November 16, 2020

Week 299 – The Good Old Way

Long ago, in a previous age (last February to be precise), I posted a recording of ‘Country Life’, which was Side 1 Track 1 on the Watersons’ magnificent 1975 LP For pence and spicy ale. And now, here’s the final track on side 2.

Like hundreds of others up and down the country, we sang these two almost to death back in the late 1970s /early 1980s. Except “sang them to death” isn’t the right expression – they’re such good songs that they bear repeated singing, and I love them now, as I did back then.

Of the two, this had the greatest impact on my musical tastes and interests. I had already heard Wassails and some other seasonal songs, but this was my first introduction to folk hymnody, and it opened the door to further discoveries – including West Gallery, Shape Note, and the carolling traditions of places such as Padstow and South Yorkshire. I’m not a believer, but I have a love of all types of vernacular sacred music-making. I love the passion in the words, and in the singing of the songs, especially when sung as part of a community – whether that community be a congregation of Old Regular Baptists, the inhabitants of a Cornish fishing port, or a modern West Gallery choir consisting principally of people with slightly off-centre musical tastes who just enjoy a good sing (as an aside, I’m also a big fan of oratorios by Bach and Handel, Fauré’s Requiem and Rachmaninov’s Vespers).

Bert Lloyd’s sleevenotes for For pence and spicy ale say

Unlike John Wesley, who preferred the tunes of imported elite composers such as Handel, Giordani and their lesser fellows, the “gospel trumpeters” went in for folky tunes like Amazing Grace and The Good Old Way. John Cennick (1718-55), who broke away from the Wesleys, was the founder of folky hymnody with his Sacred Hymns (Bristol 1743), which had an enormous effect on the wildfire revivals in Britain and America. The Good Old Way is said to have been a favourite hymn of the wild evangelist John Adam Grenade (1775-1806). In America it acquired a “Hallelujah” chorus and in that form came back to England and was printed in the Ranters’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (c. 1820). Our version was collected by John Clague from a marble-mason on the Isle of Wight, John Cubbon. It appears in the Folk Song Journal (No. 30), and serves to remind us what grand tunes have been lost to our hymnbooks through the tyranny of Ancient & Modern.

The “Isle of Wight” is a typo – Dr John Clague actually noted the song in the Isle of Man, circa 1829. When printed in the 1926 Journal of the Folk-Song Society, in an  article by Anne Gilchrist and Lucy Broadwood, it was part of a series of articles on Manx traditions which appeared in the Journal between 1924 and 1926. Looking at that article for the first time, I see that the Watersons (probably unconsciously) altered the tune somewhat, in particular omitting a sharpened sixth in the first line. Well, I’m not going to change the way I sing it, after more than 40 years.

If you don’t have access to the Journal of the Folk-Song Society through JSTOR, you’ll find the same tune, with a piano arrangement by W.H.Gill, in Manx National Songs with English Words, Selected from the MS. Collection of The Deemster Gill, Dr J. Clague, & W.H.Gill (Boosey & Co. 1896), and here it is:

The Good Old Way arranged by W.H.Gill

The Watersons also made the entirely sensible decision to cut two of the five verses. You can find all seven verses at Hymnary.org. American Shape Note versions, such as those in Southern Harmony or the Sacred Harp, are set to an entirely different tune and, as A.L.Lloyd pointed out, have a different chorus:

And I’ll sing hallelujah,
And glory be to God on high;
And I’ll sing hallelujah,
There’s glory beaming from the sky.

Of course it’s wonderful, today, to have access to these different sets of words at the click of a mouse button. Back in the seventies when we learned this song we had to write the words out from listening to the LP. And we didn’t always make a very good job of it. We could never make sense of the first lines of the second verse: “Our conflict’s here, the Great Davy / Shall not prevent our victory”.  Who was this Great Davy – another name for Old Nick perhaps? Of course, when I finally saw the words in print, it all made perfect sense: “Our conflict’s here, though great they be…”.

But my singing partner Mike, who had a good ear for this sort of thing, made a good job of transcribing the Watersons’ harmonies. Here’s my copy, marked “GOMENWUDU PRODUCTIONS” at the top – Gomenwudu (obscure Old English word for a harp) was, thanks to Mike’s Dad, the name of our harmony group. And at the bottom, I’ve just noticed, “PRINTED BY L. BOWLER, KARL MARX RULES OK Etc”. Lucas Bowler, the class Leftist, was another schoolfriend, and he must have got Mike’s original sheet of manuscript paper copied. He had been the first boy at school to have a Casio calculator – his Dad worked in marketing or sales, and had got it as a freebie. Clearly Luke’s Dad also had access to a photocopier – at a time when our secondary school teachers were still having to turn out purple smudgy copies on a Banda machine!

