Category Archives: Peter Bellamy

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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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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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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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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FS45: Dogger Bank

One criticism of a song like Anchor Song is that it tries too hard to imitate traditional songs and ends up with something much more elaborate and ‘written’ than the originals – all those words, all those exclamation marks! This song, which Peter Bellamy took from Sam Larner, is a partial disproof. Clearly not all sea songs sounded like Shallow Brown; some of them sounded more like a music-hall patter song. Which seems to be how this one started life – see Mudcat for details – although by the time Sam Larner sang it the original had had a lot of the edges rubbed off.

My text is more or less what Bellamy sang, but with a few phrases changed back to what was in the original, in the second verse in particular. I particularly like the third verse – simple pleasures! The last verse really has no artistic merits and doesn’t even seem to belong in the song, but I like the seaside-postcard quality of the last line.

Now, watch us, twig us… (You’ll be singing along by the last chorus. Bet you.)

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NS28: Poor honest men

This is one of the poems which convinced Peter Bellamy that Rudyard Kipling wrote with traditional songs in mind; it’s a perfect fit for the tune of Spanish Ladies, which is what you can hear in Bellamy’s arrangement.

The song itself is a lot of fun; it’s a vivid depiction of the hard life of a Georgian tobacco smuggler, liable to get shot by both sides in the Napoleonic Wars as well as by the authorities in both Britain and the United States. Kipling pushes the tag-line in the title further and further as the poem goes on. To begin with we can just about accept that people running American tobacco across the Atlantic might be trying to make an “honest” living buying and selling, even if their activities aren’t necessarily welcomed by the authorities. By the end of the story, though, our poor honest men seem to be guilty of a hatful of offences, up to and including murder. Which is when Kipling pulls the rug with the wonderful last verse:

To be drowned or be shot
Is our natural lot,
Why should we, moreover, be hanged in the end –
After all our great pains
For to dangle in chains
As though we were smugglers, not poor honest men?

This turns the entire poem on its head – suddenly the speaker isn’t complaining about all the hardships encountered in crossing the Atlantic (relative to which he could genuinely claim to be “honest”, or at least innocent), but about the sheer effrontery of being treated as, as… a smuggler! The irony’s black as night and ultimately rather nasty – having set the speaker up as a smuggler from the first line, the poem is implicitly stating that dangling in chains is about what he deserves. I think this song lies behind the similar but more sympathetic trick Bellamy worked in “Us poor fellows“: there we begin with “poor fellows” looking for work and end with a “poor fellow” going out on the rob, but without losing our imaginative identification with him.

Arrangement: almost identical to Bellamy’s on Oak, Ash and Thorn, where he was accompanied by Barry Dransfield on fiddle. The accompaniment here is drums and English concertina.

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NS29: Big steamers

This is Kipling in full jingoistic mode, beating the drum for British naval supremacy. The children who were this poem’s original audience were children of the Empire – an empire that included Hong Kong and Bombay as well as Hobart, Melbourne, Quebec and Vancouver – and Kipling wanted to make sure they knew it.

What’s interesting is the terms in which he gets the message across. British imperialism, and the military strength needed to support it, are justified on the most basic terms possible: we need the warships, because we need to be able to send the “big steamers” to India, Australia and Canada; and we need to do that because we need to eat. We need to rule the world because we’re so weak, in other words. It’s reminiscent of the patriotic mindset Anthony Barnett describes in this piece, in which Britain is at once a humble underdog (“It is a nasty world and, surrounded by it, we are but a modest, embattled island nation.”) and a world superpower (“Our goodness gives us an inner strength and integrity which, with our long experience, means we can suggest with all due modesty that the world needs our leadership”).

The poem gets noticeably darker as it goes on; the last verse, and the last line in particular, spells out what’s at stake in no uncertain terms. Interestingly, the last verse appears to be addressed to an audience of adults as well as children – at least, we assume that the people who carve joints of meat aren’t the same as the ones who suck sweets and nibble biscuits.

A hundred years on, of course, Britain’s still a net importer of food, but we manage to get by without imperial supremacy; we’ve got globalisation instead.

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