Category Archives: Peter Bellamy

FS11: The death of Nelson

This song has a surprisingly tangled history, which you can read about here. Peter Bellamy sang all three verses of the Richard Grainger version, but dropped the chorus and bulked it out with two verses from a completely different song (“Nelson’s Monument”). Subsequently, fuller versions of the song have appeared, from whatever source; a number of people have sung another five-verse version, with one verse before Grainger’s three and one after. I sing Bellamy’s version, but without the first of the two verses from “Nelson’s Monument”.

Alles klar? Everyone still here?

This for me was one of those songs where one line sticks in your head and can’t be budged until you’ve learnt the whole song; in this case it was

There is no reprieve, there is no relief – great Nelson, he is dead.

Quite brutally grim. The commander doesn’t say “it’s bad news, lads”; he says “I know you’re hoping this isn’t true, but it is”. Then he says it again. As for the track, there’s no arrangement to speak of and no multi-tracking: just a couple of minutes of big voice for you.

PS Writing this on Armistice Day, I see that my unerring knack for missing significant dates hasn’t deserted me – On the twenty-first of October (Trafalgar Day) I was posting Sam Hall. Oh well.

PPS The picture on the Bandcamp page is a portrait of Nelson, and one which Nelson himself thought was a particularly good likeness. He wasn’t a vain man.

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Filed under folk song, Peter Bellamy, traditional

NS10: St Helena lullaby

This is Peter Bellamy’s setting of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “A St Helena lullaby”, recorded by Bellamy as “St Helena”. I’m using the longer title in case I want to record the trad “St Helena” further down the line (“Now Napoleon, he has done with his wars and his fighting…”).

These days Kipling is a hard writer to get to like; the problem isn’t so much his robust British imperialism (which doesn’t pervade everything he wrote, and in any case is often more ambiguous than it seems) as his style – all Initial Caps and Exhortations! One of these days someone will discover he was actually manic-depressive, and we’ll be able to detect a hectic anxiety behind all those Exclamation Marks! – that would do his reputation no end of good.

Anyway, this poem is very Kipling, for good and ill. It sums up the life of Napoleon using the conceit of looking in on key scenes in his life, asking each time “how far to St Helena…?” I particularly like the very last line, visualising the Emperor in his tomb as a troublesome child tucked up in bed – after all your traipsing, child, lie still! (Oops, spoilers.) There’s an odd sort of rhetorical double-bluff here – the image belittles Napoleon, but does it so exorbitantly that the effect is the reverse, drawing attention to just how great a figure he was.

The voices are all me, and there’s only one whistle (a cheapo Generation high G). There was going to be drumming, but my current system of recording everything separately and layering it together isn’t great for matching unaccompanied singing to a repeated drum pattern. Maybe a metronome should be the next investment!

I may pick up one of the other Napoleon songs later on (“St Helena”, “Dream of Napoleon”, the other tune for “Bonny Bunch of Roses”…), but this is the last one for now. Hope you’ve enjoyed them.

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Filed under not a folk song, Peter Bellamy, Rudyard Kipling, the deeds of great Napoleon

NS07: Danny Deever

Another Bellamy setting of a Kipling poem. The poem, which is said to be based on a true story, vividly brings out the horror of a public hanging – a contorted black shape, a whimpering cry, men shivering and fainting as they watch. But it’s not anti-hanging; it’s not even anti- this particular hanging, except in the sense of pitying what the poor man has been reduced to. The nearest thing to a narrative voice in the poem is the voice carrying the refrains (“For they’re hanging Danny Deever” and so on) – and that third voice makes it quite clear what we’re to think of Danny Deever:

They’re hanging Danny Deever – you must mark him to his place,
He shot a comrade sleeping, you must look him in the face
Nine hundred of his county and the regiment’s disgrace
They’re hanging Danny Deever in the morning.

(Gawd love yer, Rudyard, but I ain’t reproducin’ your bloomin’ vernacular punctuation for nuffink.)

Nine hundred of his county and the regiment’s disgrace – that line is at the heart of the poem, and really explains what it’s doing. To execute a man is a terrible thing; to turn out first thing in the morning, stand at attention and watch a man being executed is a terrible experience. But, in the world of the poem, it’s what the soldiers must do, when one of their number disgraces them; it’s another burden that they take on themselves. Which is a nasty theme, frankly – the self-pity of the strong, the thug’s troubled conscience – and would make for a nasty poem. I think what just about rescues this poem – making it both brutal and humane, instead of just brutally sentimental – is the vividness of Danny’s suffering and the fellow-feeling of his comrades. In this poem as in My boy Jack, Kipling’s compulsion to turn all the dials up to eleven results in something both moving and troubling.

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Filed under not a folk song, O my name is, Peter Bellamy, Rudyard Kipling

FS06: The London Waterman

This appears to be a folk-processed version of a song that was written in 1774, although the differences are so great that it could almost be a different song. The ‘waterman’ is a ferryman: before the great bridge-building period of the nineteenth century, if you didn’t cross the Thames on London Bridge itself your best option was to find a waterman who’d row you over in his wherry. (The picture on the Bandcamp page shows the only surviving wherryman’s seat – stone benches for the watermen to rest between fares used to be a common piece of riverside street furniture. The seat’s been relocated, but it’s survived two centuries and more – like the song.)