The Good Old Way - four part harmony arrangement

The Good Old Way – four part harmony arrangement transcribed by Mike Eaton c1976

I am well aware that the proper way to sing this song is in glorious vocal harmony, but at the outset of this blog I said that I wouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; so here it is sung by me alone, with a concertina arrangement.

The Good Old Way

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

October 17, 2020

Week 298 – The Unfortunate Tailor

I learned this, of course, from John Kirkptarick’s superlative performance of the song on Morris On. That was a real eye-opener in terms of what the anglo-concertina can do (if you’re as gifted as John Kirkpatrick).

I’d be very surprised if John didn’t learn the song from Frank Purslow’s book Marrowbones. Purslow gives two Hampshire sources: George Lovett from Winchester, and Alfred Oliver from Basingstoke, collected by George Gardiner in 1906 and 1907 respectively. Their very similar versions can be viewed – words and music – on the VWML site. Alfred Williams also took down a set of verses from John Webley of Arlington in Gloucestershire.

The song was in fact written by Music Hall entertainer Harry Clifton, and published in 1868 by Hopwood and Crew (nineteenth century attitudes to musical copyright might be inferred from this broadside print on the Bodleian site, from Glasgow publisher the Poet’s Box, which also dates from 1868). Harry Clifton wrote some really well-known songs including ‘Polly Perkins of Paddington Green’ and ‘My Barney (Bonnie) lies over the ocean’ – and numerous others which will be familiar to those of us interested in traditional song and dance, such as ‘Dark girl dress’d in blue’, ‘The Watercress girl’ and ‘The Calico Printer’s Clerk’.

You’ll find Clifton’s words on John Baxter’s excellent site, Folk Song and Music Hall. It seems the “Oh! why did my Sarah serve me so?” verse was in fact originally a chorus.

On this Mudcat thread you’ll find both words and music, in ABC format. Copying the code into ABC Explorer reveals that, in the hands of country singers and musicians, both the song and related morris tune had departed some way from Clifton’s tune (which, in turn, reminds me of various older sailor-themed dance tunes). Here it is, in case you fancy learning a different version from that usually sung on the folk scene.

I'll Go and Enlist for a Sailor, Harry Clifton, 1868. From the transcription by Artful Codger on Mudcat.

I’ll Go and Enlist for a Sailor, Harry Clifton, 1868. From the transcription by Artful Codger on Mudcat.

The Unfortunate Tailor

October 5, 2020

Week 297 – Harp Song of the Dane Women

It’s probably my memory playing tricks again, but I really cannot recollect having been introduced to any poetry at school until the 5th form when, having got our English Language O levels out of the way, we did English Lit in the space of a year. Given the time constraints, we were very much taught what we needed to pass, and not too much more. We did one Shakespeare play (Taming of the Shrew, which I enjoyed immensely, and chunks of which I can still quote to this day), one other play (Arms and the Man, which was OK but didn’t make a lasting impression), and a selection of poems chosen from the Sheldon Book of Verse. This could have been a pretty joyless experience, but we were taught by the excellent Trevor Eaton, who really brought the subject to life. He also taught me O level, and then A level Logic – the most enjoyable academic courses I’ve done in my life. And he was instrumental in switching me on to folk music, as it was his copy of Below the Salt which I was lent by his son Mike, who happened to be my best friend at school.

The Sheldon Book of Verse (book 3, I think it was) contained some really good stuff: ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘Convergence of the Twain’, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, ‘Night Mail’, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, Henry Reed’s wonderful ‘The Naming of Parts’, and ‘Harp Song of the Dane Women’, which had originally appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill.

It was probably a year or so later that I decided to set Kipling’s words to music. Having discovered the joys of singing, whether with others or on my own, and having discovered that poetry wasn’t necessarily boring, I guess it was only a matter of time before I started making tunes for poems – just be grateful it was Kipling, and not some Elvish twaddle from Tolkein. I was also influenced, I think, by my Mum’s ancient copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury which included a few contributions by Anon: ‘Jock o’Hazelgreen’ which I’d heard on Dick Gaughan’s first LP (and before you ask, no, I’m afraid I don’t have a copy of that long-deleted record), and ‘Twa Corbies’, which I knew from the first Steeleye album. If folk songs could be poems, then why shouldn’t poems become folk songs.

