I first heard this circa 1977, as the conclusion to Shirley and Dolly Collins’ magnificent Anthems in Eden Suite. I’ve always liked the song, but it had not occurred to me to learn it until a year or so ago. With Whitsun approaching, a few weeks back I thought I’d better get on with it. Having been so familiar with the song for so long, I was surprised to find that I had to apply quite some effort to get the words into my head. But here it is, and I’m really glad I made the effort – it really is a good song.
It was written in the late 1960s by Shirley’s then husband, Austin John Marshall, whose comments on the song can be found on the Mainly Norfolk site:
Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris.
Dancers at Ilmington, with fiddler Sam Bennett. 1920s? From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.
I suppose there probably weren’t many women’s morris teams in the sixties when Austin John Marshall wrote these words, but by the time I got involved in the folk scene in the late 1970s they were very much in evidence, and I’ve always associated the ladies dancing at Whitsun with morris rather than country dance. There will be many out dancing this Whitsun weekend, so here’s to the Esperance, and these unknown (to me) women dancing at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1912, and morris teams such as Windsor and Oyster, who started in the 1970s and are still going strong.
Morris dancers at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1912. From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.
P.S. I do realise that Whit Sunday was actually two weeks ago, but Bampton still refer to their annual day of dance as Whit Monday, and that’s good enough for me.
I’m not entirely sure where or when I learned this song. Almost certainly not from Cyril Tawney himself, although I did see him two or three times in the early eighties. I think I must have picked the song up from a floorsinger at the Faversham Folk Club. These days you can find the words to pretty much any song with a quick web search, but in those pre-Internet days I just sang the words as I remembered them.
Checking now what the composer himself sang, I see I’ve introduced some minor variations, but nothing to alter the spirit of the song. And in fact I think Cyril Tawney approved of variation, as part of the song’s absorption into the collective consciousness (or folk tradition, if you prefer). You can read about the background to the song here.
As Cyril noted, the song is lyrically, though not melodically, structured like a blues. And possibly this is the closest thing I’ll be posting here to a twelve-bar blues, as I don’t think I have any examples of the real thing in my repertoire.
There’s a long history of poets and songwriters, from Robbie Burns through W.B. Yeats and Ewan MacColl to Bob Dylan, writing verse inspired by, based on or adapted from traditional songs. In the British folk revival, there have been many attempts to write new songs “in a traditional style”. Often the results are little more than pastiche; or else sound less like a traditional folk song, and more like the kind of nineteenth century broadside ballad which would never have entered the tradition in a million years. Some have succeeded however – Roger Watson and Martin Graebe spring to mind – in creating new songs which retain the structure and form of traditional song, but have a value in their own right. I’d say Richard Thompson also succeeded in doing this, with his ‘Little Beggar Girl’, while Chris Wood’s ‘Hollow Point’ makes no attempt to sound like an old song, but shows how traditional lyrics can be woven into a powerful new composition. And Dylan, to this day, weaves snatches of traditional song lyrics into his compositions.
But to mind, this song, written by Bob Davenport and set to a traditional tune (‘The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite’), comes closest to sounding like a traditional song – and being a really good song in its own right. I learned it from the LP 1977 by Bob Davenport and the Rakes, released on Topic in… oh, you’re ahead of me.
Another one from John Kirkpatrick. This was on his 1984 solo LP, Three In A Row: The English Melodeon, which featured mainly self-composed tunes played on one- and two-row melodeons, and three-row button accordion. And which is probably the record I would pull out if I ever had to demonstrate why John is not only my favourite anglo player, but also my favourite melodeon player.
There are two songs on the album: a lovely version of ‘A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, and this fine love song. If you saw John performing this at the time, you may remember that the accordion accompaniment featured his unique “hammering on” style. Not able to match that, I sing it unaccompanied.
