March 26, 2015

Week 188 – Down where the drunkards roll

In the 1970s I spent hours in record shops, flicking through the racks – rarely buying, just reading the backs of the album sleeves. Thus I was aware of Richard Thompson – ex-member of Fairport, played in the Albion Country Band but left before they recorded Battle of the Field – long before I had ever heard his music. I think the first time I heard him on record would have been on Morris On, or possibly Liege and Lief – in either case several years after those records were originally released. The first time I heard him centre stage was the Richard and Linda Thompson album Hokey Pokey. They had a copy of that in the local record library. It stood out because of its eye-catching cover, but also grabbed my attention because I knew of several of the supporting musicians (Aly Bain, John Kirkpatrick, Simon Nicol) from other records. That record gets a bit of a bad press from some critics, mainly because of the inclusion of several rather lightweight songs, like ‘Smiffy’s Glass Eye’ and ‘Georgie on a Spree’. OK, those tracks might not appear in a Richard Thompson Top 20, but they’re perfectly good songs. I have always had, and still have, quite a soft spot for the album. And it certainly isn’t without a few RT gems: ‘Never Again’, ‘A Heart Needs a Home’ and the dark self-loathing of ‘I’ll Regret It All in the Morning’. (Incidentally the library’s copy jumped in a couple of places on the title track; when I bought myself a clean copy from a stall in Ashford market it took some while to get used to hearing the line “It’s the best that they ever did sell”, which previously I’d always heard as “It’s the bell”).

If asked to name my favourite Richard and Linda Thompson album I might mention Shoot out the lights but would probably plump for the austere beauty of Pour down like silver. But actually that’s mere posturing. Deep down everyone knows that their greatest album was the first, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. That’s one of those records where it’s not just a case of saying “there’s not a dud track on it”; every song is a Thompson classic: ‘The Great Valerio’, ‘Withered and died’, ‘Has he got a friend for me?’, the title track and, of course, this song, which – understandably – has become a folk club standard. I don’t think I have anything to say about the song itself, except to note in passing that, for a man who doesn’t drink, Richard Thompson has written a lot of good songs about drunks.

This recording was made a couple of weeks ago when we went to stay with our very good friends Nick and Liz Passmore in Powys. I took the opportunity of Nick’s multi-instrumental talents to record a few songs for the blog, and these will be dropped in at strategic intervals over the next few months (one, in fact, has been earmarked as appropriate to mark the end of the fourth year of this blog). I don’t think Nick and I had ever played any of these songs together before, but we’d known them for 35 years or more – i.e. for at least as long as we’ve known each other.

You may have seen Nick dancing with the Shropshire Bedlams. He featured on (indeed he played one of my compositions on) the Fflach squeezebox compilation Megin. In the late 80s / early 90s he was a member of what I think was the final line-up of Crows, and also played alongside Chris Wood, Chris Taylor and me in the dance band Polkabilly. And if you were around in the Canterbury area in the 1970s you would have known him as one of the mainstays of Duke’s Folk, the renowned folk club run by Dixie Fletcher at the Duke of Cumberland in Whitstable. That club was a veritable hotbed of talent, including among its regulars Fiddler’s Dram, and the members of the Oyster Ceilidh Band. In those days Nick mainly played guitar, mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, whistle and flute. Since then he has added anglo-concertina, melodeon and fiddle to the list (and quite probably several others) while with Polkabilly he’d also play a bit of piano, if the venue had one. When we played the Dance House in Cricklade, while we played the final waltz the piano was actually lifted off the stage by several strong men, to make sure the Town Hall caretaker didn’t realise it had ever been lifted onto the stage in the first place… Fortunately Nick was playing one of his other instruments at the time.

With Nick Passmore - session at the Whitby Festival 1989.  (The elbow on the right of the shot belongs to Northumbrian fiddle-player Willy Taylor).

With Nick Passmore – session at the Whitby Festival 1989. (The elbow on the right of the shot belongs to Northumbrian fiddle-player Willy Taylor).

Down where the drunkards roll

Andy Turner – vocal
Nick Passmore – guitar

March 20, 2015

Week 187 – Brown To Blue

A slight departure, this, from my normal repertoire. But I sing it unaccompanied, so it must be a folk song – right?

The song was originally recorded in 1963 by George Jones, but I learned it from Elvis Costello’s country record Almost Blue.  From the Elvis Costello Wiki I learn that the song was written by George Jones, Virginia Franks and Johnny Mathis. That’s Johnny “Country” Mathis, not Johnny “When a Child Is Born” Mathis, in case you’re wondering.

