December 26, 2019

On the Feast of Stephen

Happy St Stephen’s Day, everyone. Here’s a trio of songs showing three different aspects of the day.

Saint Stephen

A song about the man himself, detailing the death of the first Christian martyr. Or, as I used to put it, a song about a man who gets stoned on Boxing Day.

Here’s the version on the Magpie Lane album Wassail.

For more information, and an alternative arrangement, see https://afolksongaweek.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/week-121-saint-stephen-rejoice-and-be-merry/

The Wren Boys’ Song

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze

In Ireland the custom – widespread throughout the British Isles – of hunting and then processing with a wren on 26th December was carried out by the Wren Boys.

St Stephen's Day, Wren Boys : Three wren boys in road, Athea, Co. Limerick. Image copyright University College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Dublin.

St Stephen’s Day, Wren Boys : Three wren boys in road, Athea, Co. Limerick. Image copyright University College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Dublin.

Here’s Ian Giles leading a typical Wren Boys’ Song he learned from Tony Barrand.
From Magpie Lane, Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell. Further information.

Boxing Day

Finally, here’s an account of goings on among London tradesmen in the 1820s. For more information, see https://afolksongaweek.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/week-227-boxing-day/

 

December 24, 2019

Another Festival of Nine Carols and No Lessons

Three years ago I put together and here’s another one. This time, rather than presenting songs which have already been posted to the blog, I’ve prepared a Spotify playlist of tracks I’ve been involved with, both as a member of Magpie Lane and as guest vocalist with the Mellstock Band. I’ve actually sung on three Mellstock CDs but only the first, Under The Greenwood Tree, appears to be on Spotify. You can still buy that album at Amazon (so hopefully also via retailers who do pay their taxes). Any of the Magpie Lane CDs featured here are available from the band website.

 

 

Here are brief details of the nine carols, and the instrumental intro and outro.

  1. Magpie Lane
    Magpie Lane, from The Oxford Ramble.
    Noted down by John Baptist Malchair in December 1789: ‘I heard a Man whistle this Tune in Magpey Lane Oxon Dbr. 22 1789. came home and noted it down directly’
    More information
  2. Arise and Hail the Joyful Day
    The Mellstock Band and Choir, from Under The Greenwood Tree
  3. Gabriel’s Message
    Magpie Lane, from The 25th.
    Lead vocal: Sophie Thurman
    More information
  4. As Shepherds watched their fleecy care
    Magpie Lane, from The 25th.
    Lead vocal: Andy Turner
    More information, plus a live recording
  5. Nowell Nowell
    Magpie Lane, from Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell.
    Lead vocal: Ian Giles
    Bagpipes: Giles Lewin
    More information
  6. Arise and Hail the Sacred Day
    The Mellstock Band and Choir, from Under The Greenwood Tree
    Vocals: Andy Turner and Keith Dandridge
  7. Lo the eastern Sages Rise
    Magpie Lane, from Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell.
    More information, plus a live recording
  8. In Winter Time
    Magpie Lane, from The 25th.
    Vocal: Jon Fletcher
    More information
  9. The Boar’s Head Carol
    Magpie Lane, from The Oxford Ramble.
    Lead vocal: Tom Bower
    More information, plus a live recording, and all sorts of other stuff
  10. Rejoice this Glorious Day is Come
    The Mellstock Band and Choir, from Under The Greenwood Tree
  11. Winter / Christmas Day in the Mornin’
    Magpie Lane, from Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell.
    Bagpipes: Giles Lewin
    More information
December 14, 2019

Week 285 – Shepherds Rejoice

In my previous post, I recounted how a bunch of us used to go out “wassailing” round the more salubrious parts of Ashford, and the distinctly well-heeled area between Saltwood and Sandling Station. As Mike, my chief partner-in-crime, commented last week

Big houses with appreciative, generous occupants. I remember gluhwein and mince pies, and even having the impression on subsequent years that some of our hosts had been expecting us and even looking forward to our arrival.

That’s exactly how I remember it too. It probably helped that we were collecting for charity rather than to line our own pockets. But also, compared to the usual brief, tuneless renditions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ which even then were becoming standard fare, we were a pretty good deal. We were mostly singing carols the people had never heard before. We sang them loudly, in harmony, and we sang them all the way through. Mind you that wasn’t always an advantage. I remember one poor gent, who invariably greeted us kindly, patiently waiting while we ground our way through all three verses of our favourite, ‘Shepherds Arise’, and then told us “Well I always enjoy your singing, but I have to say I thought that was dull as ditchwater!”. We were somewhat taken aback by this, but tried to repair matters by singing something rather livelier as an encore.

