A Thankful Village is a village in which every resident soldier returned alive from the First World War. The term ‘Thankful’, or ‘Blessed’, village was first coined by British writer, journalist and educator Arthur Mee in his set of guidebooks, The King’s England, published back in the 1930s, but the passing of time has rendered the term anachronistic, familiar only to local historians. Having stumbled upon this peculiarly British phenomenon, which feels like it might have provided the back story for a poignantly bucolic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film, if not an episode of the BBC’s Countryfile, singer-songwriter-cum-social historian and video-maker Darren Hayman was so inspired that he took it upon himself to visit each of the 54 Thankful Villages in England and Wales (Mee seems not to have audited north of the border or in Ireland) and make work about them.
Already over halfway through what is a mammoth geographical and artistic challenge, in each location, Hayman, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by musician friends, creates and records a piece of music, using mainly acoustic instruments, portable equipment and a laptop, focusing on life in the village. These can be songs with original lyrics, reworkings of local traditional music or instrumentals inspired by the location (Hayman, who aside from creating albums inspired by subjects as diverse as the English Civil War and the protest anthems of William Morris, has previously recorded a wordless long-playing lament to Britain’s lost lidos and has almost finished another collaborative instrumental project about a rural retreat in the Austrian Alps, accessible only by train).
Hayman also records interviews with villagers, sometimes set to his music, although, he is quick to point out, this is an album that addresses 21st century rural life and is not a piece of worthy oral history or a memorial to the Great War. It is also about a liminal sense of location and belonging. “It seemed like the term and idea of ‘Thankful Villages’ was essentially giving the name to an absence of something – the absence of grief when everyone else had too much”, he explains. “I wanted to mirror that. The War didn’t kill anyone here. We can forget about the War. It does come up a little in my interviews, and I’m very respectful, but Thankful Villages are places the War missed, so the War misses my songs, too”.
War memorials are, by definition, another significant absence from Thankful Villages (at least not memorials to the 1914-18 conflict. There are a handful of Thankful Villages who also saw all their World War II volunteers and conscripts return). Some counties seemed to have been particularly blessed – Somerset has nine Thankful Villages while Yorkshire has five, Essex and Kent have one apiece and Devon, Surrey and Hampshire have none at all. The vagaries of war and fate, however, are of less interest to Hayman than the human narratives, everyday felicities and poignant atmospheres he stumbles upon in each village. “Random is the word that permeates the project, both in terms of where I end up but also with regard to what gets recorded – random sounds, coincidences… The overall picture is one I’m constructing, if I’m honest. It’s an elusive mood or tone that I’m superimposing on all this material. I want the end result to reflect the people involved and I want their voices to be heard and for them to hear themselves back and think ‘that’s me’. But I’m the editor. I’m at the controls, and, ultimately, I’m creating a wonderland. There is death and tragedy, but still this is a Nirvana, a Utopia.
The first of what will be a triptych of Thankful Villages albums has just been released by the Rivertones label (the final part will coincide with centenary celebrations for the of World War 1, in 2018).
Darren Hayman and his band will be playing songs from Thankful Villages at a number of festivals over the summer