Thousands or more

At a traditional singing event I attended recently, there was a discussion of how to “pass on the baton” – i.e. how to recruit enough younger people to keep what we do going beyond the next ten years or so. It’s a real issue, at least if the attendance at that event was anything to go by; there were people there without any grey in their hair, but not very many. At one point someone even addressed me as “young man”; I’m 62 (although, to be fair, I do have a full head of hair, and the light was quite bad).

But what is “what we do” – what is it that we want to keep going, and to share with younger people? A singaround I go to may provide some pointers. In a three-hour afternoon session, in a room above a pub, anywhere from 10 to 20 people sing at least two songs each (usually three), mostly unaccompanied but a few with guitar. Songs often have a chorus or a refrain – and people will join in anywhere that seems appropriate – but an unaccompanied solo will also be warmly received. Judging from the last couple of sessions, around half the songs are traditional, with most of the rest dating back to the Folk Revival of the 1960s and 70s, and between half and two-thirds are songs I know (which says a bit about how much of the repertoire is shared with other singarounds), although often in an unfamiliar version (which says a bit about how much work singers are willing to do to keep it interesting).

Let’s say that’s “what we do”; that’s what we want to preserve. What’s good about it? Is there something valuable that singarounds like this one do, or preserve, or enact – and if there is, do we need singarounds to do it? If singarounds are doing X, can we imagine X carrying on without singarounds – and would it be as good? Alternatively, we could start from the position that singarounds are the good thing that should be kept going, and then ask what it is about them that makes them good. In other words, if singarounds are doing X, can we imagine singarounds carrying on without X – and would they be as good?

The singaround repertoire

The repertoire itself is the most obvious candidate for X. How does it shape up?

Traditional songs without singarounds? In terms of literal survival – in terms of not actually being lost to future generations – traditional songs certainly don’t need singarounds; in fact they don’t need any help from anyone, with the possible exception of a few conscientious librarians and database administrators. As someone pointed out in the discussion the other weekend, before the Revival began a lot of them had been lying around unperformed and unrecorded – or else performed only in social settings somewhere down an unnumbered road – for half a century or more. If organised sessions and concerts where you can hear traditional songs stopped tomorrow, the researchers of a future Revival wouldn’t need to do the rounds of the inns and sheep sheds; they wouldn’t even need to go down to the stacks and blow the dust off volumes of Sharp and Child and Bronson. They’d just need to find Walter Pardon and Sheila Stewart and Sam Larner on YouTube and press Play.

Revival singer-songwriter material without singarounds? There are plenty of non-traditional songs that I’ve heard at singarounds but never heard anywhere else – “Icarus”, “Queen of Waters”, “Dust to Dust”, “Rolling Home”… In fact there are songwriters whose songs I’ve only ever heard at singarounds – Graeme Miles, Keith Marsden, Roger Watson, Bill Caddick… I think it’s undeniable that singarounds are keeping some of this material in circulation – but the job could be done just as well by concert performances, YouTube uploads and artist Websites like this one and this one (creaky as that second one is).

So both halves of the singaround repertoire (as I know it) could manage without singarounds. In another sense, though, singarounds are a way of keeping the repertoire alive – at least, if by ‘alive’ we mean something stronger than ‘not extinct yet’. Something about a song is lost if it’s only heard in recordings and concert performances, especially if those recordings and performances are a long way from the sound of an unaccompanied singer. When you take a song and layer on rock guitar, or grime beats, or even a wholly-acoustic Bellowhead-style knees-up, to some extent the song stops being a song in its own right and becomes material, a contributory element of an overall sound. And that in turn means that keeping the song alive becomes a job for the professionals – there’s no way for you, the listener, to be part of the process, except perhaps by forming a band. To really play a part, you’d need to strip the song back to its essentials – the words, the tune, the voice – and keep the song alive by, well, singing it.

Singarounds without traditional songs – or Revival songs? I don’t see why not. Really, there’s no reason why singarounds couldn’t do what they do just as well with – and for – a completely different repertoire. I had a curious illustration of this once in Cornwall. I’d gone to a singaround on the Monday night (there was a lovely “Curraghs of Kildare”, I remember), and assumed the singing part of the holiday was over. In a pub on the Wednesday lunchtime, I noticed a group of men of advancing years in a side room, and realised that they were having a bit of a sing; I think they were celebrating one of the group’s retirement. I drifted over and joined in the odd chorus. After a while I got chatting with one of the singers, who showed me their song list – which was very long and included quite a few songs I knew to listen to (“Wooden Heart”, “My Grandfather’s Clock”, “The Three Bells”), but very few I could sing along to, and none that I could have led. Some things were familiar but different: they did “Lamorna” in stage-Cornish (“‘Er said, I know ‘ee now”) and without any percussion on the “wet”s. (I’d come from Manchester (home of Albert Square and indeed Pomona) but kept my trap shut.) They even sang one song that I’d heard at the Monday night singaround – “Goodnight Irene” – with the same tune and chorus but without any of the same verses.

Conclusion: any singaround needs a repertoire – and once it’s got one, it keeps that repertoire alive in a way that nothing else can do. But there’s no rule that says that the repertoire has to be mostly traditional, or even partly traditional. And it’s possible that, as time goes on, some singarounds will fall silent, taking their specific repertoires with them; I can only really speak about (and for) the singarounds I know as a singer.

The singing (solo)

High-quality singing without singarounds? Not a problem, obviously – although it should be said that there aren’t that many other ways to hear a really good singer sitting in the same room and on the same level as you.

Singarounds without high-quality singing? Would singarounds still be singarounds – would they be worth keeping on with – if there were no really good singers? It all depends what you mean by ‘really good’. A performance can be technically perfect and soulless, sounding more like an audition than a contribution to a social occasion. Equally, there are performances with great communicative power – songs that come across as moving, gripping, horrifying or hilarious; songs where the singer is transported and so are you – despite the odd missed high note or fumbled lyric.

Conclusion: singarounds and ‘good singing’ in a Cardiff Singer Of The World sense don’t necessarily go together. But ‘good singing’ in that second sense – singing seriously, with commitment and passion – is one of the things that singarounds are all about, because they’re all about investment in the repertoire – and that’s how you sing if you’re personally invested in what you’re singing.

The singing (together)

One way of identifying a really good singaround is from the quality of the choruses and harmonies. Not that everyone involved needs to be musically trained; some of the best harmonising comes from people just listening to one another and finding a note that nobody else is singing. What is essential is that people know the songs – or rather, that they know some of the songs and that they’re willing to pick up the ones they don’t know.

Chorus and harmony singing without singarounds? Not really a problem – there are choirs, there are shape note classes – although in those, more structured, settings the material is less likely to be familiar, and I imagine that the “find a gap and jump in” approach will often be frowned on.

