Friday, May 09, 2008

Billy Childish seen in Margate

I spent most of Bank Holiday Monday down in Margate, of all places (my previous experience of it were wandering around, horrified, with Alan and Inge back in '93 as part of some kind of venture to get the Oort Cloud booked for a couple of gigs in Kent, and hearing the awful song about it by Chas & Dave once on Radio 2!). But this was different. There's a new(ish) festival called "Margate Rocks" - not a rock festival, but a festival of the visual arts. This year it had an ecological theme, and there was some pretty interesting stuff on display in various local galleries and other spaces.

Billy Childish
the legendary Billy Childish

But there was a bit of music, too. They'd booked Kentish legend Billy Childish to play that evening at The Theatre Royal, purportedly England's oldest working theatre. It was billed as an evening of music but ended up being two sets. In the first, Bill read some of his poetry (excellent, as ever), including a powerfully sung rendition of "The Bitter Cup". This was interspersed with chatting with the audience about snooker, various local characters, his hometown of Chatham ("like Margate without the water"), etc.. The second set was just him and his guitar, playing mostly old blues and folk songs, plus a couple of his own. He started off on acoustic slide playing Son House's "Death Letter Blues", something I remember him doing the first time I saw him, at Kent University back in '89. The set also included "Black Girl" ("In the Pines") which he claimed took its melody from an English folk song, and an actual English folk song called "The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant", the melody of which ended up becoming associated with "Waltzing Matilda" according to Mr. Childish (although Wikipedia suggest otherwise). He played a one-chord song (from an album of one-chord songs, apparently), and then a new one called "Thatcher's Children", the chorus of which sort of references "London Calling". The encore was quite a surprise - Bob Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown", played with real fire and passion. I somehow thought he wouldn't have much time for Dylan, but he explained that there'd been a copy of The Times They Are A-Changin' in his household, his father having been through a brief phase of "thinking he was a bohemian".

All-in-all an excellent evening, very relaxed and informal, a nice mix of poetry, music and banter.

A bit earlier in the day, I saw a selection of three excellent, obscure documentaries, all of which had some musical content: Momma Don't Allow, a black-and-white cinematic sketch about a North London working class jazz subculture in 1955; Oss Oss Wee Oss, about the extraordinary Padstow Mayday rites (which I was lucky enough to witness in 1999) with its continual singing of a cryptic (fertility?) song; "The Moon and the Sledgehammer, quite possibly the most wonderfully strange bit of film I've ever seen - about an eccentric family living in the woods rural Sussex in the late 60's. Various family members play a pipe organ and a harmonium - rough interpretations of classical and musical hall stuff - but the musical highlight is daughter Kathy, unselfconsciously playing what sounds positively avant-garde (God knows what it was supposed to be) on a hideously out-of-tune piano which appears to have been rotting outside their house for many years. See this film if you possibly can!!


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