It fell on a day, a bonny summer day -
Topic TSCD 667
It may be that I have very little to say about this CD. Not being a ballad scholar, I am not overly concerned about the completeness or accuracy of the stories told here, nor in comparing them in detail with other versions. I am primarily concerned with whether the song as a whole - text, tune, performance - communicates and connects with me. Am I better off for having heard it? Is it still - to use the phrase so beloved of folk music hacks - relevant to me?
Reg Hall, it would seem, has little to say as well, since this record is accompanied by the slimmest of all the booklets in the series - only 46 pages, the first 12 of which are common to all the volumes. The three pages devoted to the theme, ballads, are mainly concerned with very brief descriptions of the subject matter of each song but, at the end of the piece, he does make a few comments about the performance manner and situation which he feels is usual or appropriate.
One of Reg's very few failings is that he tends to suggest that the way he thinks things should be is the way they actually are. There's no problem with this when the view and the actuality coincide, but I'm not so sure that they do in this instance.
He says that ballads are "not for the most part for public performance - fireside stuff to be sung in intimate circumstances in the dead quiet of a rapt family circle" - and quotes the Stewarts' comment that originally they sang just for themselves at home. He characterises the performances as "undemonstrative and undramatic". I think he is guilty, as he was in the notes to Volume 8, of intruding the values of the folk-song collector (or editor, in this case), rather than "presenting traditional music in its own right, reflecting ... the values of its practitioners". I think he presents a very romanticised view of the place of ballads in the general socio-cultural setup which supported them and virtually all the material heard on this series.
Since only three of the tracks on this CD are from English singers, it is possible that his remarks are more accurate when applied to Irish and Scottish performance situations, but I doubt it. Obviously, many ballads were sung in circumstances similar to those he describes, maybe even most, but to suggest that other situations are inappropriate seems to fly in the face of much first-hand evidence. Are we to believe that ballads did not feature in both Scottish and Irish ceilidhs (the original form, rather than the modern interpretation of the word), house parties and pub sessions? Referring only to material found within this site, Freddy McKay says they did and Seán Corcoran says they did. Countless other sources elsewhere say they did too. In East Anglia, where the English singers on this volume lived, the Blaxhall Ship and Eel's Foot were nothing more than local folk clubs under the chairmanship of Wicketts Richardson and Philip Lumpkin - and from what I've heard on early recordings made at Harry Cox's local, things weren't very different there. Many other accounts indicate that these weren't local phenomena.
No - what is needed for ballads (or for any serious singing, for that matter) is an audience which wants to hear them, and good order. Can we imagine that any of the countless men who describe (in Sing, Say or Pay!) walking or cycling long distances to pubs where a singing session was held, would have felt that the inclusion of a ballad or two in the evening's entertainment was inappropriate? Indeed, they tell us that many ballads were sung on such occasions - but good order was called for. Cyril Poacher said that "when Walter [Friend] or Aldie Ling got up to sing and someone started talking, they'd stop and sit straight down again - they wouldn't sing, and I won't either. But if Wicketts called for order - you got it!" And the man in question commented "When I tapped on that table, you could hear a gnat fart!" But I digress - let's listen to the record.
We start with Lizzie Higgins who sings A Beggar Man and Lady Mary Ann, both in a way I would hardly term 'undemonstrative and undramatic' - the latter is downright lively! I'll include a sound clip of the former, since few will have heard this recording - made at The National in 1988. Both songs and performances are excellent. Lizzie's mother, Jeannie Robertson, is heard on track 14 with her classic Gypsy Laddies - a thing of such perfect beauty that it requires no comment from me.
Willie Scott is not a singer whose performances I've much liked in the past, so I don't have the LP from which his Dowie Dens o' Yarrow comes, but I've been missing a treat here. Far from his usual strident approach to a song, this - sadly incomplete - ballad of love across the social barriers is almost crooned. It has a lovely tune, and I wish he'd sung like this more often (sound clip). The other Scot is John MacDonald, the 'Singing Molecatcher of Morayshire', whose singing is probably an acquired taste. After three hearings of his Bonnie Hoose o' Airlie I am no closer to its acquisition - and it is a very short version, missing much of the drama and action of that wonderful story.