Other incidents that have stuck in the memory include the youngish man – drunk, or perhaps stoned – who came to the door in his dressing gown and informed us that he was the most entertaining guy we’d meet all night. And the dog with its head in a bucket, who its female owner (a magistrate as I recall) had in consequence taken to calling “Bucket”. Also, some years later (long after your time, Mike) we went singing round Faversham and were invited in by an Irish guy who worked as a buyer for Sainsburys, and had just been given a case of Jamesons – which he proceeded to dispense to us in very generous measures.

And then, of course, there was the house where we were presented with a copy of The Sacred Harp. From October 1979 Mike and I were regulars at the Heritage Society, the Oxford University folk club. We soon became friends with Dick Wolff, a mining engineer who was taking a Theology degree in preparation for becoming a United Reformed Church minister, and Dougal Lee, who I guess was doing English Lit, but whose chief ambition (subsequently realised) was to become an actor. One Monday night after we’d been chucked out of the Bakers’ Arms in Jericho, we went back to Dick’s house in Leckford Road, and there he produced a copy of The Sacred Harp. Now I was aware of Sacred Harp hymns from recordings by the Watersons and the Young Tradition, and from having seen Crows sing ‘Northfield’. But I’d never seen the book before, with its funny shapes, and literally hundreds of songs in four-part harmony just waiting to be sung. Well, we sung them: ‘Russia’, ‘Wondrous Love’, ‘Idumea’, ‘Morning Trumpet’, ‘Northfield’… eventually stopping at 1 o’clock in the morning, when Dick’s neighbours started banging on the walls. We were hooked, and sang together regularly after that (we never had a proper band name, but tended to refer to ourselves either as The Paralytics, or Three Agnostics and a Christian).

That Christmas, Mike and I introduced a couple of Sacred Harp numbers into our wassailing repertoire. So having been invited in to one house, and given sherry and mince pies, we must have sung one of those pieces, and explained where the song came from. Whereupon the man of the house said that he travelled regularly to the States on business and would see if he could find us a copy. One year later, back we went, and were delighted to find that he had been as good as his word, and we were now the owners of a 1968 facsimile of The Sacred Harp, 3rd edition, of 1859.

‘Shepherds Rejoice’ is number 288 in that edition, and it’s presented – as many pieces were in the early editions – in just three parts. The music is attributed to L.P. Breedlove, 1850. That’s Leonard P. Breedlove (1803-1864 according to this source). The song was first published in 1855 in McCurry’s The Social Harp. It’s number 152 in the modern Sacred Harp, where it’s gained an alto part having been “Rearranged by B.S.Aitken, 1908” but lost one of the four original verses. Well, strictly speaking it’s lost two of the original six verses – you’ll see what I mean if you visit https://hymnary.org/text/shepherds_rejoice_lift_up_your_eyes. The words were written by the great English hymnodist, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and originally published as ‘The Nativity of Christ’ in Horae Lyricae, 1706.

You can hear a four-part rendition of the piece as it appears in the modern Sacred Harp at https://soundcloud.com/keillor-weatherman-mose/shepherds-rejoice-cmd-152-sacred-harp

I don’t know if the tune was originally a folk tune, harmonised by Breedlove, or if he just wrote a tune which sounded very much like something that could have come from the tradition. Either way, I’ve always felt that this would go rather nicely with 5-string banjo and fiddle. But failing that, I now realise an anglo-concertina is a perfectly acceptable substitute!

Shepherds rejoice

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

December 8, 2019

Week 284 – Down in Yon Forest

I was an enthusiastic singer long before I discovered folk music. At primary school I looked forward eagerly to the weekly broadcast of Singing Together, and I very much enjoyed hymn singing in the school hall (‘He who would true valour see’ and ‘When a knight won his spurs’ were particular favourites). At secondary school I sang in the choir as treble, alto and then tenor, and especially enjoyed the Christmas carol service. Our repertoire was drawn largely from Carols for Choirs, but the school also owned a set of The Oxford Book of Carols, and we’d sometimes perform songs from that – I was particularly taken with ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ and I’ve a feeling we once sang ‘A Gallery Carol’.

