Category Archives: Rudyard Kipling

Lessongs

I started going to Chorlton Folk Club in February 2003, a few months after it had opened. On my second venture there I got up and sang a song (Sally Free and Easy, very much after Bert Jansch); it went down OK, and that was it – from that day forward I was A Folkie.

I don’t know if Les Jones was there that night, but I suspect he was; he was a regular from very early on. He used to stand in occasionally for Jozeph, the MC, and take advantage of his position by opening each half with a tune or two on his beloved mandola. I remember Jozeph encouraging him to give us a song on more than one occasion, but to no avail. I also remember Les – as MC – responding to one of my more far-flung song choices, after I’d come off, by announcing to the room “I know an excellent song by Joni Mitchell. [Pause] Which I do not intend to sing.” (He always had a way with a pause.)

It probably wasn’t very long – a couple of months? – before Les did start singing at Chorlton. At this point a typical night would involve seven or eight performers, who’d get two songs in the first half and one in the second half – luxury, eh? Only a couple of the regulars sang unaccompanied, though. I like to think that my example gave Les a bit of a nudge – I’d showed that it was possible for a complete unknown to stand up and deliver a song unaccompanied, with minimal musical or social skills, and get applause for it. What was to stop someone like him, who had actually done this stuff for real? In any case, he soon became a regular singer, sneaking in a song (rather than a tune) when he was MCing and joining the roster of performers when he wasn’t. He was defiantly un-stagey, though – literally so: the room where Chorlton FC meets had a low stage at that time, and Les invariably performed standing in front of it, not wanting to elevate himself above the crowd even by six inches.

I think it’s fair to say that tunes loomed larger in Les’s folk universe than they do in mine. Put it this way: I remember the first time I heard the Grand and Sportsman’s Hornpipes (courtesy of Steve Saxton); I also remember the first time I heard Sue van Gaalen sing Wild roving no more. One of them made me think “that’s really nice, I should probably learn that”; the other made me think “my God, where has that been all my life?”.  For a tunes person it would probably be the other way round. Back in the early 00s, anyway, Les was quietly trying to build up a tune-playing circle, and within a couple of years I’d become part of it. I forget how this happened, but I suspect that it involved persistent questioning on Les’s part and vague expressions of interest on mine (“Excellent. How are you fixed for next Tuesday?”). I spent hours with a music stand in the kitchen, in the winter of 2005, learning tunes from Les’s stock of “tunes in pairs” (printed in colour-coded collections with a map of the Fallowfield Loop on the cover). We even played ‘out’, in a variety of combinations and locations.

Then, in December 2007, Les started the Beech singaround, an overwhelming experience of traditional song which quite literally changed my life; if I’d known I was a folkie before, now I knew why. The Beech tunes session got going a year or so later; I rapidly felt outclassed by the intimidating levels of sheer, unadulterated musical competence that everyone else seemed to have, dropped out, then changed instruments, spent another few years working through the Beech tune book, then another year working through the revised Beech tune book… and, to cut a long story short, haven’t yet dropped back in. (One of these days, though. It will happen.) In recent years I’d even drifted away from the Dulcimer singaround – seduced by the rival traddie attractions of the Gas Lamp, the Belvedere and the rival Tuesday evening attraction of copland’s pub quiz – although I’m aiming to rectify that now. Bit late, but there it is.

In any case, I heard Les sing – at Chorlton FC, at the Beech, at the Dulcimer and in various other places – many, many times, from mid-2003 to late 2016. What he invariably referred to as “daft songs” predominated, especially at first. There was his own parody of The Wild Rover (no nay never, no more… will I sing ‘The Wild Rover’…). I hope somebody recorded this while we had the chance; it had some brilliant lines.

So I pulled from my repertoire a song brand spanking new –
No religion or politics, it wasn’t even blue –

It was only a folk song in heavy disguise

Once, after a South American holiday during which he’d sung at a trova, he adapted the Wild Rover to be a song about – well, singing at a trova. (According to Les at the time a trova was a bar where they had song sessions. The dictionary says it means ‘ballad’, but who knows.)

