This blog post came to me as I was sitting in Nancy Kerr and James Fagans gig at Whitby FolkWeek, while Nancy played Ti Tree waltz, a tune she taught the fiddle group at Folkworks Youth Summer School, about ten years ago now. As I listened, almost in tears, I thought about those days, and what identity meant to me then, and how it’s changed over time.
Folk music is all about identity; how we feel, where we’ve been and the lives of others come through in these traditions. Every tune or song has a story, and as a journalist by training, I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that can be told. As a kid growing up, like most of us, I didn’t understand my identity and was often baffled by who I was. They say a diagnosis (in my case being dyspraxia) often affirms an identity for you, and I was asked recently when interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the Emma Barnett show, if my diagnosis became part of my identity, and my honest answer was that it didn’t. I didn’t want to explain to others who I was, even as a teenager when I recognised being different and understood why, I just wanted to be Alice. Looking back that was probably a pretty healthy policy, after realising that feeling the need to justify our lives to other people is something we should do less of. As I say to people all of the time, you owe nowt to no one.
Beyond a dyspraxia diagnosis, I was always a bit different. I liked folk music and dancing at ceilidhs, interests that unless you go to a school in rural Northumberland, are pretty uncommon amongst young people. Spending a day at a Folk festival, with the sea of grey hair, will affirm this for you. I learned to play fiddle at the age of 7, providing a form of therapy for me as I grew up and a tool to explore who I was or wanted to be. As a 16 year old who was a vegetarian, pretty clumsy, enjoyed folk music and went to a youth organisation called the woodcraft folk, it was hard to find anywhere I could really fit in. I remember lying about Christmas presents, because I was embarrassed to announce I’d been given a book called “folk tunes of the British isles” when most people I knew were getting stuck into the latest games console or hair straighteners. One art lesson we all had to bring in a CD cover to draw, and I purposely “forgot” because I didn’t want my class to learn that I didn’t know who the latest pop band was. I still don’t know who’s in the charts these days, but less like then, I don’t loose sleep over it. My attempts to blend in often failed miserably, and others noticed that I was a bit “weird” from a mile off.
Just before my 16th birthday, I first went to Folkworks Youth Summer school , and I wondered where it had been all those years when I felt I couldn’t be anymore different even if I tried. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by other young people who liked folk music too. There were fiddle players like me, melodeons, accordions, northumbrian pipes, dancers and singers too. For a whole week we got together to learn music, dance and have fun. I didn’t have to hide that part of my identity anymore, because for the first time in my life I felt like I fitted in, belonged and was part of something. We were taught by some of the best musicians from all over the country (and world!), like any 16 year old suddenly finding their identity, I was pretty in awe. Some of the friends I made then have since become friends for life, memories I’ll always look back on fondly.
More recently I’ve stumbled across the identity dilemma again, but this time differently to before. In my mid twenties I accepted that my dyspraxia was part of me, and made friends with people who understand that part of my life, more than anyone else can. Just like folk music, it’s always reassuring to hear someone say “I can begin to understand how you’re feeling.” I do wish though, that I could go back to the people who I knew as a teenager and early 20’s and say: “I wasn’t being weird or annoying, I was just dealing with the mental health consequences of dyspraxia and trying to understand who I was. I get myself more now” but it probably won’t help, and even if I did it would look pretty odd.
Music has always supported me through the toughest of times, and became an outlet to express myself during episodes of anxiety. It helped during different transitions, when I’ve felt down but couldn’t explain why, the music filled the gap where the words should be, and guided me through the death of a friend and more recently my violin teacher, who without, this post and most of my identity wouldn’t exist. I owe a lot to that man.
This week I’ve tried to detach myself from the outside world, away from the festival. A mission that is harder than it sounds, with emails never far away. For years I haven’t been to any festivals, bar one night at Whitby two years ago because a friend had a gig. And now I’m here again, I realise what I missed. I’m very much on my own this year, so opted for a stewarding job, but alone or with a group everyone is friendly. I thought the combination of stewarding, the beach, friendly people and a folk festival, would be the break I need. And if I’m honest I’ve felt intensely lonely this week, and have had more time for reflection than I would like. I’ve ran on the beach every morning, given myself a routine to follow and ensured I eat well, but still I find my brain wandering and thinking. I don’t understand why, and these feelings are very new to me, but now I know how it feels to be lonely but in a crowded room (or ceilidh). I stopped playing fiddle for a while because of anxiety. Mental health often does that – stop us doing the things we enjoy and would probably help, but being here has made me realise why I should push myself to continue. It is very much part of who I am. So maybe some of this loneliness is feeling out of touch with a world I love so much and where I feel very much at home. Identity is complex. It changes. It helps us feel valued and belong. but more importantly than all, it gives us a tool, often through creativity, to tell our stories and understand the journeys of others around us.