By December 1976 my obsession with folk music was a year old. In the intervening year I had listened to whatever English, Irish and Scottish folk LPs I could get my hands on. These included Steeleye’s Please to see the King, For pence and spicy ale and Frost and Fire by the Watersons, and the single LP selection drawn from the Copper Family A Song for every season box set. Thus I was very much aware of the existence of seasonal songs, wassails and folk carols. And because of this, I viewed the pages of The Oxford Book of Carols in a completely new light. Here were Wassail songs (including the ‘Somerset Wassail’ which would be recorded the following year by the Albion Dance Band. Here were ‘King Herod and the cock’ and ’Down in yon forest’, which I’d heard on Frost and Fire. And here was the Watersons’ ‘King Pharim’– with details of where and when it had been collected and, in the footnotes, the full text as originally noted down from the travelling Goby family. Moreover, I now realised that some quite well-known carols – the ‘Sussex Carol’ for instance – actually had their origins in the folk tradition. Subsequently the book provided easy access to the words of ‘Saint Stephen’ and the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’ which I’d heard on record and wanted to learn.

That year my friend Mike and I went out “wassailing” (no mere carol-singers we!). It’s a long time ago of course, but I imagine our repertoire that first year was probably something like this

and, always my favourite

  • ‘Shepherds Arise’

In subsequent years our numbers grew. I have a vague recollection that on one occasion there was quite a gang of people we knew from school, but our friends Alison and Gill were key members of the wassailing party then, and for several years to come. The girls used to complain that ‘Down in yon forest’ should be sung sensitively, while Mike and I were belting out the harmonies with the same lack of refinement we brought to the other, more forthright carols. They were probably right – and I’m quite sure I’d get a hard stare from Sophie if I sang the refrain in an inappropriately boisterous manner these days at our Magpie Lane Christmas shows.

We’ve actually recorded the song twice now with Magpie Lane. The first time on Wassail, where it was sung by Joanne Acty, with Pete Acty on guitar, Di Whitehead playing one of Tom Bower’s wonderfully evocative minor key cello parts (that album is chock full of them), and Tom himself on harmonium. There was talk of having a bowed psaltery too, but thankfully wiser counsels prevailed.

None of these people being in the band any more, we revisited the song on our most recent release, The 25th. This time it’s sung by Sophie Thurman, with Jon Fletcher on guitar, and Jon, Ian and myself providing harmonies.

Until this year I’d never thought of trying the song on my own, with a concertina accompaniment. Well it seems to work pretty well, although I had to concentrate really hard on enunciating the initial L in “I love my Lord Jesus” – in early attempts to record the song I seemed to be slurring “I love” as if I were drunk (I wasn’t, probably just concentrating too hard on getting the accompaniment right).

So, what of the song? I hear you ask. Well, when A.L.Lloyd recorded it in 1956 the sleevenotes, by Kenneth A. Goldstein, said

It its earliest known form, the ballad appeared in a 15th century manuscript into which it had probably been copied from the singing of contemporary carol singers. The first version reported from tradition was taken down from the singing of a young boy in North Staffordshire, England, before 1862
(see Notes and Queries, third series, II, 103).

Anne Gilchrist (in JFSS, IV, pp. 52-56) interpreted this ballad in terms of the Holy Grail legend. Christ’s blood was collected in the Grail by Joseph of Arimathea, and was borne to Avalon for safe- keeping and sanctification. The hall in the forest is the castle of the Grail, the bleeding knight is Jesus, the hound licking the blood may be Joseph (or possibly the Church), and the thorn mentioned in the last stanza is the Thorn of Glastonbury which blossoms once a year (on old Christmas Day) in honour of Jesus’ birth.

Quoted at https://mainlynorfolk.info/lloyd/songs/downinyonforest.html

Other theories are available, and I won’t trouble you with them here.

Malcom Douglas had this to say at Folkinfo.org:

Anne Gilchrist quoted the 16th century text along with that from Notes and Queries in the Journal, together with a very detailed discussion of the imagery, linking the song with the Troubadour tradition and suggesting connections with the Grail myth and Mithraic  tradition. This was backed up by G. R. S. Mead. This tentative analysis has tended, subsequently, to be assumed as received wisdom; but should probably be treated with great caution.

 

What we do know is that the song was collected in 1908 by Ivor Gatty and Ralph Vaughan Williams from a Mr J. Hall of Castleton, Derbyshire. See the VWML archive for copies of this, and other versions noted by the early folk song collectors.

