Enthusiasms No 35
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
Keith Chandler's piece on Elizabeth Cross2 raised some interesting questions about song-carriers, and the following details are offered more as additional information than as direct comment, and in the hope that they might offer something of a perspective. They fall into three related sections.
Admittedly, there is an immediate need to take cognisance of the fact that Keith Chandler's information and that given below are separated by some forty years. Times change and attitudes with them; and Elizabeth Cross began life in a culture which might be describes as pre-literate. It could be argued that the style and intention of commentary had, during this period, developed onto a different level. Nonetheless, during recent research into songs and singing in the Newbury (Berkshire) area, roughly over the last decade (and a bit) of the nineteenth century, a tangential view of phrases such as 'old English song' and 'excellent style', the epithets used to characterise Elizabeth Cross's singing, is revealed most particularly as it appeared in the pages of the local newspaper, the Newbury Weekly News3. Sometimes, the wording of the reports was altered to accommodate changes, through indisposition, in the advertised programme. In other words, copies of the advertised programme seem to have been circulated beforehand. If nothing else, this does indicate the extent of preparation involved but may also illuminate a degree of formality, of premeditation, in the give and take attendant on the reporting of events.
At any rate, to take the idea of 'excellent style' first: a John Rayer, farmer's son, of Beedon, aged 30 in 1891 (and, subsequently, farmer in his own right), sang on several village occasions 'for the enlivenment' of a 'rather quiet and uneventful parish'4. The exact phrases as quoted above in connection with Elizabeth Cross cannot be found, but implications are clear in a general terminology. Thus, at some of the events to which John Rayer contributed, we encounter descriptions such as that of two concerts (one in the afternoon and another in the evening) in aid of the repair of the church bells 'decidedly above the average of village concerts' where there were 'well-merited encores', violin solos played 'with considerable technique and much feeling', and piano solos displaying 'great musical talent and promise'5.
On another occasion, at a meeting of the Beedon and East Ilsley Amateur Minstrels in aid of the Beedon cricket club, 'the choruses went with a good rhythmical cadence'6. Again, a Miss Pinnock's songs, Grandmother's Advice and Daddy, especially Daddy, were 'very feelingly rendered, and the marks of favour they received classed them among the first favourites of the evening'.7
In fact, this kind of comment emerged throughout the period under review, often general in nature, as the above examples show, but, more pertinently, containing also familiar wording. Items at an entertainment (which involved schoolchildren) in the North Heath school at Chieveley earned the accolade, 'excellently performed'. Four days earlier, though, it should be noted that, in Chieveley, at a meeting of the Church of England Temperance Society which did not involve singing, 'Excellent speeches' were given and a 'capital piece' of reading ensued8. Then, returning to the focus in this piece, at Englefield, at a smoking concert, 'Mr. Robinson sang…in excellent style'9; at East Ilsley, items were performed 'in excellent manner'10; at West Ilsley, at a cricket club dinner, in 'capital style'11. Finally, as emphasis, at Englefield (at another 'smoker') a Mr West 'played the concertina in good style' (my italics)12. There are many more such comments with one or two other variants thrown in.
This all might suggest that, despite the time difference between Elizabeth Cross and John Rayer and his contemporaries (and, whilst we are concentrating here on singing events, the Chieveley Temperance report above shows how similar phraseology was used in other spheres) these phrases may well have been stock-in-trade comments of local observers. This, in turn, may underline the notion expressed above of a certain expectancy and gratification surrounding reportage. There is, in any case, no doubt that the general intention was to praise and, in praising, ignorance was circumscribed. In this light, 'excellent style' cannot, perhaps, be seen to be any kind of genuine judgement.
Following on from this, where 'old English' is concerned, this phrase may just as well not reveal a kind as it might indicate a certain pedigree. Firstly, 'old' was stock-in-trade for some of the Revival collectors such as Baring-Gould and Alfred Williams, when, in fact, Baring-Gould's usage seems to have been, in some cases, a kind of wishful thinking, a matching of imagined stereotype13; and Alfred Williams' usage a reference to a period in the order of a hundred years, rather than to times ancient, a way of blurring evidence in a somewhat romantic fashion14. Perhaps observers of events such as are described here had no greater inkling. This is to take into account a possible increase in longevity amongst the principals involved in singing itself during the nineteenth century which would, obviously, throw a slightly different light on the word 'old' as used.
Secondly, though, since there were never any reports in the NWN which concentrated on the activities of what may here be termed the lower classes, amongst whom we would expect to have heard 'traditional' songs sung, it is difficult to see how a reporter or observer would have the experience to be able to characterise in particular anything out of the ordinary where the usual run of concert-giving is concerned. Servants' balls were noted right enough but in scant detail15. One reference (one only - so far, to a concert at Ashmansworth, south of Newbury) indicated that there was singing in a particular tap-room16; one other, a report of the Kingsclere Petty Sessions (Hampshire) referring to a subsequent disturbance involving evidence from the landlord of The Falcon, pleaded that customers were merely singing comic songs together17. The very idea of concert-giving is not, in any case, one normally associated with 'traditional' singing.
