Martin Purdy of Harp & A Monkey talks about the influence of Ewan MacColl on the acclaimed song and storytelling outfit. The northern English trio have just released their long-awaited fourth album, The Victorians, on which they explore ‘popular’ songs and stories of the Victorian era; taking in tunes from the street, parlour, workplace, music hall and rural communities. Their goal, to continue refining a unique marriage of the traditional and modern…
We started Harp & a Monkey back in 2007, and spent a full year exploring exactly what we wanted the sound and identity of the band to be. We had all grown up in the North West of England and been weaned on the regional folk music that our parents listened to, from Mike Harding to the Oldham Tinkers. Still, if that was the domestic soundtrack, outside of the family home we were from the ‘dance’ and ‘indie’ generation. And that is the key to where we ended up – with a music that has always strived to merge the old and the new, the organic and the electronic, field recordings and found sounds with harps and banjos.
Harp & a Monkey are (left to right) Simon Jones, Martin Purdy and Andy Smith
Musically we drew from the beginning on a wide mix of influences, from Bjork to the Penguin Café Orchestra, and either of those could easily have been the subject of this article. So too some of the great modern storytellers, from Ray Davies to Jerry Dammers, It’s Immaterial to Chris Wood. This because we had made a firm decision from the outset that we wanted to embrace the concept of storytelling – for the song lyrics to be short stories covering both historical and modern themes. I suppose that is how we came to be classed as a ‘folk’ act, because the most prominent ‘folk’ element to what we have always done has remained the embracing of the troubadour and street balladeer’s commitment to storytelling. It’s an approach very much present on our new album, on which we have taken songs and stories from the Victorian era and reworked them for contemporary ears.
The Calico Printer’s Clerk by Harp & a Monkey
Good storytelling is all about the understanding of phrasing and diction, the dynamic of delivery and the drama of the different tonalities of the human voice. The great Gospel and blues singers and the likes of Sinatra and Scott Walker knew about it, Bjork, Thom Yorke and Eliza Carthy still do, but the biggest influences for me have always been Ewan MacColl and Harry Boardman. Both of these were ‘folk’ singers from Manchester, my home town, and leading lights in the post-war folk revival that began in the 1950s. It’s a tough call, but if forced to choose one I would have to go with Ewan.
While it was Harry’s approach that taught me about the power and charm of the parochial voice and the embracing of regional accents and stories, it was the scale of Ewan’s creative ambition that perhaps had the most important impact. For me, he is not only one of THE finest interpreters of traditional song, but also one of THE most consistent and original songwriters and storytellers of the 20th century.
Like many people, my first introduction to the songs of Ewan MacColl came via cover versions – The Pogues attacking Dirty Old Town with raw energy, Roberta Flack luring you into a world of emotional depth and intimacy with her breath-taking version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. An Essential Collection of MacColl’s songs has been a staple of my listening for three decades. Other acts push their way to the fore at points, but MacColl is always there. The godfather of North-West folk music, the fearless and peerless documenter of rural and urban British life.
Dirty Old Town by The Pogues:
Born during the First World War, and then spending his formative years in Salford in the midst of the great economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, Ewan knew about working-class hardship. In fact, much of his music is deeply political. What I admire is the way that he rarely loses sight of the need for personalisation and humanity in his songs, even when he is at his most political and polemic. And for a working-class man with strong opinions – and, I am sure at times an overbearing sense of self-righteousness – there is a genuine tenderness to much of his writing. I particularly love his songs about his father and his own fatherhood, as well as his clear love of the natural world and ability to get under the skin of the ‘ordinary Joe’ – from the fisherman to the traveller or the long-distance truck driver, his themed collections of radio ballads (made for the BBC) are unsurpassed to these ears as a celebration of the ‘ordinary man’.
There has always been a place for storytelling in our lives and there always will; the passing on of personal and global histories, the need to recount, recollect, philosophise, empower, protest, dream, fantasise, challenge and entertain. I reckon we need to raise a glass to all who do it well!
The Father’s Song by Ewan MacColl:
Harp & a Monkey’s fourth album, The Victorians, is out on November 25 and you can find out more about the trio, including latest gig updates, at: www.harpandamonkey.com