I can’t be sure, but I was probably also aware that Peter Bellamy had made arrangements of Kipling’s verse, even if I’d not at that stage heard any (Bellamy did record an arrangement of ‘Harp Song’ but, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard it).

I’ve never actually sung this song in public, but the tune had stayed with me, more or less. Then last year, going through some old cassette tapes, I found not one, but three recordings of me singing this. The variations between those three versions suggest that the tune was never exactly fixed in stone, and in re-learning the song I’ve probably changed it slightly again.

I’d been thinking for a while I should post up a recording of this piece, and was prompted to do so by the fact that I thought the #TradSongTues theme on Twitter this week was going to be Poetry. Actually, I’ve just checked, and Poetry lost out in the vote to Baking. Damn! Should have made up a song about King Alfred burning the cakes.

 

Illustration by H. R. Millar from the 1911 edition of  Puck of Pook's Hill - image from Wikimedia Commons
Illustration by H. R. Millar from the 1911 edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill – image from Wikimedia Commons

The Harp Song of the Dane Women

September 27, 2020

Week 296 – The Long Peggin’ Awl

I learned this song from Folk Song in England by A.L.Lloyd, which I borrowed from my local public library in about 1976. Lloyd includes it as an example of the

profusion of humorous songs whose erotic metaphors concern the miller’s grinding stones, the weaver’s shuttle (and its to-and-from as he works at the loom the young woman carries beneath her apron), the blocking-iron of the priapic jolly tinker (‘She brought me though the kitchen and she brought me through the hall, and the servants cried: The devil, are you going to block us all?’), or the cobbler’s awl, as in this song recorded in 1954 from Harry Cox, the Norfolk singer, by Peter Kennedy.

(For examples of songs about those other trades see The Maid and the Miller on this blog, O.J. Abbott’s song ‘The Weaver’, and ‘The Jolly Tinker’ – preferably the version recorded in Mohill, County Leitrim, from the irrepressible Thomas Moran)

I stopped singing the song after a while, because I thought I’d got the tune wrong. I’m not sure why I didn’t just learn it again properly – especially as, I now realise, I had access to a recording of Harry Cox himself singing it on the LP Songs of Seduction which I had borrowed from the library, and recorded onto cassette without hesitation at the time or, indeed, regret at any time since. That was the first record I heard of traditional singers and it made a big impression on me. But I have absolutely no recollection of this song being on the LP – I could have sworn I only heard Harry Cox’s version on the expanded CD reissue put out by Rounder in 2000. Well, not for the first time just recently, I find that my memory is playing tricks on me – a sign of things to come, no doubt, as I enter my seventh decade!

We recorded a nice arrangement of this – with Benji Kirkpatrick on vocals – on the Magpie Lane CD Six for Gold and it was after this that I did finally learn the song properly. I’m not sure why I overlooked it while this blog was in its weekly heyday, but I’m glad to rectify the omission now. It’s only five verses, and lasts less than 2 minutes, but it’s still a joy to sing.

In case you don’t know what a cobbler’s awl looks like, here’s one from the 1840s, recovered at Erebus Bay, King William Island, up in the frozen North of Canada – abandoned by a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition.

Cobbler's awl: a relic of Sir John Franklin's last expedition 1845-48, from the National Maritime Museum.

Cobbler’s awl: a relic of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition 1845-48, from the National Maritime Museum.

The Long Peggin’ Awl

 

August 27, 2020

Week 295 – My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him

I’m not sure what brought this song to mind a few weeks back. My friend Mike and I learned it in the late seventies from the wonderful Silly Sisters LP. During the intervening years I’ve joined in the chorus numerous times at folk clubs, but don’t recall having sung the song itself. Still, it’s funny what sticks in the furthest recesses of your mind, and it didn’t take very much work to release these words from wherever they’d been hiding all these years. And then it seemed a shame not to post the song here, before I forgot all about it again.

I’d assumed this song came from – and had probably been “improved by” – A.L.Lloyd, and I’m at least partially right, I think. Lloyd prints a set of words in Folk Song in England which are similar (but not identical) to those collected by Sharp in 1904 from George Wyatt at Harptree, Somerset.

O Dear O, collected from George Wyatt, Harptree, Somerset. From the VWML archive catalogue.

O Dear O, collected from George Wyatt, Harptree, Somerset. From the VWML archive catalogue.

O Dear O, collected from George Wyatt, Harptree, Somerset. From the VWML archive catalogue.

