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...across a swathe of indoor and outdoor venues in public spaces around Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, our much-loved event is now widely recognised as the largest free folk festival in the country. 1992's National Music Day was an initiative dreamed up by the improbable combination of Tim Renton MP and Mick Jagger, sparking a one day explosion of live music events around the UK, ranging from street corner busking to the Glastonbury Festival. Our local response was to stage a day's folk music and dancing, an occasion which proved so popular that it was repeated the following year, then the next, then the next...
Over the intervening period the Leigh Folk Festival has grown enormously in scope and scale, and now encompasses concerts, dance displays, ceilidhs, a centrepiece procession, workshops, open mic, kids' activities, film, street theatre, storytelling and plenty more besides. Rather than drifting towards becoming another commercially driven, ticketed event, the team of volunteer organisers has doggedly held fast to the original grass roots, access-for-all ethos, and so the festival has retained its unique, eclectic and idiosyncratic atmosphere. At its best, music has the power to make us all feel part of something bigger than ourselves, while nurturing a true sense of community and local pride. The pastoral, village fete atmosphere of the Library Gardens and the bustling, waterfront location of Old Leigh are both fundamental to the spirit of the weekend, and offer a natural, unpretentious welcome to visitors in their thousands. A century ago, Essex proved fertile ground for the first wave of folk song collectors like Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and perhaps some of this legacy persists in our local traditional music scene. While Southend and the 'Thames Delta' are probably best known for the blues and pub-rock bands of the 60s and 70s, as well as for today's heroes like The Horrors and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, it has always supported a flourishing folk and acoustic music scene.
The reasons for our re-engagement with the folk arts in recent years are many, but it does all seem to emerge from some deep-rooted entanglement in our cultural genome. Furthermore, the power, resonance and robustness of traditional music lend themselves brilliantly to a wide range of interpretative approaches, and this is mirrored in the wide range of clubs, record labels and sessions in the area.
Today, everyone seems to have a different take on what constitutes 'folk', 'roots' or 'acoustic' music. Reflecting the diversity of its audience, the Leigh Folk Festival has gained a reputation for imaginative 'broad church' programming, taking in the traditional and the alternative, the local and the international, the obscure and the celebrated, then bringing together these diverse strands into a coherent whole.
The Leigh Folk Festival is special, it's free and it's all our own. And what's more we have more mud than Glastonbury... but only when the tide is out!
(2010 LFF photos by Robert Thomson, © 2010 - all images used by kind permission)