Enthusiasms No 39
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
I first picked hops and apples in Kent in 1964 and often returned to the same area south of Maidstone if I was in England at harvest time. Occasionally, in the evenings, I would sing a song in one of the pubs. The BBC series, As I Roved Out, had introduced me to English traditional unaccompanied singing in my early teens, and I had been inspired to learn a few songs from books and records, one of the latter being The Roving Journeyman an LP of songs sung by the Willett family of Kentish travellers.
My regular farm, in those early years, was in Marden Beech. The nearest pub, The White Hart, in Claygate, was a couple of mile’s walk along a narrow lane. In the autumn of 1972, I found that the pub had become a regular watering hole for travellers. My presence was tolerated because, from the smell emanating from me, it was clear I was ‘scroubing’ (in those days I worked as hop-dryers mate, which involved being on call 20 hours a day, loading and unloading the kilns every four hours and grabbing what sleep you could between times beside the fires in the oasthouse inevitably I was permeated with the pungent aroma of hops). When it was found that I could add a song to the evening’s session I was made welcome and became privy to many evenings of chat, song and stepping that normally came to a halt if other gorgios inadvertently came into the pub. Some years before I had spent a winter with Essex travellers working in the woods, but the only old song I heard from any of them was a couple of garbled verses of Brennan on the Moor - and that was sung to me in secret, after I’d been around them six months, “because I don’t want my children to think me old-fashioned knowing these old songs.” But here, I knew, I was amongst a still-vibrant living culture.
A regular visitor was Ted Haynes, who had many songs and who listened to, and was clearly interested in, the songs I contributed. Ted was a big man and he kept his eye on me, even warning me one evening to stay by his side because there was a fight brewing. Luckily the battle, a grudge match, didn’t boil over that night although, a week or two later when I wasn’t in the pub, all hell broke loose and someone was thrown bodily through the pub’s plate glass window!
Towards the end of the season Ted, after a particularly good session, said “You like the old songs, boy, don’t yer - you ought to meet my mother, she’s a bit of a rough’un but she can sing” and he handed me his card.
Although my girl partner of the time and I were due to move to warmer climes before the winter set in I persuaded her that we should make the effort to find, and if possible, to record Ted’s mother, as I would like to learn some of the songs I felt sure she knew. We had little money to spare on such a venture and no recording equipment of any sort but we set off across southern Britain, finishing up in Brighton where Ted’s mother, Mary, lived.
Travellers, justifiably, keep themselves to themselves and, although I had Ted’s invitation to meet his mother, there were many delays before I was given the name of a pub where I would find Mary and other members of her family. Meanwhile there were two mouths to feed and the chills of winter were setting in. Approaches to the folk clubs of Brighton for any sort of assistance were generally greeted with scorn although students who ran a club at the University of Sussex did find us an empty room in a dorm and another club allowed us to hold a raffle. By then, if we had delayed our departure any longer we would have been too broke to travel. We had to leave, but the meeting with Mary Haynes had confirmed that she had a wealth of songs. I knew she should be recorded and searched desperately for somebody who could get her repertoire on tape. Eventually I gave her contact details to Dave Bland, at that time doing some field recordings for Bill Leader. In the end David passed her details on to Mike Yates who eventually did record Mary and went on to describe her as “one of the most outstanding folksinging discoveries to be made in recent years” (Green Grow the Laurels Topic 12TS285).
Over the next ten or fifteen years I became a regular pobbeler (apple-picker) although my main base shifted to Ash Farm in Horsmonden, where eventually I had my own trailer which I could leave on the farm throughout the year. The farm was, coincidentally, ideally situated for the annual Horse Fair held in September, despite local opposition, on the village green.
