‘It’s about the absolute joy of singing’: How Sam Lee promotes folk, campfires and the Nest Collective

Sam Lee at the Extinction Rebellion protest at Waterloo Bridge. Picture: Ollie Denton

Sam Lee at the Extinction Rebellion protest at Waterloo Bridge. Picture: Ollie Denton - Credit: ollie denton

Dalston folk singer Sam Lee spent years learning songs from elders in Gypsy and Traveller communities. He tells Emma Bartholomew about his project to promote the spiritual genre of folk singing

Sam Lee at Berkeley Square. Picture: Tomm Morton

Sam Lee at Berkeley Square. Picture: Tomm Morton - Credit: tomm morton

Sam Lee grew up singing around the campfire with a radical alternate version of the Scouts called Forest School Camps.

Now the singer and traditional music specialist puts on campfire folk performances in parks and nature reserves through his promotional network the Nest Collective.

Sam studied at Chelsea School of Art and went on to work as a forager and wilderness expert, after going on an expedition to British Columbia with survival expert Ray Mears. In his 20s he began exploring ancient British culture and traditional folk songs.

"It's about the connection to the ancient world, and the beautiful melodies," said Sam, from Dalston.

"It's a musical form that's not about celebrity but about the absolute joy of singing. It has such rich wisdom and connection to a deeper way of being and it's very connected to nature as well."

His "deep journey into the real heart of the tradition" came through a chance encounter with the Scottish Traveller custodian of ancient balladry and songs, Stanley Robertson. Stanley took him under his wing as his apprentice for four years, sharing some of the thousands of stories he knew, some of which went back over a thousand years.

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"He wasn't necessarily very famous but came from an extraordinary lineage," said Sam, "He told me what it really means to inhabit a song and how to let the music guide you. It was more of a spiritual training. It was an unbroken oral tradition and the songs were about absolutely everything - heartbreak, love nature, incest, murder, deceit, tragedy - you name it. Such is the nature of British folk songs."

When Stanley died in 2009 Sam tracked down an older generation of Gypsies and Travellers who still remembered songs their parents would sing when they were on the road - many of which had never before been recorded. In 2006 he set up the Nest Collective, based in the same Green Lanes office as the Gazette, and they stage up to 100 events a year.

"More and more live music is being co opted by bigger organisations who are trying to make as much money out of it and kill the sense of community and environment," said Sam. "This is about desterilising it. Making it wholesome, accessible and playful and creating events that aren't about putting the star celebrity thing up front. That's where music has come from and to take it away from that is to kill the heart of it."