The Calne Festival is on in Wiltshire, and as its Patron, I made my yearly visit. Amidst a selection of intriguing possibilities – Accordion Orchestra? Lecture on Bird Anatomy? – one concert stood out, an event I'd also enjoyed last year. Peter Grant, Assistant Head at John Bentley School (also a professional singer and former pupil of Iain Burnside) tours all the local primary schools at this time of the year, and recruits a huge choir of under-11s, who take on the challenge of learning to sing a concert’s worth of important 20th century repertoire.
Last year’s marvellous concert featured the songs of Oscar Hammerstein II, a whole programme. When I need to summon a mental/aural image of the things that are right about music education, up springs the Calne rendition of ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ looking out of the school hall window onto the Wiltshire Downs in the sun.
This year with incredible perspicacity Peter had elected to teach the children songs by Bob Dylan together with some of the great standards espoused by Frank Sinatra (who would have been 100 this year). We learned that the kids had jibbed at first at having to listen to Bob’s grainy voice. Help was at hand from a couple of cool guitar-playing teachers who reproduced his peculiar guitar style perfectly. I’m glad to say harmonica solos didn’t feature at all. Of course, a mass rendition of ‘Forever Young’ by 9 year olds brought an emotional gasp to the packed hallful of listeners. But hearing these valiant performances reminded me that (as the Nobel award surely proves) Bob was foremost a poet rather than a tunesmith. The famous songs (for instance The Times they are a Changin, sung at JBS) have some big, obvious cadence shapes which become noble through sheer repetition. But Dylan’s work was formative for today's songwriters – in that it’s the lyrics that count rather than the melodies and harmonies.
Pictured - Bob Dylan at the former Aust Ferry in Gloucestershire