Darren Hayman is at his best when placing a microscope over the details of people’s lives, their hopes, fears and how their environment shapes them.
The big issues of life, of war and inequality, are also important to him, but rather than tub thumping about them he is more interested in how they impact on every day lives.
Take the third part of his Essex trilogy of albums about the brutal treatment of elderly woman during the 17th century witch trials. It held up a mirror to the modern, shameful treatment of immigrants and others perceived as a burden on society. But of course this was all implicit. What mattered more were the people and the real horrors that befell them. The sound of the hangman’s rope stretching as their feet danced in search of life proved far more powerful than a soapbox rant.
This latest project emerged from a conversation with his friend and frequent collaborator, Ian Button, whose father had told him of the rare collection of English ‘Thankful’ villages, who were lucky enough to see all those who went to fight in the First World War return. Given the scale of that conflict this is something to be thankful for indeed.
Like a modern day version of Cecil Sharp, the Victorian and Edwardian collector of English folk music, Hayman went out on the road, finding out more about these villages and their current residents as well as painting and recording them on his travels.
Although The Great War is one focus, it is mainly used by Hayman merely as a hook to document rural village life past and present.
There are 54 known thankful villages he is visiting and each will get their own tribute across three volumes.
Here on the first volume, 18 villages are covered starting in Knowlton in Dorset and ending in Bradbourne in Derbyshire. Miles apart, but its residents share the same gratitude that the lives of their grandfathers and fathers weren’t snuffed out on the battlefields of Europe. They also share the same aspects of rural life, where churches were and remain the focal point and local history continues to shape modern life.
When war does take centre stage, it is heartbreaking, as those that returned were never the same. On St Michael, South Elmham, Dolly’s account of her “hard” father’s show of emotion on Armistice day each year as he remembers the horrors he saw, is among the most tender moments.
Musically, Hayman uses acoustic and electronic instruments across instrumentals and songs that take in folk, soundscapes and soundtrack qualities. The sounds of the villages are also important, with the album recorded on location with post production added on later. On Butterton the village’s background noises even become part of the track’s rhythm. Local church congregations also take part and on Bradbourne the vocal harmonies create an upbeat end to this first collection.
What emerges is one of Hayman’s best pieces of work and possibly his most important, preserving the oral history of the relatives of those who survived the horrors of the Great War as well as paying tribute to the village life they left and thankfully returned to.
By Joe Lepper
Darren Hayman – Thankful Villages Vol 1 is released on Rivertones. For more information visit here.