All good things must come to an end, and so it is with the South Downs Songs Project, which finished two incredibly successful years with a grand celebration at the Weald and Downland Museum. The South Downs Society project received a grant of nearly £50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to teach the traditional songs of the South Downs to people living across the region.Although the course has ended, you can enjoy all the joy and inspiration of those two years by listening to a CD on which all those who joined the project can be heard singing their hearts out. Entitled, South Downs Songs – Live at the Burpham Sessions , copies are available by mail order via this website. The CD also contains a booklet with the words of all 21 songs with a brief description of each song, its history and cultural context.
Traditional singing trio Emily and the Hares were employed by the Society to teach the songs in a series of workshops which were run throughout Sussex and Hampshire between September 2011 and March 2013. As well as the songs, the workshops also included illustrated talks about the history, folklore and literature of the South Downs. The first wave of publicity, during the summer of 2011, brought a huge public response; and within weeks the first workshops in Chichester and Lewes were fully booked.The workshop courses were held once a month on a Saturday for six months and attracted people of all ages and backgrounds. What particularly pleased project manager, Chris Hare, was that most of the people signing up for the workshops had never sung traditional songs before. Indeed, many of those joining the workshops had never sung at all – except perhaps in the shower!
“A big objective of the project was to bring in people unfamiliar with traditional singing”, explains Chris. “We could have advertised these workshops around the folk clubs and filled the places easily; but we wanted to bring in new people for whom singing unaccompanied folk songs would be a wholly new experience. It was a big challenge but one that paid off.”
Over the two years, workshops courses were held at Chichester, Lewes, Petersfield, Brighton, Worthing and Billingshurst. At the end of each course the workshop groups were recorded singing ‘live’ to an invited audience at Burpham Village Hall. The best, or ‘greatest hits’, from these recordings now appear on the CD and booklet that was launched at the celebration day at Weald and Downland. The booklet contains the words to the songs together with some of the history and social context of the era in which they were originally sung.
Trustees and Board members of the South Downs Society attended the workshops to talk about the work of the Society and to encourage participants to join the Society; an offer that many have taken up. Over the two years, 218 people have joined the workshops courses; nearly all of whom completed the workshops and went on to join the recording sessions at Burpham.
“The project has been an outstanding success by any measure,” says Chris. “Everyone has been so enthusiastic and the whole experience for myself, Ann and Emily, has been an extraordinarily energising and inspiring experience.”
The songs have a long and varied history, and were first written down by song collectors in the nineteenth century. Every song tells a unique story about the people, the countryside, and the customs of the South Downs in centuries gone by. They help us to learn about the lives of the people who lived and worked in the South Downs many years ago. There are love songs, drinking songs, songs about working on the Downs, and of riots caused by unemployment and hunger.
Arthur Beckett, who was a founder of the South Downs Society in 1923, was a great collector of the songs of the area. Many of the songs he discovered delighted and moved him; although there were some he disapproved of and which he refused to record. Beckett, as he travelled around the Downs, noted down many beautiful and ancient songs. In his book ‘The Spirit of the Downs’, he wrote that “some of the old songs I have met with are of a decidedly licentious and unwholesome character and for that reason are better unrecorded.” Fortunately, Emily and the Hares, living in less prudish times, include some of these ‘licentious’ songs in their repertoire.
South Downs Folk Singers
Many of the workshop singers have continued singing together since the project ended and have formed themselves into the South Downs Folk Singers.
With thanks to Clive Blott for the photos of the Members of Chichester and Lewes workshops following a live performance at Burpham on 24 March 2012.
South Downs Songs Clips
Clip used with kind permission of BBC South East Today
Clip used with kind permission of BBC South Today