A song tradition today
Musical Traditions Records MTCD335-6
The Flanders Shore, The Indian Lass, The Flowers of Bermuda, Locks and Bolts - Bob Bray. The Death of Parker, Bury Me on Sunday, Garners Gay, Some Rival, The Housewife's Lament - Audrey Smith. Posy Joe, The Weaver's Prayer - Harry Langston. Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie, Salisbury Plain - Chris Molan. The Trees are all Bare - Chris Molan & Harry Langston. Boney's Lamentation, The Outlandish Knight, Polly on the Shore, The Cuckoo - Roger Grimes. The Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Willow Tree, Johnny Heybourn, The Labouring Man's Daughter - Danny Stradling. The Isle of St Helena, Queen Jane - Martin Graebe. The Forsaken Maiden, The Gown of Green - Shan Cowan. Christmas Lamentation Shan Cowan & Martin Graebe. The Eighteenth of June, The Week Before Easter, Young Taylor, The Green Wedding - Rod Stradling. The Dragon of Wantley, Young Tommy and the Privy, Tea in the Arbour, Tonight I'll get My Pay - Ken Langsbury. The Tyger, The Old Garden Gate, The Parting Glass - Jeff Gillett. Total Duration: 136:04On 10th September, I switched my computer on to check my email, but first I thought I would see (as I often do) what news there might be on the MT website. I was very pleased to find that there was this new double-CD and immediately sent off my order via that nice Mr PayPal. Only then did I check my email and there was one from Rod Stradling saying that he was sending me a copy of the 2-CD set and asking if I would write a review of it! (Let that be a lesson to us all. Does it not say in Ecclesiastes 13:6, 'Hasten first to check thy e-mail lest thou miss something important.'?)
You may guess from my eagerness to buy that I am a 'fan' of the people and songs represented here. I stumbled, almost accidentally, on the Fleece session a few years ago and, since then, have spent many happy hours in the company of these singers at various events and festivals. I consider everyone on these CDs to be my friends. You should also be aware, if you look in the Latest Reviews section of this website, that Rod wrote a very generous review of my own CD a few weeks ago. So, you're not going to get an unbiased opinion from me! (Is it actually possible ever to get an unbiased opinion from anyone? Answers on a postcard, please.) However, one might be biased and still be objective - I'll do my best.
Unlike many pub sessions where there is a substantial audience of non-participants clamouring to be entertained, or a folk club where a paying audience has a buyer's right to be entertained, the Golden Fleece singing session is a group of equal participants with very few (if any) non-participants. As Rod explains in his introduction to the sleeve-notes,1 "This is not a situation where a 'performance' is appropriate ... we share the songs amongst the gathering, rather than project them at a separate audience." There is no applause though praise is frequently expressed. "Warm comments are not unusual, but as often as not they will be for the song rather than the performance." He goes on to state that this situation is "essentially the same as those which pertained at those famous 'singing pubs' like Blaxhall Ship, Eastbridge Eel's Foot, Sutton Windmill, and doubtless scores of others across the country. We, like the singers who frequented those pubs, travel for anything up to 45 minutes to a place where we know that like-minded singers will gather to sing 'our songs' - and where they will receive an intelligent, informed, enthusiastic and critical reception, amongst good order and friends." Well, I never went to any of those famous old pubs but I have been to the Fleece session so I can confirm, whole-heartedly, that it is a delightful place for anyone who loves sharing songs. " you will hear many fine performances at the Fleece: partly because of the quality of the singers, but more because of their love for, and obvious enjoyment of, the songs." I can confirm this too. Love of the songs is the basis of that wonderful ambience - and of the many fine performances on these CDs.
What songs are these that inspire such affection? They are the sort of stories about the pains and pleasures of life with which you will be familiar. I'm sure you will recognize many of the titles above but, although the titles are familiar, none of them are quite like any other version you'll have heard before. Every one has been amended to a greater or lesser extent, deliberately or subconsciously, as singers always have amended songs.2 This personalising of traditional songs is essential to their continuing relevance - it re-energises them. In the sleeve-notes for the Oak CDs, Jon Dudley wrote, " having listened to and even played and sung with the original torch bearers and returned to vintage archive material, they took the music by the scruff of its neck and did it their way. Interestingly, this proved to be a natural progression and bore all the hallmarks of authenticity. Rather than view our musical heritage like some poor dead butterfly pinned to a display board, beautiful but inert, they breathed some real life, fun and, where needed, pathos back into it. Just what the music had always been, but what it was in danger of losing." Thanks Jon. That seems to sum it up nicely.
