Frankie Armstrong describes herself as “a feet on the ground, guts, heart and I hope head” kind of singer. By the age of 16 she was singing in a skiffle band which morphed into the Ceilidh Singers – “although none of us could spell it” – with a repertoire of British and Irish songs.
During the 1960s, while working in London as a social worker, she met with, sang with and learned from AL Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Lou Killen among others at the Singers Club and Critics Group, providing what she describes as her apprenticeship.
Frankie became a professional singer “when people started offering me money to sing” while continuing to work among the “unwashed and unloved” of south London. The list of people with whom Frankie has sung during her career is long and varied.
Throughout this her eyesight was failing because of glaucoma and she has been registered as blind since the 70s. However, she felt “ahead of the game” by owning a computer in 1985 before many of her sighted friends, albeit without a screen.
Alongside her solo albums she has contributed to numerous compilations, including the Topic Records 70th anniversary album, Three Score And Ten, and the From Here collection put together by Stick in the Wheel.
Frankie has written songs, contributed chapters to and edited a number of publications, including her 1992 autobiography As Far As The Eye Can Sing. She was given the EFDSS gold badge in 2018.
Frankie is a patron of Musicians for Peace and Disarmament and has sung at two online concerts for them during the last year. On the evening of the day we spoke she was due to perform at a Sing for Earth Day online event. Even over the phone, Frankie exudes energy and excitement about her work.
Lovely On The Water, Frankie’s first solo album, was released in 1972. The Cats Of Coven Lawn, her 12th solo album, was released in January this year almost five decades later, coinciding with her 80th birthday. She is also part of the vocal quartet Green Ribbons.
“We have to talk about the Ribbons to get to the Cats,” says Frankie. She first met Bird in the Belly, a Brighton-based folk group, in 2017 when they were developing a project to include a documentary video for which they interviewed Frankie. So she met Laura Ward, Adam Ronchetti and Ben (Jinwoo) Webb, who had grown up listening to his father’s recordings of her. They discovered that despite the “enormous age gap we just felt enormous amounts of sympathy in the way we approached things and thought about song and singing … which was lovely”.
‘Coven Lawn is so lovely and cryptic – none of us know what it means, but it has all kinds of resonances that you can read into it’
Ben then invited Frankie to be part of an a cappella album he was working on with Debbie Armour (Burd Ellen) and Alasdair Roberts. This was Green Ribbons. “I was left free to decide which songs I wanted to do, essentially solo. I chose a recent song I had written, A Question, and one of the versions of a song I have always loved but never recorded, The Week Before Easter. Then I sang along and harmonised on some of the other songs.”
The album was issued in July 2019 and a tour planned for spring 2020, which never happened thanks to the pandemic. So – lockdown allowing – they will be making their live debut at the Nest Collective’s Campfire Club in London on 24 July.
Other gigs, including she hopes one in Cardiff, her home, are planned. However, Frankie’s visual impairment makes her more vulnerable to “bumping into people”, which is more of a concern in the current situation. So she will only do the gigs to which her husband, Darien Pritchard, is willing and able to drive. “They have other people to join them in Glasgow or Newcastle,” she says generously.
Tom Pryor, also of Bird in the Belly, was the sound engineer recording Green Ribbons. Frankie says: “I just thought these four young people, and their cats, are just such wonderful people. They do the ‘people things’ that I have done in the past, social work with addicts and homeless people, involvement with community education … all things I did in the 60s and 70s. So we just seemed to have so many parallel lives.”
Sharing her passion for cats, Ben sent The Cats Of Coven Lawn, his setting of a broadside, to Frankie with the suggestion: “Why don’t you do another CD, Frankie?” Although her initial response was “No. I think I am a bit past it now,” on reflection she decided that “it would be a lovely opportunity to do something that would be essentially Frankie and friends”.
So the album, recorded and mixed by Tom, includes Laura Bradshaw and Pauline Down, who with Frankie make up the Cardiff trio Bread and Roses – “We are all involved in the Natural Voice Network; they run choirs and we run workshops together.” Bird in the Belly, Martin Simpson and Brian Pearson, Frankie’s ex-partner (“we parted amicably and are good friends”), all contribute.
Frankie likes the fact that the album title is “so lovely and cryptic – none of us know what Coven Lawn means, but it has all kinds of resonances that you can read into it”. She was delighted when Ben offered to do the artwork. Sadly her own cat died recently but is immortalised on the album cover – “the one on the left”. Frankie was looking forward to the arrival of two new cats in May.
Having recorded for a number of record companies in the UK, US and Sweden, including Topic and Fellside, Frankie realises that she has been lucky. “I had total artistic control. They never tried to tell me what to sing. They did the [album] covers but would check I was happy with them. I did the notes or got a friend to do it or Bert [Lloyd] did the notes. I was able to select the songs and decide on the order of the songs.”
So from that aspect, working on The Cats Of Coven Lawn wasn’t that different. However, “it’s quite funny when you are 80 and on your 12th solo album to have, for the first time, all this video thing and social media which had never happened before. I find myself being looked after in this wonderful way by these wonderful young people who are just part of my family now.”
