Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War

Sunday 13th September saw renowned folk musician Sam Sweeney arrive in Barnard Castle to perform his fantastic show Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War.

The show tells the simple story of the life of Sam’s fiddle, bought in Oxford, 2009. It had all the appearance of a new instrument but the label inside gave the date 1915 and the name Richard S Howard. Research revealed that the violin had been made, but never finished, by a luthier and some-time music hall performer from Leeds called Richard Spencer Howard.  He had signed up in 1916 at the age of thirty-five and less than two years later fought at the Battle of Messines in West Flanders, Belgium.  His violin had been left unfinished in his workshop. The carved pieces of the fiddle lay in a manila envelope for nine decades until they finally made their way into the hands of Oxford luthier Roger Claridge who set about finishing the instrument in his workshop.  Over ninety years after Richard Howard began working on the fiddle it was finally finished and placed in Roger’s shop.

Through original music composed by Sam and his accompanying musicians Rob Habron and Paul Sartin and finely-crafted story, delivered by master storyteller Hugh Lupton – the quartet brought the story to life. Unadorned and without ego, the gathered facts of Howard’s life were fleshed out, taking the audience from his home life surrounded by family, friends, the music hall and his workshop in Leeds – to the front line, and in turn his demise.

I was lucky enough to be accompanied by The Cream Tees, Heart of Teesdale’s youth folk orchestra, who were all enraptured by the show, following the simple sounds and songs that were produced between the 3 musicians on fiddle, clarinet, harmonium and concertina. As we left the music hall (a highly suitable venue, given the context of the show), we noted there were few dry eyes in the audience – as the tale came to its unavoidable close.

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