When I was researching material for my biography of the Swindon born left-wing writer Ralph Bates I spoke to Ted Poole, the founder of the Swindon Folk Singer's Club, who had been a friend of Ralph's brother, Leslie 'Les' Alfred Bates. Les Bates had been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain but, unlike Ralph Bates, had remained in Swindon, where he worked for the AEU. On one occasion Les told Ted Poole that, as a young man, Ralph Bates had gone to Montana, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, often known as the 'Wobblies'). There Ralph worked organising a union in the copper mines, but a comrade was murdered by the mine bosses and Ralph was told to leave, otherwise he would be thrown down a mine shaft (personal communication, 22.12.13). So Ralph Bates decided to leave Montana and made his way to New York, where he became a Professor of English Literature at New York University.
This story, believed to be 'true' by Les Bates is, in fact, only partially true. In 1930 Ralph Bates left Swindon and went to Spain, not America. Ralph worked in the Barcelona docks and, at one point, organised a union in a fish-canning factory. He never worked as a union organiser in Montana. In 1939, following the Republican defeat by Franco, Ralph Bates travelled to Mexico before settling in New York. In 1946 he became Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing and English Literature at New York University.
So, what was going on here? The part of the story about settling in New York and becoming a Professor is correct, although this happened a good few years after his union activity in Barcelona. But how did working in a fish-canning factory in Barcelona become changed into union activity in Montana?
I can only think of one possibility. Was this part of the tale based on the story of IWW member, and political song-writer, Joe Hill (1879 - 1915), who was executed in Utah on a trumped-up murder charge? A song, Joe Hill (which begins with the lines I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night/Alive as you and me/Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead"/I never died says he, I never died says he), became extremely popular within British left-wing groups from the 1940s onward. Had Les Bates, or even Ted Poole for that matter, mixed the stories and ended up believing that it was Ralph Bates who had been the threatened union organiser in Montana? We may never know. But I do know that this story shows just how easy it is for 'history' to change, once it is passed orally from person to person.
Mike Yates - 2.12.14
It was fascinating to read the Enthusiasm by Ian Olson and the letter by Mike Yates on the supposed inaccuracy in the telling of The Battle of Harlaw, particularly that the 'late eighteenth century fake' was an attempt to rewrite history.
You and I, Rod, will have heard Belle Stewart singing The Bonnie Hoose o' Airlie quite a number of times during our visits to Blairgowrie. The ballad starts:
Vic Smith - 14.11.14
More interestingly, though, is Ian's comment that the ballad sung by both Jeannie and Stanley Robertson was 'a fake', one perpetrated in the 18th century to celebrate two members of the Forbes family, 'who were not recorded as being at the battle', because the family were in need of some positive propaganda after supporting 'the wrong side of the 1745-6 Jacobite rebellion'. This sounds rather like passages of the Old Testament, where we find non-existent events (Moses and the flight from Egypt, the wandering in the desert, and the final conquest of the Promised Land, for example) being later invented in order to support Jewish claims to the land of Israel. It is the sort of thing that has been going on for a long, long time. Another example, told to me by a Professor of Anthropology at Manchester University, involved lengthy family genealogies that he once researched in Tunisia. The first two or three generations were probably accurate, the rest were made up in an attempt to claim supposed long-held water rights.
If Ian is right, and I am sure that he is, then this ballad is indeed a 'fake', in that it is one which distorts, or tries to distort, history for the benefit of later, generations. But, the ballad then entered 'the tradition', either orally or else via the broadside and chapbook press, and it is likely that it would have been further distorted as it passed from singer to singer. I remember Edith Fowke being delighted when she told me of collecting a song about Sir Charles Napier (1782 - 1853) from the singer Marcelle McMahon, who called him 'Sir Charles Lapier'.
So, where does this leave us in respect to Jeannie and Stanley? Were they wrong to sing this ballad? Of course not. Did they believe that the ballad's story was factually incorrect? Probably not. If anything, I would say that Stanley was quite proud of his ability to tell what he believed was the history of the battlefield that we visited that day. And why not? He was, after all, a member of a group of people who had been marginalized in Scotland for far too long. A group, I might add, that had remembered so much that had been lost by other Scots. And I, for one, am more than happy to recall that day with Stanley and to remember his singing of his ballad. Scholars might call it a 'fake', but in doing so they are using their brains, and not their hearts.
Mike Yates - 11.11.14
The group appeared on programme 32 of the London Folk Song Cellar in the 1960s. Links are here:
This is what we have to date:
1/ Wish I was in Bowling Green sittin' on a chair
With one arm round the whiskey jug
And the other round my dear
The other round my dear ...
Oh ... dear old Bowling Green
2/ Wish I was a bumble bee flying through the air
Touch her if you dare
Touch her if you dare ...
