‘Thankful Villages, Vol. 1’ sees Darren Hayman continue to explore folk music and tradition of the British Isles. This time Hayman, formerly of Hefner, explores Thankful Villages, which are villages where no soldiers died during the First World War. This album, apparently the first of three, is a collection of short studies from eighteen of these villages.

The result is a kind of anthropological survey of these places conducted through field recording, interview, song collecting and writing. In much the same way as artist Jeremy Deller explores British folk history through visual art, Hayman’s album is a broad discursive journey through the subject matter. It feels deeply considered and pondered upon.

The tone of the album of course, varies depending on the experience of that particular place. It is a wander through very personal histories and experience. Common themes are of course, war going off to war, but weddings, relationships and churches are all also common themes. The music when it happens is folky minimalism, focusing on simple pared down motifs played on harmonium, bodhrán, piano and guitar amongst other instruments. The occasional snare drum adds a hint of the military to some of these compositions. For instance in ‘Scruton’, the gentle piano is backed by the drum- allowing the listener to imagine the slow march of survivors returning home.

The first piece ‘Knowlton’ starts the album off with a short song about the men going off to war from their Kent village. The short song is backed with ghostly noises that emphasise the exploration of dead- of dredging up these stories from remembered pasts of children and grandchildren of these men. Story-telling is at the heart of this catalogue of memories; the third recording ‘St Michael South Elmham’ is told by Dorothy Bloomfield, the daughter of a soldier whose job was to look after the mules for the army in Greece. He returned home with malaria which caused recurring problems throughout his life. This is one of the undercurrents of the anthology – death was not the only scar left behind after the Great War. Sickness, post-traumatic stress disorder and of course the loss of other men has left their scars upon these villages too.

In a lot of the recordings, the aftermath of the World War I has been placed in a spectrum of the history of place. Track 7, ‘Rodney Stoke’ describes the stone work in the local church exploring the legacy of the village named after a famous family “The ancestors of Nelson’s Admiral Rodney”.  Hayman talks us through what he can see, the tomb of  Sir Thomas, “the oldest Rodney of them all, Sir Thomas of 1478, the cherubs and the angels hang from the canopy of his richly sculpted tomb. A spaniel peeps out from a dragon, from where he lies on the tomb, a neatly captivating figure. His head on his helmet with his eagle crest, his feet on a dog, his dagger at his side.” The honest, colloquial narrative is underpinned by gentle choral harmonies, the steady beat of a soft drum and strings. Hayman mentions the tradition of the Somerset stone carvers and this, their legacy. This indicates the mood of the collection- a bucolic stroll through these Thankful Villages raises a plethora of stories of industry and tradition.

Whilst there is no doubt that these villages are indeed thankful for having their men return after the war, the album is imbued with a sadness that others were not spared, and the fact that in a way, these places had to live with the memories of this great atrocity for longer than other places.

Hayman’s most recent project successfully wanders around the theme, taking in side stories, ambling down passages. The music complements the meander with gentle folk and harmonic melody. The result is a survey into pastoral existence that manages to be both sensitive and fascinating.

 ‘Thankful Villages Vol 1’ will be released on June 3 via Rivertones.

This Darren Hayman article was written by Fraisia Dunn, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Zoe Anderson.

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