Down In Yon Forest, as noted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1908

Down In Yon Forest, as noted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1908

Peter Kennedy recorded a brief rendition of ‘Down in Yon Forest’ from Mr Hall’s daughter Elizabeth in May 1957 – you can hear her talking about this and other Castleton carols on the British Library Sounds website.

Today the carol has been reintroduced to the Castleton carol-singing tradition. There’s a recording of it, with Fay Sexton taking the  solo lines, on the double CD The Theme, the Song, the Joy: A Feast of Village Carols.

 

Finally, to return to The Oxford Book of Carols. I liked that book so much, and found it so useful, that I asked our music teacher Mr Fehr if I might borrow the copy I’d been using at the school carol service. He was a kindly soul, always supportive of boys’ musical enthusiasms, even those (rock music, and to a lesser extent folk music) in which he personally found no merit. So of course he said I could borrow the book. And I suspect he might have done so even if he’d been fully aware that a couple of years later I would leave school without the slightest intention of returning my cherished red-bound copy of The Oxford Book of Carols, first published 1928, twenty-third impression 1956. It’s still a cherished possession – after all, much as I admire the New Oxford Book of Carols, there are plenty of interesting items, this one included, which were left out of the new version. So RIP James Fehr, you were a gent.

 

Down in Yon Forest

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

September 29, 2019

Charlie Bridger – Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?

I’ve posted several songs here which I learned from Charlie Bridger, from Stone-in-Oxney in Kent:

I recorded Charlie singing, and talking about both his working life and his involvement with music, back in April 1983. Around last Christmas-time Rod Stradling, editor of Musical Traditions, got in touch to say that he’d like to put these recordings out on a CD. I’d always intended to write up what I knew about Charlie – indeed I’d promised to do so for Keith Summers, the previous editor of Musical Traditions, when it was still a printed magazine. Having failed to publish anything in the intervening years, I’d decided it could wait till my retirement. But this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. George Frampton, who had never met Charlie, but interviewed his widow Lily, and various other people who knew him, very generously sent me all of his notes, and copies of a number of photos. And I set about pulling together the information, and then writing up booklet notes for the CD.

Charlie Bridger, Won't you Buy my Pretty Flowers?, CD cover.Charlie Bridger, Won’t you buy my pretty flowers? (MTCD377) came out in July. It’s available for £12 from Musical Traditions records. The CD contains 29 tracks – all but 2 of the songs I recorded from Charlie, plus one track of him playing the clarinet. Here’s the tracklist, and you can also read the 28 page booklet on the MT site.

It’s had a couple of really nice reviews. And I’m particularly chuffed by the fact that these reviews were written by two people I admire greatly, song collector Mike Yates and former EFDSS librarian Malcolm Taylor.

I’m mentioning all of this now, because next weekend (5th-6th October) I’ll be at the Tenterden Folk Festival. I’ll be singing a number of the Kentish songs in my repertoire, and on the Sunday afternoon I’m giving a talk about Charlie Bridger. Vic and Tina Smith have kindly agreed to be on hand with their laptop, speaker and projector, so this will be an illustrated presentation; and it will include some recordings of Charlie singing, and clips of him talking – about farmwork, stonebreaking, tanner hops, busking, and the places where country people sang, some 80 or 90 years ago.

Here’s a sample, from the recording I made when I interviewed Charlie and Lily on 2nd July 1988. This is Charlie talking about smoking concerts.

 

Please note: this excerpt is from a copy of my original cassette recording. The songs included on the CD have all been professionally cleaned up to remove hiss and hum and so forth, so are of a much higher audio quality than this.

June 1, 2019

Week 283 – The Gipsey’s Song

This is a poem by John Clare (1793–1864), written around 1825, which I discovered and furnished with a tune back in about 1984. Unlike much of Clare’s poetry, it’s written very much in the style of a contemporary broadside ballad, and demands to be sung rather than read. And, unlike The Crow sat on the Willow, which I’ve never made a serious effort to learn, I used to sing this with Chris Wood back in the 1980s, and it’s recently entered the Magpie Lane repertoire.

John Clare by William Hilton, 1820, from Wikimedia

John Clare by William Hilton, 1820, from Wikimedia

Unlike other Romantic poets, Clare was not so far removed from gypsies in terms of social status, and he knew gypsies first-hand.

