From 1916–1918, folk song collector Cecil Sharp traveled to remote regions of southern Appalachia in search of old English folk songs. A century later, with help from the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), The Golden Thread Project celebrates these songs that Cecil Sharp rediscovered, and has enlisted a roster of the finest artists to create comic strips and illustrations based upon them. Cecil Sharp was instrumental in saving English folk music from oblivion at the dawn of the 20th century. With his research 100 years ago, he reminded people that there is a golden thread connecting the U.S. and the U.K., a thread that has been culturally significant to both nations. Through The Golden Thread Project, founders Aidan Saunders and Geoff Coupland (ZEEL) aim to illuminate that thread and, like Cecil Sharp before them, educate and bring these fantastic folk songs to a wider audience. I spoke to Saunders and ZEEL to find out more.
What triggered this project?
Aidan: Well, me and Geoff Coupland (ZEEL) were working on another project called “The Rise and Fall of Mel Gibson,” and we were talking about our mutual love of U.S. imagery, folklore and folk music and how it informs our work. This got us thinking about the links between U.S. and U.K. cultures, and it stemmed from there.
ZEEL: It stemmed from a conflation of interests and motivations. Aidan has been interested in using a lot of references to Americana and U.S. popular musical history subjects in his prints ever since attending Camberwell College of Art, and he suggested that our next project could be on that theme, as a kind of travelogue. I realized that maybe that idea had been done quite a bit in TV documentaries and whatnot, but perhaps there would be a way to find a different angle that we could do justice to? We are neither American, musicians, nor have an authoritative knowledge of American Musicology. The thought of pitting my enthusiastic but shallow knowledge of jazz against a reader who might be a jazz aficionado makes me come out in a cold sweat. But, we thought—can we work with what we do have? Thoughts immediately began to swirl in the depths. … Way back I had read Burl Ives’ autobiography Wayfaring Stranger and found myself surprised by the amount of times he mentioned that many of the old songs that he learned as a boy in Illinois were, at root, British folk songs. This was a revelation to me at the time: Of course they were! This meshed very conveniently with my love of English folk music, becoming one of the points of reference in my widening net of understanding of musical history and ever-expanding record collection.
So, these links between old-world and new-world folksong leading into country, pop and jazz mentioned by Burl Ives had stuck in the back of my head … until Aidan suggested his idea for a project. Now these ideas mixed and sprang forth, as if from the brow of Zeus, and thus! In a few minutes, we sketched out the basic form of this Golden Thread Project:
1. Explore the links between British and American folk music via these song threads; explore the stories through comics and illustration, the art forms that we are trained in.
2. Suggest working with the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) so we could have a resonant and fitting place to launch the book and have an exhibition.
EFDSS Headquarters Cecil Sharp House is a place I had visited a bunch of times, and had presented my “Babes in the Wood” Magic Lantern show there back in the day. Because I am originally from North London and my parents met on that very spot, I have always been fascinated by it and wanted to collaborate with the EFDSS creatively for the longest time.
As soon as we started negotiating with EFDSS, we also realized that our project coincided with the centenary of a series of trips that Cecil Sharp, the founder of the EFDSS, made (with Maude Karpeles at the invitation of American song collector Olive Dame Campbell) during the period of the first World War to the Appalachians in the U.S.A., where they found and collected many old English folk songs that had survived from the times of the earliest settlers, had been lost in the U.K., and they could restore the songs back into the English Folk Canon. So, the stars were right! Our project matched with their plans for ongoing celebrations of that key moment in folk music history. After some form-filling, we were in, and so we are working with them today.
How did you assign the work to different artists?
Aidan: Geoff is like a human encyclopedia; he researched and sourced a list of songs which originated in U.K. and traveled to the U.S.A. From that list we asked everyone which song they would like. Luckily there was not any overlap—there was so much variation and so many meaty songs. I think there was more than enough for everyone to happily work on.
ZEEL: Well, that’s nice of Aidan to say, but the truth is that I am just a lot older than Aidan, so my knowledge pit is just that bit more filled. Aidan, his partner Rebecca and I had a long record playing session around my place, and basically, using the iconic Harry Smith Folkways Anthology cross-referenced with English versions on Topic Records, I enthused Aidan (already maybe the most enthusiastic person in the U.K.) further about the Golden Threads connecting U.K. to U.S.A. I also met and talked at length about music with old buddies like Stephen Fowler. (He recently had his amazing book on rubber stamping published by Lawrence King Books: http://stephenfowler72.blogspot.co.uk.)
Also, stalwart folk aficionados like Felicity Greenland and (all the way from the 1950s folk revival) the squeeze-box master Nick Nicholls were kind enough to meet and give us the benefit of his wisdom.