So, songs are brought to the group by individuals but, as everyone shares their meaning, a group dynamic develops. When sung amongst a regular gathering such as this, other people join in the choruses and refrains or even on favourite words and phrases. I have seen this happen in sessions I regularly go to in Shropshire and I'm sure it happens everywhere. Songs evolve (or, more correctly, performances evolve) - words and timings get amended; emphases shift and extra vigour is added to the performance. The song no longer depends on the singer alone - it becomes, in a sense, 'owned' by the group.3 The singers on these CDs grew up in different parts of the country so there is no regional accent to meld the performances together.4 Nevertheless, these recordings are a joyful and communal experience. It is impossible to capture the total atmosphere of a pub session (anyway, due to technical constraints, these recordings were not done in the actual pub) but they do give an accurate impression of evenings in Stroud's Golden Fleece. Also due to technical difficulties, they are of solo or duet voices only (without the group choruses, etc.) but one can still sense the presence of all the other participants. You feel like you're part of the gang - they all sing as if they know you're listening!
We are presented with some very interesting variants of well-known songs and a few 'new' songs. Audrey Smith ('our star' as Rod calls her) is particularly good at bringing forward new songs. She is over 80, yet her singing has more sparkle and vivacity than most of the 20-year-olds you see at festivals. Her contributions to this collection include the benchmark version of Garners Gay (If you sing the song, you must listen to this. Other people will be comparing your version with it and you need to know what they are talking about.) I'm particularly fond also of her setting of a Thomas Hardy poem that she calls Bury Me on Sunday and an American song called The Housewife's Lament - "Life is a toil and love is a trouble and nothing is as I would wish it to be". Bob Bray ("our boss") organises the sessions and associated events. His repertoire also contains some unusual songs including a fabulous version of The Indian Lass. I'm very glad to see that Bob seems to be getting booked at more festivals recently - he deserves to be heard more. I'm not going to go through the whole list of singers (Look at the track-list above and accept this simple sentiment - they're all wonderful in their individual ways) but I must mention Danny Stradling, one of my all-time favourite singers. This is partly because, the first time I heard her, I was struck by the similarity of her style with that of my mother when I was a child but it is the power and honesty of her singing that never fails to wow me. Her version of The Willow Tree ought to be in everyone's Desert Island Discs.
I love to compare different styles of performance and consider how they affect the songs. Some of these unaccompanied songs are very freely phrased, such that it would be almost impossible to follow with a harmony voice or rhythmic backing. In many of these songs the story seems to set its own pace and the singer has to speed up or slow down when the story requires. (Not that the process is quite so involuntary, of course, but, as a singer myself, I can tell you - it sometimes feels like the song takes control!) Ken Langsbury's rendering of The Dragon of Wantley is a particularly good example of this sort of alliance between singer and song. The words are pinched, pulled, cramped or stretched almost to breaking point. There are numerous rhythmic patterns going on all at the same time and the cadences rise and fall alarmingly. All of which suits the story perfectly! It is very funny as well as providing the most exciting rollercoaster ride - worth the price of the CDs on its own.
However, such exuberant performances are also quite exhausting so it's a relief that most tracks are presented in more 'conventional' styles. (That's not a criticism. Conventions - forms on which the majority agree - are what all comprehendible languages are based on. Such styles might also be called 'popular' simply because most people prefer them. Though, of course you know, I'm not talking about 'Pop' styles. There's not a hint of Mid-Atlantic here!) These more familiar, structured styles give more emphasis to the tunes - and what glorious tunes there are. One of my particular favourites is The Weaver's Prayer by Harry Langston. This is a Lancashire dialect poem about the acceptance of death using weaving as a metaphor, which Harry has set to an utterly sublime tune. It has personal resonances for me as I was brought up in a wool town and worked for a short time in a weaving mill but, even without that, I think it's one of the most beautiful and moving songs I have ever heard. (Praise indeed. From a Yorkshireman to a Lancastrian!) A handful of songs are sung in duet, harmony or with instrumental backing and so stick to even more consistent and rhythmic patterns. Despite my irrational (and inconsistent) prejudice against guitars, I find the few songs where Jeff Gillett sings and plays guitar very enjoyable. They are as necessary to the enjoyment of the collective performance as cleaning the palette between stronger flavoured and spiced dishes in a banquet. The different accents and styles mean that these evenings are much more strongly flavoured than the more homogenous groups heard on the old recordings. Yet the overall effect seems, as Rod says, very similar.
