I was out for a walk recently when, suddenly, a great flock of birds rose up from an adjoining field, circled for a bit, then flew away. Which immediately brought this song to mind.
It’s the last song in Bob Copper’s 1973 book Songs and Southern Breezes, which of course chronicles Bob’s time as a folk song collector, including some years spent away from his beloved Sussex, running a pub at Cheriton in Hampshire. I can’t recall if the song is mentioned in the text of the book as having been collected from a specific singer; maybe it was just universally known in those parts.
But funnily enough, in case you thought this was a quintessentially Hampshire song, the Full English has one other version – collected from Albert Bromley of Shotley in Suffolk, and entitled ‘I wish I were back home in Suffolk’. I suppose those pesky blackbirds get all over the country…
The memory is a bit fuzzy at the edges, but I have a very clear recollection of the first time I heard ‘The Nutting Girl’. The occasion was the annual House Music competition at my school, and I reckon it would have been in the Spring of 1975. I was in Burra House, and no doubt would have played some part in the competition. Maybe this was the year I played ‘Stranger on the Shore’ on the trumpet. Whatever I did, I’m sure it was instantly forgettable – unless, of course, it was so bad that the audience found they couldn’t forget it, no matter how hard they tried.
Barrett were commonly reckoned the House to beat in the three cultural competitions: Drama, Debating and Music. They had at least three really good piano players: Dave Finch, who was in my year, and Terry Creissen and Barnaby Vafidis, who were a year or two older. On this occasion, Terry Creissen came on stage with Tim Bull (later a dancer with Mr Jorrocks Morris, and melodeon-player with the dance band Florida) and, if memory serves, Terry’s older brother Gary, and Matthew Vafidis, older brother of the aforementioned Barnaby. They had with them a big book of songs by Beethoven, but what they sang – unaccompanied – was ‘The Nutting Girl’.
Now I can’t claim that I had some sort of Damascene conversion (that came, if my chronology is right, some 8 or 9 months later, after seeing Steeleye Span on Top of the Pops). But the memory of having heard this song sung on the school stage has stayed with me.
I subsequently discovered that the boys were dancing with Headcorn Morris. And I think it’s a fair bet that they had learned this song from the performance by John Kirkpatrick on Morris On. It would be another 2 or 3 years before I heard that album, by which time I had already heard a field recording of ‘The Nutting Girl’ being sung by Cyril Poacher in the famous Blaxhall Ship. This was in a recording made by Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax in 1954, and included on the LP Songs of Seduction, which was the first record I borrowed on joining my local public library’s record department. It’s very much a live recording, with plenty of audience participation and, naturally, calls from the “Chairman” Wicketts Richardson for “order please”.
I’ve heard it said that Cyril had another pint before each new take of this song, which is why there is, as it were, a certain lack of continuity between the takes. In fact, in the notes to the Musical Traditions CD Plenty of Thyme Rod Stradling puts the number of takes as nineteen – in which case, it’s not surprising if Cyril seems slightly the worse for wear by the end; in fact it’s a wonder he was still standing at all!
Those notes also tell us that Cyril learned the song from his maternal grandfather, William ‘Cronie’ Ling:
My grandfather Cronie Ling would put me on his knee and sing The Nutting Girl – that was the first song I heard, and he used to let me smoke his pipe too.
From the photo below it would appear that not only the song, but also the pipe-smoking habit stayed with him.
Cyril Poacher – photo from the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust website
“The nut girl” broadside ballad from the Bodleian Library collection. Printed by J. Pitts, Seven Dials, London between 1819 and 1844.
Charlie himself learned the song from an old boy called Nip Bailey. Here’s an extract from my interview with Charlie on 15th April 1983:
Andy: Nip Bailey was it?
Charlie: Yeah, old Nip.
Andy: Was he the one that worked in the oasts?
Charlie: That’s right, he was the old hop-drier. He couldn’t see very well; I used to go and level his hops for him, ’cause he couldn’t …the old driers they had a chalk mark – red charcoal mark – round the roundel, you know, so if they had so many bags of hops, or so many pokes of hops, they knew that should come up to that certain mark, see, and he couldn’t see that old mark… [?] was dark, I remember an old storm lantern hanging up for a light in there. And I used to help the old boy with his hop-drying, of a night.
