The life of Sandra Kerr: From Bagpuss to folk legends Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger

Award winning Sandra Kerr, mum of folk star Nancy Kerr, talks about her rich and varied life

Folk luminary Sandra Kerr is at work in Newcastle, proudly wearing the Gold Badge she received last week for her “outstanding contribution” to music.

It’s a minor miracle, in a way, how she is both at work where I was speaking to her and wearing the badge at all.

Firstly she is clearly unwell, the rattling of her chest testament to a heavy cold and clearly audible as she talks - and later bravely sings - revealing she should perhaps be at home in bed.

“With a hot toddy - plenty of whisky,” she laughs - Sandra laughs pleasantly a lot.

However an arrangement has been made and she is determined to stick to it.

And she also revealed that when notification of the award came through the post with a batch of other mail she had originally binned it.

“I thought it was an advertisement and quickly discarded it.

“Then I looked at it again and saw it had my name on it. When I realised they were awarding me the Gold Badge I was immensely chuffed.”

Folk musician Sandra Kerr who has been awarded the Gold Badge for her outstanding contribution to the genre
Folk musician Sandra Kerr who has been awarded the Gold Badge for her outstanding contribution to the genre

The award is from the English Folk, Dance, and Song Society, and the citation said that the Gold Badge is awarded “to those who have made unique or outstanding contribution”.

Typically she arranged a concert, with her partner David Malone, to accept it in the King’s Hall at Newcastle University where she works as a lecturer, a week last Friday night.

Sandra said: “I thought it fitting. We have a very special folk degree in Newcastle, I love the work and the students and I love the King’s Hall. It’s just a delightful performance space.”

A packed audience of family, friends and colleagues enjoyed two-and-a-half hours of music from Sandra’s women’s choir Werca’s Folk and her group Sisters Unlimited which she founded in 1986.

Then Sandra’s daughter, folk star Nancy Kerr who she says is her greatest contribution to folk music - and Nancy’s husband James Fagan - took to the stage.

It was quite a night representing quite a career for Sandra who at 71 still seems to have energy to burn.

Born in Essex, she grew up in the east end of London - the EastEnders-style accent even now is perceptible - and it’s no surprise she came from a musical family.

Both her parents’ families sang and played and it was where he folk education began.

“My father’s family were Scots, my mother’s family were Norfolk farm labourers who came to east end of London in the 19th century.

“There was lots and lots of music on both sides of the family.”

Interestingly, Sandra went on to play the English Concertina, something her father’s mother and mother’s dad had done.

“I didn’t know that when I took up the concertina. It’s so weird. It must be my DNA.”

Folk musician Sandra Kerr
Folk musician Sandra Kerr

In her early 20s and enjoying the London folk scene she started a pivotal friendship with two of its best known members, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.

The legendary couple had set up the Singers Club in London where Sandra went one night. Part of the evening was used for ‘singing from the floor’ - a bit of audience participation.

Sandra said: “It was such an eye opener. I remember the songs that night to this day. My father said to me when he heard me singing the songs ‘you’ve found your music.’”

Her dad wasn’t the only one impressed.

“They (MacColl and Seeger) asked me if I would go to live with them as a folk apprentice and as a nanny to their two little boys.

“They were both iconic people. It’s the centenary of Ewan’s birth this year and it’s very timely he should be honoured as he was an extraordinary man.

“Peggy is still alive and still touring. She’s coming to the Sage Gateshead next month with her two boys.”

MacColl’s most famous song - written to Peggy, was the epic love song ‘The First Time Ever I saw Your Face’.

Written in 1957, it was made internationally famous by Roberta Flack. By that time, the 1970s, Sandra had lost touch to a certain extent with the couple

“I don’t know he felt about Roberta Flack covering the beautiful song he wrote for Peggy and probably making a small fortune out of it.

“He was a lifelong socialist, it would have been interesting to know,” she laughed.

“I learnt so much from them. Ewan brought to my education a lot of work he had done with (the famous theatre director) Joan Littlewood in theatre workshop.

“Peggy was absolutely marvellous. She was my role model.”

