According to The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2019 by Lia Leendertz, the Mayday festivities surrounding Jack-in-the-green started in the 17th century when milk maids:
‘May Day was also ‘Chimney Sweeps’ Day’, and the sweeps started competing with the milk maids. The result was ever digger displays of foliage, flowers and silver to encourage tips, until the foliage covered them completely, and the tradition of Jack-in-the-green’ was born.’
‘decorated their pails on May Day with silver cups, flowers and ribbons and then went from house to house wearing them on their heads and dancing for pennies.
Rochester’s Sweeps Festival, recalling something of the original spirit of those May Day celebrations, has been a highlight of the Medway calendar for many years now. It forms a heady concoction of Morris dancing, folk (and associated kinds of) music – and a good old-fashioned booze up.
And so there was plenty of stuff to provide amusement on Sunday, day two, of the festival. The funfair, good food, the enticing allure of the record stall – just the four purchases today. All of which meant that, despite a jam-packed list of bands and artists planned to watch, there’s only a couple of acts to report back on from the day (the bloggers’ code of conduct forbids me from writing the inevitably glowing review of my girlfriend’s set).
The first act for consideration is Thomas Abrahams, a heavily dreadlocked guitarist who specialises in gypsy jazz, a fast paced form of instrumental with complicated, spellbinding flourishes.
Abrahams confesses to being a huge fan of Django Reinhardt, arguably the leading proponent of this style of music. In tribute to him, early in the set, he plays a cover of one of that guitarist’s tunes, performing it with just two of his left fingers on the fretboard, just as Reinhardt himself had to (he lost the use of the two smallest fingers in a fire).
After a dalliance with a piece of music in the related klezma style, Abrahams then begins to have some fun with some unlikely cover versions. There are gyspy jazz interpretations of ‘Smooth Criminal’ (complete with a nod to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ at the end), Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ and Rodrigo y Gabriella’s ‘Tamacun’ which bleeds into Gala’s ‘Freed from Desire’ and then The Prodigy’s ‘Out of Space’.
It’s a phenomenal, exciting sound, a perfect introduction to gypsy jazz for a bank holiday festival. You’d have loved it.
Amidst all the festivities and festival atmosphere, the highlight of the second day at Sweeps comes in the form of a small gig on the Kitty sailing barge, moored on the river just alongside Rochester Castle.
deep Adam Beattie and the Consultants are performing a captivating, intimate set in the bowels of the boat.
It would be enough – more than enough – to say that the music is spell binding, that these three musicians – real craftsmen – have created something magical.
But that is not where it ends. For all of the nonchalant Gallic meanderings, the sleazy Mediterranean vibes and the seductive syncopation, for all of the intricate jazz guitar virtuosity of Filippo Ferazzoli and the complicated drum patterns of Marco Quarantotto, all topped by Beattie’s gentle Caledonian vocal – the music is only half the story. Not even that.
Because it’s the lyrics.
That’s what hits home so much – song after song.
Here are a handful of examples:
“I met the love of my life/but we were too young.”
“Our story’s being written on the same page/but by a different pen.”
“The only war that’s worth the blood/and all the marching in the mud/is one where neither side can deny/they’ve made a better world for you and I.”
Or, simply this:
“God is in every man.”
There are songs about French widows finding unexpected happiness in rediscovering first boyfriends (‘Somewhere Round the Bend’), there are cautionary tales about lost shoes (‘Pretty Pink Shoes’) and, most importantly, most significantly, most powerfully, there are songs about the futility of war – how war is only a distraction from what it means to be human (‘I’m on Your Side’ – boasting a lilting, deceptive 5/4 time signature that blows the audience away).
This is what is at the heart, the big, big, swelling heart of Adam Beattie’s songs: humanity. Humanity in all its fragility an frailness.
Through tender thumbnail sketches of schoolgirls and shopkeepers, emperors and infantrymen, he reminds us the fundamentals of what it means to live in the world – and what we really need.
This is music to sink into, to wash yourself in, as you bob up and down in the belly of a boat somewhere on the River Medway.
Later on, Adam Beattie and the Consultants will take to the Boley Hill stage for a louder, more plugged in set. There, they will serenade Steampunks and lairy drunks as they pass from Morris sides to funfair rides.
It’s good. It’s spell binding. It’s captivating.
But you’ll never forget your first time, deep in the heart of a sailing barge called The Kitty.
Read more about the history of the Sweeps Festival and many of the artists who have performed there in my book, Do it Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.