Memories of war in words and music

Sam Lee and the Unthanks
Sam Lee and the Unthanks
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Folk musicians Sam Lee and The Unthanks have created a very special musical commemoration of the Great War. Yvette Huddleston reports.

In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, there have been a whole host of commemorative cultural projects and next week perhaps one of the most inventive yet comes to the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds.

Folk musicians Sam Lee and Rachel and Becky Unthank have collaborated for the first time to present A Time and Place, an evening of music inspired by the folk songs, stories and poetry of the Great War. All three Mercury Prize-nominated musicians are known for their ability to adapt the traditional folk repertoire, reinventing it for contemporary audiences and A Time and Place seeks to revive aspects of the oral folk tradition – songs, tales and tunes – that were lost along with the many who died during the conflict.

“I had an invitation from Sound UK, a wonderful commissioning body who do alternative takes on different projects, who asked me if I would be interested in working with the Unthanks,” says Leeds-born Lee. “I am good friends with them and have wanted to work with them for a long time, so it was the perfect opportunity.”

At the beginning of the year, Lee went on a research trip down to the South West where he talked to local people in rural communities about their memories of and stories about the First World War. The material he collected formed the basis of what then became a rural touring show.

“We heard some incredible stories,” says Lee. “There was one woman, who is about 100 years old now, who had seen a Zeppelin come down in her back garden as a four year old and there was another amazing woman who remembered when she was a little girl in Devon that there was an old soldier who had fought in the war and used to talk to her about the Bideford Bridge. He said that he couldn’t walk across it because the last time he had gone over it was with his comrades and he was the only one who came back from the war alive. We wrote a song called Bideford Bridge that draws on that story and on folk traditions and ideas.”

Selecting the poetry that is included in A Time and Place was an interesting process and required an awareness of the sensibilities of a modern audience. “We are seeing the war through different eyes now,” says Lee. “We were very keen not just to go to the tried and tested – although a little bit of it is in there because it has an anthemic quality which is testament to the spirit of the soldiers and it is very important to honour that.” They also looked at some of the less well known poems of the time, as well as prose. One of the songs in the show is inspired by a section from Vera Brittain’s wartime memoir Testament of Youth.

“There was a poem written by her fiancé Roland a few weeks before he died which she writes a response to and we have written a ‘call and response’ song using those poems,” says Lee. “We wanted the show to also look at the effect of the war on the people at home.”

Musically, the show brings together pared-down folk influences using instruments associated with the tradition and sets it against a larger, almost classical, sound. “A lot of the songs we have written have been developed and arranged for strings and brass so there is an orchestral soundscape but we have kept some of the concertina and harmonica stuff,” says Lee. “We have given quite an epic setting to the songs so there is a rich textural landscape.”

There is also a visual element to the evening provided by video designer Matthew J Watkins, probably best known for his work on Monkey – Journey to the West as part of Gorillaz. For A Time and Place he has been inspired by some of the art of the period, in particular the modernist Vorticist movement. “Matt is a wonderful visual artist,” says Lee. “The projections aren’t just backdrops, they are interactive and they interpret the songs in all sorts of interesting ways.”

As well as the new songs specially written for the project, the show includes a number of folk songs of the era and Becky and Rachel Unthank have created new arrangements of songs by songwriters from the North East at the time of the war. “That was one of the important things I wanted to think about,” says Lee. “There was an entire generation of young men who grew up in small villages and went off to fight. They would have been familiar with the folk repertoire of their communities and so we have folk songs that became World War One songs. I wanted to imagine the idea of those melodies we carry with us that are memories of where we come from and are part of our heritage.”

For Lee the project has been in part a personal journey of discovery which he says has given him a new understanding of the impact and ramifications of the First World War. “The research trip for me was phenomenally insightful into an endemic wound that’s still there across our country. Although I have grown up with the knowledge of it, I didn’t realise it had left such an indelible political and social mark, how everyone is affected by it and how we all carry those ripples with us.”

And music has a unique power to communicate and acknowledge those feelings. “It does speak to people on an emotional level – particularly for us as a rather reserved nation,” says Lee. “Just singing songs that are associated with something so devastating and tragic, you can’t help but be overcome by it. The commemoration is not just about the recitation of names and stories, in a way there is an emotional purging that needs to take place.”

• A Time and Place, Musical Meditations on the First World War, at Howard Assembly Room on September 19. Tickets £15. www.operanorth.co.uk