logo Enthusiasms No 17
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

'Warts an' 'all'

Some personal reminiscences of a great singer

I was much saddened to hear of the recent death, from cancer, of the Sussex traditional singer Gordon Hall.  In addition to being, arguably, the most powerful singer - both in vocal chord output and emotional intensity - ever recorded in England, he was a terrific raconteur with a sly, understated sense of humour.  His mother was Mabs Hall, a good country-style singer who may be heard on a number of releases from Veteran Tapes (VT 107, 108 & 109 - still available from 44 Old Street, Haughley, Suffolk, or check out their website at www.veteran.co.uk).  He once told me that, during the 1950s his was one of the few families with a reel-to-reel Grundig tape recorder, but it never occurred to him to tape his mother's singing at that time.  Subsequently, he lamented, she had forgotten many of the songs she once knew.  He also claimed that many others in his family were fine singers, and told often of the extended vocal get togethers they used to have before its members dispersed.

More than once I expressed regret that we didn't see him out performing more frequently.  One time he responded by claiming not to be 'much of an audience person'.  He particularly didn't like people going on and on about 'levels of performance'.  In their family gatherings it was normal for people to deliberately make mistakes, or to 'drag out' a song, and part of the fun of these dos was people saying things like, "Hasn't he finished yet?"  Within the family there was also a tradition of ad-libbing words to songs.  One song his mother 'liked to sing in the car.  I think it's called The Cornish ... something.  The one about the nightingale'.  He used to make up verses as they were driving along.  Once he had sung it at an informal singing session held near to his home, and ad-libbed three verses on the spot.  Afterwards a girl came up, 'notebook in hand' and asked for the words of the three verses which she had never heard before.  'She was convinced it had been collected at the turn of the century'.

I reviewed his superb commercial cassette on Veteran (VT 115 - he also features on VT131CD from the same stable) in the eighth issue of the then-hardcopy incarnation of Musical Traditions (early 1990).  There I wrote:

... He is a physically-powerful, large-framed son of Sussex, with a voice which seems to emanate from somewhere near his feet, and whose total involvement (often painfully intense) in the unfolding stories communicates itself readily and effectively to his audience ...  The delivery [of a ten minute-long version of the ribald song The Molecatcher] - which includes such devices as declamation, varying tempi and vocal tones, humorous omission or substitution of socially unacceptable words (those which, for example, rhyme with 'frolics' and 'pass') and subdued chortling - prevents any potential boredom.  And if you should get a chance to see him perform live ... an extra dimension is added as he stalks melodramatically across the floor acting out the story with gesture and mime ...
Shortly after this had appeared Gordon telephoned me at home to thank me, having gotten my number from editor Keith Summers.  We had previously spoken on several occasions at various festivals, but he hadn't made the connection.  He mentioned that he had recently recorded a hundred songs onto tape at home - nine hours worth - and would like to send me copies of them, as he would value my opinion.  He intended to issue some of them commercially, and wanted to know if he was 'wasting [his] time'.

A transcription of an extensive interview he did with Vic Smith in March 1991 for BBC Radio Sussex appeared in issue eleven of Musical Traditions magazine (1993 - and now available again here).  This conveys something of the important meaning of songs within both his familial and personal milieu.  During the course of the interview he notes:

... In fact, I've recorded over 200 hundred [sic] songs that I sing.  What I've done, I've sung into a microphone in me own front room and rushed across to switch it off and generally made a complete balls of it, but then I know a lot more [songs].  In fact, I passed on to dear old Keith Chandler, a hundred and odd songs to see what he thought of them and really, he ought to have a medal struck for him that he's sat and listened to them, I believe all of them!
That was a typical self-deprecating comment, but barely conceals a fierce pride in his heritage and performance prowess.  But he knew fine well that I had received those tapes with great joy, and that it had certainly been no hardship to be enthralled for so many hours (though the sheer intensity of performance meant that I was unable to listen to more than one side of a tape at any given time).  With characteristic humour he had labelled them 'Warts an' 'all'.