Andy: Was that Woodchurch?
Charlie: No that was Kenardington …on the corner; not the square ones, the single one right on the corner. High House Farm. There’s tomatoes and that they grow there now …an old man named Benny Coveney had that then; old bachelor.
Adrian Russell: Was he well known locally as a singer?
Charlie: No, he was known for singing ‘The Birds upon the trees’, that was all. He used to like a sing-song though, you know. Oh no, he was only known in Woodchurch really for his song ‘The Birds upon the trees’, that’s what they always used to associate him with, for his singing. My old grandfather used to say “Come on Nip”; he used to get his cornet out, my old grandfather; old Nip used to sing, and he used to play. In the pub, this was. Have you got ‘The Birds upon the trees’ taped, have you?
Andy: No, no.
Charlie: Oh, you don’t know the tune then do you?
Birds upon the tree by W. C. Robey, published New York: Hitchcock’s Music Store, 1882. From the Library of Congress Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music collection.
The song was actually written bythe American lyricist and composer W.C. Robey, and first published in New York in 1882. The sheet music can be viewed on the Library of Congress Music for the Nation website – you’ll see that the oral tradition has introduced changes both to the words and the melody.
The Roud Index lists only two other collected versions: one recorded in the 1950s from Tom Brodie in Cumberland, which can be heard on a Veteran CD Pass the Jug Round ; and the other, intriguingly, collected by Percy Grainger from the great Joseph Taylor.
In the extract above, Charlie talks about his grandfather getting his cornet out to accompany this song: in fact Charlie’s father (also Charles) and his grandfather (Tom) both played in the Woodchurch Band, and Charlie himself joined the band when just a boy. There is a photo of the band from the early 1920s, when Charlie was maybe 9 or 10, with him sitting cross-legged in the front, holding a clarinet. The photo shown here is obviously earlier, but both Charlie’s father and grandfather are included in the group.
Woodchurch Band: from a copy of the photo provided to me by Charlie Bridger. Charlie’s father (Charles) and grandfather (Tom) are both in this photo.
Charlie played with a number of wind and brass bands during his life. When I met him in 1983 he was a member of the Cranbrook Band – playing tenor horn, I believe – and he continued to perform with them until well into his seventies.
Clearly this was an important part of his life; and as a boy it was one way in which he was exposed to, and started to learn, the old songs. Charlie and his Dad would walk over the fields from Kenardington to Woodchurch for band practices (a couple of miles or so); then after the practice there would be a trip to the pub with, often, a sing-song. Indeed the music-making didn’t necessarily stop there – another song Charlie sang me, ‘Won’t you buy my pretty flowers’, used to be sung by “old Frank Samson”
He used to play in the old Woodchurch Band, he used to play tenor horn, and he used to play that on the way home through the fields…
The Birds upon the Tree
The Birds Upon The Tree – words written out by Charlie Bridger 1983
The Lark in the Morning - from the Bodleian Library collection
Here’s the opening track from the new Magpie Lane CD, The Robber Bird. I learned this from Roy Palmer’s excellent book Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (now republished as Bushes and Briars). Vaughan Williams noted down the tune and first verse on the 24th April 1904, from Mrs Harriet Verrall, of Monk’s Gate, Horsham in Sussex; Roy added further verses from a printed broadside. The song itself is a celebration of ploughboys’ sexual prowess – it is taken as read that they worked hard, but here it is made clear that they also knew how to have a good time, and were fecund to boot. We top and tail our arrangement with ‘The Muffin Man’, a dance tune from the manuscript tune book of William Mittell, dated 1799, from New Romney in Kent. I learned this from the ABC notation file transcribed by George Frampton, and made available by the Village Music Project.
The Robber Bird is not currently available even in the very best record shops. But you can order it online from www.magpielane.co.uk
Or of course you could buy a copy at one of our gigs. We will be celebrating the 108th anniversary of the collection of this song in Reading on Tuesday, at the Museum of English Rural Life, with the wonderful Hilary James and Simon Mayor.
Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Mat Green: fiddle, vocal
Sophie Thurman: cello, vocal
Jon Fletcher: bouzouki, vocal
Ian Giles: drum, vocal