Voice of the People - Volume 12

We've received order to sail -
Jackie Tar at sea and on shore

Topic TSCD 662

cover This is the second 'sea-songs' volume in the series and so, inevitably, I have to do a little 'compare and contrast' with the first - Volume 2: My ship shall sail the ocean - 'songs of tempest and sea battles, sailor lads and fishermen'.  I also need to state that more than six months separates the writing of the two reviews - a circumstance which was completely outside my control, but which I deeply regret.

The titles and subtitles of the two volumes might seem to imply that the earlier would perhaps contain more songs concerned with fishing, coastal and commercial sailing, while the current one could focus more on the exploits of Jack Tar - and thus on songs concerning the Royal Navy.  In fact, both volumes present pretty evenly matched mixed-sets of songs about the sea and of those who sail upon it.  Moreover, many of the same performers - Jumbo Brightwell, Paddy Tunney, Harry Cox, Sam Larner, Cyril Poacher, Johnny Doughty, Bob Hart, George Ling, Frank Verrill and John Rea - are found on both discs.

Mention of the latter reminds me that both also contain instrumental tracks - Rea's was alone on volume 2, but here there are three.  Once again, the problems inherent in selecting and programming these volumes present themselves.  No one can deny that the occasional tune makes a pleasant aural break on a CD containing one and a quarter hours of (usually solo) singing and, to this reviewer at least, three our four seems a reasonable number out of around twenty-five.  As we discovered in the Hall/Engle Interview, the themed format apparently required that the tunes included had to have some element of nauticality in their titles.  Without wishing to interrogate the entire Topic archive (let alone all the other material included within the series - some 5,000 titles in all), it does seem unlikely to me that only four with such connections could be found to share out between the two volumes.

Perhaps the truth of the matter is that Reg Hall's selection did not fall easily into the twenty categories required - or, at least, not in the necessary numbers - and so we find several inclusions whose seafaring connections are more than a little tenuous.  In Cyril Poacher's Plenty of Thyme, for example, the words 'sailor' and 'Jack Tar' do actually appear (once each), but I really can't see that it happily falls within the criteria implied by this disc's title.  Might his Faithful Sailor Boy or A Sailor and His True Love not have been more appropriate?  Nonetheless, it's a good song, well sung - and the possessor of a rather strange tune which sounds as if it should really be the second half of another melody of twice its length.  But there's no problem with the nautical credentials of his other offering on this disc, Nancy of Yarmouth, and despite Cyril having been a cowman all his working life, he did actually learn it from a sailor - one of his distant relatives, Fred Ling, who can be heard singing it on the Cædmon / Folk Songs of Britain LPs.  play Sound ClipThis is not the lively singalong tune from Middlesborough which the Young Tradition made famous, but a more modal, almost minor key version, which suits the dark nature of the text far better. (sound clip).

East Anglia is well represented on this volume and on the entire series.  Some might argue that it's over-represented - but this must in part be due to the comparatively large numbers of singers and players still active there in the period when collectors with sound-recording equipment were going about their business.  In the early years of this century many collectors shunned this newfangled technology, so we lack an actuality record of the songs and music of large swathes of this country.  Cyril's neighbour Bob Hart had a good store of sea-songs and contributes The Female Cabin Boy, a different recording of which can be heard on his MT double CD, A Broadside.  Another near neighbour, Jumbo Brightwell, sings his father's song, The Loss of the Ramilly, extremely well.  Strange, in a society which valued stability so highly, that he should have changed it so markedly from Velvet's way of singing it - play Sound Clipintroducing a gorgeous trilled turn on the end of the second line leading into a repeat of the first part of each verse.  This simple device propels a melody he was very familiar with into sparkling new life. (sound clip).

