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Sh*tshow

A not-so-subtle analysis of the current political moment.

The idea for the song popped into my head one morning, fully-formed, as my percolating coffee burbled gently under the eerily calm voice of the newsreader. 

As the day wore on, I imagined singing this new song at the top of my lungs at a Bastard English Session. This fantasy put a desperately needed smile on my face. Since I knew James Bell was interested in doing another video collaboration along the lines of Newcastle to Portsmouth, I plucked up the courage to do a one-take video and shared it with him.  He added some wicked harmonies and recruited Calum Novak-Mitchell, Mick Phillips, Laura Theis, Trev Williams, Hannah Gray and Josh Robson-Hemmings (of Threepenny Bit) to join in the mayhem.

The awesome instrument Mick is playing is a nyckelharpa. It’s from Sweden.

Here’s hoping the tides turn soon. May the mean-spirited sh*tshow give way to a pile of benevolent compost, from which a new era might spring.

Mindful Grumpiness?

I was struggling to find the best way to celebrate the launch of our lockdown video. While I really enjoyed live streaming this summer for both FloFest and Folk Weekend Oxford, now that quarantine is easing and the weather is so beautiful I just can’t stomach making another date with a screen, however wonderful the humans at the other end of the fibre optic cables might be. I loved one Facebook friend’s suggestion of an outdoor live screening in a large public space. The logistics of making it happen, however, were more than I could face. So I asked myself: what do I have to hand that I like using, and which could be a conduit for some sort of positive emotion inspired by the by-no-means-world-historic but nonetheless important-to-me event of our video release? And my eye fell upon a humble pen.

Markers and paper have been very important in our household during this pandemic. Sometimes we doodle. Sometimes we make our own games. Sometimes we colour things in. Often while listening to a podcast, of an entertaining or educational nature. We especially like The Infinite Monkey Cage, You’re Dead to Me, This American Life, The Celtic Myths and Legends Podcast, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and The Unbelieveable Truth.

So in celebration of the release of the Grumpy Lockdown video (9 pm BST on Thursday 6 August 2020), I offer you the printable below. Print out as many as you want. Give them to your children. Fill one in yourself. Fill in ten, each with a different colour scheme. Share the link with your parents and ask them to do the same. Put them in your window. Or use them as bedding for your new hamster. Whatever. But please, acknowledge the grumpiness and transcend it, with help from music, wry laughter and markers. At the very least you might distract yourself for a while.

Please do take a photo and send it to me through the magic of the internet. That would make my day.

Live streaming for Folk Weekend: Oxford 2020

Hello fine friends.  As I type I am preparing for my first ever live streaming musical performance, as part of Folk Weekend: Oxford 2020.  Although I am struggling to make sense of life under quarantine, I know music is at the core of my own survival and the root of so many relationships that I treasure.  I hope you will join me at 7 pm  British Summer Time later today for our wee experiment.

UPDATE: Sucess! We had over 1000 viewers. It was amazing spending the evening with old friends and new listeners in Australia, South Korea and the US as well as the UK. And you can still watch the video, anytime you like. Thanks to the amazing team at Folk Weekend!

Ten reasons to write a song

You can’t find your keys and singing “Where the %&$*£! are my keys?!?” again and again calms you down a bit.

You watched a lot of Sesame Street as a child.

When you sing it, the ache lifts.

You can’t get the riff out of your head.

Those words stick together like cookie dough.

You have a sleepless child in your arms and the whole night ahead of you.

Whenever you said the word “radish” as a child your mother burst into the refrain “Plant a radish, get a radish, never any doubt.” That confused you and yet seemed the natural order of things.

You grew up in an age of catchy advertising jingles and sort of figured out the formula.

You never know when Julie Andrews might turn up and you like to be prepared.

The important things need protection and a gentle melody provides strength as well as comfort.

Let me introduce you to my cuatro

“What is that?” people often ask when I take it out of its case. The cuatro’s doubled set of steel strings sound somewhere between a mandolin and a twelve-string guitar. When I stumbled into one in a cluttered music shop on a grim Chicago afternoon, I was still reeling from the heavy anaesthetic of a root canal. I was smitten the moment I laid eyes upon its violin-like profile, imagining I might be able to make some pretty sounds were I to take it in my arms.

Having played mostly on nylon string classical or flamenco guitars for several years, the bright joy and assertiveness of its strummed chords were sheer delight. It reminded me of the richness of the steel-stringed Guild I had played as a young teenager, learning folk and pop guitar in the bucolic fields of Appel Farm from Joe Crookston. Playing steel with a pick was wonderfully familiar, and I realised how much I missed it. Yet the cuatro was also different: even though a guitarist could find her way on it pretty quickly, its quality of sound and its beautiful shape were like nothing I had heard or seen before. Emboldened by my anesthetized stupor and possession of a credit card (my father’s), I declared that cuatro mine. I took her home.

My technique on the instrument differs significantly from how it is normally played. The national instrument of Puerto Rico, its mandolin-like upper registers usually sing twinkling melodies which shimmer above the mix.

Go seven minutes and thirty-two seconds into this interview with a child prodigy on Puerto Rican television to see what I mean:

Fabiola Mendez went on to become the first cuatro player to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston–although it was she who taught the cuatro to her teacher, a guitarist. Listen to her all grown up:

This is wonderful stuff. But I am only now discovering it, though I’ve been playing my cuatro for a decade and a half.

My cuatro is a petite, harmony-laden rhythmic powerhouse. It’s not a top-of-the-line model. In fact, it took me a little while to conclude that the distance from the nut to the first fret is just a shade off, meaning that I get better intonation if I keep a capo on the first fret (or above). At the very top of the neck, again, the intonation gets a bit inconsistent.

I do my best to work around its idiosyncrasies, as I hope others would do for me. I know full well that I stumbled upon this strange treasure and fell in love, without research or deliberation. I even entertained the notion of a cosmic connection between my dental work and the molar-like profile of its tuning pegs. Far-fetched as that might be, I am glad I impulsively clung to this (un)familiar instrument. It has illuminated both my joys and my sorrows with a strength I have come to depend upon.

It’s alive!

Grumpy by Sam Twigg and the Sometimes Band

We did it! We actually did it! Our lockdown video is finally live. Thank you Hannah Gray, Jane Griffiths, Colin Fletcher, Tracey Rimell, and Joshua Robson-Hemmings for contributing your talents on flute, fiddle, bass, vocals and guitar. This project kept me going and only occasionally drove me up the wall. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, why not share it with someone who has contributed to, and/or alleviated your lockdown grumpiness?