In The tie that binds: Gypsies, John Clare and English folk culture, Kristine Douaud writes that Clare

found their encampments a natural and civilising component of the landscape, and saw their seasonal occupations as part of rural life. Further, he recognised the Gypsies as transmitters of collective memory through their oral culture; related to this, and of the utmost importance, is the role the Gypsies’ music played in traditional life.

She continues

Gypsy dances and music form the predominant theme of many of Clare’s journal entries and autobiographical writings during this period; music is clearly a main connecting thread between Clare and the Gypsies. In a long autobiographical fragment (‘[Gipseys]’), Clare explains that his acquaintances with the gypsies were made at local ‘feasts and merry making’ (AW 1983: 69). His first contact was with ‘the Boswells Crew as they were calld[;] a popular tribe well known about here and famous for fidd[l]ers and fortunetellers’ (AW 1983: 69). As a young man, Clare ‘often assos[i]ated with them at their camps to learn the fiddle of which [he] was very fond’ (AW 1983: 69).

Kristine Douaud, The tie that binds: Gypsies, John Clare and English folk culture, Romani Studies Vol. 18, Issue 1, (June 2008), pp1-38.

AW= Anne Williams, Clare’s ‘Gypsies’, Explicator Vol. 39, Issue 3, (Spring 1981), pp9-11

It was apparently John Grey, who was married to Tyso Boswell’s daughter Sophia, who taught Clare the fiddle. Thereafter he could frequently be found exchanging tunes with gypsies who camped nearby

the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encam[p]d near the town and as I began to be a desent scraper [i.e. good fiddler] we had a desent round of merriment

Clearly in this poem Clare has romanticised the gypsy lifetstyle – did they really blithely dance barefoot through winter’s cold? I doubt it. But it’s a good song nonetheless. And one only has to look at “I’m a Romany Rai” for an example of a song written by non-gypsies, very much romanticising the gypsy life, yet taken up enthusiastically by travellers and, in the hands of a singer like Phoebe Smith, a musical and emotional tour de force.

Because this is a poem, by a proper poet, one feels a certain pressure to sing the words as the author intended. But, while not deliberately altering Clare’s words, in re-learning this song after 30 years I’ve actually treated it like any other song, and may well have departed in places from the original. To make up for this, I’ve retained Clare’s spelling of the poem’s title.

 

The Gipsey’s Song

April 19, 2019

Week 282 – Seamen Bold

There’s a very well-known version of this song – usually known as ‘The Ship in Distress’ – set to a suitably dramatic minor key tune. The fine tune came from a Mr Harwood, of Watersfield near Pulborough, and was one of four versions collected in Sussex by George Butterworth. It’s in the The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and Martin Carthy recorded it, with a typically atmospheric fiddle accompaniment from Dave Swarbrick, on the LP But Two Came By. I was familiar with both of those sources, I think, by my late teens. So when I came across another Sussex version (the song never seems to have been collected in any other county) in Bob Copper’s book A Song for Every Season, I was intrigued by the fact that this macabre tale was set to quite a jaunty major key tune – it’s pretty much exactly the same as the “normal” tune, but transposed from minor to major. Since noone else seemed to be singing this version I determined to learn it myself. And, some 40 years later, it’s finally happened.

You can hear Bob Copper singing ‘Seamen Bold’ on the Leader box set, A Song for Every Season (assuming you’re lucky enough to have access to this long deleted classic). He revisited the song  in 1998 on the CD Coppersongs 3, which is one of the few Copper Family recordings I don’t seem to have in my collection. More recently, an older recording became available on the Topic 3-CD set Good People, Take Warning – sung by Bob’s father Jim Copper in 1951.

 

Seamen Bold, noted from Jim Copper by Francis Collinson. From the VWML Archive.

Seamen Bold, noted from Jim Copper by Francis Collinson. From the VWML Archive.

If you’re interested in learning more about songs of cannibalism (or cannibalism narrowly averted) in the tradition, check out Paul Cowdell’s article Cannibal Ballads: Not Just a Question of Taste in the Folk Music Journal Vol. 9, No. 5 (2010).

 

Seamen Bold

April 5, 2019

Week 281 – King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O

In my previous post I related how, around 35 years ago, I discovered Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in Newcastle Poly library. Now there are certain tracks on those 6 LPs which I consider to be as fine as anything ever committed to shellac, vinyl, or whatever it is they make CDs out of. I’m thinking especially of Buell Kazee’s ‘Butcher’s Boy’, Dock Boggs’ ‘Country Blues’, and Clarence Ashley’s ‘House Carpenter’. I’ve never learned any of those. In fact I think I’ve only ever learned three songs from the whole Anthology, and I’ve not posted any of them here till now.

