The following, ongoing, article comes out of an idea from Mike Yates - that his selection of 'ten records that changed my life' might be passed on to other MT writers, who might be prompted to make similar contributions of their own. I thought this sounded a grand idea, and might result in a compendium of records to inspire, delight and intrigue many of our readers.
When I began to assemble my own list it became increasingly obvious that this was a more difficult task (for me, at least) than it first appeared. These are not 'favourite' records, but 'life-changing' ones ... and I found that many of my own initial choices came to be bought subsequently, as a result of a life-changing experience, rather than as the cause of it. I suspect that the same may be true for others, as well.
Be that as it may, here are the first lists - and I hope that many others will follow in due course - Ed.)
I was still at school when I came across a copy of Folksong Today, a 10" LP that had been produced for HMV by Peter Kennedy. Even now I can remember the amazement of hearing Harry Cox singing The Foggy Dew, John MacDonald playing the melodeon and singing The Haughs o Cromdale, and the Copper Family working their way through The Twelve Days of Christmas. When I played the LP to my maternal grandfather it reminded him of songs that his father, originally from the Cambridgeshire/Norfolk border, had sung. Another schoolboy find was Topic's reissue of a Folkways Woody Guthrie album - Bound for Glory. It was the first time that I had seriously listened to Guthrie (I think that I had previously heard a few of his songs played on the radio) and it was a revelation. At the time I had just discovered the novels of John Steinbeck, so songs such as Pastures of Plenty and This Land is Your Land held a special meaning to me. But I also loved the songs that Woody had written for his children, especially Little Sack of Sugar and Ship in the Sky, little thinking that years later I would be singing these songs to my daughter. Being at school I had very little money to spend on LPs. One Saturday afternoon a friend took me to meet one of his friends who, living in one of the richer parts of town, clearly did have ready cash for albums. It was then that I first heard the six-part (in three volumes) set that Folkways records had issued under the general title of the Anthology of American Folk Music. To say that I was bowled over is, if anything, an understatement. Blues singers, old-timey musicians, gospel singers with their congregations and Cajun musicians were just some of the performers that I first heard that afternoon. Blind Lemon Jefferson rubbed shoulders with Uncle Dave Macon, the Memphis Jug Band tried to outperform Henry 'Ragtime Tex' Thomas, and singers such as Dick Justice, Buell Kazee (was their really a person with such an exotic name?) and Clarence Ashley played guitars and banjos behind their strained versions of Child ballads. God, what an afternoon!
The Anthology introduced me to the Blues and it wasn't long before I came across a Columbia album devoted to one the greatest of them all - Robert Johnson. His album King of the Delta Blues Singers was just filled with stunning performances. I was not alone in marvelling at this man's work. Here's what Peter Guralnick had to say in his small, but influential book, Searching for Robert Johnson (London.1990, pp.2-3):
“That is why I remember so vividly walking into Sam Goody's on 49th Street in New York, rifling through the blues section with a practiced eye, and discovering to my utter amazement (for there had been no announcement that I knew about; there was no place where you could conceivably read about such things) not one but two altogether unanticipated treasures: Big Joe Williams's Piney Woods Blues on the Delmar label, and Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. I held the records in literally trembling fingers, pored over the notes in the store, studied the romantic cover painting of an isolated, featureless Robert Johnson hunched over his guitar, and paid the $2.89 or so that a record cost then, and took the subway back to Columbia without making any of my other intended stops. I probably listened to each record half a dozen times that day.”I don't know how many times I played Johnson's album, but I soon knew all the words and probably thought that I could play all those guitar notes as well - dream on, dream on!
Two other influential Folkways albums were discovered in an Oxford bookshop (one amazingly owned by the late, and not particularly missed, Robert Maxwell. Was it Maxwell, I sometimes wondered, or else a member of his staff, who had ordered them for the shop?) These were Mountain Music of Kentucky, with its wonderful photograph of Roscoe Holcomb on the sleeve, and Old Love Songs and Ballads from the Big Laurel. Both albums had recorded by John Cohen and it was through John's work as an artist and photographer that I came into contact with other American artists. So, much of my love for contemporary art came about, indirectly, by firstly listening to these albums of Anglo-American folksong. It was probably around this time that I decided that I too would visit the Appalachians for myself, little realising how long it would actually be before I did make it to the mountains. There was another album, High Atmosphere - Ballads and banjo tunes from Virginia & North Carolina, also from John Cohen's collection, that came a little later. This, I think, was the album that actually did make me set out across the pond, where I was lucky enough to meet so many kind and fascinating people.
Back again to my schooldays and the Topic album The Willet Family, that was issued some 4 or 5 years after the Woody Guthrie album. This was the album that introduced me to the singing of English Gypsies. When I started collecting songs from English singers, I quickly remembered this album and, to start with, I used to take it with me to Gypsy camps, playing the tracks to any Gypsy who was interested in listening. It was a good way of finding out if any of the listeners knew any songs themselves, because they were soon singing along with the Willets. Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger were also collecting songs from Gypsy singers, but it was their album by Sam Larner that really impressed. Now is the Time for Fishing was much more than just an album of songs. It tried in some 40-odd minutes to more or less tell the life of this wonderful singer in his own words. I doubt if anyone has made a better album of a traditional singer.
I had been collecting songs for quite some time when Walter Pardon's first Leader album appeared in 1975. A Proper Sort told us that a major talent, on a par with Harry Cox, Sam Larner and Joseph Taylor was still with us. Bill Leader managed to bring out 2 LPs of Walter before his company folded and it is a great pity that neither has so far been reissued on CD. I had the chance to meet Walter at a National Festival and this led to me being invited to his home and to my recording him. I have always said that I am grateful to any singer who remembers folksongs and who allows us to record them. But, if truth be known, Walter was always special and remains my favourite.
So that's it then. Ten life-changing albums. Pity that it could not have been eleven, then I could have added the Alan Lomax set of seven LPs that were issued by Atlantic in 1961, under the title Sounds of the South - Southern Folk Heritage Series (now reissued as Sounds of the South a 4 CD set - Atlantic 7 82496-2). I remember a BBC Saturday evening radio programme when Lomax played some of these recordings while outlining his latest recording trip. It was just the sort of thing that I needed to make me realise that what Lomax and others were doing was important. So important that I too wanted to be part of that movement. But that's the start of another story …
Mike Yates - 19.12.06
But my interest in 'folk' music did begin at school - with the Skiffle craze in the late-1950s, and a realisation that an ordinary chap like me could actually sing and play this music - though it was more a matter of hearing stuff on the radio than buying LPs. The same was true of my hearing the first British stuff - Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor on TV, followed by two and a half years' regular attendance at The Singers' Club (Pindar of Wakefield) whilst I was at college.
My first life-changing LPs (both first heard in 1966) were Bob Davenport and Reg Hall's English Country Music, which Danny and I encountered via our attendance at The Fox, Islington, and The Willett Family. Both were bought secondhand from folkies who'd bought them and then not liked them! I think it's fair to say that our subsequent lifelong enthusiasm for English country music stems from the former LP, and that the latter had a great deal to do with our ongoing love of Gypsy singing - although we had heard the wonderful Phoebe Smith before the Willetts. That said, I think that Bill Leader and Paul Carter's 1962 record of the Willett Family still stands as a favourite compilation of Gypsy singing - a benchmark recording ... and it's amazing to realise that this was Topic's first ever release of traditional English singers.
At around the same time, I heard Bob and Ron Copper, the EFDSS' lovely LP of Traditional Songs from Rottingdean. Without doubt, this fired my love of harmony singing, and directly resulted in the formation of Oak ... and all that (I'm told) followed on from that group, both in terms of trad/revival singing and in the English country music revival.
The next truly life-changing records were the first two Italian releases I heard (within a month of each other) from I Tre Martelli and La Ciapa Rusa. Life-changing because, having reviewed them for Folk Roots, I was almost immediately invited to visit both bands in Piemont ... and encounter another world! We've now been to Italy dozens of times, have many friends there, and consider Italy and its music to be a large and essential part of our lives.
Another part of the same experience also involves Folk Roots, in that Ian Anderson gave me a cassette copy of Polyphonies de Sardaine, Bernard Lortat-Jacob's never-bettered 1980s' recordings of the cantu a tenores genre from Sardinia. I've subsequently bought or acquired most of the recordings available outside the island of this stunning harmony singing (actually sung dance music), and I have to report that even the worst of them would hugely impress anyone who's not encountered it before. This record also resulted in a memorable trip to Sardinia a couple of years ago.
The Indestructible Beat of Soweto was also life-changing, in that we heard it at the time when Edward II and the Red Hot Polkas was just an ordinary little English country music band. This wonderful LP, together with several others like it, private cassettes sent from South Africa, and the plethora of Reggae records we all listened to in the 1980s, turned E II into what might have been the best English dance band on the planet for a couple of years - until they decided to go professional ... and we didn't!
