Sandra Kerr – singer, songwriter, teacher and beloved co-creator of the music for Bagpuss – turns 80 in February. Although lockdown has meant an enforced and unwelcome break for many musicians, she’s looking forward to taking a birthday holiday, with all the family and lots of music-making.
Laughing and sounding very energetic, Sandra says: “It’s been a very busy two years … I’m exhausted!”
I met Sandra online in early December and was relieved to find that her part of Northumberland had avoided the full force of Storm Arwen. In fact, she had just experienced a “pocket of lovely weather” while visiting the Borders. Obviously Arwen was no match for Sandra!
Her first thought was to congratulate Eliza Carthy on her appointment as president of the English Folk Song and Dance Society. Then more congratulations to Nancy Kerr, her daughter, for gaining a professorship at Leeds Conservatoire. “I am very proud of her.”
Sandra herself has managed to negotiate lockdown “rather well”. Online, she teaches a weekly “singing chair yoga” class and offers one-to-one concertina lessons. Werca’s Folk, her Northumbrian women’s choir, named for the ninth-century abbess and her village, have continued online. “I adore them … 26 years we have been together.”
Sandra retaught parts from their extensive repertoire and used their own CD recordings for the singers to join in with. When they were able to sing together again in the summer, meeting outdoors, in the country park or by the sea, all the parts came together again with ease. “It was so wonderful. We are so lucky where we live.”
Sandra leads the Sidmouth Festival Choir which, in the absence of the festival, continued online, following the same way of working that proved successful for Werca’s Folk.
While she admits that choirs online are not the same as singing with others in real life she is always ready to find the positives. It is important that being able to keep going online has maintained both the “quality of community and the repertoire”.
“Nancy and I have been doing some lovely stuff together,” Sandra continues. “We did an online conference for MERYC [Music Educators and Researchers of Young Children]. We talked about the role of traditional song in early years development which was so lovely and well-received.”
Sandra has an article on the same topic in English Dance and Song, the EFDSS magazine. “Very gratifying,” she adds.
‘Skiffle was a kind of permission that everybody could make their own music. You didn’t have to be just a consumer’
“Oh yes, another very exciting thing – these just came out!” At this point Sandra reaches over to her piano to show three books with CDs of playsongs for active, energetic and overnight grandparenting.
This involved writing some new songs and recording the music with Nancy and her husband, James Fagan. “Making music with those two is my absolutely favourite thing to do!” She adds: “There is a genetic thing. Their two boys are just wonderful singers too, very talented and prodigious in their knowledge of music.”
Although “nominally retired”, Sandra still guest lectures for the folk and traditional music degree course at Newcastle University, for which she was one of the founding tutors.
Nancy, now a tutor for this course, has some exciting research projects under way.“It is always lovely to see the next generation, how they are doing and helping to nurture that.”
Then there has been some performing “still around Bagpuss, if you can believe it, after more than 40 years. I never thought people would still be talking about it after all this time, enthusing about it and wanting workshops and performances around it. Just extraordinary!”
Sandra adds: “Considering how ghastly it is out there in the world, we are very fortunate in having some very positive music and social things in our lives.”
She believes that online work has had a positive role to play. As she says: “It has made our music accessible to very much larger numbers of people, more accessibility and diversity because of the places music can reach now.” She points out that, in some cases, performers have been attracting huge audiences and is confident that this will continue.
Sandra grew up in the East End of London in a household “where music was very important. People used to say: ‘If you want to know where the Kerrs live, just go to the end of the street and listen for the music.’ I was very fortunate.”
A working-class family – father working in the docks, mother working in the local chocolate factory – they always had a piano. Her mother was “a fantastic singer, into jazz and the popular music of the 30s and 40s”.
Although Sandra never heard her, her mother had played concertina when she was young. Her maternal grandmother played the harmonica and her paternal grandfather, who she never met, played the concertina. It is not surprising that Sandra gravitated towards the concertina. “That’s my instrument, really.”
Sandra’s folk journey started with the radio, hearing people such as Peggy Seeger, “a wonderful inspiration”, and Margaret Barry, an Irish Traveller from Cork. “I found her singing absolutely stunning, hearing that rawness. I’d never heard anybody sing like that before. Everything I had heard had been sculpted, cleaned up, very sophisticated, let’s put it that way.”
Like many of her generation, Sandra was in a skiffle group at school and is very thankful for that. “It was a kind of permission given to everybody that you could make your own music. You didn’t have to be just a consumer.”
When Sandra was about 17 some friends took her to the Singers Club where she heard “Ewan [MacColl] and Peggy and Bert [Lloyd]”. She thinks that Harry Cox may have been there too.
She was completely blown away “by the songs and by the musical accompaniment because I loved harmony, always loved harmony and the way that Peggy accompanied one of Harry Cox’s songs, Van Diemen’s Land”.
At this point she picks up her guitar and illustrates the major to minor shifts while humming the melody.
“Of course, we had to have a singers club in east London,” she says, describing the folk club held at the Railway Tavern in Angel Lane. “I was still singing American songs at that time and Karl Dallas [the music journalist and songwriter] said: ‘Why aren’t you singing songs from your own culture?’ and he just fed me recordings of traditional singers.”
