Sam Lee, Rachel and Becky Unthank. Photograph: Sarah Mason
Sam Lee, Rachel and Becky Unthank. Photograph: Sarah Mason

Among the casualties of World War I were songs and stories that been passed down from one generation to the next.

Recognising this, folk singer Sam Lee and Tyneside duo the Unthanks have collaborated on a project which they hope will bring these lesser known cultural relics to a wider audience.

A Time and Place – Musical Meditations on the First World War will see them perform music from the period, as well as their own songs inspired by stories told to them first hand.

“We’re looking at songs that would have existed in the common repertoire of the soldiers and have rewritten some of the stories from those who remember the war,” Lee explains.

The musicians form part of an 11-strong line-up which includes a string quartet, brass and video design by Matthew J. Watkins, of Gorillaz fame.

Mercury Prize-nominated Lee researched the project by visiting villages in Devon, Cornwall, Gloucester and Wiltshire, where he gathered songs and stories from local people.

“There was a 104-year-old woman who remembered as a little girl seeing a Zeppelin come down in her back garden,” he recalls.

“Another woman remembered meeting an old soldier who told this story about Bideford Bridge in Devon. The first time he crossed it was with all his comrades, but the second time he crossed over the bridge he was alone, as he was the only person to return to his village.”

Lee and the Unthanks have been turning these and other stories into new songs using existing melodies from the era, as well as reinterpreting old songs to make them relevant to World War I.

“A lot of the songs of that era were songs from the Boer War that had been rehashed, just as First World War songs were rehashed as songs for the Second World War. So it’s an ongoing recycling process that happens.”

With the loss of an entire generation of young men came, according to Lee, the “silencing” of a nation.

“Those were the people who were singing in the village pubs, they were the morris dancers, the storytellers, the great hope for carrying on the oral traditions of our culture and ancestral stories,” he explains.

“What was left in their wake was that inability for communities to feel like they could continue these things in their absence, so the dancing stopped and the singing stopped, and a lot of the traditions kind of disappeared.”

Lee is excited to be working with the Unthanks, who will be creating new music set to First World War poetry.

“We’re really great friends but we’ve never done anything but sit in pubs and sing our hearts out with each other. Sometimes you can be best of friends but your voices don’t sound well together, but with the Unthanks there’s something really nice going.”

A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War is at Barbican Hall, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS on 18 September.

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