Another astonishing find - again Italian - was Donne della Pianura del Po, or The Rice Girls as we felt they should be known. This turned us on to yet another genre of harmony singing which is essentially similar throughout the great swathe of the PO valley, from western Piemont right over to Veneto and Emilia Romagna. These mondine (female ricefield workers) sing both worksongs and songs for relaxation after work in a fantastic, powerful, emotional manner which just has to be heard to be believed. Extraordinary and wonderful singing - of which one may detect echoes all over the world.
Now, the 20-CD set, Voice of the People, can be seen as cheeky choice, for - while no single CD from it can fairly be called life-changing for me - the fact that I had to review six of them for MT (and listen to the other 14 pretty carefully) certainly dramatically changed my perceptions of, and feelings for, traditional singing ... for the better. Where I had previously had vague ideas about British traditional singing and singers, I found that this wonderful series of CDs brought home to me, in a very focused way, just what it is that is so riveting about these old men's and women's performances, And this enabled me to enjoy them far more fully than ever I had before. I hope it has also improved my own singing, and allowed me to more effectively review that of other revivalists.
To include one of my own MT Records CDs, Just Another Saturday Night, will not, I hope, be seen as any form of self-aggrandisement, because this collection of the 1960s Sussex pub recordings of Brian Matthews is truly his work, rather than mine. It is, I think, almost unique in being composed entirely of impromptu recordings made during the course of naturally occurring singing sessions, and not set up for the recording in any way. What we hear is what would have been sung if Brian had not been present and, its uniqueness aside, this makes it an incredibly valuable documentation of a socio-cultural practice which has gone from English culture for ever. I was only 16 at the time most of these recordings were made, so I wouldn't have been able to go to them - even if I'd been interested, or aware of them. Now, I'm incredibly grateful that Brian was there, and had a tape recorder, and was able to give us this CD ... the next best thing to having been there!
Lastly, I'm also enormously grateful that a chance meeting with Greg Stephens in a Stroud pub resulted in him giving me the last copy of the initial release of The Boat Band: A Trip to the Lakes. This is not so much that it's a great record - which it is - but because it presented a coherent bloc of English music from the other end of our country ... which I had never heard before. Of course, I'd heard, and loved, the music of the New Victory Band, the Leeds Band and others from the North - but we'd all grown up together, so to speak, and none of it seemed particularly foreign to me. The Boat Band's record presented me with a big lump of foreign music - but music within which I could find connections to my own southern English stuff, and which enabled me to broaden my perceptions of traditional English dance music. It's not an exaggeration to say that I probably wouldn't be playing as I do now, or playing much of my current repertoire, or even in my current band, were it not for hearing A Trip to the Lakes.
Like Mike Yates, I too could have added many other superb records that I have in my collection, but most - as I indicated in my introduction - came to be bought subsequently, as a result of a life-changing experience, rather than as the cause of it. Perhaps I should also add that the two most significant life-changing events in my life - meeting and marrying Danny, and being invited to become a musician for Bampton Morris - did not come about due to the influence of any gramophone records at all.
Rod Stradling - 20.12.06
Between 1965 and 1969 the firm to which I was apprenticed (in my home town of Reading, Berkshire) sent me every Wednesday during term time to The London College of Printing, at the Elephant and Castle. At some point during my lunchtime wanderings, maybe in 1968, I happened upon a nearby public library, in Walworth. They had a fairly large (and eclectic) collection of folk and folk-orientated vinyl albums, and despite living seventy miles away I somehow managed to wangle a reader's ticket. On numerous occasions I took a batch of gems home to Reading and dubbed them using a primitive reel-to-reel tape recorder. A selection of discs from the ten volume Folksongs of Britain series (issued first on Caedmon and subsequently on Topic) rubbed shoulders with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; blues legends Sleepy John Estes and Sonny Boy Williamson with The Johnstons and The Dubliners; Jean Ritchie and The Clancy Brothers with some of the Lomax recordings from the American South (mentioned already by Mike). It was musical heaven, quite unlike anything I had ever heard before, and I absorbed it all as if it was going out of style - which, of course, it was. The high point of all this overwhelmingly emotional music was without doubt that found on Authentic Country Music (RCA Camden CDN 5111). This featured ten tracks recorded by Victor as the Depression was easing, six by the Carter Family, and two each by Gid Tanner with Riley Puckett and Uncle Dave Macon. What an eye-opener. Even today On Tanner's Farm and Tanner's Boarding House are two of my favourite old timey performances; while each periodic taking of the album off the shelf unleashes a wave of pure nostalgia. Tanner and Macon showed me the extent to which the very best of the tradition bearers, in every location and genre, could be idiosyncratic, stamping their stylistic hallmark on everything they tackled.
Following my first visit to a folk club, in 1970, I cast off all former obsessions and began buying anything I could get hold of (and afford, of course) in the way of folk song books and records. In a music shop in the heart of Reading, probably that same year, I spotted on the shelves three albums recorded and produced by Bill Leader - Seamus Ennis (Leader LEA 2003), Martin Byrnes (Leader LEA 2004) and Seamus Tansey with Eddie Corcoran (Leader LEA 2005), which I knew from ads in the contemporary folk press cost two pounds ten shillings apiece (about a fifth of my weekly wage). Imagine my surprise, then, to find them marked up at a mere nineteen shillings and eleven pence. Choosing one - I think in memory the Martin Byrnes, which I love dearly to this very day - I rather hesitantly asked the shop assistant if that price was correct. On being assured that it was I immediately scooped up the other two, paid my two pounds, nineteen shillings and nine pence, and exited the shop in triumph. So it was that, unbeknownst to him, Reg Hall (whose extensive, wide-ranging knowledge and no-nonsense philosophy regarding traditional culture has proven so influential on me) entered my life, via his piano accompaniment on two of the discs. The playing on all three (Ennis on Uileann pipes, Byrnes on fiddle, and Tansey on whistle and flute) was so overwhelmingly vibrant, vivacious and just plain exciting. It was a revelation. It was the Holy Grail. It was the Martin Byrnes which grabbed me fastest by the emotional neck and shook me sideways. Some months later I hitched around the south of Ireland for a couple of weeks, starting and ending at a friend's house in Dublin. It was here, while in O'Donohue's Bar, renowned worldwide for its music sessions, that I actually met and heard Byrnes play live for the first and only time. He was mildly astounded (and I think pleased) that I had bought his record and rated it so highly.
But during the first couple of years of the 1970s I was still heavily immersed in the Folk Revival, and while sporadic encounters with older tradition bearers always carried a heightened buzz, I was yet content to listen to the creme-de-la-creme of the revivalist crop. Pete Nalder, who ran the best folk club in Reading and perhaps in the whole of Berkshire and beyond, knew many of the leading performers of the time - Tony Rose, Robin and Barry Dransfield, Shirley Collins, and so on - and they frequently appeared at Pete's club. They, and others, had all made records, and I suppose by early 1973 I had about thirty or so of this ilk. But then came Unto Brigg Fair (Leader LEA 4050), featuring the entire output from the commercial recording session by Joseph Taylor in July 1908, plus a selection of the cylinders made by Percy Grainger of other Lincolnshire singers during the first decade of the 20th century. It seems odd now, but I jointly bought a copy with a friend who was a great aficionado of Grainger's compositions. The Leader album was one of the final forces which led me, in 1973, to reject out of hand the singing aspect of the revival, at least, and I swapped those thirty revivalist items in my collection for my friend's half of Unto Brigg Fair. At that, I still believe I got the best of the bargain. There were at least three further releases that had a profound effect on my perception of the older song tradition around this date : that by the great Dorset singer Charlie Wills (Leader LEA 4041), the even greater Traveller stylist Phoebe Smith : Once I Had a True Love (Topic 12T193) and (once again - is this destined to feature on every contributor's play list?) The Willett Family : The Roving Journeyman (Topic 12T84).
By the time I moved to live and work in Dawlish, Devon, over the winter of 1972-3, I had already met the great South Zeal melodeon player Bob Cann at at least one festival, and re-established contact during this time. On a couple of occasions I attended barn dances in small village halls up on Dartmoor and with great indulgence he would sometimes allow me to vamp along behind him on his (unamplified) spare melodeon as he effortlessly played and called simultaneously to groups of admiring dancers. But none admired him more than I, and he remained one of my idols until his death and even to this day. His solo album West Country Melodeon (Topic 12TS275), issued several years later, merely cemented his importance, featuring as it did many tunes which he seldom played in public by that point, including a good many passed on within his musical family. It was this release which, I have only while writing this just realised, first highlighted the all-important facet of generational continuity of culture transmission, which was to prove so central to my later published work.