This led to her singing from the floor at the Singers Club. Then for about two years from around 1962 Sandra lived with Ewan and Peggy as “a kind of folk apprentice but also to help with the children while they were away on tour. I’ve had a charmed life.”
Sandra completed her training as a teacher, but before long she gave this up to become a full-time musician working with John Faulkner. By 1973 she would be writing the music and songs for Bagpuss.
She still has a love of teaching and sharing. She thinks this comes from her experience with Ewan and Peggy and the Critics Group, their folk study group of which Sandra was a founder member.
“I was so fortunate to have had lessons with both of them when I lived with them. They were both such good role models, they drew the best out of people and were always so generous with their time and knowledge. This has left a deep impression on me. I love to see people develop their skill and understanding.”
Reflecting on why this is so important to her she says: “I know why … it’s a way of going on yourself. You look at people out there and think: I love what you are doing and I am a very tiny part of that.”
Sandra believes that workshops and courses like the folk degree are really important for encouraging people to go back to the sources as she was encouraged to do. “Then make the music their own,” she adds.
Still the only folk and traditional music degree in England, the course at Newcastle University developed from Folkworks Summer Schools, meeting a demand from young musicians for further study.
Alistair Anderson, the concertina player and piper, convinced Newcastle University, “which has always had a very good music department”, to take on the course and was able to choose his own tutors, including Sandra along with Kathryn Tickell, Catriona McDonald and Karen Tweed.
Sandra believes the course has made its mark from the first intake and is fascinated by the wide range of career paths followed by the course participants.
Alongside well-known performers and musicians are people who have gone into a wide range of work including theatre and education as well as the academic world. “In this music you have to make your career, that’s what you do. No one is going to hand you anything. The only thing you get handed is the music, which is fantastic.”
Sandra has seen a change in the intake over the years. The younger generations are more “folk children who have grown up being taken to festivals and involved in young people’s music-making and so probably more diverse”. At this point, she notes that the numbers have declined as all universities, especially humanities departments, are suffering from the same funding issues. “Don’t get me started,” she says, adding that we deeply need these studies now more than ever.
‘In this music you have to make your career, that’s what you do. No one is going to hand you anything’
Sandra has always created music reflecting her political beliefs. Again, Ewan and Peggy, whose attitude was that the music has a political function, influenced this but also her own understanding of the tradition itself has supported her view.
“Anything that has been banned sometime in its history has got to have something good about it. You look at it and think about the people, the lives they led and what the songs express. You look at the situations in which the songs have been sung and the music has been played. It has a very functional nature.”
Expanding on this, she says that folk songs, including ballads, have an enormous function to play in people’s understanding of their own history and their own personal feelings. “They are about conflict, hardship, bravery and all those things.” Her own writing has been about “things that are important to me and important in the general sense.”
Over the years Sandra has written songs and performed in support of the peace movement, including for the Greenham Common anti-nuclear camp; the leftwing movement; the women’s movement; and now, most importantly, the green movement.
One of her most recent songs, Young Girl Upon The Road, is a tribute to Greta Thunberg. “It’s absolutely crucial. All good politics should start with two things – the Earth and children. If every piece of legislation started with that we would have a different world. That sums me up – children, the Earth!”
Can music change things? “I think the songs can change people and if people are changed then they can act differently. So many people have said: ‘This music has made a difference to me.’”
Bagpuss, a children’s television series of 13 episodes, was first broadcast in 1974. “I am enormously proud of Bagpuss,” says Sandra.
In the early 1970s, she and John had worked on Sam On Boffs’ Island, a schools’ television series, scripted by Michael Rosen, who had also been part of the Critics Group. Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin of Small Films did the animation work.
Oliver was looking for suitable music for a series he was developing about “an old, saggy cloth cat”. Sandra and John visited Oliver in Kent. “His house, Red Lion House, used to be a pub, which we took to be a good omen. We got on like a house on fire. It just clicked.”
Between them she and John played seven instruments. They played and sang for Oliver and that was it. Sandra thinks that some of the characters, in particular Madeleine the Rag Doll and Gabriel the Toad, were expanded in response to the music.
“It was great fun. That was where our grounding in traditional music really showed. We had a reference point for any ideas which Oliver threw at us.”
Sandra describes how they could use a traditional song or tune or use traditional forms as templates. “It was an immensely creative process and we had a ball.” It is still fun, she says, adding that many young people, including on the degree course, have told her that Bagpuss was their way into traditional music.
Over the years Sandra has toured a live show, with Nancy and James, for children of all ages. Responses such as: “I can die happy now I have heard Sandra Kerr perform Bagpuss live” or “Madeleine the Rag Doll was my surrogate mum” show the impact that the music for this one, 13-episode series has had.
In terms of plans for the future Sandra’s response is: “I don’t think I have ever planned anything in my life.”
Although now a bit reluctant about solo performances, she hopes that a tour planned, with Nancy and James, of her latest album, Rebel With Her Chords, will go ahead at some point. “It came out at just the wrong time,” she adds – pointing out that she still has a lot of albums to sell.