Sandra Kerr is presented her gold badge at the Kings Hall Newcastle University of Newcastle at concert in her honour

While MacColl was, perhaps, conflicted with the success of his song to Peggy, Sandra was enjoying unlikely success of her own - with a kids TV show. Bagpuss.

After initially doing work on the TV programme Sam On Boff’s Island, she and her then husband John Faulkner were put in touch with Oliver Postgate who was putting the new programme together.

“We turned up at his home in Kent called Red Lion House. It used to be a pub, which was a very good sign, with seven or eight instruments and just played.”

During the session they created the characters Madeleine Remnant the rag doll, voiced by Sandra, and Gabriel Croaker, one of the ‘Tea Time Toads’, who was voiced by John.

“As a result Oliver inserted a lot more music than he planned and it became a major part of the films.

“We had such a lot of fun you can hear us giggling on some of the film soundtracks because it was such a hoot.”

It centred around a shop owned by a girl called Emily who found lost and broken things and displayed them in the window, in front of her favourite stuffed toy, the large, saggy, pink and white striped cat named Bagpuss, for the owners to collect.

Only 13 episodes of the programme were aired back in 1974. Yet it frequently tops favourite programme polls while Thom Yorke of Radiohead is a fan, watching re-runs of it with his son.

Folk musician Sandra Kerr who has been awarded the Gold Badge for her outstanding contribution to the genre
Folk musician Sandra Kerr who has been awarded the Gold Badge for her outstanding contribution to the genre

Sandra said: “There is a timeless quality to those stories. Some are deeply rooted in folk tradition and legend while they are quirky enough to appeal to young people.”

However around this time Sandra and her husband divorced and she went on to marry Ron Elliott, a Northumberland piper. Daughter Nancy was born a year later.

When Nancy was 12 the family moved up to Northumberland where Ron’s family came from, settling in Warkworth.

Sadly her husband died a year later but she and Nancy decided to stay rather than go back to London. Although it did cause her problems.

“In the media when you come up North the BBC tends to forget you exist of course,” she said.

However by chance Folkworks had just started in the region, an agency with a brief of encouraging folk arts here through which she got a lot of work.

Folk musician Sandra Kerr
Folk musician Sandra Kerr

And in 2002 Folkworks helped set up the first ever university Folk Music course in the country - at Newcastle.

It was headed by Alistair Anderson and, as well as Sandra, the original lecturers included the likes of Kathryn Tickell and Catriona Macdonald, who are still there.

Students take performance as a main subject - be it through song, dance or a musical instrument - but there is also an academic side to it.

“Traditional music is still slightly marginalised and it needs informed students to go out and fight our cause - not the course but the music,” said Sandra.

However there has been a surge in interest in folk which means it has become far less marginalised of late.

Sandra said: “It’s very exciting. I think there’s a genuine search for identity, particularly for an English identity, one that possibly does not reflect our imperialist past. People are wary as in the past not all our history and culture is to be lauded and praised.

“Also the Celtic identity is so strong. People can get into that and identify with it. English music has as rich and varied a history as any other folk culture.”

History seems to be Sandra’s thing as she has just penned a song, Loving Hearts and Skillful Hands, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Institute, to be released on April 11, which she gave me a sneak preview of.

“Like a lot of women, especially ‘toonies’ like me, I didn’t know much about the WI and thought it was all about jam and Jerusalem and proggy mats.

“I looked online at the website and things they have been involved in some pretty amazing campaigns which is something to be proud of.”

Meanwhile it’s also the 20th anniversary of her group Werca’s Folk Women’s Choir, named after the women from who Warkworth got its name, and whose patron is TV’s Clare Balding.

Sandra said: “Werca lived in the 7th century and was wild and witch or - depending on what you read - very saintly. It fits the choir very nicely.

“Clare Balding is our patron as she did two programmes with us, one for Channel 4 and one for Radio 4 programme ‘Ramblings’.

“We had a wonderful ramble around the river and fields around Warkworth and she couldn’t get over the fact of how we would just stop and burst into song and make beautiful music at the drop of a hat.”

On the weekend of September 18 to 20 the group are holding a series of events in Warkworth to mark their anniversary.

“We’re having a big singing gathering, singing walks, singing suppers, and workshops on Saturday night. It’s going to be such fun.”

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