Our occasional feature series The Archivist returns to profile multimedia label and research project Folklore Tapes.
Whether it’s the intricate cassette covers of their early releases hand-stamped with pagan patterning, the detailed kerning of the type used on the hollowed out hardback ‘books’ that house them, or the fact that their most recent 7×7″ box counts a pressed wild flower among its contents, Folklore Tapes is a label that feels like it could have existed in another era. Even the nature of its genesis, as a postal project between Devonshire natives David Chatton Barker and Ian Humberstone, seems decidedly arcane.
Yet despite all this, Folklore Tapes not only belongs in the 21st century, but is, in many ways, defined by it. While the objects themselves may reference a simpler time and the means of production strictly analogue, the project has enabled both David and Ian to explore their love for art, music and film, documented in detail on their fascinating blog.
What Folklore Tapes have also done which is similarly of our time is tap into a discontent with the digital to produce desirable hand-crafted objects that hope to tell a more complete story, where form and content are allied not averse, and concentration isn’t patronised by cheap thrills.
But what is it exactly? In broad strokes, it’s a research project undertaken by David and Ian to explore the UK’s tradition of regional folklore and manifested as hand-made limited edition cassettes, doctored field recordings and experimental film. The ethos is encapsulated by their first vinyl box set; a comprehensive celebration of the work of folklorist and trailblazer Theo Brown. Compared to Delia Derbyshire for her unswerving conviction in the face of massive prejudice from an exclusively male sphere, Brown documented the tales, myths and legends of her native Devon, explored by Folklore Tapes through the hand-me-down beliefs of seven Dartmoor Villages.
Each 7″ takes a village for its theme, recreating the folk tale as a textured soundscape built from in-situ field recordings that recall the ambitious soundtracks of electronic pioneers Pierre Henry and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Furthermore, the box set is accompanied by a DVD, shot entirely on 8mm film that has been left to decompose in the mud and leaves of the moor. With a pressed Dartmoor wild flower included in each of the 300 copies, they’ve left no stone unturned, no path untrodden.
With such meticulous care and attention given to the concept and execution of each release, Folklore Tapes are pulling the mysterious and neglected world of the country’s vernacular history out from the dusty vaults of archivists like Theo Brown and imbuing them with contemporary audio-visual life. Intrigued, we caught up with both David and Ian via email to find out more about this unique project.
On your website, Folklore Tapes is described as a research project rather than a record label. What is it that particularly fascinates you about British folk arcana?
Ian Humberstone: Folklore is a mysterious and ever-shifting entity, but one bound up with our ideas of identity and heritage. I think it’s this combination that makes the subject so appealing. These are tales and customs that belong to us all and help us understand our shared past, but which are often obscure, fragmentary, and neglected by contemporary society. Folklore is also a fertile ground for creativity, being the great untamed cultural terrain. We like to look under the rocks and down into the deep caves of this landscape to see what dwells there.
Contributors to Folklore Tapes have always been called ‘researchers’, as we wanted to highlight the research aspect of each release. The term ‘artist’ didn’t really seem to cut it, as it put the focus too much on the person researching the lore, rather than the lore itself.
Why choose to manifest this project in cassette releases? What is it about the format that appeals to you?
Ian: We both like to live the physical world, which means working with tangible things wherever possible in our art and music. The two sided nature of cassettes was also something we wanted to work with, and most of Folklore Tapes’ output has been split releases between two artists, each filling out one side of a tape with the overall release unified by a common theme.
As a conceptual project, the packaging of the releases has always been important; there are lots of different places you can go with a cassette (housing cassettes within a hollowed out hardback book has been a staple for us). We are also probably the last generation to have grown up with cassette mix-tapes and four-tracks, so there wasn’t a ‘rediscovery’ of the format for us, we’d just never stopped using them.
The artwork also seems to be very important. How is that determined?
David Chatton Barker: From the beginning the artwork was always a key component in the overall conception of an edition. As much as the myths and mysteries required a soundtrack so too did they need a visual identity. Also by way of drawing people into the project, as I always think with music/sound conceptual work people need an instant/accessible way in and this cannot always be immediately achieved by the content within, which requires the listener to spend time and immerse themselves in it.
Having a visual identity is very important for anything beyond the radio I’d say. Each visual element comes naturally from the subject matter and over time themes have arisen. Me and Ian love series/editions of records or books as we are both collectors so there is very much this element coming into the whole Folklore Tapes world.
Is the music created by yourselves? How does the music and visual element interact with the narrative?
Ian: The music for Folklore Tapes releases is always original and created by the artists. David and I wrote and played all the music on this latest release (although a field-recording taken at Widecombe churchyard does contain the parishioners inside singing – so that isn’t us).
I think if there’s a common thread to Folklore Tapes releases it’s that, unlike the 1970s folk-revivalists, we are not attempting to ‘update’ a particular tradition (a folk-song, for example) for a modern audience. Instead we are investigating the footnotes of English folklore and creating wholly new expressions from those accounts. The traditional element – the narrative, event or practice – comes first but is at all times informing the music, visuals and artwork.
