1 July 2012 · 9:56 pm
This is a modern song in the shanty style, from Peter Bellamy’s ballad opera The Transports; on the original recording the lead was taken by Cyril Tawney (no less).
Like a number of other songs in The Transports, this song hits two very different targets. It sounds like a traditional shanty, just as The Black and Bitter Night, Us Poor Fellows and the Leaves in the Woodland sound like real broadside ballads; it’s entered the revival shanty repertoire, being sung by groups like Kimber’s Men. Very few people have ever been as adept as Bellamy at writing “in the tradition”; he combined a profound immersion in the traditional repertoire with – perhaps surprisingly – very little songwriterly ego. At the same time, the song forms part of a narrative: it moves the story forward and gets characters from A to B, literally in this case. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
My arrangement is modelled on the version in the 1977 recording of The Transports; I particularly liked Tawney’s understated, almost chatty delivery of the verse lines, and tried to emulate it.
25 June 2012 · 8:59 pm
Let me put it on record here and now: I have no opinion on the virtues (personal, nautical, martial, political or literary) of Francis Drake. It’s not my period; I don’t know a lot about the man, and if I did I’m not sure I’d be a fan.
Kipling, however, was an admirer – or at least, he found it quite easy to put admiration of Drake into poetic form. Shanty form, even. Bellamy for his part had no particular objection to English patriotism, and he knew a good lyric when one stared him in the face.
And so we have this – and what a song it is. Every time I sing it I end up more than half persuaded that Drake was a great English hero, or at the very least that he was a very good sailor. Which may even be true. It’ll certainly seem true if you listen to the end.
Accompaniment: none. Arrangement: based on Bellamy’s simple but effective arrangement on Oak, Ash and Thorn, although I take it a bit quick.
25 June 2012 · 8:46 pm
This is another of Bellamy’s settings of Kipling. Unusually, this one isn’t from either of the Puck books or the Barrack-Room Ballads; it’s one of the poems interspersed through the Just-So Stories. There’s nothing really to it – it says one thing and then shuts up – but it has a simple eloquence which is very appealing. The last line probably relates to the age of the poem’s audience rather than its author; all the same, for me there’s a bit of poignancy in the realisation that I’m already older than Kipling when he wrote it, or Bellamy when he came up with the tune. Never been to Rio, either.
Accompaniment is English concertina, in a key that (I regret to say) suited my fingers better than my voice; I’ll do better (and go lower) another time. What with Bellamy’s brisk Anglo and Jon Boden’s beautifully wistful Maccann Duet accompaniment, this little song has now been recorded with all three of the main concertina systems. Anyone fancy setting it to a tango rhythm with bandoneon?
17 June 2012 · 7:17 pm
This is another of Kipling’s “romance of England” songs, the romance in this case taking an unusually literal – and sexual – form.
Anyone committed to a really long view of English history has to contend with a lot of discontinuities, particularly in the earlier parts of the story – population movements, changes of ruler, invasions. In 1066, England had to deal with “a French bastard landing with an armed Banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives”, in Thomas Payne’s blunt formulation; within a couple of hundred years, the descendants of those same bandits were high-ranking landed gentry, none more English.
What had happened? One answer would be that the new ruling class had remoulded what it meant to be English in their own image, just as they had changed the language. Another answer – Kipling’s – is that the invaders had become English. Sir Richard’s song is about the moment when this starts to happen: when a Norman baron realises that he is no longer taking from England; instead, England has taken him. The phrase, obsessively repeated, has definite sexual overtones, which are entirely in keeping with the rest of the poem: what has taken Sir Richard is not the charm of the English countryside but the love of an English (Anglo-Saxon) woman. He’s helplessly besotted with her, and by extension with the country itself: a vividly appropriate image for the passion Kipling seems to have felt for England, or his idea of England.
Howe’er so great man’s strength be reckoned,
There are two things he cannot flee.
Love is the first, and Death is the second –
And Love in England has taken me!
The zither accompaniment is based loosely on Bellamy’s guitar accompaniment on Oak, Ash and Thorn (although it’s not played live, as you can tell). The flutes were inspired by Peter Gabriel’s “Here comes the flood”.
10 June 2012 · 8:34 pm
I’ve sung a few of Peter Bellamy’s settings of Rudyard Kipling already. The plan for the next few weeks is to get a few more done, and where possible to make links with traditional songs.
And where better to start than with this, Puck’s introduction – both of himself and of the deep history of England. There’s something cosy and reactionary about Kipling’s endless celebration of England, but also something enduringly strange. It’s not simply a matter of digging into the national history to demonstrate, Arthur Mee-ishly, that everything’s for the best in the best of all possible countries. There’s also a sense of being helplessly in love with everything about the country, past and present – all the way back to “the lines the Flint Men made to guard their wondrous towns”. The sense of history as something that’s left its traces on the landscape – something that’s still here – has never been conveyed more powerfully.
