American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 28, Number 1
May Day, 2008

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 In Celebration of Morris in America  

An Interview with Graham Thomas of Vulcan's Hammer
Andrew Bullen

 

I have recently had the rare privilege of interviewing Graham Thomas, formerly of the influential early '70s U.K. folk group. I first contacted him through the good offices of people on MDDL; Mr. Thomas has been a kind, patient, and gracious participant throughout our interview session.




Graham Thomas, seen here on the far right, still rockin' it out with his newest band, Stone Gecko.

This is a fate I wish for all of us...
 

 

I will leave it up to critics to describe the influence of Vulcan's Hammer and its two albums, True Hearts and Sound Bottoms and Two Magicians:


Little is known about the British traditional folk quartet Vulcan's Hammer, other than that they were based in Kent and put out one album, True Hearts and Sound Bottoms, as a privately pressed release limited to 250 copies. Though  it's pretty typical of the English traditional vocal folk group genre without bearing special hallmarks of distinction, it's accomplished within its style, with strong solid male-female vocal harmonies. The material is likewise traditional in nature, mixing a cappella passages with arrangements based around acoustic guitar and fiddle. The album was reissued on CD in 2006.

~ Richie Unterberger, All Music Guide
 

 


Privately released in 1973 (Brown BVH1) and limited to just 250 copies,this debut album by the Kent based four piece is very much made in the traditional English folk music style. 6 & 12 string guitars, fiddle, and tambourine are all featured alongside some excellent male/female harmony singing. Often compared to early Steeleye Span in their treatment of traditional folk, Vulcan's Hammer also fit nicely alongside Spriguns of Tolgus, Moths, Stone Angel and others from that now highly-collectable early '70s UK folk scene. There are jigs, the tale of John Barleycorn, stories of Old England as well as an ode to Middle Earth all to be found here. These are passionate performances too, with all the rough edges left in to give the album a loose, live feel. With prices now 'through the roof' for original copies (with the insert of course!), and the current interest in all things acoustic, now is the time to sample this piece of '70s UK folk history

http://www.forcedexposure.com/artists/vulcans.hammer.html
 

 


Vulcan’s Hammer are that rare thing - a truly traditional folk group that are not derided as ‘finger in the ear folkies’. The mainstays of the band had been together since 1965, but became Vulcan’s Hammer in 1970, and recorded this album in 1971. This was also the year that fiddle-player Dick Fewtrell left the group, but not before adding his contribution to these songs, which appeared in album form two years later. The music is mostly traditional folk, mixing well known songs like ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘Lord Of The Dance’ with lesser known pieces like ‘Poverty Knocks’, the blacksmiths chant of the title track, and the excellent ‘The Keys Of Canterbury’. ‘Hen’s March To The Midden’ is a showcase for the fiddle, and is a rollicking jig, while for ‘The Holmfirth Anthem’ the group put down their instruments and treat us to some fine three part harmony vocals. The group also write their own material, and ‘The Greenhopper’ or ‘The Grey Havens’ don’t sound a bit out of place. Their version of Steve Ashley’s ‘Fire And Wine’ closes the album with an evocative song of winter. The original issue of this album was limited to just 250 copies, and sold at the local folk club, but its reputation has spread so much over the years that Kissing Spell have now re-issued it, and as I do not have that many traditional folk albums it is a welcome addition. You have to appreciate the gene to get anything out of this album, as rock or pop fans will denigrate it as boring, but at the time it was keeping English folk music alive, and for that alone it is well worth a listen.

http://www.peterjolly.co.uk/music_307.htm
 


Slightly more than 20 questions...
(My questions are in blue; Graham's responses are bold)

How did you get together?

I had been playing in rock bands (we called them "pop groups" then) at school, and discovered traditional folk music when I was about 17. I joined The Medway Folk Club, which was based in Rochester, where I met Phil, and we started singing together. The atmosphere at Medway was quite formal, and one of the other singers there, Jim Cogger, decided to start a more relaxed style of club in neighbouring Chatham, and asked Phil and me to sing there. Eddy was living with his parents only a few hundred yards from the pub where this new club was held, and came along to see what it was all about. Kay was going out with Jim Cogger at the time, and so all 4 of us initially met there, although it was to be some time before Kay & Jim’s relationship collapsed, and Eddy’s guitar skills blossomed sufficiently for Vulcan’s Hammer to be born. It was a couple of years later, when we were running Maidstone Folk Club, that we met Dick Fewtrell. He joined us informally on some songs, and we were so impressed that we asked him to join VH. The rest you know.

 


Phil, Kay & Graham playing at St Neots Folk Club, ca. 1975
 



Who was in the group?

Phil & Kay Burkin, Eddy Green, Graham Thomas & Dick Fewtrell.

What was the philosophy behind the group?

I don’t think there was any philosophy behind the group. We were just a bunch of friends who enjoyed traditional music, and each other’s company. Phil’s song-writing skills, and my, & to a lesser extent Eddy’s grounding in rock coloured our style, and we were once referred to in a review of True Hearts as an acoustic version of Fairport Convention, which we thought was a bit over the top, but really appreciated.

How did you get your first recording contract? How was this privately released?

It wasn’t really a recording contract. One of our chums, Chris Brown, was the librarian at the headquarters of Kent Education Committee, and had access to some modern (then) recording equipment. He offered to record us, and takes were made at various locations. These were raw sound dumps, the only editing being the reversal of the introductory chord to Davy Lowston. Otherwise, the tracks were all essentially live. The project was financed by us, and the reduction from tape to vinyl carried out by a professional studio in Broadstairs, Kent. Incidentally, a little known fact is that the first 200 sleeves were a different colour from the last 50, as we were buying end runs of card to save money, and we ran out after 200!

