Writing About Music and Theater

Ella Jo discusses why she has chosen her subject matters.

In this post I explain why I think it is important to write about the theater and a rock show – examining their cultural significance.

There is a real life politician who would ban rock bands. (West Tyrone, Ireland). This is a revelation. At present I am writing a story about a dog who joins a band and plays rock shows. Is that bad? Plenty of people enjoy rock music and plenty of kids like to play air guitar now and again, even if they never bother to learn an instrument. The most base reason is that rock music is pure fun. Having recently watched a BBC docu charting the history of rock music, I think I gained a balanced view on the genre. It has been degraded in recent decades, but it is not dead.

I entertain the notion that most music is credible. It benefits the individual, (making it or just listening) and it benefits society as well. It is therapy, poetry, an outlet for anger and passion and much more. Music nurtures the youth and cradles the adult. It resonates deeply within each individual; your musical taste informs the world about you, and it makes for dancing!

As a music lover it seems natural to write stories about music and performance. In the world of insipid, competitive, shallow, farcical, celebrity culture many young people do not realize there is so much more to it. I am no expert, I just know that music was my crutch, and my inspiration, and it worked like therapy on different levels.

I am excited by music in an historical context. Such an ethereal substance is hard to measure and substantiate and bears controversy – I mean the idea that vocal harmony did not exist until the church invented it seems preposterous to me, yet this is believed by many.

Music and performance is art – an integral part of human culture. So I make no excuses for taking my characters to theaters and rock shows. If I must face bigotry it harks back from a Victorian age when actresses and singers were frowned upon for dressing up and wearing makeup – the connection with ‘working girls’ is obvious. I view it as a class issue. I understand how Puritanical and Victorian values have influenced English society. When these conditions dominate performing arts cannot thrive. Music and drama becomes distorted and smutty. In modern times the arts could thrive, if only the funding would allow.

My function as a writer is to preserve cultural life where music and expression is like cultural glue. It has a history, it binds, it attracts good things/people and bad things/people. It is a metaphor for life! I refuse to be embarrassed by harmless fun. I am perfectly aware of my responsibilities.

I believe that the history of music and folk culture is just as important as any other type of history. Unfortunately this ‘culture glue’ is not celebrated fully by the modern education establishment. School music in the UK tends to be religious – still singing hymns written in the 1800s.
Easter Passion Plays were amongst the earliest expression of drama in England. Ordinary people enacted the crucifixion in the streets. (1110 – The first performance of a miracle play in England given at Dunstable Priory). Before Christianity there must have been pagan rituals where Shamanic ‘acting’ bound people with natural events. Clearly today, we observe how dramatizing a story reinforces the culture, as in the school nativity at Christmas. However nonsensical, the children love to act. In the 11th century the Mummers plays introduced the new concept of doctors and war propaganda with the Saracens. This form of performance could have been discovered from Middle Eastern traditions of story-telling, interwoven in native traditions by the homecoming crusaders.(Hence St George- a Turkish figure makes his first appearance and is so thoroughly absorbed that he now signifies Englishness!)

The English seemed to have a rich, unfettered love of music and country dancing until the 1560s. The church clamped down on what must have been memories of pagan festivals, eventually eradicating them along with freedom of artistic (or any) expression. The Puritans (mainly from the 16th-17th Century) banned dancing and were strict about music, if they had it at all. Life was stuffy, uncomfortable and boring. I view the Puritans as fundamentalists who crushed the human spirit. No festivals, no outward expression of gaiety, they lacked generosity and spied on one another for religious misdemeanors. Superstitious and stupid, their restrictions must have been dreadful.

The theater survived (this was the time of Shakespeare) but many plays from that time have have been lost. Luckily the Puritans couldn’t keep it up for long. The world moved on and eventually the Morris men emerged, although there seems they had no place for women. As the industrial revolution began to destroy the old ways, Music Hall came into its own as singalong and sheet music was popular – it was commonplace to have a piano in the house. Classical music was well established by then, but seemed to be another marker of class as Empire building split the upper from the lower class in a different, but just as exploitative Victorian system.

We still have cinema which over took the music hall and still forms a bridge between modern cultures. Big band music kept peoples spirits up during the 2nd world war, then music went electric!

Pop music I believe is misnamed. It is popular folk music with its roots in American Slaves music. Recording technology captured Rock n Roll, then there was a songwriting explosion from the Beatles in the 1960s to the beginning of rave culture. After that I think pop music has been pulped by corporations and the original art form is lost in a commercial rampage. Popular ‘folk’ music is all at sea as the internet age tries to scramble a new format for true artists to be heard in the 21st century. (The West End/Broadway shows still run but very few ‘hit’ songs seem to emanate from them in recent years).

