It is very nearly exactly 30 years since I first met Charlie Bridger, a fine singer from Stone-in-Oxney in Kent, and it’s high time some of his songs appeared on this blog. As reported in an earlier entry my interest in locally-collected songs was first piqued by finding a version of ‘Blow away the morning dew’ from Warehorne in Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring when I was eighteen. Over the next few years I got to hear travellers with a Kentish connection like the Willett Family, as well as singers recorded by Mike Yates such as Jack Goodban from St Margarets-at-Cliffe and George Spicer, who was born and raised in Kent, and had learned many of his songs in the county. At some point I paid a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and consulted their list of traditional singers from Kent – although in those pre-computerised days, there weren’t actually many names on it (nowhere near as many as you’d find on a comparable list today).
However I did make copies of the songs Cecil Sharp collected from singers such as James Beale, James Barling and Clarke Lonkhurst in the Warehorne area on a rare visit to Kent in 1908 and I added some of those to my repertoire. I also knew that Peter Kennedy had collected songs from another Beale – Albert Beale – at Kenardington (next door to Warehorne) in 1953. Having left University I was working for a year in the public library in my home town of Ashford, and decided to take this opportunity to see if I could find out more about those singers – and maybe even find some more who were still active.
The Beales seemed to be a good place to start, so one lunchtime I popped into the Reference Library to look at the Electoral Roll for Kenardington. Kenardington is not exactly a great metropolis, so this did not take long, and I soon had the address for a Mr C. Beale who lived in the village. I wrote to Mr Beale explaining my interest and duly received an invitation to come over one Sunday afternoon for a cup of tea. Mr Beale it turned out was Charles Beale, son of the Albert Beale who Kennedy had recorded in the 50s, and grandson of Sharp’s informant James Beale. On this and subsequent visits he was able to tell me quite a lot about his father’s life and music.
Of course I was hoping that singing the old songs had carried on down the generations, but sadly that proved not to be the case. So I asked Mr Beale if he knew of anyone else of his generation who might still be singing. With very little hesitation he suggested Charlie Bridger who, he was pretty sure, was still living at Stone-in-Oxney about four miles away. The two men were of roughly the same age (about 70 at that time) and many years ago had gone to School together.
So, back to the Reference Library, this time to look at the Electoral Roll for Stone-in-Oxney – which, once again, did not take me very long. A letter was dispatched to Mr Bridger and on the very day he received it he rang me from the call-box in the village (his house didn’t have a phone), clearly excited at the prospect of singing his songs to someone who might value them, and arranging for me to pay him a visit.
Charlie lived with his wife Lily, and they were never less than hospitable when I called on them. Not having gone collecting before I had been somewhat apprehensive that turning up with a big tape recorder might seem a bit pushy, but in fact Charlie really wanted his songs to be collected. He’d written out the words of several of his songs, in that elaborate copperplate used by people of his generation. And as soon as I heard him sing I knew that he was quite some singer. ‘Three Maidens’ was one of those and, I’m pretty sure, the first he sang for me.
A few weeks later I went back, armed with the best recording device I owned – which unfortunately was not saying a lot – and accompanied by my friend Adrian Russell, whose family had for several generations lived in the nearby village of Woodchurch, and with which Charlie also had connections. Charlie set us up with glasses of Guinness and proceeded to sing 29 songs over the course of the evening. Inexperienced though I was, I knew that I should be recording everything – and was genuinely interested in what Charlie had to say about his life and songs – but Charlie was very assertive and occasionally I felt I had to comply with his demands that I should stop the recorder (“you’re wasting tape!” he insisted). Hopefully what I missed was just small talk, like Charlie asking us if we wanted another beer; at all events I pretty much filled up three sides of a couple of C90 cassettes.
Charlie was very much a performer – he loved an audience and was in his element when we organised music and song sessions at his local, the Crown. Sadly, after a lifetime of manual work, Charlie’s health was not of the best, and this prevented him becoming known to a wider audience. John Heydon invited him to the 1985 National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington, but Charlie was not well enough to make the long journey and spend the weekend away from home. He kept singing locally however, and made a very brief appearance at the English Country Music Weekend at Frittenden in September 1988, just a couple of months before his death.
Fortunately for posterity at least, his songs were not preserved solely on my somewhat ropey recordings. In the Spring of 1984 I was at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, and Malcolm Taylor introduced me to the collector Mike Yates. Mike came down to Kent shortly afterwards and recorded half a dozen songs from Charlie. These recordings are today available on CDs on the Veteran and Musical Traditions labels.
There will be more on Charlie in future posts on this blog; in the meantime you can read more at http://folkopedia.efdss.org/Charlie_Bridger
As for this song:
I learnt that off an old man, old Billy King. I gave him a pint of beer. And you got it for nothing – fourpence, that was a lot of money then. He taught me the ‘Folkestone Murder’ too. Where did he live? Well, he originally came from Woodchurch. A Woodchurch man. Don’t think there’s any Kings there now. He was only a little old short bloke.
Charlie’s wife Lily pointed out that, as a young man, Charlie mixed with men a lot older than he was – partly perhaps because he played, along with his father, in the Woodchurch Band which would have contained men of all generations; but also, perhaps, because he enjoyed their songs and was keen to learn them. Charlie was almost exactly the same age as Bob Copper, who wrote of the old songs being viewed as old-fashioned and unfashionable by his contemporaries in the pre-war years. Bob and his cousin Ron valued their family songs and they vowed to keep them alive; Charlie, I suspect, shared a similar outlook.
Three maidens a-milking did go