This song was written by John Kirkpatrick, but I learned it from Martin Carthy’s 1971 LP Landfall. The song is written in the extremely rare Locrian mode. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only song I’ve ever heard in that mode. It’s only recently that I’ve got my head round the modes (and I still can’t exactly remember which one’s which). But to check out for yourself what the Locrian sounds like, play a scale on a piano keyboard, starting on a B and using only the white notes. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? And yet, somehow, while there is a certain strangeness about the tune of ‘Dust to Dust’, it doesn’t sound completely outlandish or contrived (and it’s just right for the macabre subject matter of the song). John must still have been quite young when he wrote this piece. Early twenties, I’d guess. I don’t know if there was anything in particular that prompted him to write this, or if it was just an interesting challenge for a budding songwriter. When I learned the song – in my early twenties – I’d had very little exposure to death. As the years roll by, however, we are all inevitably affected by death, and it has become increasingly apparent that, not only has John Kirkpatrick concocted a wonderfully memorable tune, but there’s also a lot of wisdom in the words of this song . My Mum died earlier this year, but she had lived to a fairly ripe old age, was very frail, and had dementia, so her death was a welcome release (indeed a close family friend referred to her funeral as a “joyous celebration”, which is exactly what it was). The deaths that have affected me most deeply have been those of my musical friends, Howard Salt and Dave Parry, both from cancer; and babies Edmund (still-born) and Patrick (born with cystic fibrosis, lived just a few weeks) who both died at a time when we were expecting our second child, and only months after my Dad’s death from cancer. Death come early, death come late… The song’s lyrics draw very heavily, of course, on words from the Anglican funeral service, and other biblical passages. The refrain is from the Order for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer:
Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the Priest shall say, FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
while the lines
Rich and poor all go the same, I’ll bury you all there is no favour. Don’t spend your life in seeking gain, No gold from death will ever save you
remind me of this wonderful verse from Sternhold and Hopkins’ “Old Version” of Psalm 39
Man walketh like a shade, and doth in vain himself annoy, In getting goods, and cannot tell who shall the same enjoy.
And the whole song (like this traditional song) shares the sentiment of this passage from the Anglican burial service:
When they come to the grave, while the corpse is made ready to be laid into the earth, the Priest shall say, or the Priest and Clerks shall sing: MAN that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death…
When my Dad died, I had been to only a couple of funerals, and had not particularly thought about what to expect. I was brought up sharp when, following behind the coffin, at the entrance to the Church the vicar intoned that passage. The truth contained in it was brought into sharper focus by the rather Gothic language (and not diminished by the fact that, personally, I have no sure and certain hope of eternal life). Twenty years on, at my Mum’s funeral, I don’t recall that passage being used – or if it was, it was in a more modern translation. But really, for the sheer majesty of the words, you can’t beat the Authorised Version.
The Sir John & Elizabeth Smythe memorial, St Mary’s Church, Ashford, Kent. Photo from geograph.org.uk
In the 1970s I spent hours in record shops, flicking through the racks – rarely buying, just reading the backs of the album sleeves. Thus I was aware of Richard Thompson – ex-member of Fairport, played in the Albion Country Band but left before they recorded Battle of the Field – long before I had ever heard his music. I think the first time I heard him on record would have been on Morris On, or possibly Liege and Lief – in either case several years after those records were originally released. The first time I heard him centre stage was the Richard and Linda Thompson album Hokey Pokey. They had a copy of that in the local record library. It stood out because of its eye-catching cover, but also grabbed my attention because I knew of several of the supporting musicians (Aly Bain, John Kirkpatrick, Simon Nicol) from other records. That record gets a bit of a bad press from some critics, mainly because of the inclusion of several rather lightweight songs, like ‘Smiffy’s Glass Eye’ and ‘Georgie on a Spree’. OK, those tracks might not appear in a Richard Thompson Top 20, but they’re perfectly good songs. I have always had, and still have, quite a soft spot for the album. And it certainly isn’t without a few RT gems: ‘Never Again’, ‘A Heart Needs a Home’ and the dark self-loathing of ‘I’ll Regret It All in the Morning’. (Incidentally the library’s copy jumped in a couple of places on the title track; when I bought myself a clean copy from a stall in Ashford market it took some while to get used to hearing the line “It’s the best that they ever did sell”, which previously I’d always heard as “It’s the bell”).