This song doesn’t reach classic status, but it stuck in my mind and, like Old John Braddalum, I made a point of learning it when I became a parent. Both were a staple part of the Turner family singalong repertoire on long car journeys, so it’s very pleasing that Joe is now able to provide the banjo accompaniment the song really needs.

The version on the Anthology was recorded by Chubby Parker for Columbia Records in New York, August 1928. Parker was a hugely popular entertainer on the National Barn Dance radio show, broadcast on Chicago radio station WLS, between 1925 and 1931.

Chubby Parker - from the My Old Weird America blog.

Chubby Parker – from the My Old Weird America blog.

The song itself dates back to Elizabethan time. According to Wikipedia

Its first known appearance is in Wedderburn’s Complaynt of Scotland (1548) under the name “The Frog cam to the Myl dur”, though this is in Scots rather than English. There is a reference in the London Company of Stationers’ Register of 1580 to “A Moste Strange Weddinge of the Frogge and the Mouse.” There are many texts of the ballad; however the oldest known musical version is in Thomas Ravenscroft‘s Melismata in 1611.

 

 

The Marriage of the Frogge and the Mouse, from Thomas Ravenscroft's Melismata (1611)

The Marriage of the Frogge and the Mouse, from Thomas Ravenscroft’s Melismata (1611)

There are several nineteenth century broadside printings of ‘The frog in the cock’d hat’ in the Bodleian Broadside collection, and numerous versions have been collected from oral tradition in Britain and North America.

 

King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O

Andy Turner – vocal
Joe Turner – 5-string banjo, vocal

March 25, 2019

Week 280 – I saw the light

As a teenager – based on very little exposure to either genre – I had no time for Reggae or Country music. By the time I left university, however, I’d become a Reggae fan. This conversion was largely thanks to my friends Mike Eaton and Chris Taylor, and to certain specific records: Bob Marley and the Wailers ‘Lively up yourself’ (the Live at the Lyceum version), Desmond Dekker ‘The Israelites’, Capital Letters ‘Smoking my Ganja’ and, above all, Chris’ white-label 12 inch of ‘Give me’ by Earth and Fire.

Country music had to wait a little longer. Up until about 1983, if you’d asked me if I liked country music my answer would probably have been “No – of course not”. But slowly I came to realise that the folk = good / country = bad dichotomy was really not sustainable, particularly as in American music the line between folk and country was in no way clearly defined. I discovered Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in the Newcastle Polytechnic library in 1983 or 84. One of the 6 discs was missing, and at least one of the remaining sides was so scratched as to be unplayable. But what I could listen to provided a wonderful introduction to the variety and interconnectedness of American vernacular music: the Carter Family (folk or country?), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Buell Kazee, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Charlie Patton, and Henry Thomas, to name just a few.

Listening to John Peel and Radio 1 new boy Andy Kershaw also helped to open my ears. Peel was playing a lot of “cowpoke” bands such as the Boothill Foot-tappers (whose ‘Get your feet out of my shoes’ remains a perennial favourite) while much of what Kershaw played wasn’t folk, but was clearly influenced to some degree by American roots music.

It was a review by Maggie Holland that prompted me to seek out and listen to some Hank Williams. At least, that’s what I thought, but a little while ago I did some digging around on the fRoots website, and in my back copies of Southern RagFolk RootsfRoots, and it seems that the way I remember it is not how it actually happened. But what one remembers is often more important than what really happened…

My recollection is that Maggie reviewed this cheap and cheerful Hank Williams compilation, in Southern Rag or Folk Roots, along with a similar release featuring either Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter Family. And that the review started along these lines: “Many people say they don’t like Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers, yet they’ve never listened to either of them”. I’d never specifically dissed either performer, but in all other particulars this described me, and I determined to do something about it.

Having now looked at the fRoots reviews indexes, I see that this particular album has never been reviewed in the magazine. Although a different Hank LP was reviewed in FR30. And compilations by both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were reviewed in SR22. I suspect I may have conflated the two reviews. I’ve just read the one from SR22 – yes it was written by Maggie Holland – and it says something not entirely dissimilar to what I remembered. Annoyingly I can’t find the first couple of dozen Folk Roots – they must be in an as yet undiscovered box in the garage – so I can’t check the Hank Williams review.