So for me, those decades from the 60s to the 90s make up an important musical heritage. My personal aim is to champion music in this form – with all of its variations.
Why it is good to be a musician
Creative thought – when composing tunes and musical parts, and writing lyrics.
Joining a band makes a person learn team work.
Playing to a live audience and recording – teaches self discipline, confidence and perfectionism.
When things go wrong – learning how to control ego and narcissism.
My reason for writing about Theater, Music and Rock Shows is to reflect the fact that music flows like a cultural spring, that it stimulates personal growth and is pure fun.

So no apologies to the prospective MP of West Tyrone. It appears that she would throw gay people into prison as well. We should cover her in chocolate and leave her up a mountain until she can laugh at herself. Thankfully she is in the minority. I am free to weave my stories around precious cultural icons that survived the Puritans and the Victorians and that are bound to be re-invented for a future fated to be influenced by technology. Or maybe not. Humans are strange, there are still brilliant buskers and genius musicians who would rather play around a campfire in a field.

We may yet be driven back to the roots of street plays and old fashioned story telling. Whatever happens, my characters will be there, howling, yodeling and rocking out with pure joy – even in West Tyrone.

New Interview with Ella Jo

Almost Anglo Saxon CD front cover1Starting 2015 – An Interview with Ella Jo about her New Album Almost Anglo Saxon

This year Ella Jo finished the long awaited album ‘Almost Anglo Saxon’ – this is what she said to Diamond Seeds:

“It was a very enjoyable project and a fantastic challenge to learn history, write songs relating to that history and produce an album that is musically credible as well as educational. History has never been so much fun and the research turned up some interesting facts. Choosing subjects like King Ethelred the Unready and the folk tale of Wayland Smithy, I wanted to tell the stories as the Anglo Saxons may have told them.

Reflecting on the material I realize that I was trying to stand in the shoes of those who witnessed historical moments in Anglo Saxon History, like a woman watching the ships land when the Vikings invaded in the song ‘Dragon Ships’. There was also moments when I allowed A modern point of view such as ‘The Hidden Hoard’. In ‘The Minstrel’s Song’ I wanted to embrace the place of music in culture and show how highly it was valued in the past.”

Who is this album for?

“Everyone. The idea was to create a collection of modern day folk songs, but I am from a pop influenced background so the songs strode off into their own directions. We experimented all the way through this project wanting to create something new, but recognizable. I suppose Pink Floyd worked in a similar way when they experimented with the technology of their time. The challenge was to write good authentic songs. One way of keeping true to the idea was to turn things around. If I travelled back in time would the Anglo Saxons approve of my material? Or if I could bring Anglo Saxon musicians into a modern day recording studio would they have performed songs like mine? These ideas set the standards – and on a spiritual level there was an underlying will to please the ancestors.
So I suppose I wrote this album for the Anglo Saxons and all of their descendents and for anyone curious to know about them. All cultures could gain some insight from this album. As a songwriter I looked at the history and added human elements such as irony or joy.”

How did you write the songs?

“I really don’t know. A silent room will eventually allow words or a tune to develop. Some of this album was easy to write once I tapped into the zone – I had ‘The Anglo Saxon Chronicles’ nearby and looked up stories on the net. I didn’t try too hard to make sophisticated songs – I was concerned with telling the stories – in my view that is what folk is.

Mel on Whistle!

Mel on Whistle!

Fiddlin Flick

Fiddlin Flick on ‘Ethelred The Unready Blues’

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was supported by some wonderful musicians who helped on various songs – it was a joy to record with Mel from Tarantism on Flute, Steve Kerr on Guitar, Ed Branch from UK Decay on Bass and Fiddlin Flick on violin. There was a lot of improvisation which was awesome – I loved giving the musicians freedom to interpret the songs, and as we were recording they could do as many takes as they liked. Working with Spon I knew that he would work this way and we would pick through takes and get the best out of everyone.”

Tell us about Steve Spon

Spon recording01

Steve Spon at the controls

“Well we made three albums already, and by the second one I had grown pretty comfortable with working with him as sound engineer. Almost Anglo Saxon was brand new work for both of us and we jumped on it. Spon is senior producer, so I got to work closely with him on the production. To be honest it was stress free – he has so much experience and understood what I was trying to do. He is also interested in Anglo Saxon history so he brought ideas and creative strengths to the project.”

