Harry Cox

What Will Become of England?

Rounder 1839

What Will Become of England? / My Life (talk) / A-Going to Widdliecombe Fair / Working on a Gang (talk) / The Spotted Cow / Barton Waltz (melodeon) / The Harvest (talk) / The Barley Straw / The Farmer's Servant / The Pretty Ploughboy (fiddle) / My Grandfather and my Father (talk) / Jack Tar on Shore / Two Hornpipes: Yarmouth & Meg Merilees (fiddle) / On Board of the Kangaroo / Young and Growing / My Mother (talk) / My Upbringing (talk) / The Foggy Dew / Hunger and Pay (talk) / Three Toasts / Nelson's Monument / I Used to go along with him (talk) / Barton Broad Babbing Ballad / Babbing for Eels (talk) / Talk and Melodeon Tunes / Singing in Public Houses (talk) / Charming and Delightful / The Old Song (talk) / On Yon Lofty Mountain / Learning from my Father (talk) / She Never had Time to Sit Down (talk) / The Turkish Lady / Poaching (talk) / Henry the Poacher / Windy Old Weather / My Father at Sea (talk) / Sweet William / How my Father learned Songs (talk) / The Yarmouth Fishermen's Song / The Crocodile / The Soldier and Sailor's Prayer / London is as Sharp as the Edge of a Knife / Up to the Rigs of London Town / Up to the present I ain't forgot anything yet (talk) / Blackberry Fold / Adieu to Old Eng-e-land, Here's Adieu.
In 1906, three years after he had collected his first folksong, Cecil Sharp suggested that Gustav Holst, then a young composer, might like to orchestrate some of the tunes that Sharp had been collecting.  The following year Holst produced his Somerset Rhapsody, a short piece based around four folksongs, The Sheepshearing Song, High Germany, The True Lover's Farewell and The Cuckoo.  Soon, other composers began to follow suit.  George Butterworth, who died young in 1916, arranged some of the tunes that he had himself collected as The Banks of Green Willow, which he described as 'an idyll for small orchestra'.  It was first performed in public in 1914, just prior to the outbreak of war.  Another composer friend of Cecil Sharp was Ralph Vaughan Williams who was likewise inspired by Sharp.  He too went out into the countryside, notebook in hand, to seek out folksingers who might provide him with melodies that he could use in his orchestral works.  One of the outstanding pieces that came from such forays is the wonderful set of variations based on the theme of Dives and Lazarus.  When Vaughan Williams was later asked to provide a ballet for children - under the title Old King Cole he returned to the Dives and Lazarus tune, using it as a stately processional for the arrival of the King.  It was in this work, incidentally, that Vaughan Williams allowed the 'fiddlers three' to each perform a folktune for the benefit of the King.  The tunes had been previously collected by Vaughan Williams as Go and 'List for a Sailor, The Bold Young Farmer and The Jolly Thresherman.

In 1921, the Norfolk-born composer Ernest John Moeran produced his String Quartet in A minor, a piece of music that is rich in modal implications and pentatonic melodic outlines.  It is not simply an arrangement of English folksong melodies, but, like the earlier Quartet in E flat major, is an inspirational work imbued with the spirit of the folkmusic that Moeran had been hearing about him in the village pubs and cottages of his native county.  In October, 1921, Moeran visited Potter Heigham, where he noted songs from a number of singers, including the 36 year old Harry Cox.  Three months later Moeran returned to Harry's village to note further songs, some of which were printed in the 1923 edition of the Journal of the Folk Song Society.  Three of Harry's songs, The Captain 's Apprentice, Down by the Riverside and In Burnham Town were included in the Journal.

Today, people like Ernest John Moeran are often dismissed as exploiters of folkmusic; people who took what they wanted, often at the expense of their singing informants.  In Moeran's case this is, I think, a grave disservice.  In the early 1930's, when the Folk Song Society amalgamated with the English Folk Dance Society to form the English Folk Dance and Song Society, it was said that there were no more folksongs to be collected.  The work begun by Cecil Sharp had, by that time, been completed; therefore there was no need for anyone else to go out looking for songs.  The newly formed EFDSS became a dance-led organisation and folksong was more or less relegated to the second, if not the third, division.  Moeran, however, did not go along with this view.  In 1934 he arranged for Harry Cox to visit the recording studios of the Decca Gramophone Company in London.  There, Harry recorded two unaccompanied songs, The Bold Fisherman and The Pretty Ploughboy, which were issued on a 78 disc.  These recordings are currently available on two Topic CDs (TSCD 651 and 652).  In December, 1945, Moeran persuaded the BBC to send a recording unit to The Windmill public house in Sutton, where Harry then drank, to record Harry and some of his contemporaries.  Two recording from these sessions, Just as the Tide was Flowing and The Bold Princess Royal, have also been reissued on a Topic CD (TSCD 662).  Ernest John Moeran died in 1950, just as the BBC was beginning to send collectors around the country in search of folkmusic for their As I Roved Out program.  One collector, Peter Kennedy, quickly followed in Moeran's footsteps and in October, November and December, 1953, recorded the bulk of the material that has now been issued on this CD What Will Become of England?  The rest of the material was recorded, also in 1953, by Alan Lomax when Harry paid his second visit to London.

