In the summer of 1980 my friend Adrian Russell put together a harmony quintet, performing under the name of Bright Sparkles in the Churchyard. The group consisted of Adrian, myself, Gill Harrison, Alison Tebbs and Tim Bull. The following year Richard Wren was drafted in as bass, to replace Tim, who was unavailable. We performed exclusively American religious music, including at least a couple of Sacred Harp numbers, and several from the camp meeting repertoire. Songs I particularly remember are the stomping ‘Hard Times’ (“Ain’t it hard times, tribulation, Ain’t it hard times, I’m going to live with God”) and the gloriously repetitive ‘I’m a witness for my Lord’. The group’s name came from this song, which in fact was not one we ever sang.
I’m not entirely sure we sang ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ as a group piece, but I certainly learned it from Adrian around this time. He found it in a Fisk Jubilee Singers’ Song Book – possibly this one.
‘Roll. Jordan, Roll’ from ‘Jubilee songs: as sung by the Jubilee singers, of Fisk University, (Nashville, Tenn.) under the auspices of the American Missionary Association’. From the Internet Archive.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were a well-known vocal ensemble in the late nineteenth century, and they are still going strong today. They were formed in 1871 to raise money for Fisk University, which had been founded after the Civil War to provide higher education for freed slaves. The Singers sang spirituals, as well as some Stephen Foster numbers, and they toured not only the States but in Britain and Europe.
1899 Fisk Negro Spirituals Songbook. Song no. 7 Roll Jordan Roll (Women’s Jazz Archive collection, Swansea Metropolitan University).
A song from the repertoire of Gus Elen (1862-1940), the Coster Comedian. I think I first came across the song in the early 1980s at the Heritage folk club in Oxford, sung by my friend Dick Wolff (who, as I recall, also used to sing ‘If it Wasn’t for the Houses in Between’, another of Elen’s hits – another one in fact written by the prolific George Le Brunn – and one which I’ve often thought of learning). I found the words in a book of Music Hall songs in my local library back home, and have been singing it ever since.
Elen effectively retired in 1914 to concentrate on his passion, fishing. But he was coaxed out of retirement at the age of 70 to be recorded by British Pathe in 1932. Who have now put their entire archive up on YouTube, meaning that we can watch one of the big names of the golden age of Music Hall performing one of his hits. Isn’t the Internet wonderful?
Gus Elen – from the Victoria and Albert collection
About four or five years ago I went to see Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. This was one of the songs they played and, chatting to Martin in the interval, I must have mentioned it for some reason. “You should sing that”, said Martin, “it would suit your voice”. Well, if Martin Carthy MBE recommends that you sing a particular song, it strikes me that the only possible course of action is to follow his advice.
In fact I had known it vaguely, many years ago, as a result of buying a copy of the LP No Relation by Heather Wood and Royston Wood. I’d largely forgotten about it though, so set about learning it anew. I sought it out from the Journal of the Folk-Song Society No. 11 – completely forgetting that in fact it’s in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
The version in the Penguin Book was taken down by Henry Hammond from Joseph Taunton, at Corscombe in Devon in 1907, and published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society the same year. Hammond’s notes say that “Taunton learnt this from a soldier when he was 17 years old” (in the Journal the song’s provenance is given as “Mr. Taunton learnt the song 50 years ago from a man-of-war’s man” i.e. he learned it circa 1857).
The Bold Benjamin, collected by H.E.D.Hammond from Joseph Taunton, 1907. From the Full English archive.
Hammond also noted a version in Dorset, from Marina Russell. The opening line of Mrs.Russell’s version ran “French Admiral he is gone to sea”. Although the collector added that
Mrs Russell said “I don’t know whether ’tis “”Finch” or “French Admiral”
If you were a regular at Whitstable’s Duke’s Folk, or at Oyster Ceilidh Band dances in the seventies, you’ll almost certainly remember this song, as it was an oft-performed favourite in the repertoire of top local band Fiddler’s Dram. It was the final track on their debut LP To See the Play, and I’ve a feeling it had also been one of the band’s contributions to the Duke’s Folk cassette (although that was a little before my time). If you only know Fiddler’s Dram from their 1979 hit single ‘Daytrip to Bangor’ then do yourself a favour and check out their pre-Top of the Pops recordings – pretty much their entire recorded repertoire has recently become available as a download, and that first album in particular has a number of great songs and arrangements which have really stood the test of time.
I had the words of this song from Roy Palmer’s classic book A Touch on the Times, and I assume that’s also where Cathy Lesurf and the band had got it from. Roy doesn’t give a source for the tune, so I wonder if it was actually made up by his wife Pat. In the book it’s given in 4/4, whereas Fiddler’s Dram played it in 6/8. Whether that was deliberate or an accident I don’t know, but I think it benefits greatly from the change.
In my student days I used to sing this with Caroline Jackson-Houlston. She sang the tune, and I sang John Jones’ harmony part from the record pretty much note for note. I’m not sure I could improve on it and would most likely end up doing exactly the same were I to attempt a harmony now.
Although I’ve not sung the song often since those days, it’s never been too far from my mind. So when I visited Nick and Lizzie Passmore earlier this year, this seemed like an obvious one to try together. Mind you, I think Nick had been expecting to play it on guitar, so was somewhat wrong-footed by my suggestion that he should give it a melodeon accompaniment. Needless to say, he rose to the challenge and obliged. This is the last of the four songs we recorded that weekend – must be time to plan another trip to Llandrindod Wells.
You’ll find plenty of information online about the history of Nottingham Goose Fair, however. The fair dates back to the granting of a charter by Edward I in 1284, and it’s still going strong to this day – in fact it’s on right now (although you’re unlikely to spot any geese).
George Austin, who was Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures and Clerk of the Markets in Nottingham from 1907 till 1944, had responsibility for the Goose Fair during those years. In his memoirs he gives a description of the Goose Fair in Nottingham’s Old Market Square in 1896
My strongest impression is of the surging crowds moving ceaselessly round the fair. It was impossible to change direction once one was in the stream. Gangs of young people, and some older ones, formed “crocodiles”. Linked together by arms on the shoulders, or round the waist of the person in front, they forced a passage through the crowd.
There are a couple of Pathe newsreels of the Fair which you can view online, from 1935 and 1947. In the earlier of these, you see a dignitary, presumably the Lord Mayor of Nottingham, pronouncing the fair open. He concludes “Get you straight away, and thoroughly enjoy yourselves”. This echoes the sentiment of the song. Although, perhaps unwisely, he neglects to repeat the song’s warnings “in moderation pleasure take” and “keep an eye upon your purse”.
Nottingham Goose Fair, Market Place, 1890s. From the Nottingham Hidden History Team blog. Picture credit: The Paul Nix Collection.
A modern view of Nottingham Goose Fair – photo from the Nottingham Post