Singarounds without choruses and harmonies? Obviously they exist; the online song sessions we’ve all been going to for the last three years are almost all harmony-deprived. Even in person, a session may not feature much or any joining in; low numbers and poor acoustics may militate against it. But a singaround where joining in on choruses and refrains was actually discouraged – as a matter of policy, not practicality – would be a strange thing.

Conclusion: chorus singing is a natural part of a singaround, where by ‘chorus singing’ I mean

  1. knowing what to sing to songs you know
  2. working out what to sing to songs you don’t know, and
  3. doing both of these on the basis of a judgment of what sounds right at the time, rather than having a preconceived melody or harmony line

Again, it’s a way of singing that goes with investment in the repertoire – the kind of investment that makes you want to lend your voice to the collective effort of singing it; and that goes for the parts of the repertoire you don’t know as well as the parts you do.

The singing (by everybody)

At all the singarounds I know, anyone who doesn’t have a song will be welcome to stay and listen. But, at all the singarounds I know, everyone who’s there will be asked if they do have a song – and anyone who sings will be asked to sing again when their turn comes round.

Singing in turn without singarounds?

Now you’re asking. I can’t think of another social setting where everyone present is given the opportunity to sing a song or lead a chorus – perhaps the kind of party where people are literally asked to give their ‘party piece’, but when did you last go to one of those?

Singarounds without singing in turn?

Again, this is hard to imagine. True, there are ‘jump in’ singarounds – where you get the next song by, in effect, taking it – but I haven’t been to one in a long time. Besides, even there the assumption is that everyone will get a chance to sing, or at least that everyone will have the chance to take a chance to sing. A singaround where you know in advance that only some of those present will be singing would be a very different proposition – more like a concert, with performers and an audience.

What makes a singaround?

The essentials seem to be

  • an opportunity for everyone to sing (and be listened to)
  • a repertoire with a familiar core and an open boundary
  • singers who are invested in the repertoire and interested in learning more of it
  • …and (at least) some of whom sing well, (at least) in terms of passion and intensity

So a singaround is an informal social gathering of people who like hearing singing done well and want to do it well; who enjoy listening to one another and singing together; and who like hearing familiar songs and learning new ones. It’s a social grouping which embodies a practice: a practice of singing based on commitment to the songs you’re singing and their delivery, a commitment which in turn is grounded in a substantial but finite repertoire. What the singaround’s repertoire is will vary from one to another, but it will be broadly definable in each case – which is to say, anyone who visits a singaround more than once will be able to tell more or less what they can expect, whether it’s “Sweet Lemany” or “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime”, “Young Waters” or “A Mon Like Thee”. Each singaround’s repertoire is perpetuated through practice, song by song and session by session – and lines are drawn informally, over time, dictating the kind of thing ‘we’ do and don’t sing.

What do you do? Why do you do it?

Singarounds, then, are a social practice which have a symbiotic relationship with their repertoire, mediated by individual singers’ investment in that repertoire. If you want to keep a repertoire of songs alive – keep the songs in people’s throats and minds – there’s nothing like them.

In terms of the questions I started with –

Is there something valuable that singarounds like this one do, and if so, do we need singarounds to do it? If singarounds are doing X, can we imagine X carrying on without singarounds – and would it be as good?

If singarounds are the good thing that should be kept going, what it is about them that makes them good? If singarounds are doing X, can we imagine singarounds carrying on without X – and would they be as good?

this isn’t a very satisfactory conclusion, although it has the merit of simplicity: not only is the valuable X that singarounds are doing not being done anywhere else, it’s the same X as the X that makes singarounds what they are. From “how do we get new people interested in singarounds?” I’ve gone all the way to “how do we get new people interested in a particular kind of social practice, based on equal participation among a group of people committed to a particular repertoire, and currently found mainly in singarounds?”.

But that formulation does at least suggest a possible answer:

  1. The singarounds themselves are what we want to keep going – not ‘social singing’ generally, not ‘folk clubs’ (or ‘folk’ anything, necessarily), not even the traditional-centred repertoire itself, but singarounds as a social practice.
  2. Singarounds have a basic, undeniable value as a meeting-place for people who know and care about their repertoire and as a shared practice ensuring that repertoire stays alive and keeps being sung.
  3. Off nights apart, that value is obvious to anyone who goes to a singaround and already cares about – or is mildly interested in – that singaround’s repertoire.

So what we need is:

  1. Singarounds that are working well and welcoming newcomers
  2. A continuing supply of newcomers, i.e. people who are at least mildly interested in the repertoire[s] of our singarounds and have a chance to experience them

I was a young man…

A lot of people, especially people who got into folk when they were young themselves, tend to assume that the challenge we face is attracting young people. That’s part of the challenge, but only part of it, and probably the most intractable part – how can we get young people to spend time with a lot of old people? how can we get young people to prefer folksong to whatever it is they’re into now? Since it’s rare for anyone to succeed in doing either of those things, answers tend to be speculative; the discussion is liable to drift off into talking about “Wellerman” and TikTok and social media and socialising online and do we all have to be in the same place, maybe that’s just what we’re used to

But actually we don’t need – wait, let me be careful how I phrase this – we don’t necessarily need young people rather than older people. What we need is (point 2 above) a continuing supply of newcomers. To take a slightly absurd worst-case scenario, if everyone stopped going to singarounds when they turned 75, singarounds could still remain viable indefinitely by recruiting enough people who had just turned 70. The age distribution in singarounds does tend to skew old, of course – that’s where we started; indeed, the fact that the singaround I referred to at the beginning happens on a weekday afternoon tells its own story. There are good reasons for people to be worried about whether the baton is going to get passed; numbers are going to start depleting fairly steeply at the upper end of the age range before too long. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve got to start appealing to young people specifically – it’s a long way down from 70-75 to 18-24; it just means that we should appeal to as wide an age range as possible. I was recently at a singaround where about one in three of the singers were in their twenties (and a really good sing it was too – I was hoarse by halfway through) so I know it’s not impossible to get younger people interested, but it may well not be the easiest age range to pitch to; it may be that, at least in periods when folk isn’t in fashion, there’s an affinity between folk and middle age. (There’s an awful lot of death in those old songs; I lost my parents in my forties, and let’s just say that Lemony Snicket was right.) Perhaps it’s  40-somethings we should be worrying about rather than under-25s. Better, in any case, to keep the door as wide open as we can and not focus on – but also not exclude – any age group, as far as possible. Which certainly means not holding all our singarounds on weekday afternoons, and probably means not holding all of them in pubs. (I don’t think I’ve ever been to a singaround and been stone cold sober at the end of it, but it might be worth a try.)

