28 December 2015


You sweat blood to get it all just right…and then the listener presses the shuffle button and plays them in a totally random order!


 First of all may I wish you all a Happy New Year and thank you for bothering to read this. If you enjoy it please look out for subsequent ones—I post them roughly once a month but it can be a long or a short month and sometimes an extra one creeps in if I get inspired. Have a look back through the previous ones too… 

This post was inspired by a comment to a previous post and the conversation which followed. I wrote about the songs I was doing when I first went professional as a ‘folk singer’ and my first album which I said was pretty awful (technically rather than musically, I think) but the person who commented said that she loved it and particularly liked the way it was put together—the order of the tracks.

That’s what happens when you make an album. You spend hours selecting songs (and/or stories) and deciding what order to put them in. You choose a good, lively opener and either a real upbeat finisher, or something which will linger on in the listener’s memory long after the album has ended. In between you have highs and lows, variations in tempo  and key, different instrumentations—some with a lot happening and some unaccompanied, perhaps. You go through all sorts of permutations. You decide to move one song and that means the others don’t work. You might even change things at the final mixing stage and add a whole new track, or leave one off. You sweat blood to get it all just right…
And after all that work what happens? The listener presses the shuffle button and plays them in a totally random order!

Running order of my Poor Old Horse CD

The programming of an album or a live performance is actually as important as the quality of the singing or storytelling. It’s what makes the whole more than the sum of the parts.
You can be the best performer in the world but if everything you do sounds the same then you will soon lose your audience. They’ll become bored. You have to vary the material even if that means putting in a few items which aren’t necessarily your favourites. I love singing ballads—long serious songs with deep stories—but you can’t do too many of those in one ‘show’. You have to put in a few simple—even silly—songs to break them up. That’s often where my stories come in—many of them are tall tales with a twist at the end so they work well amongst the traditional ballads where everyone finishes up dead!
(Over Christmas there was an old documentary of Bruce Springsteen explaining how much time and energy he’d spent on working on his The River album. In order to get it just right he recorded far more material than he could possibly use and it only fell into place when he decided to make it a double album—and even then he couldn’t use it all.)
You can see a video/slide show of When That I Was A Little Tiny Boy from Poor Old Horse here:
It's been one of my most popular songs, which took me by surprise! 
(Programming a CD is much easier than it used to be to do an LP and even more so a cassette, where you had to get both sides round about the same time.)

I’ve always felt that programming has been my strongest suit. I’m a good singer, a good storyteller, a good guitarist but it’s my ability to put those skills together into a better than good performance which has enabled me to work professionally for nearly 40 years and counting. By programming I don’t mean working out a set list and sticking to it but thinking on your feet and knowing what should come next. I think it’s useful to have a list of what you might or could do but sometimes it becomes obvious that it’s not going to work.
Every audience is different and even if you’ve been there before you can’t be absolutely sure what they are going to be like. You suddenly find that this audience, on this occasion, is not up for listening to anything too serious; or they might not want to join in and sing choruses; they might not like stories; or they might just seem half asleep and even a bomb wouldn’t liven them up. If you plough on with what you were intending, with no regard to the feed back, then you’ll fail. You have to read the audience and vary what you do accordingly. (There are also restrictions placed on you by unexpected circumstances…. The outside world can impinge and cause you to add or subtract items.)

I usually go along with a programme sketched out but I rarely stick to it. It’s a guide rather than set list—a menu to choose from not a set meal. The ones I do stick to are often the openers and closers—but not always even those. Very often the person on before me will sing or tell something which suggests an ideal item for me to start with. Back in the days when I was doing 4 or 5 folk club gigs every week I didn’t even do that, I’d do it all completely off the cuff.
(This is all assuming you’re working solo, of course, if you are in a group or have accompanists then you’ve got to consider what the others want to do and whether they’re happy putting in an item which you haven’t practised, or leaving out one which they particularly like…)

The picture (left) is of the set list I prepared for the Friday night concert at Tenterden Folk Festival back in October. It was deliberately vague as I knew it was to be a ‘round robin’ event with all the artists on the stage doing 2 songs each and then round and round again. (I actually like that format occasionally.) In fact I don’t think I did any of the material on the list. Inspired by what the people before me had just done I started with a song and a story and for my second turn did another song and a story. After that it was expected that I did a song and a story every time so I did and everyone commented on how well it worked.

You always have to consider the whole event. Even if you are the main performer—or even the only performer! You have to consider the atmosphere and the feel of the audience. We’ve all experienced the terrible performer who goes on for hours and completely kills the atmosphere! You have to find some way of remedying that. And if there are several performers it’s no good just telling that story you had planned regardless of what has just happened. It might even mean you not doing your ‘standout’ item but doing something throw-away instead just for the common good and the sake of a satisfying event for the audience. (The ability and willingness to do that is part of what I consider to be ‘professionalism’.)

If you'd like to know more have a look at my web site  http://www.petecastle.co.uk 
You may also like to consider subscribing to Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine (  http://factsandfiction.co.uk  )  It's quarterly and covers all aspects of storytelling with news, reviews etc
 My You Tube channel contains a lot of videos of both songs and stories.

Have a look at the previous postings below and if you have any comments please post them. I'd welcome your (constructive) comments and would be very pleased if you did sign up to 'follow' me!

