Harry Upton

Why Can't it Always be Saturday?

Musical Traditions Records (MTCD371)

The Female Drummer;  If I Were a Blackbird;  The Dockyard Gate;  A Woman's Work is Never Done;  Bonny Blue Handkerchief;  The Life of a Man;  The Royal Albion;  Canadee-I-O;  The Feckless Young Girl;  The Wreck of the Northfleet;  I am a Donkey Driver;  A Single Life;  The Ship that never Returned;  In Wayward Town / The Little Cabin Boy;  In a Cottage by the Sea;  Seaweed;  Good Old Jeff;  The Thrashing Machine / I Come from the Country;  I'm a Man that's Done Wrong;  Poison in a Glass of Wine;  The Rich Lady Gay;  Why Can't it Always be Saturday?
Here is another excellent collection of traditional song from the Musical Traditions label.  It's a collection of songs recorded by Mike Yates between 1974 and 78 at Harry's home in Balcombe, Sussex.  If you want to learn of the patience sometimes required to persuade a country singer to actually produce the 'goods', then Mike Yates' excellent and informative notes will make fascinating reading.  His patience was richly rewarded - there are 22 tracks on this CD, all but two of this engaging singer's recorded repertoire.  For such an important singer, it's remarkable that most of his songs have never been easily available - there were a few tracks on two early Topic LPs, the song collections, A Sussex Harvest and Green Grow The Laurels, and a limited issue LP (250 copies - Topic SP104), Why Can't It Always Be Saturday, long deleted.

The 24 page booklet contains detailed background to the songs, as well as all the lyrics and a few relevant photos of Harry at his work on the farm.  Born in 1900, Harry Upton was a fine, tuneful singer, but not only that, he was a respected member of the small community of West Blatchington - long ago absorbed by the city of Brighton - moving at the age of 27 to the village of Balcombe, and was valued as a singer in both places.

Like most 'traditional' singers (I will leave you to define what that is!) Harry took his songs from a variety of sources without regard to their origin.  The oldest is probably A Shepherd Of The Downs, which may be familiar from the Copper family, but a version was noted as long ago as 1724 in Allan Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany.  He also possessed a number of manuscript texts, several hand-written by his parents, who were always an important source of material for a country singer, of course.

There are several distinctive versions of 18th century songs of broadside origin, such as The Rich Lady Gay and the lengthy story of the Wreck Of The Northfleet in 1874, which may be familiar from a Johnny Doughty LP some years back.  It's salutary to learn from Mike Yates that this tragedy off the Kent coast at Dungeness occurred only 40 years before it caught Harry's imagination as a boy on the Downs outside Brighton in 1914.  The Female Drummer and The Royal Albion will be recognised by any with an interest in the music, but although his version of the latter is fairly standard, his delivery makes the song's tragic message just as striking.

Harry Upton had a number of music hall songs such as the title song and A Woman's Work Is Never DoneI Am A Donkey Driver is another, although I'll leave you to work out the rhyming slang chorus of ‘Jerusalem Cuckoo’ in the latter!  He happily picked up songs of U.S. origin, such as Good Old Jeff and the sentimental Ship That Never Returned - Ulster fiddle player Tom Montgomery had this in his repertoire in the sixties, as I recall.  And Harry may be best known for that lovely song, The Life Of A Man, which is rightly included on this CD and can often be heard in song sessions today.

To conclude, this splendid new issue is a rare selection of material from a fine singer who has been much under-represented up to now.  It is a worthy addition to the Musical Traditions library but, as well as being grateful to that company, may I also suggest a word of thanks to collectors such as Mike Yates, who had the vision and the patience to recognise the value of a country singer such as Harry Upton and make this excellent recording possible, 40 years after his visits to a small Sussex village.

Jim Bainbridge - 27.2.16
In Living Tradition

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