1976 was a life-altering year all round (though nothing directly to do with music), when my best friend's declaration, "I'm going to university in the autumn", prompted the response, "I think I will too!" And so, at the age of twenty-seven, we did; he to the New University of Ulster, me to Lancaster. In that town I discovered a specialist record shop run by one Johnny Smythe. Musically, it was an exciting time, during which many regional styles, and not only those from Britain and America, were getting releases which had been assembled with a great degree of tender loving care. The Topic label immediately springs to mind, of course, with all those great albums of contemporary field recordings and vintage 78 rpm tracks remaining musical high spots thirty years on. But it was the US old timey corpus which grabbed me and shook me once again. In particular, there were eight issues on the Rounder label which encapsulated a genre which has subsequently given me so much joy. As both Mike and Rod have already abused the stated ten album limit (so I don't expect seven of these to count), I feel completely justified in asking you to consider these as a coherent whole - Fiddlin' John Carson : The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Gonna Crow (Rounder 1003), Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford : A Ramblin' Reckless Hobo (Rounder 1004), Frank Hutchison : The Train That Carried My Girl From Town (Rounder 1007), Ed Haley : Parkersburg Landing (Rounder 1010), Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers : The Kickapoo Medicine Show (Rounder 1023); Various female artists : Banjo Pickin' Girl (Rounder 1029), and The Georgia Yellow Hammers : The Moonshine Hollow Band (Rounder 1032) - with Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers : Hear These New Southern Fiddle and Guitar Records (Rounder 1005) as perhaps the outstanding representative. It was a revelation to hear this wonderful selection of pre-Depression items, with their soaring twin fiddles (despite claims of some researchers, I was never able aurally to distinguish a trio of fiddlers on any of the tracks) leading a group which projected, it seemed, unrestrainable exuberance. As a coda, I little thought at the time that, two decades later, I would provide the booklet notes to seven volumes which gathered together the complete recordings in chronological order of Fiddlin' John Carson, on Johnny Parth's Document label (DOCD-8014 to DOCD-8020).
If Bob Cann effortlessly highlighted the stylistic intricacies of the English melodeon playing tradition (it doesn't bother me at all that, having subsequently heard many other players both live and on record, his playing was in no way typical of the generic style), it was Melodeon Greats (Topic 12T376) that, on its issue in 1978, opened my eyes to that of the much older, pre-First World War, Scottish (and to a great extent the contemporaneous Irish) genre. Just as I had been astounded at what Bob Cann was able to do with what is effectively a relatively simple instrument, James Brown, the Wyper brothers (probably the earliest to record, in circa 1901), George 'Pamby' Dick and their cohort amazed me once again. I quickly learned as many of the tunes as my limited talent allowed, and tried to get them into circulation at sessions at various festivals, all to no avail. Possibly they did not resonate in the same way with other revivalist English players, but my feeling is that they were (by and large) just too damned difficult to master. The extensive contextual notes (by Tonys Engle and Russell, based on material gathered during a field trip to Scotland) prompted me to learn more about the lives of these players. And so, albeit thirteen years later, I too trekked north of the border and interviewed all of the surviving descendants I was able to find. I formed a close and rewarding (for them too, I hope) relationship with two of these - Daniel Wyper's daughter Meg Price in Hamilton, and James Brown's daughter Ella Hutcheon in Edinburgh - and both kindly allowed me to use their homes as my base for research on a number of occasions. When it became clear that the CD format was set to replace that of vinyl (just as the latter had replaced shellac four decades earlier), one of Topic's earliest efforts in the field of traditional music was a re-jig of that very album that had so impressed me twenty years before. On learning of his plans I suggested to Tony Engle that, in view of the extensive research I had already undertaken, he let me look over whatever notes might be produced and to at least correct the errors of the album insert (where, for example, James Brown had been identified as completely the wrong man!), and in his wisdom he turned the whole project over to me, making this the first of many CD booklet notes written since that date. Using 78 rpm originals from various collections, including my own and Reg Hall's, Melodeon Greats : A Collection of Melodeon Masterpieces (Topic TSCD 601) eventually appeared. As an aside, in 1978 I was playing in a session held in a rather seedy Edinburgh bar (the best kind). At one point one of the locals said to me, "You play just like Peter Wyper, mon." I didn't, of course, but was I pleased with myself! Another rare and pleasing memory springs to mind. On one visit to Meg Price I put on a cassette I had brought, with a dub from one of the early cylinders recorded by the brothers Wyper, under their own imprint, Empress Records. A voice sprang forth from the speaker of Meg's radio/cassette player, and a look of confusion came over her face. "It's your dad", I said, explaining how the cylinders began with an announcement of the impending tune and its player. Hearing her father's voice for the first time in more than forty years made for an emotionally-charged moment, and tears welled up in our eyes.
There were, in addition, two further melodeon players whose elaborate styles had the most profound effect on me. John J Kimmel, an ethnic polyglot based in New York from the turn of the 20th century onwards, bowled me over when I heard Early Recordings of Irish Traditional Dance Music (Leader LED 2060) in 1977. There was another compilation on the Folkways label three years later, John Kimmel : Virtuoso of the Irish Accordion (Folkways RF 112), and while it was great to have a further selection of tracks, it lacked Reg Hall's ground-breaking sleevenotes from the Leader issue. Here, of all melodeon virtuosos, was technique taken to the limit. Boundaries stretched to breaking point. Even today, few have mastered the style - Joe Derrane perhaps coming closest - although most melodeon players who recorded Irish dance music before the Depression (all of them emigrants in America), had a go. Recordings by Joe Flanagan, Peter Conlon, Patrick Scanlon, and to a much lesser extent Frank Quinn, all reveal obvious influences. Missing from the published Kimmel discography (in Richard K Spottswood, Ethnic Music on Records. A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942. Volume 5. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990) is a recording on the Victor label of Thim were the happy days by Steve Porter, a popular vocalist who, on record at least, frequently traded on the rube-Irishman image, and whose discs sold by the thousands during the first decade of the 20th century. Smack in the middle of the vocals sit a couple of run throughs of a fairly simple but complexly-fingered reel, which, though anonymous, on stylistic grounds can be none other than Kimmel. When Porter covered the song for a rival company, another melodeon player, desperately trying but failing utterly to emulate Kimmel's nuances, may clearly be heard. My final 'but it doesn't count' album is the tenth volume in Chris Strachwitz's wonderful series issued under the generic banner Texas-Mexican Border Music. The 1930s tracks featured on Narcisco Martinez 'El Huracan del Valle' (Folklyric 9017) had a similar sledgehammer effect to those listed above. The fluidity of this man's playing was astounding, and propelled me even deeper into the exciting world of Norteno music.
I developed over a number of years a great love and respect for the African-American pre-blues forms typified by the jug band, songster and social dance music traditions (these two latter straddling the racial divide). Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, the Memphis Jug Band, the Mississippi Sheiks, Andrew and Jim Baxter, Peg Leg Howell, Leecan and Cooksey, Stovepipe No.1 and David Crockett, and many others of that ilk were frequent and welcome guests, But there was one performer who stood head and shoulders above the rest. Henry Thomas' output, on guitar and pan pipes (already mentioned by Mike), was truly a revelation when I first encountered his Complete Recorded Works - 1927-1929 (Herwin 209, now available as Henry Thomas : 'Ragtime Texas' 1927-1929, on Document DOCD-5665). Here was joie de vivre incarnated in an relatively obscure singer from the US south-west. A member of an oppressed minority who probably never had more than a few dollars to call his own at any given time. The performances were truly uplifting, the singer effortlessly projecting alternately warmth and aggressiveness, and exhibiting endless vocal and instrumental inventiveness. It was the almost perfect integration of vocals with dance music, the like of which rarely survived its redundancy in a live performance context. And the slashing use of slide on Shanty Blues is as exciting and nerve-shreading as anything ever recorded. FLAWLESS.
In a similar vein, and from the same state (is there something in the Texas water?) was the unbridled exuberance of Coley Jones and the Dallas String Band (Matchbox MSE 208). There is good reason why their tour-de-force Dallas Rag has been so extensively anthologised over the years. It must be one of the most joyous vernacular instrumentals ever committed to posterity, featuring a mandolin lead which soars to the heavens. To my ears, only Ted Hawkins, from the Skillet Lickers' final session, in 1934, ever came close using that particular instrument. Not every item in the Dallas String Band's recorded output is quite so good, but there is so much to enjoy, even in Coley Jones' solo efforts such as Army Mule in No Man's Land, which are sometimes maligned by critics.
