Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2017

We’ve been doing this write up of Shrewsbury’s annual folk festival for a few years now, though 2017 is the first that could boast unbroken sunshine. Every year there’s a great line up, a huge range of workshops, sessions and ceilidhs to suit most tastes and age groups, and food and craft fields packed with deliciousness. A couple of times, there have been comments below the line where the write ups have been shared that express disgruntlement that we have preferred one band or musical style over another, that we were watching one gig in the blue and yellow Sabrina tent and missed some other brilliance in one of the other marquees. So, this year, without apology, we’re not even going to attempt to sum up the line-up. In any case, you can visit the SFF website at and judge for yourself. Instead, here are some of the unique highlights of the festival that especially appealed to us or seemed somehow to exemplify the ethos and flavour of SFF over the years.

2017 marks ten years of the Refolkus youth festival. Refolkus director, Caitriona Leach, explained that the youth festival was inspired by her summers with the Shooting Roots group at Sidmouth Folk Festival. Caitriona was raised among musicians and was part of SFF from the start. At the 2007 SFF, she and SFF co-founder Sandra Surtees ­­­discussed the need for something to inspire young people and Sandra gave her the go-ahead to organise something for 11-20 year olds – and so Refolkus was born. Every year there is a range of activities and programmes, both musical and craft-based, to keep younger folkies inspired and entertained. This year there was dance, samba and Taiko drumming workshops, henna tattooing, t-shirt design, as well as big band and a choir. According to Caitriona, “the main thrust of Refolkus is the progressive workshops that lead to a showcase performance,” though kids are also free to hang out in the Reef tent and just dip in and out as they like. There was a good energy in the Refolkus area and the participants and volunteers alike are relaxed yet energised. The proof is in the pudding and Caitriona pointed out that Refolkus kids come back year after year: “I’ve known them from the time they were just dots and now some of them are at the top of the age range.” Many happy returns to Refolkus!

Another special part of this year’s SFF was an interactive, participatory art project designed by Warwickshire-based visual artist Faye Claridge []. Raised in a Morris dancing family (she says she attended her first folk festival when she was a year old) in the age of punk, Faye works in a range of media to address pressing issues of the day. One such issue is the furore precipitated at last year’s SFF when several of the border Morris sides were asked not wear their traditional ‘black face’ disguises at the festival, following a complaint from a local equality group called ‘Fresh’. The immediate response at the festival was intense and the debate was quickly picked up in the national press; some argued the make-up could be construed as offensive and racist, while most on the Morris sides argued that the roots of the tradition had no relation to race but were instead steeped in the socio-political context of times past, or of mining communities, or of the need for villagers and poachers to maintain their anonymity through this ‘disguise’.

‘The Village Green Screen’ was set up as kind of open marquee, spread with astroturf and laid out so that people could come and sit on a park bench to muse on the politics of black face in Morris.  It is part of a larger Arts Council funded project titled ‘Of Our Own Volition’ -  the title references a comment from one of the festival management committee quoted in a BBC interview about how the SFF was stuck in the middle of the debate but that several of the Morris sides had decided to adapt their disguises “of their own volition”  (see Festival-goers, including Morris dancers, were invited to sit and talk over the debate, discuss their own views and be part of the audio-visual research that informs Faye’s work; there was also a red postbox where people could contribute their view anonymously. She says she was surprised and pleased “by the brilliant range of views, from those who said black face was out and out racist, to those who consider this a really important aspect of being English”. The first day, she said, seemed dominated by the view that “this is PC gone mad” but then the contributions changed and soon she was receiving a huge variety of views that reached “no consensus at all”. She even had a few people return having given their initial opinions, thought it over and changed their minds over the course of the bank holiday weekend.  Overall, she says, the views she has collected are “very balanced”.  Faye Claridge is Artist in Residence this year at University of Birmingham and you can learn more about her work at

This year, several gigs stood out for me. French folk and roots band La Machine played a sublime set on the Saturday, followed up by an astonishing show of skill and stamina during an unwavering three-hour stint of bourees, schottishes and polkas and more in the dance tent on the scorching Sunday. The way they marry otherworldly vocals with hurdy-gurdy, double bass, fiddle, bagpipes and drumming is trance-inducing. Find out more about them at or on social media. Hurdy-gurdy player Gregory Jolivet will be familiar to fans of the SFF dance tent as part of Blowzabella.

Continuing the Gallic bliss and hurdy-gurdy, Le Vent du Nord also stole the show in their Monday finale on the main stage. This Québécois band, with their mixture of traditional, roots and original compositions, are a leading light in the progressive francophone folk movement. Find out more at

John Kirkpatrick played a great set on Saturday in the Sabrina marquee. The legendary accordion player was completely unfazed by having to start the set unplugged and delivered a show that ranged from traditional English dances to ancient Icelandic hymns. He is a longtime resident of Shropshire, and founder of the Border Morris and the Shropshire Bedlams.

The Fitzgeralds are welcome first-timers at the festival. This family group of talented musicians and dancers from Canada played a repertoire of traditional and self-penned material to a wildly enthusiastic audience on the Village Stage; they also hosted a clog dancing workshop in the dance tent.

This year a small newcomers stage, The Launchpad, offered up some real treats at the edge of the food field. We especially hope to hear more from Trials of Cato, a trio of fantastically talented string players. The Launchpad is a collaboration with local artisan beer producers, Woods Brewery. Looking forward to sitting on the Launchpad's straw bales again next year.

Among the big name acts, The Unthanks impressed with their instantly identifiable brand of polished chamber folk, which transferred well to the space of the main stage. Eric Bibb changed the tempo with an outstanding and soulful set. Peter Bellamy’s epic folk opera, The Transports, was a very moving performance, featuring some of the best folk musicians and singers on the contemporary scene. The Roaring Trowmen were in great form again this year, and their sea shanty workshop was so well attended that it was moved outside the Berwick bar.

Importantly, SFF 2017 was also a tribute and testimony to the vision and hard work of Alan Surtees, who originally came up with the idea for the festival along with his wife, Sandra, twenty years ago and who died earlier this year. It is clear he is deeply missed; he was spoken fondly of throughout the long weekend and the festival finale from Faith, Folk and Anarchy was dedicated to his memory.


By LN and TC


Laura Noszlopy Laura Noszlopy

Laura is a writer, editor and anthropologist, as well as a keen gardener and cook. Besides blogging for Love Shrewsbury she runs an editorial and communications consultancy.

Read More from Laura Noszlopy