Singing stories - a flex pastime
With offices at the Aardman Studios, Bristol, and in the South Pennine town of Hebden Bridge, flex thrives on the creativity inherent in its surroundings. Here we look at flex in Hebden Bridge - and the hidden talents in the flex team.
Hebden Bridge was once known for its thriving textile industry, earning the epithets Fustianopolis for its specialisation in the production of corduroy, and Trouser Town for the sheer volume of this garment it manufactured. Come the 1960s and 1970s, the textile industry had virtually collapsed and planners were considering pulling the town down and starting again. It was at this point that Hebden Bridge started to become somewhere quite different – artists, free-thinkers, hippies, bohemians, enticed by cheap (or free) housing stock and the beauty of the dramatic landscape of the Upper Calder Valley, began to move in.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the legacy of those that arrived in the 1970s lives on. To paraphrase locally born writer Paul Barker, Hebden Bridge thrives again on the innovation and enterprise it was built on, but the terms of trade have changed. The town has a vibrant arts scene, marked by not one but a series of annual festivals.
Now in its third year, the Hebden Bridge Folk Roots Festival brings together musicians, storytellers, dancers, poets and artists in the pubs, cafes and streets of the town each May. The organisers describe themselves as a ‘mix of creatives’, ‘musicians, enthusiasts and folk-loving people’, and the festival itself blends big-draw headline acts with a lively fringe – opportunities abound for anyone keen to sing their stories, as they do for anyone wandering the streets of Hebden Bridge with open ears.
‘My attitude to folk music is that it is music that comes from people and their stories anywhere in the world,’ says Dave Boardman, the Folk Roots Festival’s music director. Folk has its roots in traditional popular culture, stories by unknown composers transmitted from generation to generation purely through the singing of the song. It’s inclusive – it’s part of all our histories. And it continues to evolve, from the folk revivals of last century onwards, embracing folk pop, folk rock, indie folk, folktronica, folk metal, prog folk, various shades of Americana… Anything goes if there’s a story to be sung.
Here at flex, we couldn't let a storytelling weekend go by without telling some ourselves. This fell to Peter Roberts, (pictured, standing), director and client lead at flex, storyteller, music enthusiast, and recreational guitar player and folk singer. During the Folk Roots Festival weekend, Peter played a split set at one of the team's favourite local bars, Nido, with ten songs ranging from the political (The Strawbs' Hangman and the Papist and Dylan's Blowing in the Wind) to the traditional (Spencer the Rover) and even the local (Barclay James Harvest's Mill Boys).
'It's been great to pick up a guitar again for the first serious twang since the '70s,' says Peter, 'and although most of my set is old stuff from that era, the stories still resonate today. I worry a bit about forgetting the words - though iPads do help sometimes - but it's all in fun, and if your story's strong, it kind of tells itself.'
Peter was accompanied by Damian Lake on second guitar, whose more experienced fretwork added an extra richness to the sound. Between Peter's two sessions, a packed Nido enjoyed a set from Hattie Swingler, youngest daughter of flex storyteller Treby Swingler. Hattie's unique vocal delivery of her own songs, plus a wonderful version of Ray LaMontagne's 'Burn', was rightly given a huge ovation.
Peter also performs regularly at a local folk night hosted by the White Swan in Hebden Bridge. Whether sung, spoken or written, it’s ultimately all about telling a story.
'Social historian Paul Barker pays tribute to Hebden Bridge', Yorkshire Life, 10 May 2012 (http://www.yorkshirelife.co.uk/out-about/places/social-historian-paul-barker-pays-tribute-to-hebden-bridge-1-1569840)
Interview with Dave Boardman, Hebden Bridge Folk Roots Festival blog, 17 April 2017 (http://hebdenfolkroots.tumblr.com/)