Magpie Lane – how it all began

The story starts in 1992 at the folk sessions run by Ian Giles at the Temple Bar in Oxford. I used to turn up with my friend the guitarist Pete Acty. Like many who start to ‘hear’ folk music, I was first drawn by the beauty of Scottish and Irish traditions. What could fizz with greater vitality than the jigs and reels? Or be more spine-tingling than the slow airs? I went to the sessions to catch that vibe, hoping also that I might one day gain confidence to sing something myself.

Somewhere at those sessions, though, I began to hear a mysterious ‘otherness’ in our own native English tradition. It still, to me, possesses a strange fascination. Is it something to do with the medium tempo, an almost nonchalant confidence in the material itself, rather than drama or pace? There’s a plain-ness in it, certainly, even a naivety. But there’s more. While Celtic music reminds me of wild landscapes, the English tradition seems more rooted in farmland and its steady seasonal rounds. It evokes age-old agricultural rituals, a rhythmic stamping of the earth; and the morris, both funny and faintly spooky too.

A freelance writer by trade, I had been into studios before to record some of my own songs. For my two little cassettes I invented Beautiful Jo Records, named after my lovely wife Jo, who has supported me in many a hare-brained scheme. Now my ambition knew no bounds! Intrigued by the English folk heard at the Temple Bar I dreamt of turning the label into a real, commercial enterprise and making a start with a CD of Oxfordshire songs and tunes.

My thinking was that if we made a decent recording, it should at least cover its costs through local interest. For financial backing I found David Lawton, a jazz fan frankly bemused by folk music of any sort. ‘This time next year we’ll be millionaires’ I reassured him.

As for musicians, Ian got on the case straight away, quickly recruiting Tom Bower and Andy Turner. Andy’s favoured fiddler was Mat Green from Bampton, perfect in style and pedigree for an Oxfordshire band. I suggested Pete Acty and his wife Joanne because I loved their ballad settings. We envisaged an acoustic outfit and we needed someone to hold down a bass line. Tom’s wife found Isobel Dams, a classically trained cellist keen to be involved.

If music from the southern shires was profoundly unfashionable at the time, we were by no means first to explore its potential. Obviously, the Copper Family, Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior, Shirley Collins and others were already national names. Locally, the band owed something to the influence of Witney-based Dave Townsend, who had recreated the sound of 19th-century English village music with his Mellstock Band.  And a lovely duo, Len and Barbara Berry, as The Portway Peddlers, had produced an evocative study of music from the Upper Thames in their vinyl LP, In Greenwood Shades (1984).

Material for our own Oxfordshire album came from a variety of sources, much being suggested by band members who knew the local tradition much better than I. Early choices for songs were As I was Going to Banbury, The Eynsham Poaching Song, The Boar’s Head Carol from Queen’s College and the extraordinary Husbandman and Servingman from Standlake. I was also introduced to tunes ranging from the curious little Trunkles from Wheatley to the grander First of May and Double Lead Through from the repertoire of the great William Kimber, concertina player of Headington.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the late Dave Parry, who played with Andy in the ceilidh band, Geckoes. It was Dave who pointed us to John Malchair, an 18th century violinist at the Holywell Music Room, who collected a number of tunes played by street musicians in Oxford. In my memory Dave showed us a photocopy from Malchair’s notebooks of a noodling little melody. ‘I heard a man whistle this tune in Magpie Lane, Oxford, December 22, 1789. Came down and noted it down directly,’ he wrote. The seemingly inconsequential tune gave us a possible name for the band; it was Tom Bower, as I remember, who insisted that ‘Magpie Lane’ would be ideal. Only much later did we discover the original street name; in 1230 Magpie Lane was GropeXXXX Lane * (later Grope Lane) signifying a haunt of prostitutes.  It only became Magpie Lane in the 17th century.

Malchair’s notebooks, held by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, would furnish the band with more material for the album. I hastened down to Cecil Sharp House to get photocopies of other tunes. In February 1789 he noted a melody from a man with pipe and tabor. When Tom and Andy looked at the score, they found it to be a popular dance tune Astley’s Ride – Malchair seems to have been the first person to have collected it. Then there was Davy, Davy Knick-knack which Malchair heard in 1794 as an untitled air from a hand organ played in the streets. The historian in me loved all this. We were adding to folk scholarship!  

