Messages in bottles

For our latest submissions call we want you to embrace the theme ‘message in a bottle’ – you might take this literally and share a big idea that is contained in something small or opt for a more lateral approach and interpret this through the rediscovery of another artform – perhaps the sea shanty. You might consider the notion of journeys and whether it is better to land somewhere new or return to a safe harbour. Whatever your approach, we’re looking for art – be it literary, graphic, film or music – that shows us the world from a different perspective.

To help inspire you, we spoke to author Beatrice Parvin whose debut novel was inspired and informed by English folk songs, which as she explains “are beautifully sparse and tell a huge amount in one line.”

Can you tell us a bit about Captain Swing and the Blacksmith?
The novel is set in the West Country in the 1840s, an area gripped by poverty and haunted by memories of the Swing Riots a decade earlier. The rioters were labourers who caused extensive damage in an attempt to increase starvation wages. My protagonist, Sue Trindall is a 17-year-old laundry presser whose alcoholic father was asked by protestors to write threatening notes signed ‘Captain Swing’. It shapes her family fortunes and eventually she starts to sell buttons, which triggers a whole series of events that lead Sue into a desperate fight for survival. The book is inspired by British folk music and tells the story of working class people through the songs that they wrote and sang and it’s accompanied by a collection of traditional and original tracks sung and performed by some incredible musicians and singers, such as Rebecca Hollweg and Emmie Ward.

How important is music to your writing? Do the ideas start with a piece of music or is it more organic with one feeding the other?
Music has always been a big part of my life. I used to work as a dancer for a band that played Balkan and Middle Eastern music. My job was to be a bridge to the audience – telling the story of the music through movement. I spent a lot of time making up stories while listening to music when young – yet not writing them down. That came much later. Captain Swing and the Blacksmith was initially inspired from one song ‘The Blacksmith’ and was supposed to be the second of a series of short stories inspired from English folk verse. But the story grew, and I began to weave other song lyrics into the text. So, really the answer is both: I start with a strong song and then others move in alongside. There are CDs I listen to over and over while I’m writing that don’t particularly fit with the narrative but are, I suppose, a subliminal influence – like a film soundtrack.

Captain Swing front cover300 copy

Creating a novel with music is an unusual mix – what do you think each form brings to the other?
I’m very interested in the relationship between lyrics and melody. Expanding on song lyrics poses many dilemmas. Without the melody you lose the emotional, cathartic element of the words. I explored this problem and made a connection between landscape and melody. So, writing the landscape became my musical expression – which makes sense to me since folk song generally only gives cursory references to landscape even though most material handed down is from country people.

Music brings rhythm to your sentences and I wanted the text to have a lyrical feel as much as possible. Folk song lyrics are beautifully sparse and tell a huge amount in one line. They are immensely euphemistic and secretive. You have to sometimes use some detective work to figure out exactly what’s happening! This mystery helps the writing process to expand and develop plot twists. British folk song melodies can be very quirky – suddenly changing key with random flats and sharps dropped in from nowhere, which also helps to take your writing to unusual places.

The music that accompanies your book is a mix of existing pieces and original work. How did you go about choosing your music?
There are about three key songs that formed the original basis of the story. These were songs I knew well for a long time. ‘The Blacksmith’ is well-known in the folk world and has a very strong female voice. There are countless abandoned pregnant girlfriend songs, but not many are as sarcastic as the voice in ‘The Blacksmith’. She also curses him – I felt the story hadn’t ended there and she wanted revenge.

There are then some songs that are thematic in their influence. ‘Polly Vaughn’ tells the story of a man who kills his girlfriend by mistake because he thinks she is a swan. It doesn’t make any sense but apparently it is descended from ancient transformation legends about swan maidens. The symbolism in this song became more important than the characters. Towards the end of writing I started giving readings. It seemed obvious to read accompanied by the music. I’d been singing for fun for a few years with two singers, Emmie Ward and Gili Orbach and we began to perform with musicians.

As a group, we found songs that matched sections of the text, which were from my own imagination. Violinist, Frank Biddulph, then wrote a waltz which has now become a theme tune. We have been developing this show by integrating storytelling with new musical material and are due to perform in Wiltshire with accordionist Pete Watson and Rebecca Hollweg this coming spring. For one of the shows we will be joined by a local choir – I’d love this to develop further and to have the opportunity to perform in other counties where the Swing Riots took place.