I’ve always been taken by the line “The judge pronounced the words the way you wanted him to do”. I suppose that would be with a strong Texas accent.

LP sleeve - George Jones

LP sleeve – George Jones “Trouble In Mind” (1965)

Brown To Blue

March 13, 2015

Week 186 – The Bold Princess Royal

I’m a fool. Having recorded a song which begins “On the fourteenth of February” I then completely forgot to post it on 14th February. So, one month late, here it is.

My tune comes from the Butterworth MSS, but was actually collected in September 1910 – at Minster, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent – by his friend and associate Francis Jekyll, nephew of the famous gardener Gertrude Jekyll (the family surname, I believe, rhymes with “treacle” rather than “heckle”).

As was common practice at the time, Jekyll appears to have noted the tune but not the words. And, as always in these circumstances,  my first port of call for a singable set of words was the Copper Family songbook. In truth, words for this song don’t vary that much from singer to singer; although in retrospect I do wish I’d shopped around a bit, and managed to provide the pirate with a loud-speaking trumpet (as in Sam Larner’s version and the printed ballad sheet shown below).

I can forgive the collector for not writing down the words of the song. But rather less forgivable is the fact that he failed to record the singer’s name. That’s pretty poor in any circumstances, but somehow it seems worse given that the singer was an inhabitant of the Minster Union (Workhouse). Almost certainly going into the workhouse was a source of shame and indignity for the singer. And, because an Eton-educated folk song collector couldn’t be bothered to find out his name, he (I assume it was a him, ‘Bold Princess Royal’ seems like the sort of song which would have been sung mainly by men) is robbed even of claiming a place as a minor footnote in history. It’s really not good enough.

I must thank George Frampton for originally drawing this song to my attention – and the others which Jekyll collected on Sheppey – some years before they became more readily available via the Take Six, and now the Full English archive.

The bold Princess Royal, Such broadside from Ballads Online.

The bold Princess Royal, Such broadside from Ballads Online.

The Bold Princess Royal

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

March 7, 2015

Week 185 – John Barleycorn’s a Hero Bold

This song was collected by Bob Copper in 1954 from George Attrill of Fittleworth in Sussex.

If a song is all the better for the singer knowing what he is singing about – and I believe this to be true whether the subject of the song be fishing, ploughing, mining or loving – then there could never have been a man better qualified than George to sing this song. Every lunchtime of his life would find him in the Swan at Fittleworth where ten or twelve pints of mild would slip smoothly and rapidly down his gullet before lunch could be considered complete. And he would round this off with another five or six leisurely pints in the evening.

Bob Copper, Songs and Southern Breezes (Heinemann, 1973) p81

 I have never heard a recording of George Attrill singing this, so I’m not sure how far my tune departs from what he sang. Certainly the tune is transcribed differently in Songs and Southern Breezes  and Peter Kennedy’s Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland which is, I think, where I first encountered it. From Bob Copper’s book it seems that when George sang it, all four lines of the verse used pretty much the same tune. Whereas in Kennedy’s book the third line is quite different (and that’s how I sing it). There’s also a divergence in the chorus. Peter Kennedy has the ascending line on “Old and young thy praise have sung” starting on the tonic. I start the run one note higher, and – having looked again at Songs and Southern Breezes - that’s how it’s given there.  I’ve heard it sung both ways. Right or wrong, I think my tune has a bit more interest to it – but it does make it a song worth avoiding in folk clubs and sessions, unless you’re a fan of dissonance.

There’s a Mudcat thread on this song, from where I learn that the song was originally composed – with a significantly different tune – by Joseph Bryan Geoghegan in around 1860.

Joseph Bryan Geoghegan, 1816-1889. Image found via a Mudcat discussion on the composer of this song.

Joseph Bryan Geoghegan, 1816-1889. Image found via a Mudcat discussion on the composer of this song.

 

John Barleycorn. Ballad printed between 1863 and 1885 by H.P. Such, London. From Ballads Online.

John Barleycorn. Ballad printed between 1863 and 1885 by H.P. Such, London. From Ballads Online.

 

John Barleycorn’s a Hero Bold

March 1, 2015

Week 184 – Painting the Town

Bing Lyle. Photo from the Brighton Acoustic Session blog.

Bing Lyle. Photo from the Brighton Acoustic Session blog.

I don’t sing very many modern songs in public, but occasionally I come across a song and know immediately that I want to learn it. That was the case with ‘Between the Wars’ and it was the case with this one too. It was written by Bing Lyle, and I first heard him sing the song at Wingham Folk Club, near Canterbury, circa 1986.

