My ship shall sail the ocean -
songs of tempest and sea battles, sailor lads and fishermen
Topic TSCD 652
Reg Hall's Introduction to the Series, which runs to almost seven pages, is excellent and very interesting. It's perhaps a pity then that the thematic introductions to the individual CDs are markedly less so, and rather short - the present one being barely two pages. As I've noted in my Comments on the series, these records are not really aimed at the likes of us, but I can't help thinking that many, if not most, purchasers would find the 'old style' Topic notes on the songs more useful than " ... while the central theme of In Scarborough Town is death during a raging storm at sea". You'd know this by listening to the song once.
The mini-biographies, on the other hand, are excellent and focus our attention on the singers and musicians, the sorts of lives they led and the communities from which they came. This should make for a better understanding of the material on the CDs and, possibly, to more meaningful performances of the material from those who decide to sing or play it in the future.
But I've always been a revisionist, rather than a revolutionary at heart and - just because a new approach is good - have seen no merit in rejecting what was good about the old. Is there not room for both - information about the performers and the material they perform?
Enough of that! What does this CD, rather than it's booklet, have to offer us? Given the context, let's start with the sailors and fishermen. On track 4 we find Johnny Doughty, from Brighton, Sussex, who was both, and sings The Saucy Sailor and Round Rye Bay for More with little of the exuberance one heard in his live singing, but nice performances nonetheless. The Co Antrim hammered dulcimer player, John Rae, was also a fisherman and tug deckhand in his time and plays the hornpipes Sailor on the Rope and Bonny Bunch of Roses very well - nice accurate playing and none of the florid excesses I find hard to enjoy from so many users of this instrument.
Sam Larner is well known as a fisherman, having worked at sea for 43 years, and as a singer, having been quite extensively recorded by McColl and Seeger in the '50s. Here he only gets to sing In Scarborough Town, but it's well worth hearing. He gets two songs on the other sea songs volume (No 12) and is heard often elsewhere in the series - as he should be. His 'Now is the Time for Fishing' is still available as an MT cassette - see our Products page.
Frank 'Tange' Verrill worked the sea for most of his life, was coxwain of the Staithes lifeboat for 15 years and, as a youth, had been in the crew of the last oar-driven lifeboat in England. He was also a stalwart of the Staithes Fishermen's Choir - more can be found on Tange and the choir in our Staithes Men's Choir article. He sings the local version of the Primitive Methodist hymn Jesus, at Thy Command.
Bob Hart ran away to sea at the age of thirteen and spent about ten years on both sail and steam trawlers working out of Lowestoft, where he learned some of his songs. Here he sings Cod Banging, one of the humorous sea songs so popular in East Suffolk (there are three on this CD), with charm and skill. Lots of information about Bob and his life can be found in the Booklet Notes to his MT double CD, A Broadside - available through our Records page. Reg Hall mentions that "he had all his songs written out in a book" (actually, it was just the titles) - and it seems odd that he should choose to include this detail, since I can't imagine many literate singers with a large repertoire who didn't have it noted down somewhere.
Bob Roberts was also well known as a sailor and bargeman who, though born in Dorset, spent most of his life in Suffolk. He sings another of those nonsense songs, The Fish and Chip Ship. Jumbo Brightwell also spent a short while at sea as a young man - indeed, it was unusual for anyone living in coastal East Suffolk to entirely avoid this occupation at some time or other in their lives. He sings the ever-popular Oak and the Ash with great style and interesting variants of both words and tune.
None of the other singers (John Rae is the only musician) on this CD have worked on the sea, as far as I know, though many will have family connections with it - but all the songs refer to it in one way or another, however obliquely. And all require mention since, as should be the case in a selection from some 5,000 recordings, everything here is very well worth listening to.
The record starts with Cyril Poacher, one of my favourite English singers, and A Broadside which he learned, as did Bob Hart, from Bob Scarce. Strange, then, that both have notable differences of tune and text - including completely different first verses (sound clip). We also hear Cyril's Sailor and his True Love with his lovely melodic and phrasing variations. Both songs are excellent.
Mention of favourite singers brings me to Tom Willet, who is probably the best male English Gypsy singer I've ever heard, and what is certainly his best (recorded) song, the wonderful Riding Down to Portsmouth. If you've heard it, you'll know what I mean - if not, here's a sound clip - now go out and buy this CD. The only other traveller on this record is Lizzie Higgins, whose lighthearted Sandy is a Sailor is far from the big ballads and sentimental songs she sang most often. The only other Scot on the record is Willie Scott who sings a good version of The Banks of Newfoundland, to the tune of Tramps and Hawkers, and mercifully free of the boisterous chorus so beloved of folkies of a certain sort.
Ireland is represented here by John Rae (see above), Paddy Tunny (Lowlands of Holland), Mary Ann Carolan (In London so Fair) and Micho Russell (The Poor Little Fisherboy). Tunny's singing is very well known, and this sparkling CD reproduction of Lowlands with its two odd-length verses amply demonstrates just why this should be so. Though advanced in years, he is still singing brilliantly to this day.
Mary Ann Carolan is less well-known, perhaps because less-frequent a public performer, but few can tell a story so well as she does here in this beautifully balanced tale of true love with a happy ending. This is just delightful. As is Micho Russell's Poor Little Fisherboy, sung with great style and obvious enjoyment by someone who was far better known as a musician.
In a Hampshire pub, I once heard Turp Brown sing the beautiful Streams of Lovely Nancy (sound clip) with those asperated vowels which spill over the border from Sussex, from whence comes Harry Upton, who sings The Royal Albion (Sailor Cut Down) on this record. Both men give typically natural southern English country performances, though Turp was rather more the showman.
Walter Pardon sings Jack Tar Ashore, a song perhaps more usually associated with Harry Cox, and missing Harry's last verse. I enjoy some of Walter's better performances very much indeed, but he is so laid-back that I fear I find much of his singing (as here) quickly becomes boring - What have I said? Fred Jordan is never boring, but has been heard so much over so long a period that he has become far too familiar, and too easy to ignore. Here, recorded at age 44 in 1966, he sings the Dark Eyed Sailor, beautifully, carefully and with great craft. I can't decide whether the beautiful voice of a younger man results in a more enjoyable performance than the skill, imagination and humour of Fred today - let's just be pleased to have both!
No record in this series would be complete without a song from the governor - Harry Cox - and few miss out in this respect. The clarity of CD reproduction and the skills and technologies of sound restoration combine to make abundantly clear what an absolute master he was - and show why some of the country's finest composers were content to sit on the floor of his potting shed for hours, listening to him sing. Here we have The Pretty Ploughboy, and it's just wonderful (sound clip).
Leaving the best 'til last, we come to Phil Tanner. Being rather deaf, I was never able, when listening to the vinyl album, to fully appreciate just what an incredible singer this man was - but the present production makes it abundantly clear. Any revivalist singing like this would be reviled as an intolerable show-off, but Phill soars above any such criticism (sound clip - Young Henry Martin).
This is the first of the Voice of the People series I've listened to more than once and I must say that it's a first class record in almost every respect. I would unhesitatingly recommend it on the strength of the Willett, Poacher, Cox and Tanner tracks alone, but everything else is so good that I'm certain other readers will find many other favourites. If the other volumes are of the same standard, we can sing Topic's praises for the rest of our lives - even if they never release another record!
Rod Stradling - 1.11.98
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