He did kids’ songs and counting songs – Old John Braddelum and Him and His Good Companions. I remember him investing Old John Braddelum with a defiant, almost aggressive meaninglessness:

Number four! Number four!
Some likes a gate but I likes a door!

Number eight! Number eight!
Some likes a door but I likes a gate!

I’ve known him start a session with a quick round of Whose pigs are these?, and liven up the back end of the evening with a never-ending round of Nelson’s Blood (A big mucky blonde wouldn’t do us any harm… Yes, that was Les.) I don’t think I’ll ever forget his updated All for me grog:

Where is me wife?
Me hobbin’ nobbin’ wife
[ALL GONE FOR BEER AND TOBACCO!]
For a feminist is she
And that’s all right by me
Or I’d be hanging out for better weather

He liked getting a good loud chorus going – I think he much preferred being at the centre of what was going on than being the centre of attention in his own right. Beer and drinking songs were a bit of a theme. He did Oh good ale – admitting once that he’d been singing it for years under the impression it was a celebration of beer – and a terrific The Old Dun Cow (“Macintyre!”). And he did Keith Marsden’s Bring us a barrel for years, although more recently Jack Parker’s made it his own.

But he didn’t just do daft songs. He did the Lincolnshire Poacher, slightly modified (A health to every poacher that lives in Man-ches-ter!); he did Oak, ash and thorn (which I think was the only Bellamy I ever heard him do). The Whitby Lad was a real fixture – I remember hearing him do that at Chorlton, early on. He did Thame Fair, which is a pretty daft song – at least, it was the way Les sang it – but also hellishly fiddly; he was more skilled as a singer than he liked to let on. He did The Manchester rambler, of course, and he did Graeme Miles’s Drift from the Land. His voice was strong but not very expressive, and the plainness of his delivery worked perfectly with that song, just as it did with the Whitby Lad. It was one of the most moving things I’ve heard in a singaround.

All the young fellows have gone to the city,
All the young fellows have gone to the town,
Soon they’ll be earning near double the money
Ever they earned at the harrow and plough.

I don’t remember him doing much in the way of shanties, although the tipping-point for me – the moment when traditional song really caught hold of me – was Les leading off Ranzo; I’m eternally grateful for that. I heard him do Hal an Tow (at the appropriate time of year) at least once, and Cob-a-coaling made regular appearances around Bonfire NeetNight. What else? Did I hear him do The Rawtenstall Annual Fair? Hanging Johnny? On a Monday Morning? John Ball? I know he knew all of the above, of course and they’ve all got good big joiny-in bits (to use the technical term), so they certainly would have appealed to Les. Whether I can actually remember him doing them, though – not sure.

So here’s my provisional list of Lessongs. Updates and additions welcome.

Parody (Les’s own)

The Wild Rover

Contemporary songs

Bring us a barrel
The Manchester rambler
Drift from the land
Oak, ash and thorn

Traditional songs (daft)

Old John Braddelum
Him and his good companions
Whose pigs are these?
Nelson’s Blood
All for me grog
The Old Dun Cow
Cob-a-coaling
Twankydillo [added 27/6/17]
Hullabaloo belay [added 16/11/17; Les loved the relentless daftness of this song, as well as its rather mixed back story]

Traditional songs (straight)

Oh good ale
The Lincolnshire Poacher
The Whitby Lad
Thame Fair
Ranzo
Hal an Tow

Update 27/6/17 Just remembered Twankydillo, another one for the ‘Traditional (daft)’ list. Les used to add the odd verse, notably

Here’s a health to the Secretary and also the Chair
And all party members, except Tony Blair!

Les was a stalwart of the Labour Party, who (unlike me) had remained loyal – to the party – through the Blair years. He didn’t support the current leadership, but largely on pragmatic grounds; he often argued that radicalism needed to be accompanied by electability if the party was going to do anyone any good. I don’t know what he’d make of the current situation – with Corbyn’s party polling 45% and above – but I’d have loved to argue with him about it.