Harry Cox's relationship with Moeran is well documented.  So it comes as a surprise to find Kennedy prefacing his booklet notes with the opening statement that Moeran discovered Harry Cox in 1945, a quarter of a century after he had, in fact, been discovered.  Perhaps we could excuse such an oversight had Harry Cox been only a minor singer, but this is not the case.  Harry Cox was one of the most important traditional English singers to have been discovered by collectors.  It is now thirty years since Harry died and we are still without a full biography of the man.  If we are to try to understand who Harry was, and if we are ever to discover what it was that made him such a magnificent singer, then we cannot afford to treat him in such a casual manner.  Harry's performances on these recordings are truly outstanding.  The songs are interspersed with a considerable amount of recorded dialogue, where Harry talks at length about his life and about his feelings towards his songs.  If anything, this is the closest that we yet have to a biography, and it goes go a long way to helping us come to an understanding of Harry the man and Harry the singer.  But, as I shall later explain, I am also left with a feeling of unease about Peter Kennedy's approach to the production of this album.

Harry Cox was born at Barton Turf in Norfolk in 1885 and, from an early age, earned his living working on the land.  When he was young, his parents were unable to afford oil for houselamps, and much of his entertainment was home-made.  Harry recalled that his mother would sometimes sing long ballads by the fireside.  Occasionally somebody would play a music (melodeon).  'We had to cheer ourselves up.  That was all the frolic we had', is how Harry put it.  Harry learnt songs from both his father and grandfather, and, no doubt, from some of the many singers who also sang in The Windmill.  (Kennedy mentions the names of Elijah Bell, Charlie Chettleburgh, Walter Gales, Billy Miller and Jack Risborough).  While still under-aged, Harry would accompany his father to pub singsongs and it soon became natural for him to sing at such gatherings.  It is, I think, interesting to note that Harry did not marry until he was 40 years old, and I am reminded of Walter Pardon, that other great Norfolk singer, who was never married.  Did this freedom from early marital responsibility afford Harry the chance to indulge in his fondness for singing and hearing songs, just as it did Walter? Harry was only born some twelve miles from Walter' s home, although the two never met.  Nevertheless, listening to Harry's conversations on this CD brought home to me not only how similar they sounded, Cover picturebut also how they seemed to share the same attitudes to singing and life in general.  At times it was almost impossible to believe that it was Harry, and not Walter, who was talking.

What Will Become of England? contains twenty-four songs, five melodeon tunes, three fiddle tunes and three toasts - like Alan Lomax, I especially like the one that goes 'Here 's luck to the bee that stung Adam 's ass / And set the world a-joggin' - and the whole is interspersed with talk about Harry's life.  Many of the conversational recordings were made by Alan Lomax, who clearly liked Harry, and who was able to coax some wonderful anecdotes onto tape.

Of the songs, six are in fragmentary form.  These are On Board of the Kangaroo, Young and Growing (The Bonny Boy), On Yon Lofty Mountain, Charming and Delightful, The Turkish Lady and London is as Sharp as the Edge of a Knife.  In the case of Young and Growing and Charming and Delightful Harry did know more, but, for reasons best known to himself, Peter Kennedy has omitted some verses from the CD.  He has also done the same with The Spotted Cow, Windy Old Weather, The Soldier and Sailor's Prayer and Adieu to Old England, Here's Adieu.  Presumably Kennedy believes that in doing so he allows the listener to hear additional songs or tunes.  It is a technique that he has used since the issue of the 'England' album in the Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music series of LPs.  (Now reissued as Rounder CD 1741).  With the issue of the Caedmon series of albums Folk Songs of the British Isles in the 1960's this form of song mutilation became almost the norm.  The Caedmon series is now being reissued, in slightly repackaged form, on a set of Rounder CDs.  At the moment there are three CDs available, Songs of Seduction (Rounder CD 1778) and of Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland Vols 1 & 2 (Rounder 1775 & 76).

