As me and my love sat courting -
Songs of love, courtship and marriage
Topic TSCD 665
Many years ago I attended a lecture by the late A L Lloyd on the subject of erotic song. Bert seemed to think that songs of love and courtship were not a natural part of the milieu of folksong. "When you get a lot of love songs creeping into your folk tradition", he intoned, "it is a sign that your tradition is dying out". At the time, the remark puzzled me and I dismissed it as the sort of unsubstantiated generalisation which Bert was prone to make. Half a lifetime later, I think I understand what he meant. It was that, in the kind of society where folk traditions continue to flourish, life is lived too close to the margins of survival to allow the free choice of marriage partners. Marriage, in fact, almost always constitutes an economic agreement between kinship groups. It is not something freely or consensually entered into by the immediate protagonists. Moreover, where society does not allow freedom of courtship it will not encourage its expression in song. The extent to which erotic behaviour and concomitant artistic expression are likely to be tolerated is another matter. Let us, for the moment, stick with Lloyd's opinion as it relates to the courtship song, and to the degree to which that opinion may hold true for the catchment area of this disc.
Lloyd's extrapolations may be valid in terms of the exotic traditions he was wont to dally with. Nearer home we might pride ourselves on a long history of liberal attitudes. Indeed, at first sight, this selection confirms the validity of such a supposition, for about half the songs specifically involve romantic courtship. However, in a genre where women may be expected to loom large, I was disconcerted to find that the men on this disc outnumber the female performers by about three to one. More to the point, these creations do not idealise courtship in the way that songs of other times or ages do. This is true, not just of the love songs of tin pan alley, but also of those contemporary elite society. This latter is interesting for, as Reg Hall's booklet notes point out, many lower class courtship songs use models imported from the upper classes.
The reason for this lies in the desires and outlooks and practical constraints which moulded the world views of the people who made these songs and sang them. As Reg goes on to tell us, the songs we are concerned with here were created and perpetuated by a people for whom marriage was almost invariably a dire necessity. In fact, while the idea of romantic love was established in elite society long before the early eighteenth century, it was at that time just beginning to filter down into the working class. The style and content of many of our songs of courtship reflect this fact. The booklet doesn't say as much, but I would guess that the agrarian and industrial reforms of the eighteenth century were beginning to give people a small but significant measure of economic freedom. This in turn had started to give them a little leeway in the choosing of their own marriage partners.
Songs of love and courtship in the British and Irish traditions then, represent something of a cusp. That is, they highlight a tension between ongoing practical need and emergent amorous desire. They also speak to us of an age where social standing played an enormous part in regulating relationships between the sexes. It is fitting therefore that, after a spirited opening, Haste to the Wedding from William Kimber, the record settles down with Belle Stewart's gently unrequited Queen Amang the Heather. It is a curious piece this, being told from the standpoint of a member of the gentry, rather than that of the class of people who sang it. I am inclined to agree with Reg when he tells us that the story is somewhat removed from reality, but I am puzzled over the fact that it is the 'poor lame shepherd's dochter' who points out the impracticability of the alliance. Also, unlike certain Irish versions of this song, the story is not resolved. The squire neither goes away, nor formalises the arrangement. It is as though the author, he or she, has allowed themselves to exercise a wistful fancy, within the margins of social probity. Songs like Queen Amang the Heather take their cue and their courtly manners from the pastourelle, that class of idyllic encounter song which was formulated by the Provencal troubadours of mediaeval France. In the light of this, I was interested to note Reg's observation that songs like Paddy Tunney's Bonny Tavern Green, are rooted in the style of contemporary popular poetry. Sean O'Boyle, among others, seems to have thought that songs like these, and there are many of them in Ireland, were likewise descended from Provençal traditions. Provençal troubadours were, via Anglo-Norman conquest and acculturation, eventually to leave a deep imprint on Gaelic folk song. Much of this in turn impinged on Anglo Irish song. However, while I hear very little of their handiwork, or that of Gaelic bards in lines like,
"It was her killing glances that wounded my heart sore,... I do hear echoes of Victorian parlour poetry. I am also curious over the fact that this song is told from a man's perspective, since the last verse fantasises about him being Queen of England 'as Queen Ann was long ago'. Are we witnessing a former woman's song which has undergone a less than perfect gender change?
