The Old Woodland's Legacy Of Song: Meet Sam Lee

The Old Woodland's Legacy Of Song: Meet Sam Lee

Sam Lee by Dominick Tyler

Folk song collector and singer; author; storyteller; conservationist; activist; broadcaster; bird-lover; and later on this year, Romanian bison-tracker: the tousled hair on Sam Lee’s head is frequently dampened down by the many hats he wears, which he does with the ease of a troubadour who’s just received a freshly stringed lute. In March 2023 as Spring edged ever closer, I spoke with Lee in a rare lull between the end of a tour as support act for Suzanne Vega and the start of a new calendar of events for this multi talented ambassador for the natural world.

Music alone shall live

As my fifty-first year on this planet began, I stood on the open-air platform of a narrow-gauge railway station in Central Europe, a beautiful May morning enveloping me. Peering pointlessly at the sun-blackened screen of my mobile phone, my ears were suddenly pricked by an intense barrage of whistles, trills and fluting gurgles coming from a towering bank of Lombardy poplars along the verge. Blackcap, I immediately thought, although I knew this was wrong as soon as the edges of the dusky apparition sealed together in my bird-book mind. Thrush? Nope – there was no hint of phrase repetition; this bird was relentlessly inventive, almost exhaustingly so.

I paced towards the end of the concrete embankment, eyes up, trying to home in on the source that was just somewhere there, searching for a familiar outline. Behind me, my wife cautioned about my proximity to the tracks — and suddenly a line from a poem not read since my college years arrived in my temporal lobe, mixing in with the siren call beckoning me onwards – “The ploughman feels, The thrilling music as he goes along…”

Commong nightingale. Courtesy of Bernanrd Dupont, Wikimedia Commons

Was this really John Clare’s bird somewhere ahead of me? Had I finally heard a nightingale?

“There!” my wife said excitedly, suddenly at my shoulder, pointing midway-up along the nearest tree; and she was right. The rusty burnt orange of a long broad tail and paler brown back was mercifully on the right side of the line to us, and against the bright dappled green of the leaves I could just discern the cadmium-edged maw of the bird’s bill as he threw his wild notes into the warm Spring air.

The urge to ping off an email to Sam Lee and garble my discovery across the Atlantic was intense but thankfully fleeting — having spoken to him just a couple of months previously, I know Lee is a busy man, constantly planning and whirling. Not that he would ever begrudge a person their excitement at such avian amazement; Lee employs his innate warmth to use music and a deep love of folklore to bring the fascinating world of birdsong to so many people. This sharing of everything connected to nature and birds is the spark that ignites his core.

Sam Lee

In 2005 Lee was in his mid-twenties when he founded The Nest Collective, at the time a small gathering of somewhat lost yet like-minded souls eager to reconnect with nature and the world through the discovery and revival of traditional folk songs and music. Eighteen years on the Collective is stronger than ever, hosting award-winning events throughout much of the year in London, UK and the surrounding counties.

It is the lived experience of folk music that underpins everything Lee does and is how he came to know the world of birds and the human adoration that folk songs and stories express towards and about them. But first, there was fire.

Draw nearer, draw nearer

“Despite the fact that I grew up in central London,” Lee explains, “my parents were very good at getting us out on walks outside of the city. They recognised that I was obviously only ever happy and myself when I was in nature. We were lucky to live near Hampstead Heath and when I was old enough, I'd escape there on my bicycle and free roam, climb trees, that sort of thing.

But more importantly, they sent me off to a camping organization when I was young, one that really embraced that idea of free wild youth and a radical relationship to nature through community, and through taking risks — really experiencing nature in its most profound. So I was lucky to have this introduction to nature from an early age that was deeply formative.”

The Forest School Camp is a children’s charity that still operates today, teaching small groups about basic camping skills, plant, fungi and animal identification, learning how to gather and cut wood, make fires and cook. Singing is intrinsic to this life, and every night around the campfire, songs are shared and learned.

Looking through the website’s song list, I clearly understand how this was the perfect environment to hone a young boy’s voice whose ready and willing soul soaked up all it could about nature, community, life and death, woven through song. It is an incredibly impressive list of almost three hundred titles, some which many of us would recognise but so many more we won’t, including a few that may even be banned in some of the world’s more repressive locales.

“That experience of being together around the fire and that songbook has been possibly one of the most informative things in my education, I am a composite of every one of those songs”, Lee beams with the memories and, as it turns out, still current experiences where possible. “I started going when I was 11 or 12, and I still go when my schedule allows, which sadly at the moment clashes with when I need to be working.

Sam Lee

But the community itself is massively strong and quite prolific and very active in the areas that I work in now, so I'm always encountering people from that community. There are thousands of us over the years, and we kind of all know each other. You can meet somebody who you never met as a child, but you instantly know who they are and their spirit because of what those camps did for us.”

Two for joy

The Nest Collective was created out of a desire to encounter that folk music again, as there was nowhere to hear it in London that “didn't have just old people”. Here was a group of young and fiercely keen practitioners needing an outlet, and like many with the flush of youth, reasoned that, if you build it, they will come.