Two months after the BBC interview, Louie Fuller (who rarely appeared in public) and Gordon gave a memorable night at the Musical Traditions Club at The King and Queen, Foley Street, London (these club nights are still a regular occurrence - phone Ken Hall and Peta Webb on 0181 340 0530 for details of their upcoming programme).  During the evening Gordon had sung a long (about 15 to 20 minute) version of Lord Bateman (which he always called Lord Beckett).  During an informal discussion following the actual club proper he 'apologised' to the organisers for singing one of his 'long and borings', explaining that by this time of the evening their family get togethers would just be getting under way.  He observed that during these singing sessions it was sometimes a relief for someone to sing a long song like that, so that everyone could take a breather, have a drink and so on.  He also explained that he had omitted the usual family practise of repeating the last two lines as a chorus, explaining that this was one way of learning the songs.  By the time you had the last two lines of each verse it was not difficult to get the gist of the story and get the first two lines [ad-libbing seemed to be implied].

In September 1993 he happened to catch me on a television programme entitled 'King of the Road'.  During that interview I had mentioned my then-recently published book on the social history of morris dancing in the South Midlands between 1660 and 1900.  Immediately afterwards he telephoned me wanting to know where he could buy a copy.  Although claiming to know nothing about morris dancing he was nonetheless interested in its historical contexts.  (And I was happy to send him a complimentary copy, to partially redress his gift of those home-produced cassettes).

In fact, he was fascinated by many aspects of traditional performance.  One year, following an appearance at the National Folk Music Festival in Sutton Bonnington he lamented the fact that he hadn't realised in time Rita and Sarah Keane from north east Galway had also been there.  He would like to have spoken to them, since his mother's mother came from Ireland and sang some of the songs the Keanes sing.

In September 1990, on our way to the party held at Danehill, Sussex, to celebrate the launch of Reg Hall's wonderful book on 'Scan' Tester, my partner and I called in for a visit with Gordon and his wife.  Gordon had fetched his mother over, and while Heather and Mabs poured over family snapshots, he and I discussed various topics.  Among these were the fate of the privately-produced tapes; but, alas, nothing ever came of his plan to issue some of that material.

I recall being impressed with his collection of volumes on song and popular culture, particularly that relating to Sussex.  (Yet another memory of that occasion is the enormous meal laid on by his wife.)  Some time later he mentioned during a phone call that he was doing some research on Sussex singer Henry Burstow and reckoned to have words to about sixty-odd of the four hundred listed in Burstow's reminiscences.  I pointed him at Vic Gammon's article on Michael Turner which appeared in Traditional Music number 4, and which mentions Burstow, and subsequently sent him a photocopy of it.  He claimed that the Turner manuscript has 'gone missing,' but was audibly pleased when I read out from the article that Vic had found it in the county record office in Chichester.  'Oh! I get down there quite a bit,' he responded.

He claimed to have learned various foreign songs from men he had worked with on the docks when younger.  He was particularly taken with Portuguese fado, especially the great fadista Amalia Rodrigues, and was pleased when I sent him copies of some of her early recordings.  On another occasion he revealed his fascination for songs sung during physical labour, and was again delighted with a tape of recordings made during the mid 1960s of inmates of prison camps in Texas, actually singing while working at cutting logs or flatweeding.

In common with practically all singers of his generation who had a family heritage of traditional songs, Gordon was not averse to augmenting that corpus with verses from elsewhere.  And, of course (like Fred Jordan, Bob Copper, and many others), he learned songs which were not in his immediate cultural context.  But we ought not to be critical.  His book-learned songs were head, shoulders and torso over any other re-interpreter that I ever heard.  And like every accomplished raconteur he could be given to exaggeration, but he never came across as false and deceitful.  In fact, he was one of the most genuine people I have ever met.

Gordon was most at home in the company of a small appreciative audience, especially one which consisted of fellow singers.  The more the situation reflected the family get-togethers the more relaxed he was.  He disliked, for example, the formal atmosphere of the National, held on an expansive university campus.  But he was full of praise for Roly Brown's intimate, late lamented Downs Festival of Traditional Singing, held in the village hall at Hermitage in rural Berkshire, and (during its final year, 1995) in the bar of a pub in Hungerford.  He continued to appear at various dos in his immediate locality - at Bob Copper's 80th birthday party, for example - but, for me, Sussex was virtually an inaccessible place from rural Oxfordshire, and that last Downs Festival was the final occasion I saw him in the flesh.  I recall sitting on a coal bunker outside the pub chatting extensively about life, the universe and everything.  He was rather more subdued than usual, but his pint glass was, as ever, filled with three or four measures of gin topped up with tonic water.

He had a great capacity for enjoying life, and I'm delighted to have tangentially shared a little of that with him.  If there is an afterlife I have an image of him sitting and swapping songs (and being suitably awed) with Henry Burstow.  Now, there's a tape I would dearly like to hear!

Keith Chandler - 12.3.00

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