"The Living Tradition" - October/November 1994
Steady As She Goes
by Raymond Green
A spirit of hectic eclecticism has enlivened the folk scene these past few years. In assembling a personal style and repertoire, today's performers will cheerfully appropriate elements as diverse as Zairean high-life, Lappish jolks, the knotty rhythms of the Balkans and much else besides - in addition, of course, to the standard fare of British and American music, so long the staple diet of the British folk revival. The world is truly our oyster, and curmudgeonly taunts of shallowness or cultural imperialism are lost in the rich babel of global influences.
We're all pan-culturalists now, it seems; so much so that it takes no small resources of pluck, alloyed with a piercing clarity of musical vision, to buck the trend as defiantly and successfully as Sara Grey has done. "I've been doing pretty much the same thing for the past 30 years", she declares unrepentantly - the traditional songs and ballads of her native United States with occasional forays into the Celtic traditions and the work of the better contemporary writers on both sides of the Atlantic. In live performance she relies mostly on her 5-string banjo accompaniment; on record she's hooked in the odd passing guitarist or fiddler. That may sound like a pretty limited palate in these days of didgeridoos and samplers and influences plucked from every corner of the planet, but as someone has wisely written: "Today's critical consensus demands that artistes maintain a constant supply of novelty, that they perennially push back the frontiers ... but the danger is that, with our minds echoing to the mantra of Progress and Innovation, we turn art into an intellectual egg-and-spoon race; and that we mistake the exquisitely gradual, organic refinement of technique and sensibility for stagnation, or complacency". ("Actually, it was the present writer who wrote that, a few years back -who says I can't plagiarise myself?)
Those words were written with Sara Grey specifically in mind. Stylistic caprice and dramatic changes of direction are not features of her long career. Compare her 1970 debut album with her more recent output and you'll find the same gentle, supple voice and the same undemonstrative, intimate approach to performance. Mind you, there's little enough of her delightful banjo playing on that first album; happily, that's something she's been doing more of over the years.
As a youngster growing up in New Hampshire and North Carolina, Sara developed an enduring love for the Old Timey music of the eastern seaboard. The sound of the banjo was a constant backdrop to her childhood. Perhaps inevitably, she took it up herself at an early age, playing particular attention to such players as Wade Ward, Kyle Creed and Dock Boggs. She cites Creed as her chief influence: his distinctive syncopated style underpins much of her playing. Now, there's many a folk enthusiast who will instinctively make the sign of the cross whenever a banjo is taken from it's case. This seems to be a legacy of the '60's revival, when crudely plinked banjos were ubiquitous and Pete Seeger's banjo tutor was the holy screed. Sara's way of playing owes little to Seeger's hybrid, up-plucking style, and nothing at all to the furious arpeggiations of Bluegrass that are nowadays synonymous with the banjo. Her playing is sweetly understated, melodic, with an irresistible rhythmic undertow. Reliable judges reckon her among the leading exponents of the Old Timey "clawhammer" style. The admirable Ken Perlman told her. "You know, Sara, there's nobody plays like you". "I think he meant it as a compliment", she reflects wryly. Surprisingly, given the esteem in which she's held in banjo circles, she's recently been questioning the need for accompanying herself at all. "I think I've always been moving in the direction of simplicity, and being a very song-oriented person. I've got to thinking: do I really need an instrument? Rhythm has always been important in my music, but there are other ways of bringing the rhythm out". Any one who has witnessed Sara in full knee-slapping, foot-stomping flow will confirm the truth of that. In fact, this caused a few problems during the recording of her new album ("Sara, just out on Harbourtown Records)> "Gordon (Jones) tried to get me to stop stamping my foot because the mikes were picking it up - I just couldn't!".
It was at Whitby Festival last year that she found herself thinking seriously about the value of accompaniment. In contrast to most English festivals, Whitby has always laid an emphasis on unaccompanied traditional singing. "Something I've learned from Whitby is that singers in the folk scene generally are being compromised more and more. Those of us who want the songs just to speak for themselves are being pushed out, I think, in favour of showbiz-type values.
If you don't finish your set hanging from the ceiling, you somehow haven't given the audience their money's worth. If I want to end with an unaccompanied song - and I often do- it shouldn't be seen as a sort of anti-climax.
