March 8, 2020

Maintenance work completed – all audio recordings should be playable again

As mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, this blog suffered from the increased security measures introduced by Google Chrome version 80 – the changes meant that almost none of the audio recordings were playable.

After a bit of deliberation, I moved all of the files (easy) and then set about updating all of the links (easy, but really time-consuming). I believe that I’ve completed that task now, and the recordings should be playable, whatever browser you use/

While updating these links on the blog, I’ve also tried to fix any other problems, particularly embedded images which were no longer displaying. In some cases this was simply because the source website had moved, or reorganised all of its content – it’s worth remembering that when this blog started in 2011, we were still excited by the results of the EFDSS’ Take Six project, and the Full English was still some years away. And the Bodleian broadside ballads collection has also moved to a much bigger, better site, Broadside Ballads Online (of which more anon). Meanwhile, the Copper Family website has had a makeover – it’s a very attractive site now, but the detailed information about the family’s songs, and songs collected by Bob Copper, is no longer part of the site. Never mind – in an all-too-frequent demonstration of its worth – the Internet Archive Wayback Machine comes to the rescue, by preserving snapshots of the old site at https://web.archive.org/web/20050715075735/http://www.thecopperfamily.com. Incidentally, if you find that useful, you may want to install the Wayback Machine Chrome extension.

In other cases missing images were being pulled in from a non-secure http site. Sometimes just changing http to https fixed this. But that only works if the site has a secure https address. And plenty of perfectly decent websites, looked after by enthusiasts (like me) rather than corporate bodies, don’t need and don’t want to pay for a security certificate. As a result I found, for example, that Chrome refuses to display the wonderful harvest home photos from http://www.bygonebodiam.co.uk/AssortedHarvestSupperPhotographs.html (so you’ll just have to follow the link to look at those).

And yet it does display embedded images from the Bodleian’s Broadside Ballads Online site, http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk. Curiously that site doesn’t seem to have an https address. That’s odd for a University site. And it’s also odd that Chrome still displays embedded images from this non-secure site. Maybe Google just thinks “oh the Bodleian – that’s bound to be OK”, which would be a perfectly reasonable bit of programming.

 

Anyway, if you do find any audio files that don’t play – or indeed any broken links on the site – please leave a comment on the relevant page, so I’m alerted and can try to fix it. Thank you!

 

February 25, 2020

Attention Google Chrome users

Update 8th March: see https://afolksongaweek.wordpress.com/2020/03/08/maintenance-work-completed-all-audio-recordings-should-be-playable-again/

If you are visiting this blog using the latest version of Google Chrome (version 80) then I’m afraid you’ll find that you can no longer play any of the embedded recordings.

That’s because Google have brought in added security controls which – unless you change your browser settings – prevent you from playing media files embedded from another website, if that other website is not a secure https site. At the moment the audio files displayed here actually reside on the Magpie Lane website, http://magpielane.co.uk. We’ve never thought it worthwhile to pay the extra cost to make our site https, as (unusually these days) we don’t use cookies, or collect any information from our website visitors. Our ‘Shop’ pages take you off to Paypal, which of course is a secure site, and our mailing list sign-up is handled by Mailchimp, again a secure site.

I actually knew this change was coming – and actually it’s a good thing for internet users – but unfortunately, because the Magpie Lane site doesn’t use cookies, I hadn’t cottoned onto the fact that it was going to make this site useless for a lot of visitors. Silly me.

I’m looking into the options for the audio files here. Whatever option I take, it’s going to involve editing the embed code on over 300 blog posts, so won’t be a quick process.

In the meantime, you can of course use Firefox or MS Edge to visit this site – the recordings should still play in those browsers.

And I think I may have found a way of addressing the issue. The audio below should play, even in the latest version of Chrome.

Country Life

(originally posted in Week 287 – Country Life)

February 8, 2020

Week 287 – Country Life

Side 1, Track 1 on the Watersons’ classic LP For pence and spicy ale. Released in 1975, I must have first heard it the following year when I bought an already secondhand copy from my schoolfriend Peter Carlton. Pete had bought it from another classmate, Richard Marks. I’m not sure what had prompted Richard to buy it – possibly John Peel had played some tracks from it on his Radio 1 show? Anyway, I was immediately hooked. It fitted in perfectly with my existing love of unaccompanied harmony singing, and my burgeoning interest in folk carols, songs of ceremony, seasonal songs etc. It also provided my singing partner Mike and I with another source of folk songs to rip off and add to our repertoire. At one time or another we must have sung half the songs on that album: ‘Bellman’. ‘Swarthfell Rocks’, ‘Malpas Wassail’, ‘Chickens in the garden’, the mighty ‘Good Old Way’ and, of course, ‘Country Life’ (and I was also prompted to learn ‘King Pharim’ as a result of hearing the Watersons sing it).

According to the liner notes on For pence and spicy ale the Watersons got the song from Mick Taylor, a sheepdog trainer of Hawes in Wensleydale. There’s a related, but different song, which shares the same Roud number, sung by Walter Pardon amongst others. As you’d expect, you can find more details, and links to follow up on the Mainly Norfolk website.