If the Newbury experience is anything to go by, then, in the end, it may not be wise to rely on the supposed knowledge of the observer in the case of Elizabeth Cross. None of this is meant to dismiss her 'old English' songs but, on the contrary, is to underline the intrigue.
In terms of Elizabeth Cross' social standing it is, of course, useful to recall the name of John Helmore, the miller at South Brent, one of Baring-Gould's earliest contacts and, at a later stage still, that of William Spearman, Sharp's miller, both valuable sources of songs. And, widening the spectrum, Henry Burstow, one of the most prominent of contributors to the Revival canons, was a shoemaker, not one of the 'old' and 'illiterate' peasants frequently found in Revival mythology - for instance, in Baring-Gould's various writings issued between 1888 and 189518. Similarly, Joseph Taylor was a farm bailiff. These are well-enough known examples of a complexity in social status amongst contributing singers during the Revival years19.
At Beedon, John Rayer and his widowed mother, Mary - described as 'Farmer' in the 1891 and 1901 censuses - would certainly have been amongst the minor gentry of the village and several other names from a similar social background have emerged at the same series of singing venues in Beedon: Percy Lowe, for instance, the father of whom was a 'Trainer of race horses' in nearby East Ilsley; and the Misses Pilleau, ladies of independent means, also from East Ilsley20. Successive Reverends at Beedon, Buckland and Jennings, were also noted21. The local schoolteachers, the Morgans, were involved22; and, in fact, schoolteachers participated in events elsewhere. For instance, the regular accompanist at events in Englefield was Albert Robinson, a Northampton man, who, in 1891, aged but 24, was the local 'Schoolmaster in elementary school', living at 'The Schools', Englefield, with his mother, his sister and a young female cousin23.
However, the relationships amongst organisers and performers were a little more complex. So that we also find, on several occasions at different venues, the offspring, particularly the daughters, of tradespeople participating. In this respect we find a Helen Hibbert (born 1871), daughter of a local blacksmith and innkeeper, contributing to concerts at East Ilsley in 1890 and 1891. The Hibberts lived at The Sun in East Ilsley24. Helen it was who married a Sergeant Snelley who himself appeared at least one concert in Beedon, in 1892, when he played a mandolin solo and sang, almost too appropriately, The Bugler and Every Inch a Soldier25.
Elsewhere in the area the situation is even more complex with sons and daughters of our seemingly ubiquitous 'ag lab' involved although not nearly to the same extent as were the bourgeoisie. The Mathews sisters at East Ilsley are a case in point, daughters of an 'ag lab' and, it seems, 'coached' through the ranks of the CETS, and yet, as instance, appearing on the same bill as Helen Hibbert26.
Where repertoire is concerned, it could certainly have been the case that the songs sung by Elizabeth Cross were 'traditional' in character. There were even a handful of 'traditional' songs listed in connection with the Newbury events27. By far the majority, though, came from minor scribblers (sometimes major ones) and commercial sources even if some had been adopted in 'traditional' circles28. We ourselves are more likely to accept into the canon songs from very different backgrounds and it is worth remembering that we simply do not know how much 'other' material our favourite singers from Revival days sang in addition to the familiar stuff29. There is evidence to suggest that if it did not fit a preconceived notion then it was left out of the equation. It appears that the famous John England, as example, had a great deal of music-hall material in his repertoire… 30
John Rayer's songs, as it happens, included Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill and The Old Brigade31; True Till Death and Where Did You Get that Hat?32; Our colours and A Little Farm Well Tilled, the latter sung in company with two other singers: it was encored and the trio then sang Dame Durden33… And in 1899 John Rayer
... gave a nautical song "The girl he left behind him" with good effect, as well as a plantation song with chorus, "My Old Kentucky Home"34.This comment on The girl he left behind him alone might suggest a skewed view of the nature and source of songs (note also 'good effect'); and we cannot attribute John Rayer's songs to this or that source: the best that can be said is that his selection was eclectic35. Clearly, then, because of the continuing puzzle one would hesitate to pinpoint both Elizabeth Cross's exact standing in the community or the nature of her songs and, most particularly, to make too firm a tie-up between the two. We would certainly, in general terms, need to look more closely at the occupations and social standing of other singers; a process already being undertaken by such as Chris Bearman - as Keith Chandler pointed out - but still alarmingly undersubscribed, and our own 'enlightened' ideas of what is or was accounted as 'traditional' still needs refinement. Keith Chandler's piece is thought-provoking in this regard.
Roly Brown - 4.2.03
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