On Wednesday night some of my friends invited me to attend a monthly sining gathering in Pennymoor, a small village about a half-hour’s drive from Exeter. I was told that it was a group-sing situation; everybody sang a song, then after a brief intermission they went round the group again and everybody sang another song. I was also told that as a first-time guest, I would not have to sing.
I really enjoyed the change of scene as we sped along the narrow roads through hedges and across bridges. My companions sang as we went along and discussed some of their favorite rude folk songs as well as all the attempts by Morally Forthright Persons to clean them up over the years, with hilarious results.
Soon enough we found ourselves at the pub in Pennymoor, a stone and beam construction of that sturdy style you find in the English countryside. This building was made to last. It seems obvious why the “Shawn of the Dead” characters decided to hide out in a pub when you’re in a building like this one.
When we first walked in to the narrow, low-ceilinged room with its small bar, the high-backed dark wood booths and a crowd of joking locals who lapsed into silence on our entrance, I felt as foreign as I’ve ever felt in my life: Cairo, Hong Kong, Paris–these had nothing on this little pub tucked into a quiet corner of Devon. Not that the people were being unfriendly–oh, no, I’ve never felt anything less than welcomedi n Britain wherever I go. I’ve just lived here so long that I usuall forget my nationality might be an object of interest to people. When I walked into the pub I suddenly became very aware of it.
It turned out, anyway, that we were at least a half-hour early and most of the singers and players hadn’t yet turned up. Even so we got treated to a wonderful rendition of “Froggie Went a-Courtin” by one of the locals, who slipped out quietly when the musicians with their accordians and fiddles began to arrive. “He gets shy singin’ in front of the big group,” one of the others said in the sing-songy accent of Southwest England. We all nodded sagely.
Soon enough a party of about twenty people gathered in the main room of the pub, sitting in rows of chairs arranged over a skittle alley–like an early version of ninepin bowling. As my friends and I went from the bar into the singing room the youths of Pennymoor suddenly arrived, sending waves of Lynx body spray rolling in a cloud over the bar. With their hair gelled until it could support a multistorey structure they completely ignored the group of folksingers, taking possession of another room in the pub which must have housed a jukebox as we could hear the heavy bass mingling with the fiddles, accordions and recorders that the musicians had brought to while away the evening.
Just before they started to play, Len, the organiser, leaned over to me. “Do you sing?” I hastily replied in the negative, as I can’t think of many songs besides Christmas carols that I know by heart, and besides, it was my first time there. I got a decided, though good-natured, thumbs-down from Len,who wandered off to his seat to enjoy the instrumental part of the evening.
When it came time for the instruments to be laid aside and the singers to start, Len stood to greet the group and welcome us all, finally turning to me and saying in a jolly tone, “Well you’d best get practicing now, because you won’t be leaving here without singing us a song. It’s not allowed, you see.”
Horrors. Though I laughed as loud as the rest when he said it.
Luckily my many yeaers at a very musically oriented summer camp came to my rescue and I dredged up one of the few songs I do know all the words to, a lovely folk song called “Sammy’s Bar” or sometimes “The last boat’s a-leavin’,” about a young man who loses his love to a flashy young bloke with a fancy car, and while he’s saving up to buy a car of his own, the others get into a fatal car accident. (Horrible story, but put it to music and you can’t resist tearing up!) I panickingly rushed through the lines in my head while the others went through their repertoire.
I heard some very beautiful songs, and some very humourous songs, and some very sad songs. Everybody joined it at the choruses, or whenever they knew the words, or when they’d worked out a really good descant harmony. Occasionally somebody started playing spoons to keep time.
The theme for the night seemed to be forgetting the words to the songs they’d all prepared, resulting in a lot of uprorious laughter and jokes about SpecSavers as people tried squintingly to read the lyrics from notebooks and assorted sheets of paper.
Before I knew it Len was signaling me broadly from across the room. My turn. I explained I hadn’t prepared anything to cries of “Go on!” and “You’re not leaving until you sing, love!” So I said I hoped they’d help me out if I forgot the words. “Don’t you wory, we don’t know the words to our own songs, but we’ll be sure to know yours, love,” said the woman sitting across from me to general amusement.
As I suspected they all DID know “Sammy’s Bar” (written by a Devon musician; I figured I’d be safe with that one.) I tried to get through the verses without flubbing them too much but I know my nervous voice made the tune warble a little here and there. Luckily they all joined me on the call-and-response part. Unluckily, they all knew a completely different tune for that part than what I’d been taught! Brief panic–do I try to sing what they’re singing or just power through with my version? I muddled on through and in the end I got a round of applause like everyone else. I could feel my cheeks glowing from excitement and a little embarrassment, but I was happy.
Then it was time for intermission and people to stretch their legs. Suddenly trays of sandwiches appeared from nowhere! Chips as well, hot from the fryer. My feelings of warmth and goodwill towards this lovely group of people could only increase.
After a brief intermission for the sandwiches and passing scalding hot chips from hand to hand while whimpering, a little raffle was held for some prizes provided by the singers. Jaffa cakes, chocolates, a begonia plant. Len read out a thank-you note from a charity in a neighboring village that the singing group sponsors. Over the years they’ve been contributing, since the 1980s, they’ve raised nearly 3,000 pounds for the charity. They all looked chuffed from the compliments in the letter but self-effacingly pointed out that this year it had been raining so hard the audience couldn’t leave–had to stay and pretend to be having a good time. This got a huge laugh.
A second round of songs, including one played on the pub’s plinky old piano. I managed to beg off the second round but believe me I’ll be digging out my old camp songbook before next month.
As we made our way out into the night we were surprised to discover it had just gone midnight. We drove home through the dark, headlights catching the occasional hedgehog or cat prowling the midnight country lanes.