We were far from the only people on the folk scene to learn this song. If you’ve been to any kind of folk club or singing session over the last 45 years it would be very surprising if you hadn’t found yourself joining in the chorus of ‘Country Life’ at some point. Our only complaint was that the song was too short. So Mike remedied that by making up an extra verse.

It’s been a long time since Mike and I regularly sang together, and it’s not often I think to sing this song. The last time I sang it in public, I think, was at the 2016 Teignmouth Folk Festival, when Magpie Lane were on the same bill as local harmony trio The Claque, and we finished the show with a very pleasing massed rendition of ‘Country Life’ (well, very pleasing for us!). Not having a vocal harmony group to hand when I came to record this for the blog, I decided to make do with a simple concertina accompaniment.

Country Life

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

February 1, 2020

Week 286 – The Blacksmith Courted Me

I first heard ‘The Blacksmith’ via the starkly beautiful arrangement on Steeleye Span’s second album Please to see the King. That must have been the autumn of 1976. Over the next couple of years I heard several other versions: Steeleye Mark I’s rather less impressive arrangement on Hark the village wait; Andy Irvine’s reading of the song on Planxty; Shirley and Dolly Collins’ interpretation of the Phoebe Smith version, as part of their magnificent Anthems in Eden suite; and Barry Dransfield’s wonderful extemporisations on the Dransfield album The Fiddler’s Dream (as an aside, if you don’t know that record check it out now – possibly the best folk-rock album ever).

Steeleye and Planxty both did the version collected by Vaughan Williams in Herefordshire, as printed in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. That’s not a version I’ve ever sung in public, but it would have been hard not to have absorbed it in my formative years as a singer, and I posted it here back in 2015 as Week 214 – The Blacksmith.

In early 1979, thanks to Ashford public library and inter-library borrowing, I managed to get my hands on the 1963 Topic LP The Roving Journeymen featuring Tom Willett and his sons Chris and Ben. That record had a big influence on me. Over the next few years I learned over half of the songs on the album: ‘Riding Down to Portsmouth’‘The Roving Journeyman’‘The Rambling Sailor’‘My Dog and I’‘The Old Miser’‘The Game of All Fours’ and last, but certainly not least, ‘Lord Bateman’. I also really admired Tom Willett’s performance of ‘The Blacksmith Courted Me’ but somehow I never learned it. Partly, perhaps, because I viewed it as a song best sung by a woman; partly because Tom’s words were not quite, as you might say, ‘oven-ready’. Well last autumn I decided the time for procrastination was long past, and set about assembling a set of words to sing.

Tom Willett's version of 'The Blacksmith' as noted by Ken Stubbs in 1960, page 1

Tom Willett's version of 'The Blacksmith' as noted by Ken Stubbs in 1960, page 2

Tom Willett’s version of ‘The Blacksmith’ as noted by Ken Stubbs in 1960

 

I brought in lines from other versions to fill out Tom Willett’s three-line verses. Then I swapped a couple of lines around so that “clever” rhymed with “ever” and “beauty” rhymed with “duty”. And then I agonised for ages over the last couple of verses. I was determined to bring in “Oh witness have I none, save God Almighty” which, along with the “Strange news” lines earlier in the song I think of as one of the absolute glories of English traditional song lyrics. But I was equally determined not to omit Tom’s defiant last line

I shall never die for love, young man, believe me

In the end I added a whole extra verse, and turned the final stanza into a 6-line verse. And I think it works rather well. I am certainly enjoying singing the song, and when I make a visit to the Lewes Saturday Folk Club in April I think it’s pretty much certain that this will be on my setlist.

You can find recordings of Tom Willett singing this song in various places now. The Topic album The Roving Journeymen is available for download. There’s a Musical Traditions 2 CD set, Adieu to Old England, and a 2 CD release on Forest Tracks, A-Swinging Down The Lane, which (because Paul Marsh and Rod Stradling basically had the same brilliant idea at pretty much the same time) contains almost exactly the same recordings, made by Ken Stubbs in the early 1960s. Of the two I’d say the Forest Tracks album is marginally the better – apart from anything else the CD booklet contains the only photograph of Tom Willett you are ever likely to encounter. I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm for listening to field recordings of traditional singers, but if you do, A-Swinging Down The Lane is an essential purchase.

If you just want to dip your toes in the water, or if money is tight, you’ll now find Ken Stubbs’ field recordings available via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library archive catalogue.

Catalogue record https://www.vwml.org/record/RoudFS/S393817 includes the pages from Stubbs’ notebook shown above, and his 1960 recording of Tim Willett singing ‘The Blacksmith’.

There’s much more in this collection, given my particular interest in songs from Kent and the South of England, that I really must explore. Often recorded in noisy pubs, often mere fragments of a song or tune, but fascinating none the less – try this recording of an unidentified singer delivering just one verse (almost!) of ‘Hopping down in Kent’; if nothing else, you certainly get a sense of atmosphere.

The Blacksmith Courted Me

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