Anyway, from the summer of 1984 I was working for Kent County Libraries – at an exciting time when the holdings of all the county’s major libraries were searchable via the new computerised catalogue. This enabled me to sit at my desk pretending to work, while seeking out and ordering up records from all over the county. I think I’d already checked out and really enjoyed Emmylou Harris’ LP Pieces of the Sky (I remembered the final track, ‘Queen of the Silver Dollar’ from my Radio Caroline listening days). But it was Hank that made the greatest impression. It was curiously familiar, yet at the same time like nothing I’d ever heard before. I suppose the Anthology of American Folk Music had started to accustom me to those desperate emotional voices of “the old weird America” and Hank’s singing was in a direct line from those earlier singers. Incredible to think that one man carried so much pain, and brought happiness to so many, in such a short life.

This song, first recorded in 1948, is an original Hank composition, but it fits seamlessly into the American country/folk gospel tradition.

Hank Williams publicity photo for WSM in 1951. From Wikipedia.

Hank Williams publicity photo for WSM in 1951. From Wikipedia.

Joe and I recorded it at the end of a rehearsal last night. We were practising for a performance this coming Friday at Eclectic Cabaret, at Wootton near Oxford. It’s a free gig featuring, as the name suggests, performers from a variety of acoustic-ish musical styles. These days Joe can most often be found playing at Oxford’s various rock venues, with bands such as Junk Whale and Worry. However, of my three children, Joe is also the only one who spent their first wage packet on an old-timey 5-string banjo.

 

I saw the light

Andy Turner – vocal
Joe Turner – 5-string banjo, vocal

March 17, 2019

Week 279 – You Roving Lads of Pleasure

By the time I became interested in folk music, Planxty had already disbanded. As related in , it was a school friend Pete Carlton who first introduced me to the band and, of course, I thought they were wonderful. It was thus with great delight that I discovered from an advert in Melody Maker that Planxty were playing a comeback gig at the Hammersmith Odeon on Easter Sunday 1979. Alan Greenwood, one of the Oyster Morris musicians, gave a lift to me and Dixie Fletcher, organiser of the Duke’s Folk club in Whitstable.

I must admit, I don’t specifically remember them playing ‘Rambling Boys of Pleasure’ that night, but I’m pretty sure they would have done – it was probably the same setlist as captured on the recently released (and highly recommended) One Night In Bremen, recorded a bit later on the same tour. The song first grabbed my attention on the new LP After the break recorded at the end of the tour, and released later the same year. For me, this was the stand-out track, and I can’t really explain why I never got round to learning it. But maybe that was as well, as it left me open to explore other versions of the song. Some 10 or 15 years ago, leafing through the bound volumes of Cecil Sharp’s Folk Tunes in the Vaughan William memorial Library, I came across a song called ‘The Rambling Beauty’. Looking up other versions in the catalogue led me to Frank Purslow’s book The Foggy Dew (now included along with Purslow’s The Constant Lovers in the excellent Southern Harvest). And then I noticed, on the next page a version of this song collected by George Gardiner from David Marlow at Basingstoke, and I took a photocopy to add to my big pile of songs I probably should do something with one day.

Last year when I finally sat down to piece together a version to learn, I decided to base it, not on David Marlow’s version but on this version collected by Cecil Sharp from William Stokes, at Chew Stoke, Somerset on 11 Jan 1907.

Ye roving lads of pleasure, collected from William Stokes. From the VWML archive.

Ye roving lads of pleasure, collected from William Stokes. From the VWML archive.

I’ve collated the words from these two sources, with the broadside version shown below. This was printed by G. Jacques, Oldham Road Library, Manchester, and can be found on the Bodelian’s Broadside Ballads Online website.

 

The rambling boys of pleasure, from Broadside Ballads Online.

The rambling boys of pleasure, from Broadside Ballads Online.

Note that on this broadside version it’s “Down by yon valley gardens”. On some others it’s “down by Sally’s Gardens”, and earlier printings don’t have that verse at all. Steve Gardham’s notes to the song in Southern Harvest suggest it started as two entirely separate songs, which were combined in Northern English printings at some time before 1850. You can check out all of the versions in the Bodlein’s online collection at http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/search/roud/386.

You Roving Lads of Pleasure