Part of Article MT250

Some reflections on the singer Fred Jordan

I would not agree with Roly that there has not been 'a peep' of commentary since Fred's death.  Mike comments in his footnote 2 that there was 'an obituary in The Independent and various folkmusic magazines.'  There were also obituaries in The Guardian and The Times.  Two festivals, Bromyard and Saltburn, have introduced events in his memory, there was a full day of concerts, singarounds and memories at Cecil Sharp House, organised by the EFDSS, and there is a wooden relief sculpture of Fred in Cecil Sharp House - originally in the foyer, now re-located to the bar.  The unveiling was attended by family and friends.  And there was a double CD from Veteran with a 64-page booklet containing a detailed biography (by me) and detailed song notes (by Mike Yates).  That all amounts to more than a peep.

If Roly means a critical assessment of Fred's singing, then I would agree - there has been no such commentary, although the booklet CD tackled some of the issues that have arisen over the years regarding Fred's singing and repertoire.  But Fred is not the only singer to have been neglected in this way.

Mike's reflections are interesting and stimulate further thought.  But I don't necessarily agree with everything he says.  In his fourth line, Mike writes, 'Fred's story is, of course, well known.'  Well, yes and no.  If folk song enthusiasts have either of his LPs, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library cassette, In Course of Time ..., or The Voice of the People series, then they will have the usual, brief, summary of Fred's life.

But one of the reasons I wrote such an extensive biography for the Veteran double CD, A Shropshire Lad, was that I believed there was a more interesting and intriguing story to be told.  Further back, when In Course of Time... was released in 1991, I wrote an article for Folk Roots (as it was called then) magazine in which I commented on the lack of any previous articles about Fred, his life and his singing.  So, Roly, the absence of commentary on his singing since his death was mirrored by a similar lack during much of his life.

I have three points on Mike's comments about Fred's early life.

First, if Fred had been born in 1860, he would only have been under 50 by the time Cecil Sharp or any of the other Edwardian collectors might have heard him - not in his seventies.

Second, I have never heard the story that he was visited by Alan Lomax, or that a blacksmith told Lomax about Fred and that Lomax then passed this information to Peter Kennedy.  The version of the 'discovery' story that I used in the CD biography, which no-one has queried since, is that Peter Kennedy was told about Fred by the blacksmith in Beambridge.  I'm intrigued to know more about the Lomax connection, and whether any recordings of Fred exist in the Lomax Archive.

Third, Peter Kennedy did not 'promptly' invite Fred to London to sing at the Royal Albert Hall festival.  Fred was recorded in October 1952, in the first year of the BBC Recording Scheme.  The first time that he sang for a folk revival audience, as far as I was able to discover from the various records, was in June 1954, in Birmingham.  His photograph was on the cover of English Dance and Song magazine in July 1956.  In March 1957, he appeared on BBC television.  In 1958, he sang at Highley, near Bridgnorth, for a BBC radio broadcast, and when he did a similar broadcast from Church Stretton in 1959, a newspaper report stated that this was his eleventh broadcast.  I have not so far identified the previous broadcasts, but they might have included occasions when Fred's singing was included in As I Roved Out.

Fred's first visit to London was in 1959 for the Third English Folk Music Festival, held at Cecil Sharp House.  I spoke to the man who gave Fred a lift to London on that occasion, and to Reg Hall who remembered Fred's visit.  All the indications are that this was Fred's first visit to London.  Without checking all the programmes, I am not sure that Fred ever sang at the Royal Albert Hall festival until the 1971 occasion when he was asked to learn and sing The Seeds of Love.  By then, Peter Kennedy was no longer working for the EFDSS and not involved in its organisation.

Although Peter Kennedy would have had a hand in most, if not all, these early invitations to sing, I am not sure that the relationship between the two men was similar to that between John Lomax and Lead Belly.  From limited reading, the latter was more of a 'master and servant' relationship, and I am sure that this was never the situation between Fred and Peter.  Yet, the other points of comparison that Mike draws are certainly thought-provoking.

My impression of Fred's repertoire is that - prior to 1952 - he certainly knew a good selection of songs and looked for opportunities locally to sing them.  But after Kennedy's visit, and once he started getting invited to sing away from home, he probably went back and learned more songs from his parents - songs that he had heard as a boy, but which he did not know in their entirety.  He was an intelligent and astute man (see my comments below on this) and as he realised that more and more people wanted him to go and sing, he sought to enlarge his repertoire.  The 'new songs' came from a variety of source - family, friends, work colleagues, and singers he met at folk music events.  And why not?  Some people took a dim view of this process of learning songs from the revival - but he was young, enthusiastic, intelligent and astute.

Mike is quite right to state that most of the traditional singers who were 'collected' from were old men and women, with settled and fixed repertoires, not young and keen like Fred Jordan.  The nearest modern equivalent I can think of is Will Noble, who had some songs from family and social contexts (hunting and carol singing), but who extended his repertoire from folk revival, and local sources as his interest and experience grew.  Will was also a young man when he started - he must have been in his mid-thirties when I first met him (he is now in his mid-60s), and he'd already visited folk clubs, and been influenced by them.  Having recently read about the Arkansas singer, Almeda Riddle, for the feature in the current English Dance and Song magazine feature, I suggest that here was another singer who actively went out and learned new songs, in her case, mainly from the wider family and friendship networks in her home area.

Fred's story well known?  Well, I fear that some people in the folk revival took Fred's unconventional life-style and appearance as evidence of limited intelligence and education.  I was determined in that biography to show otherwise, and to raise the intriguing question of why this town boy who was top of the class, with headmaster and ex-hairdresser and insurance-salesman father pleading with him to go to grammar school, should leave elementary school at 14 to become an agricultural labourer.  And his politics?  Well, it must have been about 1991 when he expressed to me his tendency to support the Green Party.  How did he know about such things?  He owned neither television nor radio, and there was little evidence of newspapers in his cottage.  But he was certainly committed to recycling!

I look forward to reading some critical assessment by others.

Derek Schofield - 1.7.10

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