Accompaniment: C whistle and a concertina I’m still getting to grips with. There are also bees.
13 May 2012 · 8:37 pm
Back to Bellamy for a remarkable setting of Child 49 (“Twa Brothers”), derived from the singing of Lucy Stewart.
When I hear a really strong and distinctive singer, my style still tends to get warped by their influence – and there are few stronger or more distinctive than Peter Bellamy. This song is sung very much the way Bellamy sang it; I can’t imagine a better way of doing it.
6 May 2012 · 9:21 pm
This is a reasonably slavish copy of Peter Bellamy’s rendering of this song, which I think was based fairly closely on how Sam Larner sang it. It’s also known as “Pretty Polly” and “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter”, but Sam Larner called it “the ghost song”, so I’m sticking to that. It’s an extraordinary tune, which took a fair bit of learning.
The lyrics are unusual, particularly in the English tradition; it’s a murder ballad (not a particularly thriving genre on this side of the Atlantic), but one with a supernatural ending. The belief that a ship could not make way if there was a murderer on board was widely held – see also “William Glenn” – and in any case made a good plot element. The apparition of Polly at the end seems quite corporeal; I get the impression that the idea of ghosts as insubstantial phantasms is quite a modern one, perhaps only dating back to the rise of spiritualism. To judge from songs like the Wife of Usher’s Well or the Suffolk Miracle, pre-modern ghosts might appear and disappear unpredictably, but they would seem quite solidly human in between times.
25 February 2012 · 11:35 am
Not a folk song, but oh my.
This is the song that Peter Bellamy gave June Tabor – at the time, an up-and-coming singer with one solo album to her name – for The Transports. I don’t know, but I like to think that (a) he wrote it for her and (b) he wrote it for her after hearing her take on Jamie Douglas; the melody seems designed to showcase the kind of effortless vocal artistry that she displayed on that song. (Mine is strictly effortful.)
Peter Bellamy was, among other things, an extraordinarily accomplished writer in traditional styles; if, instead of giving this song to June Tabor, he’d faked up a nineteenth-century broadside and sneaked it into the Bodleian, I’m not sure it would have been discovered to this day. Perhaps the only element that’s out of keeping with the style is the unrelieved bleakness of the song, culminating in the numb despair of the last verse – it’s not easy listening, particularly for anyone who’s lost a loved one. Bellamy himself knew that feeling only too well.
20 January 2012 · 8:30 pm
This is also the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.
I came to this one relatively recently, via a rediscovered recording of Peter Bellamy’s Maritime England Suite (I very nearly wrote “Sir Peter Bellamy” there, and God knows he would have deserved it). It’s one of the versions of the song where Sir Patrick & crew make it to Norway (or Norrowa’) but are wrecked on the way home. With that in mind, I particularly like the way it skips straight from the King’s broad letter to the trouble in the Norwegian court; you can imagine some audiences thinking Wait a minute, he got to Norway? The tune is apparently from Ewan MacColl, possibly from a traditional source and possibly not; according to a post on this Mudcat thread, Bellamy only discovered after recording it that the tune might have been MacColl’s own, and didn’t take it well.
The Maritime England version features Dolly Collins’s piano and Ursula Pank’s cello – and Bellamy’s voice, of course. That’s rather a lot for anyone to live up to. On the other hand, if I was overawed by the greats all the time I’d never get anything sung – and the worst thing you can do with these songs is not sing them. So here it is.
25 November 2011 · 10:27 pm
This song is a setting by Peter Bellamy (who else) of a poem by Rudyard Kipling (who else). The reason why the diction is so archaic is that it’s a fake Chaucer poem (actual title “Gertrude’s Prayer”), which was printed alongside a story in which it plays a prominent part. The plot of the story (Dayspring Mishandled) is too complex to summarise here; suffice to say that the forbidding moral of the poem (That which is marred at birth, time shall not mend) seems to apply to one of the main characters, but ends up applying to several of them – including the most sympathetic. Perhaps not one to read last thing at night.
I worked out the parts from Peter Bellamy’s recording, on which his voice was accompanied by the voices of Anthea Bellamy and Chris Birch. I sang the lead and Chris Birch’s low harmony; this marks the first appearance of vocal harmony in 52fs. Anthea Bellamy’s part is pitched an octave above Peter’s; this was beyond me, so I played it on recorder (recorded in the bathroom for the harmonics).