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Filed under Ewan MacColl, Les Jones, O my name is, Rudyard Kipling

NS28: Poor honest men

This is one of the poems which convinced Peter Bellamy that Rudyard Kipling wrote with traditional songs in mind; it’s a perfect fit for the tune of Spanish Ladies, which is what you can hear in Bellamy’s arrangement.

The song itself is a lot of fun; it’s a vivid depiction of the hard life of a Georgian tobacco smuggler, liable to get shot by both sides in the Napoleonic Wars as well as by the authorities in both Britain and the United States. Kipling pushes the tag-line in the title further and further as the poem goes on. To begin with we can just about accept that people running American tobacco across the Atlantic might be trying to make an “honest” living buying and selling, even if their activities aren’t necessarily welcomed by the authorities. By the end of the story, though, our poor honest men seem to be guilty of a hatful of offences, up to and including murder. Which is when Kipling pulls the rug with the wonderful last verse:

To be drowned or be shot
Is our natural lot,
Why should we, moreover, be hanged in the end –
After all our great pains
For to dangle in chains
As though we were smugglers, not poor honest men?

This turns the entire poem on its head – suddenly the speaker isn’t complaining about all the hardships encountered in crossing the Atlantic (relative to which he could genuinely claim to be “honest”, or at least innocent), but about the sheer effrontery of being treated as, as… a smuggler! The irony’s black as night and ultimately rather nasty – having set the speaker up as a smuggler from the first line, the poem is implicitly stating that dangling in chains is about what he deserves. I think this song lies behind the similar but more sympathetic trick Bellamy worked in “Us poor fellows“: there we begin with “poor fellows” looking for work and end with a “poor fellow” going out on the rob, but without losing our imaginative identification with him.

Arrangement: almost identical to Bellamy’s on Oak, Ash and Thorn, where he was accompanied by Barry Dransfield on fiddle. The accompaniment here is drums and English concertina.

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

NS29: Big steamers

This is Kipling in full jingoistic mode, beating the drum for British naval supremacy. The children who were this poem’s original audience were children of the Empire – an empire that included Hong Kong and Bombay as well as Hobart, Melbourne, Quebec and Vancouver – and Kipling wanted to make sure they knew it.

What’s interesting is the terms in which he gets the message across. British imperialism, and the military strength needed to support it, are justified on the most basic terms possible: we need the warships, because we need to be able to send the “big steamers” to India, Australia and Canada; and we need to do that because we need to eat. We need to rule the world because we’re so weak, in other words. It’s reminiscent of the patriotic mindset Anthony Barnett describes in this piece, in which Britain is at once a humble underdog (“It is a nasty world and, surrounded by it, we are but a modest, embattled island nation.”) and a world superpower (“Our goodness gives us an inner strength and integrity which, with our long experience, means we can suggest with all due modesty that the world needs our leadership”).

The poem gets noticeably darker as it goes on; the last verse, and the last line in particular, spells out what’s at stake in no uncertain terms. Interestingly, the last verse appears to be addressed to an audience of adults as well as children – at least, we assume that the people who carve joints of meat aren’t the same as the ones who suck sweets and nibble biscuits.

A hundred years on, of course, Britain’s still a net importer of food, but we manage to get by without imperial supremacy; we’ve got globalisation instead.

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

NS26: Follow me ‘ome

Although it’s in a very different style, this poem shares its central situation with Ford o’ Kabul River: two men are in the army, one is killed and the other is… well, ‘heartbroken’ seems the only word. The loss of a beloved close friend is initially sketched in lightly, even flippantly, by a speaker who knows that other people aren’t grieving as much or at all. By the end of the poem, the same plain diction expresses an overwhelming loss:

’E was all that I ’ad in the way of a friend,
An’ I’ve ’ad to find one new;
But I’d give my pay an’ stripe for to get the beggar back,
Which it’s just too late to do.

