EFDSS Halsway Manor Weekend, 19th – 21st April, 2013

Halsway Manor sits grandly in the heart of the Quantocks, the best-named bunch of hills I know. It’s beautiful there. If you take the train from London Paddington, via Reading, Swindon and so forth, you can tell when you reach the West Country, because the flat lands start to rise and the countryside puts on its colours. The Manor itself is then about twenty minutes drive from the town of Taunton. This is the journey I made on the weekend, thanks to my friends at the English Folk Dance and Song Society; EFDSS hereafter.

The idea was to host a sort of professional development weekend for folk musicians. The twenty or so of us invited along all had a solid command of our creative mediums. There were great singers, great fiddlers and melodeon players, mandolin pickers, songwriters and guitarists, even the odd laptop-packing sound artist or two. The aim of the conference, therefore, was to focus on the business side of things; the murky, administrative backwaters of the music world which, to varying degrees, we maybe weren’t so comfortable with. (I, for one, am certainly not.)

After a thorough welcoming on Friday night, we came down to the main hall early on Saturday morning, a tangible, boozy fog rising from some of us. The day’s first talk was given by EFDSS’ own Sophia Linehan and Jo Cunningham, who walked us through ideas of branding. Like it or not, by simple dint of entering the musical sphere, you acquire a brand of some kind, so it’s best to look after it. I suggested it might be more palatable for folkies to remember that ‘brand’ is an agricultural word, as in cows. The presentation was thorough, authoritative and never patronising.

Actually, this was the tone of the whole weekend, presentation-wise. Over the next couple of days there followed a wealth of invaluable, practical expertise. Each presentation was excellent. I’ve not time enough here to go into them all, but highlights included Neil Pearson and Katy Spicer on how to apply for funding, as well as folk star, one-woman cottage industry and all-round lovely person Bella Hardy, who gave no-nonsense advice on the day-to-day rigour of being a professional musician. Cardinal point: don’t be a dick.

Most of all, I was thrilled to meet so many talented folks. The reason a lot of musicians struggle with the business end of things is because they live to play, so it was unlikely you’d have a weekend’s worth of them filling the halls of a 15th Century Manor without some sort of session breaking loose. And oh my, these were some sort of sessions indeed. Two nights running we filled out Halsway’s bar room and swapped tunes, sung songs, picked and banged on stringed things and bowed the other, fretless kind. The sounds were rich and full and inspiring. The advent of my birth took place on the Saturday, and the happy birthday chorus I received was the most boisterous I’ve ever had. Harmonies and everything! Melodeons! And there was alcohol. We liked alcohol. Where musicians are concerned, it’s just as well to call that spade a spade.

Early on the Saturday I woke up and walked out onto the grounds, all morning mist and burnt-ochre stone. There were rabbits everywhere. I looked at the maypole and its billowed ribbons. At first it made me think of human sacrifice, Wicker Man fashion. But then I just thought of how lucky I was to be there. I am profoundly grateful to all at EFDSS for the weekend, and my continuing relationship with them. To new friends, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting you – re-meeting some of you – and look forward to doing so again soon enough. Meantime, speed the plough, and go well, all.

J