After setting up a long playlist on Spotify and a digital document that references the findings of Cecil Sharp that I was shown by Natalie the librarian at the reference Library at Cecil Sharp House (The Vaughn Williams Memorial Library) and their award-winning website, we had an ever-growing list of songs to choose from (there are still hundreds more to choose from). Some artists chose songs themselves, and if these songs are known in U.S.A. and had a folk root from the U.K., then fine! Other artists needed to chat and consider with us what song matched the themes in their work, the strength of their art styles. As Aidan says so well, these folk songs are fantastic! They have shown that they can survive and transmute themselves over the centuries and remain relevant. As soon as the artists heard about the project they were all interested, whether they had the time to work with us or not. In an industry where so many illustration jobs we get are anodyne, bland, compromised, a full-blooded murder ballad or tragic love ballad, full of strangeness, joy/gloom and passion, is a storytelling opportunity that fires the imagination.
What was the outcome that you expected, and the one you got?
Aidan: To be honest I think we were expecting people to submit work which would be a few pages, or half-cocked, but wow! Everyone is pulling out the stops, everyone seems super keen and the work we have received so far is mindblowing.
ZEEL: Well I personally didn’t dare consider the possibility that anyone would submit work that didn’t give the project as much as possible. We only asked people who we were certain could do the songs justice, and then soon some big names like Illustrator Jonny Hannah started wading in wanting to play in our sandpit, and we started to get excited! The first work handed in was by ace London comic artist Mark Stafford, and he was such an enthusiastic gent. His work totally raised the game. I was slightly worried that some of the more “down-the-line” comics styles would not mesh with the more abstract, “retro-Mid-century Modern” styles submitted, but so far, it is hanging together very attractively. Again, probably due to the universal power of the stories in these songs.
What are some high points of the project?
Aidan: Without doubt seeing the amazing roster of artists submitting their work to us. It’s at such a high standard; it’s such an injection of energy every finished piece or work-in-progress we receive.
ZEEL: Yes, I agree. Also, for me, seeing all these Golden Threads of interest and history aligning up so naturally is thrilling. I get a sense of being part of something universal, a tradition that anyone can engage with and add and merge with their own thoughts, feelings and cultural backgrounds. That is how a song from Georgian Ireland can be communicated to Scotland and England, to the Eastern coast of U.S.A., to New Orleans to become a jazz standard played by Louis Armstrong, to Texas to become a country song made a hit by Johnny Cash from Arkansas, to Georgia to become a blues classic by Blind Willie McTell.* It represents to me the Golden Thread of humanity that joins us all.
*This song is The Unfortunate Rake that we are thrilled Jonny Hannah is celebrating as St James Infirmary.
How do you think the comics enhance the work?
Aidan: Personally I think it widens the gaze onto folk music. It’s another way to introduce people who may not listen to these songs and inspire them to research and learn about our two countries’ rich artistic and musical heritage. Folk always transforms throughout the years and I feel through a comic book it is another transformation.
ZEEL: Do I think that comics enhance the songs? Or the book? I am a zealot for comics; in my mind any publication or exhibition that does not include some form of sequential art is a missed opportunity.
As for comics being used to represent these songs, the relationship is natural and complimentary. A folk song represents the life and voice of the people in a popular and heartfelt way that has been refined, then debased and then re-refined (etc.) generation by generation. So comics, which is only ever as good or transcendent as the person (or team) who is making the comic, has until relatively recently been seen as one of the popular arts, that despite being commercial, represented and spoke to the psyche of everyday people.
We have deliberately made the decision to let our contributing artists interpret these songs as they wished, to both simulate and allow for the natural process of interpretation and misinterpretation to change songs via the filter of each artist’s inner vision. We are including notes that show the provenance of each song, but the book is more of an art project that will entertain and open the mind to the value of these songs, rather than a song book or primer in the classic sense, of which there are many excellent examples already. Our mission is to celebrate and illuminate these song/stories so that more people can have their significance revealed to them!
What are your plans for the final project?
Aidan and ZEEL: We are beavering away putting the book together with the amazing stuff we are receiving, and working with EFDSS to deliver it in multiple ways. The book will be launched at Cecil Sharp House Camden, London, U.K., next March, and this will kickstart an exhibition in that venue of original artwork from the book, plus related sketches and so forth. (There may also be some other surprises.)
We are also organizing a music event to celebrate the end of the exhibition, a mini-festival-esque event. Reviving a seminal folk music club night called MURRI that Stephen Fowler led back around the turn of the 20th century, we are “getting the old gang back together” to Celebrate the Golden Thread!
MURRI Celebrates the Golden Thread (@TheGoldenThreadProject) will include art activities, music, singing and dancing, with folk artistes and some of the contributing comic artists who are well able to sing a tune. Also it is to be expected, as traditional, that the intake of Real Ale will occur.
After the events at Cecil Sharp House, we would love to tour the work and book stateside. We have already begun to put out feelers to institutions in the States to see if we can collaborate and, perhaps, reflecting Cecil Sharp’s song collecting activities, so very seminal to our work and the revivals of folk music, perhaps somewhere in the vast Appalachian region, which does, as you will know, reach all the way from New York State to Mississippi. We will find another collaborator to explore the Golden Threads that connect us of the Olde Wurlde with the denizens of that fair land over the sea.