From England we have Walter Pardon who exceeds himself in my eyes with a version and performance of Jack Hall which is a revelation - so utterly unlike any other approach to this unlikeable song I've ever heard (sound clip). This is splendid. And so is Harry Cox, it almost goes without saying - but here we get two recordings which few will have heard before, myself included. In Worcester City (The Cruel Ship's Carpenter) was recorded by Mervyn Plunkett in 1958 and is a much shortened version of The Ghost Ship which his near neighbour Sam Larner sings so well on the MT cassette 'Now is the Time for Fishing'. So short is Harry's version that it even misses the memorable 'she ripped him, she stripped him, she tore him in three' line - how could a man with such a phenomenal memory forget that one? His other song is Young Edmund, but not the one I know. As far as I can tell the text is identical , though with five additional final verses, but the tune is quite different (sound clip). However, on checking with Paul Marsh, who has almost every recording ever made of Harry Cox, it seems that this tune is the one he sang on every occasion he was recorded - with the single exception of the one I have, which is from the EFDSS, where he sings Young Edmund to the tune he normall uses for Three Jolly Butchers.
The remaining singers here - Packie Byrne, Robert Cinnamond, Sarah Makem, John Reilly and Mary Delaney - are Irish, the first four being from the northern half of the country and Mary from the south. Both she and John Reilly were travellers, but his singing is far less noticeably traveller in style than hers. Packie Byrne sings Young Alvin, which I've never been entirely certain isn't a fake - it certainly doesn't sound as if it's passed through many hands in the aural transmission process. Robert Cinnamond has a song with two long titles - There was a Lady Lived in the West here and The Rich Ship Owner's Daughter on his Topic LP. Reg Hall dismisses it as "much lesser material" which seems a bit harsh. It's not Tiftie's Bonnie Annie, I'll admit, but I was quietly enjoying it until I read this. It's a version of that ballad where the king says "If I was a woman, as I am a man, my bed-mate you would be" - I don't know its 'proper' title.
Sarah Makem's Barbara Allen is widely known, and a gem of the same quality as Gypsy Laddies (above). Her tune, let alone the poetry of some of the text, can bring a tear to a strong man's eye, and remain in the memory for weeks. The mini-biography reveals that John Reilly had a hard and a sad life, and ended his days living in a derelict house - not so unusual an experience, sadly, since I can think of several other well-known performers who came to a similar end. It may be that he never sang outside the Traveller community except for his short stay in Dublin with Tom Munnelly, when he was "totally amazed by the reception he got at The Tradition Club", and when he made these splendid recordings. He has the longest song on the record, an 18 verse Lord Baker and possibly the bleakest, Once There Lived a Captain (sound clip).
Which leaves Mary Delaney. I was overwhelmed when I first heard her sing on the Carroll/Mackenzie 'Early in the Month of Spring' cassette of Irish Travellers in London. She has much of the style of the legendary Lal Smith and Win Ryan, recorded back in the '50s, but with the added control of an older woman - wonderful stuff! Here she sings What Put the Blood and Buried in Kilkenny (or Edward and Lord Randall), both rather similar question and answer ballads, and I'll leave you with the final verse of the latter (sound clip).
Although I was rather dubious of the themed format of this series to begin with, I have grown to love it after several listenings. The few volumes which have a 'type' theme, rather than a subject one, are less successful in my opinion - though the 'Travellers' one works because of the quality of the performances presented and the varied nature of the material. This Ballads CD does not benefit from such variety - all the songs are relatively slow, long and sombre in nature - but the sheer quality of the singing overcomes any objections. Almost everything makes a connection and is still relevant. Thoroughly recommended - even though you might not want to listen to it all at one sitting!
Rod Stradling - 7.11.98
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