Posts tagged ‘Willett Family’

November 16, 2013

Week 117 – The American Stranger

Two weeks ago I posted a song learned from gipsy singer Tom Willett. At the time I noted that I was looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the newly-released Musical Traditions 2 CD set,  Adieu to Old England. Well it’s a crazy world – you wait fifty years for a new album of Willett Family recordings, and then two come along at once: as Reinhard Zierke commented a fortnight ago, Rod Stradling of Musical Traditions was not the only one to have put out a 2 CD set of the Willetts; a few weeks earlier Paul Marsh had put out a very similar collection on his Forest Tracks label. I now have in my possession a copy of both Adieu to Old England (Musical Traditions) and A-Swinging Down The Lane (Forest Tracks) and I can heartily recommend that, if you enjoy traditional singing, you get hold of either, or both.

It turns out that Rod and Paul had been working on these releases without being aware of what the other was up to. Both releases have two discs, housed in a DVD case, with an A5 booklet giving biographical details of the singers, plus transcriptions of and notes on the songs. And both draw either exclusively (Forest Tracks) or largely (MT) on the same, previously unissued recordings, made in the early 1960s by Ken Stubbs. In fact this is where the Forest Tracks set is particularly interesting, in that it is the first release in a planned programme to make available, either on CD, or as MP3 files, everything recorded by Kenb Stubbs – see http://forest-tracks.co.uk/kenstubbs for details of this project. I’ve heard Ken Stubbs’ recordings of Southern English singers and musicians such as Pop Maynard and Scan Tester, but I’m intrigued to find out what else may be in store from this source.

This particular song is included, sung by Tom Willett, on both of the new releases – in fact you can hear a snippett of Tom singing it at http://www.forest-tracks.co.uk/folk_music_pages/folk_music_Willettstracks.html. I learned it, however, from his son Chris, via the Topic LP Travellers. That track, recorded by Mike Yates, has subsequently appeared on a few CDs, including the new MT Willett Family set.

I have filled out the words a bit with help from Roy Palmer’s Folk Songs of the Midlands. Actually, looking at the notes in that book, I see that Roy’s words were in fact taken from a broadside version – not the one shown here, but not too far removed (although without the rather incongruous “God save the Queen” message in the last verse!).

The American Stranger, from the Lucy Broadwood Broadside Collection, via the Full English archive.

The American Stranger, from the Lucy Broadwood Broadside Collection, via the Full English archive.

Back in 2005 I was honoured to be asked to perform at the opening of an exhibition, Destiny Manifest – Eden’s End, by my artist friends Cathy Ward and Eric Wright. The centrepiece of the show was an extraordinary painting, which took up one entire wall of the gallery. This portrayed the route of the Donner Party, a wagon train which set off for California in 1846, and which ended in disaster for many of the travellers. ‘The American Stranger’ was one of the songs I sang at the event, not just because of the obvious American connection, but particularly because of the song’s final verse

Now we’re all bound for America, and our ship will soon sail
And may heaven protect us with a prosperous gale
And when we are landed, we’ll dance and we’ll sing
In a land of all plenty where no danger can bring.

There’s an irony in that last line, when one considers the members of the Donner Party – America may well have been / be a land of plenty, but certainly not a country which was / is free from danger.

Finally, a note for anglo anoraks. For reasons which are a little perverse, but do make sense, I play this in C on a G/D anglo. A few years ago I sang the song at the Saturday night concert at Concertinas at Witney. Brian Peters, one of the other tutors that year, was stood right at the back of the hall. So I was very impressed when he said, as I came off stage, “were you playing that in C on a G/D?”. Guitar tuning geeks will probably recognise this sort of interest.

The American Stranger

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

November 1, 2013

Week 115 – The Game of All Fours

I learned this from octogenarian Gypsy singer Tom Willett, via the Topic LP The Roaming Journeyman.

That album – Topic’s very first release of traditional English singers – is a bit of a classic. When  Mike Yates, Keith Chandler and various other writers on traditional music nominated Ten Records that Changed my Life for Musical Traditions, this record was, I think, the most frequently selected. It’s been available as a download for a couple of years now, but I was very excited to learn last week that Rod Stradling has now released a 2 CD set of Willett family recordings, Adieu to Old England on his Musical Traditions label. This contains a number of previously unreleased recordings of Tom Willett, and his sons Ben and Chris. I don’t have my copy yet, but there’s one on its way to me.

In case you fancy recreating this song in the comfort of your own home, you can …er… find the rules of All Fours at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Hoyle’s_Games_Modernized/All_Fours.

The Cards - printed by Pitts, Great St. Andrew Street, Seven Dials, between 1819 and 1844. From Ballads Online.

The Cards – printed by Pitts, Great St. Andrew Street, Seven Dials, between 1819 and 1844. From Ballads Online.

The Game of All Fours

April 7, 2013

Week 85 – The Old Miser

Another song learned from the Willett Family LP, The Roving Journeymen, where it is sung by Chris Willett. The song was also included on Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land,  Volume 4 in Topic’s Voice of the People series.

I previously recorded this song for the compilation of Kentish material, Apples, Cherries, Hops and Women, one of three (to date) masterminded by Pete Castle.

I don’t exactly rush the song, but I’ve just listened to Chris Willett singing the song and was struck by how much slower he takes it – over six and a half minutes, compared with my insubstantial three minutes 54 seconds.