For I was sick and bad in love till I could say no more,"
Surprisingly enough there are only two songs, three if one counts Robert Cinnamond's superb It Was Early, Early, All in a Spring, in which a marriage of convenience forms part of the central theme. I am surprised, because such songs were extremely common in the repertoires of these isles and reflect the high incidence of economic marriages to which Reg refers. One of those which made this disc, John Reilly's Old Carathee, is about a bachelor who obtains a wife at a horse fair and ends up with a less than blissful match. Matrimonial bargains of this kind were common in Ireland at one time and survive into the present with the famous matchmaking fair at Lisdoonvarna in County Clare. The song comes across as a rather jokey affair, with not a lot of disgruntlement on the part of the singer. Jane Turriff's staggering What Can a Young Lassie Dae Wi' an Auld Man, is a different kettle of fish entirely. For me this is the gem of the whole disc, and very possibly the gem of the whole series. To begin with, there is the extraordinary singing of Jane Turriff, one of the finest Scottish performers ever to have been caught on record. In recent years and in certain circles, she has become something of a cult figure, but still lacks the widespread recognition she deserves. Her voice, intense, clear and acid toned, exactly matches the measured frustration of the young lassie, sold into an arranged marriage to an old man she clearly loathes. It matches the air as well, for this scaly angular construction sounds as though it were designed for the expression of malice and hate. Curiously enough, the song, and it is an extremely fine one, is credited to Robert Burns. I suspect however that he re-created it from a traditional original, and my supposition is supported by the fact that he set it to a pre-existing air, which already bore the title of the present piece. Nevertheless, Auld Rab had a rare reputation as a lady's man and a philanderer. In this song he shows a keen empathy with the woman's situation.
To underpin the concordance of voice, melody and words, there is Jane's own piano accompaniment. It is eerie and spine tingling, like watching somebody breaking icicles with a hammer. Many a well tempered soul would, I suspect, cast a scant ear at the harmonic implications of her playing. All I can say is that for me it works ... that in the black and white keys she seems to have found her own resolution to a highly discordant union. (sound clip)
Women singers may be underrepresented on this record, but Jane Turriff is far from being the only one to impress. Two tracks further on - they are separated by Paddy Tunney singing a light hearted woman's song - there is a heart stopping Lurgan Stream from Mary Ann Connelly of Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh. Her singing is not as tormented as Jane Turriff's and neither is the song, but she is clear and lucid, with a finely controlled aching passion which digs right down to the roots of your soul. (sound clip). Her performance is typical of a huge number of women singers the world over. Indeed, I would suggest that, taken globally, women singers are numerically and artistically superior to men. From North East Scotland to Connemara, from the Southern Appalachians to Asia Minor and Eastern Europe, it is women who cleave towards the really deep songs and the big ballads, and they frequently sing them with an emotional intensity few men can emulate.
Twentieth century England is an exception to this, for not too many women singers have come to light. I am not sure why this should be, especially as a glance through the list of Cecil Sharp's informants indicates that women were once a force to be reckoned with. A partial explanation may lie in a shift of singing venue from the home to the pub, where women were not always welcome, but why the female dominance world-wide? The American ethnomusicologist Timothy Rice some years ago published an excellent study of Bulgarian tradition, called May it Fill Your Soul (see Goodies page). In it he postulates an argument which may be summarised thus. In rural societies, a woman's place, once she is married, is deemed to be in the home. There, homemaking and child rearing will keep her occupied from morning till night. She has neither the time nor the freedom to visit dance houses and taverns, where music is made. Still less will she have the time to learn the intricacies of mastering a musical instrument. Even if she succeeded there would be no time to play it around the home. Conversely, taverns and dance houses are the province of men and consequently it is men who learn to play music. Rice sums up a musical division of labour as black and white as the keys on Jane Turriff's piano. Women become singers and men become musicians.
That is fine as far as it goes. From what I know of other living traditions, pre-war Ireland for example, I would suggest that elsewhere the division is not quite as stark as it appears in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, it exists. Moreover, while Rice's thesis explains the preponderance of women singers, it does not account for the passion with which they so often sing. To find a deeper explanation we need to delve further into women's status in rural society. There are two features of traditional rural life we need to pick up on. Firstly, within societies unblessed by the benefits of economic progress, the lower class inhabitants invariably live a bitterly hard existence. Secondly, societies which do not confer a great deal of economic freedom upon their members are by nature rigid and authoritarian. Authoritarian structures outside the household are reflected by equally authoritarian relationships within. Therefore, woman is poverty stricken and at the bottom of the pile. She is dominated by society in general and she is dominated by her husband, and in all probability by his relatives. Moreover, a man who needs to work off the aggressions of life has a number of outlets. He can get drunk or he can start a fight or, if he has a mind to, he can take it out on the weaker members of his family. A woman can do none of these things. Virtually the only means she has of discharging the pain and torment and frustration of her life is in song. Small wonder that there are so many great women singers in the world.
I am not of course suggesting that, in the sphere of song, women have it all their own way. There are many great male singers and, just as there are many songs about downtrodden housewives, there are many songs about henpecked husbands. Regarding the latter, it is significant that, as with the two examples on this disc, the henpecked husband usually emerges as a figure of fun. To the makers of folksongs, a man who cannot rule his own household should not expect sympathy from song makers.