From Norfolk we get the incomparable Harry Cox with Just as the Tide was Flowing, Come All you Men Throughout this Nation and The Bold Princess Royal.  The first and last of these are probably too well known, and too perfect, to require any comment from me, but Come All you Men Throughout this Nation has been rarely heard before, coming from one of Mervyn Plunket's 1950s' recordings.  A grim tale of a Captain's ill-treatment and murder of his cabin-boy, it is perhaps unusual in that the crew confine the skipper to his cabin and deliver him up to the authorities at land-fall.  The sound quality is just good enough to make its inclusion justifiable, but a short sound clip would not, I think, be indicative of anything except poor recording technique.  Harry's near neighbour, Sam Larner, contributes his Sailors' Alphabet and Lofty Tall Ship.  Sam was a truly inspirational singer whose work has, rightly, become well-known - despite his records having been unavailable for many years until MT republished his 1961 Folkways LP, Now is the Time for Fishing, as a cassette.  We now know that Topic will be releasing a CD later this year, but I can't tell you if it is to be a reissue of A Garland for Sam or a new compilation.  The Lofty Tall Ship is just the latter part of the Henry Martin story, and Sam's age is showing in the performance.  play Sound ClipI don't know if this was one of the last tracks Philip Donnellan recorded from him back in the late '50s and the Sailors' Alphabet (sound clip) one of the first, but his singing here is glorious and he sounds ten years younger - this will be a pleasant treat for anyone who enjoys good singing, no matter how inconsequential the nature of the material.

Also from East Anglia, Walter Bulwer plays The Sailor Cut Down in his Prime, George Ling sings Jolly Jack the Sailor (another song Bob Hart has), and Tom Brown recounts the trials of fishing in Windy Old Weather.  From much further down the coast, Johnny Doughty gives us Baltimore, Up the Channel and Will You Marry Me?  As before, I have to comment that these are pretty lack-lustre performances from a man who could hold any audience in the palm of his hand - the first time I've had to say this about any of the performances Mike Yates managed to capture in his countless superb recordings.  From further up the east coast at Staithes, Frank 'Tange' Verrill sings Stowborough Town - the same song as appears in Volume 2, where Sam Larner calls it In Scarborough Town.  Odd that two so-similar versions of the same song should appear on these volumes when there are a good number of quite different ones which might have been used - Harold Smy's (on Veteran Tapes VT105), for example.

If the east coast of England is over-represented with 17 of the 26 tracks on this volume, the opposite is true for the entire nation of Scotland - with nothing whatsoever!  Ireland fares almost as badly since, apart from two tune sets from John Rea on dulcimer and Gerry Wimsey on tin whistle, only Paddy Tunney, James McDermott and Nora Cleary get a look-in.  Tunney contributes the reasonably familiar Captain Coulson, and McDermott My Mother's Last Goodbye, a 19th century 'emigrant returned' song to the Skibbereen tune.  But few readers will, I think, have heard Nora Cleary before - play Sound Clipa great loss, partly remedied by the inclusion of four of her songs within this series.  Farewell, Lovely Mary turns out to be Fare Thee Well, My Lovely Nancy in a beautiful soft West Clare version.  It may not be my favourite of her four contributions, but it's damned good nonetheless. (sound clip).

May Bradley, the Traveller singer from the Welsh marches whose fabulous singing Fred Hamer managed to preserve for us, sings the absolutely lovely Willow Tree which contains the amazing line: 'I wish your bosom were of glass, that I could view it through and through, just to see the secrets of your heart ......... '.  They don't write 'em like that any more!  Glad as I am to hear it again, I have to say that - as with My Mother's Last Goodbye - its relevance to 'Jackie Tar at sea and on shore' is negligible.  The only other Gypsy is Chris Willett who, with his father Tom and younger brother Ben is to be found on Topic's first-ever record of English traditional singing, the excellent Roving Journeyman (12T84), from 1963.  It always surprises me that they took so long to get round to it - but the English have long been the forgotten people of the British Isles.  Chris sings The Rambling Sailor in a way which rivals his dad's wonderful slow delivery and reminds us all what a great record that was.

Last, but certainly not least, we have George 'Pop' Maynard from the Surrey/Sussex border, recorded in his mid-eighties in 1955 and '56, singing A Sailor in the North Country and Polly on the Shoreplay Sound ClipAs with Harry Cox, there's little to say about Pop which has not already been better-said by others, so I'll leave you with his favourite song, and one of the half-dozen very best English country songs I've ever heard - Polly on the Shore. (sound clip).

I ended my review of Volume 2 in a gush of praise for the record, the series, Topic and all its works.  The present volume is nearly, though not quite, as good - lacking some of the variety and just a little of the sheer class of the former.  But compared with some of the other things I get to review, it's pure gold - and thoroughly recommended.

Rod Stradling - 9.5.99

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