I can no longer recall a first meeting with Henry Ridley, a locally based traveller with a goodly repertoire of songs. We were both ‘in the neighbourhood’, we both enjoyed to sing, and it was inevitable that we would spend time together. Henry’s paternal uncle, Nelson, had been recorded by Ewan MacColl and his maternal uncle, Levi Smith, was recorded by Mike Yates amongst others (his cousin was also married to Mary Haynes’ eldest daughter). Henry had married out and lived amongst the gorgios in a council house in Goudhurst (even though he still made a living, when I first knew him, as a timber feller and later moved into the tarmacing trade). His daughters had also married out; only his son had married a traveller girl and lived a traveller life. The old songs were particularly important to Henry (certainly more so than to uncle Levi, who, although knowing old songs, was more likely to give a rendition of a George Formby number) because they bolstered his traveller identity which he had diluted by marrying and living out.
In the mid-‘70s there were still plenty of travellers coming into the area for the harvest and enough ‘old-timers’ about that an evening in the pub often finished with a song or two. Henry would sometimes take me with him (or, for a while when he had a driving ban, ask me to drive him!) to a distant pub where he expected to meet up with members of his extended family. Apart from the mouthorgan and Henry’s own spoon playing, instrumental music was rare, although I remember one of his Smith cousins playing the accordion whilst another accompanied him by tattooing a rhythm on an empty brown ale bottle with a spanner. At the horse fair old granny Gumble still had her chair placed under the horse chestnut tree on the green opposite the King’s Arms. There she would sing and hold court, and her grandsons would put a board down, change into their studded shoes, and challenge the world to a stepping competition.
Or course you must remember that I was in Kent to earn some money (which helped subsidise my poorly paid archaeological work). You could make a few bob apple picking in those days though, to make your money, you had to put in a 10 hour day, 6 days a week and pick close on two tons a day. Consequently pub sessions were usually restricted to Saturday nights and Sunday lunchtimes and we didn’t travel far from ‘home’ turf. Johnny Mathews, a market trader from Maidstone, whilst not having a large repertoire of songs was always an appreciative audience and it was particularly for him that I learnt a version of the Folkestone Murder, a song his mother had sung. Chris Willett (see above), though rarely persuaded to sing, was often at the Fair and sometimes at the George in Yalding which, in the ‘70s, still had a pub pianist on Saturday nights.
Through the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s fewer people were coming into the area for the hopping. Inevitably some of the older travellers were dying and the vitality of the sessions deteriorated. Local nimbys often succeeded in banning the horse fair from the green, and there were fewer pubs where singing was tolerated. Nonetheless sometime in the mid-eighties, several years after Mary Haynes had died (1977), Henry and I were in the public bar at the Vine Hotel in Goudhurst, when he took me on one side and urged me to sing one of Mary’s songs because one of her sons had just walked in. I started to sing Camden Town. Unusually, the bar became quiet. My eyes shut as I concentrated on the song and, when I opened them at its conclusion, there were tears not only in her son’s eyes, but in mine too. He took my hand, as did others with him, and briefly the silence continued.
At the end of the 1987 season, when my life was changing course (children were in the offing and I had a thesis to write) I sold up my old trailer as I knew I would not be returning for the pobbeling in Kent. Although I had recorded a number of Henry’s songs with a cheap domestic tape recorder, I wanted a decent recording of him and I knew that, secretly, he would have been chuffed to have one too. Henry organised a session after the season had ended and I had left the area. I arranged to go over with John Howson. The pub was off our normal track and the other travellers there (Loveridges I believe) were not familiar to me, or I think to Henry. As it was their local territory there was the inevitable jockeying for credibility. Nonetheless Henry got into his stride and was singing with gusto (on home ground he was a great performer, with much swinging of arms, and a multitude of toasts and quips to put between songs to build up the atmosphere before being ‘persuaded to sing another’). Howson was walking around with his recording machine but at the end of the evening revealed that he hadn’t actually recorded anything!! Perhaps conditions hadn't been perfect for recording but, so what, Henry deserved better than that! And now it is too late.