Whether we need to do any work on the repertoire to avoid repelling newcomers is another question. I tend to think that what’s come down to us is ours to learn and sing, not to edit (at least, not deliberately), and that if we’re offended by elements of a song’s lyrics we should just not sing it. Admittedly sometimes it’s offensive to hear a song, let alone to be surrounded by people happily joining in with it; I sympathise, but rather than draw up a list of Songs To Walk Out On I’d advise patience and not judging singers, or singarounds, too hastily. (I vividly remember the look on a friend of mine’s face when he came into a singaround midway through an enthusiastic performance of The Chinee Bum Boat Man (about which all I’ll say is that it’s not quite as bad as it sounds). But he stayed, and he came back the next time. It was a good session.)

I also think that when it comes to traditional songs potentially offensive material is very hard to avoid. Rape, for example, is treated as a routine plot element in songs as varied as The Bonny Hind (tragedy), Knight William (romantic comedy) and Tam Lin (supernatural weirdness); in John Blunt the prospect of rape is played for laughs. People do draw lines, in point of fact, even with traditional songs. (I was once at a singaround where a singer who usually did the same three or four songs branched out by singing Bonnie Susie Cleland. We clapped, and then someone asked him, Why on earth did you learn that? Harsh but fair.) But even if you confine yourself to learning songs where all the sex is consensual and nobody gets burned at the stake, in most singarounds you’re going to hear songs about people (mainly men) behaving very badly indeed; songs like that are part of the repertoire, and often they’re really good songs. You have to come to your own accommodation: appreciate songs like that as horror stories, or failing that just enjoy the singing – or else take deep breaths and wait till the song’s over. (That was certainly the reaction at one Zoom singaround where I did Andrew Rose. I swallowed spit at one point and had to cough, and somebody said afterwards they’d thought the song was making me gag… too. Sorry about that.) In the nature of the singaround, there’ll be something completely different along in a minute or two.

As for point 2. up there, and the work of ensuring that there is a continuing supply of people (of all age ranges) with at least a vague interest in and awareness of English traditional songs, I guess we should all do what we can – although I’m aware that most of us can’t do a lot. The only thing I’d say is that we should reverse the order of the terms “English traditional songs”: we should focus on the qualities of the songs themselves rather than promoting them on the basis of being traditional, and not focus on the ‘English’ part at all if we can help it (beyond the fact that most of the songs we’re talking about are in English). There’s a way of thinking – expressed forcefully here – to the effect that “the English” have lost something that Celtic and migrant nationalities have hung on to, and that we need to make English folk music popular again in order to get it back (or possibly that we need to get it back again in order to make English folk music popular). I agree that it’s a damn shame that more people aren’t singing the old songs, and that traditional music gets more high-level backing in Ireland (and even in Scotland) than it does in England, but I don’t think we should be tempted to go any further than that. At the end of the day English nationalism is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to disentangle from British nationalism and the British Empire. A ground-up, subaltern English nationalism would have its own cultural forms – and might well embrace a lot of what we do in singarounds – but we’ve no idea what a subaltern English nationalism would look like, and we certainly can’t just make one up. Little bit of politics, my name’s Benedict Anderson, goodnight.

In conclusion, while folkies do a lot of different things (attending concerts, buying albums…), I think singarounds are a particularly pure and focused form of that thing we do; and the best way to hand it on to future generations in good order is to keep doing that thing we do, attracting people who are likely to be attracted and as far as possible not shutting anyone out. Let’s keep the singarounds going and keep them as open to newcomers as possible – and let’s keep the songs out there, pinging the cultural radar from time to time. Good luck to everyone who’s doing anything to extend the reach of traditional songs in English, with all their strangeness and beauty and horror, whether the songs are from England, Scotland, Ireland, America or Australia; whether they’re performing the songs with kids, teaching them to students or just finding some way to put them in front of adults born since the 1970s.

(Most of them won’t like it, of course. Most people never do. Fortunately, we don’t need most people, just enough.)

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The song goes on

 
Sometimes a stranger comes to sing
And joins the room where we are playing.
We listen to the song they bring
And hope they’ll end up staying.
For we have all been strangers too:
We’ve all stood watching from some doorway
Waiting for our song to come
Hoping they’d sing it our way.
 
So strangers come and friends remain –
New voices with old voices blending –
As old friends go, new friends remain:
The song it has no ending.
 
So all who hear may hear us sing:
The song goes on, the song goes on
From year to year the voices ring:
The song goes on.
Old songs won’t fade from every heart,
Old friends won’t ever be forgotten,
If only we can play our part:
The song goes on!
 
There was a time when people sang
As readily as blackbirds calling:
At work, at play, at dawn of day
And when the night was falling.
We cannot say we know those times,
There’s nothing now can bring us near them,
But we can say we know those songs
And we still can hear them.
 
As old songs fade, new songs remain –
New voices with old voices blending –
And though songs fade, they still remain:
The song need have no ending.
 
So all who hear may hear us sing…
 
Perhaps a life is like a song,
The passing years like verse and chorus:
Gone all too soon, remembered long,
An inspiration for us.
A song well sung, a life well spent
Can help us as we make our way on.
And we can follow where they went
And let their music play on.
 
So, singing through the changing years,
New voices with old voices blending,
Though old friends go, they still remain:
May their song have no ending!
 
So all who hear may hear us sing:
The song goes on, the song goes on
From year to year the voices ring:
The song goes on.
Old songs won’t fade from every heart,
Old friends won’t ever be forgotten,
If only we can play our part:
The song goes on!

Phil Edwards, 2018

Dedicated to Les Jones, Dave Herron and Bob van Gaalen

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Seeds of grief

A new song (to an old tune)

I sowed the seed of grief
My mother gave to me
For I well knew that in time my seed
Would grow into a tree

I sowed my seed in spring
I watched while it grew strong
I tended it through summer’s heat
And winter’s nights so long

The tree of grief grew tall
And its branches spread wide above
As I stood within its black and bitter shade
I fed my tree with love

In spring the tree grew leaf
In summer flowers so small
And as the skies of autumn grew cold
I watched the dry leaves fall

My tree had grown one fruit
On a branch so slender and fine
I reached up and I plucked it off
And then that fruit was mine

So bitter was its skin
Bitter juices did it bleed
I freely ate its bitter, bitter flesh
But I did not eat the seed

I sowed the seeds of grief
I sowed them all around
And now its branches are high overhead
The roots deep in the ground

The thorns of grief are sharp
Sweet are the flowers that grow
And I still taste its bitter, bitter fruit
And down the salt tears flow

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Lessongs

I started going to Chorlton Folk Club in February 2003, a few months after it had opened. On my second venture there I got up and sang a song (Sally Free and Easy, very much after Bert Jansch); it went down OK, and that was it – from that day forward I was A Folkie.

