Immigration continues to be a hot topic the world over, so it’s rather interesting to note that 2020 is the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower – an early example of Europeans migrating to America. It wasn’t as simple a process as you might have expected; a selection of the travellers had previously escaped to Leiden in the Netherlands to avoid religious persecution, living there for 12 years before heading off for a new life in America – they would take a ship called the Speedwell, and then join up with the Mayflower in Southampton (both religious & non-religious passengers would be on this second ship). The Speedwell wasn’t fit for the journey, however, causing an unscheduled stop at Dartmouth and a return to port at Plymouth – eventually, all those who wanted to continue boarded the re-provisioned Mayflower and set sail on 16 September 1620. The Atlantic crossing took 66 days and was hugely affected by storms & seasickness.
Their intended destination was northern Virginia, but they just missed the Hudson River – with rough seas threatening the ship again, they decided to stay at Provincetown in Cape Cod to explore the land there. They finally chose what is now Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts as their settlement, leaving Provincetown on 25 December 1620 and arriving there the following day.
Seth Lakeman‘s new record, A Pilgrim’s Tale, is a concept album that tells the story of this historic voyage; voices of the Wampanoag tribe mix with those of the Mayflower passengers – including the Separatist William Bradford and captain Christopher Jones. It’s a fictionalised account, of course, but drawn from extensive research and conversations with ancestors of the Wampanoag people; Paul McGann acts as narrator, providing a blend of facts and dramatisation, filling the gaps between songs.
Alongside the release of this record, Lakeman has headed out on a tour that takes in several key locations in the lead-up to the Mayflower voyage:
- Doncaster – birthplace of Separatist William Bradford;
- Immingham – Scrooby Separatists escaped from here to Leiden;
- Droitwich – resident Edward Winslow was one of four who commissioned the ship, and also made the voyage;
- Gainsborough – a group of Separatists formed here and worshipped in secret;
- Boston – a group of Separatists were imprisoned here after trying to make their escape to the Netherlands;
- Harwich – the Mayflower is believed to have been built here and may have returned here in later years;
- Southwark – the Mayflower set sail from nearby Rotherhithe and may have returned here in later years;
- Southampton – the Mayflower and Speedwell met up here in July 1620;
- Dartmouth – the two ships re-routed here when the Speedwell needed further repairs;
- Plymouth – the Mayflower finally set sail from here in September 1620.
I was fortunate enough to make it to the London leg of the tour, in the impressive surroundings of Southwark Cathedral – just around the corner from another famous ship, the Golden Hinde. The organisers may have underestimated how efficiently they could get hundreds of people into poorly labelled & unreserved seats (I was given several conflicting & unspecific instructions after 20 minutes of queuing), but that didn’t take anything away from the event itself.
The first half of the concert consisted of A Pilgrim’s Tale in its entirety, replete with Paul McGann’s narration. The album is a masterpiece, and hearing it performed live with such energy and commitment to the recorded version was an absolute treat. It may have been tempting when writing to place a fair proportion of the songs in the sea shanty bracket, given that it was inspired by a hefty sea voyage, but to Lakeman’s credit there is serious range in the 12 tracks. Beginning with a Wampanoag girl’s dream (Watch Out), there is then early optimism in the upbeat Pilgrim Brother & Sailing Time, and great purpose in the rousing number The Great Iron Screw. It becomes more reflective later on in Saints and Strangers (the names given to the religious and non-religious factions on the voyage) and Bury Nights – before ending with the hopeful Mayflower Waltz. I could easily imagine this being adapted for the stage in the future.
The second half of the evening was devoted to Lakeman’s not unsubstantial back catalogue, though many songs chosen were from his 2006 record Freedom Fields – another album that sought inspiration from historic incidents, as well as local folk stories. I was particularly pleased to hear The White Hare and The Lady of the Sea early on in this second set, as well as a decent effort at audience participation in The Colliers. For me, perhaps predictably, the highlight had to be Kitty Jay; a perfect example of Lakeman’s sublime musicianship, as he enthralled the entire cathedral for an extended version of the song – displaying incredible stamina at the same time.
The blend of traditional and modern electric instruments in Lakeman’s band makes his act very engaging whilst retaining a feeling of authenticity. Along with his fellow musicians Benji Kirkpatrick, Ben Nicholls & Alex Hart, I can’t think of many people better suited to performing these songs and telling tales like this; they are all immensely talented performers led by the charismatic Lakeman, whose distinctive voice is yet another instrument at his disposal.
This was a very well put together concert, showcasing a wonderful record (and marking history) in an unforgettable fashion. Seth Lakeman should be on everyone’s gig bucket list.