I’d known Bing a bit for some years – he would occasionally turn up at Oyster Morris / Band events and turn in a crowd-pleasing performance of, say, ‘I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande’, or ‘Little Red Rooster’. I got to know him better in the mid-1980s, when we both found ourselves living in Faversham for a few years. Having heard him sing this at Wingham, and decided that I wanted to learn the song, I then had to wait some years before I heard it again. He moved away to Brighton, then I moved to Oxford, and although our paths would cross from time to time, it seemed to be in situations where Bing was singing more traditional material (we were both involved, for instance, with The Keys of Canterbury, Pete Castle’s first Kent-themed compilation). In the nineties, however, Bing teamed up with fiddle-player Ben Paley, and they recorded the CD We are melting. Which, among a number of other good songs written by Bing, included ‘Painting the Town’.

I have unconsciously changed the tune a bit over the years. And consciously changed one of the lines. In the last verse, the original lyrics say “a million to one, it’s not you”. I learned the song round about the time the National Lottery was launched, in which the odds of winning were famously calculated to be around 14 million to one. So the odds of achieving happiness on “the big wheel of happiness” were correspondingly lengthened.

You’ll search the Internet in vain, I’m afraid, for a Bing Lyle web page. There’s not even a photo of him on the website of the Sussex Pistols, the Brighton-based dance band he plays with. However, I was pleased to find this 2011 video of him singing ‘Painting the Town’ at the (sadly now defunct) Royal Oak folk club in Lewes.

Painting the Town

Andy Turner – vocal, C-G anglo-concertina

February 22, 2015

Week 183 – Poor Wayfaring Stranger

When I sing songs like this, or ‘Idumea’, it is purely for the power and beauty of the tune, and the words as poetry; not because I have a belief in any kind of life hereafter. However, at the end of a week in which we buried my mother, this seems an appropriate song to post.

I first heard it sung by Cathy Lesurf, with the Oyster (Ceilidh) Band in the early 1980s. Subsequently I’ve heard powerful recordings by singers including Emmylou Harris, Natalie Merchant and Norma Waterson. But the version which really made me want to learn the song was the one which Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins recorded in October 1959 from the Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle. Their recording was included on the CD Southern Journey Volume 4: Brethren, We Meet Again – Southern White Spirituals. I then found the words and audio for a fuller four-verse version, recorded from Almeda a few months earlier in August in 1959 by John Quincy Wolf, Jr., on the website of the John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection.

Almeda Riddle at her home, 1959, photographed by Alan Lomax.

Almeda Riddle at her home, 1959, photographed by Alan Lomax.

All the versions I had heard previously were resolutely in the minor key. One thing I like about Granny Riddle’s version is that it is essentially in the major key, but with plenty of flattened and – better still – ambiguous notes. These tonal ambiguities are very much a part of the singer’s vocal style, and the power of the performance overall, but I have found it difficult to reproduce them without it sounding like I’m trying to do an impression of an Arkansas grandmother. So I’ve tried to sing the song in a way that captures the spirit of Almeda Riddle’s version, while staying true to the way I normally sing. Not sure how successful I’ve been in this, but it’s too good a song not to sing.

Incidentally, I recently stumbled across this fine solo performance of the song by Bill Monroe which, it strikes me, is in very much the same vein as Almeda Riddle’s.

And here’s one of several Sacred Harp performances you can find on the web.

The history of the song is covered on this Mudcat thread: http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=23495 . It seems that the words at least date back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Poor Wayfaring Stranger

February 15, 2015

Week 182 – Wait till the clouds roll by

Valentine’s Day is over… but here’s a sentimental love song which would have been perfect had I been organised enough to get it posted yesterday. I learned this song over thirty years ago from Charlie Bridger of Stone-in-Oxney in Kent. Around the same time Pete Coe was singing the song around the clubs, in a version learned from the Old Time singer and banjo-player Uncle Dave Macon. The song was in fact very popular in America. When published by New York publishers Thomas B. Harms & Company in 1881 it became the company’s first big hit. In an 1884 newspaper interview, in response to the question “What was the most successful song ever written during your existence?” the publisher’s reply was “Oh, Wait Till the Clouds Roll By had by far the greatest sale. We sold over 75,000 copies in a single month. It was the easy, jingly music did it, and the sentimental words”.

Wait Till the Clouds Roll By, published by T.B. Harms & Co., 819 Broadway, New York, 1881. From the Lester S Levy Sheet Music Collection.