"Let me say at once that there are musicians who can complement a song perfectly. I remember The Clutha in particular: their arrangements were real bedrock rather than just decorative - beautiful, honest, solid. And Skylark has the same approach. I think it shows respect for the songs, a reverence even. There seem to be few left who are dedicated to traditional music in that way.
That sounds a gloomy analysis. "Well, you can still find it if you know where to look. There's a festival at Champlain in Vermont where traditional music is really alive and well. I'm very impressed by it. And this year I've been to the festival of traditional singing at Inishowen in North Donegal - wonderful".
The Inishowen interlude ties in with a burgeoning interest of hers - the influence of Irish traditions on American balladry. It's something she's long been aware of, but recently she's been paying it closer attention. At Whitby she found herself sharing the bill more than once with the outstanding Ulster singer Roisin White, and in listening to Roisin, she felt various connections falling into place. "There's a very strong Ulster influence in American folksong, particularly in New England. It's curious, in fact, that the Ulster influence transplanted so well, whereas the Gaelic style, the sean nos - seems not to have survived in America".
(Over lunch at the National Festival this spring, Sara, your reporter and several others chewed over various suggestions and hypotheses as to why this should be so - a suitable subject for a thesis, we agreed, but outside the scope of this modest article). Sara and Roisin are currently putting together a workshop on the musical traffickings between Ireland and America; and the new album features several songs from the Irish/American tradition. It's typical of Sara that her repertoire should reflect the interconnectedness of superficially disparate traditions rather than the whimsical eclecticism that currently defines the temper of the times.
Something else that is absorbing her increasingly is the position of women in folksong, both as subject matter and as performers. There's a tendency in some quarters to ignore songs that hint at the low status of women in traditional society. She'll have no truck with that. "You can't change history - I don't believe in deleting women's historical experience because it doesn't fit in with contemporary patterns. Wife-selling, for instance, certainly happened - so why shouldn't we sing about it if it reveals the social mores of the time?". At the same time, she sets great store on women's involvement in folk music, and is eager to see more women come into the scene. "I've thought about doing a workshop on the subject of women on the road; because it seems to me that very few are going out on their own, for all sorts of reasons - unsupportive families being an obvious one".
Sara clearly feels a great sense of solidarity with other female performers. One of the events at Whitby '93 was an all-women concert with Peta Webb, Janet Russell and others, at which she was Mistress of Ceremonies ("M. Cess". in the laddish patois of the festival programme). What might at first glance have been mere musical getto-ising proved to be one of the most uplifting concerts of the festival, both for your reporter and for Sara herself. "I was quite worried about it", she confided, "but it really took off. There was a wonderful spirit there - it made me quite tearful!".
Sara Grey is a widely travelled woman. At one time or another she's lived in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania and Arizona; but for most of the past 25 years she's been based in Britain, and last year, with her husband Dave and son Kieron, she moved to the environs of Inverness and into a house built on the site of the local gallows!
Wherever she's settled, however briefly, she's been an avid student of the music and folklore of the area. One of the risks of being her neighbour is that you might end up in one of the ckucklesome stories she frequently lobs in between songs ...
As a performer, too, she's kept assorted company over the years. "I toured a lot with Ellie Ellis in the early '80's and more recently with the Lost Nation Band (various permutations of Brian Peters, Roger Wilson and Dave Burland).
The list could be extended: there's her liaison with Roisin White, already mentioned; she's performed with her husband on numerous occasions (I'm sure there's a better way of expressing that .... ), and just lately has been doing an occasional spot with son Kieron. One gets the impression that whenever a chance arises to work with someone else, her immediate response is: "Hmm - why not?". I must be hard being a soloist when you're so naturally gregarious, I suggest. She agrees - "but solo singing is what I'm best at, I think".
It's hard to disagree with that. Sara Grey has a unique presence as a performer. Her intimacy and warmth, her total lack of artifice - these mark her out as something of an oddity in these self-conscious times. But she's piloted a sure course between the Scylla of fleeting fashion and the Charybdis of purest solemnity, quietly getting better and better at what she does. A good trick if you can turn it.