In the sleeve-notes, Rod expresses the hope " most particularly, that it may encourage others to attempt to create the sort of 'Fellowship of Song' which we've all so enjoyed in Stroud's Golden Fleece."5 He talks about the venue and how the table affects the ambience (Sorry, you would just have to go there to know what that really means. But don't all go at once - there's not a lot of room.)
Whatever the past tradition was and whatever we would hope for the future, the only time that really matters is the present. Having said that the Fleece is " essentially the same . as those famous 'singing pubs' ", Rod continues, " the (Fleece) session developed into the most exciting and rewarding singing situation it has ever been my privilege to encounter." Now, you must remember that Rod and Danny knew and recorded many of those source singers we all admire. They were actually present at sessions in the Blaxhall Ship and other places. So, for Rod to say that the Golden Fleece is "the most exciting and rewarding singing situation" is an enormously important statement. But it's not surprising really - he's talking about a living, 21st century tradition.6 We may enjoy being transported to Suffolk in the early 1960s by the old recordings but we can not live there. Some people try to re-present the past (some do that very well and I love to see them) but I know and you know that these songs are just as relevant to our lives in 2005. I'm sure that singers in other parts of the country will, indeed, try to establish something similar to the Golden Fleece sessions. I've begun to make plans already - anyone in Shropshire know a suitable venue with a big 'equalising table' to sit round?
As we have come to expect from Musical Traditions Records, the sleeve-notes are excellent. They include brief biographies of, and statements from, each singer; the lyrics and brief notes on each song. You can read the sleeve-notes, for free, in the Articles section of this website and some of these songs, or similar ones, are explained in greater depth in the Singer's Songbook section.
2. Amending songs
It actually takes a lot more effort to learn and sing a song exactly as someone else sang it than to adapt it to suit one's own style. This adaptation may be 'imposed' on us (for example, if we don't have the vocal range of the previous singer) but most of us actively try to improve the song by our amendments. These are the sort of songs that have been sung by many people over many years and the image that many people seem to have of that continuing tradition is of a seamless, unthinking passing-on from one generation to the next. In reality, 'generation' is another term for a group of people and groups do not make decisions - individuals make decisions which other individuals may or may not follow. These songs convey universal and timeless messages from which we can learn or gain comfort - even the ones that are intended merely to be amusing. Some of them may have encapsulated their message from the moment they were written (by an individual song-writer). Most have been changed by other individuals at different times and in different circumstances to improve them in some way. These 'improvements' may or may not be successful! Sometimes, a particular person may be so revered that their version becomes accepted by a community as the 'correct' version. There are lots of reasons this occurs.
3. Song ownership.
I've never quite understood this. It may be because my early years were in a microculture where songs were transmitted through the Female line (my Mum!) rather than the Male-dominated pub microculture. When I left home and began to spend far too much of my time in pubs, I learned that it was considered bad form to sing 'someone else's song' - but it never quite made sense to me. So, I'll go along with the idea, as so many people seem to think it is true, but I don't really believe it!
4. Archive recordings.
Part of my love for those old recordings is because they have the power to transport me to rural Suffolk as well as back in time. That can't be because of the songs as they were not all from that area. Perhaps some were written locally or brought from other parts of East Anglia by itinerant workers but we know that many were learned from published sources that were much more widely (sometimes nationally) disseminated. Returning travellers, sailors and merchants brought songs from even further afield; from Ireland, America, Australia. Most were not 'Suffolk songs' but, wherever they were from, over a period of time they were adapted and localised. All the singers sang in Suffolk accents (and, to some extent, local dialect) - and it is that accent that transports me. But I don't live in rural Suffolk (I live in rural Mid-Wales) and nor do most of you. And it's no longer the 1960s so, when we sing any of these songs, they ought (?) to be adapted further. Yet one can still hear people who claim to be enthusiasts say that our present day adaptations are not 'traditional' and that modern performances are not 'authentic'.
