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.
20 May 2012 · 4:55 pm
Peter Blegvad – or, to give him his full title, The Woefully Underrated Peter Blegvad – has pursued two musical careers concurrently, as an intransigent seeker after avant-garde obsessions and as a witty and intelligent singer-songwriter; his work covers the spectrum from unforgettable to unlistenable. (Where his career as a cartoonist fits in with all of this is anybody’s guess.)
He also appears to know a bit of folk music, although to my knowledge he’s only ever recorded one folk song (an American variant of the Wife of Usher’s Well, after Buell Kazee). Folk-as-in-traditional songs are actually quite far removed from the usual styles and approaches of folk-as-in-singer-songwriter. The most obvious difference is that stuff happens in traditional songs, without much explicit attention to how everybody feels. (A traditional singer might retort, I’m singing about someone who’s been ambushed by thieves/caught in flagrante/sentenced to hang – how do you think he feels?) Nothing much tends to happen in your average singer-songwriter song, whereas there’s a lot of attention to the singer’s feelings. Which means that the two genres, which are apparently so close (not least because they’re both called ‘folk’), are actually quite hard to bring together.
What Peter Blegvad’s done here is interesting: he’s taken a classic folksong scenario, complete with tropes from the Lowlands of Holland, and rewritten it from the inside. Our man has been conscripted, he’s having to leave his wife – and dissuade her from dragging up and tagging along, as women are traditionally wont to do – and this is how it feels. I also think it’s a great song.
You can find the original on Peter Blegvad’s album King Strut and other stories; Eddi Reader has also covered it, although she changed the lyrics around a bit so as not to tell it in the first person. I recorded it without listening to the original again, and discovered too late that I’d changed the tune without realising – so apologies to Peter, as well as thanks. Instrumentation: drums, C whistle (I’m playing the song in F), English concertina.
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.
28 January 2012 · 4:02 pm
The great singer and songwriter Jackie Leven died last year, after a brief and unheralded battle with cancer. This is one of his.
I was a huge fan of Jackie Leven’s post-punk band Doll by Doll, but after they split up in 1982 he disappeared from view. What most of us didn’t realise until much later was that he had suffered a brutal and traumatic assault in 1983, losing his voice completely as a result; in the aftermath he went downhill and ended up losing a year to heroin. Once restored to health, he worked for many years with recovering addicts before resuming his performing and recording career in the 1990s. This song is on his 2000 album Defending Ancient Springs; it begins in the territory of a folksong like She Moved Through The Fair, but ends somewhere else completely.
The zither featured on this track is a child’s instrument, picked up for next to nothing at a Hawkin’s Bazaar closing-down sale; it’s a decent instrument (wooden body, steel strings and pegs), if a bit basic (15-string, diatonic).
20 January 2012 · 6:04 pm
Despite the title, this is an original composition – one of mine, in other words, and the first I’ve graced this project with. Possibly also the last.
I’ve written some straight songs (he said, very reluctantly) but… this isn’t one of them. Except inasmuch as it’s a deep and meaningful examination of the experience of waiting to go on at a folk club, while someone does an unexpectedly long version of Sir P. S. (I never did get on that night, either. Ha!)
Daft, I call it.
14 January 2012 · 10:38 pm
A contemporary song for the turning of the year. It was written by Dave Goulder (whose birthday is January 1st) in 1969.
I’m very sceptical of the idea that anything we write today – or anything that anyone has written since the coming of the radio and the Victrola – can be considered a “folk song”. Show me a “Fiddler’s Green” or a “Rolling Home” (or a “S_____s of L_____”) and I’ll show you a song that works well for the kind of person who goes to the kind of places where folk songs are sung. Which isn’t the same thing at all, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.
But a song like this gives my scepticism a forceful nudge. It’s a song that genuinely feels as if it’s been around forever. Quiet and plain-spoken, carefully worded (“he sees the Spring”/”looks through the snow”), with lines that are resonant and enduringly strange (what is “the man inside the man”?), it shares many of the qualities of the old songs. Forty-odd years on, it’s still being sung, and I think it deserves to be sung for many Januarys yet.