Who could ever have expected to discover that some of the most exciting dance music ever recorded was still being played among the Creole population of a tiny island in the Indian Ocean? Seychelles 1 : Dances et Romances de l'Ancienne France (Kamtole des Isles Seychelles) (Ocora 558 534) is the final entry on my list (though I could go on and on), but by no means the meanest. To say I was gobsmacked on first hearing is the understatement of the decade. Only subsequent research revealed that the performers were formally constituted as the Anse Boileau Kamtole Band, and were still (twenty years ago, at any rate) performing regularly in a hotel context for tourists, in tandem with a female quadrille demonstration team. It is hardly surprising that this fact was played down in the sleevenotes to the Ocora issue, for the music is so old at its core that such a revelation would have been simply redundant. Fiddles, guitars, banjo-mandolin and bass drum with cymbal are overlaid with the most rhythmically-inventive triangle ever, the complex playing being all the more admirable for the performer simultaneously calling the dance instructions. The notes suggested that in the past (the featured items were made in 1977) the 'accordeon' (for which read 'melodeon'), 'which is becoming ever rarer [on the island]', had formerly been an integral part of the music. Recordings made slightly later, and released on Anse Boileau Kantole Band : Seychelles - Musique Traditionelle (Palm, no number) and Souvenir of Seychelles Camtole Music Introducing The Anse Boileau Camtole Band (Dasco DAS 006), restore the instrument and what a great addition it proves to be. This is essentially archaic dance music, originally performed in England and thence throughout the European continent during the eighteenth century, filtered through the vernacular tradition and transformed beyond all recognition into something truly spectacular.
No space remains, alas, for influential releases showcasing music from the Caribbean, the Bahamas, eastern Europe, Louisiana, Asia Minor, Quebec or sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps a second instalment?
Keith Chandler - 22.12.06
In 1969, when I was 15, a classmate lent me Paul Oliver’s anthology The Story Of The Blues, and right at the start was Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording about the bad man Stack O’Lee. Everything about this fascinated me - the song, the voice, the guitar and the fact that it was a sound emerging out of the depths of musical history. In complete contrast to the Kingston Trio crooning prettily about the murder of Pretty Polly, Hurt sounded like he might actually have been there when Stack fired the fatal bullet at Billy Lyons. You can debate all day long about ‘authenticity’, but sometimes you just know the real thing when you hear it, and for my money that’s something everything on this list has in common.
That album is top of my list, not only because it doesn’t have a bad track - there were 31 more of similar levels of interest - but because I can still enjoy it as much as ever, nearly 40 years on. Also, I believe that was the real life-changer. At least with hindsight, there appears to be a kind of inevitability about what followed after The Story of the Blues - a lifelong love of African American musics, of course; a particular interest in continuity and development in traditions; a preference for the original article over revivalist products; a love of the strange and the unexpected; and an irresistible fascination with early recordings.
Even so, one of the things that impressed me when I heard the Skip James album on Storyville, not long afterwards, was that something could combine the depth and intensity of what I’d heard on the Oliver anthology with the freshness and quality of a new recording. Listening to these first recordings James made after having been ‘rediscovered’ in 1964, was like having someone running cold fingers down my back, and they still have that effect on me. Another angle was provided by another CBS LP, Blacks, Whites and Blues, Tony Russell’s investigation into the mutual influence between the black and white traditions. This was my introduction to early country or old timey music, and following it through over the years was to reveal a vast and infinitely satisfying treasury of ancient ballads, wild sacred harmonies, fiddle tunes and achingly beautiful Appalachian banjo songs.
Next up, the Billy Pigg album The Border Minstrel was bought on spec after hearing some Northumbrian pipes on the radio, and played almost to destruction - a key early encounter with a great traditional musician. Also on the radio, I had accidentally tuned in to a broadcast of a Gaelic psalm service, a jaw-dropping sound, that not only captivated me in itself, but that seemed yet more evidence of the vast possibilities offered by indigenous musics. I was able to follow it up with Gaelic Psalms From Lewis, from Tangent’s Scottish Tradition series, of recordings from the School Of Scottish Studies, and Stroudwater remains one of my all time favourite recordings. Other volumes in the series also deserve a mention, especially the double album of big ballads, The Muckle Sangs, which introduced me to Jeannie Robertson, Belle Stewart, Lizzie Higgins et al. and left me in no doubt that unaccompanied traditional singers were practitioners of a mighty and noble art.
Exploring the blues further, and spoilt for choice with labels like Yazoo, Arhoolie and Nighthawk, one of the things that particularly excited me was a developing appreciation of the continuity of the blues tradition. Two albums that helped foster this were Flyright’s magnificent Walking Blues, and Xtra’s On The Road Again. The former featured Library of Congress field recordings from rural Mississippi in 1941-42, of Son House and Honeyboy Edwards (among others). The sound of House’s band - crashing bottleneck guitar, a busy mandolin, a second guitar playing bass lines, and a harmonica weaving in and out of it all, seemed such a clear precursor of groups like the ones Muddy Waters would record with in the 1950s. On The Road Again - with its rough, tough post-war recordings by Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, Little Walter et al - showed it from the opposite angle, how the electric Chicago blues stood in a direct line stretching back to the country sounds of Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson.
The 1970s offered an embarassment of riches. Looking back, you have to marvel at the dedication that led to multi-volume series like Topic’s Music Of Sliabh Luachra (not to mention their many reissues of early Irish and Scottish recordings from 78s), Rounder’s The Early Days of Bluegrass, Folklyric’s Musica De La Frontera and Old Timey’s Louisiana Cajun Music. I’ll single out the last as particularly significant for me, especially Volume 1. Many years later, I still remember the impact of hearing Dennis McGee’s 1929 recording of Mon Cherie Bebe Creole - just a devastatingly lonesome voice and two fiddles, but another track to take into eternity.
In the early 1980s, I picked up the Rough Trade compilation Soweto in a sale at a local shop, and was astonished to discover this new (to me) and irrestistible music, complete with accordions, fiddles, guitars etc. A while after that, rooting around at a car boot sale, I found three very battered Kenyan 45rpm singles, which started me off chasing and collecting old original African recordings. At that time nobody seemed to know what they were, so if you were lucky enough to find any, they were usually very cheap, sometimes as little as 5p or 10p (these days, they change hands for handsome sums on eBay), and the music – highlife, juju, mbaqanga, benga, kwela etc. was endlessly enjoyable and fascinating.
A little earlier, I had bought Doug Seroff’s compilation Birmingham Quartet Anthology - the first ever comprehensive survey of black gospel harmony quartet singing in a specific locality (Birmingham, Alabama, that is): great tunes, brilliant harmonies and big expressive voices. I include it here because it was a revelation, but also because my enthusiasm for that release was one of the things that led to my first writing a review for Musical Traditions (of its follow-up album, Bless My Bones: Memphis Gospel Radio), which led in turn to my involvement with Blues & Rhythm magazine, over 22 years and counting, and to many other opportunities to write.
MT pointed me in the direction of things I might never otherwise have considered, and it’s worth observing in that context that key influences in how I think about music have come from things other than records - books (Paul Oliver’s Story Of The Blues book fascinated me as much as the album) and magazines (especially Blues Unlimited, Traditional Music, Old Time Music and MT itself), live events (special mention for Roly Brown’s Downs Festival of Traditional Singing, for example), talking and sharing music with other people (Keith Summers comes immediately to mind), and also - not least - playing it.
There were other significant records in other kinds of music, outside of MT’s scope (from Bach to Burning Spear), but even how I look at those has been shaped by the perspectives I’ve developed through my interest in traditional music, in its broadest sense. It’s no exaggeration, either, to say that it has had a profound effect on how I look at the world.
Ray Templeton - 15.11.07
Choosing the best ten of these throughout my life has been difficult because there have been so many of them, ranging from when I was at school around 1960 up until earlier this year, so here they are in chronological order:
1. Hearing two New Orleans jazz veterans, Emmanuel Paul and George 'Kid Sheik' Cola playing with members of the Barry Martyn Band at an afterhours session after a jazz club in Portsmouth. Somehow, as a schoolboy, I managed to inveigle an invitation to be there. It was magical - raw and real music - and I realised for the first time how different it was from the manufactured music industry product.
2. The first time that Jeannie Robertson sung to Tina and I a few weeks after we were married. We were taken to her and introduced to her and she looked closely at us for a long time with those black X-ray eyes and we felt that we were being assessed. She then shook Tina's hand and held it throughout the singing of The Gallawa' Hills. However long I live, I will never forget that experience.
3. Being at a session at the house of Belle and Alex Stewart in Blairgowrie with an assembly of some of the finest Scots traveller singers and musicians where, as well as the hosts and their daughters, there was Charlotte Higgins, Willie McPhee, Davy Stewart and many others. Such strong vivid memories that evening gives; I remember that South of The Border, Down Mexico Way was followed by The False Knight On The Road and nobody thought it the least bit strange. The only problem was that there was wonderful singing and music going on in two rooms and you didn't know which one to be in.
