Folk Arts Oxford aims to promote folk and traditional dance, music and song in the Oxfordshire region. In particular we are interested in improving access for those who might face barriers to participation in the arts.

Through our funded project work: children in Headington have learned about local lad William Kimber, and the musical legacy he has left; a new band called Iris has been formed, who accompany all their songs with Makaton signing; children from mainstream and special schools in Oxfordshire have the chance to create music together, and perform on the main stage at Folk Weekend: Oxford.

Alongside our own projects and events, FAO works collaboratively with other local organisations, forging links and creating opportunities for folk artists to work in education and community projects, as well as showcase their talent in local events. 

Makaton Folk Song

This is an innovative new project focused on improving accessibility to music for people who have communication difficulties. Supported by grants from the Oxfordshire Community Foundation and Folk Camps Society, the project will use Makaton – a communication tool using signs, symbols, and speech – alongside traditional folk songs, with the aim of making them accessible to a wider audience.

Makaton is a language programme used by children and adults with communication difficulties – it is based on British Sign Language, but it is always used alongside spoken English as support for communication rather than a replacement for the spoken word. The Makaton Charity has been developing Makaton for nearly 40 years and there are over 100,000 children and adults who use Makaton either to support speech or as their primary means of communication.

This project is part of a wider accessibility drive at Folk Weekend: Oxford; for the last two years the festival has included a ceilidh specially for children from Special Needs Schools in Oxfordshire. Oxford University Community Fund has also offered a grant towards these activities, which this year will include two SEN ceilidhs, and the debut performance from the Makaton project, performed with a live band.

The Makaton project will work with a group of performing artists to translate twelve  folk songs to be sung with Makaton signing. These will be performed at a 'relaxed' concert during Folk Weekend: Oxford (17th - 19th April 2015). Relaxed performances are a fast-growing phenomenon, allowing adults and children with a wide variety of needs to enjoy high quality performances, without having to worry if they need to make noises or move around during the event.

FCS logoMakaton logoOCF logoSee below for the latest updates on everything happening with the project.


Signing with Song

Translating the folk songs in to Makaton has been a really interesting process. Makaton is a communication tool, designed to help get across the meaning of what you're saying to someone who may otherwise struggle to understand - and you really have to keep that search for meaning at the top of your mind when you sit down to translate a song.

Songs (and particularly folk songs!) are often full of metaphor. Writers play with words to create particular ideas or images, or to make a certain rhythmic pattern or rhyme, and it's not always helpful to do a literal translation of what's being said. For example, I once translated a song which contained the line "I want the world to know..." - now, I could translate this literally, and sign 'I want (the) world (to) know', but when I sign 'world' it means 'the planet we live on', whereas what the song actually means is 'I want everyone to know'.

When you're signing for song, you've also got to consider the amount of time you've got available in which to sign, the rhythm of the words and signs, and how the signs are going to flow one from another. In practical terms, this often means I don't sign every word, or I sign them in a different order to which I sing them. One of the songs we're doing opens with the line "There once was a miller and he lived all alone" - but the Makaton sign for miller translates literally as 'windmill man' (for which I sign 'wind', then make the shape of the blades of the windmill, then sign 'man'), and with the pace that the song goes at, that is just about all I can fit in to sign for that line!

Last rehearsal I had the rest of the band in fits of laughter over my translation of 'The Bold Fisherman' - when you're used to the expressive language of folk song it does sound very odd when you reduce it down to the absolute basics of the story! The particular verse that started it off comes after a lady has mistaken a Lord for a humble fisherman, and has just realised her mistake, and asked his forgiveness. The words are:

Get up, get up, get up he cried, from off your bended knee
For you've not said one single word that has offended me

My translation is:

Stand up
No sorry, I no cross

Definitely stripped down to basics!

That last line was tricky to translate, as it's using negative language to mean a positive thing - she's not said a word, he's not offended. Negative concepts are tricky to express with Makaton anyway; I always think it's a bit like that thing where you have to not to think about a blue elephant - you almost have to think of the elephant before you can make the choice not to think about it, and when you already struggle with the basics of communication this is just getting a bit too much! Given all that, I thought it best to keep this verse as simple as possible, not worry too much about the lyrics, but concentrate on getting the meaning across. Even if it does make for a slightly amusing result..!

One of the songs I've most enjoyed translating is 'Martin said to his man'. This is a drinking song, which details a conversation between a Lord and his manservant, where the tipsy Lord is telling his servant all the interesting things he's seen whilst on his latest drinking binge.

An example of one of the verses...

I saw the hare chase the hound, fie man fie,
I saw the hare chase the hound, who's the fool now?
I saw the hare chase the hound, twenty miles above the ground
Thou hast well drunken man, who's the fool now?

As I'm essentially relating a conversation between two people, I need to make it clear in my signing who is speaking at any given point. I do this by slightly shifting my body to one side or another, depending on who is talking - in Makaton terms we'd call this 'placement'. If I move slightly to my left to sign what Martin says, then I can direct any speech over to my right, where the man is, and vice versa.

The interesting thing about this was that I first had to work out who was saying what, and I realised that even though I've known this song since I was in primary school, I have never actually thought about that aspect of it. After much deliberation, I decided the first two lines are both split between the two of them, with Martin first declaring what he has seen, and the man telling him he's being an idiot:

Martin: I saw the hare chase the hound
Man: Fie man fie [thinks: idiot]
Martin: I saw the hare chase the hound [I did! I did!]
Man: Who's the fool now? [Sigh...]

The third line is entirely Martin, restating his case(!) and the last is the man, who by now is pretty tired of this, and probably just wants to go to bed.

I've made it a bit easier here by giving you one of the later verses, because although the first verse follows the same pattern (in terms of the refrain/man's responses) it's actually setting the scene for the conversation, rather than relating what's being said:

Martin said to his man, fie man fie
Martin said to his man, who's the fool now?
Martin said to his man, fill thou the cup and I the can
Thou hast well drunken man, who's the fool now?

In my state of not-really-thinking-about-it I'd always assumed that Martin was doing all the talking (likely based on the first line of that opening verse), but when it came to the translation it quickly became clear that it was a two-way thing. (Mind you, I'll probably find out now that everyone else had already worked that one out..!)

I've found it a really fascinating process, and I'd love to keep talking about it, but given that we're only just over a month away from the first performance I'd probably better get back to practising!

- Cat