I don’t know if Les Jones was there that night, but I suspect he was; he was a regular from very early on. He used to stand in occasionally for Jozeph, the MC, and take advantage of his position by opening each half with a tune or two on his beloved mandola. I remember Jozeph encouraging him to give us a song on more than one occasion, but to no avail. I also remember Les – as MC – responding to one of my more far-flung song choices, after I’d come off, by announcing to the room “I know an excellent song by Joni Mitchell. [Pause] Which I do not intend to sing.” (He always had a way with a pause.)

It probably wasn’t very long – a couple of months? – before Les did start singing at Chorlton. At this point a typical night would involve seven or eight performers, who’d get two songs in the first half and one in the second half – luxury, eh? Only a couple of the regulars sang unaccompanied, though. I like to think that my example gave Les a bit of a nudge – I’d showed that it was possible for a complete unknown to stand up and deliver a song unaccompanied, with minimal musical or social skills, and get applause for it. What was to stop someone like him, who had actually done this stuff for real? In any case, he soon became a regular singer, sneaking in a song (rather than a tune) when he was MCing and joining the roster of performers when he wasn’t. He was defiantly un-stagey, though – literally so: the room where Chorlton FC meets had a low stage at that time, and Les invariably performed standing in front of it, not wanting to elevate himself above the crowd even by six inches.

I think it’s fair to say that tunes loomed larger in Les’s folk universe than they do in mine. Put it this way: I remember the first time I heard the Grand and Sportsman’s Hornpipes (courtesy of Steve Saxton); I also remember the first time I heard Sue van Gaalen sing Wild roving no more. One of them made me think “that’s really nice, I should probably learn that”; the other made me think “my God, where has that been all my life?”. For a tunes person it would probably be the other way round. Back in the early 00s, anyway, Les was quietly trying to build up a tune-playing circle, and within a couple of years I’d become part of it. I forget how this happened, but I suspect that it involved persistent questioning on Les’s part and vague expressions of interest on mine (“Excellent. How are you fixed for next Tuesday?”). I spent hours with a music stand in the kitchen, in the winter of 2005, learning tunes from Les’s stock of “tunes in pairs” (printed in colour-coded collections with a map of the Fallowfield Loop on the cover). We even played ‘out’, in a variety of combinations and locations.

Then, in December 2007, Les started the Beech singaround, an overwhelming experience of traditional song which quite literally changed my life; if I’d known I was a folkie before, now I knew why. The Beech tunes session got going a year or so later; I rapidly felt outclassed by the intimidating levels of sheer, unadulterated musical competence that everyone else seemed to have, dropped out, then changed instruments, spent another few years working through the Beech tune book, then another year working through the revised Beech tune book… and, to cut a long story short, haven’t yet dropped back in. (One of these days, though. It will happen.) In recent years I’d even drifted away from the Dulcimer singaround – seduced by the rival traddie attractions of the Gas Lamp, the Belvedere and the rival Tuesday evening attraction of copland’s pub quiz – although I’m aiming to rectify that now. Bit late, but there it is.

In any case, I heard Les sing – at Chorlton FC, at the Beech, at the Dulcimer and in various other places – many, many times, from mid-2003 to late 2016. What he invariably referred to as “daft songs” predominated, especially at first. There was his own parody of The Wild Rover (no nay never, no more… will I sing ‘The Wild Rover’…). I hope somebody recorded this while we had the chance; it had some brilliant lines.

So I pulled from my repertoire a song brand spanking new –
No religion or politics, it wasn’t even blue –

It was only a folk song in heavy disguise

Once, after a South American holiday during which he’d sung at a trova, he adapted the Wild Rover to be a song about – well, singing at a trova. (According to Les at the time a trova was a bar where they had song sessions. The dictionary says it means ‘ballad’, but who knows.)

He did kids’ songs and counting songs – Old John Braddelum and Him and His Good Companions. I remember him investing Old John Braddelum with a defiant, almost aggressive meaninglessness:

Number four! Number four!
Some likes a gate but I likes a door!

Number eight! Number eight!
Some likes a door but I likes a gate!

I’ve known him start a session with a quick round of Whose pigs are these?, and liven up the back end of the evening with a never-ending round of Nelson’s Blood (A big mucky blonde wouldn’t do us any harm… Yes, that was Les.) I don’t think I’ll ever forget his updated All for me grog:

Where is me wife?
Me hobbin’ nobbin’ wife
[ALL GONE FOR BEER AND TOBACCO!]
For a feminist is she
And that’s all right by me
Or I’d be hanging out for better weather

He liked getting a good loud chorus going – I think he much preferred being at the centre of what was going on than being the centre of attention in his own right. Beer and drinking songs were a bit of a theme. He did Oh good ale – admitting once that he’d been singing it for years under the impression it was a celebration of beer – and a terrific The Old Dun Cow (“Macintyre!”). And he did Keith Marsden’s Bring us a barrel for years, although more recently Jack Parker’s made it his own.

But he didn’t just do daft songs. He did the Lincolnshire Poacher, slightly modified (A health to every poacher that lives in Man-ches-ter!); he did Oak, ash and thorn (which I think was the only Bellamy I ever heard him do). The Whitby Lad was a real fixture – I remember hearing him do that at Chorlton, early on. He did Thame Fair, which is a pretty daft song – at least, it was the way Les sang it – but also hellishly fiddly; he was more skilled as a singer than he liked to let on. He did The Manchester rambler, of course, and he did Graeme Miles’s Drift from the Land. His voice was strong but not very expressive, and the plainness of his delivery worked perfectly with that song, just as it did with the Whitby Lad. It was one of the most moving things I’ve heard in a singaround.

All the young fellows have gone to the city,
All the young fellows have gone to the town,
Soon they’ll be earning near double the money
Ever they earned at the harrow and plough.

I don’t remember him doing much in the way of shanties, although the tipping-point for me – the moment when traditional song really caught hold of me – was Les leading off Ranzo; I’m eternally grateful for that. I heard him do Hal an Tow (at the appropriate time of year) at least once, and Cob-a-coaling made regular appearances around Bonfire NeetNight. What else? Did I hear him do The Rawtenstall Annual Fair? Hanging Johnny? On a Monday Morning? John Ball? I know he knew all of the above, of course and they’ve all got good big joiny-in bits (to use the technical term), so they certainly would have appealed to Les. Whether I can actually remember him doing them, though – not sure.

So here’s my provisional list of Lessongs. Updates and additions welcome.