4. Not long after we moved to Sussex, we met Bob Fry who is a great lover of all aspects of Sussex life, particularly its traditional song and music. He was a neighbour of Scan Tester in Horsted Keynes and used to drive him around to various places where Scan fancied playing, which meant that they often turned up at our folk club in Lewes. It was probably as a result of that we were invited to Bob's very wonderful summer garden parties where privileged to be in the company of a host of Sussex singers and musicians such as Scan Tester and his daughter Daisy, George Belton, George Spicer, Rabbity Baxter, Johnny Doughty, Bob Lewis, Bob Blake, Claire Clayton, Old Uncle Bob Copper and all……
5. Our family holidays in the years around 1987 to 1993 were spent going to the various countries of Eastern Europe by bus. It was the only way of going somewhere that felt quite exotic for next to nothing. We ended up one year on the Polish/Czech border at Zakopane. Not many signs of traditional music as we wandered around the town so we approached a taxi driver as asked him for "Traditional Music!" He looked very puzzled; no-one spoke English in that part, so after a while we wandered away. We were then caught up by the taxi driver who wound down his window and said something that sounded like "Musica Regionalis?" Yes, that's what we want. He drove us to a lodge outside the town and there in a log-fired room with mice scuttling around the floor, we experienced a wonderful evening of traditional song and dance with a band playing fiddles, cellos and hammer dulcimers.
6. Another of these holidays found us on a day trip to the Gyimes Valley in the Magyar speaking area of Transylvania. We stopped to listen to some Roma buskers playing trumpet and accordion and because we seemed to be interested, they told us where they were playing later on that day and we went to hear them. They were the same musicians but with different instruments; now they had fiddles, the flat-bridged violas that they call contras playing chords and the cello-like utögardon. Lovely powerful dance music interspersed with that wonderful open-throated singing both from the band and from whoever in the audience decided it was their turn to lead the singing.
7. It is not really difficult to come across wonderful traditional music being played in Irish pubs, but it was a must on every occasion we were in Ireland to go to the sessions led by Johnny O'Leary at Dan O'Connell's Traditional Music Pub in Knocknagree. Fridays were sessions in the bar, Sundays were set-dancing in the room at the back. Both were outstanding.
8. Music sessions in the pubs in God's own County Clare form some outstanding memories, particularly when they are led in his enigmatic style by Charlie Piggott, but the finest of all in that county must have been at Peppers' pub in Feakle led by P Joe Hayes and Francie Donnellan and other members of the Tulla Céilí Band.
9. The lovely Cajun sessions combining festival guests and enthusiasts at the Festival Acadiens 2003 at Girard Park in Lafayette, especially when they involved the wonderful veteran singer and fiddler Adam Hebert.
10. It was the day when Jali Sherrifo Konteh moved into the compound that he is building in Brikama in The Gambia and it was also Tina's birthday. Although the place was still basically a building site, a party was obviously called for. There was lots of lovely singing and dancing with Sherrifo playing kora, Suntou Kouyate playing the balafon and Ismaela Suso the djembe and beautiful singing from Makoy Jobarteh, Kankou Kouyate and Alhaji Jobarteh.
Ah yes! I was meant to be choosing some records, wasn't I? It is an interesting and quite difficult concept - Ten Records that Changed My Life. The great temptation is to include the albums that you think are really important and you would like to see change other people's listening habits, but I have taken it that Mike's original idea was to list records that actually opened doors for me, led to new concepts and often huge interests and helped to change my understanding of music. This makes the final list appear rather odd to me. There is no Voice of the People which I would consider the single most important record set that I have listened to because by the time it was released, it could only reinforce rather than convince me of the beauty of British traditional song. There is no recording of any British traditional dance music - Jimmy Shand didn't quite make it into the final ten - though listening to and playing this has dominated my life, and although I listen to and own hundreds of records of blues, none seems to come into that change-of-direction category.
2. Another schooldays junkshop purchase and no, not the Arthur 'Blind' Blake, the wonderful bluesman and a great hero of mine - what a guitarist - but another who sang under that name, Blake Alphonso Higgs, who sung and played calypso-ish music for the tourists in Nassau. The big lesson from this for me was about the universality of the English language singing traditions, long before I knew anything about different versions of the same songs from different countries.
I loaned it to someone at college and never got it back, so I haven't heard it in over 40 years. If you come across a copy stamped with something like 'Property of British Forces Broadcasting Company, Germany' then that's the one.
3. The white label on the LP - I had never seen such an item before - in Dobells in Charing Cross Road just had 'Jeannie Robertson' written in pen. It was very cheap, no sleeve so I bought it out of curiosity, never having heard of the singer before. I had stumbled on the singer that I have come to regard as one of the very finest I have ever heard. Thinking about it, this album might fetch quite a lot on eBay, but no; nobody is having it.
4. This came from the same shop on a different trip to the West End. I was and still am totally enchanted by the singing and music on this album. It was probably behind me seeking out the famed TMSA festivals in Blairgowrie where I get to meet and listen to the majority of the people on the album and a lifetime enthusiasm for the singing of Scottish travellers.
5. When we were first married, we had no radio or TV but we did have a record player and Tina was working at Blackheath Library where there was a really huge collection of LPs. Each night when were not going out, she would bring home two albums and this gave us unprecedented access to a vast range music that we had not heard before.
By then we were going to a lot of London folk clubs and I thought I knew all about Irish singing from all the Clancy Brothers and Dubliners influenced singers that dominated the scene then. The majesty of Paddy's singing was a complete revelation to me and proof that the tradition was where I needed to go for listening enjoyment.
6. O.K. It is confession time. When we first moved to Sussex, I had little time at first for the county's traditional singers that I started to hear. If it wasn't the magnificence of the likes of Heaney and Tunney or the sheer exuberance of Scots travellers then I felt it was not worth listening to. It was the rasping voice of George Belton that first got under my skin and made me think differently, particularly the rolling 5/4 of The Bold Fisherman.
7. A visit to Cecil Sharp House when Dave Bland was librarian leaves a strong mark on my memory. He sat me down and played me Joseph Taylor on an old reel-to-reel player. I had heard nothing like this voice coming down to me through the ages from a time when the singers of the English countryside had only one another to listen to and no media to influence them. The release of this album confirmed my first enthusiasm.
8. I can hardly bear to listen to Paul Simon's Gracelands now, but there was something very exciting indeed about his accompanying musicians and it led me into buying South African township records, though very few were available before the magnificent Indestructible Beat series.
9. The next step was to try to find out what the rest of Africa had to offer and a purchase of this LP, new and sealed, for 50p at a boot fair seemed a bargain. I was utterly bowled over by it at first listening and nearly wore it out with repeated playing. If I listen to now, it does seem very accessible and western, compared with the albums it led me on to, but it did open the door for me into the Jaliya music of West Africa which is currently one of the most vibrant of traditional musics
10. The most recent album, received this year and it turned me on to the recorded music of the recently independent West African countries. For the first time in my life I am listening to music that was intended for a mass local market and it seems to be full of the vitality and vigour of the tradition.
Vic Smith - 2.1.07
For the record (every pun intended), I was fifteen in 1961, between the trial of Lady Chatterley and the Beatles first LP, as Philip Larkin almost said. That is important for it meant that I grew up in post war Britain during a time of moderate affluence, and economic security, but also at a time when the embers of empire continued to smoulder, when people still believed in the immutability of the social order, and when their cultural horizons were firmly fixed by their position on the ladder of social class.
My family, and practically everyone I knew were on the bottom rung. What's more, the powers that were had decreed that we were there because we were too thick to be anywhere else. To the administrators and employers and educators of post war Britain, the 'working man' (and woman) was incapable of independent thought and action. We could not create. We could not lead. We could not question. We could only follow.
The result was that millions of people just like me grew up not knowing who the hell we were. The working class communities, which at one time had given meaning and stability and identity to people's lives, had largely dissipated. What's more, I knew nothing of the history of my ancestors or where I had come from, because the only history I had been taught was that of grasping monarchs and colonial wars. Equally, although we had the music lesson and the art lesson, and the English lesson, all these things taught me about artistic culture was that it had been made by a few individuals of such towering genius, that it could only be appreciated and understood by the people who were clever enough to rule us. Thus the education, which was actually supposed to improve the minds of the masses was in reality a neat and tautological form of social control.
Like practically everyone else in this wasteland, I sought refuge in pop music. In fact, by the time I reached fifteen, I had amassed a tidy collection of 45 rpm records of luminaries such as Cliff Richard, The Shadows, John Leyton and Helen Shapiro.
Then Pye Records secured the British rights to the Chicago based Chess catalogue and The Best of Muddy Waters dropped like a bombshell.1 Well, it wasn't quite that simple. I'd had a sudden and jarring revolt against the inanities of pop music some months earlier, and set off in search of something a little more meaningful. For a while I tried to interest myself in modern jazz. That didn't work, but the experience brought me into contact with the blues, and the blues was the first music I'd ever heard which seemed to speak directly to me. The Best of Muddy Waters was the first of many incursions I made into the Pye International R 'n' B catalogue, and it was quintessential. It was music which had been brought up from the Mississippi delta by migrating post World War II Negroes and hardened and toughened and electrified and amplified to suit the dance halls and mean streets of Chicago, and it thrilled me to the very depths of my soul. To a dissolute white kid from the mean streets of a concrete housing estate, this music seemed tailored to echo the way that I felt.
