Wish You Were Here
Writing Songs Rooted in Places
Over the past couple of months I’ve been privileged to work on a number of songwriting projects rooted in Yorkshire towns. One is the Creative Residencies project, an Arts Council funded project based in North Yorkshire Libraries (I’ll be writing more about that shortly, promise!), and last week I was in Grassington (a village I already have a relationship with) working on Wish You Were Here, another interesting project co-ordinated by NYMAZ, and facilitated by Grassington Festival.
What is it?
“Wish You Were Here” is a music as culture project; a songwriting relay in villages and towns across Yorkshire. The idea is to create and record songs rooted in communities, and to make those songs with the good good people of those communities. Wish You Were Here (WYWH) Artistic Director Rebecca Gross, has gathered a team of musicians to work in Grassington, Pateley Bridge, Selby, Helmsley, Botton, Easingwold and Reeth, and tasked us with answering this question:
> “What would you tell a travelling visitor about your community?”
Each song is then relayed by bike (in keeping with the Tour De France – Grand Depart theme), passing on a sense of identity through stories and music – in the true folk arts tradition.
This is the song we made in Grassington, “The Ballad of Grassington” no less (pronounced “Guston/Gurston/Giston” so we’re told, by locals in the know). It was written and recorded by the good people of Grassington, with a little help from me [winks].
How did we make it?
On Monday 28th April, Emma Sandoe (of the Grassington Festival team) and I first went to Grassington Primary School gathering answers to questions like:
> – What would you tell travelling visitors about Grassington?
> – What’s great about Grassington?
> – What do you love about Grassington?
> – What are the things that make Grassington Grassington?
We got some great answers. Here’s some of my favourites. “Grassington’s great coz we have green grass. We’re a Grass-in-town!”, “we have awesome barbecues in summer”, “Our flowers! They’re colourful, bright, pretty and beautiful”, “coffee mornings are important”. We also got to hear of some of the legends of Grassington; Tom Lee, of Dibble’s Bridge (built by the Devil we’re told), of Monks, haunted houses and “The Grey Lady”.
We took these words, thoughts and stories along to our next school visit to Upper Wharfedale School, developed the ideas, and started to come up with melodies. We made a start at writing verses, and the young peeps of Upper Wharfedale came up with this:
> Built on scythes and retro tractors, Lambs are born every minute, In the spring in Grassington, Our favourite sport is cricket.
> There was a blacksmith called Tom Lee, Murdered a man for his gold, Hid in his cave from the world, That’s the story we’ve been told.
> He was evil in his cave, No one knows where he may lay, If you confront him you are brave, Just like the postman you will pay.
> There are four sisters stood together, The hills mining history,
> Dibble’s bridge was built by the devil, Magic mystery made by stone, Lots of casualty’s occurred here, In this place we call home.
In the afternoon we picked the Primary kids back up, and traipsed up to Grassington’s “Gills Top”, a residential care home for elderly people, to get the primary school kids talking with the residents there about Grassington life through the years. We got some great stories, of generations of families living in Grassington, about what’s changed, Betty and Elma in particular told us about their fondest memories of Grassington; Elma providing the great line “I love every single stone of this place:
One of the beautiful stories that came out of the Gills Top session was of Edgar Darwin, a former Grassington Councilor. Betty told us how she loves the daffodils all round Grassington and how her husband Edgar planted them all just to make Grassington look nice. She told us that there’s a plaque in his honour on The Octagon wall at Grassington Town Hall. I loved this story, and really wanted to get that one into the song…
Come Saturday 3rd May, it was the recording day. Our challenge was to write and record a song in a day, building on the resources we’d generated. We were joined by guitarists, ukulele players, children, mums, singers, people of all ages, Rebecca Gross, and fellow WYWH music leader Anna Snow (the middle one here) came. Some of the lovelies from Hope and Social’s “A Band Anyone Can Join” faithful came too.
Now, here comes my favourite bit. Not only did we write and record a song in a day but through pleasing synchronicity, a lass called Mollie came to the workshop. As we’re going through the material, she says “that’s my Gran! The story about the daffodils, she’s talking about my Grandad”. So, it turns out that Mollie’s take is a little different to Betty’s. Mollie remembers her Grandad, Edgar, making all the holes for the bulbs and the kids from the Darwin family popping the bulbs in where he had dug. The second verse is Mollie/Betty/Edgar’s verse (here’s a picture of the lyrics), and the first time we ran the song with everyone singing and playing along, Mollie was really moved: “he died ten years ago yesterday, and those flowers still bloom every year” she said.Legacy
I find it really interesting how being part of a project like this changes your relationship with a place, and spawns new relationships and deepens others with the people of a community. It’s a moving experience, and as I said at the start, a privilege to be invited into peoples lives in this way, to make art and share in their sense of what their community means to them. As Derek of Grassington Town Hall said to me on the way out…
> “y’see, that song… that’ll last forever that. It’ll always exist”.
So off it goes, making it’s merry way to Pateley Bridge by bicycle.
There’s all the written resources and some photos from the days here.
“The Ballad Of Grassington” lyrics and chords are here.
Sam Atkins took photos of the day which are all archived here.
You can hear Rebecca Gross (Artistic Director for the project) talking about the project on Drystone Radio here (about 40/45 mins in).
Huge thanks to Kate Beard and Emma Sandoe of Grassington Festival, to all at Upper Wharfedale and Grassington Primary, to the NYMAZ team, to Rebecca for envisioning the project and being ace at leading us music leaders, to Anna Snow for coming down and being awesome and lovely yet again, to Neash and to Matt Burrows of CYC for recording and mastering our song and to Yorkshire Festival for commissioning the project.