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.