Modern classics: Shovel Dance Collective. Credit: Tugce Ozbicer

Shovel Dance Collective—the band decolonising folk music

The musicians are showcasing traditional music that isn’t imperial, white and male
July 21, 2022

For those who lived in medieval times and relied on the harvest to survive, traditional music had a ritualistic role: it was part of the magic to ward off their fear that the world could simply end. So argued song collector AL Lloyd in his 1967 Folk Song in England. “Nature was a mystery,” wrote Lloyd, “and sacred because a mystery, and to transform it required more than an axe and a digging stick. It also required an effort of will.”

Mataio Austin Dean believes we have that in common with our agrarian antecedents. “Precarity is the watchword for what’s going on right now,” says Austin Dean, who sings and plays guitar for the progressive folk group Shovel Dance Collective. “We’re at an existential crisis for capitalism with the pandemic and the climate crisis, and massive economic issues looming.” Lloyd himself might have concurred: 50 years ago, he pointed out that “some of the old conflicts are still only partly resolved.”

Made up of academics and art-school graduates in their 20s and 30s—a demographic reflected in its audience—Shovel Dance Collective exemplifies an emerging folk scene of musicians who haven’t grown up with traditional folk culture. “Young people are reaching out and looking for solidarity,” fiddler Oliver Hamilton tells me. “The digital revolution, lockdown, the way people work now… it’s all led to isolation and loneliness and they’re looking for community.”

Shovel Dance Collective began with nine musicians encountering each other across two years of Covid-restricted living and coalescing through a shared passion for England’s traditional songs. Just as important to them as the melodies is the messaging. The Collective is an unapologetically political project, inspired by the socialism of folk-revival figures from Cecil Sharp to Ewan McColl to Shirley Collins, but updated for the 21st century.

The Collective sees what it’s doing as a form of decolonisation—a way to showcase and explore histories of England that aren’t imperial, white and male. “You can’t really unpack Britishness from the empire and the Union,” says Austin Dean. “So it’s an interesting project to look at Englishness, and English folk song, separate from that.”

On the Saturday before the summer solstice, the band and around 50 of their supporters have gathered at Hilly Fields in Lewisham, the location of London’s only stone circle. The plan is to process from here to the Ivy House, a co-operatively owned pub-cum-community centre in Nunhead where they and other acts will perform in the evening. A woman’s Morris dancing group, Old Palace Clog, line up behind the band’s homemade banner, and the singers lead everyone off with a rousing chorus and percussion accompaniment.

It’s the day of the big Trades Union Congress (TUC) rally and Austin Dean wishes they’d been able to be there. “This music was always a part of that heritage of working-class movements,” he says. The pagan element of the solstice is of less significance to the group than the communality of the occasion and its traditional importance to the labour force. “These ceremonial rites were often tied to the productive mode,” says Austin Dean, “because the songs’ supposedly magical functions were technologies of life, for people who were living on the edge of understanding of their worlds.”

Talented as they are, it’s notable that the members of Shovel Dance Collective aren’t, for the most part, professional musicians. Like many in the group, Austin Dean comes from an academic background. The cittern player, harpist and banjo player studied anthropology; the fact that the band this year played at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, and are now recording their first album, seems to surprise them as much as anyone.

Then again, they’re not alone. At the Ivy House, four other acts on the bill are part of this burgeoning south London scene. There’s a hurdy-gurdy player, two sisters who run their own folk night at a Deptford pie house and Aga Ujma and Naima Bock, both members of Broadside Hacks, a folk collective that grew up in nearby Lambeth. Like Shovel Dance, Broadside Hacks is interested in unearthing and celebrating English songs, and although its political agenda is less overt, Bock has a personal investment in “looking for a new England.”

“I grew up in Brazil,” says Bock, “and when I came to live here after the age of seven, I didn’t really enjoy it at all. So this is really an attempt to build a connection with the country I was born in, and let me identify with England in a positive way—one that’s not connected with St George’s flag and a disgraceful history of racism. In that sense, folk music has been healing.”

Shovel Dance’s set begins with a preachers' organ; the moustachioed performer has his long hair swept away from his face in a silver hair clip. After a while, the cittern and dulcimer join in with a wispy tremolo, and the melody gently builds; the harmonies have a medieval modality but the sound is more ethereal, like the soundtrack to a faintly sinister film. The organ player, Nick Granata, tells us later that this is their “rather austere” version of the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance,” a medieval song that is usually played at four times the speed.