The notes at the back of the book say “MS Text composite”, while the source for the minor key tune is, in typically vague, unverifiable fashion, given as “A.L.L. (Dorset 1939)”. In Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland, Peter Kennedy gives a Scottish version where much of the tune is major, but ends on the relative minor. The versions collected in the West Country, however, by Sharp and Hammond, share a tune which is definitely in the major key.

Listening to Lloyd singing the song on The Foggy Dew and Other Traditional English Love Songs, he is clearly the source of the minor key tune ubiquitous on the folk scene today (and which I sing here). But he actually delivers it in a gentler, more nuanced way, and the tune that he collected and/or concocted has more variety than the Silly Sisters’ rather stark version. While one may regret that Lloyd wasn’t more transparent with his sources, he was clearly a great performer (who I regret never having seen live); and when he “improved” a folk song, it pretty well always ended up, to contemporary ears at least, a better song.

He's got no courage in him - from Broadside Ballads Online

He’s got no courage in him – from Broadside Ballads Online

 

My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him

August 19, 2020

Week 294 – When You and I Were Young, Maggie

I always thought that I had first heard this song while watching Top of the Pops in early 1983, when I saw it performed in a pretty ghastly, slushy version by Foster & Allan (the song reached number 27 in the UK charts). However I see that De Dannan’s (obviously superior) recording of it, on The Star-Spangled Molly, came out in 1981, so I must have heard that one first. Either way, it never suggested itself as a song I would want to learn. A couple of months on from that Top of the Pops, I recorded ‘Maggie’ being sung by Charlie Bridger, which of course raised it in the authenticity stakes, as far as I was concerned; but it still wasn’t a song I really considered learning.

At some point in the 90s or 2000s I did toy with it, although I think I saw it mostly as a vehicle for a particular sort of parlour ballad concertina accompaniment. Then a few months ago, at a lockdown Zoom meeting of the Traditional Song Forum, Steve Roud mentioned this song. He said that he felt a particular affection for Southern English traditional singers, and also that there were songs to which he’d previously paid little attention but which, as he got older, seemed to have a greater resonance. He cited ‘Maggie’ as an example. Given that the song appears to have been recorded only a handful of times by English collectors, it may well have been Charlie’s version which he had in mind.

Prompted by this, I got the words out again and decided it was finally time to learn it properly. Initially I still saw it as a song which needed accompaniment, and over the next few weeks, on various boxes, I tried it in D, Eb, F and G. But – as with ‘The Isle of St. Helena’ – singing the song without an accompaniment, just to cement the words in my head, I found that I really liked it that way. It means I can sing more freely, and properly concentrate on the song. Also, I don’t have to compromise on what key to sing it in – G’s probably easiest for me to play a good anglo accompaniment, but it’s a bit too high… This way, I can sing it at whatever pitch I feel like on the day (E-ish in this recording!).

 

The following notes on the song’s origin were posted on Mudcat by Dale Young, who found them on a website about John McCormack, the Irish tenor:

According to the notes by Philip Lieson Miller for RCA LP ARL1-1698 (“When You and I Were Young Maggie.” Robert White, Tenor), this song commemorates one Maggie Clark, born in Glanford, Ontario. George Johnson also was born in this area, where he eventually became a teacher in a local school. The two became engaged and eventually married. The song alludes to features in the countryside there, including an old sawmill located on a creek near Maggie’s home. After marriage the two moved to Cleveland, but Maggie died less than a year later (in May 1865). She was buried near her old home, and Washington too came home to Canada, where he was a Professor at the University of Toronto. The poem was first published in 1864. After his wife’s death, Washington arranged for it to be set to music by Butterfield, who then lived in Detroit. He was a music teacher and minor composer, whose numerous other works are largely forgotten. The poem and the song attained great popularity in post-Civil War America. Maggie’s sister published this background information in 1941, in response apparently to various erroneous tales of its origins that had circulated.

I had thought of the song as being about an old couple, “aged and grey”, but still very much in love after all these years. Reading the notes above, at first I thought “ah no, it’s an old man still in love with his wife, even though she died years ago”. But hang on – he published the song in 1864, while his wife died the following year, in 1865. So it was actually written by a young, newly-married man, using his imagination to portray how he would feel in forty or fifty years’ time. You’ll find more detail in this 1933 article from the Canadian MacLean’s magazine.

There’s a completely different set of words sung to the same tune, where the last line of each verse is “And you said you loved only me”. According to that same Mudcat discussion, that version was written by Seàn O’Casey for his play The Plough and the Stars with the woman’s name changed to fit that of his lead female character, Nora Clitheroe. However, when Mary Black recorded this version with De Danann, to the annoyance of Noras worldwide, she changed the name back to Maggie.

