Category Archives: Singer

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

Twenty-Six Fortnights – 9

For the first of the two ‘May’ posts, here’s a re-recording and a remix. Both date back to the earliest days of 52fs, when I was mostly singing unaccompanied and in a cardboard box (or that’s how it often sounded).

The London Waterman is that rarity, a bona fide urban folk song. It can be traced back to a stage ballad – as a lot of folk songs can – but the smoothings, erasures and reworkings of the folk process had turned it into something quite different by the time it was collected. I learned it from Peter Bellamy’s rendition and tried not to sound too much as if I was trying not to sound like him. I thought (and still think) that it goes well with the Morris tune “Constant Billy”, so I stuck that on the end. The end result was a bit boxy and quiet, so I’ve remixed it for this release.

Lemany, for me, is a song that inspires nothing but awe. (I think it’s that extraordinary melody.) When I originally recorded it for 52fs I took fright at the slow, stately pace which it seemed to be asking for, and morphed it into 3/4 to make it move along a bit more. I regretted that decision almost immediately; I’ve been looking forward to putting it right. This re-recording is a first take, with one small pause edited out. I was planning to sing the song through twice or three times and pick the best version, but when I finished this I realised there was only one syllable in there that I’d want to improve – so here it is. I don’t know how good it is in absolute terms, but it’s as good as I can get it.

Both The London Waterman and Lemany are from 52 Folk Songs – Violet; these versions are free to download.

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Filed under 26 Fortnights, Peter Bellamy, Violet

Twenty-Six Fortnights – 5

I heard some bad news this week; Bob van Gaalen – Northumberland piper extraordinaire, stalwart of the Beech sessions and a really nice man – has died after a heart attack. My thoughts are with Sue and his family.

It was from Bob that I first heard what’s now one of my favourite tunes, Sir John Fenwick’s. He used to make it sound beautifully ornate and impossibly fluid at the same time. It’s not really a very difficult tune, but I felt enormously proud when I first learned to play it – and again when I got the hang of it on the concertina.

When I came to record “I live not where I love” – inspired by Dave Bishop’s rendition of it at the Beech – it occurred to me that it might go quite well with Sir John Fenwick’s. Here’s what I came up with:

For the second song of this fortnight, here’s something completely different: an unaccompanied song which I learned from Bob’s wife Sue (which also gave me a sense of achievement). I love this song and hope you like it, but you really ought to hear Sue’s version.

When a man’s in love and I live not where I love are from 52 Folk Songs – Green.

And here’s another song/tune pairing, “Poor old horse” with “The man in the moon”.

Poor old horse is from 52 Folk Songs – white.

(All old recordings this time round; I’ll see about some re-recordings for next time.)

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Filed under Dave Bishop, Green, Sue van Gaalen, white

FS52: Banks of Yarrow

Here we are then: week 52.

I’m finishing as I started, with an unaccompanied traditional song. This is a song lots of people have done, usually under the name of The Banks of Green Willow, and I’ve always found it frustratingly mystifying: if you listen to the versions by Tony Rose and Nic Jones, the story is so gappy that it’s genuinely hard to tell what’s gone on, except that it ends with a woman and her child being thrown overboard by general consent. To make matters worse, the usual tune is a jaunty upbeat number which seems weirdly inappropriate.

So I was pleased to come across Debra Cowan’s version, on which this is based: it has the enormous advantage of a tune that sounds appropriately sad. Debra Cowan also used a fuller text; I’ve patched it up further with a few verses from other sources, so that what you hear here is almost certainly a song nobody has actually sung before. (This is partly why I used the alternative (older?) ‘Yarrow’ title.) But at least you can tell what was (probably) going on.

There’s no special significance in finishing the year with this song. (There’s loads of significance in the choice of this week’s other two songs, though.) I chose this song for the same reason that I chose all the last few weeks’ songs: because it’s a traditional song that I like a lot and hadn’t got round to earlier in the year. It was chosen from a shortlist of about twelve. What I’ll do with the rest of the list, who knows?

Anyway – if you have been, thanks for listening (in the immortal words of John Ebdon). And if you haven’t, it’s not too late to start.

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Filed under Debra Cowan, folk song, traditional

FS51: Geordie

Child 209. This is a song I’ve only learnt recently; I first heard it in singarounds (within the last few years). My version is a fairly close imitation of Peter Bellamy’s rendition, which (as so often) seems unimprovable.

Like Gilderoy, this song changed when it went South, although less drastically in this case. The Scottish original of this song has the lady arriving in time to see Geordie in chains and have him freed by paying a fine (or ransom, depending how you look at it); it’s essentially Lord Allenwater with a happy ending. Geordie in its English form is a much more static song – Geordie’s already been condemned to death at the start of the song, and at the end he’s waiting to be hanged; nothing really happens. The central situation is brought out very vividly, though. There’s an odd mood to the last couple of verses, in particular – a kind of unspoken defiance, as if to say “you can hang him, but even on the gallows he’s worth ten of you”. Continuing week 50’s Dylan theme, learning this song I flashed back to Percy’s Song – the implacable judge whose face froze and looked funny is surely a distant relation of the judge who refused to revise Geordie’s sentence, looking so very hard-hearted.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, Peter Bellamy