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The Treehouse Festival

This week’s guest blogger for our theme of Traditional Skills is Colin Hynson. He helps to organise the Treehouse Festival which focusses on teaching and learning traditional and forgotten skills and crafts. This years’ festival will include a campfire folk song session and Colin is researching folk songs for a songbook with links to traditional crafts. Below he explains a bit more about the festival and where his research has taken him so far.

Nestled deep in the Norfolk countryside is a farm and, on that farm, an annual festival is held. If you’re thinking Worthy Farm but smaller then you are only slightly right. The Treehouse Festival is all about teaching and learning traditional and forgotten crafts and skills. For a week in August people at the festival have a go at blacksmithing, green woodworking, basket weaving, glass–blowing and a whole lot of other similar things.

It’s different from many festivals in that it is deliberately kept small–scale. There is an upper limit of 150 people there. This is the ‘Dunbar Number’ which states that 150 is the upper limit for creating a community in which everyone in that community knows and interacts with each other. Meals are prepared and eaten communally in a massive ex–circus tent and there are lots of group events throughout the week – some of it organised and some spontaneous

Music (especially folk music) only plays a peripheral part in the festival. One evening is given over to a local cèilidh band playing in the barn. There is also an established workshop where people learn to sing some sea shanties around the campfire (this was happening years before it became a Tik Tok sensation). Some people bring along instruments for jamming sessions which may not include folk music but does have a participatory and improvisational nature that any folk musician would recognise.

I’m starting to plan for a folk–singing session around the campfire in 2022 which will be based on some of the crafts and skills that are most commonly taught at the Treehouse Festival. My initial researches suggest that some traditional skills and work are better represented than others in the folk music canon.

There seems to be a lot of folk songs about blacksmithing. This might be because of the central role that the blacksmith played in the economic and social life of many communities before the industrial revolution. The song on blacksmiths that may be most familiar to many of you is “A Blacksmith Courted Me”. This was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams at the start of the 20th century. It’s a love song so there’s not much blacksmithing in it. It was covered by Steeleye Span in ‘Please to See the King’ and also by Planxty, Eddi Reader and Loreena McKennitt. https://youtu.be/FQq61m3xYQs

Many of the songs that relate to weaving are linked to industrialisation and to the ‘dark satanic’ mills in which many, especially women and children, worked. So these songs are rooted far more in an urban and industrial experience. They also have a far stronger political slant to them. One example of this is the Scottish ‘Jute Mill Song’ which highlights the working conditions of mill workers. Pre–industrial weaving songs are more difficult to find. One example is the ‘Work of the Weavers’ which was written at the start of the nineteenth century. https://youtu.be/2tc25LN4wj0

One of the more enduring workshops at the Treehouse Festival is needlework such as knitting and crochet. Folk songs about these traditional crafts seem to be thin on the ground but one thing I did find was of knitting rhymes to teach people, especially children, how to knit. The best known shows you a basic knit stitch:

In through the front door,

Around the back

Peep through the window,

And off jumps Jack!

There’s even a rhyme for learning the purl stitch:

In under the fence

Grab that sheep

Out of the fence

And off we leap

Songs about working with wood seem to be less about carpentry and more about the experiences of the lumberjacks of the United States. Smithsonian Folkways has an album of American woodworking songs that was recorded by Joe Glazier in the 1970s. https://folkways.si.edu/joe-gl...

There seem to be quite a few traditional crafts where, for the moment at least, I’ve drawn a blank when it comes to folk songs. Glass–blowing, leather work, and cordage (making string out of plant fibres) are all popular activities at the Treehouse Festival but don’t seem to have been sung about. I’ll carry on digging.

You can see the kind of thing that happens at the Treehouse Festival https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

Plans for the 2022 Treehouse Festival are getting underway. If you’d like to sign up for news and tickets then just go to the website.

Hopefully this year there’ll be an evening of folk singing around the campfire.

Colin Hynson