If asked to name my favourite Richard and Linda Thompson album I might mention Shoot out the lights but would probably plump for the austere beauty of Pour down like silver. But actually that’s mere posturing. Deep down everyone knows that their greatest album was the first, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. That’s one of those records where it’s not just a case of saying “there’s not a dud track on it”; every song is a Thompson classic: ‘The Great Valerio’, ‘Withered and died’, ‘Has he got a friend for me?’, the title track and, of course, this song, which – understandably – has become a folk club standard. I don’t think I have anything to say about the song itself, except to note in passing that, for a man who doesn’t drink, Richard Thompson has written a lot of good songs about drunks.
This recording was made a couple of weeks ago when we went to stay with our very good friends Nick and Liz Passmore in Powys. I took the opportunity of Nick’s multi-instrumental talents to record a few songs for the blog, and these will be dropped in at strategic intervals over the next few months (one, in fact, has been earmarked as appropriate to mark the end of the fourth year of this blog). I don’t think Nick and I had ever played any of these songs together before, but we’d known them for 35 years or more – i.e. for at least as long as we’ve known each other.
You may have seen Nick dancing with the Shropshire Bedlams. He featured on (indeed he played one of my compositions on) the Fflach squeezebox compilation Megin. In the late 80s / early 90s he was a member of what I think was the final line-up of Crows, and also played alongside Chris Wood, Chris Taylor and me in the dance band Polkabilly. And if you were around in the Canterbury area in the 1970s you would have known him as one of the mainstays of Duke’s Folk, the renowned folk club run by Dixie Fletcher at the Duke of Cumberland in Whitstable. That club was a veritable hotbed of talent, including among its regulars Fiddler’s Dram, and the members of the Oyster Ceilidh Band. In those days Nick mainly played guitar, mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, whistle and flute. Since then he has added anglo-concertina, melodeon and fiddle to the list (and quite probably several others) while with Polkabilly he’d also play a bit of piano, if the venue had one. When we played the Dance House in Cricklade, while we played the final waltz the piano was actually lifted off the stage by several strong men, to make sure the Town Hall caretaker didn’t realise it had ever been lifted onto the stage in the first place… Fortunately Nick was playing one of his other instruments at the time.
With Nick Passmore – session at the Whitby Festival 1989. (The elbow on the right of the shot belongs to Northumbrian fiddle-player Willy Taylor).
Bing Lyle. Photo from the Brighton Acoustic Session blog.
I don’t sing very many modern songs in public, but occasionally I come across a song and know immediately that I want to learn it. That was the case with ‘Between the Wars’ and it was the case with this one too. It was written by Bing Lyle, and I first heard him sing the song at Wingham Folk Club, near Canterbury, circa 1986.
I’d known Bing a bit for some years – he would occasionally turn up at Oyster Morris / Band events and turn in a crowd-pleasing performance of, say, ‘I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande’, or ‘Little Red Rooster’. I got to know him better in the mid-1980s, when we both found ourselves living in Faversham for a few years. Having heard him sing this at Wingham, and decided that I wanted to learn the song, I then had to wait some years before I heard it again. He moved away to Brighton, then I moved to Oxford, and although our paths would cross from time to time, it seemed to be in situations where Bing was singing more traditional material (we were both involved, for instance, with The Keys of Canterbury, Pete Castle’s first Kent-themed compilation). In the nineties, however, Bing teamed up with fiddle-player Ben Paley, and they recorded the CD We are melting. Which, among a number of other good songs written by Bing, included ‘Painting the Town’.
I have unconsciously changed the tune a bit over the years. And consciously changed one of the lines. In the last verse, the original lyrics say “a million to one, it’s not you”. I learned the song round about the time the National Lottery was launched, in which the odds of winning were famously calculated to be around 14 million to one. So the odds of achieving happiness on “the big wheel of happiness” were correspondingly lengthened.
You’ll search the Internet in vain, I’m afraid, for a Bing Lyle web page. There’s not even a photo of him on the website of the Sussex Pistols, the Brighton-based dance band he plays with. However, I was pleased to find this 2011 video of him singing ‘Painting the Town’ at the (sadly now defunct) Royal Oak folk club in Lewes.