The published version states “words by J T Wood, music by H J Fulmer” and for many years I took this at face value. Indeed, in my Musical Traditions review of The Anglo-German Concertina: A Social History I took the author Dan Worrall to task for stating that the song had been written by an Irish singer and concertina player called Tom Maguire. In fact it turned out that Dan had done his research and I hadn’t, and he has put together all the information he has on Tom Maguire in a short paper on his website: Tom Maguire, a forgotten late nineteenth century Irish vocalist, comedian, concertinist, and songwriter. Much of the information in this post comes from that source – thanks Dan.

“J T Wood” and “H J Fulmer” were actually fictitious pseudonyms of the American musical arranger Charles Pratt. He used the same pseudonyms to claim authorship for ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’, which of course was – at the very least – not an entirely original composition (check out the wonderful minor key version sung by Cecilia Costello on the recent Musical Traditions CD Old Fashioned Songs). When facing prosecution for “creating an obstruction” outside a London Theatre in 1907, Tom Maguire claimed authorship of this and other songs under oath. Whether Pratt had bought the publishing rights from Maguire, or simply stolen the song, is not known. Either way, by the early twentieth century poor Tom Maguire, now blind and nearly deaf, was destitute and reduced to singing and playing his concertina on the streets, and hawking books containing words of the songs he had written earlier in life.

I’m not sure whether Charlie Bridger learned the song orally or from a printed source. Either is equally likely – he had a large store of song books, News Chronicle Song Book and the like. Given that he was born in 1913, he’s not likely to have learned it from an individual ballad sheet, but ‘Wait till the clouds roll by’ featured on a number of such sheets – see the Full English and the Bodleian’s Broadside Ballads Online.

Wait till the clouds roll by,  published by H.J. Wehman, New York, 1881. From Broadside Ballads Online.

Wait till the clouds roll by, published by H.J. Wehman, New York, 1881. From Broadside Ballads Online.

The song also inspired a reply-song, and a number of parodies, for instance Put Me Some Jam-Roll By, Jenny. Little Thomas’s New Banjo Song (Mohawk Minstrels). Popular Parody on “Wait Till the Clouds Roll By” and Wait till the clouds roll by, Billy! (in support of William Gladstone’s stance on Home Rule).

As well as being a singer, Charlie Bridger was a keen brass and wind band player. He played tenor horn in Woodchurch and Cranbrook bands, and also played clarinet. When I first recorded him in April 1983 he played me one tune on clarinet, a version of the ‘Jenny Lind Polka’ with an extra part tacked on the end. I’ve been playing that version of the tune almost as long as I’ve been singing the song. A few years ago, having decided to put the tune and song together, I was delighted to find that, slowed down, the last two bars of ‘Jenny Lind’ were pretty much identical to the last two bars of the song – clearly they were destined to be played together.

Woodchurch Band, late nineteenth century. From a copy of the photo provided to me by Charlie Bridger. His father (Charles) and grandfather (Tom) are both in this photo.

Woodchurch Band, late nineteenth century. From a copy of the photo provided to me by Charlie Bridger. His father (Charles) and grandfather (Tom) are both in this photo.

Jenny Lind / Wait till the clouds roll by

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

February 7, 2015

Week 181 – Hard Times of Old England

Another song from the Copper Family repertoire, and one which seems never to have been collected elsewhere. This is included on the recent Fellside release Bob and Ron Copper: Traditional Songs from Rottingdean, a CD reissue of a limited edition EFDSS LP which featured recordings made by Peter Kennedy, and which first came out in 1962.  Unusually – given that one tends to think of Bob Copper as the “lead singer” in the family from the 1960s onwards – there are no solos by Bob on this album, but three by his cousin Ron, including ‘Hard Times of Old England’ (in contrast, there are no solos by Ron on the 1971 box set A Song for Every Season).

Listening to that recording made me realise that, while I might soon have moved on from the Mike Batt-produced Steeleye Span arrangement of the song (it’s on their All Around My Hat LP, and features an arrangement which is very much in the same mould as the title track), the way I sing the song betrays the fact that I originally learned the song from Steeleye, and not from Ron Copper.

Brother Tradesmen. noted from Jim Copper, by Francis Collinson,1949. From the Full English Archive.

Brother Tradesmen. noted from Jim Copper, by Francis Collinson,1949. From the Full English Archive.

