Week 117 – The American Stranger

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.

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.

The American Stranger

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

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