Parody (Les’s own)

The Wild Rover

Contemporary songs

Bring us a barrel (Keith Marsden)
The Manchester rambler (MacColl)
Drift from the land (Graeme Miles)
Oak, ash and thorn (Kipling/Bellamy)

Traditional songs (daft)

Old John Braddelum
Him and his good companions
Whose pigs are these?
Nelson’s Blood
All for me grog
The Old Dun Cow
Cob-a-coaling
Twankydillo [added 27/6/17]
Hullabaloo belay [added 16/11/17; Les loved the relentless daftness of this song, as well as its rather mixed back story]
‘Enery my son [added 26/11/17 after stumbling on Wounded John Cree’s version, which I suspect Les had heard]
The Village Pump [added 5/12/17; how did I forget that?]

Traditional songs (straight)

Oh good ale
The Lincolnshire Poacher
The Whitby Lad
Thame Fair
Ranzo
Hal an Tow

Update 27/6/17 Just added Twankydillo to the ‘Traditional (daft)’ list. Les used to add the odd verse, notably

Here’s a health to the Secretary and also the Chair
And all party members, except Tony Blair!

Les was a stalwart of the Labour Party, who (unlike me) had remained loyal – to the party – through the Blair years. He didn’t support the current leadership, but largely on pragmatic grounds; he often argued that radicalism needed to be accompanied by electability if the party was going to do anyone any good. I don’t know what he’d make of the current situation – with Corbyn’s party polling 45% and above – but I’d have loved to argue with him about it.

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Filed under Ewan MacColl, Les Jones, O my name is, Rudyard Kipling

One evening in Autumn – for Peter Bellamy

As I walked out one evening in autumn
To view the green hills and to take the fresh air
I seemed to see another evening that I never saw truly
And I thought what I might say if I could be there.

O why do you sit up here, Bellamy, Bellamy,
In the cool of the day, in the sun’s dying light?
“To look out upon the country, to look out on the land,
To look down on the people and bid them goodnight.”

And what do you have with you, Bellamy, Bellamy,
What have you brought for your comfort and good?
“Cold ground beneath my head will be my only pillow,
Strong drink and strong poison are my only food.”

“For there’s no pillow for a head full of comfortless memories
And there is no food for a hunger so deep.
And when I’ve had my fill of strong drink and strong poison
It’s then I’ll lie down and I’ll take a long sleep.”

O why would you leave us so, Bellamy, Bellamy,
When you’re such a fine singer of many’s the fine song?
“A song is not a fine song when there’s none will stay to listen
And the singer best knows when he’s gone on too long.

“O, once I sang the old songs, the old and forgotten songs,
And then I sang songs half a century old,
Then, blast me, I sang new songs, never sung, newly written –
The ink was scarce dry before my welcome was cold.

“The people, the people, I was good enough for them,
I sang to the people the people’s own song.
But the people, Lord, the people, they have turned their backs on me.
Out of me and the people, one of us has gone wrong.

“‘Make us laugh, Mr Folksinger! Tell us your anecdotes!
Or sing of your girlfriends with their eyes of blue or brown,
Or sing the glorious victories of the workers united –
Just don’t sing us a folk song and bring us all down.’

“Let the campaigners campaign, let the comics have their comedy
In rock opera heaven or hit parade hell,
At the Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ or the London Palladium –
Let ’em all forget folk song and forget me as well.”

But they will remember you, Bellamy, Bellamy,
Though your life is cut short, your name will live long
Half a century from now, you shall not be forgotten:
Fifty thousand young voices will bellow your song.

“O don’t take this moment for your comfortless memory,
And don’t think this evening has struck the final note
Perhaps some other fires may burn where these embers smoulder
Just don’t let the grey ashes catch in your throat.”

As I walked out one evening in autumn
To take the fresh air with the green hills around
I saw another evening that I never saw truly
And I thought of what’s lost and what can yet be found.

Read on for my notes on the song – Phil

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Filed under all my own unaided, not a folk song, Peter Bellamy

One evening in Autumn – notes

Peter Bellamy’s death in 1991 has preyed on my mind ever since I learned of it. I believe Bellamy was, by a head and a neck, the most important folk performer of his time; to lose somebody of his stature in the prime of life would always be painful, but the knowledge that he died by his own hand is particularly hard to bear. There’s the additional regret, for me, that I never saw or even heard Bellamy while he was alive, despite having had opportunities to do so: I’m quite old enough to remember Lark Rise and “Gaudete”, but the Young Tradition only crossed my folk radar once back then, and Bellamy solo not at all. I never heard any mention of The Transports when it was out – I was into punk at the time – and didn’t think about folk again until the mid-2000s. So I discovered Bellamy and his entire 25-year career retrospectively, despite having been of record-buying age for most of that time. It’s a small thing, but it bothers me; knowing what those albums mean to me now, it seems wrong that I didn’t buy them at the time. I regret never being the fan I could have been.

About six weeks ago I started thinking about writing a song that would express some of what I felt – a sense of sorrow but also anger at living in a world without Peter Bellamy, and frustration at being unable to do anything about it now. A first draft, working title “Wish You’d Stayed Around”, was sweetly sentimental and sententious; it would probably have gone over OK at a folk club, but I hated it before I’d even finished writing the lyrics. Apart from anything else it seemed a pretty poor tribute to the man who sang “Two Pretty Boys” and wrote “The Leaves in the Woodland”; it wasn’t anywhere near harsh enough. I put it aside and left the idea to work at the back of my mind. About a week later I woke up with the tune, the verse form and the first couple of verses ready-written in my head; I had four and a half verses by the time I’d got dressed. Later in the day I looked at the calendar and realised that it was the 24th of September.

I don’t flatter myself that I have any idea why Peter Bellamy killed himself – as someone who never knew him, it would be ludicrously presumptuous for me to make that claim. I do think that Bellamy’s view of the British folk scene was something like the view I’m attributing to him here – I’ve based that part of the song on several interviews he did over the years. But I don’t believe – and I hope the song doesn’t suggest – that Bellamy’s experience of rejection by the British folk scene was why he did what he did. The most I would want to say is that, at a time when a lot of things in his life looked hopeless, this was perhaps the way in which British folk looked hopeless.

The tune, and the shape of the song, is based on Bellamy’s version of “The shooting of his dear”, with a tweak to the first line making it different from the second. One of the things I most admire about Bellamy’s singing is the way he mixed equal and dotted rhythms to replicate the rhythms of speech while also adding tension to a song, as it were stretching the melody over the angles of the language. I try to do something like this here.

Verse 1 sets the song up as a new song using traditional tropes. (It’s not true – I did do some walking while composing the song, but most of it was in my back garden and none was in the country. I considered rewriting it to be more truthful – or else taking myself off for a walk in the country – but decided to leave it as it was.) This wasn’t the first verse to start with; I added it later, thinking that going straight in with the ‘Bellamy, Bellamy’ verse seemed a bit brash and confrontational. I may drop it again, for the same reason (Bellamy’s own work isn’t marked by fear of being brash and confrontational).

