Another song learned from the fabulous Joseph Taylor of Saxby-All Saints, Lincolnshire. I think the first recording of the song I heard was on the Watersons’ eponymous red LP. Their version was based on that communicated to Frank Kidson by his tireless informant Mr Charles Lolley of Leeds. Publishing the song in his Traditional Tunes Kidson – always a man to favour tunes over lyrics – commented
Musicians will, I think, congratulate Mr. Lolley upon obtaining such a fine and sterling old air. I wish I could say as much for the words.
Which is a bit harsh.
It can’t have been too long after hearing The Watersons that I came across the recording by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick on their album But Two Came By. Martin’s version is that sung by Joseph Taylor, which I first heard in my student days. Finding the classic Leader LP Unto Brigg Fair in Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford, I immediately coughed up the £4.50, or whatever records cost back in those days. Whatever it cost, it was money well spent. These days, you can find a recording of Joseph Taylor singing the song on The Voice of the People Volume 18.
There’s a lot of interesting information about the origin of this song on the Yorkshire Garland website, and some nineteenth century examples of broadside printings of the song on the Bodleian’s Ballads Online website. The copy shown was paired with a comic ditty entitled ‘Who’s your hatter’. Not sure it’s quite my style, but someone out there must surely fancy learning a song which includes such great lines as
Come pull up your trousers and go along slap
And purchase a Flipiday Flobbody hat.
The White Hare, broadside ballad from the Bodleian Collection.
Two weeks ago I posted a song learned from gipsy singer Tom Willett. At the time I noted that I was looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the newly-released Musical Traditions 2 CD set, Adieu to Old England. Well it’s a crazy world – you wait fifty years for a new album of Willett Family recordings, and then two come along at once: as Reinhard Zierke commented a fortnight ago, Rod Stradling of Musical Traditions was not the only one to have put out a 2 CD set of the Willetts; a few weeks earlier Paul Marsh had put out a very similar collection on his Forest Tracks label. I now have in my possession a copy of both Adieu to Old England(Musical Traditions) and A-Swinging Down The Lane (Forest Tracks) and I can heartily recommend that, if you enjoy traditional singing, you get hold of either, or both.
It turns out that Rod and Paul had been working on these releases without being aware of what the other was up to. Both releases have two discs, housed in a DVD case, with an A5 booklet giving biographical details of the singers, plus transcriptions of and notes on the songs. And both draw either exclusively (Forest Tracks) or largely (MT) on the same, previously unissued recordings, made in the early 1960s by Ken Stubbs. In fact this is where the Forest Tracks set is particularly interesting, in that it is the first release in a planned programme to make available, either on CD, or as MP3 files, everything recorded by Kenb Stubbs – see http://forest-tracks.co.uk/kenstubbs for details of this project. I’ve heard Ken Stubbs’ recordings of Southern English singers and musicians such as Pop Maynard and Scan Tester, but I’m intrigued to find out what else may be in store from this source.
This particular song is included, sung by Tom Willett, on both of the new releases – in fact you can hear a snippett of Tom singing it at http://www.forest-tracks.co.uk/folk_music_pages/folk_music_Willettstracks.html. I learned it, however, from his son Chris, via the Topic LP Travellers. That track, recorded by Mike Yates, has subsequently appeared on a few CDs, including the new MT Willett Family set.
I have filled out the words a bit with help from Roy Palmer’s Folk Songs of the Midlands. Actually, looking at the notes in that book, I see that Roy’s words were in fact taken from a broadside version – not the one shown here, but not too far removed (although without the rather incongruous “God save the Queen” message in the last verse!).
The American Stranger, from the Lucy Broadwood Broadside Collection, via the Full English archive.
Back in 2005 I was honoured to be asked to perform at the opening of an exhibition, Destiny Manifest – Eden’s End, by my artist friends Cathy Ward and Eric Wright. The centrepiece of the show was an extraordinary painting, which took up one entire wall of the gallery. This portrayed the route of the Donner Party, a wagon train which set off for California in 1846, and which ended in disaster for many of the travellers. ‘The American Stranger’ was one of the songs I sang at the event, not just because of the obvious American connection, but particularly because of the song’s final verse
Now we’re all bound for America, and our ship will soon sail
And may heaven protect us with a prosperous gale
And when we are landed, we’ll dance and we’ll sing
In a land of all plenty where no danger can bring.
There’s an irony in that last line, when one considers the members of the Donner Party – America may well have been / be a land of plenty, but certainly not a country which was / is free from danger.
Finally, a note for anglo anoraks. For reasons which are a little perverse, but do make sense, I play this in C on a G/D anglo. A few years ago I sang the song at the Saturday night concert at Concertinas at Witney. Brian Peters, one of the other tutors that year, was stood right at the back of the hall. So I was very impressed when he said, as I came off stage, “were you playing that in C on a G/D?”. Guitar tuning geeks will probably recognise this sort of interest.
Billy Bragg ‘Between the wars’ EP sleeve, from Wikipedia.
By my reckoning, the first time I sang this song in public must have been just over 29 years ago.
I can’t swear that I heard Billy Bragg’s first, mushroom biryani-inspired airplay on the John Peel show. But I’d heard his early Peel sessions, and admired both his songs and his attitude (although back then, the suggestion that he might one day appear on the bill at folk festivals, still less on the panel of Question Time, would have seemed quite preposterous). I first saw him, with my friend Adrian, in October 1984, in a sports hall at the University of Kent at Canterbury. This was part of the famous “Hank, Frank and Billy” tour, with Frank Chickens and the Hank Wangford Band.
I knew the songs from Life’s a Riot and, although it had only just come out, I was also familiar with quite a lot of the songs on Brewing Up from the Peel show. Of the new songs, the one which really made an impression was Between the Wars. A week or so later Billy was In Concert on Radio 1, and I had a cassette ready. That was early Saturday evening. The following lunchtime, at a small session at the Shipwright’s at Hollow Shore, I sang this for the first time.
Thereafter, I sang it wherever I went. The Oysterband certainly had it from me, and I think I was the first person Martin Carthy heard singing the song. That was in one of those lovely semi-formal singing sessions you used to get at the National Folk Festival at Sutton Bonington, in March or April 1985. By that time, of course, the Between the Wars EP had been released, and Billy was climbing up the singles chart (here he is singing the song on Top of the Pops). Naturally I included the song on my 1990 album Love Death and the Cossack.
This is a new recording from a couple of weeks ago. I have to confess that I could reach those top Gs with rather greater facility back in 1990 – judge for yourself at andyturner.bandcamp.com/track/between-the-wars – but frankly, I’m amazed I can still get them at all. And I still get a real buzz out of singing the song. Although born out of the conflict of the Thatcher years, specifically the bitter, year-long Miners’ strike, the sentiments of the song do not go out of date.
There has been no shortage of “skies all dark with bombers” over the last thirty years. And how about
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
I learned this from octogenarian Gypsy singer Tom Willett, via the Topic LP The Roaming Journeyman.
That album – Topic’s very first release of traditional English singers – is a bit of a classic. When Mike Yates, Keith Chandler and various other writers on traditional music nominated Ten Records that Changed my Life for Musical Traditions, this record was, I think, the most frequently selected. It’s been available as a download for a couple of years now, but I was very excited to learn last week that Rod Stradling has now released a 2 CD set of Willett family recordings, Adieu to Old England on his Musical Traditions label. This contains a number of previously unreleased recordings of Tom Willett, and his sons Ben and Chris. I don’t have my copy yet, but there’s one on its way to me.