Come let us buy the licence -
songs of courtship and marriage
Topic TSCD 651
For many reasons, you'd want the opening track of the series to have an impact. All sorts of people, reviewers, academics, might be approaching this "difficult music" with some trepidation. Well, Sarah Makem makes a pretty good accessible choice. (sound clip - I Courted a Wee Girl) Her diction is clear, she is rhythmically interesting and her texts are always quite poetic. It was her voice that provided the signature music for the epoch making radio programme "As I Roved Out" and so will be better known than most of the singers here. Her pitch does drift. She starts out in the key of F#, flattening slightly before overcompensating and ending up in G. So we have probably lost some people straight away, but if you can't cope with drifting keys in unaccompanied singing, you are probably not going to get much from traditional singing anyway, so let's get quickly on to something that is certainly going to have to be an acquired taste for the new listener, the nicotine lubricated voice of Mary Ann Haynes. (sound clip - Lovely Johnny) I was there with Mike Yates for a short time whilst he was recording her and she certainly switched off her 'incorrigible old rascal' behaviour as soon as the tape recorded was switched on, echoing the sort of experience that Rod talks about with Phoebe Smith (review of Vol. 11), but there is no doubting her background as that distinctive style of the southern English traveller shines through every note. Conversely, the example of Belle Stewart included on this album (sound clip - The Bonnie Wee Lassie Frae Gouroch) shows little of the sobbing, crooning delivery style that has been described for Scots travellers and was certainly true of a lot of Belle's singing. Perhaps, it is the song, (of music hall origin?) which was not one she sung frequently. There is a lot of youthful vitality in the voice of a 66 year old in this recording.
Elsewhere, this album contains some of the finest traditional singers performing absolute gems from their repertoires. Phil Tanner's Sweet Primroses, Harry Cox's Bold Fisherman, Paddy Tunney's When A Man's In Love, Pop Maynard's Our Captain Calls All Hands, Walter Pardon's Peggy Benn, Joseph Taylor's Gypsy Girl, all on one album - this is an embarrassment of riches.
Ireland's strong representation on this album also includes Joe Heaney and Margaret Barry, though personally I prefer the former when he is tackling songs that challenge his amazing talents more than Where Are You, My Pretty Fair Maid, and the latter when she puts her banjo down. Reg is to be really complimented for including the singing of Micho Russell and Willy Clancy. Both are primarily known as instrumentalists but are also very fine singers. Micho is relishing the wonderful rollicking internal assonances of Nora Daly so different from the gently delivered, highly decorated style that Willy uses for The Song of the Riddles. (sound clip) Students of uilleann piping would be unlikely to confuse the playing of the two great masters, Willy and Seamus Ennis. However, to these ears, the singing of the two sounds very similar. To me, this could easliy be Seamus.
Apart from Belle, there are two other Scots, Jimmy McBeath and Jeannie Robertson. Anyone who had the privilege of seeing Jimmy perform live may share my feeling that there is no recording that captures the magnetism of the man. The flat-capped, weather-beaten face would not have stood out of a crowd of Scots working men in the '50s and '60s, but in front of an audience he was transformed into one of the most mesmeric performers in any field with underplayed gestures and a master's sense of timing. On the other hand, Jeannie's artistry and command is captured in this live recording and one can feel the audience reaching out towards her here (sound clip - An Auld Man Come Courting Me) The recording captures her obligatory complaint at the end that she was not singing well. Did Jeannie ever say, in her concert/festival performances at least, that she was in good form, that she was enjoying herself? It didn't make it any easier to stop her singing, once she had got the bit between her teeth.
If you are at the stage of deciding to buy one of the series to see whether it is for you, then one of the four love songs albums (Vols. 1, 6, 10 and 15) would seem to be a good place to start and of the four, this would seem to be the one to opt for.
Incidently, rather than load the already extensive booklets with attempts to cross-reference all the songs to books, manuscripts and recordings, the notes on these volumes refer the enthusiast to a database compiled by Steve Roud and kept in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Sounds fascinating and very useful. I tried to look it up on the VWML website but could find no reference to it. Is this database available through the internet? If it isn't it certainly should be. I, for one, would be there all the time.
Vic Smith - 2.12.98
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