Stick in the Wheel are an urban folk group rooted in the tradition but with a hard, forward-looking sound and attitude, reports Josh Newman
The word that I couldn’t escape after seeing this fascinating group of traditional musicians was ‘irreverent’. In one of the longer song introductions (about 8 seconds, for Champion), frontwoman Nicola Kearey said the following of Ewan MacColl, a figure that many in the English folk circuit would think several times before joking about:
‘This is a song about lorry driving. Written by a famous lorry driver, Ewan MacColl. Wasn’t actually a lorry driver. Just seemed to think he was.’
In a small back room in the Cobblestone pub in north Dublin, famous for its daily Irish traditional music sessions, I watched a gig last weekend that with any other acoustic group you might have called intimate. In fact, while the gig was actually happening I couldn’t have felt less cared for as an audience member, despite being metres away from the group.
The group, in particular through Kearey’s presence, managed to sustain a contradictory image throughout the evening. There was a huge amount of energy at the same time as an apathy that may have been mannered but was certainly convincing. For someone used to the generally quite soft world of English traditional music the experience will be somehow refreshing as well as harsh and strange. A bit like Diet Coke.
Class is undoubtedly at the forefront with Stick in the Wheel. It is an issue that is usually present as the implicit backdrop of traditional music but is rarely made explicit. Perhaps this is unavoidable when the population of the big summer folk festivals which partially sustain the music form is undeniably middle-class and, right from the beginning of the first revival, the song collectors like Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger had a bourgeois image of the ‘innocent peasantry’ that they applied to the music and people they came across.
One of Stick in the Wheel’s original songs (Me N Becky) is about the London Riots and is a wry look into the mind of someone who ended up more or less by accident in the middle of the riots and looting of 2011. The audience was simply told that ‘this is a song about the London riots where some of us got some new trainers.’
Another original song that reflects on important social and class issues, but about a time more familiar to folk song, is Common Ground. This is about the process of enclosure in England that began in the 16th Century whereby common land was turned into private property which is an important development in the formation of Capitalism in England. Kearey has no problem identifying this is a protracted class war by the nobility and landowners on the idea of land being commonly owned by everyone.
The same energy and care for the lives of ordinary people appears in traditional songs like The Bows of London, a gruesome old Scottish song which talks about a girl who is drowned by her sister and has a fiddle made out of her skeleton, and Hard Times of Old England, a song about the struggles of the rural working class from the repertoire of the Copper Family.
The sparse, often harsh arrangements of traditional songs and the centrality of the working class in Stick in the Wheel’s music and shows set them apart from most acts in the world of English traditional music. Anyone interested in how traditional music can be carried forward without losing sight of its roots would do well to go to their nearest Stick in the Wheel gig at the earliest opportunity.
Josh Newman is a teacher, musician, and writer from East Kent who now runs Counterfire and Stop the War branches in Oxford
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