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Sorrows of World War I remembered through traditional folk songs at Barbican

PUBLISHED: 16:50 04 September 2014 | UPDATED: 16:51 04 September 2014

Becky and Rachel Unthank with Sam Lee

Becky and Rachel Unthank with Sam Lee


A woman who saw a Zeppelin airship crash into her village and a soldier unable to face the parents of comrades killed are tales being brought to life through the folk traditions of the First World War.

A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War is a one-off commemorative concert at the Barbican.

Singer songwriter Sam Lee says: “The material comes from several different places. There are songs that are existent as world war songs; there are folk songs that we’ve reworked to readjust the narrative. There are also songs that have been rewritten based upon the stories of people who remember the war first-hand and second-hand, centenarians who we interviewed who have extraordinary memories going back a very long way.”

Lee, nominated for a Mercury Prize two years ago, has been working with sisters Becky and Rachel Unthank who he knows but has never performed with before.

“They are beautiful songs, beautiful and extraordinary stories. The entire object was to be searching out some of the untold stories, the personal experiences that defined the war in some way, on a very intimate level – those little stories of love, loss and tragedy and survival that may not always get told or never heard on a musical level.”

From their stories they crafted songs. They have also set poems to music, using traditional sounds.

“The memories of soldiers coming back from war, particularly soldiers not being able to face the parents of those comrades who hadn’t returned. The love letters that were sent from lovers who didn’t return. There is also some political stuff, looking at some of the grievances, the questions of necessity over it. It’s not pro-war, it’s not as such an anti-war show, it’s simply reflecting the war and the reactions and devastations caused by it.”

Lee, who was born and raised in Kentish Town but now lives in Hackney, adds: “The tunes are stunning because we use traditional tunes, some of the finest melodies in the world – it’s so heart-wrenching.

“It’s a real opportunity for communal recognition, remembrance and commemoration, a real kind of purging in that sense.

“We can’t help but cry our hearts out when singing this stuff, so God knows what the audience are going to be like.

“We’ll have to try and hold it together.”

Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War is at the Barbican, Thursday, September 18, 7.30pm.

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