I bought many more blues LPs over the next few years. They weren't all from the Chess stable by any means. But while CBS brought me Robert Johnson and Son House and Big Joe Williams, and Storyville brought me John Henry Barbee and Juke Boy Bonner, the orange and gold label of Pye International's R 'n' B series ran through my record collection like Blackpool ran through rock.
I'd be less than honest if I didn't tell you the next big influence in my life was Joan Baez. I'd discovered the American singer-songwriter movement of Dylan, Paxton, Simon etc., via the blues, and that naturally led me to those early Vanguard LPs of Ms B's. Joan Baez didn't sing much in the way of contemporary protest of course. She sang nearly all traditional American and British songs and I was absolutely gobsmacked by the purity of her singing. Such gobsmacking can be attributed to youthful inexperience and the fact that I hadn't yet heard Harry Cox. When I did, I ditched those Vanguards. Even so, Joan Baez inculcated in me a lifelong passion for the beauty and simplicity of folksong.
June 1966 found England on its way to winning the World Cup, and it found me in the Domestic Mission, Mill Street, Liverpool; the only 'dry' folk club I ever admit to attending. I was there to hear Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. Although I'd been drawn into the folk revival by this time, I was having a lot of trouble making sense of it. What was folksong ? Why did it have to be hundreds of years of old ? And if it did, how did all these modern protest songs fit into the equation ?
Then MacColl started talking. He described how he and Peggy had been recording Gypsies and Travellers for the radio ballad, The Travelling People, and how they had recorded Caroline Hughes, a Dorset gypsy. She had given them no less than 75 ballads and songs, including the splendid We Poor Labouring Men.
O, some do say the farmer's best, but I do need say no;
If it weren't for we poor labouring men, what would the farmers do?
They would beat up all their old odd stuff until some new come in
There's never a trade in old England like we poor labouring men.
"Immediately afterwards", MacColl continued, "we recorded some people from a housing estate who were protesting about all these tinkers and down and outs who were camped in their neighbourhood. We asked the protesters why they didn't like Travellers and they said they'd got no culture. We'd just recorded 75 ballads and songs from one single individual. Yet these people probably all went home and watched Coronation Street, while they complained about Travellers having no culture".
The import of what MacColl had said didn't sink in at once. That took several years of reading Thompson, Engels and Orwell on the English working class, Marx on alienation, Michels on oligarchy, Steinbeck on Oklahoma migrants, Lloyd on English folksong, and every tract on working class life I could lay my hands on. The picture which emerged from all this showed that the working class had a history and a culture and an identity just like everybody else; that we had become estranged from these things by industrial capitalism; and that the consequence of that estrangement was that the working class had been denied the means of artistic expression.2
But if full blown enlightenment lay in the future, Ewan MacColl's The Manchester Angel had been released a few months earlier, and contained many of the songs he sang that night. I was enraptured by it, and by its stories of pseudo-blind beggars and shepherds and sheep stealers and forest outlaws, and of night visitors and abandoned lovers. Ewan MacColl never did realise his vision of a socialist world, with a free unfettered working class once more united with its musical heritage. And I nowadays find myself rejecting many aspects of his thinking. But by all let this be heard. Ewan MacColl, more than anyone else removed the blinkers which had been placed on me by a state education system, and got me thinking and got me reading, and gave me the wherewithal to discover who I am. Thanks Ewan.
There was something more. The notes to The Manchester Angel contained names; the names of the people who had sung these songs to collectors anything up to six decades previously. Who were they and what did they sound like?
At first finding out wasn't easy. The few records of traditional singers, which had been released in Britain, were expensive and hard to come by, and for all I knew, contained uncertain glories. Surely an amateur singer, with nowhere more auspicious to perform than his village pub, couldn't hope to equal the best that the revival had on offer.
They could and they did. In the USA, Caedmon Records had released a ten LP set of field recordings in 1961. They were erroneously titled - for they contained more Irish material than anything - The Folksongs of Britain. In 1968, Topic Records of London began releasing them to considerable acclaim, and at a more affordable price than the Caedmon imports. I bought the first volume, Songs of Courtship, and it literally stood my world on end. It was everything those Joan Baez LPs should have been and weren't. It was pure and pastoral and its gently flowing musical eddies spoke vividly of mountain streams and moorcocks and false brides and faithful lovers. There was the cranky outpouring of the farm worker who was considered too socially inferior to marry the girl he'd got pregnant; there was the story of the ardent young man ploughing through frost and snow to be with the girl he loved; and there was the song of another girl, abandoned by her soldier paramour, who was ready to sell everything she had to buy her love a sword of steel; one which just might see him safely through the wars. Is go dtéidh tú mo mhúirnín slán.
Most compelling of all was the fact that the people on these records weren't millionaire superstars. They were farm workers, housewives, tinsmiths and travellers. They were ordinary people. My people. Nothing I have heard before or since has had anything like as profound an effect on me.
Record No 5 is a strange one. In those days department stores used to carry record sections, and the one in Debenhams, Birkenhead, had some pretty tasty items. One day I found a record on the BBC's Radio Enterprises label, called Ulster's Flowery Vale. It was the digest of a pair of programmes on traditional music and song from Northern Ireland. In spite of its tacky cover painting and tacky sleeve notes, I recognised enough names among the participants to give it a spin in the store's listening booth.
It wasn't the greatest record in the world, and the presence of one or two showy big names was off putting to me even that far back. Yet there were some terrific ensemble tracks from Cathall McConnell, Tommy Gunn and Sean McAloon, and several marvellous vocals from Sarah Makem and Geordie Hanna.
Ulster's Flowery Vale was pivotal for three reasons. Firstly, I was captivated by the songs on it. They were more lyrical and ornate than many of the ones I was growing used to, and some of them were set to indescribably beautiful melodies. They were wide and weighty and long and flowing and often had startling turns in them. Indeed, the eight vocal tracks on that LP were the earliest inklings of what would become a lifelong fascination with the songs and singers of Northern Ireland. Secondly, I hadn't up to then heard, or indeed enjoyed, much Irish music. So that was the start of another life long love affair. Finally, with this record I found I was identifying more closely with the music and songs of Ireland than with either of its neighbours. Perhaps that was just a function of my Irish ancestry and the Irish sentiments of my family, but I had just got to see the place.
I wound up in Carna, Conamara, not knowing anything about Conamara, and unaware even that Irish was still the first spoken language there. I got the tent up and repaired to a nearby pub for a lunch time drink. There was a row of fishermen standing at the bar and talking in a language that this stranger certainly didn't know, when one of them burst into song. The singing was unlike anything I'd come across before. Even the Cork and Hebridean singers I'd heard on The Folksongs of Britain couldn't have prepared me for the exotic, floral delivery, the massive ornamentation, the continually shifting rhythms, and the harsh, nasal impassioned timbre which are so typical of this part of Conamara. During the course of that afternoon, perhaps half a dozen singers unleashed their burdens of song while I sat there like a startled rabbit. This was living tradition. This was a night's boat journey and a day's hard drive from my home on Merseyside. Yet it was so unfamiliar it could have come from another planet.
Like The Manchester Angel, Grand Airs of Connemara marked a pivotal point in my life, rather than being the point itself. Nevertheless, I bought that latter disc immediately I got back to England and wallowed in the singing of Seán 'ac Donncha, Pádraic a Catháin and Tomás a Neachtain, to say nothing of the clear crystal tones of Festy Conlan's whistle. And when Topic eventually got around to sending out the booklets of that LP, I was able to wallow in the resplendent translations. Grand airs indeed, and grand singing, and grand texts as well.
By this time I was reaching something of a crisis in my attitude to folk music. I had never wholly subscribed to the 'it's gotta be British' brand of chauvinism which marked that phase of the folk revival. Even so, the cosy world of the revival had up to now circumscribed my musical interests, and I was beginning to feel that circumscription was turning into constraint. Not only had I become far more interested in the tradition than the revival, I had begun charting Gaelic waters, and I had started to wonder what lay outside the navigable areas. There was a whole world of folk music outside of these islands. Why not explore some of it ?
That was easier said than done. There was no world music movement in those days and, even if I could have afforded a foreign holiday, I didn't fancy sitting in some European cafe while a bunch of paid professionals performed ersatz versions of the real thing. Then I discovered a bookshop in Liverpool which had a sale of classical LPs on various esoteric labels. Among the works of Schoenberg and Stockhausen, I found half a dozen different volumes from a series on Argo called The Living Tradition. I picked the one which covered Romania, possibly because its cover photograph showed a caravan full of the wildest looking Gypsies I'd ever seen. Unfortunately, not all the contents were as wild as those Gypsies. Some of it was the self same urban cafe music which I'd been anxious to avoid.
The rest of it wasn't. There were frenetic wedding dances, staggering two part polyphonies, and a verbunkos (army recruitment melody), played slowly and hair raisingly while the village dogs barked in accompaniment. I'd hit a gold mine.
