Here’s another song from Charlie Bridger, from Stone-in-Oxney in Kent. This is perhaps the song for which he has become best known – it was the title track of a compilation of Mike Yates field recordings on the Musical Traditions label, and the song was recorded by Jon Boden as part of his A Folk Song A Day project.
Charlie himself learned the song from an old boy called Nip Bailey. Here’s an extract from my interview with Charlie on 15th April 1983:
Andy: Nip Bailey was it?
Charlie: Yeah, old Nip.
Andy: Was he the one that worked in the oasts?
Charlie: That’s right, he was the old hop-drier. He couldn’t see very well; I used to go and level his hops for him, ’cause he couldn’t …the old driers they had a chalk mark – red charcoal mark – round the roundel, you know, so if they had so many bags of hops, or so many pokes of hops, they knew that should come up to that certain mark, see, and he couldn’t see that old mark… [?] was dark, I remember an old storm lantern hanging up for a light in there. And I used to help the old boy with his hop-drying, of a night.
Andy: Was that Woodchurch?
Charlie: No that was Kenardington …on the corner; not the square ones, the single one right on the corner. High House Farm. There’s tomatoes and that they grow there now …an old man named Benny Coveney had that then; old bachelor.
[that oast, should you be interested, appears to be this one as shown on Google Street View]
Adrian Russell: Was he well known locally as a singer?
Charlie: No, he was known for singing ‘The Birds upon the trees’, that was all. He used to like a sing-song though, you know. Oh no, he was only known in Woodchurch really for his song ‘The Birds upon the trees’, that’s what they always used to associate him with, for his singing. My old grandfather used to say “Come on Nip”; he used to get his cornet out, my old grandfather; old Nip used to sing, and he used to play. In the pub, this was. Have you got ‘The Birds upon the trees’ taped, have you?
Andy: No, no.
Charlie: Oh, you don’t know the tune then do you?
The song was actually written by the American lyricist and composer W.C. Robey, and first published in New York in 1882. The sheet music can be viewed on the Library of Congress Music for the Nation website – you’ll see that the oral tradition has introduced changes both to the words and the melody.
The Roud Index lists only two other collected versions: one recorded in the 1950s from Tom Brodie in Cumberland, which can be heard on a Veteran CD Pass the Jug Round ; and the other, intriguingly, collected by Percy Grainger from the great Joseph Taylor.
In the extract above, Charlie talks about his grandfather getting his cornet out to accompany this song: in fact Charlie’s father (also Charles) and his grandfather (Tom) both played in the Woodchurch Band, and Charlie himself joined the band when just a boy. There is a photo of the band from the early 1920s, when Charlie was maybe 9 or 10, with him sitting cross-legged in the front, holding a clarinet. The photo shown here is obviously earlier, but both Charlie’s father and grandfather are included in the group.
Charlie played with a number of wind and brass bands during his life. When I met him in 1983 he was a member of the Cranbrook Band – playing tenor horn, I believe – and he continued to perform with them until well into his seventies.
Clearly this was an important part of his life; and as a boy it was one way in which he was exposed to, and started to learn, the old songs. Charlie and his Dad would walk over the fields from Kenardington to Woodchurch for band practices (a couple of miles or so); then after the practice there would be a trip to the pub with, often, a sing-song. Indeed the music-making didn’t necessarily stop there – another song Charlie sang me, ‘Won’t you buy my pretty flowers’, used to be sung by “old Frank Samson”
He used to play in the old Woodchurch Band, he used to play tenor horn, and he used to play that on the way home through the fields…
The Birds upon the Tree