Spending time with travellers can be rewarding, frustrating, exhilarating, boring, but seldom dull. Singing with them, at a good session, has been, in days gone by, the most rewarding and vital singing experience I have ever had. What a contrast to the effete plinkle-plunkle of folkies, or the middle class bonhomie of drunken Morris dancers, that passes as English folk music elsewhere! Unfortunately, at this time, in 2003, on the Cambridge/Essex border where I now live, the old songs are now a distant memory in the older travellers' heads. Whilst travellers young and old still like to sing and I can still visit their pubs and be warmly appreciated singing Twenty One Years or A Cold Day in December or The Song of the Thrush I no longer expect to hear an old song in return. The collective cultural vitality has been diluted. Could the draining of their musical inheritance have been slowed down, or even reversed? Over the years a number of gorgios have collected from travellers How many of them, I wonder, collected the songs like chloroformed butterflies pinned to a board? How many were interested enough in their informants to give them copies of their tapes? Tapes from which, perhaps, one day, a descendant might decide to learn one of their family's old songs. Unlikely perhaps but if the tapes are not there, impossible.
As I was leaving the Horsmonden horse fair one year a fierce-looking traveller called me over and I confess that I wondered if I'd inadvertently upset him and was going to be roughed up. But no. "I loved your singing boy. My old dad sang those songs." He turned out to be a cousin of Henry's, the eldest son of Nelson Ridley who had been recorded by Ewan MacColl. At his urging I later visited him in his two trailers surrounded by the depressing low cost housing that is Thamesmead. God what a dump! Although he didn't sing himself he organised a session in the local lager bar with some Irish travellers who sang. It turned out that he had an old reel-to-reel tape, which neither of us had the means to play, of his father singing and I guess that that was from MacColl (although the name meant nothing to him).
Others seem to have been less concerned. I gave my copy of the Topic LP Travellers that Yates produced (it had the picture of Lemmie Brazil on the cover) to the late Eli Frankham whose aunt, Alice Penfold, had a track or two on it. Eli loved a good old singsong (though his only good version of an old song was the Barleymow) and he used to invite me to the AGM's of his Romani Rights Union to ensure there were a few songs afterwards. Eli's grandfather, together with some other travellers, had been recorded near Petersfield by Gardiner in 1908 (see The Ups and Downs in Marrow Bones p.97). I made him copies of the other travellers songs and, after consulting with his family, he was able to identify who they all were and how they fitted into the family.
Albert Brazil claimed that Lemmie's melodeon still existed in a family trailer and mentioned that he had been recorded in the berryfields of Blair when he was nine. Eventually I obtained a copy of the recording from Hamish Henderson (some of the Brazil family contribution were put out on a tape by Peter Kennedy). Albert, who was the youngest child, would only 'tell' the songs when he was a child and he was just the same when I knew him. He could 'tell' you the best part of The Folkestown Murder and other songs, but would never sing. When I first received the tape Albert sat in my car whilst I played it for him, and tears streamed down his face when he heard his late father sing.
Nancy Webb, a member of the Blairgowrie Stewart family now married to an English traveller, sang a few of her family's songs (plus a haunting version of Poor Leonard) but was unaware that all the songs appeared in a book (by MacColl). I photocopied them for her before she left the Cambridgeshire area and I'm sure that if you met her now, a few more of her family songs will have been added to her repertoire.
To me, who has felt it a privilege to have been able to sing with various travellers, it is important that material collected from them is returned to their community. If only one young traveller picks up an old song and has the courage to put it back before his community (and not at gorgio folk-festivals!) it would have been worth it! Are the special teachers who oversee schools with large traveller intakes aware of this material, I wonder, and is use made of it?
David Stacey - 2.6.03
John Howson remembers the occasion very differently: 'Katie and I were invited by David Stacey to meet Henry Ridley for a lunch time session in a pub in Kent. I was asked to take a DAT machine to record some of his songs. We stayed for the whole lunchtime in a virtually empty pub and Henry Ridley didn't turn up.
I don't know who David is thinking about but it certainly wasn't me who was walking around the pub with a tape recorder. We only made one visit to the pub and we never met Henry Ridley.'
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