I got this song from Peter Bellamy’s recording. Learning it – and learning how to sing it, which is slightly different – helped me understand why Bellamy sang the way he did, with that pouncing, declamatory attack on the lines. The short answer is that he did it because it works – it really gets you under the skin of the song. Also, taking a song by the scruff like this is fun – and it’s not pretty, which for some of us at least is a virtue. (My son heard me practising this song and said, “Well, Dad, you definitely sing merry.”)

Plus, this week, a tune! I go to a local singaround and tunes session, held on alternate weeks with overlapping participants. Something that’s particularly enjoyable is fitting a tune to a song – apart from anything else, it lets us sneak some songs in when we’re playing tunes. So we regularly segue from “Waters of Tyne” into Sir John Fenwick’s, for example. We’ve never yet done the Waterman and the Morris tune Constant Billy, which I’ve put together here, but I think it could work. I might have to work on the high notes, though – when I came to put the recordings together it turned out that my voice had rather lazily pitched the song in F rather than the more demanding G, so I had to process the whistle digitally to make it come out in the right key. (It was that or go out and buy an F whistle, and it was raining.)

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FS02: The death of Bill Brown

“The death of Bill Brown” is an eighteenth-century song about an encounter between a gamekeeper and two poachers. The gamekeeper, Tom Green, shot and killed one of the poachers; his friend, who is supposed to be singing this song, went back the next night and shot Tom Green.

I learned the song from Peter Bellamy’s version; you can see him performing it here. Bellamy (or his source) doctored the song fairly extensively, particularly the melody: as collected it had quite a jolly upbeat tune, complete with a fol-de-rol refrain. I think Bellamy’s minor-key tune and his aggressive, declamatory reading fit the song much better, so I followed him.

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Filed under folk song, O my name is, Peter Bellamy, traditional

NS02: Us poor fellows

This is a song by Peter Bellamy, from his wonderful ballad opera The Transports. If you haven’t got a copy, get one now. As I said at my main blog last year,

Most folkies, even those most immersed in the traditional repertoire, never turn out more than a couple of songs which can be sung alongside traditional songs and not stand out. Exceptions are rare and striking (Tawney, MacColl, Dylan before he got bored and moved on). In The Transports, Bellamy basically wrote a whole album of them (a double album in its time – the CD version is 75 minutes long). Not only do his songs sound like long-lost traditional ballads, they each have a place in the plot of the opera – and in most cases advance it.

“Us poor fellows” is the first full song in The Transports; it’s sung by the father of one of the main characters. I’m not going to say any more than that, except that most of the other songs are just as good (and sound just as much like long-lost broadside ballads). This version owes more to Tony Rose’s version of the song (on his album Poor Fellows) than to Nic Jones’s reading in the original version of The Transports, simply because I heard one before the other. But the words and the tune are Bellamy’s. And very fine they are.

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Filed under not a folk song, Peter Bellamy

NS03: My boy Jack

One of the things Peter Bellamy did particularly well was write (and perform) settings of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry. Kipling’s an extraordinarily rich writer – far more so than you might think at first glance; it’s hard for us to get past all those grandiose Capital Letters and exhortations! ending in exclamation marks! But stick with it and you find yourself dealing with someone who’s not shallow, one-sided or inhumane – in short, someone who’s already thought of most of the objections you were about to make.

That’s not to say that his poetry doesn’t present problems for us now. “Big steamers” is all about how Britain needs maritime superiority in order to keep the supply routes from the colonies open; “Our fathers of old” is a hymn in praise of ignorant determination; “Cold iron” is a sick and muddled fantasy conflating feudal submission with Christian humility. He was what he was, and he was a man of the British Empire in its pomp. But he wasn’t shallow, one-sided or inhumane.

This poem is a case in point. The Kipling Society has very effectively debunked the persistent myth that this poem had something to do with the death of Kipling’s son John, who had gone missing in a land battle a year earlier (and who, in any case, was never known as ‘Jack’). Setting that aside, we’re looking at a poem for the sailors lost in the battle of Jutland, and their parents, waiting for the good news which had not come and never would (for what is sunk will hardly swim). As that line suggests, there’s a brutality to this poem, a touch of gallows humour, as well as a mood of genuine grief. What’s harder to handle, now, is the turn to a patriotic resolution (hold your head up all the more), and the call to take comfort in the thought that your son, although dead, had at least died bravely (he did not shame his kind). This seems still more brutal, until you think of the alternative to dying bravely – to imagine your son dying in terror and despair would be much worse. The patriotism of the poem, on the other hand, is quite genuine, but it does come close to being undercut in those closing lines: your duty as a parent is to give children to that wind blowing and that tide? If courage is always the repression of terror, in this poem the achievement of the repression is on a knife-edge and the fear is still palpable.

And here’s me singing it, very much in the style of Peter Bellamy.

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Filed under not a folk song, Peter Bellamy, Rudyard Kipling