Archive for January, 2015

January 31, 2015

Week 180 – The Lass of Swansea Town

Just after Christmas I was in the car, singing the ‘Gower Wassail’. When I finished, without thinking, I found myself launching into this one, which I’d not sung for a very long time. The link of course is that both were collected from the “Gower Nightingale”, Phil Tanner. But just as I first heard his Wassail song performed by Steeleye and the Watersons, I first encountered this one on Mike Waterson’s eponymous 1977 LP. I actually learned the song from Roy Palmer’s book The Rambling Soldier. Roy takes three of Phil Tanner’s four verses, and completes the story with additional verses from a late nineteenth century Harkness broadside.

There are many broadside printings of the song listed in Steve Roud’s Index, but few from the oral tradition – besides this one from Wales, there’s just a handful of examples, from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Canada. You can hear brief recordings of a couple of Canadian versions on the website MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada here and here (they look like blank pages at first, but scroll to the bottom and you’ll find a transcription, sheet music and audio). The song’s setting is by no means fixed to Swansea – indeed many of the printed examples allow the singer to substitute the place name of their choice, such as this one from Lucy Broadwood’s collection.

The Lass Of ---- Town. From the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive.

The Lass Of —- Town. From the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive.

The Lass of Swansea Town

January 25, 2015

Week 179 – O Good Ale

It is of good ale to you I’ll sing And to good ale I’ll always cling, I like my mug filled to the brim And I’ll drink all you’d like to bring, O, good ale, thou art my darling, Thou art my joy both night and morning.

A rather wonderful event took place yesterday at Cecil Sharp House – Ten Thousand Times Adieu, the Bob Copper Centenary Event, aka Bobstock. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and in the event was delighted to be able to take part, deputising for Tony Engle in a one-off reunion of the seminal quartet Oak (last previous performance, 1972!). Here’s a hot-off-the-press review of the event on the Guardian website. At the end of the night, all the invited performers got up on stage to join three generations of the Copper Family in singing ‘Thousands or More’ and ‘Oh Good Ale’. Blasting out those two songs, standing just behind John Copper (I suspect our relative heights may mean there will be no photographic evidence of my presence on stage at that point!) and next to Maddy Prior (who must take a lot of the blame for getting me hooked on traditional music as a teenager) is something I won’t forget in a hurry.

The finale at Bobstock - thanks to Ronald Ellis for the photo

The finale at Bobstock – thanks to Ronald Ellis for the photo

So here’s my rendition of ‘Good Ale’. I must admit it’s a song I’d almost forgotten that I knew, until a couple of weeks back, when I saw that the Coppers had sung it when Harveys Brewery in Lewes started brewing their Copper Ale. Although I hadn’t sung it in years, I found that I remembered most of the verses, and a quick scan of the good book soon reminded me of the rest. In latter years, when I saw Bob singing this with the family, he was always rather apologetic (understandably enough) about the “two black eyes” verse, and I’ve improvised an alternative, less misogynistic rhyme for “if my wife did me despise”. Misogynist lyrics notwithstanding, this was a song Bob was very fond of. It was one of his grandfather “Brasser” Copper’s songs. “Brasser” was landlord of the Black Horse in Rottingdean and would apparently say to new employees “Now you can drink as much beer as you like… but you can only drink singing beer and not fighting beer” (see Ale Tales: a social history of brewing in Lewes and across East Sussex p31). This division of beer into “singing beer” and “fighting beer” was one which Bob inherited. I remember reading an interview with Bob where he said that, although the Coppers drank plenty, they always drank singing beer, not fighting beer. I thought that quotation came from an interview conducted by Vic Smith in either Musical Traditions or Traditional Music but I’ve re-read a couple – one in print and one online – and can’t find it. Maybe it was in Folk Roots or Southern Rag.  In any case, here it is from an interview on Australian national radio

if we used to go out with the local pub to a darts match or something like that, on the way back we’d drink plenty of beer, but we always drank singing beer, not fighting beer, that’s a very important distinction. It doesn’t matter how much singing beer you have, but you don’t want any fighting beer.

And to end on a related quotation, here is Bob interviewed by Vic Smith in 1984, and printed in Musical Traditions No 3, Summer 1984

he was a very sort of worthy member of the family for drinking ale. It’s a tradition we’ve kept up just as eagerly and well, I think, as the singing. And he used to say, y’know, about beer, “Well cocky. A pint o’beer is enough for any man. Two’s too much and three ain’t half a-blooming-nough!”

Good ale thou art my darling, published by H. Such between 1863 and 1885; from Broadside Ballads Online.

Good ale thou art my darling, published by H. Such between 1863 and 1885; from Broadside Ballads Online.

O Good Ale

January 17, 2015

Week 178 – Cupid’s Garden

Another one from the Copper Family. The song has a distinct eighteenth century flavour. In fact “Cupid’s Garden” is a corruption of Cuper’s Gardens, these being pleasure gardens on the south bank of the Thames:

Cuper’s Gardens were 17–18th century pleasure gardens (aka a tea garden) on the south side of the River Thames in Lambeth, London, looking over to Somerset House near where Waterloo Bridge is located (centered on what is now the north end of Waterloo Road).

In 1643, Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel bought three acres of land which he leased to his gardener Abraham Boydell Cuper. The gardens opened in the 1680s and were named after the original proprietor. They were also known as Cupid’s Gardens. In 1686, seven acres of adjoining land was bought from the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, and added to the gardens. A long landing stage in the river known as Cuper’s Bridge acted as a popular entrance for the gardens.