Almost Anglo Saxon Available NowClick Here to purchase Almost Anglo Saxon, the CD Album by Ella Jo

What is different about Almost Anglo Saxon?
“Well technically it is a concept album. Only a few bars of music survive from those times a thousand years ago, but there is evidence of the instruments that they used. We have come so far with today’s technology that once I began to imagine sounds and atmospheres Spon was able to make up versions of my ideas. We twiddled and tweaked and allowed the feelings of the songs to transpire. So while I was tapping into ideas for mead hall songs, Spon would be out trying to record our local owl. I mean this album really is a testament to the saying that your world is as big as your imagination: for example, we made sounds by throwing cutlery around the kitchen and I clog danced on a wooden staircase in my heels…

I want everybody to relate to the subjects covered in this album, its not all heavy, although I couldn’t escape the fact that there was a lot of war and invasion going on. But there is ample opportunity to dance, and sing along. There is even a love song (‘Through the Eyes of an Eagle’). I tried to keep the lyrics historically correct on this album – I think people are sick of listening to bullshit pop. So it should appeal to anyone with some musical sophistication – and I have no doubt there are many out there who love history and music. So I think the album has a broad appeal.

I enjoyed the challenge of singing what I had created. There were moments when I had to trust to improvisation during the recording process, which is how I came up with the coda of ‘Ethelred The Unready Blues’. I was immersed in a song I had not written an ending for, and just found it – some things I will never understand. So Almost Anglo Saxon is a concept album, but is not contrived like commercial pop.”

Gig-wise?

“I thought I was a bit shaky this year – finding it hot when I performed in the summer, I was very out of practice. I think my best performance was on Xmas Eve – I filled in one song when Garry and Jenny had a break at their gig at the Bedford Arms in Souldrop. I hadn’t prepared anything, so I got the audience to clap along and sung ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’ which is an old favourite. It was a jam really, but I know all the words so I trusted the flavour of the occasion and went for it! It was a lot of fun entertaining the folks in my local pub!”

Trying to remember how to play on a stage again!

Trying to remember how to play on a stage again!

The Future
“I have a lot of catching up to do on guitar. I felt so much better just singing, perhaps I will find a guitarist who can accompany me to take Almost Anglo Saxon live into the pubs and clubs – I would love to take people on a trip into history!”

Click Here to purchase Almost Anglo Saxon only £10 plus p&p – straight from the manufacturers

Click here to learn more about Anglo Saxon history and it’s music

Almost Anglo Saxon by Ella Jo

 This is a concept album as I wanted to start a brand new project with completely new ideas. It is very satisfying to research a subject, write about it as poetry and then find a tune and craft a song. This is what ‘Almost Anglo Saxon’ has mainly been about.

I wanted to write some songs about Anglo Saxon life as I am interested in the history. Also I wanted to explore a more historical approach to making the music. Nothing remains of Anglo Saxon music. They had certain instruments that we can be sure of, but no one knows what type of music they were playing, and so this gave me the freedom to just write songs as I like to and not look to any particular influence. If a tune moved me and sat with me, I would use it if I was sure it was ‘original’ enough. I don’t listen to any folk music really so just followed what I thought sounded authentic and pretty simple. 

I like to think each song tells a story and gives some insight into the human condition all those years ago. Included on the album are tracks called: The Song of Wayland Smithy, The Hidden Hoard, Dragon Ships, Wassail The Night, Feel Love, Ethelred – The Unready Blues, The Ballard Of St Margaret, The Minstrel’s Song and Vortigern’s Surprise.

In an attempt to deconstruct what we understand as ‘music’ we have used our imagination to visualize what Anglo Saxon musicians may have been inspired by, with modern day recording techniques. Thus we have sampled wolves, owls and other birds. The wind, the sea, bells, anything that we feel is appropriate to the song. Yet I have also included things that please me – we are not Anglo Saxons – the ‘Almost’ in the title gave me permission to sense the songs from a modern perspective.

The aim of this project is to entertain and educate. This project is also a testament to the skill of the sound engineer, Steve Spon, and proof that a simple concept can be such a lot of fun and be well received by music lovers of all types.

Find out more about the Anglo Saxons, their music and instruments in the following link:

Click here to learn more about the subjects tackled in the songs:

This album is available straight from the suppliers – TEN Awe-inspiring  tracks price £10 plus postage and packing!

Click HERE to BUY ALMOST ANGLO SAXON

 Track List:

Swirling and Whirling – A song about women’s magic!

The Hidden Hoard – The story behind buried treasure

Ethelred The Unready Blues – The ruler who consistently got things wrong!

Minstrel’s Song – reflecting on the life of the entertainers in Anglo Saxon Times and their value to society

Wassail The Night With Mead – A joyous adventure into the folk life of long ago

Ballard Of St Margaret – the story of a real Anglo Saxon Princess

Vortigern’s Surprise – A song about the invasions of the Anglo Saxons

Through the Eyes of An Eagle – A simple love song, based on characters from far off days.

The Song of Wayland Smithy – About the ancient folk story of an imprisoned smith

Dragon Ships – A woman sings a song about the Viking invasion of the Anglo Saxons

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