 

 

When You And I Were Young Maggie, published by Oliver Ditson & Co., 451 Washington Street, Boston, 1866. From the Lester Levy Sheet Music collection.

When You And I Were Young Maggie, published by Oliver Ditson & Co., 451 Washington Street, Boston, 1866. From the Lester Levy Sheet Music collection.

 

 

When You and I Were Young, Maggie

August 5, 2020

Week 293 – Brigg Fair

It was on the fifth of August, the weather hot and fair,
Unto Brigg Fair I did repair, for love I was inclined.

I got up with the lark in the morning with my heart full of glee,
Expecting there to meet my dear, long time I wished to see.

Well it’s one of the undisputed gems of English traditional song, so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d learn this eventually. And clearly there’s only one day in the year when I could post it up here…

I would have first heard ‘Brigg Fair’ sung by Martin Carthy on the LP Byker Hill. The sleevenotes to that album refer to Percy Grainger’s cylinder recordings of Joseph Taylor, and say what a fine singer he was. I’d have also heard Martin’s recording of another Joseph Taylor song, ‘Creeping Jane’, around the same time. So when I spotted a copy of Unto Brigg Fair in Blackwell’s Music shop circa 1980, I bought it without a moment’s hesitation (what else was a student grant for?). And it’s a purchase I have never regretted. Frankly, it’s quite a privilege to be able to hear any recordings of traditional singers from the first decade of the 20th century – in Joseph Taylor’s case, a singer born in 1833, almost 4 years before the accession of Queen Victoria. That Percy Grainger should have encountered and recorded such a wonderful singer as Taylor; that those recordings survive in a reasonably playable form – well, truly we are blessed.

Joseph Taylor sang only the two verses given at the top of the page. The only other version ever collected was noted by Grainger in Brigg from a Mr Deene – who sang the same two verses. When Grainger published his choral arrangement of the song, he lengthened it by adding verses from ‘Low down in the broom’ and ‘The Merry King’ (a version of ‘Some rival has stolen my true love away’ which Grainger had collected in Wimbledon in 1905). I was leafing through some old copies of English Dance & Song recently, and came across these words in Vol XXII No 3, November/December 1957, with the following note:

The tune of this song is known the world over through Delius’ Rhapsody “Brigg Fair.” It was first collected in 1905 and recorded a year later by Percy Grainger when he went “collecting with the phonograph” in Lincolnshire. Joseph Taylor of Saxby-All-Saints, who sang it to him, had a very fine flexible voice and, as Grainger said, relied “more on purely vocal effects than almost any folk-singer I have come across.” Although he could remember only two verses, his son John who was recorded by the B.B.C. in 1944, remembered all six. John and his father are both dead, but their son and grandson, Joseph Taylor of Saxby has kindly given us permission to print the words and tune of this lovely song.

Actually, I don’t think John Taylor remembered the long-lost verses – I think he had, pragmatically, learned the verses assembled by Grainger (but where’s that 1944 BBC recording? I really want to hear his singing). Joseph Taylor’s grand-daughter, Marion Hudson, from whom Francis Collinson noted the song in 1944 (he subsequently published a vocal and piano arrangement) sang pretty much the same words, but omitted the “I catched hold of her lily-white hand” verse.

Anyway, I decided it was high time I learned this beautiful song, and I’ve really been enjoying singing it these last few weeks. I’ve also enjoyed digging around on the internet for information about the song. For instance, I found an article in the Spring 2001 issue of The Delius Society Journal which focuses on Grainger and Delius, but gives a lot of useful background on Brigg, the annual Brigg Fair (established in a charter granted by King John in 1236) and how this song came to be collected. As well as some pretty spurious stuff about traditional song melodies and lyrics.

My best find though – transcribed, edited and put online by someone who I’ve actually known since about 1976, but who I had totally forgotten was a descendent of Joseph Taylor – was this: Brigg Fair: A memoir of Joseph Taylor by his grand-daughter E Marion Hudson. It’s a charming piece of writing, providing a very warm and affectionate of her grandfather, and giving us a fuller view of Joseph Taylor as more than just a traditional singer. But there is a lot about singing and music in the memoir. Joseph Taylor himself had a great love for music, and the whole family was musical. For instance

Uncle John who had inherited Grandpa’s voice. He was invited to become a member of a Cathedral Choir but preferred his farm. He sang at many concerts and won every Festival for which he entered. He was asked to sing ‘Brigg Fair’ at one of the Anniversaries of the Festival and made a record for the B.B.C. Many people cannot distinguish between his and Grandpa’s voice. He died as he lived – singing.