Sam Lee

“My friend Joe and I found some young musicians and held that first night at the end of March 2005, it was a really good night and it just grew and grew. The folk music world was like, ‘Hallelujah, a young person's folk club in London, who'd have thought!’”

The club was dubbed The Magpie’s Nest, taking the name from an old Irish folk song called the same. It won BBC Radio Two’s Best Folk Club award in 2010, and Lee himself was nominated for the Mercury Prize’s Album of the Year for his debut Ground of its Own two years later. In 2014 he helped mark the 90th anniversary of the first ever live outside BBC radio broadcast when cellist Beatrice Harrison accompanied a nightingale singing in her garden; Lee’s performance of "The Tan Yard Side" is also set to nightingale song.

Five years later, Lee was then asked to be one of three creative collaborators on a unique arrangement for the RSPB’s foray into the world of the music charts: "Let Nature Sing" is a two-and-a-half minute recording of twenty-five of the UK’s most beloved yet threatened birds in a bid to raise awareness of their plight. The single was released on International Dawn Chorus Day and became the best-selling single of the week with 23,500 units sold, eventually charting at number 18.

“There were lots of songs about birds throughout the original repertoire [at the Magpie’s Nest] and I think in some ways that's where I first encountered the bird world on a more individualistic and creative basis — as has been the case lots of times in my life, I found out about things through the songs that have drawn me to the actual realms.”

Sam Lee

Sit down together, love

Frequently selling out, the Collective’s annual Singing with Nightingale events have just concluded their 8th year, aside from a one-year hiatus in 2020 when the whole world stopped. Almost every night in April and May, Lee and his cohorts guide a small eager audience through a mosaic of pasture and ancient woodland in Sussex, one of the last remaining homes for the country’s nightingale population.

It is thought now only 6,000 or so breeding pairs return to the southeast of Britain from their wintering grounds in Africa, to host their nightly mating concerts. Lee walks me through a typical night, and as he talks, I yearn to be there.

“Around 7pm people arrive in the woods and they're welcomed to the fire and we have drinks, and then we go on a bit of an ecology walk, looking at the relationships of the plant species. Then we have a feast of delicious food back around the fire then once it gets dark, I do about an hour and a bit with a guest musician, telling the story of the nightingale and going into the bird’s relationship to us, ancient prose, myth, folklore; it’s different every night.

Around 10:30, 11pm we'll gather our stuff and walk about 30 minutes through the woods in total silence, without any light, to where the nightingales live. For me and many people, this amazing silent walk is one of the favorite parts of the whole evening. Then we start to hear the birds singing, and we get closer and closer until we are right underneath one of the males. We play music and sing and listen to him. So many people return year after year, it has such a gorgeous return rate which is really nice because I get to see people who I've met before.”

Does the main star ever have stage fright, I ask?

“Sometimes they are reticent, yes! For example last year, we had this weird situation where they started singing really loudly and then just stopped, just these little peeps and squeaks and I was like, ‘Oh my God, they've all mated and they've all shut up. My whole life is in ruins!’ But the wind had just turned, so they knew the females wouldn't be flying on a north-easterly, so they just stopped to conserve their energy.”

I remark that I hadn't even considered a change in the wind direction could alter just how much the birds would engage, and Lee confesses “Nor did I until I was told!” But this is the essence of folklore, how we pass information on.

Sam Lee

A common treasury

I mention another musician and nightingale enthusiast, David Rothenberg, who of course Lee has met and worked with. Rothenberg received an unreasonable amount of flak from the science community some years back with his book “Why Birds Sing”, in which he dared to venture that birds sing because they can, because it sounds amazing and they enjoy doing it. Does Lee consider this a valid point of view?

There is so much that is unknown about birds that we’re denied the permission to indulge in because there isn't the evidence to it, although there is a lot of evidence with nightingales that there is more going on.

"I think one has to accept that within the bird realm our scientific practice of divination is so limited in the scope that it can study. There are experiences I've had with the nightingales which defy science, we're working on a high level of communication, and knowing that is really quite profound and blows away all the prescribed explanations. And so I think that's the realm I like to dwell in. Sharing the factual stuff and the gleaned knowledge is really important, but I think we need to be mindful not to remove the mystery.”

In 2021, Lee put his extensive knowledge of these most magical of natural musicians into a book, The Nightingale. Dubbed ‘the nature book of the year’ by one of nature writing’s most esteemed and loved authors John Lewis-Stempel, it is a beautifully written biography of this treasured bird, drawing on literature, philosophy, science and tradition. It also heralds a warning to us all.

“Will the next generation hear the nightingale?” Lee asks towards the end of the book.

The potential absence of this bird and his song from our land is an unthinkable idea … if we lose the nightingale, we would only be able to describe to our children what it was like to hear his music…

Lee explains the myriad of events that have led to the current situation of so much habitat loss for the nightingale, and for hundreds of other species across the UK, not to mention those same mechanisms in play for thousands of others across the world, all finding their own realms ever shrinking.

