'The Nation's Ukulele Orchestra'
BBC News, Radio 4, 23rd September 2014
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The Keeper

Cecil James Sharp (1859 - 1924) transcribed folk music, editing and publishing it. This ensured that traditional English music became part of the educational curriculum and kept what might otherwise have been lost. Sharp can thus be regarded as “The Keeper” of traditional music.

The title track on this album, “The Keeper”, tells the story of a male hunter trying to shoot a female deer. Without Sharp’s judicious editing of the lyrics’ sexual metaphor, publication would not have been possible at the time.

The songs on this album deal with universal life experiences, and are variously tender, touching, tragic or bleak. They concern love, work, abandonment, war, faith and death in stark simplicity.

The instrumental tracks are reminiscent of early classical music, and in these ukulele versions probably sound similar to consort versions of these pieces centuries ago.

In addition to collecting music in England, Sharp was invited to lecture in America on folk music. On these trips he also collected American folk songs. Many of these were variants of the ones he had discovered in England. The English songs had made the journey to America with the original settlers and then continued to develop in America. Much of jazz, pop, rock and country music grew from this material, such as “St James’ Infirmary” and “The House of the Rising Sun”.

The movement of pop music from one side of the Atlantic to the other is well known. One example derives from “Old Joe Clark” (track 11). British punk singer Ian Dury “borrowed” the melody for his 1977 hit song “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” from Ornette Coleman’s bass player (Charlie Haden), as featured on the 1960 classic “Ramblin’ ”, from the album “Change of the Century”. The Haden family had been a touring country music band in the US, and as a child, Charlie had played the song “Old Joe Clark”. In his free jazz bass solo, recorded with Coleman years later, Haden was quoting the tune from that very country song. The melody as later used by Ian Dury and the Blockheads can be heard in this ukulele version of the original song.

This album grew from a commission by Town Hall / Symphony Hall, Birmingham. The research for the project took place at Cecil Sharp House in London (the English Folk Dance and Song Society - EFDSS), with help from chief librarian, Malcolm Taylor, MBE. Musicians who kindly contributed opinions on the work in progress included Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, and Martin Carthy, himself a walking library of folk songs.

The term “Ukulele Orchestra” was invented in 1984 by this group, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. It has been much imitated, becoming a tradition in relation to the ukulele; a classic contemporary and popular format. Just as Sharp’s work ensured a wider popularity and impact of the folk songs, so the Orchestra’s influence has spread from Britain via international tours, CDs, DVDs and online videos across the world. The eclectic programming, from folk songs and classical music, to rock and pop, suggests a new kind of folk music with an aural tradition which is not merely national but reaches across the planet.


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The Keeper