If anything, the results are even worse than they were on the Caedmon LPs.  Along with the omitted verses, we also have Kennedy' s technique of splicing several singers together on the same track.  Of the fifty-one ballads featured on the two ballad CDs, no less than fourteen are compilations of two or more singers.  Take just one example.  In The Twa Sisters (Child 10) we find John Strachan of Aberdeenshire singing alongside two singers from Orkney.  Each verse is sung in turn - to a different tune - by a different singer, with the result that by the end of the song the listener is left totally confused.  It is sad to note that Harry Cox is similarly treated on two of the other ballad tracks, The Gypsy Laddie (Child 200) and The Cuckold's Song (Child 274), although he is the sole singer for the ballad Georgie (Child 209) which, almost as expected, is minus two verses.

Almost one hundred years ago we had Cecil Sharp and other members of the Folk Song Society noting tunes with only one verse.  In most cases the singers knew further verses, but these were not considered sufficiently important to note.  At least Sharp was able to justify his approach by saying that he was, after all, a musician who was chiefly interested in folktunes.  But the same cannot be said of Peter Kennedy.

We have known for a long time that both text and tune are of equal importance, and that the performance itself, in its entirety, cannot be divorced from text and tune.  I know that I am not the first person to criticise Peter Kennedy for taking this approach in the presentation of traditional folk music - I seem to remember Karl Dallas taking a similar line when Topic Records reissued the Caedmon series on a set of English LPs.  What I had hoped was that Kennedy would have listened to his past critics and realised that there were alternate means available when editing this material.  Surely collectors have responsibilities to their informants, and to the feelings of their informants.  Did Harry Cox, John Strachan and all those other singers give so freely of their time in the belief that they would be treated so badly?  Or did they think that collectors would show respect for the material that they were so keen to gather?  Either way, this is not the manner in which they and their material should be treated.

Having said all this, there are actually some stunning songs and performances on the CD.  Both The Barley Straw and The Farmer's Servant are songs that Rev Baring-Gould deemed unfit to print in their original forms.  They are the sort of thing that Harry loved to sing, although they are mild in comparison to four of Harry's other songs - three of which are thankfully complete - that can be heard on the CD Songs of Seduction.  These are The Long Peggin' Awl, The Knife in the Window, The Maid of Australia and Firelock Stile.  Nelson's Monument, a song concerning the death of Nelson, is set to a fine tune and it is good to note Harry's comment that the tune and text 'hung well together'.  Henry the Poacher, another stunning performance, is similar to sets collected from Walter Pardon and Frank Hinchliffe, whilst Blackberry Fold is also similar to versions sung by Walter Pardon and George Spicer.  I especially like Alan Lomax's comment heard at the completion of Blackberry Fold.  "Well, I'll be damned, what a wonderful ballad! ...   They don't get any better than that."

There must be some reason why some songs turn up repeatedly to the same tunes and with very similar sets of words, while others are always different.  Perhaps the first group of songs were, at one time, extremely popular and widespread and, as such, became quickly fixed in the Common imagination, whereas the latter group may never have been widely known, with the result that singers, unable to remember the words and/or tunes, may have unknowingly made greater alterations, there being no 'standard' version available to act as a form of control.

Harry's farther spent much of his life away from home working at sea, and so it comes as little surprise to know that Harry had a large number of nautical songs in his repertoire.  Included on this CD are Jack Tar on Shore, On Board of the Kangaroo, Windy Old Weather, Sweet William, The Yarmouth Fishermen's Song and The Crocodile.  The Yarmouth Fishermen's Song, which Harry thought had been written by one of his father's shipmates, is a local song which seems to incorporate lines from a number of other songs.  The opening verse owes much to The Bold Princess Royal:

On the fourteenth of November from Yarmouth we set sail,
The wind being east-north-east, my boys, with a sweet and pleasant gale,
Until it did blow hard, and the sea rolled mountains-high,
And at night when we did shoot, my boys, how dismal looked the sky.
Peter Kennedy's booklet notes are, at times, badly researched and out-of-date.  Percy Grainger, for example, was not the only collector to use the Edison Bell cylinder recording machine.  Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharp and others also made attempts to record some of their singers, although none was as successful as Grainger.  In the notes to the song The Foggy Dew Kennedy again trots out some of the ideas that have been knocked on the head by researchers such as Bob Thomson and Gershom Legman.  Believe it or not, the song really is about a young man who frightens his girlfriend into bed by getting a friend to dress up as a ghost - the Bugerboo.  The song fragment On Yon Lofty Mountain, which Kennedy says he is unable to trace, is, of course, a verse from the well-known song The Streams of Lovely Nancy, a version of which Bob Copper recorded in Hampshire whilst working alongside Kennedy at the BBC.  (See Topic CD TSCD 652 The Streams of Lovely Nancy sung by Turp Brown).

Despite all its drawbacks, this CD is an essential document.  The songs and speech of Harry Cox form the backbone for the whole of the English folk music revival of the last fifty years.  Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy deserve praise for making the recording in the first place.  Sadly though, for the reasons outlined above, this is not the album that it should have been.

Michael Yates - 23.3.00

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