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Tim Eriksen, The Betsey Trotwood, Farringdon, July 20th 2010

July 25, 2010

This gig first came across my radar a few weeks ago when we saw Cath and Phil Tyler at the Leigh Folk Festival. Cath used to be in American ‘punk-folk’ band Cordelia’s Dad, who supported Nirvana and Uncle Tupelo back in the day and whose leader, Tim Eriksen, was coming over to play a gig at the Magpie’s Nest folk club. Having read rave reviews about him as a fiddler, banjo-player, solo traditional singer and self-styled follower of ‘hardcore Americana’, I was keen to hear him sing and play. The Betsey Trotwood used to be inhabited by pissed hacks from The Guardian, but they’ve all either been laid off or relocated to the swanky and unaffordable new Guardian offices at King’s Place, leaving the Betsey in the hands of ale-drinkers and music lovers.

I’d been to the Betsey’s upstairs stage before, but never down into the tiny basement where this gig was taking place. There were about thirty people there, which meant it was packed. I spied Magpie’s Nest maitre d’ Sam Lee and then spotted Sam Beer, ace guitarist and mainstay of fine country-rock band the Treetop Flyers. Just as I was idly pondering whether or not I’d see him, blow me down – there was top young folk singer-songwriter Sam Carter, too. So, there were a trio of Sams, plus I recognised Helene Bradley from the Memory Band and one of the clog-dancing girls from the Demon Barbers too. Believe me, I’m not name-dropping (can you seriously imagine a folkie version of Heat magazine?), but suggesting that a high proportion of this tiny audience were singers and musicians who were keen to see Tim – and probably to steal off him, too, if I know folkies…

Before he took the stage, there were a few floor spots, including an impressive display of jigs from 11-year-old fiddler Billy, but then Tim decided to start his set from the dark at the back of the cellar room rather than on stage, which was inspired. The rather spooky old song Farewell To Old Bedford resounded from the dark behind me and it was clear right away how strong Tim’s voice is:
Farewell to Old Bedford, I’m bound for to leave you
Likewise those pretty girls I nevermore shall see;
My portion is small but I truly confess it
What little I have, it is all my own…
Eight drams a bottle is, and I don’t care for folly,
I play on my fiddle and dance all the time,
My fingers are frozen, My bow it needs rosin,
My soundpost is down, and my bridge it won’t stand
.

Next was a lovely old song, Friendship, for which Tim played the fiddle. He thanked ‘Ed’ for lending him tonight’s fiddle and banjo, saying that he borrowed instruments on the road instead of taking his own, as it would be too expensive paying for them to travel with him all the time. One of the most telling pieces I’ve read about ‘how to make a living playing music’ starts with the condition: ‘If you are a very materialistic person, skip this article, I don’t think you are going to like what it says.’ Most of the rest is about how not to spend money, given that the well-off musician is – and always has been – a rarity. So here’s Tim Eriksen, sometime professor of music, creator of the Cold Mountain soundtrack and one of the foremost exponents of American old-time song, and he can’t afford to take his instruments with him on the road. Bet they won’t tell you that when you audition to appear on the X Factor.

Tim was complimentary about the sound of Ed’s fiddle and suspected it might have been due to the elastic band holding it together, giving it an authentic ‘rattle’. He claimed that old-time American fiddlers would place the detached rattle from a dead rattlesnake into their instrument to give it a resonant buzz. As Tim admitted, there’s something of the didactic professor about him, but his between-song expositions and explanations were fascinating and to the point, and his enthusiasm and knowledge shone through. The rest of the set comprised all sorts of songs, sacred and profane, many of them from Tim’s home state of Massachusetts. In fact, he’s something of an evangelist for what he calls ‘Northern roots’ – the often forgotten old-time music of New England – and points out, with some justification, that the notion of ‘old-time American music’ can lead one to think only of Appalachia and the South.

There was then a break, during which I bumped into Sam Beer in the gents, who was raving about Tim’s songs and singing. I introduced myself and agreed that there’s something about going to ‘the source’ with these songs, often unaccompanied and with their roots deep in not only European culture but in all likelihood native American and African culture too. After recharging my pint (with some very lovely own-brewed Betsey Bitter), we reconvened downstairs for more songs and tunes. Tim introduced us to his bajo sexto, a Mex-Tex twelve-stringed guitar with a strong bassy sound (that’s it in the photo above left), and led us in a stirring rendition of The Bonny Bay Of Biscay-O. He also sang Golden Harp accompanied by banjo and, not coincidentally, talked about ‘sacred harp’ singing, a compelling collective harmony-singing style which still survives in the States, and ‘shape note’ music, which is a way of arranging and notating music so as to be easily understood even by the ‘non-musical’. He also threw in some evocative overtone singing, which was impressive.

It’s all fascinating stuff and a reminder that the human voice is the most valuable and versatile instrument in the musician’s collection. Recently I’ve subscribed to Jon Boden’s excellent A Folk Song A Day podcast project, in which Jon aims to sing – unaccompanied – a song a day from Midsummer this year through to Midsummer next June. He’s said that he’s not just interested in traditional ‘canonical’ folk songs, but also football chants, old music-hall numbers and popular songs, nursery rhymes, skipping songs and so on. It’s a wonderful project and evolving day-by-day, so go and take a look and have a listen.

I’d had a memorable evening in the hands of a master of song. Tim is a powerful singer, a fine musician and a fascinating story-teller, and hearing him sing and play makes you want to hunt out more songs and stories uncovering that rich background of genuine ‘folk’ music from, well, all over the world. Here he is singing Friendship:

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2010 4:26 pm

    I just linked to your review on my facebook page. You really captured the evening nicely at the BT. I’ve never been there but I live in Trotwood Ohio USA and often stumble across posts like yours when searching for info on my hometown. This is the first time I actually read an entire post about the Betsy Trotwood and I’m glad I did. Keep on writing. Now I’ll have to keep an eye out for Tim’s schedule in case he ever wanders out here to the midwest.

    • brandnewguy permalink*
      July 27, 2010 9:39 pm

      Hi Bruce,

      Greetings to Trotwood! Next time I’m at the pub I’ll get you a little souvenir and send it over to Ohio 🙂

  2. July 27, 2010 2:40 pm

    I was just pottering about the web to see if anyone had written about this yet. Imagine my surprise upon seeing myself mentioned!

    Great summary of the evening. It was wonderful to get to see Mr. Eriksen in such a tiny venue – I couldn’t believe it when he launched into song while standing right next to me. Hell of a voice, that.

    Will you be going to Sidmouth? I’m hoping to catch him again at the series of Sacred Harp workshops he’s doing. Sam (Carter) and I went to a few of the singings held in Neasden earlier this year. Good stuff.

    All the best,

    Helene

    • brandnewguy permalink*
      July 27, 2010 3:59 pm

      LOL – yes, I have eagle eyes 🙂 The evening was just wonderful and I’d love to be in on some of those Sacred Harp sessions. Alas, I can’t go to Sidmouth, but have a great time.

      Cheers,
      Guy

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