Now I really want to hear that BBC record!

And here’s Mrs Hudson’s account of how Joseph Taylor learned “that song”

The manner in which Grandpa learnt the song is a fascinating story. One evening when he returned from work, his mother told him that the gipsies had arrived, as they did each year at that time. The same thing would be happening to other tribes around North Lincolnshire as Brigg was annual meeting point where they gathered to exchange news and have jollifications – they still do.

He had been awaiting their arrival with impatience, since he loved their singing. So as soon as possible he dashed off to the “pit” where he knew they would make camp. Straight up the steep main road to his stand-point, a gate on the right-hand side. This led to a rough cart track on the edge of the field leading to the pit. The next night he went again, but being braver, this time he went along the track to the second gate which was the entrance to the pit. Now he could see the camp and its occupants. The following night he perched there again, little thinking what the consequences would be, not only to him but to all lovers of Folk Music. As soon as he was settled on top of the gate, he saw the leader of the group coming towards him. At first he thought he was going to be sent away, but no! the man was smiling and obviously not hostile. When he reached the gate he said “Young man, you like our singing.” It was a statement not a question. The gipsies had obviously been aware of him the previous evenings. He had been on trial and passed the test. Music is a wonderful leveller and in no condescending manner but with dignity, the lad was invited to join the revels. He was led into the camp by the “King” and received as an honoured guest. He was seated beside the King, in the circle around the camp fire, on which the evening meal was cooking. Song followed song and in later years he sang them to his grandchildren.

The song, Brigg Fair, was sung by one of the young gipsies and obviously came from the heart.

She also writes about the performance of Delius’ orchestral arrangement of ‘Brigg Fair’ at which Joseph Taylor was guest of honour, but doesn’t mention the often-repeated story that Taylor couldn’t help singing along. In fact, Patrick O’Shaughnessy, in his Twenty One Lincolnshire Folk Songs says

Mrs Hudson, however, challenges this, allowing only that he might have “hummed a wee bit”.

 

Market place in Brigg, Lincolnshire, ca. 1905. Image copyright the British Library.

Market place in Brigg, Lincolnshire, ca. 1905. Image copyright the British Library.

You can hear Grainger’s 1908 recording of ‘Brigg Fair’ on the British Library website.

And you can hear several other recordings of both Joseph Taylor and his daughter Mary singing ‘Brigg Fair’ on the British Library Sounds website – but not if you use Chrome or MS Edge! Unfortunately none of the recordings on the site seems to be playable using those browsers at the moment, but they do play in Firefox (although even with that browser I found that longer recordings just stopped before they reached the end). Hopefully the BL technical elves will sort this problem out eventually. I was very interested to hear Peter Kennedy’s recording of Mary Taylor, made at Saxby All Saints in 1953 when she was 82. Kennedy’s notes on the tape give an idea of what the recording itself contains

PK when you were young, you remember him singing. Used to sit round winters evenings. Church choir. Brother John was beautiful singer. Everyone of us used to sing – choral society at Saxby. Used to go into each others houses and harmonium. My father also used to play the violin, always singing to violin then piano. PK J.T. didn’t sing with harmonium? The fiddle and unaccompanied. PK in what sort of way? Sit back in chair and put up his head. Sang because he loved to sing and liked us all to sing. Very proud. PK Style? The turns and twiddles that you don’t hear nowadays.

She also talks about the famous singing competition in Brigg where Joseph Taylor won first prize; she says that the family “think” that he learned ‘Brigg Fair’ from gipsies; and confirms that Mr Taylor just hummed along – rather than sang out loud – when he first heard Delius’ Rhapsody based on the song.

Finally, let’s reproduce this from Marion Hudson’s memoir.

Percy Grainger’s Estimate of MR. JOSEPH TAYLOR OF SAXBY-ALL-.SAINTS – LINCOLNSHIRE.

Is bailiff on a big estate, having formerly been estate woodman and carpenter.

Though his age is seventy-five his looks are those of middle age, while his flowing, ringing tenor voice is well nigh as fresh as that of his son, who has repeatedly won the first prize for tenor solo at the North Lincolnshire musical competitions. He has sung in the choir of Saxby-all-Saints Church for forty-five years. He is a courteous, genial, typical English countryman, and a perfect artist in the purest possible style of folk-song singing. Though his memory for words is not uncommonly good, his mind is a seemingly unlimited storehouse of melodies, which he swiftly recalls at the merest mention of their titles; and his versions are generally distinguished by the beauty of their melodic curves and symmetry of their construction.

