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A Magazine for Sheffield

The living tradition of Sheffield’s folk scene

The Local Carols are one of the strong threads of the region’s folk music, but there is more to the scene than just this. We dug deeper with songwriter and performer Rowan Rheingans and instrument maker David O'Hagan.

Rowan rheingans

Rowan Rheingans

At what point in the year does it become acceptable to start singing carols? According to a long-held regional tradition, it’s mid-November.

This is a season when legend looms large, when the Local Carols – a South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire folk tradition – are sung in pubs across the region. The 'sings,' as the sessions are called, begin on Armistice Day and often run until New Year’s day.

Local pubs have subtly varying repertoires, with most composed largely of traditional Christmas or Yuletide songs. You can expect to hear, for example, popular carols like ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ or ‘While Shepherds Watched.’

But you’ll also come across a number of lesser-known local folk songs, the likes of which you’re less likely to know. Favourites include the dark and morbid ‘Mistletoe Bough,’ the rousing ‘Swaledale Song’ and roof-raising anthem ‘Kris Kringle.’

More than 20 pubs in the region host sings, where the singing may be unaccompanied, accompanied by piano or a small band, or, in some cases, a larger ensemble. More elaborate sessions may call in the historic Oughtibridge Brass Band or the Loxley Silver Band, as well as one session in Foolow which is accompanied by strings.

For many who value connection to the past in this region, being part of these festive sings is a rich, hearty experience that has become a focal point of the season.

The Local Carols are one of the strong threads of the region’s folk music, but there is more to the scene than just this. Sheffield is, in fact, something of a folk music centre in the British Isles, the city of several of the nation’s most-celebrated folk artists.

One of Sheffield’s acclaimed folk artists is Rowan Rheingans. A musician, songwriter, theatre-maker and audio producer, Rheingans grew up in Grindleford. She tells me of teenage years filled with music and politics, as she gigged extensively in Sheffield’s pubs and bars.

Rheingans has gone on to international folk fame. Today, she is best-known for her work with Lady Maisery and The Rheingans Sisters, counting two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and half a dozen more nominations amongst her accolades.

“The strong folk music community in Sheffield and also out in Derbyshire growing up has had a profound influence on me,” she says.

“I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t know what a folk session or a ceilidh was. My childhood was one of being taken into these social musical spaces a lot. I knew pubs were for live music and singing from a very early age, and I still think that’s one of the best things they can be for.”

When asked about musicians in the region who have influenced her, Rheingans readily reels off a list of artists. “Notable professional folk musicians who live in Sheffield – just off the very, very top of my head – are extremely numerous,” she tells me.

Her sizeable list includes some names I’m not so familiar with: Nancy Kerr, James Fagan, Sam Carter, Martin Simpson, Emily Portman, Tim Van Eyken, Jess and Richard Arrowsmith, Sharon Kraus and Rosie Hood. I’m glad to discover I’m not a complete ignoramus when she adds Fay Hield, Jon Boden, Neil McSweeney, and – one of my personal favourites – Jim Ghedi.

“There are many more, and I’m sure loads I don’t know about yet,” she acknowledges.

Yet Rheingans is keen to emphasise that it was not necessarily these professional touring artists who created the scene per se.

“The most influential musicians in any folk scene are often the ones you don’t hear as much about outside of the scene itself, because they’re busy making folk music community happen.”

Carol singing at the Union Pub December 2023

Carol singing at the Union Hotel, December 2023.

“This is a scene really held up by people giving their energy voluntarily, rather than an industry where everyone is getting paid.“

She goes on to paint a picture of a network, stretching back over generations, who have built the community in which she and others now flourish.

“This has been my full-time job for a decade now and I earn a good living, but I’m always very aware of all the decades and decades of unpaid labour that goes into making a folk scene exist and thrive.