Oh ... dear old Bowling Green
3/ If you see that ???? of mine
Tell her its from me
That if she loves another man
I will set her free
I will set her free... Bowling Green
Oh.... dear old Bowling Green
4/ If you love me ???? put your hand in mine
5/ Wish I was in Bowling Green sittin' on a chair
With one arm round the whiskey jug and the other round my dear
The other round my dear... Bowling Green
Oh.... dear old Bowling Green
Dear old Bowling Green.
Chris Brady - 22.9.14
Ted Boyd was from Endicott, VA., a place that Cecil Sharp visited when he was looking for singers. He played both fiddle and banjo and can be heard playing Sweet Sunny South, Mississippi Sawyer, Sally Gooden and John Hardy on volume 1 of Far in the Mountains, and Pig in the Pen on volume 5. I returned to see Ted some 11 months after making these recordings. Sadly, in the intervening months Ted had suffered a stroke and was no longer able to play any instruments. The photograph of Ted was taken in the parking lot during that year's Galax Fiddle Festival.
Charlie Woods, a tobacco farmer, who also played fiddle and banjo, was from Hogpatch Hill, nr. Rocky Mount, VA., and was the first person that I recorded in the mountains. Charlie can be heard playing Cripple Creek & Shooting Creek, Chilly Winds, Hog Patch Hill and Pretty Girl Down the Road on volume 1, and Cindy, Eighth of January/Green Mountain Polka and Walking in the Parlour on volume 5.
Robert L Tate, lived up the mountain above Dan Tate's house (they were distantly related) at Piper's Gap, VA. I met him one afternoon as I was taking a walk along a dusty mountain road. He stopped his pickup truck to ask if I was lost. We got talking and he said that he could play a few banjo tunes if I was interested. He drove me back to where I was staying, to pick up the recording gear, before we went to his home to make the recordings. I asked him if he knew any "old tunes" and he rattled off Sally Ann, Old Molly Hare and Baby-O without stopping between each tune. These can be heard on volume 5, along with Down by the Stillhouse and the song The Lawson Family Murder. Two other tunes, Fortune and Piper's Gap (actually a version of Cleveland's March) can be heard on volume 2.
Mike Yates - 1.9.14
I'm hugely grateful for your invaluable publication and wish it long life in every way. In particular I'm grateful to your many thoughtful reviewers and the attention they give to traditional music, its makers, and its interpreters. This morning I specifically refer to Chris Smith's hugely generous review of The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience.
I couldn't ask for more and I'm grateful to him. However, there were a couple points he raised where we differed. Chris suggested I write in with some clarifications.
One is that I was aware of Joseph Spence's recording of Ain't No Grave, but in revising the book, originally 900 pages down to its present 504 (!), I dropped its mention as it no longer bore immediate relevance to that chapter's discussion. Also, years ago I received from Chris himself a copy of Bill Greensmith's Blues and Rhythm article on the Parchman prison bands. While aware of it, I didn't draw from it for the purposes of my chapter. So it didn't enter into an endnote, or the works cited list, which, as readers here all know, substantively differ from more inclusive bibliographies. Anyway, I'm glad Chris mentioned that good article and I commend it to everyone's attention.
I guess the biggest difference we have centers on how to approach The Unfortunate Rake. Is it one song or many? Chris's position raises a significant point, one that folksong historians have long grappled: the question of underlying identity. I think, as do so many others, and I imagine Chris himself feels this way: that performances point the way. Surely, Louis Armstrong's St James Infirmary Blues gives us a different song than Dick Devall's wrangler in Tom Sherman's Barroom. We can hear in their singing so much more musical history than texts alone can provide.
Yet in this piece we find repeatedly (even in its parodies) more than just a borrowed line here or there. We find an instantly recognizable, extended pattern embodied in the funeral march. What's so astonishing is how this core of poetic imagery has maintained its coherence across so many settings and styles, let alone its travels from the Old World to the New. For this reason, I approached Texas Gladden's performance as a retelling of the Anglo-Irish broadside, one that has achieved abiding life in so many ways. In the book I describe it as a kind of public property, a created work whose artistic responsibility many have borne.
Many thanks to Musical Traditions and to Chris Smith.
Stephen Wade - 21.7.14
Recently Malcolm Taylor, the EFDSS Librarian, who is sadly soon to leave that post, sent me an email asking if I would have a look at a dozen songs that were in the Harry Hurlbutt Albino manuscript collection, which is housed at Cecil Sharp House. All the songs are in a single, folded document and on the first page, by the title for the song To Mow Down My Meadows is the note, apparently written in Albino's hand, which seems to read 'From G. Still's collection'. When the Albino collection was first indexed in the 1970s the name was certainly transcribed as 'G. Still'. This is the only reference to this collector, but, as the twelve songs are all housed together, it seems likely that they were all collected by 'G. Still'.
It should be added that none of the songs is accompanied by details of the singers, including their names, or of the place(s) where they were collected.
