This weekend was a bit of a break from the usual routine of find gig, go to gig, come home, blog about gig. This week involved driving via Petersfield and Birmingham to Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, for ‘Singing In The Shed’ – a blokes’ singing workshop run by four guys who each organise men’s community choirs across the UK, and are also members of a rather good musical outfit, The Spooky Men’s Chorale. If you haven’t come across the Spookies, very little by way of description can do them justice. They need to be experienced. Their own website describes them as follows:
…a vast, rumbling, steam powered and black clad behemoth, seemingly accidentally capable of rendering audiences moist eyed with mute appreciation or haplessly gurgling with merriment. Based on the twin pillars of grand foolishness and the quest for the perfect subwoofer-rattling boofchord, the Spooky Men seek to commentate on the absurdity and grandeur of the modern male armed only with their voices, a sly collection of hats and facial hair, and a twinkle in the eye…
So, essentially, my weekend consisted of my friends Paul from Petersfield and Rob from the Isle of Man (via Birmingham airport) and myself joining about 120 other blokes singing various songs in the Engine Shop, a disused engine shed, now part of the Enginuity museum. itself, a rather interesting place (or at least the bit we walked through each day was, with its ‘turn the wheel to move the steam locomotive’ and ‘dam the valley and see the effects of hydroelectric power’ interactive thingies that large numbers of fully grown men enjoyed playing with, to the annoyance of the under tens who just wanted to splash each other and press buttons to make lights come on).
We were under strict instructions to arrive no earlier than 5pm on Friday. The rebels we are, we turned up at 4:55 and wandered in. Greeting us inside the door of the Coalbrookdale Youth Hostel (our home for the weekend) was a big sign with various notices on, with the legend ‘please take some’ at the bottom, and an arrow pointing to a bag of earplugs. These were intended for the shared sleeping arrangements, but discussions were had on whether or not we should take them to the singing sessions as well.
After we’d checked into the hostel, we had a good couple of hours spare before the first session, so repaired to the pub. The Coalbrookdale Inn is located conveniently between the venue and the hostel and is in the Good Beer Guide, for good reason. Half a dozen ales and three real ciders saw that we’d be well watered this weekend.
Dinner was served in the hostel before the first singing session, which went well, with everyone finding their feet, deciding whether to sing top, middle or bottom parts, and getting to grips with the first of the songs we learned over the weekend.
Yet again, we repaired to the tranquility of the pub. A pattern was emerging, as was the queue from the door of the establishment, owing to a hundred blokes eager to slake their thirst suddenly descending on a quiet village local.
Inevitably, singing followed. Various songs were offered from diverse areas of the pub, people joining in with those they knew, listening to those they didn’t, with rapturous applause following every offering. I led a couple of sea shanties – South Australia and Haul Away Joe – probably the furthest inland I’d ever sung them. It was quite an experience to have a whole pub full of singers behind me instead of the usual four.
I’m not sure what time the pub was meant to close. And I’m not sure what time it did close. Either way, it was a rather good evening.
Day 2. An uneventful breakfast was followed by the next singing session. We were taught an African song, Bawo Thixo Somandla, by a chap by the name of Philip Read. These singing workshops are renowned for teaching you songs you won’t have come across before. This was definitely the case here.I opted to sing bass this weekend, which, unusually in this particular song, meant there were a fair number of lyrics in some unknown (to me) African language to learn. One day I’ll look up a translation, but for now, I’m quite happy to think that the song was based around a phrasebook and that the top part were ordering a taxi to the station, the mid part were in a pharmacy asking for aspirin and the bottom part were ordering food in a restaurant.
Lunch was a buffet, in which I managed to break a tooth on a typically soft mini Scotch egg. Oh well! I’ve got a few more (teeth, not Scotch eggs). During the afternoon session, we split into two groups, with one half staying in the Engine Shop and the other returning to the hostel. I elected for the latter and a chap called Dom Stichbury taught us The Grey Funnel Line by – a song about a Naval sailor getting tired of being at sea. A rather pleasant tune by champion of folk and former Naval man, Cyril Tawney. The song is a powerful lament about wanting to turn the ship around and tell the crew they were going home. I think we did it justice.
After a quick break, we were all in the Engine Shop again for a session with Chris Samuel. We sang a song written by a mate of his, Mike Scott. The song was called Pearly Gates and was a bluesy number about a self-important individual who is adamant that the Pearly Gates should be left on the latch and he’ll be there when he is ready, on his own terms. If this doesn’t happen, he’ll just lift them off the hinges. This was the first time the song had been performed by anyone apart from Scott himself, and when asked if he minded it being sung by a choir, gave full support, saying that we should sing it at his funeral. When the day comes, they had better take into account the 120-strong choir when they look at venues…
We still had a little time before dinner, so a quick blast through a Spooky Man favourite, the Georgian drinking song, Mraval Jamier. We didn’t have any lyrics and a proportion of the gathered individuals didn’t know it, but wow. The bloody ground shook. It really is a thing of enormous powerful beauty when 120 men are all singing a very simple lyric in well orchestrated harmony. Here’s a link to the Spookies’ version.
After a pint in the pub then a very enjoyable BYOB dinner in the Engine Shop, we were intending on going back to the pub for beer and music. The queue was already out the door and we were warned by a fellow singy chap that there was a ridiculous wait for service and nowhere to sit. We elected to return to the hostel, with booze and bouzouki in hand.
The session in the lounge carried on until gone 1, with people appearing as they’d tired of the pub. A steady stream of instruments appeared – guitars, a ukulele and my bouzouki and tin whistle providing the melody, with a cajon for percussion. In all honesty, if I’d had less to drink, I’d probably have a lot more to say about it now, but these things happen and we have to live with the consequences… I do recall one of the guys singing a very amusing version of Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ with some very risque, tongue-in-cheek lyrics.
That night, I was the last to bed in my room and wandered in to see Paul sat up on the top bunk of his bed, reasoning with the guy on the bottom bunk who was clearly talking in his sleep. Oh well! ‘Please take some’ earplugs inserted, I fell quickly asleep.
An unfamiliar sound woke me in the morning. It sounded like an alarm clock, but not one I’d heard before. It was rather loud and seemed to be coming from the corridor. There was a lot of banging of doors going on. It was 7:45 and it was raining. These factors alone meant it had to be the fire alarm.
Pausing only for trousers, boots, coats and hats, we dillingently went downstairs to stand outside on the grass in the pouring rain, whilst the staff searched the building, only to be told by Rob, who examined the fire alarm control panel, that it was burning toast in the dining room.
Sunday morning’s session was a recap of the four songs we’d learned over the past couple of days, before a lunchtime performance to friends and family and any interested public. Photos were taken, farewells bade and the room was soon empty.
The weekend was most enjoyable, with new songs learned, new friends made, new beers consumed, and a 400 mile road test carried out on the Range Rover, which was faultless throughout after it’s major surgery last month.
It might not be your thing, but if it is, or if you think it might be, try it. There are a fair few of this kind of weekend going on out there, and they aren’t just for blokes.
That’s me done for now. This coming weekend, I’ve got a choice of three for Friday night. I think I know which one I’m favouring, based largely on the name of the act. I’ll tell you more soon…