Over the next few months, and starting with the rest of the LPs in that sale, I bought every record of ethnic music I could lay my hands on. I thrilled to the sound of Peruvian harps, wallowed in the tortured strains of flamenco, marvelled at the intricacies of Bulgarian bagpiping, and sat in open mouthed astonishment at a vocal orchestra in the form of a group of Italian dockers. And I remember being infuriated at the stuffy attitudes of my folk singing confreres. No. It wasn't British and they weren't going to listen to it. Not for the first time, I began to feel that the folk revival wasn't the place for me.
Yet if I rejected revivalist sentiments towards the non-English speaking world, I did concur with expressions of anti-Americanism. That was understandable, for the efforts of MacColl and Bert Lloyd to nativise the revival were directed much more at pseudo-Americans than at pseudo-Bulgarians.3 Moreover, the USA, with its involvement in Vietnam, its record on civil rights, and its stifling of left wing opinion, was seen as a political pariah. On top of that there was the problem of American cultural imperialism. I wasn't the only one who felt we were being buried by the stuff.
Then, the week after I discovered those Living Tradition LPs, I walked into the Liverpool Communist Party bookshop and found that they were also having a sale. This one yielded up a solitary Folkways LP. Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's Volume 2, it was called, and the line up included Doc Watson, Clint Howard, Fred Price and of course Clarence Ashley. I'd heard a lot about Watson and Ashley and figured it was worth risking thirty bob on.
Wasn't it just! Old time fiddle tunes! Banjo songs! Fugueing hyms!. Absolutely devastating, the whole damned disc. To this day I am uneasy about the political attitudes which permeate old time country music. But the stuff just blew me away. And it opened a door which led me into the incredible labyrinth which is the traditional music of the USA.
Record number nine represents a return to these shores, or rather to these waters, in the form of the third of the radio ballads; Singing The Fishing. A friend of mine, Paddy Doody, now alas deceased, used to keep open house on a Sunday. I'd go round there and we'd sit and drink coffee and Paddy would talk with great animation about Blind Gary Davis and Séamus Ennis and The New Lost City Ramblers and the Yorkshire village carols we'd recently discovered. Argo Records had started issuing the radio ballads on LP, and one day Paddy asked me if I'd heard any of them. I said I hadn't and he pulled Singing The Fishing from one of the stacks of records he'd got stashed all over the floor. I sat there stoned, while the vivid interplay of song and speech and chorus and instruments unravelled across the carpet. There was young Sam Larner reliving the excitement - and the dread - of his first days at sea. There was Ronnie Balls relating the pride and satisfaction of coming into harbour with a big catch of herring. There were the seamen and the fishwives and the fishermen's wives, and the tales of cruel usage and economic slump. And there was old Sam Larner describing, a storm at sea with all the pungent graphic living detail you'd expect in an Émile Zola novel.
"There was great seas a'comin'. Now and then they'd peel you know and break. And once they break, look out. So I stood in the wheelhouse along the skipper. I was there the whole blessed night, me and the skipper. The chaps down below are cryin'. They were these young chaps, you know. Well, once she shipped the sea. I said "Ted, look out. Here's one a'gonna get us". Eh, that come roaring along. I bet you our boat stood on our hend like that ! I bet you she stood up like that !"
I bet you my hair stood on its end like that.4
Well, there they are, or nine of them at least. I didn't include Gael Linn's wonderful double CD, Michael Coleman 1891 - 1945, or The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin or the Alan Lomax anthologies, Sounds of the South and Southern Journey, or Music in the World of Islam or Scottish Tradition, or Voice of the People, or the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music or The Woody Guthrie Library of Congress Recordings. Neither did I mention Murderers' Home or the Harry Cox EFDSS LP, English Folk Singer or Topic's Folk Music of Albania or the Doc Watson Vanguards or that incredible trio of Tangent LPs of Ethiopian field recordings. Fabulous records all of them, and absolutely seminal. But they weren't the ones which changed my life.
Anyway, before I get thrown out of here, I want to introduce you to record number ten. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 5, The Emperor; Stephen Bishop Kovacevich with the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis conducting. Yes I know this is supposed to be about traditional music, but that was the first compact disc I ever bought and the first one I ever played and the first one I ever heard. It turned my life around because I realised the potential of digital recording for the very first time. Here was a means of preserving not just the great historical recordings of Beethoven and other composers, but of preserving in non-corruptible form, all the traditional music which is being extinguished all over the planet.
Around twenty years have passed since that first meeting, but I can still remember the almost physical shock of hearing the orchestral sound in far greater detail and clarity than I would ever have thought possible. Digitisation of the analogue master had revealed whole chunks of the score which even the best hi-fi vinyl audio players couldn't get at. The whole thing was so vivid that I felt as though I could reach out and shake hands with every single one of the musicians. And that is what my life as a record collector has been about. Sure I've met the odd opinionated schmuck along the way, and the odd dollop of self-indulgent rubbish done up to look like a serious release. But what is that compared with the fact that Woody Guthrie still drops in on me almost forty years after he died? So do Joe Heaney, Phil Tanner, Belle Stewart, Dillard Chandler and many others. I even had Joseph Taylor call round the other evening, and he serenaded me with some of the songs which he recorded for Percy Grainger all of ninety nine years ago. You know what? These guys will be singing these songs for ever more. They'll be here till doomsday in the afternoon.
2. For a detailed discussion of MacColl's theoretical stance, see http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/heaney.htm#intro
3. Which is not to say that huge swathes of the revival didn't miss the point. MacColl and Lloyd were in no way opposed to American folksongs. They were merely opposed to their performance by people who were culturally too far removed from the scene of the action to interpret those songs adequately.
4. For more on the radio ballads, visit http://www.mustrad.org.uk/reviews/rad_bal.htm
Fred McCormick - 3.1.07
Yet even then I was unaware of folk music on record till I went to live and work in London. I was amazed to find in the local library (Haringey) a large selection of LP records including a folk section; here I discovered my first choice for this article, Farewell Nancy. I had never heard of A L Lloyd, Louis Killen, Ian Campbell, Bob Davenport or any of the other singers, but from the title song onwards I was hooked on hearing and singing sea shanties (I have an awful voice, but at least you can join in the choruses). The sheer variety of different types of shanty and forebitter on the record knocked me out, such as Cyril Tawney's marvellous performances of The Bold Benjamin and The Fireship. I have never tired of Farewell Nancy, and still play it now and again. Some twelve years later I was standing on the deck of the brig Luna moored at Greenwich, joining in the chorus of shanties led by the great Stan Hugill. Having recently read The Bosun's Locker, articles from Spin magazine on all things maritime by Stan, I notice that he gave Farewell Nancy a very favourable review, despite one or two reservations.
I had still not heard a proper traditional performance of a folk song, however, and was indeed blissfully unaware that such things existed. My discovery of them was rather strange. I was working in Zaragoza, Spain, having tired of living in semi-poverty in London. I was invited to a party hosted by some new arrivals, a young English couple. Suddenly, apropos of nothing, the pretty blonde female began to sing Rosebud in June, as sung to Cecil Sharp by farmer William King in Somerset. She had a beautiful singing voice and I was completely astounded. I asked her all about the song and where she had learned it. She told me it was from an album Below the Salt by the 'folk rock' group, Steeleye Span. I had heard of this genre and group by my weekly purchase of New Musical Express, but had never heard any of their music. Examining the sleeve notes to the record, I asked the girl what was meant by the names given after some of the songs, 'from the singing of'. She explained to me that they were the original singers from whom these versions were taken. I played the album over and over again, and became keen to hear the original versions of the songs by the likes of John Strachan, Caroline Hughes, and Harry Cox. I was fascinated by Harry's Spotted Cow and wondered where exactly in Norfolk Catfield was. Little did I realize that once I had visited the village, just five years after Harry's death, I would be going back year after year and gathering materials on the vibrant singing tradition there of which Harry was the key member. I've always found it odd that it was folk rock that led me into traditional British music, and in a foreign country to boot.
Now that I had the bit between my teeth, I wanted the 'real thing'. This wasn't easy in the days before web sites, but soon I discovered Topic Records, and wrote to them asking for a catalogue. I found that tracks by Harry Cox and John Strachan were included in the Topic/Caedmon Folk Songs of Britain series, so ordered two discs, which are my second and third choices, The Child Ballads Volume II, and Songs of Seduction. I have to confess that I hated these albums at first. The singers were old and their voices often cracked, and they sang unaccompanied of course, but thankfully I persisted. It wasn't long before I found that I couldn't stop humming the tunes, and gradually the albums grew on me. There are song performances on these discs (and others in the series of course) which are simply phenomenal. John Strachan's Royal Forester and Robin Hood and Little John, Harry's Georgie and Our Goodman,,and a host of singers of simply the highest calibre - Jeannie Robertson, Lucy Stewart, Phil Tanner, Jimmy McBeath, Davy Stewart, Cecilia Costello, Cyril Poacher and many others. These discs thus provided me with stepping stones into the world of British traditional music.