5. Sharing songs.
'Sharing' songs is not like 'listening to' or 'performing' - the experience is one of mutuality. The song needs a singer and the singer needs a listener only in order for the song to explain its true value. (Some people think they choose what songs to sing - it often seems more accurate to say that songs choose the singer!) There is no 'commodity' that belongs to the singer or that can be bought by the listener - there is only a shared experience, and that experience is of sharing! Of course, there are many ways of sharing and many other sorts of singing. Community Singing in its various forms can be a thrilling experience. As a teenager I sang in chapel choirs; Black and White Minstrel Shows (Ooh, that shows my age, doesn't it?); skiffle groups; rugby team baths. We sang rugby songs; hymns; pop songs; songs that the Dubliners made famous. All of which (my Minister and teachers would be disappointed to learn) had quite similar effects as far as I was concerned! But these musical experiences rarely had much investment in the songs themselves. All too often, the words were little more than a medium for making a joyful (or merely loud) noise. The song itself and, in particular, the meaning of the words was not always a vital part of that experience. The song known as Jerusalem, for example, can raise powerful emotions. Charles Parry's tune is terrific to sing in a large crowd but makes it difficult to hear the questioning nature of the words - "And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green?" Many people who have joined in on the last night of the Proms seem to have little comprehension of Blake's poem and many people who bellow shanties and hunting songs in the Beer Tent at festivals have as little regard for the sentiments expressed in the words. They vote to ban fox-hunting and then sing Tally Ho, Hark Away.
Oh dear, I've just fallen into the 'us not them' mode! We humans seem to have a strong impulse to identify with other people. The easiest way to do this is to define what 'we' are not - the 'us not them' mode. The worst consequence of this is why racists, religious fanatics, nationalists, schoolyard gang-leaders need to have an enemy. ('We' belong to the group because 'he' is different - and only because he is different.) I guess we all do it to some extent but we need to be wary of it. When I make fun of Lancastrians or (when with a Lancastrian friend) of 'Southerners' - I'm trying to make fun of that 'us not them' tendency. But I need to be wary as, once or twice, people have taken me seriously and felt offended. (Fortunately, people rarely take me seriously.)
The second, more difficult, way to identify with others is to recognise shared characteristics. When done from outside a society this is similar to the classification of plants or animal species and we all know how contentious that can be! But, from inside, it boils down to this experience of sharing. A conversation about any shared experience that results in feelings of agreement leads to a sense of 'belonging'. ('We' belong to the group because we all like cricket; the Malvern Hills; Walter Pardon's singing; whatever.) In one sense, traditional songs only really belong to the participants in an act of sharing. In another sense, they belong to anyone who wants to learn them or learn from them. They are the basis of this shared experience but not the entirety.
6. Forgotten sources
It may be interesting to trace songs back but, if we can't, it doesn't matter that much - we can still sing them without that knowledge. Two 'generations' of singers is often sufficient for earlier sources to be forgotten. This seems to have been especially so when songs were 'owned' by a particular singer. A song learned from a broadside or someone in the market town twenty miles away would be accepted as 'So-and-so's song'. Once learned by a younger singer, that provenance would suffice. For example, Bob Scarce and Bob Hart probably learned Australia from Walter Friend, with whom both had worked for many years in Snape Maltings. Mr Friend was said to have been the first person in the area to have sung it - but where he got it from is not known. Nowadays we can compare recordings of the 'generation' that learned from him - Bob Hart, Cyril Poacher, Geoff Ling - and note some considerable variations. How and why changes occurred in their individual interpretations would make an interesting study. I wish I had the time, resources and expertise to do it. (Has anyone on the Newcastle BA course looked into it? Is 59 too old to go to University? Nah, you probly have to be able to spell and do sums. Maybe I'll just carry on listening to these beloved songs and sharing them with my beloved friends.)
Chris Bartram - 30.9.05