He relies more on purely vocal effects than almost any folk singer I have come across. His dialect and treatment of narrative points are not so exceptional but his effortless high notes, sturdy rhythms, clean, unmistakable intervals, and his twiddles and “bleating” ornaments (invariably executed with unfailing grace and neatness) are irresistable.

He most intelligently realizes just what sort of songs collectors are after [an interesting comment on the collector-source singer relationship! AT], distinguishes surprisingly between genuine traditional tunes and other ditties, and is, in every way, a marvel of helpfulness and kindliness. Nothing could be more refreshing than his hale countrified looks and the happy lilt of his cheery voice.

Facsimile of the insert from the 1908 HMV release 'Percy Grainger's Collection of English Folk-Songs sung by Genuine Peasant Performers'

Facsimile of the insert from the 1908 HMV release ‘Percy Grainger’s Collection of English Folk-Songs sung by Genuine Peasant Performers’ – from Wikipedia

Label from Library of Congress disc copy made in 1940 from Grainger's original wax cylinder recordings. From the British Library Sounds website.

Label from Library of Congress disc copy made in 1940 from Grainger’s original wax cylinder recordings. From the British Library Sounds website.

 

Brigg Fair

July 25, 2020

Week 292 – The Isle of St Helena

When I first became interested in folk song, in my late teens, my local library had four collections of traditional songs: Garners Gay by Fred Hamer, Baring-Gould’s Folk Songs of the West Country, a Cecil Sharp volume – probably Folk Songs from Somerset – and The Singing Island by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. Garners Gay had the longest lasting impact, certainly in terms of the number of songs I learned from it, but The Singing Island was important too, and something Seeger and MacColl say in the introduction has always stayed with me. They tackle the question – as I think was common in sixties and seventies folk song books – of how to accompany folk songs. They say (or at least, this is what I remember them saying, 40-odd years later) that you should always learn the song first, before trying to work out an accompaniment. Now, I’ve broken that rule on numerous occasions, but it really does make a lot of sense. I certainly find that the only way to get a song’s words into my head is to sing it over and over – at home, in the car, doing the washing up – without part of my brain being preoccupied with what buttons to press on my concertina. But more importantly, singing a song like that, you can actually get to know it properly – knowing the words is essential of course, but it is only part of the story.

The only problem is that, increasingly, having sung a song unaccompanied while learning it, I then decide that’s the way I want to sing it – without any of the rhythmic restrictions imposed by an accompaniment. And thus, today I present an unaccompanied rendition of a song which I’d always visualised as wanting an accompaniment, and for which I had a pretty reasonable concertina accompaniment well on the way. But right now, I just feel like I want to sing it more freely than I could if I added an accompaniment.

I was first introduced to ‘The Isle of St Helena’ by Chris Wood in around 1983 or 1984. He’d learned it from Mary Black’s singing with De Dannan. As I recall, someone we knew was doing the sound for De Dannan’s tour, and he invited Chris along to be his assistant at their London gig. Afterwards, Chris was raving about the band in general – and who wouldn’t be? – but this song in particular. So much so that he learned it, at a time when Chris didn’t actually have many songs in his repertoire.

I always admired the song, but only properly considered learning it about 8 years ago, when a bootleg recording of Mary Black singing this live with De Dannan on a BBC radio programme surfaced on the internet. It’s beautifully sung and arranged (although unfortunately with a jump in the middle – perhaps the home taper had to turn their cassette over at that point?). And it reminded me what a great song it is. By then, of course, unlike the 1980s, it was easy to find various versions of the words. My verses are compiled from this broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland and various other sources including this American site, which is where I found the rather wonderful penultimate verse. Actually there’s several English, Scottish and American versions at Broadside Ballads Online, and it seems the song survived well in oral tradition in America, having been collected by Frank and Anne Warner, among others. Some of the rhymes for St Helena are rather spurious – ‘misdemeanour’ works, but even if I stuck to the Scots ‘winna’ instead of ‘will not’, that one’s a bit tenuous.

St. Helena - broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland

St. Helena – broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland

I did perform this once in public back in about 2013, at an outdoor party where I’m not sure anyone was really listening, with accompaniment from Tom Miller and Joe Turner. That was a one-off, and it had remained one of those songs that, at the back of my mind, are labelled “must do something with this one day”. And then I was reminded of it once more by the song’s inclusion on this lovely new album by George Sansome, from the band Granny’s Attic. Do check that record out – you can listen to it for free, but please do George the courtesy of paying to download it, or even better, buy a physical CD; like many other folk musicians, George will have been unable to gig for the last 5 months, and probably for several months to come, so will no doubt appreciate your support.