I was so enthusiastic about Harry Cox's singing that I wanted to get hold of everything by him. At the time the best source, apart from an EFDSS LP compilation, was Peter Kennedy's Folktracks series. From these cassette tapes it is difficult for me to choose one as representative of the huge influence Harry Cox had on my musical education, but I have made The Barley Straw my fourth choice. Not only does Harry sing a variety of ballads, ditties, humorous pieces, local songs and so on marvellously, he also tells us about his life and singing, and plays his 'music' (melodeon) like a dream. My personal favourites are The Bonny Bunch of Roses, the moving story of Napoleon's downfall, and Newlyn Town, the great highwayman ballad which mentions a real historical character, the magistrate Ned Fielding. It was also Peter Kennedy and Folktracks which leads me to my fifth choice, Down at Old Blaxhall Ship. Here we have a snapshot of the Suffolk singing tradition at Blaxhall Ship as it was in the early 1950s. There are some terrific individual performances on this tape, including the mournful Nancy of Yarmouth and the upbeat Maid and the Magpie. But best of all are the great performances by Bob Scarce on Bold General Wolfe and Cyril Poacher on The Nutting Girl, with the whole company in full cry on the choruses, and with chairman 'Wickets' Richardson manfully trying to maintain 'lovely order'. Research by the late Keith Summers shows that some of the locals were less than happy at the way they were treated by Messrs. Kennedy and Lomax, but this tape still stands as testimony to a rich and varied local singing tradition.
I had never really taken to the post war blues styles of the likes of Howlin' Wolf and T-Bone Walker. But it was the New Musical Express again, this time in the shape of rock journalist Charles Shaar Murray, who pointed me to my discovery of 'country blues' by his writing a short article in praise of the great Robert Johnson. Here was a mystery blues man, poisoned at an early age by a jealous husband, supposed to have made a pact with the devil to enable him to play so well, and responsible for only two LP records - and at the time, no known photograph of the artist existed! I was back in England, and living in a small village near Bolton while training to be a teacher. I purchased the first Johnson album entirely on Murray's recommendation, and have never regretted it. This is my sixth choice, Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume 1. I have played it so many times it has worn thin, but now of course we have DVD, and the debate continues over whether they sound as good as vinyl! I just know that I placed the disc on the turntable, but had to go out soon, so only had time to listen to the first four tracks. These were enough to make me a convert for life, not only to Johnson himself, but to country blues in general. I know that those four songs (Crossroads Blues, Terraplane Blues, Walking Blues [my favourite Johnson song ] and Come On In My Kitchen) were enough to hook me - and I had yet to hear Preaching Blues, Stones In My Passway and If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day amongst other gems, not to mention the whole of his second album. I sympathise with early blues scholars like Sam Charters, trying to make sense of those often difficult blues lyrics - in '32-20' for example, Charters gave a line as "Gonna shoot my pistol, gonna shoot my girl and gone" which should in fact have been "Gonna shoot my pistol, gonna shoot my Gatling gun" This might be a good moment to mention the sterling work done on interpreting blues lyrics by Mr R R MacLeod and his team, of Edinburgh. They have worked on the entire catalogue of Yazoo records - anyone who can make sense of some of Lemon Jefferson's lyrics deserves a medal.
It is Sam Charters, however, who is responsible for my seventh choice. I find it very difficult to name which of the many blues albums that I purchased subsequently to Robert Johnson that I could make as my next choice, without ignoring the others. If put on the spot I would have to say my choice would probably be Lemon Jefferson or Willie McTell, both blind singers who were musical maestros. However, I have overcome the difficulty of choosing by making my seventh choice a compilation which I bought soon after the Robert Johnson albums. This was The Country Blues, a superb combination of masterful performances by the likes of McTell (Statesboro Blues), and Jefferson (Matchbox Blues), along with Blind Willie Johnson, Tommy McLennan, Bukka White, John Estes, Peg Leg Howell and the inimitable Memphis Jug Band, the album being edited by Sam Charters. It was life changing in that it showed me there was much more to country blues than Robert Johnson alone, and subsequently I collected albums by all these artists and many others.
Sometime in the 1970s I became aware of the work of the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies in putting out traditional Scots material. I read a review somewhere of my eighth choice, The Muckle Sangs, which was a double album of the 'big ballads' collected largely in Aberdeenshire and elsewhere in Scotland. The quality of the music on these records astounded me. There were stunning performances by well known singers like Jeannie Robertson, her daughter Lizzie, and the wonderful Jimmy McBeath. But there were singers I had not then heard of, such as Betsy Whyte with her Twa Sisters, which must be one of the greatest ballad performances ever recorded. Some time later I read the two volumes of Betsy's life as a traveller in Scotland. There is another wonderful performance, this time from the Scottish Borders, by a completely different lady also called Betsy Whyte, telling the hair raising and tragic tale of Young Johnston. A young man called Duncan MacPhee was literally dragged to the campfire in the berryfields of Blairgowrie to sing his version of The False Knight on the Road, the best I have ever heard. There are relatively few recorded versions of Robin Hood ballads, but just listen to the one of this collection, Robin Hood and the Pedlar by Geordie Robertson. His superb parlando version really sets the scene well, in which of course Robin Hood and Little John are bested by the mysterious pedlar. For me, the other sterling performance on these discs in Jane Turriff's Andrew Lammie, accompanying herself on a harmonium in a uniquely discordant yet entirely successful way. These discs were important to me in so many ways - showing that the ballad was alive and well, the diversity of Scottish home grown music, but most of all for the sheer enjoyment they gave me.
My final choices take me abroad, into the worlds of Trinidadian calypso and Greek rembetika. A friend in Essex was keen on world music, and recommended calypso to me. The cassettes I bought (now CDs) were on the Rounder and Matchbox labels. It is difficult to choose just one, but the first one I heard has stuck with me. It is called Calypso Breakaway 1927-41, and features a range of great artists. The humour of the lyrics, often understated, the rivalry between the calypsonians ,indignant protests against the inter war depression, clever commentaries on current affairs, inventive use of vocabulary (and all with superb musical backing) contribute to the greatness of this music. I can vaguely remember the fashion for topical calypsos in the 1950s, but they were pale pastiches of the stuff on this and similar albums. Just choosing four great tracks, we have the superb Keskidee Trio with Don't Let My Mother Know, the ultra cool King Radio getting his just desserts in Ma Maria, one of the greatest ever conga performances in Lord Beginner's Anacona, and The Growler telling the sad tale of a sea trip that went badly wrong in The Excursion to Grenada. It's not on this particular album, but I recommend readers to search out Miss Marie's Advice as an example of perfectly understated humour.
I had heard about rembetika from various friends and magazine articles. The rembetika collection I have made my tenth choice is a double album which encompasses a very wide variety of songs in this genre, from some of the very earliest classic recordings of the 1920s, up to modern performers who sing a popularized version of the style. Although I understood neither the song titles, singers' names or sleeve notes, they being in Greek script, the actual music really moved me; although it doesn't sound like American blues, of course, the emotional basis of the singing is quite clear to the listener. Once I had got some Greek students I met to translate for me, which they did with difficulty but with great kindness, it only served to help me to appreciate the genre more - songs of love, regret, alienation, boredom, despair - the music originates from the forced migration of Greeks living in Turkish controlled territory, into difficult and often unwelcoming circumstances in their Greek 'homeland'. It became associated with a subculture of 'mangas' (cool guys), petty crime, drugs and life on the margins of society. As a general rule, I found that the older recordings were the best, but this generalization is easily challenged by some superb post war and even modern performances. Some of the music has a very 'eastern' flavour, reminiscent of Arab influence, and the Turkish background is clear in some of the words. One of my favourite early tracks is I am Depressed Tonight, where the singer (clearly elderly) matches his lyrics superbly with the musical accompaniment. The latter consists especially of bazoukis, violins, mandolins and baglamas. But Sotiria Bellou's Open Up Because I can't Stand It is in my opinion one of the greatest performances by a female artist anywhere in the world since the second world war. I loved both the singing and the accompaniment - even before I knew what the words meant! (a woman has been thrown out by her lover, and is hammering on the door in the frosty street, begging to be taken back). There are sterling performances by rembetika greats like Markos Vamvakaris and Vassilis Tsitsanis, as well as modern performances such as Poly Panou (described as having 'the sexiest voice in the world', an opinion with which I have to agree). Her I Stepped on the Old Rotten Step shows us that rembetika is still alive and well.
On looking over this article, I see that I have not mentioned many huge influences on my musical education - Sam Larner, Joseph Taylor and Johnny Doran to name but a few. The albums I have chosen have indeed been life changing, however, and I can recommend all of them to anyone who hasn't heard them.
Chris Heppa - 14.8.07