Words take wing
Nick Churchill on bringing the notebooks of Thomas Hardy to life
Published in June ’16
In its continuing quest to understand more about who we are by exploring where we came from and how we got here, the Time and Tide Theatre Group has assembled an all-Dorset company for its latest revue, Words Take Wing, which premieres at Eastington Manor in Worth Matravers as part of Purbeck Art Weeks.
Drawing on the ‘Facts’ notebooks of Thomas Hardy in which he jotted down stories gleaned from archive copies of the Dorset County Chronicle, the piece relates the original stories and reveals how Hardy incorporated them into his published works with readings and dramatised extracts. The circle is closed on each section with examples of the folk songs collected by Henry and Robert Hammond on their bicycle journeys through Dorset between 1905 and 1907.
‘It’s very much a folk approach,’ says singer-songwriter and former teacher Sophia Wright, who has written and co-ordinated Words Take Wing, the latest in a series of folk-dramas in which she has been involved that includes Tolpuddle Man, King’s Shilling, Two Nations, Who’s Afear’d and Salt Upon the Shore.
‘Hardy was very much a people person, he loved people, so it was perfectly natural that he should seek out real people’s stories and work them into his stories and poems.’
The stories cover the gamut of human behaviour, although are generally uplifting. In one, a commercial traveller returns home unexpectedly and goes to bed. His wife then says she is having spasms and sends him out for brandy. He pays for it with what he supposes to be a shilling but is given change for a sovereign and finds he has 14 more in his pocket instead of the shillings he thought he had. He deduces he has another man’s trousers on and rushes home, only to find his own breeches have gone.
‘In Words take Wing we follow that with the song, “The tailor’s breeches” from the Hammond Collection, in which a tailor is “stitched up” by a girl and relieved of both his clothes and his money when he tells her of his wish to dance in her petticoats!’
The company includes Phil Williams speaking the words of Thomas Hardy from the ‘Facts’ notebook with further narration from Mike Cawson, Anne Brown, Viviane Horne and Martin Stephen, the National Trust’s visitor services manager for Hardy Country. Classically trained but steeped in folk traditions, harpist Sarah Deere-Jones will perform on a restored period instrument with Robin Plowman (melodeon, concertina, vocals), Paul O’Shea (fiddle) and Richard Wirdnam (accordion, vocals). Young dancer Ella Nicoli-Horne will also sing.
Traces of stories from the ‘Facts’ notebooks can be found in some of Hardy’s best-known novels including The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure – rich sources for Words Take Wing, although from the party at Tranter Dewy’s cottage in Under the Greenwood Tree, to the liquor-inflicted ‘multiplying eye’ of Joseph Poorgrass in Far from the Madding Crowd, some of the extracts will be more familiar to some than others.
‘Well, I’ve tried not to be too obvious,’ says Sophia. ‘It’s important to know that this isn’t a play although there is a script. It is very episodic and the performers have been largely left to find their own way through it. None of us are actors as such, but we are all involved to some extent in folk music and that is where we all meet. Everyone involved “gets” what we’re trying to do and approaches the piece with that understanding. It’s the only way it will work as there’s no way I’m going to tell someone how to stand or where to move. There has to be a certain amount of interpretation – that’s very much in the folk spirit.’
Researching the piece has taken Sophia on the kind of magical, meandering mooch into the past on which she thrives. Whether poring over the hard copy versions of the Hammond brothers’ notations, panning Hardy’s ‘Facts’, or delving into the County Chronicle while hiding from the cold in Dorset History Centre, she has come up with stories revealing the lives of people that are not so very different from our own. ‘The world may change, but people don’t really change and neither do the things that interest us,’ she says, noting that the fruits of Hardy’s searches of the Chronicle from 1826 to 1830 would not in essence be out of place under modern headlines. ‘This is social history and what we’re doing with Time and Tide is finding ways of keeping that connection with the past by trying to draw some attention to these valuable resources. If someone comes up and tells us they’ve enjoyed it, or would like to be part of it, or wants to find out more about the material, then we’ll know we have done something right. The hope is that we can take it on to other performances.’
Fittingly, Words Take Wing has already been booked as part of this year’s Swanage Folk Festival in September, where the Festival’s line-up of international dance sides and traditional music artists will be reasonably familiar with the collection from which the songs have been drawn.
In the tradition of their more famous contemporaries, Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams, Henry and Robert Hammond collected some 600 songs on a series of trips through the lanes and byways of Edwardian Dorset. Many of those songs were already steeped in time and just as Hardy was able to reclaim a flavour of Dorset life in the early 19th century, so were the Hammonds responsible for preserving some voice of that past. They would listen for hours to singers such as Marina Russell from Upwey, Robert Barratt in Puddletown and William Bartlett in the Wimborne Union Workhouse.
‘The Unions were good places for them to collect songs as the old folk there would have had little else to do,’ says musician Robin Plowman. ‘Unlike the collectors who came slightly later and actually recorded the songs on wax cylinders, the Hammonds have left a lot of room for interpretation and it’s fascinating to see how they collected many of these songs in different versions.’
The Hammonds collected several versions of ‘John Barleycorn’, a staple of English folk song dating back at least to the 17th century, including the one that is featured in Words Take Wing, set to music from two other versions collected from Farmer William Miller of Wootton Fitzpaine and the music-only version from a D Legg of Oxbridge.
‘It has got me in all sorts of trouble with so-called “proper” musicians,’ says Robin, ‘but for me it is far more important in folk music that the music should be adapted to fit the words so what we’ve done with ‘John Barleycorn’ is perfectly valid – the two tunes actually harmonise with each other. Just about!’
The genesis of Words Take Wing lies in a conversation Sophia had with Richard Brown of Purbeck Art Weeks in which it was suggested that there was a connection to be made between the songs Hardy knew and heard as a boy and wrote about and the songs collected by the Hammond brothers at the same time that Hardy was compiling his ‘Facts’ notebook. By the early 20th century Dorset was fully feeling the impact of Victorian modernisation that would only ever gather in pace and scope up to our own time. Hardy’s characters and stories, like those in the songs collected by the Hammonds, spoke of a comparatively recent past in which such change was much slower although life itself was perhaps less stable.
‘The music programme for Purbeck Art Weeks is top drawer, but mostly it is quite formal and if there’s a local connection, it’s invariably that the performer is coming back here having made their mark elsewhere in the world,’ says Sophia. ‘Words Take Wing is bringing it back home; it’s showing what is possible from the ground up. All of the company are Dorset people and we’re a range of ages. As well as Phil and Sarah, both of whom have a following of people who know their music, I’m particularly pleased to have Ella, who will be dancing. Not only does it demonstrate the importance of dance in this, but she’s only 16 and will be doing her GCSEs. It shows that this is for young people as well.’
- Words Take Wing will be performed as part of Purbeck Art Weeks at Eastington Barn, Worth Matravers on Sun 5 June at 7.00 with tickets at £18 including buffet. Info at purbeckartweeks.co.uk/events. You can also catch it at the Swanage Folk Festival, St Mary’s church at 3.30 on Sun 11 September, tickets £10 (no buffet). www.swanagefolkfestival.com