Soundpost: how one Yorkshire village is taken over by folksong

Singers at the Soundpost weekend
Events range from one-to-one sessions to a Big Sing, guided walks and talks on song history. Photo: Fox Moon Photography

“A weekend that leaves me exhausted, all sung out but with new friends and brimming with ideas and musical energy.”
Jenna Walker, a Soundpost regular

Imagine that you are in a village. There is a pub, a village hall, a school, farms with B&B and people are singing and playing and talking about folk music. This is the South Yorkshire village of Dungworth, just outside Sheffield, and the event is the Soundpost Singing Weekend. Sadly we can’t visit for real right now but Soundpost is, like everything else, available online.

Soundpost was founded by Fay Hield, Sam Sweeney, Andy Bell and Jon Boden and is now managed by a board and a wider group of associates. After completing her PhD Fay wanted to find a way to address some of her findings.

“I found that there are a lot of benefits to folksinging,” Fay explains, “but there are also a lot of barriers to getting involved. The big issue is that it is sold as an ‘anything goes, open to all’ environment, but there are really quite complicated performance practices that newcomers struggle to understand.”

Soundpost gives people a stepping stone, learning through doing, into the wider folk scene. Even though Soundpost has grown and diversified, including work in schools and Sheffield Carols events in the city centre, Fay is clear that “the aims are still to support people to find a way into and through folksinging and playing”.

Amazingly, it is almost a decade since the first singing weekend was held. Since then there have been five more singing weekends and a fiddle weekend. Recent weekends have been themed around the EFDSS Full English Project (2015), Fay Hield’s album Old Adam (2017), the republication of The Wanton Seed and Marrow Bones folksong collections (2018) and a research project of which The Fairy Gathering (2019) was a part.

The pub, the Royal Hotel, is at the centre, providing a venue for workshops and sessions as well as food and drink. The village hall hosts large group sessions, refreshments and lunches. Other premises become venues, including the dining room at Padley Farm B&B; the school hall hosts the tutors’ concert. People travel from all over the country to take part.

As Fay points out: “By holding it in a village, we are all on top of each other, eating the same food and the barriers break down very quickly.” Jenna adds that the tutors “are around all the time and are available to chat at breaks about their experiences”.

During a typical weekend there will be activities ranging from a Big Sing, great for getting going at the start of the day, to one-to-one sessions. “There are so many workshops to choose from that everybody is doing something they are genuinely interested in,” says Jenna. There will be practical sessions on writing or performance and talks on song history and artists sharing their creative processes. There have been guided walks and even sessions on dry stone walling and Gypsy wagon painting.

Some sessions have to be booked in advance while others are more flexible so you can build your own combination of activities. There are sessions, tunes and songs, in the Royal and a packed tutors’ concert … with a raffle.

Jenna describes the groups as “very mixed in experience and ability but everybody is encouraged to get involved and discuss, sing (if you want to) and be creative”. This mix in the groups is important because as Fay suggests, “people learn as much from each other as they do from the tutors” and this enables newcomers and regular singers alike to experience “a genuine sing”.

“We have never told tutors what to teach,” says Fay. “We want this to be a platform for them to explore the issues they think are important and develop their own agendas.” They want to encourage everyone to think, including the tutors. “All too often when performers introduce songs they might give a bit of background, but they can’t get into what they think about the music. This gives them that space to explore the ideas for themselves, and share with others.”

Towards the end of a weekend there are discussion panels which aim to encourage lively debate. The intention is not to present “the way” but as Fay explains: “These are thorny questions and there are a variety of responses which are to be encouraged.” The impressive roll call of musicians, performers, academics who have contributed suggests that this has been an effective approach.

Fay highlights the work done in recent years by fiddle player Nicola Beazley, now a member of the Soundpost board. “Nicola has done amazing work establishing the Soundpost Folk Factories, in two areas of Sheffield, reaching junior, youth and adults. This started as a few fiddle players and now reaches 50 or so people every week.”

Soundpost has remained artist-led, which brings challenges. “It means a lot of bitty and often voluntary work – we don’t have any full-time staff and it is difficult to keep momentum going sometimes,” admits Fay. “Ideas for projects are often ad hoc, but we quite like that as it means we can be flexible and do work that is relevant.”

The 2020 event was postponed then eventually took place online. I am sure I am not alone in looking forward to another visit to Dungworth in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the 2021 Singing Day is online on Saturday 10 April and includes sessions with Bryony Griffith and Paul Sartin, discussion and vocal technique sessions, as well as performances from tutors and participants. There may well be some spaces available if you are interested in singing, thinking, learning and doing.

For more information, see www.soundpost.org.uk. This article appeared in Folk London 312, April-May 2021