Article MT086 - from Musical Traditions No 2, Early 1984

Mrs Amy Ford of Low Ham, Somerset

song learning in a family tradition



My path to Mrs Ford's door began when Cecil Sharp noted some songs from Frederick Crossman at Huish Episcopi Somerset in 1904.  It picked up again some fifty years later when the BBC recorded two songs from a Frederick Crossman and about twenty years after that I picked up the trail.  I made some enquiries at Eli's - the Rose and Crown at Huish Episcopi - and was directed to a Mr Crossman just outside Langport, who redirected me to his sister, Mrs Amy Ford, at Low Ham.

That meeting has made quite a difference to my life: not only did Mrs Ford have two exercise books of songs written out which she was perfectly willing and able to sing, but she subsequently introduced me to wine-making and local Christmas carols - but both of these are other stories.

To start at the beginning, Frederick Crossman Senior had been a gardener on a gentleman's estate before buying a plot of land at Huish Episcopi and starting business as a market gardener.  With his horse and cart he used to take produce to market at Yeovil, Taunton and Bridgwater and every Saturday he delivered around Langport, two of his specialities being grapes and tomatoes.  After World War I, his youngest son, Frederick Henry, joined the business and this is the Frederick Crossman who sang for the BBC.

Frederick Crossman had nine children and his eldest daughter was Mrs Ford's mother; she had married a distant cousin, also a Crossman, who was one of seven children.  Long families run in the Crossman blood - Mrs Ford was the sixth of seven (three boys and four girls), she had seven children herself (three boys and four girls) and her sister in Canada also had seven (three boys and four girls).

Mrs Ford was born in High Ham in 1905 and apart from a few years in service in neighbouring villages has always lived in the parish.  She now lives with two of her sons, Fred and Andrew, on a smallholding in Low Ham, which is part of High Ham parish.

After leaving school at 13, young Amy Crossman started work packing seeds at a local nursery but the winter weather and roads were so bad that she left to go into service at Huish Episcopi Vicarage.  After a year there she had developed housemaid's knee and had to leave.

At that time her maternal grandmother (Frederick Crossman's wife) at Huish was ill and she went there to help - 'and that's the time really when I collected most of his songs, ... even before then I had collected some because while I was in school I used to work there Friday nights and help him Saturday mornings with vegetables to take to Langport and help to sell them ... then I used to come back and have dinner midday and clean up Grandmother's house in the afternoon and walk from Huish to home, which was 3 ... 4 miles'.  Market gardening and hard work are two more surviving family traditions.

After her Grandmother had recovered, Amy went into service at Curry Rivel for nearly five years, starting as kitchen maid and finishing up as cook for a family of seven and eight servants - 'I like cooking and I'm sure that if I was young and had to earn my living, that's what I'd go back to'.

When the family moved to smaller premises.  Amy went into service with the Kelway family and it was from there that she married in 1929.  1942 brought a bitter blow - Mr Ford was killed by lightning, leaving a widow and seven children.  "When I lost my husband I did everything I could possibly do: sewing, washing, pea-picking for farmers, potato-picking for farmers and everything where I could earn a shilling to get round.  It didn't hurt me and I like outdoor work, even now.  But when I go outside I hate to have to come back in and get a meal.  When I'm out I like to put in a day and stay out."

That sad loss did not destroy Mrs Ford's zest for life - over the years she has been active in the local Women's Institute, Christmas carolling, carnivals and numerous social functions.  A few years ago she went to Canada on her own to visit her sister.

Mrs Ford's style of singing is the direct unornamented style which is so typical of the region, but this is not to say that it is deadpan as there is humour, pathos or a lilt in the voice, as appropriate to the song.  Despite protestations that 'I'm no singer', Mrs Ford has an excellent memory for tunes - 'the tune never leaves me, I can pick up anything I heard thirty years ago and I got it'.  And I have never known her to pitch a song wrongly or lose the melody part way through.  Mrs Ford has the traditional singers concern to give a good performance, frequently asking such questions as is that all right?' or, occasionally 'You can cut out that bit where I went wrong?'

This can only be natural ability as her total musical tuition was a little piano instruction before she left school.

The songs, excluding carols, that have been recorded to date are:

To my mind this is a good, solid country singer's repertoire - a mixture of traditional songs and ballads and Victorian, or later, popular songs and ballads.  Mrs Ford has never been a pub singer, although her oldest brother, Frederick Crossman III, was able to earn his beer, that was before he emigrated to Canada, and she has only ever had two bookings - to sing at a Quaker gathering at Long Sutton many years ago and at Pitney at a welcome home party for a Japanese POW.

I find the descriptions of learning songs in the family and at parties particularly interesting, so I shall go into that in some detail.  Bell-ringing plays an important part in the process as these two quotations show:

'My family have all been bell-ringers grandfather and his brother, I don't know about so many of his sons because they married and went away and weren't in Huish very much, but my brothers all took to it, my two sons and son-in law now.

My brothers and grandfather and all the lot were ringers, bell-ringers, and they used to have Christmas parties.  And we used to go one year to one ringer's home and another year to another ringer's home.  The family combined, and of course, other bell ringers as well.  And that's how it got round, used to hear these songs and then, if you got interested and knew the chorus, then you'd say when you met him next time "Here, Tom, let's have that song again, I remember you sang it last time."  So that's how it went round, how we got on to it'.

