Archive for October, 2012

October 28, 2012

Week 62 – Creeping Jane

I first heard this sung by Martin Carthy on the LP But Two Came By. It’s a fine version, but I’m sure Martin would be the first to agree that the definitive recording of the song is that made of a seventy five year old Lincolnshire farm bailiff in 1908.

Joseph Taylor - photo from Musical Traditions

Joseph Taylor – photo from Musical Traditions

That singer of course was Joseph Taylor of Saxby All Saints, from whom the Australian composer Percy Grainger recorded a number of fine, beautifully-sung pieces on an Edison cylinder machine – although in this case the recording was made at a specially-arranged London session for the Gramophone Company.

Grainger’s recordings were made available in the 1970s on Unto Brigg Fair, a lavishly-produced Leader LP. Long unavailable of course, but several recordings of Joseph Taylor were included on Topic’s Voice of the People series. ‘Creeping Jane’ can be found on Volume 8 A Story I’m Just About to Tell, and if you’ve never heard Joseph Taylor’s singing, I really can’t recommend it too highly.

Rod Stradling, in reviewing that particular CD, wrote

Beyond the technological miracle which allows us to hear Joseph Taylor with such clarity some ninety years after he was recorded, is the joy of being able to hear such a consummate performer at all.  He’s just breathtaking

Creeping Jane

October 22, 2012

Week 61 – John Barleycorn

‘John Barleycorn’ was one of the first traditional songs I ever heard. That was the Steeleye version, which I soon discovered was pretty much the same as that printed in Fred Hamer’s Garners Gay. Like pretty much everything on Below the Salt, I learned that version at the time; and I’m pretty sure it was for a while in the repertoire of a group I sang with at University, The Paralytics aka Three Agnostics and a Christian.

In more recent times, I have recorded two different versions with Magpie Lane. First, on The Oxford Ramble Ian Giles and I sang the classic Shepherd Haden version. Then on A Taste of Ale I sang a version collected by Gwilym Davies in the 1970s. The Oxfordshire version should appear on this blog at some point, since it is, notionally at least, still in my repertoire. But the Devon version, like much of the material on A Taste of Ale, was worked up for the CD, then forgotten about (I can’t actually recall the tune right now).

If I was starting from scratch, and looking for a ‘John Barleycorn’ version to sing, I might well be tempted by the rather nice minor key version (another from Bampton-in-the-Bush) printed in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. But here’s a version which I recorded on a demo tape with Chris Wood, circa 1985. This came from Peter Kennedy’s Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. Kennedy collected the song from Bert Edwards of Little Stretton, Shropshire, and it’s similar to the way another Shropshire singer, Fred Jordan, used to sing the song.

The notes to this song in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs say

It was perhaps inevitable that this song would attract the ritual-origins theorists  who claimed that it was all to do with corn spirits and resurrection, but it is now generally agreed that such notions were romantic wishful thinking and there is no evidence either for the theories themselves or for this song to be anything other than a clever allegory.

If we stick to what we do know…

Well if you want to know what we do know, you’ll have to buy the book. Even if you never learn any of the songs, it’s worth every penny for Steve Roud’s excellent well-informed and thoroughly commonsensical introduction.

John Barleycorn

Andy Turner: vocals, anglo-concertina

Chris Wood: fiddle, vocals

Recorded 1985 (?) by Bernard Brown

October 13, 2012

Week 60 – The Rambling Blade

Only the second song I’ve posted so far from my favourite traditional singer, Walter Pardon – but this was his favourite song.

I first saw Walter sing in 1980, at the first Downs Festival of Traditional Singing, held that year in Newbury. I’d already heard the two LPs of Walter’s songs which were then available on the Leader label, A Proper Sort and Our Side of the Baulk, and it was clear from those recordings that he was a very fine singer. But what really appealed to me when I saw him was the unshowy way in which he sang his songs. In particular, I remember a singaround with everyone sitting in a circle, and each singing a song in turn. When it was Walter’s turn he stood up, launched straight into his song without any preamble, and sat down almost before the last note had died away. A quiet, private, unassuming man (from what I can tell – I never knew him), he demonstrated that you could sing in an undemonstrative way, without any overt display of emotion, and yet put a song across in a totally effective and engaging way.

Walter Pardon - photograph by John Howson, from

Walter Pardon – photograph by John Howson, from

I saw him twice more, I think. Once at a Library lecture in Cecil Sharp House when, having battled with the Friday night traffic coming up from Kent, we actually only got to see him sing a handful of songs – but one of those was ’The Rambling Blade’, and I distinctly remember him saying this was his favourite song. And then Carol and I went to see him at the Herga folk club in the summer of 1988 (I remember the date because it was just a couple of weeks after we’d got married). Our car was in danger of breaking down, I seem to remember, but I’m really glad we made the trip and got to hear him singing over the course of a full evening.

This song, of course, turns up in many guises – ‘Newlyn Town’, ‘The Flash Lad’, ‘Adieu, Adieu’ etc. etc. But there’s a particularly fine period feel to Walter’s version, with its references to “Ned Fielding” (the novelist Henry Fielding founded the Bow Street Runners in 1749, and his blind younger half-brother John is credited with turning them into London’s first effective police force).

This song appears on the Leader LP A Proper Sort (long unavailable of course, like everything else from the Leader / Trailer catalogue) and was also included on the excellent Topic CD A World Without Horses.

The Rambling Blade

October 8, 2012

Week 59 – Blow the candle out

Blow the candle out, early 19th century, from the Bodleian Library collection

Blow the candle out, early 19th century, from the Bodleian Library collection

I first heard this about 35 years ago, on the LP Songs of Seduction in the Topic / Caedmon series The Folk Songs of Britain, where it is sung  in a beautifully easy, lyrical style by Belfast tinker Jimmy Gilhaney (although the song was in fact recorded by Peter Kennedy in 1955, not in Belfast but  in the Orkney Isles). When I bought the expanded CD reissue of Songs of Seduction, I was really struck by Gilhaney’s performance of this song, and wondered why I hadn’t ever thought of learning it. That omission was soon rectified.

Initially I planned to incorporate additional verses, either from a broadside or from the somewhat fuller version collected in Suffolk from Jumbo Brightwell. But I soon decided that Jimmy Gilhaney’s five verses stood perfectly well on their own.

It occurs to me that now Topic own the rights to the Kennedy archive, they have the makings of a really good addition to the Voice of the People series, in the shape of Kennedy’s recordings of Irish travellers – Jimmy Gilhaney, Mary Doran, Lal Smith, Thomas Moran et al.

Blow the candle out