“To even be able to be a professional folk musician today, I’m indebted to people decades ago who grew this scene. I’m thinking about the session-leaders, the music teachers, the folk club hosts, gig promoters, song collectors and people who host artists when they’re travelling through.”

Like anything of real value, the folk scene only thrives thanks to the conscious efforts of the people who work to build it, a point which Rheingans illustrates with reference to the Local Carols.

“There’s a myth about the Sheffield carols being an unbroken tradition of singing,” Rheingans tells me. But the reality is that no tradition is self-perpetuating – it takes work to develop and to maintain.

The folklorist and ethnomusicologist Dr Ian Russell is one such person who has played a key role in this work. Dr Russell completed his PhD research on the Local Carols and, through his organisation Village Carols, he has made thousands of hours of field recordings of traditional song, helping to document and promote the tradition.

“Like a lot of folk traditions,” Rheingans says, “survival or revival has relied heavily on one person or a small group of people devoting incredible time and energy. That goes into feeding and fuelling and educating, in order that it gains pace and exists as a thriving tradition again. Most traditional stuff that still happens is because of people like this.”

David ohagan

Instrument maker David O'Hagan in his workshop.

Much like the city’s renowned folk musicians, local instrument maker David O’Hagan dedicates himself to the subtle advancement of his craft.

A gifted sound engineer and music producer, he came to the world of musical instrument manufacturing after studying traditional gong-making in South America.

Today, he taps into Sheffield’s heritage of precision manufacturing to produce folk music instruments from his workshop in Heeley, where he oversees the design and manufacture of two internationally-renowned Irish whistle brands, the historic Howard Music and the pioneering Shush Instruments.

When I speak to him, he is working away on a flurry of Christmas orders, with instruments being shipped out to folk musicians as far away as China and Australia.

O’Hagan describes his work within the context of Sheffield’s manufacturing history, harking back to a day when Little Mesters would support large scale manufacturing in the city, as well as selling their own products.

“Making a musical instrument requires expertise in a number of different disciplines,” O’Hagan explains, “including musical ability, knowledge of acoustics and fine engineering skills.”

He goes on to explain how Brian Howard, the founder of Howard Music, worked as a tool maker for Moor and Wright, a company renowned for making measuring instruments of the highest quality. Howard’s technical abilities, combined with his musical talent, saw him become one of the manufacturing pioneers of the Low D Irish whistle.

David ohagan low D irish whistle

Low D Irish whistles made by David O'Hagan.

First developed in the 60s, the low whistle is a relatively new instrument that has seamlessly meshed into the folk music of the British Isles. The instrument itself says something about the possibility of a musical culture that is deeply connected to its roots, yet still able to progress.

Although much has changed from the era of the Little Mesters, the way Howard Music operates today bears some resemblance to the old ways. While O’Hagan manages the main manufacturing processes in-house, he calls on a network of local specialists to handle finishing jobs, from powder coating to plating and laser engraving.

“The difference between a high-quality product and an inferior one is often down to many small processes being done well,” O’Hagan explains. “The network of local specialists is essential to help us create instruments of such high quality. Tapping into their skills helps us to innovate and make our designs a reality.”

It turns out it’s a big time of the year for much of Sheffield’s folk music scene.

As O’Hagan and his team ship whistles out to musicians across the globe, so the legendary Local Carols are recreated in pubs worldwide by people who have cottoned on to the glorious tradition.

I ask Rheingans whether she’ll be at the Local Carols this year. Unfortunately for her, like many of the city’s professional folk musicians, she is often on the road in December.

While folk music has a lot to do with roots, history and origins, from its earliest times it has always been about living and growing. Today, out of this city, it continues to evolve, emanating far and wide.

Learn more

Catch Rowan Rheingans live at Cafe #9 on 24 and 25 January 2024, on tour with The Rheingans Sisters in April 2024, and on tour with Lady Maisery in May 2024.

Cafe #9 has street-level access and on-street parking nearby. It does not have an accessible toilet.

by Michael Sandford (he/him)
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