The name 'G. Still' is a mystery, as this seems to be the only time that a collector with this name has ever been seen. Albino (1889 – 1957) lived in Gloucestershire, variously in Bourton-On-The-Water, Lower Slaughter and Moreton in Marsh, and collected songs in the Cotswolds during the period 1913 – 1938. So was the unknown Mr/Ms Still also from this part of the world? Or, if not, was he or she from a neighbouring county? I ask, because when I examined the name 'G. Still' it seemed quite possible that it was not 'Still' at all, but that it was, in fact 'Hill' and the obvious 'G. Hill' is, of course, the Wiltshire vicar turned song-collector Geoffry Hill (1846 – 1925) of East and West Harnham, near Salisbury.
The twelve songs are:
There is one other factor which may, or may not be, be relevant. Looking at the texts we can see that occasionally, as in the Vocal Dance, we find words being written down with a west-country 'z' - as in 'zeee' instead of 'see', or 'zing'instead of 'sing' - and the 'z' sound was certainly once used in Wiltshire, the Reverend Hill's home county, though, to be fair, this sound could also be found in other west-country regions. (Nor should we forget that some Music Hall singers sang 'rustic' songs with the 'z' sound when performing all over the country. I suspect that many such pieces would have been composed, initially, in London.)
So, are these twelve pieces originally from the Reverend Hill's collection, or was there really another collector called 'G. Still'?
Mike Yates - 17.6.14
Moving away from my personal rustic idyll and veering towards scholarly research, we may observe that some of these songs, including several - such as Napoleon's Dream - in more complete versions than the broadcasts allowed and others not broadcast at all, were issued on a vinyl album by Topic in 1974 (12T244). The originals of these recordings by Philip Donnellan, who also makes a damn fine job (not in the least patronising) on the four programmes of linking the songs together, are (we learn from the vinyl notes) housed in the sound archives of the BBC and the opportunity for a potential future CD release presents itself.
Larner's narrative includes one of the best descriptions of oral transmission and cultural absorption I have heard. Some of his stories about being out on the rolling sea (to reference Joseph Spence) are both poignant and moving. He recalls winning a competition in Lerwick Town Hall in 1907 by singing and stepping to the American song Young Bob Ridley-O. When in Lerwick for Up Helly'a in January 1978 I spent all night following the galley burning spectacle in that very same Town Hall and a mighty impressive building it was too. I can't help but think of the physical polarity of coming off a cramped trawler into that cavernous expanse. My favourite of Larner's comments heard here is, "You can put that in your pipe and tell 'em they en't 'eard that on the wireless." A man who was fully aware of the special character both of his skills and his repertory.
There was also a Folkways album (FG 3507) issued in 1961, which contained recordings made by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger. The booklet gives a list of a further forty-eight songs which they recorded from him but were not included there. Given that Peggy Seeger was gracious enough to allow some of their recordings of Caroline Hughes to be issued on the MT label recently perhaps we might see a future Larner release from the same stable. Certainly it's long overdue.
Keith Chandler - 13.4.14
And as you read this, your Editor is striving to make this idea a reality - Ed.
Wonderful that the anonymous Critics Group member has made available the four parts of the radio broadcast featuring Sam Larner (see Latest News). I wish I had been aware of its existence when writing the recent article about Sam and the singing in Winterton. Coincidentally, John Halliday located the first two parts of the broadcast on Youtube the other day. The programme was Sweet Lives and Lawless Billows and it was broadcast on the Midland Home Service in 1967. The recordings of Sam seem to be the ones made by Donnellan in 1957 and 1958, ie the ones from which the Topic Records selection was made. These in fact seem to have been the only recordings Donnellan made of Sam.
Of associated interest, and also courtesy John Halliday's discovery, the Philip Donnellan film version of the Singing the Fishing radio ballad is available to watch on Youtube in five parts. It is perhaps about time that Donnellan's work, on radio and with film, gained the recognition it deserves.
All the best,
Chris Holderness - 26.2.14
When you and I produced the CD Bill Smith: A Country Life a couple of years back, this was one song that conspicuously lacked background information. I've been searching for more information about it for years. I've recently been given the loan of an archive of music hall songs (from Buckles and Beaux, a local but sadly defunct music hall society) and found it bound into a collection of sheet music.
Interesting that Bill should have known such a complete version of such an obscure song. Below is a comparison of the lyrics that Bill sang alongside the original words, an interesting study in itself of the 'folk process' in action.
The Camera Boy
Sung by Bill Smith
Now Johnny Biggs was the pet of dogs, he was the pet of Pall Mall
Now Johnny walked down a country road, he gave his hat a twist
Now Johnny went to a football match a ladies football team
Now Johnny went to the seaside-oh a quiet little spot
Up Came Johnny with his Camera
Words Albert Hall & Felix McGlennon, Music Orlando Powell
Johnny Briggs was an artful youth, the pride of Ma and Pa
Johnny rambled down a country lane and gave his hat a twist
Johnny went to the football match the ladies’ football team
Johnny rambled by the seaside – t’was a quiet little spot
Andrew Smith - 26.2.14
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