Verse 2 is deeply presumptuous – taking a real person and writing him into an “Edward”-style question-and-answer ballad is risky, to say the least. (I think the rest of the song carries it off, but I’m probably not the best judge.) As well as the direct reference to “Edward”, there’s a fleeting reference to “The Land”.

Verse 3 The phrase “comfort and good” is straight out of “Big Steamers”, the tune for which isn’t entirely unlike this one.

Verse 4 The phrase “take a long sleep” evokes “The week before Easter”. (This is another verse which could perhaps be dropped.)

Verse 6 References here to “The old songs” (Copper/Bellamy) and “On board a 98”. “Half a century” is a slight understatement, but many of Bellamy’s Kipling poems were only 60 years old when he first sang them. Bellamy was sometimes criticised for not writing his own material; cue The Transports, which (despite its own success) failed to get Bellamy’s career back on track. A couple of people have recalled Bellamy telling them that the bookings had dried up after The Transports. However, I’ve seen an interview conducted just after the recording of The Transports, in which Bellamy says that he’d had hardly any bookings in the previous eighteen months. The Transports didn’t solve the problem, but it didn’t cause it either.

Verse 7 This rather heavily references “A pilgrim’s way”. “Out of me and the people, one of us has gone wrong” expresses the despair I think Bellamy felt about ever attracting an audience again, and suggests the deep self-doubt which sometimes afflicted him. That said, in the next verse it emerges that he’s not the one who’s gone wrong. There’s a bleak irony in somebody singing for ‘the people’ (I think Bellamy’s endorsement of the sentiments of “A pilgrim’s way” was genuine) but denouncing the people for not listening. But I think Bellamy felt that he was, still, on the right track – it’s just that nobody else seemed to think so.

Verses 8 and 9 Judging again from interviews, I think Bellamy felt the folk scene had filled up with wouldbe Jasper Carrotts, wouldbe Richard Thompsons and wouldbe Leon Rosselsons, none of whom was doing anything even slightly rooted in tradition or in the people’s own popular song. (We could argue about how fair or accurate this criticism was, but I think it is how Bellamy saw things.) The last line of verse 8 sometimes raises a laugh, which is also pretty ironic.

Verse 10 This verse could perhaps be dropped; it’s a bit soft-edged and well-meaning, two things I don’t much like in a folk song. It’s not half a century from 1991, of course, although it is nearly a quarter of one. The last line of the verse crams in another reference to “The Old Songs” and namechecks for Bellowhead and the Young ‘Uns.

Verse 11 The song doesn’t state who’s speaking at this point. We’re getting right away from anything Bellamy actually said, so I wanted to stress that this is an imagined reply. I also wanted to use this verse to get away from myth-making, and from any idea that the state of the British folk scene was what Bellamy’s death was about; I’m imagining him saying, in effect, “my story’s ending here, but that’s just my story – other people’s don’t have to”. The last line gets humour out of painful self-deprecation.

Verse 12 “What can yet be found” – I for one live in hope of some day finding a copy of Mr Kipling Made Exceedingly Good Songs. More importantly, although there were problematic elements to what Bellamy did, I think his project was worthwhile and important, and deserves to be picked up and carried forward.

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Filed under all my own unaided, not a folk song, Peter Bellamy

Fakesong (Dave Harker, 1985)

Hallo again (if you’ve been here before). I’m reviving this blog as a place for occasional thoughts about folk – and, to begin with, a book review.

I’m not a true believer in ‘folk’; I don’t believe there’s an identifiable thing called ‘traditional song’, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything inherently radical about traditional songs. When I was Culture Editor for Red Pepper, one of my proudest achievements was running an article by Steve Higginson challenging the myth (as he saw it) of radical folk. Higginson pointed out that a lot of radical folk songs had only been discovered because members of the Communist Party had gone looking for them, motivated by opposition to US cultural imperialism more than by commitment to Britain’s heritage. On the other side of the Atlantic, the radical credentials of country music were very thin – much thinner than those of, say, the young Frank Sinatra, whose music was also considerably more popular among actual working people, in Britain as well as the US. Higginson’s conclusion was that we were welcome to write radical songs if we wanted, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we were connecting with the history of working class struggle, let alone with the present. I particularly liked that part, as contemporary radical folk songs were a bit of a bugbear of mine. (Still are, in fact; I’ve never believed that cartoonish simplifications help radical causes, or that trying to be Flanders and Swann with street cred has much to do with folk.)

Anyway, I agreed with most of the points Higginson was making – although truth to tell it was a slightly disjointed article, with a bit of lashing out in all directions – and thought that it represented an interesting viewpoint, which ought to be heard. Not everyone agreed. In all the time I was Culture Editor I never got a bigger Letters Page response – all of it negative. The partisans of radical folk were not pleased, and they made their feelings known in numbers. Happy days, eh?

So the idea of a book, written from a left-wing perspective, debunking illusions about English folk song wasn’t anathema to me when I picked up Dave Harker’s 1985 book Fakesong: The manufacture of British ‘folksong’, 1700 to the present day. Admittedly, by the time I read it I’d already read a couple of detailed and hostile reviews (by C. J. Bearman and David Gregory), which identified inaccuracies and unexplained omissions in several areas. But I wasn’t inclined to take everything Gregory and Bearman said as gospel; in particular, I thought (and think) that Bearman’s argument that Harker’s views on Cecil Sharp were necessarily untrustworthy, given his “Trotskyite” politics, was ridiculous. (I’m a Marxist myself, as it goes. Carlus amicus sed major amicus Veritas; Rosa is my aunt but Truth is my sister.) All in all, I think I went in with a reasonably open mind.

Reading the book wasn’t a particularly happy experience. Getting through it has taken me about six months; I didn’t find it un-put-down-able, to put it mildly. One chapter (on Francis J. Child) I disliked so much that I put the book down after reading it and left it untouched for several weeks. (My enjoyment of the book picked up after that, happily.) All in all it was a difficult book to get through, and I can’t really say I’m glad to have read it – except in the sense of being glad no longer to be in the position of not having read it yet. (I remember feeling something similar when I finished The Faerie Queene.)

