The Folk Train

How would you like to go back to the days when train travel was an exciting adventure? Travelling somewhere new, you could watch the scenery, chat to fellow passengers and perhaps meet someone interesting. Put away your phone, what you need is a journey with live music. Where could you find such a phenomenon? Try Sheffield!

Try the 19.14 from Sheffield to Manchester on the fourth Tuesday of the month. It’s not any old train. It’s the Folk Train! Musicians sing and play alongside the crowd of regular commuters and folk music enthusiasts on a good-humoured, friendly journey. I was there in 2009 with a group of student ethnomusicologists*. This was our introduction to fieldwork. The band sang and played to a packed carriage, and when we reached Edale, a village in the Peak District surrounded by lush, green countryside, the musicians, followers and our lot got out and went to the pub. What better way to motivate a bunch of students! 

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The music continued at The Rambler Inn. It was a warm evening and the band played in the open air, a happy throng spilling out of the bar to enjoy the tunes against the backdrop of the hills. At about twenty past nine, we walked the few yards back to the station platform and all piled back on to the train for more music all the way back to Sheffield. What an entertaining introduction to fieldwork and to the music-making of this friendly city.

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I would love to go back one day. Does anyone know the name of the band pictured here? Or do you know of any similar musical train journeys? I’d love to hear about them.

So far, I’ve heard about the Buxton Line Blues Train, the Glossop Line Folk Train and the Manchester to Hathersage Folk Train – all running from Manchester Piccadilly. 

* I was studying for the MA in World Music Studies at University of Sheffield. I would recommend this course to anyone wanting flexible part-time study of a wide-range of music. It was great fun too!

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Floral Dance

In 1977, one of my fellow students at Huddersfield School of Music, attracted a flurry of attention – not for his good looks, his Scottish accent, his humorous banter but because amazingly to us normal mortals, he was going to perform on television – on Top of the Pops! Following in the footsteps of the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, there he was: a cornet player with – none other than – Brighouse and Rastrick band! Incredibly to modern sophisticated taste, they had a hit with a tune called the Floral Dance. They sold half a million copies and made it to number 2 in the charts, losing out to Paul McCartney with his interminable Mull of Kintyre.

I was reminded of this moment of second hand fame when a sheet music copy of the song turned up during my ongoing clear-out.

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There he is in the photo on the front cover, eighth from the right. I can’t remember his real name. We called him, affectionately, but with hindsight not very imaginatively or politically correctly: ‘Haggis’. As the only Scot around, he accepted the name, along with the plaudits that came with his claim to fame.

Since then, I have come across the tune in different guises: it is popular in instrumental tutor books and often known as the Furry Dance or to be more precise the Helston Furry Dance. This is, of course, the original tune dating back at least to the 1800s and belongs to a (probably pagan) tradition, from the town of Helston in Cornwall, that continues to this day. The tune is played by Helston Town Band at the annual event which now involves a children’s as well as the traditional couples’ dance. It turns out that the Floral Dance was written by Katie Moss in 1911, inspired by a visit to Helston on Flora Day: the day in early May when the locals celebrate the coming of spring, wearing a sprig of lily of the valley, as the dancers and musicians parade the streets. At first she was a bit of a (excuse the pun) ‘wallflower’ but by the end of the day she had found a boy to dance with her. Head whirling (I imagine) on the train home she wrote a song about her day and set it to a variant of the tune of the Furry Dance. Ah! We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

Here’s Moss’s Floral Dance in a gramophone recording from 1934 sung by Peter Dawson:

And a silent film of the Furry Dance from 1921:

My favourite is this Pathé film from 1955 which sets the scene perfectly:

So what shall I do with that sheet music? Keep, recycle or charity shop?