Geographical lines of enquiry have also become important, as in many cases a plot of land or ruined house is the only tangible connexion left to us with a particular tradition. Field-trips are therefore taken, to collect field-recordings and organic matter from specific sites, and these elements work their way into a project, often in surprising ways.
Could you tell us a little bit about Theo Brown and why you decided to release her work now?
Ian: Theo Brown was a twentieth-century folklorist and artist from Devon. She published a number of books and articles, and became an Honorary Fellow at Exeter University and a member of the Devonshire Association and the Folklore Society. She also created intricate woodcut images and exhibited with the Devon-based Kenn Group.
I first came across her work as a student at Exeter University while writing a paper on Black Dog lore, Theo was an expert on the subject and my tutor recommended I look into some of her unpublished papers, which are kept in the library vaults there. In the archive I was struck by the passion of her writing and the spread of her field work, I remember seeing a number of boxes marked ‘Dartmoor’, which I didn’t have time to look at but earmarked for a later date. It was only last year with this latest project I finally got to see what was inside them.
When we started Folklore Tapes her work was a constant inspiration to us both and provided us with a wealth of information on a range of fascinating and forgotten topics. We grew increasingly interested in Theo Brown the person and wanted to pay tribute to her and her endeavours with an expansive special edition set.
Are there any myths or mysteries from her work that have particularly inspired you?
David: All the tales from Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor have so much meaning for us both because of how much time we’ve spent immersed in them, visiting the locations and essentially being possessed by them for the best part of a year. The tale of The Snaily House is certainly one of our favourites and we managed to find the ruins of the house on one of our trips to Dartmoor. (See the story below, taken from Theo Brown’s Tales of a Dartmoor Village)
This, once called White Slade, is now inside a Forestry Commission plantation, about a quarter of a mile downstream from Bellever Bridge, on the east bank. The Forestry Commission has avoided the ruins, but the clutter and brambles make it almost inaccessible. One tall, white, dead trunk marks the place. Here two lonely women once lived. They had no cattle, tended no garden and were never seen to approach the village for stores or company. Yet glimpses of them showed that they were fat and buxom. For years the mystery deepened, and people grew afraid of them and believed they must be witches and possess some horrible resources. Unable at last to bear the suspense, a party of villagers went over to the cottage, waited at a distance till they saw the ladies wander off on the moor and then broke into the house. They found it pitifully bare of any furniture or possessions, save for a number of cloam pots on the floor – filled with pickled snails and the black slugs of the moor. This was the sole diet of these eccentrics. The secret being out, the poor women lost heart and pined away.
The practice was not as barbarous as the Postbridge folk fancied. Snails have been consumed widely in the West Country, especially by people engaged in glass-blowing or by poor people generally; they are said to prevent and cure pulmonary tuberculosis and whooping cough: I have seen this done in the last few years locally, and it does seem to prevent whooping cough.
Could you give us an idea of a few of your previous tape releases?
David: Well the very first Devon Folklore Tape was ‘Two Witches’ by the two of us. We made 24 of the book editions with no idea how it would be received. At the time I was working with Finders Keepers Records so we sold half through their website and a few through Boomkat. We never started the project with the idea of selling them online really, at the time the project began I was living in Exeter and fully expected to sell the tapes in a few shops. Even though myself and Ian are fairly analogue in our general approach the internet has become an unpredictable key element in the whole project’s growth.
Now we distribute the editions through our own website, a few other website shops and several shops around the UK and Mount Analogue in the US. Other editions have covered topics such as the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 (Lancashire Folklore Tapes Vol.I) Rituals and Practices (Devon Folklore Tapes Vol.IV) and Inland Water (Devon Folklore Tapes Vol.III). For the cassette release we generally do a run of thirty book editions with screen printed cover and research booklet and sixty envelope editions with screen printed card slip case and research booklet.
The US has the Smithsonian institute and individuals like Alan Lomax and Harry Smith to preserve its vernacular music heritage. How influential has their work been on you and does the UK have an equivalent insitution?
David Chatton Barker: The Smithsonian Institute and the Folkways Label have both been very much on my radar from early on. As a devoted collector of vinyl I first came across Folkways because of their brilliant sleeve designs and thorough booklets. In England the Topic and Argo labels did an excellent job of revitalising folklore, customs and folksong. Most specifically the Radio Ballad series format by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker is something more on the same concept as Folklore Tapes.
The British Library sounds database is an excellent source of field sounds and oral history currently operating. Though there isn’t really a project releasing editions akin to Smithsonian that is continual, the idea from the start of Folklore Tapes was that this is something we’ll work on till the end of our days with other like minded folk and that it will out live us and be continued by others… we hope.
Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor is out now on Folklore Tapes and available to purchase from their online shop.