As president of the Natural Voice Network and a key figure in its development from the earliest days, Frankie sees encouraging singing, a natural communal activity, as “a social, cultural and politically empowering act”. Everyone can sing and everyone is welcome to sing.
‘These women arrived worn out and after singing these beautiful songs all left energised, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’
From 1972 onwards, Frankie toured regularly in the US and Canada. “Sometimes I didn’t have a job and sometimes I had a part-time job and sometimes I had a job and used all my holiday up going off singing in North America.” This was when she met Ethel Raim, who performed with her group the Pennywhistlers.
Raim was a folklorist, song collector, singer and co-founder of the Balkan Arts Center (now the Center for Traditional Music and Dance) in New York. “I discovered that she had my albums and loved my singing so we just got on,” says Frankie.
From then on, they met up whenever Frankie was in the States, with Frankie attending Ethel’s workshops and classes at folk festivals. A four-month stay in New York in 1974 enabled her to become a regular visitor to Ethel’s inspirational singing group.
“This brought my two trades, professional singer and social worker, together,” says Frankie. “It was like the social worker bit of me saw how these women, who trailed across New York after a day’s work, arrived a bit worn out … during the course of doing some warmup exercises and then singing these beautiful eastern European songs, we all left energised, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. A wonderful way of building energy.”
In 1975, Frankie was invited by some friends who had a singing group – “a bit of an offshoot of the Critics Group” – to run a workshop for them. “It was just the most amazing different group of people.”
As well as the group who had invited Frankie there was Heather Wood from the Young Tradition, Sheila Miller, who runs the Cellar Upstairs, Marion Fudger, the music reporter for Spare Rib, and Nancy Diuguid of Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company, alongside social and youth workers who had never done anything like this before.
Frankie describes that first session in a room above the pub in which the Singers Club was held.
“There must have been about 20 of us all together. I just had Ethel’s exercises and some of the songs on a cassette recorder … so that if I needed a bit of inspiration from Ethel … I put the tape recorder on and off we went.”
The response was very positive. “People said: ‘That was wonderful, I feel so much more energised.’” Frankie knew from her own experience how exhausting social work with homeless people and addicts and alcoholics could be. “My social work friends said: ‘I can get through the rest of the week now. Can we come back next week?’ So we ‘came back next week’ for about three years,” Frankie says with a laugh.
Gradually, as the number of Frankie’s own gigs increased, other people would lead the session, contributing a wider range of singing material from different traditions. When the pub room became unavailable, they moved to the Drill Hall Dance Studio, where the absence of seating led to an important development in Frankie’s work.
“That was when I started doing a lot of movement, to simulate ideas of working in the field or hauling in nets or just to bring some of the eastern European dances into it and making up dances.” People in the folk scene and community music, seeing the value in this approach, started to ask for some training. “So I just did some weekend training sessions with friends who felt they had some of the skills to run a group. I’d done quite a lot of teaching and training one way and another, so I felt I had the skills.”
Regularly invited to run sessions at folk festivals, theatre companies, groups for women with anxiety or depression, special needs groups with both Shape Arts and Scope, in psychiatric hospitals, mental health day centres and schools for kids with special needs, Frankie “learned on the job”. She adds: “The last salary I had was in 1977. Since then I have been freelance, as a trainer, an assertion teacher, an action researcher and team development consultant” – and, of course, a singer.
By the mid-1980s Frankie was running week-long training for “serious people” and taking on apprentices to work with and be mentored by her. By the 90s people who had attended workshops and training came together to form the Natural Voice Network. Now a charity, it has grown from about 80 people to around 700 members.
‘I find myself being looked after in this wonderful way by these wonderful young people who are just part of my family now’
Frankie firmly believes that if you can speak you can sing. She works through “heightened speech”, exploring our innate ability to pitch our voices when we speak, slowly adding in some chanted tones. This allows singing to “creep up” on people, removing the idea of “I can’t sing” which sadly so many people suffer from.
So she “teases” people into singing, sometimes using a made-up language, which avoids the words becoming a distraction “but people can still pick up on the feeling”.
She adds: “All I do is give them permission [to sing] and some ideas.”
Frankie continues to run workshops and training with Darien, a massage and Feldenkrais practitioner and teacher whom she met in Australia in the 1980s. His approach to touch and movement and learning parallels her approach to voice. “My way into the voice has always been through the body and the imagination,” she adds.
At the recent Traditional Song Forum conference, The Folk Voice, Frankie gave the keynote talk (available on the Traditional Song Forum’s YouTube channel). She shared six of her favourite folk voices and what they meant to her. She described the voices using terms such as “sinewy”, “intensity”, “commitment”, “engaged” and “intention to have me listen”.
Lou Killen once told her she needed “an edge” to her voice and made her listen to traditional singers, their phrasing, telling the story but not overdramatising. Although she does not have a recording from that time, she thinks her voice was “a bit plummy”, still that of a “grammar school choirgirl” who had sung the part of Hansel in her school production of the opera Hansel And Gretel. Very different from the voice she still has today.
So what’s next for Frankie? “I feel Brighton calling,” she says. “I have so many lovely friends to visit.”