So what was the problem? There were a number of things…

Hostility
The title should perhaps have warned me: it’s no part of Harker’s brief to celebrate folksong as we know it. Rather, Harker’s argument is that folksong is a myth – an ideological fiction – and always has been. This is a story of two and a half centuries of ‘mediators’, all of whom (Harker argues) share similar assumptions about their material and its authors. With rare and partial exceptions, this is the story of people who

  • ‘mediated’ working-class culture to an aristocratic or bourgeois audience, often for personal gain of some sort
  • believed that ‘folk’ song was the authentic product of pre-industrial vernacular English and Scottish culture; but
  • believed that ‘folk’ song had ceased to exist in the wild, or at best had ceased to flourish, when they came along to celebrate and preserve it; and consequently
  • believed that a line could (and should) be drawn between good and bad products of contemporary working-class culture, the former being ‘folk’ or its relics; and
  • believed that they were capable of drawing that line, without generally being able to describe how they did it

Harker is opposed to working-class culture being mediated by anyone to anyone (point 1), and does not believe in ‘folk’ song as an identifiable thing (point 2 and by extension points 3-5); his presentation of the ‘mediators’ and their world-view effectively sets them up as enemies. The book, as he acknowledges in the Conclusion, is more or less a ground-clearing exercise: a study of concepts that would be better abandoned.

This kind of destructive critique isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but if I was going to do that, I wouldn’t write this book. It’s not organised conceptually but chronologically: as a study of (at a quick count) 36 ‘mediators’, from D’Urfey to Bert Lloyd. Four – Child, Sharp, Alfred Williams and Lloyd – get a chapter to themselves; the rest are dealt with more or less briefly, in chronologically-arranged groupings. The problem with this is twofold. On one hand, the mediators’ approach (or approaches) to folk song never really comes into focus; we are left in little doubt that Thomas Percy got it wrong, Peter Buchan got it wrong and Frank Kidson got it wrong as well, but the chronological sweep of the book never gives Harker much time to stop and discuss who got what wrong in what way. On the other hand, Harker’s more or less biographical approach, combined with his hostility to what the mediators did, tends to result in hostility towards the mediators themselves. A debased version of materialism runs through a lot of the life stories, highlighting a profit turned on a collection or a donation from an aristocratic friend as if these details were damning in and of themselves. (We make our own history but not in circumstances of our own choosing – and that goes for bourgeois mediators in search of a patron as well as working people in search of a job.) The spirit of the narrative is more one of debunking than of critique, and – since it’s the mediators rather than their work which is being discredited – Harker often seems to use any ammunition available: anything that looks like class condescension is highlighted, along with anything that looks like nationalism, anything that looks like sexism, anything that looks like prudery. A fuller sub-title would have been The manufacture of British ‘folksong’, 1700 to the present day, seen through the lives of the ignorant bourgeois reactionaries who manufactured it.

Inconsistency
What stopped me in my tracks when I read the chapter on Child was Harker’s handling of the issue of definition. The early collectors did not theorise what they were collecting; when Child was writing, the definition of terms like ‘folk song’ and ‘ballad’  was still a live issue. Child’s monumental collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads could be seen as a case study in grounded theorising, developing theoretical constructs from the properties of the material being studied rather than imposing them on it. And if Child himself did not theorise the ‘ballad’ even to this extent, the collection itself gives us all the materials to do so: to go by Child, is a ‘ballad’ metrically regular? does it rhyme? is it narrative in content? is it typically found in multiple variations? And so on. Harker does none of this; instead, he derides Child’s failure to formulate any precise definition of how he was proceeding, and accuses him of taking his theoretical apparatus wholesale from the Danish scholar Grundtvig. Harker’s mockery of Child as a person and his scant attention to the actual content of TESPB represent a huge missed opportunity, suggesting that Harker’s hostility to the ‘mediators’ was strong enough to outweigh any real engagement with their material.

The question of definition recurs much later, when Lloyd is criticised for endorsing the famous (or notorious) ‘1954 Definition’ of folk music:

Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity which links the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (iii) selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.

The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community.

The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the re-fashioning and re-creation of the music by the community that gives it its folk-character.

Whatever else can be said of this formulation, it is a definition; it fairly clearly rules some songs in (Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, The London Waterman, Swing Low Sweet Chariot) and others out (Angels, Streets of London, the Grand Conversation on Napoleon). On that basis Harker might have been expected to welcome it. Actually he rejects it, first for being too narrow (“this is not an analysis but a prescription“) and then for being so broad as to be meaningless (“Why do not continuity, variation and selection represent the conditioning factors for all artistic production, amateur or professional?”). The weakness of Harker’s argument here is striking. The first criticism is meaningless – to say that a definition is ‘prescriptive’ is simply to say that not everything in the world is defined by it. The second is irrelevant; the definition refers specifically to a musical tradition evolved through oral transmission, within which those ‘conditioning factors’ operate. The two are inconsistent with each other – a definition that applied to ‘all artistic production’ could hardly be called narrow (or prescriptive). More importantly, they’re also hard to square with Harker’s earlier criticism of Child (and others) for not having a definition. Harker attempts to connects the two – “As with Child, we are told what is not folksong, not what is” – but this is a very strained reading of a formulation which was designed precisely to define folk music in positive, inclusive terms.

What’s at work here, I think, is Harker’s underlying conviction that anyone writing about ‘folksong’ is writing about something which does not exist as a topic in its own right: there are societies, there are class relations and class conflict, there are cultural forms including songs and tunes, but nowhere can anything identifiable as folk song be found. If we start from this assumption, Harker’s approach makes sense: after all, it would be quite reasonable to mock one writer for imagining he could detect the healing effects of crystals without being able to define how they worked, then mock another for imagining that he could define how they worked. Describing the Emperor’s new clothes in detail is just as absurd as saying they’re ineffably gorgeous. The trouble with this underlying conviction is that, although it runs through the entire book – and although Harker periodically scores points in its favour – it’s never argued properly. It’s certainly never confronted with any evidence that might challenge it – such as, perhaps, the existence of a body of songs, collected in multiple forms and from multiple locations, and suggesting the workings of continuity, variation and selection within a process of oral transmission.

Superficiality
This brings me to my other main criticism of the book, which is that it doesn’t tell me very much about folk songs. As it happens, I’m really interested in the question of where traditional songs come from. Were some of them created in oral culture as well as being preserved and modified that way? Or are they all almost all of them ultimately broadside balladsderived from some form of commercial publishing, as Steve Gardham has argued? (Thanks for the clarification, Steve.) In the early 19th century Robert Chambers identified Young Waters and (horrors) Sir Patrick Spens as entirely spurious ‘folksongs’, composed (in about 1725) in what was then believed to be the style of a ‘ballad’: was he right? How many other ‘traditional’ ‘ballads’ could be disqualified – or rather, re-qualified – in the same way? Or take a song like The Grand Conversation on Napoleon – if a folksong originates in a broadside and has never been collected in a form differing from the broadside text, is it still ‘traditional’? How about songs with known authors, like Sally Wheatley or the Trimdon Grange Explosion?