Well here we go, Year 4 of the blog starts here… with two songs which are completely unrelated, except for the fact that I sing them both in C, with anglo-concertina accompaniment.
I believe ‘Old John Braddalum’ comes from the Sussex singer Bob Blake, although I never heard him singing it. I learned it from my friend Adrian Russell, who got to see Bob Blake, Bob Lewis, George Spicer and quite a number of Sussex singers at festivals and other events in the seventies, just slightly before I was interested in folk, or had the means to get to such happenings. At my request, Adrian sent me the words of the song so I could learn it to sing it to my eldest child Joe, when he was first born. I used to sing it to him unaccompanied, but very soon worked out an anglo accompaniment. It’s one of several accompaniments that I play on the C/G anglo where I contrive to insert an Eb chord, whether the song needs it or not.
The Roud Index lists Bob Blake’s song as one of only five versions listed under Roud number 1857. These include one collected from Bampton morris man Francis Shergold – although his (in common, I suspect, with the other versions listed) is a counting song. It has a chorus “With a rum tum taddle um, old John Braddleum, Jolly country folks we be”, but I think that’s where the similarity ends. It strikes me that the version I sing is in fact a version of Roud 469, ‘The Foolish Boy’ / ‘The Swapping Song’, a much more frequently collected song.
In live performance I tend to follow ‘Old John Braddalum’ with George Formby’s ‘Leaning on a Lamp-post’ (written by Noel Gay), and do so here. I worked out the accompaniment about thirty years ago, from the printed sheet music. As I had no idea at the time what sus and dim chords were, I worked them out from the ukulele tabs – once I’d discovered how a ukulele was tuned! I no longer have a copy of the sheet music, so I’ve no idea how far the chords I play now have strayed from the original. I do know, having actually heard George Formby singing it all the way through, that while I may have got the chords right, I’ve got the timing and the rhythm for the introduction completely wrong . I would say “oh well, that’s the oral tradition”, except of course I (mis)learned it from print. Still, I like it this way. Hope you do too.
Billy Bragg ‘Between the wars’ EP sleeve, from Wikipedia.
By my reckoning, the first time I sang this song in public must have been just over 29 years ago.
I can’t swear that I heard Billy Bragg’s first, mushroom biryani-inspired airplay on the John Peel show. But I’d heard his early Peel sessions, and admired both his songs and his attitude (although back then, the suggestion that he might one day appear on the bill at folk festivals, still less on the panel of Question Time, would have seemed quite preposterous). I first saw him, with my friend Adrian, in October 1984, in a sports hall at the University of Kent at Canterbury. This was part of the famous “Hank, Frank and Billy” tour, with Frank Chickens and the Hank Wangford Band.
I knew the songs from Life’s a Riot and, although it had only just come out, I was also familiar with quite a lot of the songs on Brewing Up from the Peel show. Of the new songs, the one which really made an impression was Between the Wars. A week or so later Billy was In Concert on Radio 1, and I had a cassette ready. That was early Saturday evening. The following lunchtime, at a small session at the Shipwright’s at Hollow Shore, I sang this for the first time.
Thereafter, I sang it wherever I went. The Oysterband certainly had it from me, and I think I was the first person Martin Carthy heard singing the song. That was in one of those lovely semi-formal singing sessions you used to get at the National Folk Festival at Sutton Bonington, in March or April 1985. By that time, of course, the Between the Wars EP had been released, and Billy was climbing up the singles chart (here he is singing the song on Top of the Pops). Naturally I included the song on my 1990 album Love Death and the Cossack.
This is a new recording from a couple of weeks ago. I have to confess that I could reach those top Gs with rather greater facility back in 1990 – judge for yourself at andyturner.bandcamp.com/track/between-the-wars – but frankly, I’m amazed I can still get them at all. And I still get a real buzz out of singing the song. Although born out of the conflict of the Thatcher years, specifically the bitter, year-long Miners’ strike, the sentiments of the song do not go out of date.
There has been no shortage of “skies all dark with bombers” over the last thirty years. And how about
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man