Granata launches into falsetto for “Newcastle,” a song full of pining for a young man. “Why can I not love my love?” Granata sings. “Why can my love not love me? Why can I not speed after him if love to all is free?” The Collective, which has queer and non-binary members, probes the gender politics of folk, often reclaiming and reframing songs where homosexuality or cross-dressing has been used as a punchline. This evening they deliver a new arrangement of “The White Cockade,” a Jacobite marching tune based on a poem by Robert Burns, which they present as an expression of gay love.

Running a band of nine people along strict democratic principles isn’t easy, and cittern player Daniel Evans has admitted that it can take a long time to agree on an arrangement—“collective trial and error” is how he describes their process. Each member brings different skills, and not just musically. Granata and trombonist Tom Hardwick-Allan are both visual artists who illustrate and hand-stitch the songbooks made for each performance.

Nor do they all share the exact same political stances. “Solidarity is key,” says Austin Dean, the group’s Marxist revolutionary, “but it can be difficult to build. We’re looking at queer histories, black histories and female histories in the music, but there’s not an automatic solidarity between them—you have to think about how it might have been forged, and how it can be forged today.”

The child of a Guyanese mother and an English father, Austin Dean has an interest in what it means to be black English, as well as black British, a theme he explores through songs like “The Brown Girl” and “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor.” He points out that sea shanties emerged from the world of black labour in the Atlantic. “That black heritage was eroded by collectors like Cecil Sharp and AL Lloyd who wanted to talk about it as an ethnically English product. But you’ll find a number that use locations in the Caribbean in their name or employ African-sounding rhythms or words.”

Among his favourites are “Essequibo River”—originally from Guyana—and the work of a Barbadian shanty singer who was known by the racist epithet Harding the Barbarian. Harding was the author of “Doodle Let Me Go,” recently made famous when Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe drunkenly danced to it in Robert Eggers’s 2019 film The Lighthouse. “It’s important to reclaim the black history associated with English folk song forms rather than looking at it as English or British music in isolation.”

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Shovel Dance Collective performing at the summer solstice. Credit: Jake Ollett

Some of the music can feel dark and mournful, as evident on the Collective’s first EP, Offcuts and Oddities, where songs like “Four Loom Weaver” reference the poor working and living conditions of industrialised labour. “We can get a bit dirgey,” admits Evans, “and our songs are very sad, these narratives are deeply tragic and it comes from people’s lived lives.” At the Ivy House, there’s a song about a cabin boy who is promised riches by his captain if he saves his ship from pirates, and as the drone builds across the instruments, so does the narrative tension. It’s not going to end well for the cabin boy. The cruelty of England’s officer class is what’s under discussion here—Shovel Dance’s last gig was at a training session for activists protesting night-time immigration raids by the Home Office.

Their set on that occasion included the Northumbrian mining song “Byker Hill,” one written at the time of Peterloo and “Hot Asphalt,” about Irish workers who accidentally kill a policeman by rolling him into the road they’re laying. It’s a far cry from Mumford & Sons, or the uplifting radio anthems of the last folk “revival” in 2010. “I found that all quite dull,” admits Granata. “It felt very middle class, but then that’s really where the money is: clean-cut, pretty sounds…”

“It was all quite depoliticised,” agrees Austin Dean, who feels there’s a difference this time. “There’s so much interest in not just folk song but in traditions, walks, grassroots participation… I’m not saying it’s a genuine proletarian movement but it does feel a lot more open and inclusive, rather than involving these few artists from privileged backgrounds who are doing quite well for themselves.”

Their solstice performance ends with a song called “The Grey Cock” about a ghost who can only visit his lover until the dawn breaks; Granata sings it with a vocal style that mimics the crow of the cock and delivers a raw emotionality. When the song finishes there’s a huge ovation from the audience, which blends a decidedly art-school crowd with a number of older folkies. At the singaround that follows, it’s surprising to see that many of those in the audience know the words to the standards, and if they don’t, are prepared to sing along anyway—there’s a decided lack of ironic appreciation about everything.

But then, the sincerity is a big part of the appeal. This kind of grassroots community is, for many, the only way they see themselves surviving the future. “Maybe it comes from a feeling that we’re going to have to provide for each other because others won’t,” says Granata, who, a week previously, had been part of the Peckham crowd that successfully blocked a police van as officers tried to arrest a man on immigration charges. “Seeing people power get results was incredibly hopeful, and folk music gives me that hope, too.”