As Mrs Ford said: "They all kept up the old family songs that we heard being passed on from generation to generation", hence songs like Banks of the Sweet Dundee and The Ship that Never Returned were originally heard from Frederick Crossman and subsequently from his children.  Some are remembered specifically as Grandfather Crossman's - As I Walked Through the Meadow, Barbara Allen, The Man You Don't Meet Every Day and Garden Gate; others as Mother's - He'll be Back By and By, Won't You Buy my Pretty Flowers, Blow the Wind High-Ho, Starry Night for a Ramble, Volunteer Organist and The Light in the Window, although how many of these came from her father we'll never know.

'Some, like The Bailiff's Daughter of Islington are Mother's, although Grandfather spoke of it and some have more detail: Farewell Mother 'It was when I was a tot, before I went to school, when she (Mrs Ford's mother) was sewing or standing at the table doing something, and singing.  Well, those sort of things stick in my memory, lots of things that come later don't they?'  White Wings was learnt the same way, although the words of the verses were forgotten until a set turned up.

Faithful Sailor Boy - from 'my mother and cider making parties they used to have to make the cider back 55, perhaps 60 years ago'.

Farmer's Boy - 'Used to be an old chap and his wife used to help make the cider and she would come down and have a little squeezebox and I think I picked up that off them.  When I was quite a kid that was, we were allowed to stay up nights when that was on'.

Chickens in the Garden - 'My brother (Albert) ... was where I heard that one first.  Where he picked it up?  On his ringing rounds I expect.  When we were young and there was parties at Christmas time and all that sort of thing, that was the one that he would always start with.  And if we could get him started with that, you might get some odds and ends of something else.  That was his favourite to start'.

If I Were a Blackbird - 'Sister-in-law.  If we had a party, that was her song that everybody, parents and brothers and sisters, called on her to sing'.

Joe Muggins - 'I was kitchen maid ... and there was twelve or fourteen of we servants, when we had a Christmas party.  The family used to go out for the evening and they had the drawing room carpet up and paid somebody to play the piano and we had a party.  There was a fellow who used to sing in the church choir ... and he came out with this one.  And that caught my eye and I sort of listened for it and I thought to myself "I'll get that out of him" - one or two of these verses is in his writing'.

Go and Leave Me - 'My sister came home with that one', while Mrs Ford was still at school.

Friend at Every Milestone - 'I was in service at Curry Rivel ... we had a Christmas party and an old gardener and his wife and family came to the party.  'Twas all spontaneous, everybody did what they could ... and this old gardener got up and sang that one and I got that from him'.

Two Convicts - from a Londoner stationed at High Ham during the last War.

Little Black Moustache - from a sister on her return from Canada.

Get Away Old Man - from a party somewhere.  'My brothers were ringers down Huish and every year they used to have a social up the school room, and a dance.  There was an old chap, a blind man, lived in Huish and he could play anything on the piano.  They used to get him, he charged ten shillings for a dance, they used to have to fetch him and take him back.  But these ringers used to get this social up and wives, mothers or who-have you used to find tea, coffee and food and stuff and then some of these songs used to come out, 'cos it wasn't a fixed game ... there was no programme.  They would just say "Has anybody else got something to tell us or somebody else can sing us a song", and we'd just stand up and do it.'

Young Soldier Cut Down in His Prime - 'I only heard the Old Boy sing that once, I got the words off Mother afterwards'. Mrs Ford also sang I've an Old Fashioned Push-bike, a parody of Old-fashioned Mother of Mine. The reason for going into all this detail is to try to demonstrate the song-learning methods available to a member of a family with strong musical and social traditions in an area which had a strong singing tradition.  This tradition lives on, as this description of a WI party in 1982 shows:

'We had a party last October, November time and got all in a ring and she said '"You sing, say, whistle or pay, but we're taking no money"'.

Postscript:

After correcting the original, Mrs Ford added this postscript:

'I somehow forgot to tell you that I had a job even before going to help Grandfather and Grandmother, I used to take vegetables to people living around the village green.  One was our schoolmaster, Mr Mathams, and the other was to the village carpenter, Mr Lavies.

Then at 9 a.m.  I had to be at the Post Office - a Mrs Mears and her daughter, Miss Beatrice, (as I was told to call her), she was about 17 then, kept the Post Office and general shop, all in one room.  My job was to wash the floor and outside pavement, then clean the knives and shoes, and any other odd job - weeding the gravel in the front drive was one.  I had a cup of tea and usually, a cheese sandwich, for dinner, and I'd finish about 3 p.m.  She would pay me sixpence.  Once she asked me to take a telegram to Mrs Lloyd of Low Ham, to go straight there, as I had to pass my own home, and she gave me threepence for that, I really was rich.

Little did I know what news I was carrying - the First World War was on, and she had two sons in France; that telegram was to say one, Maurice, had been killed in action.  When I asked her if there was any reply to it, she just said 'No', turned around and shut the door.  When later we heard the news, I didn't want my threepence, I wished I hadn't taken it, but I took several telegrams after that, but not such sad news, to other people.'

Bob and Jacqeline Patten

Article MT086

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