Wow, what a day! Here’s to the next four decades.

31 July 2023

We’d like to say thank you to the hundreds of people who helped us to celebrate our40th anniversary at our ‘Folk Takeover’ of Exeter Phoenix on Saturday 29 July.

From music-making sessions and sing songs in the bar, to our inclusive afternoon ceilidh and Celebration Concert in the evening, the day was packed with singing, playing and dancing.

Events took place in the studios, cinema, workshop, bar, and in the main auditorium. We kicked things off with a busy Women in Folk Song workshop and presentation about our Her Story project  – it was lovely to see so many people joining in and learning the harmonies of folk songs telling the stories of strong women down the ages. Three women even travelled from Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, after first learning about our work during lockdown.  Ruth, Annelise and Pauline all sing in choirs where they live and ‘discovered’ our online choirs during the pandemic. Ruth said: “We just wanted to be here and to meet everyone in the flesh! Singing with everyone this morning was wonderful, we have loved it.”

We also had busy rooms for our Instrument Picnic for adults to learn acoustic instruments; the Sing & Play for children under five and their adults to explore music together; Folk Tune workshop welcomed players from complete beginners to professional musicians; and Singing for the Terrified helped new singers find their voice

The day was also an opportunity for people to learn more about our charitable work, including Singing for Wellness and All Together Now, our work in schools for children with special needs or disability. At our introduction to Singing for Wellness, one of our Okehampton choir shared how singing had improved her breathing and stamina, which is affected by a rare condition called Lymphangioleiomyomatosis: “I used to swim 42 lengths of the local swimming pool, but after I got Covid, I could only do 12 before getting out of breath and having to stop. Since I joined Singing for Wellness, I can now do 42 lengths again. The breathing exercises and the singing improves the muscles which help my breathing.”

We welcomed a panel of guests for a discussion around traditional music and Englishness, where one of the talking points was how folk music has for centuries connected people around the world, as people travelled and shared traditional songs from their home countries. Chile-born Mauricio Venegas-Astorga from Musiko Musika told of how sea shanties were introduced to South America from seafarers from England, and how folk songs from England, Wales and Scotland became part of the culture in the mining community where he grew up: “Music bridges cultures and languages,” he said. “We try to encourage people to listen to different music and not pigeon-hole styles.  People in Latin America should be listening to more English folk music. If we talk and connect, we can get things done.”

We enjoyed some brilliant guest performances during the day, including fiddle player Ben VanWeede at the launch of the second edition of our William Andrews Tunebook. Ben played two hornpipe tunes from the book, which has 29 tunes which Sabine Baring-Gould collected from Andrews, who was a farmer and skilled fiddle player living on Dartmoor in the 1800s. Ben said: “What has really spiked my curiosity about this collection is that the tunes would have been pretty trendy in Okehampton at that time, before the railways arrived. So how did he pick up these tunes? He certainly had an ear for a good tune. His collection has a lasting quality, and with this new edition, I think people will really want to play them.”

Another guest performer was folk singer Jim Causley, who joined the lunch time sing song in the bar, together with our MenSing choir. Jim was a member of our Voices in Common choir in the 1990s and he said: “Wren Music introduced me to Baring-Gould and to Devon folk songs, and I’ve been involved with the charity on various projects down the years. It’s lovely to be here for the 40th birthday party.”

And what’s a party without a dance?! The inclusive ceilidh in the auditorium had dozens of people of all ages on the dancefloor – for many, it was their first ever ceilidh. The music was provided by a special band of Wren musicians (Jon and Jenny) with friends Malcolm and Olive Woods and Mark Bazeley. The dance event also included a performance by our Devon Inclusive Folk Ensemble. One of the dancers was Amanda who danced the afternoon away in her wheelchair: “I always used to dance, but this is the first time in a wheelchair. It was brilliant. And my dance ‘partners’ who pushed my wheelchair were great. I’ll definitely be doing it again.”

Over in the cinema, the audience enjoyed the screening of Songcatcher, a film set in the early 1900s in which a musicologist discovered a harmonic culture of folk songs while visiting the Appalachians. The film was followed by a panel discussion about folk song collecting where Bill Murray, Paul Wilson and Kirsty Kay from University of Sheffield discussed the ethical issues around collecting folk songs.

The grand finale to the day was a Celebration Concert in the auditorium (pictured), with performances from Wren Music’s community groups and team of professional musicians. To open the show our new Folk Sinfonietta premiered the ‘Overture: Top 40’ featuring sections of 40 songs and tunes from our 40 years – and what a stuning performance they gave! Awards were also presented to recognise members who had gone above and beyond in support of the Wren Music community. More than 100 singers and players performed together at the end of the show, including The Cutty Wren: one of the oldest songs in the English tradition and the inspiration behind our organisation name. Afterwards, we enjoyed a farewell sing song together in the bar – a fabulous way to end the day.

Our team had a great day too. “Today has been like the best kind of party. Catching up and celebrating with people we know, and also welcoming new people into our community. It’s been a true celebration of all that is good about Wren!” said musician Jenny. Our event coordinator Amy added “We’ve been really fortunate to be able to ‘takeover’ this important arts venue for the whole day, and everyone at Exeter Phoenix has got into the spirit of the anniversary too – which has been the icing on the cake of the great atmosphere.”

Thank you to everyone who came to help us celebrate. To all the guests who took part in the panel discussions and other events throughout the day, and to our performers, and to our volunteers who helped to make our birthday celebrations such a success.

Here’s to the next four decades!

You can see more photos on our Facebook page