Folk clubs keep us singing through the hard times – with Zoom’s help

Sharp's singers on Zoom
Singers at a Sharp’s in Isolation session

People are eager, even desperate, to sing together no matter what the world throws at us. That’s the obvious conclusion from the speed with which folk clubs moved to keep going when the coronavirus lockdown hit.

Even the technical hurdles were no obstacle. I hope it’s not uncharitable to say I was surprised how quickly some of the folk scene’s older members embraced Zoom – including John White, 100 not out, who’s as regular a sight at Sharp’s in Isolation as he always has been in the basement at Cecil Sharp House.

Singing sessions, as the Sharp’s MC ­Amanda MacLean says, offer “warmth and light” in a very dark time. And alongside the established clubs several online-only singarounds have sprung up – highlighting the new possibilities of this new (to us) medium.

All of a sudden our cosy singing sessions with friends and regulars are potentially open to the world. Which raises questions about what our clubs can be and what we want from them: familiar faces and a community feel, or an international mini-festival open to anyone with a love of song? Can we have the best of both worlds?

And can our online sessions help with the eternal problem: demystifying folk clubs so that newbies – and young people in particular – aren’t afraid to push open the door of a small pub backroom, stand up in front of a crowd of strangers, take a deep breath and sing?

Traditional clubs move online

The long-running Sharp’s has perhaps the most fiercely loyal core crowd of the London clubs I know. As Amanda writes on p18, it was one of the first to get online, and advertises its sessions on Facebook and Twitter.

Thirty to 40 people now join Sharp’s in Isolation every Tuesday night. One regular, Livy Lyons, says: “The Sharp’s lockdown Zoom sessions have evolved over the weeks into their own community singing sessions that get better every week.

“New people from all over the world are welcomed: Sharp’s singers who now live in the USA, Japan, Ireland, France etc are able to join us again. It’s become a reunion as well as some great singers and songs being sung.”

The social side isn’t lost, either. Alison Frosdick mentions the lack of “the normal bantering and heckling” but says: “During isolation it’s too easy to feel down, especially for those on their own. Having an evening to look forward to where you know you will see cheery faces, hear great songs and enjoy yourself is really important.”

And another regular, Kathy Dent, says: “I have taken Tuesday evenings as my time to dress up and don the earrings, so while others do their dress up Friday I’m doing my own ‘going out Tuesday’ routine!”

Another of my regular clubs, Morris Folk Club, is a very different beast to Sharp’s. It’s a younger crowd, with fewer hardcore folkies and a more irreverent approach – you might hear anything from Abba to Bob Marley alongside the Child ballads and chorus favourites. It’s also a monthly companion to the weekly rehearsals of Morris Folk Choir, so there’s a strong social aspect which is hard to replicate online.

Nevertheless, says Seth Gillman, one of the club’s MCs: “The social and community spirit are crucial aspects of the experience of choir and folk club and, for me, these have taken on greater importance since we have been in lockdown.”

Tanja Kucan, one of the organisers, says: “The lockdown has confirmed and reinforced how much music and taking part in my choir’s monthly folk club means to me … thinking about which songs or tunes to perform, setting up song collaborations with other choir members, hearing others’ songs and sharing music in a warm and supportive environment.”

Morris has only tentatively started opening up beyond its regulars. But it has already broadened its reach. Ruth, a regular, says: “Another special aspect is different people joining us who wouldn’t normally be able to, including former regulars and family members eg for health reasons, location (Devon, New Zealand), and bedtimes (regular members’ kids and partners).”

Some clubs have chosen not to advertise beyond their usual circle. Kathy also runs Brickfolk in Putney and says: “We’ve thought long and hard before deciding to go for small and intimate.”

Before lockdown they were always seeking more attendees to bolster the choruses but now “our emphasis is more on giving everyone a couple of sings, and of course a chance for a chat and the all-important banter”.

The club’s thriving with this approach and has added a second session each month: “One of our regulars suggested it be a Mortar session as that’d be between the bricks!”

Ups and downs of Zoom

As Kathy says, it’s simply impossible to sing choruses together over Zoom, and this is a frustration echoed by almost everyone I spoke to.

“I have really been missing the social connection of a good chorus sing and look forward to its return,” says Livy, while Kathy adds: “I’m finding the singing to a computer screen a bit surreal as all others are muted and I miss the supportive sound of people joining in with the chorus.”

But on the bright side, Ruth says, “seeing everyone singing along with familiar songs (on mute) feels like we are together in one voice”.

‘Having an evening where you know you will see cheery faces, hear great songs and enjoy yourself is really important’

And Pal Carter, another Sharp’s regular, says: “I find there are far more pluses than minuses. For a start, nobody talks at the back! Then you can have the words perched on the keyboard and hopefully nobody will notice – not that I do of course.”

She adds: “The mute button is brilliant. We should find a way of installing that in Cecil Sharp House!”

More seriously, Pal says she feels “a lot less self-conscious” singing online. And Seth has mixed feelings: “In some ways singing to a screenful of people is easier, but then you don’t get much aural feedback when everyone’s muted so it’s hard to know whether people enjoyed your song or not. Nevertheless, our motto is ‘loud and proud, wrong and strong’, so if I want to sing I will, whatever anyone else thinks about it!”

A new breed of online club

The online-only singarounds, meanwhile, are starting from scratch, with no worries about keeping regulars happy or suffering from comparisons with life before lockdown.

Perhaps the highest-profile is Covid Sings, run by Fay Hield and the Trad Song Tuesday team. Fay, as well as being an acclaimed singer and folk music academic, knows a thing or two about building online communities: Trad Song Tuesday is a Twitter event with a big and enthusiastic following, where people are invited to submit their favourite songs on a weekly theme.