 

Hard Times of Old England

January 31, 2015

Week 180 – The Lass of Swansea Town

Just after Christmas I was in the car, singing the ‘Gower Wassail’. When I finished, without thinking, I found myself launching into this one, which I’d not sung for a very long time. The link of course is that both were collected from the “Gower Nightingale”, Phil Tanner. But just as I first heard his Wassail song performed by Steeleye and the Watersons, I first encountered this one on Mike Waterson’s eponymous 1977 LP. I actually learned the song from Roy Palmer’s book The Rambling Soldier. Roy takes three of Phil Tanner’s four verses, and completes the story with additional verses from a late nineteenth century Harkness broadside.

There are many broadside printings of the song listed in Steve Roud’s Index, but few from the oral tradition – besides this one from Wales, there’s just a handful of examples, from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Canada. You can hear brief recordings of a couple of Canadian versions on the website MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada here and here (they look like blank pages at first, but scroll to the bottom and you’ll find a transcription, sheet music and audio). The song’s setting is by no means fixed to Swansea – indeed many of the printed examples allow the singer to substitute the place name of their choice, such as this one from Lucy Broadwood’s collection.

The Lass Of ---- Town. From the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive.

The Lass Of —- Town. From the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive.

The Lass of Swansea Town

January 25, 2015

Week 179 – O Good Ale

It is of good ale to you I’ll sing And to good ale I’ll always cling, I like my mug filled to the brim And I’ll drink all you’d like to bring, O, good ale, thou art my darling, Thou art my joy both night and morning.

A rather wonderful event took place yesterday at Cecil Sharp House – Ten Thousand Times Adieu, the Bob Copper Centenary Event, aka Bobstock. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and in the event was delighted to be able to take part, deputising for Tony Engle in a one-off reunion of the seminal quartet Oak (last previous performance, 1972!). Here’s a hot-off-the-press review of the event on the Guardian website. At the end of the night, all the invited performers got up on stage to join three generations of the Copper Family in singing ‘Thousands or More’ and ‘Oh Good Ale’. Blasting out those two songs, standing just behind John Copper (I suspect our relative heights may mean there will be no photographic evidence of my presence on stage at that point!) and next to Maddy Prior (who must take a lot of the blame for getting me hooked on traditional music as a teenager) is something I won’t forget in a hurry.

The finale at Bobstock - thanks to Ronald Ellis for the photo

The finale at Bobstock – thanks to Ronald Ellis for the photo

So here’s my rendition of ‘Good Ale’. I must admit it’s a song I’d almost forgotten that I knew, until a couple of weeks back, when I saw that the Coppers had sung it when Harveys Brewery in Lewes started brewing their Copper Ale. Although I hadn’t sung it in years, I found that I remembered most of the verses, and a quick scan of the good book soon reminded me of the rest. In latter years, when I saw Bob singing this with the family, he was always rather apologetic (understandably enough) about the “two black eyes” verse, and I’ve improvised an alternative, less misogynistic rhyme for “if my wife did me despise”. Misogynist lyrics notwithstanding, this was a song Bob was very fond of. It was one of his grandfather “Brasser” Copper’s songs. “Brasser” was landlord of the Black Horse in Rottingdean and would apparently say to new employees “Now you can drink as much beer as you like… but you can only drink singing beer and not fighting beer” (see Ale Tales: a social history of brewing in Lewes and across East Sussex p31). This division of beer into “singing beer” and “fighting beer” was one which Bob inherited. I remember reading an interview with Bob where he said that, although the Coppers drank plenty, they always drank singing beer, not fighting beer. I thought that quotation came from an interview conducted by Vic Smith in either Musical Traditions or Traditional Music but I’ve re-read a couple – one in print and one online – and can’t find it. Maybe it was in Folk Roots or Southern Rag.  In any case, here it is from an interview on Australian national radio

if we used to go out with the local pub to a darts match or something like that, on the way back we’d drink plenty of beer, but we always drank singing beer, not fighting beer, that’s a very important distinction. It doesn’t matter how much singing beer you have, but you don’t want any fighting beer.

And to end on a related quotation, here is Bob interviewed by Vic Smith in 1984, and printed in Musical Traditions No 3, Summer 1984

he was a very sort of worthy member of the family for drinking ale. It’s a tradition we’ve kept up just as eagerly and well, I think, as the singing. And he used to say, y’know, about beer, “Well cocky. A pint o’beer is enough for any man. Two’s too much and three ain’t half a-blooming-nough!”

Good ale thou art my darling, published by H. Such between 1863 and 1885; from Broadside Ballads Online.

Good ale thou art my darling, published by H. Such between 1863 and 1885; from Broadside Ballads Online.

O Good Ale

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