In 1736, an orchestra was included among the attractions. It also became known for its firework displays. However, it lost its license in 1753 due to the loose morals of its visitors.

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuper%27s_Gardens

Bearing this in mind there is presumably a significance in these lines

And one was lovely Nancy so beautiful and fair
The other was a virgin and did the laurels wear

Since it is emphasised that “the other was a virgin” I think we can assume that lovely Nancy was not – and was known not to be; more than that, that she was, shall we say, a lady of easy virtue.

You can see a recreation of London pleasure gardens if you visit the Museum of London, near the Barbican – see http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/explore-online/pocket-histories/what-were-vauxhall-pleasure-gardens/

The song appears to have been widely sung, although apart from one solitary Yorkshire version, all the examples in the Full English archive come from Southern English counties – Essex, Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. This may be more a reflection of the Southern bias of early twentieth century collectors, rather than any indication of the geographical spread of the song.

Unsurprisingly, there are numerous printed versions at Broadside Ballads Online, while the ballad sheet shown below is from the collection of Frank Kidson, the Yorkshire folk song collector.

The Lovers' Meeting - broadside ballad  from the Frank Kidson Manuscript Collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive.

The Lovers’ Meeting – broadside ballad from the Frank Kidson Manuscript Collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive.

Cupid’s Garden

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

January 9, 2015

Week 177 – The trees they do grow high

Tuesday 6th January 2015 was the centenary of the birth of Bob Copper. This anniversary was marked with an article in the Daily Telegraph, while the Sussex brewers Harveys began brewing ‘Copper Ale’ in his honour. And later this month, there’s a day-long celebration of Bob’s life at Cecil Sharp House, in which I’m very pleased to say I will be participating (not least because I’ll be able to pick up a few bottles of the Harveys ale).

As the Telegraph article said, Bob Copper “is rightly hailed as one of the key figures in 20th-century English folk music”. He made a lasting impression on me with his singing, his books, and his stories of country life in days gone by, and the central role which music-making played – for his family and others. He was also a thoroughly nice bloke and decent human being. He always seemed to be good-humoured, always generous in his encouragement and support of other singers.

Back in 1991 or thereabouts, I played the Lewes Saturday Folk Club and Nellie’s at Tonbridge on consecutive nights. After the Lewes gig I was put up by Bob’s next-door neighbour George Wagstaff (another really nice man, sadly no longer with us). George knew that I would want to meet Bob, so he invited him round for a big cooked breakfast. Suitably fortified, straight after breakfast Bob (then in his late seventies) was setting off with John Copper and Jon Dudley on what I think was an annual walking tour of Sussex.

Bob Copper - photo copyright Ian Anderson of fRoots magazine

Bob Copper – photo copyright Ian Anderson of fRoots magazine

I learned this song from Bob’s singing on the Veteran CD When the May is all in Bloom.  It’s not from the family repertoire; rather, Bob learned the song from Seamus Ennis when they were both working as song collectors for the BBC in the 1950s.

 

The trees they do grow high

January 3, 2015

Week 176 – The Somerset Wassail

By no means the only Wassail song to have been collected in Somerset, once included in the Oxford Book of Carols this became for evermore The Somerset Wassail (cf. the Gloucestershire Wassail  and the Sussex Carol). The notes in the book say that the song was noted by Cecil Sharp “about twenty years ago” (September 1903 in fact) from the Drayton Wassailers in Somerset. Actually he collected several other versions in the county where the words included either the verse about a farmer who didn’t know how to look after his cow (more cider is the answer!) and/or the verse about the “Girt Dog of Langport”.

Wassail Song, noted by Cecil Sharp from Miss Quick, Drayton, Somerset. From the Full English archive.

Wassail Song, noted by Cecil Sharp from Miss Quick, Drayton, Somerset. From the Full English archive.

Again, according to the notes in the Oxford Book of Carols “Sharp thought that the great dog of Langport was a reference to the Danes whose invasion of Langport is not yet forgotten in that town”. I’m not sure I’d give that theory much credence. According to Mudcat

In fact, this Danish raid may be mere legend, as it seems that the Vikings never penetrated that far into the West Country. Their attempted invasion began on Christmas Day 877, when Guthrum’s surprise attack on Chippenham drove Alfred into the marshes of west Somerset. Alfred set up a base at Athelney (the Island of the Nobles) a few miles west of Langport, and immediately began organising his counter-attack. In 878 he defeated Guthrum at Edington (the Anglo Saxon Chronicle identifies the Edington near the Westbury White Horse, although there is a theory that it was the Edington by the Polden Hills near Glastonbury). It was the resulting treaty between Alfred and Guthrum which divided England into the Anglo Saxon kingdom and the Danelaw.

I think the only Danish attack on the West Country was by the force which arrived at the mouth of the Parrett and was wiped out at Cannington. If they had got any further, they would have come up against Alfred himself at Athelney.

That same Mudcat page puts forwards – and debunks – a number of theories. Bear in mind when considering them that King Alfred was an actual historical character, unlike another King whose name begins with A, and who is supposed to have associations with this part of the country. Drayton is only 15 miles from Glastonbury Tor, and the danger of infection by romantic New Age twaddle is consequently very high.

We recorded this on the Magpie Lane album Wassail and the song pops back into our Christmas repertoire every two or three years. We sang it again this Christmas, but I foolishly neglected to get a recording. So, rather than wait another twelve months, here it is with a hastily-concocted concertina part.

The Somerset Wassail

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina