Two years ago I was returned to a state of abject teenage fandom when I briefly met a woman of whom I stand in awe.
Once again, I had been entranced by Nancy Kerr playing at Folk by the Oak, the annual summer music festival in the grounds of Hatfield House. I listen to her music a lot at home, but now here she was playing with a different group of musicians, fusing music and politics in both familiar and newly-written songs. You could hear the stirring of 8,000 souls as they sang ‘We Shall Overcome’.
As soon as their set was over, I raced off to get their CD, and as I came away from the stall, there she was, resplendent in a scarlet sash. I nipped into the little cluster forming around her to have my CD signed, so overcome with excitement I could do nothing but keep repeating ‘Thank you’.
I have never heard a voice quite like hers: it is rounded, open, with the characteristic ‘folky’ catch as she moves from chest notes to head notes, and every word is crystal clear, whether it’s a lyrical lament, a clarion call to action, or a traditional narrative folk song.
She plays fiddle with a sweeping attack that nevertheless blends seamlessly with the output from fellow folk legends such as melodeon player Andy Cutting or guitarist Martin Simpson. (She also plays guitar, viola, cello, autoharp and harmonium . . . )
But this is only half the story. Nancy Kerr is by no means confined to the repertoire of traditional folk, not least because she is an exceptional songwriter, creating a body of work in the modern folk idiom that reflects ordinary people’s aspirations for their lives and their environment. The CD that I bought, Shake the Chains, commemorates the Greenham Common women in the song ‘Through the Trees’:
Upon barbed wire around the base
Our mothers twined our baby lace
They linked their arms like lovers charms
To bind all life in common
‘Hard Songs’, from her solo album Sweet Visitor, deals with sweated labour.
Some kind stranger grows my food
Back bent hard in the harvest sun
Red is the flag and red the mud
Hard songs running in her blood
Peggy Seeger herself has distilled the qualities that define Kerr’s unique compositions: ‘Steeped in folksong, she nonetheless breaks out of the mould, coming sideways to her subject, embroidering it with detail and surprises until the focus of the song comes clear.’
To see her perform live is a joy: she is a serene and unselfconscious presence, finely attuned to all those she shares the stage with. Her voice blends with theirs, fleetingly soaring above them when it needs to. There is strength and sincerity in every note that pours out of her.
Though it’s an honour I feel sure she would refuse, damehood would go some way towards recognising the scale of her cultural contribution and her campaigning creativity.