How was the record distributed?

We sold them ourselves at folk clubs, concerts, and to friends and family. Some friends, on finding out their recent value, were devastated that they had turned them into flower pots!

What about your second album?

It is called The Two Magicians, and was released as a CD by Kissing Spell. Unfortunately, although they re-mastered True Hearts to minimise background hiss and flutter, they didn’t bother with Magicians, so the recording quality is poor.



What prompted you to do a re-release of TH and SBs?

Kissing Spell asked to buy the rights to produce a CD of True Hearts, and we agreed. The second release on vinyl is unauthorised, and came as a total surprise. Chris Brown’s lawyers are currently pursuing the matter.

VH is known for its tight, well-rehearsed harmonies. How did you develop this style?

Well, thank you for saying they are tight, but they were not well-rehearsed. Phil is rock solid on singing the tune, and has an impeccable sense of timing. Harmonies are my thing, so when Kay or Eddy decided to put a harmony to Phil’s tune line, I just found another one that fitted, and slid that in. There was very little rehearsal of harmonies at all, as it was largely instinctive.

Listen to "Greenhopper."

Were you all members of Morris teams?

Phil & I were members of Hartley Morris, but that was all at the time.

What jigs did you perform onstage?

We knew about 10 versions of the John Barleycorn family of songs, all to different tunes, and one that we used to sing to my concertina accompaniment was followed by Phil dancing a made-up jig to the same tune, modified by slows to the B music where Phil did Bledington-style RTBs.


 


St Neots Folk Club, ca. 1975
 

Did you have a "Yoko moment"? Why did the group not continue making records?

Essentially, we disbanded because Eddy’s job required him to move to Barnsley, and I was posted further away from the Medway Towns by the RAF. It was a geographical, rather than intrapersonal split. Our farewell concert at Medway Little Theatre was very emotional – great fun, but sad as well.

Did you continue on with Morris?

Yes. Phil is a past-Squire and Honorary Life Member of Hartley. I am a country member of Hartley, and a dancer/musician with Kennet Morris, whose next big event will be a tour of Cyprus in May.

What's everybody up to now?

Musically, Phil & Kay still sing together occasionally, Eddy plays bass in a Ceilidh band in Yorkshire, and I play lead guitar with the Kennet Ceilidh Band, and second guitar with Stone Gecko, a rock covers band with a drop-dead gorgeous girl lead singer, whose mother is 12 years younger than me! We all still have proper jobs as well.

Where did you find your material?

Phil wrote some of our songs, such as Grey Havens, and The Greenhopper, but everything else we learned through the normal folk process of hearing other people singing, and putting our own stamp on their traditional material.

How did you choose the material on your album?

It was considered by all of us to be the selection from our repertoire that we enjoyed most.

What are your memories of the English Folk Scene of the time?

Lots of fun, lovely people, vast quantities of real ale, and some really hot girlfriends (sorry about that one, but I was single then!).

Where did you tour?

VH performed largely in the southern half of England, with one or two forays into Yorkshire, but never abroad.

Do you have any favorite or ...interesting memories of touring and performing?

It was along time ago, and a bit blurred by beer, but the week after Phil & Kay’s wedding, instead of their going on honeymoon, VH went on a tour of folk clubs & concerts in southern England. We started out by having afternoon tea with Shirley Collins & Ashley Hutchings (Steeleye Span, The Albion Band) who were married at the time, and went on to play with Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger, who also became good friends. We also had an hour devoted exclusively to us on BBC national Radio in 1974, which was nice.

Is there a chance that you would tour again/perform again? At least a sub-set of the group?

Funny you should ask that. Until this year, the last time we had all played together was at my 40th birthday party in 1987. However, every year a folk event called The Sweeps’ Festival is held in Rochester over the May Bank Holiday weekend. This year, they decided to hold a Retro Folk Concert featuring acts that were active in the Medway Towns during the 1960s & 70s. We have been asked to top the bill. Consequently, Phil, Kay & Eddy came to stay with me a couple of weekends ago, and we rehearsed our act in the afternoon, and then inflicted ourselves on the patrons of my local pub in the evening. None of us could believe that we had not played together for such a long time, as the years fell away, and the sound was as tight as ever. Go to http://www.medway.gov.uk/sweepsfestival , click on "Sweeps programme", then select "Sunday, 4 May" for info on the event. I believe it is going to be recorded by BBC Radio Kent. Who knows, if that proves successful, we might be asked to do something else again.

Have any of you continued on with different groups?

For a short time, Phil, Kay & I sang & played with Doug & Sue Hudson of Tundra under the name of Mingled.

Eddy played with Dave Burland’s Band, and various other folk outfits in Yorkshire, and is still active there.

Phil released a solo CD a couple of years ago.

After leaving VH, I was a founder member of Eynesbury Giant, a trio of RAF guys formed specifically to enter the BBC Forces Folk Competition, which we won. We subsequently appeared on BBC radio & TV, as well as releasing a very successful album, From The Cask.

Before joining Stone Gecko last year, I played second guitar with another rock band called Listen With Mother, which disbanded when the drummer & bass player had a "disagreement".

 

Does the name Vulcan's Hammer come from the P.K. Dick novel, the bomber, or the actual hammer of Vulcan?

The link to Chatham Dockyards, where Phil used to work, as described on the sleeve notes, was part of it; and my first operational tour in the RAF was on 617 Sqn, flying the Avro Vulcan...There you go!

What the hell is a Chicken on a Raft?

"Chicken on a Raft" is a 20th century expression which originated in the Royal Navy, and refers to scrambled eggs on toast.
 


'nuff said.
 

 

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