Right at the end, there’s a kind of lexical focus-pull: the song shifts registers to speak from somewhere outside the speaker:

Oh, passin’ the love o’ women,

2 Samuel, chapter 1, verse 26: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” I remember my mother citing this to me in the course of a “some people are gay” conversation when I was quite young (she almost certainly didn’t use the word ‘gay’).

So, was there a gay subtext? It depends what you mean by ‘subtext’. Was Kipling writing, in a way he thought his readers would understand without having it spelt out, about two lovers? Certainly not – I think the idea would have horrified him, not to mention his audience. Was he writing about a loving friendship between two men, who were closer to each other than either of them was to a woman? Yes – it’s right there in front of you. And, for me at least (and I am writing as a straight man), whether or not we think of this particular loving friendship as sexual is much less important than the attention and tenderness with which the poem brings it to life. Growing up in a gender-segregated environment, young men like these could both have been straight and still never have had any emotional involvement with a woman to match the friendship they had. Lives are complicated, sex lives in particular.

I learned this from Peter Bellamy’s recording on Keep on Kipling, where it’s accompanied by Chris Birch’s violin as well as Bellamy’s anglo concertina. Adapting an anglo accompaniment for an English concertina isn’t always a good idea; the chordal accompaniment you can hear is mostly my own work.

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

NS27: Ford o’ Kabul River

“Kabul town’s by Kabul river”, and they’re both an awful long way away from the England where Kipling’s audience lived. Plus ça change eh?

This song commemorates a real military disaster from 1879, in which a cavalry squadron lost its way while fording the Kabul river at night and got swept away; 46 men were lost, and only 19 bodies were found. Kipling’s poem takes a few liberties with the story, suggesting that it took place just outside Kabul and in the course of a campaign to take the city; in fact it happened near Jalalabad, seventy miles away, and the cavalry in question had been sent out to put on a show of strength and intimidate rebellious locals.

What’s particularly striking about Kipling’s poem, and gives it far more power than the rather grubby story it’s based on, is the personal framing: it’s spoken by a man who lost his best friend in the river and is now beside himself with grief. After a while, the refrain’s cheery repetitions –

Ford, ford, ford!
Ford o’ Kabul River,
Ford o’ Kabul River in the dark!

take on an oppressive, nightmarish quality: in his mind, you feel, the speaker is still at the ford of Kabul river in the dark, and perhaps always will be.

Peter Bellamy’s arrangement of this song (on Keep on Kipling) is brisk and tuneful, with an uncluttered fiddle accompaniment from Chris Birch; Bellamy’s uncompromising, caustic delivery works well, together with the Mixolydian mode of the tune, to stop things getting too jolly. For myself I didn’t want to take any chances, so I slowed it down a bit and added some percussive noise (which may be familiar from a recent shanty).

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

NS24: Anchor song

This is another Bellamy arrangement of Kipling. The poem’s something of a tour de force in the sheer quantity of technical vocabulary that it manages to cram in, mostly but not exclusively in the odd-numbered verses; the ‘surface’ of the poem is at once off-putting and fascinating (“handsome to the cat-head now…”). The poet who this effect most puts me in mind of is W. H. Auden, of all people; I wonder if he ever acknowledged Kipling as an influence.

I haven’t been able to find any commentary on the poem. What seems to be going on is the launching of a small ship; the sail is unfurled in the first verse, after which attention switches to cables (I think) in the third, the eponymous anchor in the fifth and the wheel in the seventh. The terminology looks genuine, but I suspect it’s a bit overdone for effect; would anyone say “Up, well up the fluke of her!” when they could say “Raise the anchor”?

The tune is Bellamy’s; he took it at a similar pace. It’s an absolute sod to learn; even after I’d memorised it I had to sing it through several times before I was word-perfect. This recording was done in one take.

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NS22: Frankie’s trade

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.

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