Jackie stirs magical memories while championing sweet songs of sleep

Published April 12, 2013

Folk singer and violinist Jackie Oates tells Jackie Butler about her new LP of lullabies and her bid to bring back singing as a child’s bedtime tradition.

By Jackie Butler, Western Morning News.

When folk star Jackie Oates was a little girl, her mother used to sing her lullabies, soothing her gently to sleep at the end of each day.

Jackie’s favourite was a sweet and simple ditty called Alexander Beetle – an AA Milne verse set to music – and it now takes pride of place on her new LP Lullabies.

It’s a unique and delightful collection of songs – some more universally familiar than others – that have been sung to different generations of little ones at bedtime.

Little Boy Blue sits alongside Shakespeare’s Philomel from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Paul McCartney’s Junk and The Worthy Wood Carol, penned in the 1920s by an Exmoor gypsy.

Apart from celebrating the songs themselves – a cache of gems rich in the folklore of the cradle with all its superstitions and customs – Jackie’s aim is to encourage parents to follow suit and revive a fast-fading tradition.

“I loved being sung to. I still find the experience very moving and comforting. And a lullaby has the ability to take you into another place,” says Jackie, whose own clear and pretty voice brims with a delicate, rustic honesty, offering the perfect ambience for soothing delivery.

“There are several songs I know from childhood and when I hear them they can really take me by surprise,” adds the award-winning singer and violinist who came from a music-loving Staffordshire family whose summers were spent at Sidmouth Festival; her brother is the boundary-pushing folk singer Jim Moray. Jackie’s love for traditional songs was fuelled and nurtured while she was a student in Exeter.

She chose to live on in the city for several years after graduating, honing her musical craft in the company of community musicians, becoming a key member of the Westcountry folk circle.

The 29-year-old is now settled in Oxfordshire with her champion Morris dancing partner Jack Worth, but she is delighted to be returning to her old stomping ground this month as part of her UK tour airing the new album.

The 15-track LP, released two weeks ago, represents the tip of a very deep iceberg of English lullabies that she uncovered during extensive research into the genre.

“As a folk singer I found it interesting that when you initially search for English lullabies, there don’t seem to be very many of them,” says Jackie, who is a member of the all-star multi-cultural folk band Imagined Village, and the fresh English face of Lush natural cosmetics.

“I asked around all my friends in the folk world and there were only two or three traditional ones that we could all sing. There are many more, of course, but they are hidden and hard to come by.”

“If you go to Ireland or Scotland, lullabies are much more a part of the musical heritage.”

Her first port of call was Cecil Sharp House in London, which holds the largest archive of traditional folk materials. She discovered that most were American in origin. Determined to dig out some old English examples, Jackie began trawling the vaults of Devon song collector Sabine Baring Gould, and any other collection she could find, including the Oxford Song Book. Gradually her search started to bear fruit, and it is still an ongoing project.

She sings each new find and then notates it so that it can be lodged in the archive at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

“It’s quite an undertaking,” she admits. “But I am really enjoying the discipline of it. I’m up to 180 songs now and I’m hoping to double that.”

Along the way, Jackie picked out a shortlist of songs that she wanted to record.

“I wanted to make an album that brought to life these hidden lullabies and encourage parents to sing them to their children,” she says.

“Singing a lullaby is very pleasurable for the singer, too. And it can be cathartic, too – you can vent all manner of things in a lullaby because it’s not just about the story, it’s about the person singing, and creating that bond of warmth.

“I felt I had to achieve a balance between showcasing the unusual and creating something that people would like to listen to.”

That meant filtering out the dark side of the lullaby world.

“I didn’t want to scare the children,” she says.

“A lot of old lullabies were all about moaning about your life and a way of expressing about the things that had upset you, but without upsetting the child because they didn’t understand the words.”

In between concerts, research and recording, Jackie teaches violin and it was her young pupils who became guinea pigs when she was choosing the songs to include on the album.

“Before I recorded anything I played the songs to them to gauge their reaction,” she says.

The tracks were recorded late last year at sessions in Bath and Reykjavik in Iceland, and feature a feast of guest artists, including guitarist Chris Serjeant and, on piano, Belinda O’Hooley, whom Jackie first met when they were both members of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset.

The Icelandic connection came about through Jackie’s friendship with Bara Grimsdottir and producer Richard Evans.

“Bara is a brilliant singer and she had a great repertoire of lullabies. And Richard’s best friend was out in Iceland. I’ve always wanted to go there, and it just made sense to fly out there with a little recording deck for five days,” she says.

“We had a brilliant time and I made so many new friends; music is brilliant for that – if we had just gone as tourists it would have been a totally different experience,” adds Jackie, who says she will be bringing an Icelandic langspil – an instrument akin to an Appalachian dulcimer – on the current tour.

As well as the evening show at Exeter, Jackie is running an afternoon workshop at the Phoenix for parents and their children aged up to four.

“When I was living in Devon I travelled around giving folk singing workshops and it’s something I love doing,” she says. “I have tailored this one to be about more unusual lullabies.”

Jackie Oates’ Lullabies tour comes to Exeter Phoenix on Wednesday, April 24.

For more info and to buy tickets, click here >>