“The Enclosure Act and the separation of people from the commons is one of the most tragic moments in British history, and that increase in power through church and state was one of the biggest traumas that we are still living the experiences of. But actually the decline in nature came through a much later change in the system through intensive agriculture. We have to look at the raw facts of where bird populations have declined: through pesticide use, through ballooning deer populations, as well as all the consequences of a capitalist extractive empire. Supermarkets and the food systems we are now subjected to have devalued the need of care and good stewardship in our land at the expense of profit. The profit margins that you're seeing in these massive industries are correlated hugely to species decline and loss of biomass.

One can also go back and look at things like the witch trials and that suppression of ancient intangible knowledge of the land and medicine work, indigenous shamanism, those kinds of practices of healing and working with plants and species. There has been a massive severance of loss of knowledge, although thankfully that aspect is being reclaimed incredibly right now in this country.”

Lee’s respect and vast knowledge of folk songs and their history all comes together to have a resonance that is needed today more than ever. It is easy for the unschooled to dismiss folk songs and campfire stories as the indulgence of those with time on their hands, and simple if beautiful ballads of countryside idyll may not at first appear to be of much contemporary use; but as another balladeer once said, every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. I ask Lee if he believes the messages laced within folk songs and folklore have the power to help us change our ways to ensure the nightingale and his fellow natural world-dwellers can thrive?

If music isn't a healing medicine, then what is?

Of course songs, like all medicine that we see in our pharmacies, provoke a chemical reaction, an aggressive stimulation of the system. That’s where I see focus, and musicians who are working in sympathy with the natural world and with themselves in a healthy way are creating something very powerful. Beyond just the Nightingale project, we do a lot of work outdoors in our Nature pilgrimages.

There is the Turtle Dove Pilgrimage which is a three-day pilgrimage through Sussex and on the Knepp estate. We call it a rewilding of Vaughan Williams’ famous choral arrangement, and we meet at the Plough in the village of Rusper where Williams collected all the folk material about those birds. We learn the song in the pub, then go and sleep in Rusper Church and see the grave of John Penfold, who sang the song. It also happens that one of the great song collectors Lucy Broadwood is buried next to him, a pioneering song collector in the Victorian era and of the piano-making family.

The next day we walk the 25 miles through Sussex with the song in our heads, stopping at sacred places and singing the song to people, to trees, to springs, to wells. We have this most glorious journey to one of the last known populations of turtle doves in Sussex, which is our most endangered bird. On Sunday morning at about 4am we go into the Knepp estate reserve to listen to the turtle doves sing, and we sing the song back to the turtle doves. Everyone has this utterly profound moment of bringing the song back to its rightful muse.”

Lee urges us to understand that birds as muse is one way to save them, along with many other lifestyle decisions of course. But to rewild that notion back into our collective consciousness, to grasp what so many centuries of humans knew before us, you have to contribute towards it. Humanity is the only species on earth that does not involuntarily make a contribution towards a natural balance, and this must be acknowledged.

Is the order rapidly changing? 

I recall that when the RSPB single came out, many of my friends who I did not consider very “nature-aware” at the time bought the record, and over the past few years since other people that one would consider mainstream have been talking about conservation and the need to do more. I ask Lee if all those years ago when he and his friends, rather than bemoan the lack of folk music, just get on and do it, did they ever feel as if they were essentially just a bunch of hippies sat in a pub, trying to do what they could but it was never going to amount to anything because the rest of the world didn’t care? But maybe he is now seeing that too, that more mainstream conservation awareness potentially means more hope?

“I'm always cautious of feeling like there wasn't enough going on back in the day simply because I hadn't been doing it long enough to know where it was all happening, but all the while, I was meeting new people as well as others who had been doing it for years. But now, yes — I do see that there is this coagulation of brilliant work, that the NGOs are starting to work together and the platforms where this vital work can be shared are really starting to take shape and grow in their prominence. I do think there is a real blossoming of what has gone before and at the same time, I'm also meeting hundreds of people who are new to it.

Looking at the activist organizations out there now, and whether you like their practices or not, they are drawing really stark attention to things. Not so long ago, you wouldn't have had David Attenborough saying ‘We are in the most nature depleted country in Europe, perhaps the world’ on mainstream TV recently, without this emerging groundswell. Those are threshold watershed moments, and I think we are seeing more and more of those moments happen. So I think, yes, there's going to be a moment where the dam bursts, and I think those holding it back are going to be held to account or lose their place in power.”

You can find Sam Lee on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, plus there is a wealth of resources about all the work he does on his own website where you can listen to many recordings of the bird music work he does, plus documentaries he has made about folk song and folklore. You can also stream his nightingale music on Spotify and Soundcloud.

A Nightingale

Excerpt from the Nightingale:

Your environmental actions start at home. Get vocal about what you see and don’t agree with. Write [to your representatives], lobby for more resourcing of our natural spaces. Get online and use social media to share information, events, petitions, and projects that need greater awareness … Put posters up in your windows and nail your colours to the mast. Tut-tutting at the issues achieves absolutely nothing. Remember, only get angry if you get active. Funding positive and environmentally-friendly enterprises is one area in which we can really start to make a difference. It is one of the most directly impactful ways we can ensure that our daily lives are not supporting the destruction and exploitation of the world’s natural resources

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