Jane Turriff's is not the only track which might offend the aesthetic ear. Diddy Cook's The Blackbird is a historic recording and of considerable interest for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was made by the BBC at The Eel's Foot, Eastbridge, Suffolk, in 1938 and supervised by Bert Lloyd. Lloyd's pre-war involvement with East Anglian singers is fairly well known. However, I know of no other instance where one of the fruits of that involvement has been issued on commercial record. Come to that, I know of no other commercially available recording of a pre-war English pub session, unless there is a further example lurking elsewhere in this series. What can we draw out of it? Well, this all male preserve is strongly reminiscent of the sessions captured on tape by Peter Kennedy in Blaxhall Ship in the fifties. There is a chairman who imposes his presence manfully upon the crowd, and has clearly taken his cue from the music hall. There is a fair measure of background noise, some lusty singing, some shouts of encouragement, several calls for order, some prompting of the singer, and one or two chorus singers who seem unable to agree on the precise form of the melody. There is also a curious staccato effect in the first chorus, and I'm not sure whether this was a problem with the recording apparatus, or whether someone was trying to imitate the sound of the blackbird. In his review of Volume 17 of this set, Rod Stradling raises the question of ballad singing in pubs and suggests that the order was typically good enough for ballads to be a regular feature of pub sessions. This is a topic which is ripe for wider discussion. Here, I can only observe that the aural evidence does not appear to support his contention. (sound clip)
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Diddy Cook's atmospheric performance and, as one who occasionally likes to exercise a little objectivity, feel that it should be taken at face value; a gathering of friends who are assembled to enjoy each other's company and have a bloody good sing. In that mellifluous tome, English Folksong; Some Conclusions, Cecil Sharp makes some scathing comments about such sessions - and about the characteristically hetrophonous choruses. I doubt that he would have enjoyed the singing in The Eel's Foot, or the company.
Mention of Bert Lloyd returns me to the subject of erotic songs. There are only three here which could be labelled as such and that strikes me as another under-representation. Moreover, of these, only George Maynard's The Aylesbury Girl is the kind of classic encounter seduction ditty so common in English tradition. Publication of this piece follows in the wake of Musical Traditions in-house issue of Bob Hart singing the same song (MT CD 301-2). They make an interesting comparison. While I feel that Hart's interpretation conveys more of the lustiness of the text, Maynard's melody is more complex and more satisfying. There are several delightful touches and I was particularly taken by the elaboration which occurs in the third line of each verse. (sound clip). Like Queen Amang the Heather, songs such as The Aylesbury Girl owe much of their form and content to the pastourelle. The shepherdess was in fact far more likely to end up being seduced than courted.
As a genre of folk tradition, Bert seemed well pleased with the erotic song. If, in his eyes, the courtship song has a less stable existence, does that mean the erotic song goes back farther? I never heard Bert say as much, but I presume that he thought it did. Bert held a strange view of pre-industrial England as a sort of Garden of Eden of permissiveness and promiscuity, which came to an end only when Victorian moralists imposed their ethics on the lower orders. I doubt that his vision measured up to reality for, where strong controls are exercised over marital agreements, strong proscriptions are imposed on sexual behaviour and sexual songs. One does not encounter many examples of free love among Mediterranean or Eastern European peoples, or from the continent of Asia, or from the Southern Appalachians. Neither does one find many erotic songs. I suspect that pre-industrial England would not have been very different. Indeed, the influence of the pastourelle leads me to suspect that, like ideals of courtly love, the erotic encounter song entered the repertoire of the common people from higher up the social order. Precisely when that might have happened is a moot point. My own impression, and I admit that this is purely a gut feeling, is that the erotic song probably came into its own among the lower orders sometime in the early eighteenth century. In other words I would expect it to be coterminous with the courtship song, and to have emerged from the same direction and for the same reasons; namely the growth of social and economic freedom touched on earlier in this epistle.
This has been a strange disc to review mainly because, sexual imbalances apart, I have found practically nothing to quibble over. There is though, a puzzling note which concerns Stanley Ellis from Leeds recording dialect stories in the mid-nineteen thirties. If this is the same Stanley Ellis who used to lecture in Dialect Studies for Leeds University, I doubt that he would have been old enough to use a recording machine at the time stated in the booklet. Also, the inside front cover of the booklet has a photograph of one Jim Wilson. Since his name does not crop up among the list of performers, or anywhere else that I can see, I am left wondering who he was and why his picture has been included.
These though are extremely minor dissensions, for the disc is on the whole a quite exceptional production, with some wonderful performances. If you've been following the write-ups to this series and wondering what all the fuss is about, you will find the present volume a most seductive way of breaking the ice. This one is, I am reliably told, as good as it gets.
Fred McCormick - 27.2.99
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