5 December 2015


“Then Lazarus laid him down and down, and down at Dives door, Some meat some drink brother Diverus bestow upon the poor…”


 I don’t enjoy Christmas. I don’t think I ever have really. As an atheist Christmas doesn’t mean anything to me from a religious point of view. As a folklorist I can appreciate the need for a mid-winter festival and, in ‘the old days’ - whenever they were - the need for a break from work and the chance to let your hair down. The way we celebrate Christmas nowadays, though, has little to do with old traditions, it’s largely new traditions invented by multi-national companies in order to grab our money! (Even Father Christmas/Santa Claus, in the guise that we know him, was largely a marketing ploy by Coca Cola!)

That makes me sound like a Scrooge.
Whereas in pre-Victorian times Christmas started on Christmas Eve (or possibly even on the Day itself) now the build-up goes on for three months and most people are sick of it before it comes, literally and metaphorically! The writer Alison Uttley, who lived just up the road from where I live now, described how, around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, her family posted their Christmas cards on Christmas Eve and the postmaster himself came to deliver cards to her house on Christmas morning! I wouldn’t go that far—even the poor old postmaster needs his day off! I’m not that much of a Scrooge!

Although I don’t make a big thing of Christmas I have done some enjoyable Christmas Shows, and I have a repertoire of seasonal material which I am happy to perform. It’s mostly old and not overtly religious. There are a couple of seasonal stories I particularly like.
One I posted on You Tube last year is The Man Who Stole the Parson’s Sheep. (It’s also in my Derbyshire Folk Tales book). It’s about a poor lead miner who ensured that his family had a good Christmas lunch...

A song I use a lot is the old ballad of Dives and Lazarus (or “The Merry Ballad of Diverus and Lazarus” as it was described back in Elizabethan times.) Although it is not about Christmas and is definitely not a carol it used to be widely sung at this time of year, probably because of its message of giving alms to the poor. It’s a song I’ve known for about 40 years but, for some reason, it’s never made it onto any of my CDs. It goes well with the poem Christmas Day in the Workhouse. They both point up the hypocrisy and greed which become so apparent around now. When you realise that Dives is not actually a name but Latin for ‘the Rich’ it becomes even more relevant to society today. It’s a song about the ‘class war’ and equality and everyone supporting everyone else.
Here’s a link to my version on You Tube where there is also some more info about it.

The general public assume that Christmas is one of my really busy times but the opposite has always been true. The months of December and January have always been quite quiet work-wise. The kind of places where I do the bulk of my performing usually do something ‘different’ for Christmas. That can be spending a bit more money and booking a really special guest—perhaps a group or a really big name, or, they have a party with special turns performed by their regulars. Sometimes they even put on a pantomime or mummers play or just have a party. Anyway, it means they don’t book me and the bookings I do get during I this period I approach very carefully and with my fingers crossed…
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pointed out very forcefully to the organisers that I don’t sing carols, I don’t dress up like Father Christmas, I’m not a stand-up comedian... but when I’ve got there I’ve been forced into strumming along to Silent Night, or calling the raffle or the bingo, or playing party games! I must come over like a real Scrooge! “Bah! Humbug!”
But it would be even worse if I refused.

Here is a little story which exemplifies the difficulties. A few years ago I was approached by quite a large local business. They were holding a Christmas party for their employee’s children and wanted me to come and tell some stories. It sounded great and I wasn’t feeling at all Scroogish. They seemed to understand what I was willing to do and they were willing to pay good money! So I agreed to do it. It was a good party in many ways but… when I arrived I was shown my spot for telling stories: it was just up the corridor from the disco and right beside the bouncy castle! And I mean right beside! Even with no kids on it a bouncy castle makes a lot of huffing and puffing and wheezing noises. I pointed out that it was an impossible spot and asked for somewhere else and they hunted round and found me a much more suitable site—a small room just off the main space but not too far away. I now had to get an audience so I asked the MC to announce it and a couple of people rounded up anyone who was interested. At last I had a space and I had an audience… but this had all taken quite a while and half the afternoon had gone. I said hello to the kids, drew a breath and was preparing to launch into the first story when... the door opened and someone popped their head round and said “Santa’s just arrived!” Whoosh! Went my audience and disappeared never to be seen again. So I did too. I picked up my things and went home. Next day I sent in my invoice and got paid for doing absolutely nothing! Scrooge would have been gloating but I find that sort of thing infuriating.

At the beginning of this I mentioned our local author Alison Uttley: something I’ve done for nearly 20 years now is the Alison Uttley Christmas Show. Joyce Varty reads from Uttley’s many writings (she’s best known for her children’s books—Little Grey Rabbit and so on but she wrote a lot of essays for adults, mainly about growing up in Derbyshire 100+ years ago, and Christmas features strongly) and I put in some relevant songs. It’s particularly suitable because she quotes or mentions quite a few songs in her writing and, where possible I use her versions or try to find another local one. We’ve decided to give it a rest this year because I feel it’s served its time. It’s always attracted an older audience and a lot of the people who used to come can’t any more. There don’t seem to be many younger ones waiting to take their place so it’s been getting increasingly difficult to get a reasonable audience. Several people have said it’s a pity so I’ll probably be branded as a Scrooge for that too—for spoiling their build up to Christmas.

And finally, just to prove I’m not that much of a Scrooge, let me wish you everything you’d wish for yourselves at this time of year, and plenty of it.

 If you'd like to know more have a look at my web site  http://www.petecastle.co.uk 
and the site for FACTS AND FICTION, the storytelling magazine which I edit http://www.factsandfiction.co.uk

My You Tube channel contains a lot of videos of both songs and stories.

Have a look at the previous postings below and if you have any comments please post them. I'd welcome your (constructive) comments and would be very pleased if you did sign up to 'follow' me!