The Old Miser

March 24, 2012

Week 31 – The Rambling Sailor

Ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection; printed by H. Such between 1863 and 1885

Ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection; printed by H. Such between 1863 and 1885

Next weekend I will be appearing – in what seems to have become a bit of a tradition – at the Frittenden Festival in Kent. The theme for the afternoon session this year is “Sea, ships and sailors”. Now I don’t sing many songs about life at sea; but I do seem to have a lot of songs about sailors on shore, making a nuisance of themselves with members of the opposite sex. Here’s an example which I’ve known for years, although I’m not sure that I’ve ever sung it in public – can’t think why though, and I certainly intend to rectify that next week.

I first heard the song back in the late seventies, sung by Tim Hart on the LP Folk Songs of Old England Vol. 1; then Cathy Lesurf sang a version on the Oyster Ceilidh Band album Jack’s Alive. And more recently, of course, it has been popularised once again by Spiers & Boden / Bellowhead with their stomping version. The way I sing it is based on the recording of Chris Willett on the old Topic LP The Roving Journeymen (now also available on We’ve Received Orders to Sail, Volume 12 of the Voice of the People set).

As well as the fine tune, I’m very taken with Young Johnson’s boast that he has “received commission from the King, to court all girls is handsome”. A likely story, but no doubt the dream job of many a tar.

If you’re after a less well-known version of the song, you could do much worse than investigate the way it was sung by the wonderful Australian singer and musician Sally Sloane – that’s on an excellent 2 CD set of Australian field recordings called Sharing the Harvest: highly recommended.

The Rambling Sailor

February 18, 2012

Week 26 – Lord Bateman

Another fine song from the Willett Family repertoire. It’s the very first song on the Topic LP The Roving Journeymen, sung by the octogenarian Tom, and his performance is a real tour-de-force.

He gets very nearly to the end of the tale, too, by the simple expedient of missing out the first few verses! A number of traditional singers – Joseph Taylor for instance – make the fatal mistake of starting this song at the beginning: Lord Bateman sails to the East (to fight in the Crusades?), is imprisoned by a Turk, and tied to a tree. Then, just when the Turk’s daughter makes an appearance, the singer runs out of verses and the song grinds to a halt. Tom Willett dispenses with all the back story, and starts the tale at this point. And where the words might normally be

The Turk he had one only daughter

he does a brilliant bit of rationalisation and sings

Now the turnkey had but one only daughter

It doesn’t matter about his captor’s nationality – the important fact is that he’s a gaoler, and his daughter is going to set our hero free.

I used to finish the song at the same point as Tom Willett, with the verse where Lord Bateman realises the identity of the beautiful, richly attired visitor who is asking him for a slice of bread and a bottle of wine

Now Lord Bateman flew all in a passion
His sword he broke it all in pieces three
Saying I’ll seek no more for no other fortune
Oh it’s since Sofia now have crossed the sea

But I was singing this at home one time when my Dad was around. I finished, and he immediately said “Well, what happened then?” Now admittedly this was what he used to say at the conclusion of pretty much every episode of Play for Today. But this isn’t modern drama, it’s a traditional ballad, and it deserves a proper ending. So I added on three final verses as collected by Sharp, and printed in Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring.

Thanks Dad – you were right.

Lord Bateman

January 28, 2012

Week 23 – The Roving Journeyman

The title track from the 1963 Topic LP The Roving Journeymen featuring members of the Willett family. On the LP it is sung in slightly different versions by both 84 year old Tom, and his son Chris. Tom’s version was included on volume 20 of The Voice of the People where it is titled ‘The Roaming Journeyman’ – quite rightly, since that’s what both father and son actually sang. What I sing is a bit of an amalgam of the two versions – influenced very largely, I suspect, by the words printed in Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain & Ireland.

I’m always surprised that the Willetts’ songs are not more widely sung on the folk scene. But John Kirkpatrick has recorded this song, and ‘Riding Down to Portsmouth’; while there’s a striking arrangement of ‘The Roving Journeyman’ on the recent CD by the Woodbine & Ivy Band – sung with great gusto by James Raynard (at the time of writing, if you follow that last link, you can in fact listen to the track).

The Roving Journeyman 

October 9, 2011

Week 7 – My Dog and I

Another song from the Willett Family LP The Roving Journeymen. This one was sung by Tom Willett on the album, and given the title ‘While the Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping’, although those words don’t actually appear anywhere in the song. Neither do ‘Hares in the old plantation’, or ‘Dogs and ferrets’, which are other common titles for the song, so I’ve just used the first few words as the title It was only when I came to record this that I realised I’d never really given any thought to what I called the song. I’d guess that quite possibly Tom Willett never did either.

The Roud Index  currently has 53 entries for this song, nearly all from Southern England, and quite a few – like this version – collected from travelling singers.

My Dog and I

August 25, 2011

Week 1 – Riding Down to Portsmouth

Welcome to Week One of A Folk Song a Week.

I’m beginning with possibly my favourite song to sing, from one of my favourite records, The Roving Journeymen by the Willett Family. The Willetts – Tom and his sons Chris and Ben – were English gypsy singers recorded in 1962 on a caravan site near Ashford in Middlesex, by Bill Leader and Paul Carter. This song was sung by Tom – at 84 years of age, not the strongest singer, but still a singer of enormous character, and with some great songs. The Roving Journeymen was, I believe, the first full-length Topic LP to feature English traditional singers, and had a major impact: it was chosen by several of the contributors to Musical Traditions’ Ten Records that Changed my Life feature. Although it’s never been released on CD, you can get it as a digital download from Amazon, iTunes and the like; and this track is included on Volume 2 of Topic’s monumental Voice of the People set.

Riding Down to Portsmouth