Singer and musician Jackie Oates tells Tim Hughes why this year’s instalment of the Folk Weekend Oxford will be the best yet
Jacki Oates is warming up for one of the biggest weekends of her year. The folk singer, who found fame through dark and melancholy traditional tunes, is cheerfully looking forward to a musical event which has boosted Oxford’s reputation as a home of folk music.
“It’s time for the Folk Weekend and I’m really looking forward to it” she says, speaking from her home in Wallingford.
“I love what has been planned and the artists who have been booked. – especially those who have been given their first platform.”
Jackie, who has won two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, has performed with Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, Morris Offspring and The Imagined Village.
Her musical projects have seen her delve into the darker side of lullabies and murder ballads as well as cheerier up-tempo material – much of it influenced by her passion for Morris dancing and its traditional tunes.
“There’s a persistent theme of life and loss,” she says.
Her position as one of the darlings of the new folk scene saw her become a patron of the folk weekend Oxford, at which she plays.
Taking over from the Oxford Folk festival, the Folk Weekend began as an unofficial gathering in 2012 and was launched as a formal entity the following year.
It now attracts thousands of folkies from across the country, and beyond, luring music-lovers with the promise of exclusive sets by respected artists against the backdrop of Oxford in the springtime.
Between tomorrow and Sunday, more than 70 acts will play at venues across the city centre, and just beyond. They include the Wesley Memorial Church (the main venue) in New Inn Hall Street, the Oxford Deaf & Hard of Hearing Centre in St Ebbe’s, St Barnabas Church in Jericho (for ceilidhs), Blackwell’s Bookshop (local stage), St Columba’s Church in Alfred Street (European dance and tango), The Quaker Meeting House and the Pitt Rivers Museum (family activities).
There will also be sessions at the St Aldate’s Tavern, Royal Blenheim and The Vaults Cafe in Radcliffe Square.
Then there is Morris and folk dancing, which takes place in Broad Street, Cornmarket, Bonn Square and outside pubs, such as The Bear, in Alfred Street.
Local dancers brush shoulders, and clash sticks, with visiting sides from as far afield as Lancashire.
Musical highlights this year include Jackie’s set with Oxford singer-songwriter Megan Henwood, and a show by her brother, the balladeer Jim Moray.
Also up are Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, who play both as a duo and as part of the dynamic Melrose Quartet, Ange Hardy, banjo player Dan Walsh, Dipper Malkin, Jimmy Aldridge & Sid Goldsmith, The Emily Askew Band, The Discussion Topic, and squeezebox star John Spiers.
‘Squeezy’ John is one of the founder members of 11-piece avant-folk supergroup Bellowhead, which was convened as a one-off project in 2004 for the very first Oxford Folk Festival at Oxford Town Hall.
The band went on to achieve huge success before calling it a day, after 12 years, back at the Town Hall last May Day.
Another former Bellowhead member Sam Sweeney also appears in his band Leveret, alongside Andy Cutting and Rob Habron.
“The weekend is a mixture of quality music, entertainment and culture,” says Jackie – a mother-of-one.
“Oxford has a lot to offer – much of it quirky and unusual. The city is steeped in tradition and has the strongest folk identity on the scene.
“Our pub sessions in places like The Half Moon and James Street Tavern are renowned up and down the country, along with bands like Magpie Lane, Feast of Fiddles, Bellowhead, who met here, and Fairport Convention in the north of the county.”
She encouraged music-lovers to catch the set by her brother Jim at the Wesley Memorial Church, tomorrow night.
She said: “He is principally an English folk singer and songwriter and is into ballads – reinventing them and dressing them up so that people can relate to them.”
He is known for his use of electronic gadgetry used to sample and sequence his own music, adding layers of melody and rhythm.
“He is keen on ballads,” says Jackie. “These are the songs that came about in the days before journalism. Ballad singers would travel from town to town and spread the news of the day in the form of verse.
“They would be printed out as ‘broadsides’ or people would remember the gist and tell them as stories – which would be passed along as part of the oral tradition.
“Many of us grew up singing them at school assemblies – especially songs songs like Barbara Allen and Early One Morning. People might think they don’t know them but they do.”
Jackie and Megan play the same venue on Saturday night, alongside Melrose Quartet.
Jackie says: “I moved to Oxford in 2011 and have been quite involved in the folk scene. Megan and I started working together because we are good friends and noticed our voices blended.