And what was the process of creating the piece written and composed by Rebecca Hollweg?
Rebecca read an early draft before I asked her to write a song. When I was in the final edits and organising chapters I decided it was fitting to split the story into eight verses. A novel that is created from many songs then becomes a new song. I tried to write the song myself but failed. So, I asked Rebecca. I sketched out which elements of the story to keep in each verse but apart from that rough guidance she miraculously wrote an amazing ballad – condensing 364 pages into eight, six line verses! It’s a beautiful song and I hope other singers take it up. Rebecca is more of a jazz vocalist and I wanted her not to be pressurised in sticking to a folk style. Her song has a contemporary/folk/jazz feel that fits so well.

What led you to choose folk music specifically?
It kind of chose me. I’d been involved in the world music scene for a long time – but not the music from my own background. It was after my second child I started getting together with two of my dance students to sing. Emmie, as it turned out, was an incredible folk singer with a wealth of English and Irish songs and comes from a talented folk background. I’ve always written but not seriously and was needing to find a strong writing project. The stories in the songs bewitched me and the discovery that we have thousands of stories, legends and beautiful tunes that went underground for all sorts of historical reasons – it’s a big subject. Also, the songs are a window to the experiences of working people in the past as we have very little material to draw on as up until 1860s or so illiteracy was commonplace.

Are there any creative collaborations from any time period that you particularly admire?
Right now, I’m listening over and over to a 1964 recording of Shirley Collins and Davey Graham. When you listen to Shirley’s voice you are transported to a field c.1810. All her songs have beguiling characters and her voice is clear as glass. Many of her recordings are either acapella or with one accompanying instrument. She is seen as traditional or ‘pure’ in her interpretation of specifically English songs, yet she came together for this one album with maverick Davey Graham. He died not long ago in humble circumstances but is seen as the founder of world music and the guitarist that all guitarists learn from. He was of Guyanian and Scottish heritage and mixed Berber, Indian rhythms with British and Irish folk. The album is a stunning collection of Shirley’s songs – who never waivers in her strong English style – which are given greater beauty by Davey’s licks and grooves on the guitar. A perfect example of one strong culture made even better by others.


Your protagonist Sue is a laundry presser and button seller – what drew you to tell this story from her perspective?
As I said it’s hard to find women who are not victims in folk song narratives. Not only are they abandoned but also often murdered. I really wanted the singer of this song to survive although I knew that this would be difficult considering the times. Sue is immensely practical and makes the best of things – I think this is something that is often missed out from the male perspective. She adjusts to each circumstance and also lies. Women in the 18th and 19th century were often described as devious or untrustworthy. The more I read the more I realised that these were necessary tools of survival. I also have a great-grandmother who brought up two illegitimate children in the 1910s. It was always a bit of a hush-hush story. I know my grandmother as a child suffered being thrown out of countless basement flats when her mother’s marriage status was discovered. I really don’t know how they avoided the workhouse. My great-grandmother was known as being ‘a bit of a one’. I think she just had bad luck and so had to be very practical indeed – but she did survive and kept both her children.

As an historical novel, I’m guessing it was important to get the detail right, but how did you go about making sure that the story wore that detail lightly?
I’m a big believer in writing the story first and then adding the detail. I wrote the first draft using only the songs and my own imagination and a small bit of research on the geography of the area. If you have always been interested in history, you have much to draw on already. I wanted to get the drama and the characters in place first. Research into historical detail I either did scene-by-scene, if it affected the action, and then at the end I meticulously researched every tiny detail and phrase. The Swing Riots came after the first draft when I went into greater depth and then the novel really took off and became a bigger project. I then did research into the political climate of the times. I originally chose that era as I had initially read that there was a sea-change in folk melody between the 1820s and 1840s – tunes become more uncertain and questioning in style. I knew that this was an era of unrest, but I had no idea of the depth of poverty and immense change to rural existence at this time due to technology, disempowerment of workers’ rights, terrible harvests, endless war and greed. This is where things get a little prescient!



More on Beatrice Parvin
You can hear more of the music that accompanies Captain Swing and the Blacksmith and buy the book and CD via Beatrice’s website. You’ll also find a fascinating interview she gave to Naomi Clifford, that explores more of the novel’s themes and the importance of landscape.

And on 23 March, Beatrice will be giving a talk at the wonderful The Salisbury Museum, where she will be discussing the relationship between landscape, melody, emotion, lyrics and prose, accompanied by fiddle and song from Frank Biddulph and Rebecca Hollweg. She will also be teaching a Creative Writing workshop using folk song lyrics on the 16th March. For other events in Wiltshire please visit her website.

Song credits: ‘Captain Swing and the Blacksmith’ Words and music by Rebecca Hollweg
Vocals and piano: Rebecca Hollweg
Violin: Frank Biddulph
Double bass: Andy Hamill

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