“The folk traditions of England can be a frustrating field in which to live and work. Unsure of ourselves, and uncertain how to present our art to the wider world, it sometimes seems the performer has a stark choice. They can preach to the already converted with ever more complex, worthy, and finger in the ear interpretations of the contents of Bert Lloyd’s waste-paper bin, in order that a sceptical and greying audience may grant them the gold badge of ‘authenticity’. Or else they can dumb down, mixing in simple dance rhythms of the day and needless electronica, five years after other more contemporary genres have moved on from such sounds, in a futile and usually embarrassing attempt to achieve some sort of ‘relevance’. When was the last time the English folk tradition genuinely led from the front?
Jigdoll, a one woman show conceived and performed by Hannah James, rises above these paths of low resistance and offers something much more interesting. An intelligent, outward looking performance designed to challenge the audience, and pose useful questions both for those inside, and outside the tradition.
This is a full-on show, combining dance, music, song, and digital layering, with few breaks, and even less interpretation. There’s no explanation as to where this or that comes from, no lengthy monologues explaining how this song was learnt from a wax cylinder of the singing of Stanley Scatterbucket in 1907, no discussion of the finer points of clog making. It is a show with the confidence to let the material speak for itself.
Through use of loops, and with a hard working sound engineer furiously balancing levels at the desk, every element of the show’s complex soundscape is generated by the hands, feet, clogs, voice, and accordion. Loops are not new in music, of course, but too often they’re used by guitarists to build walls of sound to contain their self-indulgence, rather than to free up the performer to use a much broader palette of expression.
Hannah goes further still in breaking from the conventions of English folk performance. By taking the character of the Jigdoll, in stylised clothing, swept back hair, and a touch of makeup, she is stepping back from folk world’s clichéd role of performer as lecturer and stand-up, and depersonalising the performance. And brilliant though this performance is, there’s not a trace of showing off, as you are invited to consider the quality of the art, rather than the performer. Her personality returns briefly at the end of each section, as a broad grin suddenly lets us know we can applaud. It makes sense here. In what other genre would the performers normally feel obliged to discuss the material in great depth in the middle of the set? Let the music and dance communicate everything important, and trust the audience to interpret it themselves.
The great triumph of this approach is to change the dynamic of how the audience relates to the show. The ethereal nature of the singing, and the lack of immediate information on the origins of the melodies and words, create welcome space for the audience to ask much more interesting questions. In not knowing, I found myself free to consider the timelessness of this continuously evolving tradition, and the joy of hearing traditional vocal ornaments in such a contemporary setting. By removing the spoken information on the material that one would normally expect at a traditional folk concert, the show, perhaps counter-intuitively, becomes much more open and welcoming to a wider audience. With ‘serious’ traditional music, sometimes you need years of audience experience to understand what the performer is saying about it and why that matters. This can create a barrier that is both off-putting and intimidating to someone encountering the genre for the first time, as it creates a distinct clique in the room who are in the know. By letting the music and dance speak for itself, everyone is free to enjoy it equally on whatever terms they choose. It is richly complex, drawn squarely from the tradition, and yet is immediately accessible.
This is a show I could take my non-folky friends to with complete confidence, and without fear of it being glibly dismissed as merely ‘a good laugh’ at the end. It’s brilliant, utterly engaging, and it needed to happen.”
“Those who saw JigDoll at Shrewsbury whitnessed an elegant, flowing transition between tunes, movement and song. Loops of accordion melody were left to play by themselves, augmented by feet-made percussive sounds that repeated seemingly of their own will. It was Beautiful and Baffling”