Folk music goes hand in hand with beards and woolly jumpers doesn’t it? Not in Stocksfield where a group of young musicians are keeping the tradition alive.
DID you know that folk tunes composed by shepherds tending their flocks on windswept Northumbrian fells are today played by musicians thousands of miles away across the Atlantic in America? It’s one of those facts that emerges when you delve into the history of folk music over the ages.
It’s a fascinating journey across villages, towns, countries and continents and today the story continues to evolve as a new generation of folk musicians take to the stage to perform ancient tunes, their way. Take the irrepressible Stocksfield Stompers. Joyful, exuberant and very, very loud, the Stompers brings together children of all ages and all abilities with one main thing in common – a passion for making music.
The group’s enthusiasm and energy blew the judges away at the Morpeth Gathering where the members competed against older and much more experienced musicians to win Folk Band of the Year. This dedicated group is doing its bit to keep the vibrant Northumbrian folk tradition alive with an irresistible repertoire of old and new tunes to captivate their growing army of fans.
Nine-year-old Abigail Rees is the group’s only accordionist. A natural extrovert, she saw the Stompers perform and vowed to join them as soon as she could. “It just looked like they were having so much fun,” she said. “I couldn’t play an instrument, but decided there and then to learn.”
Abigail could have gone down the slightly easier route of the penny whistle, but decided the accordion was the instrument for her, following in the footsteps of her inspirational great uncle Norman Evans. Now in his late 60s, Norman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 16 and taught himself the accordion as a much-needed distraction from his illness. Within months, music had become his passion and inspiration and, over the years, his busking has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity, earning him a coveted MBE.
He gave Abigail his first accordion, the one that he had when he was a boy. “You can make so many different noises with an accordion,” she said. “You can make it sound sad with long drawn out quiet notes. And you can make it sound happy with lots of bouncing chords which just makes people want to dance. You can also make it sound like a fog horn.”
Abigail now practises every day and played her first duet, with her violin teacher Rhiannon Ribb – who’s only 12 years old – at this year’s Hexham Gathering. Fellow Stomper Rhiannon, lives just four doors down from Abigail in Stocksfield and the pair have been known to practise in their own gardens, their music floating over hedges and fences.
Some of the tunes played by the Stompers may be hundreds of years old but they sound as fresh and vibrant today as ever. Other melodies have been composed by talented members of the Stompers, keen to share their music in true folk tradition.
“I played music before I could read it. When you are little you want to make a good noise quickly, without too much of the theory and hard work.”
One tune, entitled The Red Kite, is the work of teenage flautist Bronwen Davies-Jones and her father Gareth, who plays gigs around the country. Inspired by the beautiful bird of prey, the new tune features on Gareth’s latest album. In the meantime Bronwen and brother Jamie are keen to teach it to their fellow Stompers.
“Dad and I wrote The Red Kite at a festival in Keswick,” said Bronwen. “It didn’t take us long.” Another favourite in the Davies-Jones household near Wylam is Inishkeel, inspired by family holidays on the tiny island in Donegal.
Bronwen joined the Stompers when she was 10 and says that, without them, she wouldn’t be able to pick up tunes so quickly. “I played music before I could read it,” she said. “When you are little you want to make a good noise quickly, without too much of the theory and hard work. And playing in a band gives you a good ear.
“I’m lucky because music has always been a part of our family life. We take our instruments on holiday and have jamming sessions, playing old and new tunes. Playing in a group is a great way to learn.”
Folk musician Carly Blain, from Kelso, set up the Stompers in the third year of her folk and traditional music course at Newcastle University, never dreaming that one day it would be winning awards. “It started off with two families really,” she said. “Now there are 18 regulars and new members joining all the time.
“We welcome everyone, all ages, all abilities. The new starters play alongside some of the more experienced students and there’s no pressure to get it right all of the time. We’re very relaxed here. It’s all about getting together and having fun.”
Ovingham Middle School pupils Nina Daltry, Izzy Flynn and Tom Edgoose are firm friends and fellow fiddle players who love playing in the band. “Carly’s enthusiasm is infectious,” said Tom’s mum Catherine. “She bursts with energy. It’s wonderful to see.”
Carly is very aware of the rich tradition of Northumbrian folk music and is keen to make the group aware of their lively heritage. “We play a lot of local tunes which really helps the children relate to where they come from. And, whenever possible, we love to perform. Performing just comes naturally to these guys. They don’t even think about being nervous. They just get immersed in the sheer joy of the music.”
Nine-year-old Robyn Franklin was inspired by her school friend at Broomley First School, fiddler, singer and flautist Jane Oxnard (13), to join the Stompers.
A founder member of the Stompers, Jane is passionate about encouraging younger children to play. “There’s no better feeling than seeing people enjoy and appreciate your music,” she said. “And it’s great to see the new starters getting more confident. They’re really coming on.”
Listening to the Stompers you just cannot fail to be uplifted by their special brand of foot-stomping folk. They hold weekly practice sessions at the church hall on Meadowfield Road in Stocksfield where their rousing melodies ring out in the quiet of the early evening.
Fun is the focus, but learning is also key with the Stompers providing a fantastic stepping stone to all sorts of other opportunities. Some of the older, more experienced musicians have auditioned successfully for Folkestra, a prestigious folk orchestra based at The Sage Gateshead who have played in Trafalgar Square to help celebrate the Olympics.
The power of music to bring people together and boost the “happy hormones”, relieving stress and providing a much-needed distraction from busy lives is well documented says Abigail’s accordion teacher Judy Milne from Wylam.
A psychologist, who has worked in mental health for many years, she has seen first hand how music can enrich and empower people’s lives. She was working at St George’s Hospital in Morpeth when she helped to set up a ceilidh band with a group of long term patients.
“Playing together in the band had a huge impact on their lives,” she said. “People who had, in many cases, felt they had nothing to say for many, many years, were suddenly being listened to and appreciated. They were learning new skills, making friends, building confidence and enjoying being part of a group. You just cannot underestimate how important that is to people.
“Some of our patients, who hadn’t been able to get on a bus before, were suddenly going out, independently, to meet friends and have a coffee. Another joined an evening class. Something definitely happens to our bodies and our minds when we play music together.
“Music really does help break down barriers, in all sorts of ways. It is a wonderful thing.”