A Pilgrim’s Tale leads Seth Lakeman to Doncaster to mark Mayflower’s 400th anniversary

Seth Lakeman: telling A Pilgrim’s Tale to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower setting sail

DEVON folk musician Seth Lakeman heralds Friday’s release of his album A Pilgrim’s Tale with a tour that opens at Cast, Doncaster, South Yorkshire, tomorrow night (February 5).

This year marks 400 years since The Mayflower ship departed these shores for the Americas.

Lakeman was raised and still lives on Dartmoor, within sight of the sea at Plymouth, from where the Puritans sailed on The Mayflower in 1620.

His album tells the epic and soulful tale of the Pilgrim Fathers, and consequently, the ten tour dates are routed in a trail of towns and cities that, for various reasons, hold significance to the Mayflower journey.

Locations such as Immingham – where Separatists made a dangerous escape from England to Holland in their search for religious freedom – and Dartmouth, where the ship was anchored for repairs. Doncaster, Harwich, London and, of course, Plymouth feature too.

“If you’d never heard anything about The Mayflower and the birth of the modern USA, these words and music could be your primer,” says Seth, whose album is narrated by actor Paul McGann and features guest performers Cara Dillon, Benji Kirkpatrick, Ben Nicholls and Seth’s father, Geoff Lakeman.

The Mayflower carried British and Dutch passengers with hopes of fresh settlement, who were met by the Wampanoag first nation tribe on arrival. Bottling the spirit of the 17th century pilgrimage, Lakeman has written and performed a selection songs that shape a fictional narrative of the journey, informed by research from text, such as the journals of William Bradford; conversations with modern-day ancestors of the Wampanoag people at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, and information sourced at the national heritage sites that still exist in the UK. 

The artwork for Seth Lakeman’s album A Pilgrim’s Tale

Chronicling the voyage and early settlement in these songs, Lakeman has created a drama that celebrates the history but does not lose sight of the journey’s tribulations. It stays sensitive to important facets of the story; the religious liberation that passengers were trying to achieve, the nefarious deeds enacted on the Wampanoag, and the deaths that followed on both sides.

Lakeman feels linked intrinsically to the story. “I didn’t have far to go for inspiration,” he says. “The Mayflower Steps, on Plymouth’s cobbled Barbican streets, are 20 minutes away from me.

“I fished from this quay as a boy, sang songs on tall ships tied up here and played music in just about every old sailors’ pub in this Elizabethan quarter.” 

The stories in the songs are told from a variety of perspectives, from personal accounts, such as the opening number, Watch Out, detailing deadly premonitions of a Wampanoag girl, to tales of the collective travellers in songs such as Pilgrim Brother and Sailing Time, each marching at a hopeful cadence, reflecting their early optimism.

In an immersive tale of struggle, songs bring to life anew 17th century characters: a crewman wrestling to control the ship; a pilgrim celebrating in rapturous faith, or the solemn Wampanoag tribesmen forlornly surrendering to the new way of life thrust on them. 

Inspiration for the project came when Lakeman was on tour in Robert Plant’s band and paid a visit to the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts to talk to the Wampanoag that still reside in the area.

It did not take long for the songs to form on his return to England. “After I travelled home from the ‘New World’ to Plymouth, everything happened in a quite mystical way. The songs came together so speedily and with exactly the vibe I wanted, and we recorded in a very short time in my Crossways Studio at home on Dartmoor,” says Seth, who at present is hosting the BBC Radio 2 series Seth Lakeman’s Folk Map Of The British Isles on Saturday nights..

To supplement the recordings, a between-song narration was written by the associate director of Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, Nick Stimson, and read by Paul McGann, who Lakeman was elated to have on board.

“As we finished the album, another quite magical thing happened, when Paul agreed to voice the narration between the tracks on the record. He pitched it perfectly,” he says.

Released on BMG, the album track listing is: Watch Out; Pilgrim Brother; Westward Bound; A Pilgrim’s Warning; Sailing Time; The Great Iron Screw; Dear Isles Of England; Saints And Strangers; Foreign Man; Bury Nights; The Digging Song and Mayflower Waltz.

Tickets for Lakeman’s 7.30pm concert in Cast’s Main Space tomorrow (February 5) are on sale at castindoncaster.com or on 01302 303959.