Incidentally, if you want to listen to other versions online, with a bit of searching you’ll find recordings of the song by Mary Black (although not with De Dannan), Frank Harte and Donal Lunny, and even (rather lo-fi but to be treasured) a bootleg tape of Nic Jones singing it in a folk club in 1972.

 

The Isle of St Helena

July 23, 2020

Week 291 – Come Write Me Down

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know that I’m a big fan of the Copper Family. This must have been one of the first Copper songs that I learned, which means I must have been singing it for very nearly 44 years. Towards the end of our wedding reception – 32 years ago today – Carol and I led a mass rendition of this in the Geoffrey Chaucer School hall in Canterbury. And a couple of years ago we did the same again, during a party at a local village hall here in Oxfordshire. The recording below provides evidence that Carol and I number some very good singers among our friends.

I had it in mind that my mate Bob (“Bob the Curator” as he likes to be known) had sent me this recording. But actually, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a phone capable of making such a good recording at the time. So maybe it was Cathy, who I’ve known literally my entire life? Or Eric? Whoever it was, thank you for recording this, and apologies for my failing memory (getting old you know!).

And massive thanks, of course, to all our friends.

1988

Andy & Carol leading Come Write Me Down, 2018

2018. Same song, different beer.

Normally in these blog posts I write about where the song comes from. But this morning, I can’t be bothered – you’ll find plenty of details on Reinhard Zierke’s excellent Mainly Norfolk site. Meanwhile, here’s a broadside printing of the song, entitled ‘Second thoughts are best’.

Second Thoughts Are Best, from Broadside Ballads Online

Second Thoughts Are Best, from Broadside Ballads Online

 

Come Write Me Down

 

July 18, 2020

Week 290 – The Parting Glass

I consider myself lucky that I was around on the folk scene at a time when you could still see traditional performers at certain festivals and folk clubs. In the 1980s and early 90s I saw singers such as Johnny Doughty, Fred Jordan, Walter Pardon, Jeff Wesley, Packie Byrne, Frank Hinchcliffe, Freddie McKay and Willie Scott. And, of course, the famous Stewarts of Blairgowrie. I first saw them in 1980 at the first Downs Festival of Traditional Singing in Newbury, and I’m pretty sure Belle, Sheila and Cathy were all there. Over the years I saw various members of the family at the National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington and, to be honest, I probably didn’t fully appreciate at the time just how lucky I was to do so.

Belle Stewart, the matriarch of the family, was a wonderful singer – her singing of ‘Queen Among the Heather’ on the Topic album of the same name is, in my opinion, one of the finest things ever recorded. Sheila Stewart had a harsher voice, but she could still deliver a moving rendition of tender ballads like ‘The Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie’ or ‘Wi’ My Dog & Gun’. And when she sang a rousing chorus song – boy could she belt it out! The one I associate most with her was ‘Jock Stewart’ – I remember that she sang this as the closing song at the end of the National Festival, whichever year it was in the 1990s that Fred Jordan had overdone it somewhat, and had to be taken to hospital. With her powerful voice, and a room full of festival-goers singing along, she could really raise the roof.

Sheila Stewart. Photograph by Doc Rowe, from The Guardian.

Sheila Stewart. Photograph by Doc Rowe, from The Guardian.

I had forgotten about ‘The Parting Glass’ until last year, when Doc Rowe played a collection of his video recordings at the Musical Traditions Club’s weekend festival. One of the recordings Doc played was Sheila Stewart singing this, and I was reminded of just what a powerful song it was – in her hands at least. It’s included on the 1999 Topic album From The Heart Of The Tradition (recorded, as it happens, by Doc Rowe), but I learned it from this wonderful live recording made at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, in 2003 or 2004.

I’ve found myself listening to this quite often during lockdown, and in the end I couldn’t resist learning it. I was able to sing this out for the first time on Thursday night, at the Islington Folk Club’s Zoom session, and that proved that, yes I had learned all the words, so it’s properly in my repertoire now – in fact I’ve just written the title down in my little black book. The song seems to have a particular resonance at the moment, when we can’t all meet together with our loved ones, or our friends and companions, and when, quite literally, “we may or might never all meet here again”. Keep safe out there, people. Listen to the scientists, not this joke of a government.

 

The Parting Glass