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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.