“We both come from different places, though. She’s a songwriter and I’m more traditional, so there’s a combination of styles, though it turns out really well. It’s different to anything else I’ve done on my own, but is soothing.”
And she urged those who have never dabbled in folk to come along and get involved. “It’s a celebration of all that Oxford offers,” she says.
“It’s also really important in the support it gives to up-and-coming artists and in promoting English folk music – which is a cause which needs pushing.
“English folk music used to be looked down upon but the tradition is so rich and many younger artists are exploring new avenues and bringing new ideas and styles. These songs are everyone’s property. You can do what you like with them and see what comes out. It’s all about keeping them alive.”
She adds: “People may be surprised by what they find once they start exploring the festival. It encompasses all manner of stuff you wouldn’t expect. It’s very accessible and many events are free.
“Come with an open mind, relax, sit in on a concert and enjoy yourself.”
Folk Weekend Oxford runs from tomorrow to Sunday at venues across Oxford city centre. For details go to folkweekend.oxford.co.uk
“This is our biggest weekend yet,” says director Cat Kelly – a singer and fiddle player from Stanton Harcourt, near Witney.
“We have got more new venues and a much busier programme. Sunday in particular is much fuller.”
So what is Cat most looking forward to? “It all looks amazing,” she says.
“Melrose Quarter are fantastic instrumentalists and are one of my absolute favourite groups.
“Jim Moray is also amazing. He plays traditional material in a modern way. He has worked with rappers and electronic musicians and has now turned folk on its head by using a sampler – which is something the folk scene hasn’t seen before. He is coming here for the first time.
“Nancy Kerr and James Fagan are wonderful and create a wall of sound. Their music is cleverly arranged with a mix of traditional material and Nancy’s own songs. Their personalities shine through in whatever they do.
“Then there’s Dan Walsh, who is one of the best banjo players in the country, and Leveret who don’t tend to arrange anything beforehand and just feed off each other by responding and improvising. No two shows are ever the same. They will be closing the festival on Sunday, which is a really nice way to round it off.”
She is also looking forward to seeing ‘Squeezy’ John Spiers. “It’s the first year he won’t be on tour with Bellowhead,” she laughs. “It was good of him to have scrapped Bellowhead so he could come and play for us here!
“There is something captivating about his playing; it draws you in far more than you would expect from a man with a squeezebox.”
She is also a fan of the dances, and urged everyone – experienced or novice – to come along and have fun. She says: “The ceilidhs are always fun and we have one on Sunday this year, which we have never done before.
“You don’t even have to be a good dancer. A caller will talk you through all the moves beforehand – and, anyway, getting it wrong is all part of the fun.
“It’s a social dance not a display dance and no one takes it too seriously.”
She said attracting new audiences was a priority.
“We have tried to incorporate stuff suitable for people that don’t necessarily come to these kind of events.”
That includes those with disabilities or learning difficulties. Cat, a mother-of-two, draws on her experience of working in special schools to arrange events at which all children and their parents or carers, would enjoy. Family-friendly events take place in the majestic surroundings of the Pitt Rivers Museum.
“Accessibility is a big thing for me,” she says. “A lot of what I do is with special needs schools, and I love the effect music has on children – and the enjoyment it brings. It’s a unique way of engaging people. To some parents, the thought of going to a crowded noisy venue may be just too much. But everyone is welcome here. I feel really strongly about making the effort. It’s not enough to simply say ‘we are inclusive’; you have to make it a reality.”
And, with the festival almost upon us, Cat admits to being calm and relaxed – the hard work behind her.
“Everything is now in place,” she says, “Now I just have to press play and all will run smoothly.”
She laughs as she recalls previous disasters – such as the Randolph Hotel fire, two years ago, which caused the evacuation of the festival’s former HQ at the Old Fire Station, and a plumbing catastrophe two years earlier which flooded the building.
“We are probably due another disaster,” she jokes, before laughing nervously.
“I have actually been hard at work on a 100 word document telling people how to run the festival without me, so I can just enjoy it now. It’s important to get out, stick my head in each venue and engage with the festival rather than be stuck in an office.
“This is my favourite weekend of the year,” she adds. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it!”
- Folk Weekend Oxford runs from tomorrow to Sunday. For ticket details go to folkweekendoxford.co.uk. Many events are free of charge