[Photo by Elly Lucs – ellylucas.co.uk]
Sam Sweeney is not an unheard name in the world of folk music. As a recognised musician with Bellowhead and nominated as Best Musician at the BBC Folk Awards 2013 & 2014, Sam now is making a name for himself through the highly successful show, ‘Made in the Great War’.
The show tells a fascinating story of a fiddle Sam bought from a shop in Oxford that in fact started its story 90 years ago! After tracing back its history, the maker of the fiddle originally lived in Leeds and after signing up when the First World War started, he never returned. The skeleton of the fiddle was passed from person to person and eventually made its way to a luthier in Oxford who brought it back to life, putting it in the window of his shop. It was from this shop that Sam found it and brought the story to life through combining music and film to create Made in the Great War.
With ‘Made in the Great War’ coming to Leeds City Varieties this Thursday (September 18th), TSOTA got a chance to interview Sam Sweeney to tell us all about creating the show, the story of the fiddle, and the influence of the War on his music…
TSOTA: So a show inspired by a fiddle – why did you decide to investigate the history of it?
SS: When I looked inside my brand new fiddle and saw a label naming Richard S Howard as the maker and the date 1915, I knew I had to find out more. As I learned more about Richard Howard the idea of making a show came naturally. The story was so compelling that I just wanted to tell it to as many people as possible.
TSOTA: How did it feel finding out more about this man you’d never met?
SS: The whole research process was quite overwhelming. My Dad, being a keen genealogist, did a huge amount of the work. He would come to me with a new nugget of information about Richard and it was hugely exciting every time we pieced the story together a bit more. We’re still finding stuff out too. On the second night of the tour, Richard Howard’s granddaughter, Mary, came to see the show. She brought an old locket that belonged to her mum and it had photos of Richard and his wife inside. It was amazing to see their faces. She also got to hold the violin after the show, which was amazing for both of us!
TSOTA: Did what you find alter your perception of the war in any way?
SS: Certainly. The sheer scale of the First World War is almost impossible for a one person to comprehend nowadays. Following an individual’s story makes it all the more real and gives it much greater impact. On the one hand, this show is about the First World War, but on the other it’s just the amazing story of the creation of a violin that took nearly a century to finish. It’s a very human story and I think that’s why audiences are being very affected by it. It’s a very personal journey through such a terrible conflict.
TSOTA: Obviously what you found had an impact on you that you wanted to share. Why did you choose to produce a show as a way of sharing the story?
SS: The story was just so good that I just had to tell it to as many people as possible. I’m a fiddle player, but not an actor(!), so it seemed natural to devise a show that puts the fiddle itself in the leading role. I have been an admirer of master story teller and writer Hugh Lupton for many years. I knew he was the only man who could write and tell this story and do it justice. When he agreed to do it, I was over the moon! Then I really wanted some folk musicians to help me create and perform the music. We had an enormous wealth of musical styles to draw on. The music of the period, regimental music, Music Hall songs and melodies. Rob Harbron, who plays concertina, fiddle and harmonium in the show, wrote the music with me and Paul Sartin was the ideal third musician to help the show come to life.
TSOTA: With the history of the fiddle, the history of the war, and then the history of Leeds, there is clearly a lot going on. How hard was it to select and condense it down into one story?
SS: We followed what we knew of Richard Howard, and Hugh Lupton (the storyteller) used some imagination and artistic license to fill in some of the missing details. The story is set first in Leeds then at the front but we’re really telling the story of the fiddle and the maker, rather than the whole war! Over the last six years, my Dad and I collected so much information that we just gave it all to Hugh and he did a phenomenal job of creating an intensely moving and compelling narrative.
Sam Sweeney – playing at the grave of Richard Howard. Photo by Elly Lucas
TSOTA: You’ve used the ancient folk ballad of The Cruel Sister as a narrative to focus on. How important was it to have the object (the fiddle) telling the story?
SS: The Cruel Sister tells the story of two sisters, one of whom kills the other and proceeds to make a fiddle (or a harp) from the bones, hair and skin of the corpse. Then when the fiddle is played it sings the song of the killing and the cruel sister is exposed – so it’s a traditional story which gives the fiddle a voice. Hugh’s idea was to rework that ancient story so that the imagined fiddle is made from the remains of a soldier, and when played, it sings of the sorrows of war. It’s a very poignant moment in the show because it transports the audience from the grim reality of the trenches to the super natural world of ancient ballads.
TSOTA: In the description of the show you talk about the influences of war music and folk music, what was it like to collaborate the different styles into your show?
SS: There’s a long history of crossover between folk music and music used in the military – and of course the folk music and music hall repertoire of the period reflect how deeply the war affected the whole country.
TSOTA: What sort of tone are we expecting to experience?
SS: The first half of the show is a little thematic introduction to the main event. We perform a few pieces of music and short stories to plant a few seeds in the audience’s minds before the interval. Then we come on stage and perform the story of Richard Howard and the violin he never got to finish. It’s a story telling show, interwoven with music, song and bits of film footage too! It’s a great spectacle as well as a beautiful story!
TSOTA: What message do you hope the audiences will get from the show?
SS: A lot of people are very affected by the show. We’ve had a lot of tears afterwards, but also so many emails saying how moving it was and that everyone should see it. We’ve also had a lot of people coming up to us and telling us the stories of their relatives that were in the Great War. It seems to be bringing people together in a very positive way to commemorate the centenary of the start of the war.
TSOTA: With tickets selling out already, do you think you will do any more musical productions in the future?
SS: That’s really hard to say. With the phenomenal success of the tour so far and lots of sell out crowds it would be crazy not to tour this again! Watch this space. As for other musical productions, I never thought I’d ever do one as it’s way out of my comfort zone. But never say never! It’s not every day you trip over an amazing story like this one, though.
To book tickets to see the show visit the City Varieties Music Hall ticket page.
To find out the full story of finding the fiddle visit www.madeinthegreatwar.com
Alternatively, watch this space for a review of the show!
Discovery of The Mystery Violin Made in the Great War – courtesy of Brtish Forces News