So Covid Sings launched with an existing community – but not a physical one, or one that was used to singing together. Fay says: “The singers come from all over – we have regulars from the UK, Ireland, the USA and Canada.

“I am picturing it like a festival beer tent – some people know each other, others are just connected by the love of the music.”

She launched it, she says, after “a huge surge in online content from ‘professional’ folk musicians who are obviously suffering due to cancelled gigs, but it set me thinking about the ‘amateur’ singers and how the absence of clubs would affect them.” It draws 30-50 people every week and Fay adds: “They don’t all have a fixed folk background either: we had a singer from the local philharmonic singing along to a YouTube video.”

I’ve found a similar experience with a weekly sea shanty singaround that I helped to start, wearing another hat as the person behind the London Sea Shanty Collective’s Twitter account.

It had its unlikely roots in, of all things, a tweet in late January by a Dutch user, ­@­AnarchoShanties, that demanded: “NORMALIZE SINGING SEA SHANTIES IN PUBS”.

To her great surprise, it got almost 25,000 retweets and 120,000 likes – a throw­away comment that ended up highlighting how many people out there want to sing but don’t know about folk clubs, or don’t have any in their area (or country!) or are intimidated by what they see as a weight of tradition and expectation.

So when lockdown hit soon afterwards it didn’t take much encouragement from her and other Twitter shanty fans around the world for me to start a weeklyish session, which gets anywhere from 15-30 singers and several more lurking just to listen.

Some singers are familiar faces on the London scene – several of the Hog Eye Men, for instance – but as well as the Netherlands others have joined from as far afield as the US, Australia and even Ipswich.

Singing cultures elsewhere are different or non-existent, and several regulars say this is their first experience of singing in public. Sophie, who tweets as @Sunday_Sea and joins in from Colorado, sings a sea song every week on YouTube but says: “This shanty sing is actually brand new for me. I attended my first shanty sings at the Sea Music Festival in Mystic last year, but I was too shy to actually sing.

“My biggest goal for this year was to work up the nerve to perform somewhere other than my YouTube channel; the virus derailed what I was imagining that would look like, but it gave me a different opportunity in the form of singing with you guys, and that’s been such a joy!”

‘The success of choruses surprises me – it is my weekly thrill to watch all the muted goldfish mouths going up and down’

And another of our crew, Reni in South Carolina, had never heard of singarounds until now. “The only public singing I’ve done is church congregational singing.” She took a little encouragement to sing at first but is now a regular.

“The Zoom sessions have offered me a unique opportunity. I can half-convince myself no one is listening and I can sing comfortably.

“However, singing is only half the reason I enjoy these sessions. I am very new to the world of shanties and relishing the chance to explore more of it.”

One thing that hasn’t changed in the move online is the material. Fay says: “There have been just as many chorus songs, parodies, big ballads, humorous songs, basically whatever people are feeling they need at the time.

“The thing that surprises me is the success of choruses – it is my weekly thrill to watch all the muted goldfish mouths going up and down to a parody of Rolling Home.”

Opening the doors

Sharp’s and Covid Sings are both available for the public to watch: Sharp’s is recorded and uploaded to YouTube, while the Trad Song Tuesday event is livestreamed on Facebook.

The first Sharp’s in Isolation has been watched more than 120 times – far more than could fit into the venue – and Fay says of Covid Sings that “as well as the singers, we have an almost equal number of people watching live, and into the thousands of people catching up with it after the event”.

This suggests an appetite for community singing beyond the regular faces – but it also highlights how online sings can be something uniquely valuable. How many club singers, after all, would feel confident standing up in front of a thousand people live? Or a hundred, or even fifty? As Seth says of Morris online: “Some people have sung for the first time and commented it felt less intimidating than if it was a live audience.”

Not to mention the chance to hear singers from around the world, and to welcome people with nowhere regular to sing. Although as Reni says, that has obstacles: “I’ve been trying to find other groups on either side of the pond. Someone in Fay’s group shared a link to a calendar with other British singarounds but the time difference is proving to be a problem. I live in shared housing so finding sessions that happen when I won’t disturb anyone else is like trying putting shoes on cats.”

And Zoom has its benefits even for Londoners. Some might seem trivial – “You can get up and pour a drink, go to the loo, cough or sneeze without disturbing anybody,” says Pal of Sharp’s in Isolation – but some are less so. “The best thing?” she adds. “The journey home. Normally it takes me three trains, over an hour and a slightly dodgy walk at the end. Don’t miss that at all!”

Folk venues are notoriously poor for accessibility and Fay also points to the travel issue. “As the community is generally ageing and over the next couple of decades many regular singers might have to stop attending clubs due to health issues, perhaps a mixture of live and online sessions might be useful.”

She says Covid Sings “might well carry on past the restrictions – many people aren’t lucky enough to have a singaround physically close to them, and having a space to share a song is great”.

In the aftermath of coronavirus, pretty much everything about how society is run will be up for debate. That will be true of the folk scene too. We don’t even know what the landscape will look like once the economic impact of the pandemic has taken its toll on venues, festivals and promoters.

But surely online sings will survive in a post-lockdown world. They do so much to open doors that we maybe didn’t realise were closed – to older people, disabled people, parents (and children!), people who’ve never heard of folk clubs or didn’t realise they welcome anyone who loves singing.

And more than that: these aren’t just stopgaps. They’re communities in their own right, that we’ve built because we needed them in this dark time. And they’re too valuable to let die.

This article appeared in Folk London 307, June-July 2020