I think this would be an interesting discussion. It’s not one that Harker’s interested in having, though. In the earlier chapters of the book, describing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collectors, there are several references to collectors drawing on printed sources, as well as passing references to individual songs either being contemporary compositions or having been rewritten by their collectors. The impression is that some (many? most?) purported folk songs were not in fact taken from oral tradition, but an impression is all it is. This approach would in any case hit difficulties in the twentieth century; whatever else we can say of Sharp and those who came after him, nobody has ever suggested that they didn’t collect songs. (Harker does allege rewriting by Sharp in some cases, but several of these have been disputed.)

The underlying problem is, I think, that Harker is committed to erasing the line that song collectors have always drawn between ‘folk’ and ‘not folk’, and hence to denying the relevance of any criteria that make it possible to draw that line. Oral transmission – qualified by continuity, selection and variation – offers a metric by which one group of songs can fairly reliably be distinguished from all others. (Not everything that people call ‘folk’ would fall on the ‘right’ side of the line, admittedly, but that’s an inevitable side-effect of applying a definition to a term that’s used less formally.) Harker cannot reasonably deny that some songs came down to the twentieth century through oral transmission, so he takes a more oblique approach: as well as identifying songs with printed and/or contemporary roots, he suggests that ‘oral transmission’ is indefinable or meaningless (a discovery which would make the entire discipline of folklore studies redundant) or else that it is irrelevant.

At this, final, point the closed loop of Harker’s argument comes into focus. For oral transmission is irrelevant to the study of working-class culture in a given time and setting; it’s only important if you’re studying folklore, including folk song. But Harker starts from the assumption that ‘folk’ song cannot be distinguished from non-folk forms, making it a non-subject. If you don’t share this starting-point, however – if you’re positively interested in studying folklore and folk song – then there are ways and means of defining it, the role of oral transmission among them; from that starting-point, broadening the focus to the whole of contemporary working-class culture would be the distraction.

Dave Harker set out to show that folk song did not exist. In the end, all he demonstrated was that he didn’t want to study it.

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Filed under folk song, not a folk song

Lord Allenwater

I’m still re-recording the odd number from the 52 Folk Songs roster, and here’s the latest. Have a listen to this; I think it’s rather good.

My original Lord Allenwater was unaccompanied; I always felt it didn’t really do justice to a song that I’m particularly fond of. Hopefully I’ve set things straight now. This version features concertina (chords and a heavily processed drone) as well as flute and recorder. The accompaniment is based on Shirley and Dolly Collins’s arrangement – or rather, on my memory of it; I’ve deliberately not listened to it while I was working on this. Folk process innit. Thanks also to the late Malcolm Douglas for persuading me not to change the tune, and to Sean for turning me on to drone.

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Little Musgrave

Been a bit quiet round here recently. Here’s a re-recording to keep things ticking over:

The sounds on this one are rather heavily processed – nothing is as it was originally recorded. (The E/D bass line, for example, was originally a repeated C, on ukulele.) Nothing, that is, apart from the vocal, which was sung straight through in one take and has not been edited in any way.

Influences on the arrangement include Jo Freya’s work with loops, Cornelius, the Earlies (“The Enemy Chorus”), the Chemical Brothers (“The Private Psychedelic Reel”), Barry Black (“Staticus Von Carrborrus”), probably others. See what you think.

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Filed under Albums, Blue

The eighteenth day of June (26F 10-12)

Now the eighteenth day of June it has ended the battle… True enough; however, the last battle in the Battle of Waterloo took place the next morning, the 19th of June (Napoleon wasn’t involved). So today is in fact the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, sort of.

And what better time to revisit some songs about Napoleon? Here (for week 12) is the Grand Conversation on Napoleon, closely followed by the (very similar) tune The Cuckoo’s Nest:

And here’s the Bonny Bunch of Roses. For a long time this was my ‘calling card’ song, the one I’d always do the first time I was in front of a new audience. (These days it’s more likely to be The Trees They Do Grow High.) I’m still very fond of this one, though.

At the time I was recording these, I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to revisit the recordings; although these were both assembled from three different tracks, I only kept a final mixed-down WAV file. Although I thought the vocal (and flute) performances were strong enough to keep, I would have liked to do something about the Bontempi drone – which sounded pretty good when it was the only drone I was capable of producing, but sounds rather whiny now. I’ve done what I could in terms of equalisation, but I’m afraid you can still hear it!

I have re-recorded this, however: Boney’s Lamentation, a small masterpiece of folk history and mondegreenery (We marched them forth in inveterate streams…)

Saving the best till, well, fourth… I’ve also re-recorded this:

A song you could spend years with. I must have sung it a hundred times, and it’s still different every time.

Going back a fortnight, Plains of Waterloo and the Bonny Bunch of Roses are unusual among folk songs in mentioning the month of June. The previous month is far more widely referenced. It’s May she comes and May she goes (poor girl)….

Another pre-concertina recording, with Tony Rose’s arrangement shadowed on melodica and flute. I actually think it works rather well. Remixed – or at least re-equalised – for this outing.

Where you’ve got the Bonny Hind, you’ve got to have Sheath and Knife. This is another new recording, using a vocal drone that I recorded ages ago (I think it was for Master Kilby). The thing with Sheath and Knife is to maintain a contrast between the verse and the blankly repeating refrain, and to keep the song sounding at once sweetly pretty and grimly ominous (“The broom blooms bonny”… how nice). And, of course, to avoid singing “the bloom brooms bonny” or “the boom bloons brommy”.

And who else roved out one May morning, when may was all in bloom? George Collins, come on down:

Another re-recording from scratch, and one I’m rather pleased with. I got the tune from Shirley & Dolly Collins (no relations) and worked out the accompaniment on paper; both the concertina chords and the recorder parts are actually scored.

Moving back to fortnight 10, we go back to the very last day of May, and a re-recording of the first song I recorded with concertina: The Valiant Sailor. This time round I’m playing it a bit more briskly, and (more importantly) I’m actually playing the accompaniment while I sing:

And, finally for this round-up, another re-recording. Searching for Lambs: one of the great English folk songs. Compared to the original recording, I’ve lost the zither and the melodica drone – and the slightly unearthly atmosphere they created – but gained concertina chords and recorder; I think it’s a pretty good swap.

Searching for Lambs (the embedded Bandcamp player is refusing to link to this one for some reason)

The Valiant Sailor is from the 52 Folk Songs – Yellow album.
Searching for Lambs is from 52 Folk Songs – Green.
The Bonny Hind, Sheath and Knife and George Collins are from 52 Folk Songs – Blue.
The Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Grand Conversation on Napoleon, Boney’s Lamentation and Plains of Waterloo are from 52 Folk Songs – Indigo.

All new recordings and remixes are free to download, should you so wish.

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Filed under 26 Fortnights, Blue, folk song, Green, Indigo, the deeds of great Napoleon, traditional, Yellow