Week 246 – House in the Country

I first encountered Ashley Hutchings on the Steeleye Span LP Ten Man Mop. It’s a great record – probably Steeleye’s best – and as it was only the third or fourth folk record I’d heard it had quite an effect on me. And not just the music. I was very taken by the photo of Ashley Hutchings on the sleeve, where he was wearing a collarless “granddad shirt”. Now I’ve never been one to take much notice of fashion, and as a teenager I was almost completely oblivious to it. But seeing that photo – and then, a little while later, Martin Carthy similarly attired on the cover of Crown of Horn – prompted a great fondness for collarless shirts which I retain to this day. Once I got to know the folk scene better, of course, I found that in the late seventies these shirts (along with beards and pewter tankards) were pretty much de rigeur for the male folkie. Less so for much of the intervening decades, but I still like them.

Back cover of Ten Man Mop

Back cover of Ten Man Mop

Over the next few years I listened to numerous albums featuring Ashley Hutchings: Please to see the King, The Prospect Before Us, Son of Morris On, The Compleat Dancing Master, Rattlebone and Ploughjack, Morris On, Amaranth, Liege and Lief (although, having read what a seminal album that was, when I eventually heard it I was left feeling a little disappointed; I still prefer What we did on our holidays). Then, in 1978, came the Albion Band’s Rise up like the Sun. One of my school friends – I think it must have been my best friend, and singing partner, Mike – bought the LP and I may well have first heard it in the Norton Knatchbull School Sixth Form Common Room. At the time, fairly new as I was to folk music, I had still managed to form various not very rational prejudices. And I wasn’t entirely sure about this record. One of my prejudices was against drum kits in folk bands – I preferred the ‘electric folk’ of early Steeleye to the full-on folk-rock sound – and this band line-up included two drummers! (Actually, this prejudice wasn’t totally irrational – I’ve heard far too many bands where an uninspired folk-rock drum beat has completely overpowered the rhythmic subtleties inherent in good dance playing, and squeezed all the life out of the music. And don’t get me started on that dreadfully disappointing Richard Thompson and Phil Pickett record…)

All the same, I wasn’t quite ready for a review of the album by Karl Dallas (possibly in Melody Maker but I think it was some more niche publication, possibly Folk Review) which he used to propound his theory that folk-rock was dead. I’d only just got into folk music via folk-rock – I wasn’t ready for it to end. Looking back, Dallas might have had a point – folk-rock didn’t die, but it was beginning to atrophy.

(As an aside, not really relevant to any of this, but I’ll mention it anyway, I distinctly remember where I read that Karl Dallas review. It was at a sort of folk youth club set up by folk dance enthusiasts Don and Marjorie Lang, at a scout hut or similar, quite near the seafront in Hythe. I can only remember going to a couple of the Sunday afternoon meetings, but the club might have gone on for longer than that – I didn’t live in Hythe, and it must have been coming up to the time when Mike and I took our A levels. At one of the meetings I did attend – the first one I think – I first encountered Adrian Russell, who had been brought in to demonstrate his prowess on the anglo-concertina. We must have kept in touch  after that first meeting, and went onto become firm friends.)

Having initially had mixed feelings about Rise up like the Sun, after a few years I realised that if I stopped pigeonholing the record, and treated it purely on its own merits (i.e. not as folk, not as folk-rock, not as rock – just as music) it was quite clearly a work of genius. The arrangements of tracks like ‘Poor Old Horse’ are quite superb. And although Karl Dallas might not have been able to come to terms with John Tams changing the tune of ‘The Gresford Disaster’, I now consider that track to be one of the greatest ever recorded under the Albion brand. I love Graeme Taylor’s guitar work, and the way the track builds to an emotional climax – then achieves an even greater emotional impact as the volume drops and Tams sings those last few accusatory verses. There are several songs which produce a Pavlovian effect in me, making my eyes water as a certain line is reached. These range from ‘No Man’s Land’ to Michelle Shocked’s  ‘Anchorage’ and Gram Parsons’ ‘Thousand Dollar Wedding’. And one such moment is definitely when John Tams sings

And the owners have sent some lilies, dear God,
To pay for the poor colliers’ lives.

Stupidly, I’m welling up as I type them now.

 

Of all the Albion records, this is the one where Tams had the greatest creative input, and he must take much of the credit for the album’s brilliance. But it was Ashley Hutchings who had the contacts which enabled him to assemble such a stellar cast of backing vocalists, including Richard and Linda Thompson, Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy, Julie Covington and the McGarrigles. On ‘House in the Country’ (you see, I got to the point eventually) Tams duets with Kate McGarrigle, and the result is, of course, sublime.

On the album sleeve this track is credited to M. Stewart, and I assumed it was a modern composition, perhaps by some folk scene singer-songwriter I’d not encountered. But then, during a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library I think, I came across the song in the 1975 Folk Music Journal, in an article on Scottish travellers’ songs by Peter A. Hall.

The composer was Maggie Stewart, a travelling singer related to the famous Stewarts of Blairgowrie – she was Jeannie Robertson’s aunt, and Stanley Robertson’s “great grand aunt”. A grandson, James Stewart, contributes this information on Mudcat

My GrandMother Maggie Stewart was Born at the Loch O’ the Lee’s outside Banchory in the year of 1902 and died in Aberdeen in the year of 1983 aged 80 years old. she lived in Forfar for years when Hamish Henderson went to Forfar to Record some of the Stewarts and Maggie Stewart was just one of them same family of Folk singers.

Tobar an Dualchais  tells us that Maggie Stewart was

born in Banchory, on Deeside, but spent more time around Alford, Tarland and Aboyne. She travelled Deeside, Donside, Perthshire, Skye, Argyllshire and the Glasgow area with a horse and cart.

There’s a 1979 recording of Stanley Robertson singing this song (with additional verses, not printed in the Journal) at http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/68644/7 and elsewhere on the site you’ll find a discussion about the various songs composed by Maggie Stewart.

Maggie Stewart being recorded by her nephew Stanley Robertson. From 'The Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers a selection of images from the project'. Image copyright the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.

Maggie Stewart being recorded by her nephew Stanley Robertson. From ‘The Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers a selection of images from the project’. Image copyright the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.

Peter Hall’s introduction to this song in the Journal says

Another indication of a flourishing tradition is the addition of new material into the repertoire. The most obvious, although not the only way this may take place is by the composition of original songs. Maggie Stewart, formerly living in Aberdeen and now in Montrose, has written a number of fine pieces as well as being an important contributor of traditional material. The song given here illustrates the dilemma of tinkers who wished to become integrated into society and yet at the same time not to discard any of their own character and custom. The Second World War was an important era for the travelling community, when the expanded bureaucratic machine pushed tinkers into the mainstream of society, requiring them to fight and to be listed and counted.

(Actually, Stanley Robertson suggests the song related to the period following the First World War, rather than the Second). Hall continues

In one of the best papers on the tinker’s life style Farnham Rehfisch deals with the institution of marriage:

“During the two wars quite a number of Tinkers were taken into the Armed Forces. It was very much easier for wives to collect family allowances and other government-granted aid if they were able to show documents proving a legal marriage to a serviceman. This was often essential since many of those who were in charge of the distribution of such benefits were very much prejudiced against members of the group and went to great lengths to avoid satisfying their just claims.”

Society is still ambiguous about accepting tinkers into its midst and the mutual tension embodied in the relationship is well caught in the next song.

House in the Country

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