixLFMo-V
Reynardine (Jon’s version) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41UXy1kG_Y4
Jon’s YouTube Channel https://plus.google.com/105911460179471363786/videos
Other Half of the Moon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=km3Ab4qJ7z4