Besides the foray to Cecil Sharp House, I spent many happy hours exploring the Bodleian Library’s Broadside Ballad Collection, seeking out Oxfordshire songs. The tragic Near Woodstock Town and macabre Oxford City were already reasonably well known. But I was looking for ballads that that had never been recorded before. The Oxford Scholar and The Oxford Ramble were two dubious fruits of this research. I say dubious, although they weren’t that to me; I was mightily proud of my finds. It was Ian (he had to sing them) who grimaced, and at later concerts would routinely introduce the Ramble as a ‘song which has not been sung for over two hundred years – and you are about to find out why.’

Lastly, for the album, I sought a contribution from Chris Leslie who I knew already. As fiddler in Whippersnapper he was already a rising star; and although we could not expect him to be a full-time band member, I was very keen to include him on the album. He contributed an exquisite medley from his native Adderbury, as well as guesting on several other tracks.

At Chris’s suggestion we recorded at Fairport Convention’s Woodworm Studios at Barford St Michael. A gifted young engineer, Tim Matyear, was at the desk. Heather Bower and Carol Turner both sang and played recorder to amplify our sound on key pieces, and Mandy Townsend played hammered dulcimer on two tracks. The May Day Carol from Swalcliffe was our big production number. While it was being mixed, folk-rock legend Ashley Hutchings happened to come in. ‘You can tell it's English a mile away’, he said.

The album was ready for sale at our debut concert at the Holywell on Monday 3 May 1993. I’d been out for weeks beforehand with gluepot and A3 posters anticipating a tiny crowd. Amazingly, though, the concert was a sell-out, an early indication perhaps of re-awakening interest in the English folk tradition. As chance would have it, the audience included novelist Joseph Heller, who happened to be in Oxford at the time.

The band appeared in morris whites as they would do at all the early concerts. Four band members performed solo jigs. Mat’s spectacular showpiece jig from Bampton The Flowers of Edinburgh drew roars of approval and would often be repeated at later concerts.  Andy’s Jig to the tune of Jockey to the Fair was almost balletic, while Tom amused everyone with his Fool’s Jig (with top hat and broomstick).

And Ian’s Jig from Ducklington? Well, erm, put it this way… Ian’s Jig ‘based on a longer six-man dance’ was not often repeated at later concerts.

At the finale, Chris Leslie performed a sizzling guest spot, and the concert concluded with an ensemble rendition of the May Day Carol, still to me the anthem of Magpie Lane’s early years.

Once you start to get the English tradition, the English tradition starts to get you. I had thought I might make an Oxfordshire album and move swiftly on to more exotic projects. But The Oxford Ramble received airplay on Radio 2 and got some great reviews in the folk press. As the band started gigging, I sensed that there was much more in this seam to be mined. Not for commercial reasons but because I was so enjoying researching Oxfordshire music and hearing it come to life at rehearsals. I was hooked.

What about another album? Should we approach some festivals for next year? A Christmas concert also beckoned, and we needed new material. Back to the Bodleian I sped, returning to rehearsals with my latest discoveries. Andy Turner, glumly: ‘What’s he found now?’

Healey: ‘Just look! The Christmas Holidays, or Stuff Your Guts! Bet no-one’s recorded this before…’

Twenty years on, the line-up may have changed but the band is still gigging and making fine albums. Around 1999 it became clear that members were quite capable of finding their own material and taking it into a studio themselves.  As Beautiful Jo Records burgeoned I was, anyway, getting increasingly tied up with other artists and recording projects. So, reluctantly, I let go of supervising Magpie Lane’s affairs. 

Since 2000 the band has been self-determining, and gone from strength to strength as a result. The very lack of burning ambition - a love of folk tradition for its own sake - has always contributed to Magpie Lane’s appeal. But survival over so many years has involved some degree of drive. The veterans - Ian, Andy and Mat - have staunchly kept the show on the road, with many gifted newcomers playing their part too. I would also highlight the recent contribution of Mat’s partner. Jackie Green. who as agent has helped ensure continuing success.

Twenty years! I have seen children brought to Magpie Lane concerts grow up to become adult folk musicians themselves.

For myself, I still promote Magpie Lane’s Christmas concerts at the Holywell, and as I sit with Jo in the box office still thrill to the crowd stamping feet at The Sussex Carol, and choke up at The Trees are All Bare. Actually, I feel much as the audience do. ‘It wouldn’t be Christmas without Magpie Lane,’ people so often say. The band has become a touchstone of something joyous and enduring in Oxford’s calendar of events – and made its mark on the national scene too. 

My work with the band has left me with a record label, some great, great friends, and a lifelong love of the English folk tradition. Here’s to twenty years more…

Tim Healey, April 2013


* The original name of Oxford's Magpie Lane has been censored in order to keep this a family-friendly site! But you can find it in full on Wikipedia and elsewhere.