English Customs and Traditions

Various performers

Saydisc CD-SDL 425

In 1983, Saydisc issued an LP cumbersomely titled All Around England and Back Again which received savage reviews from Steve Roud in MT and Derek Schofield in Folk Roots.  Roud felt that "The best thing about this record is that it heralds the start of a series which Saydisc plan to produce over the coming years 'drawing upon the outstanding examples of our local traditions' ", but went on to say that this first record was hardly an auspicious start.  Fourteen years later, it would seem that the task was beyond them - going through their glossy, full colour 1997 catalogue I can find nothing which appears to be a continuation of this series.

Knowing the Saydisc product, and the market at which it is aimed, it comes as no real surprise that this should be so - nor that the company has seen fit to reissue this 'sampler of nothing' as a CD.  What is surprising is that they should have sent copies to both MT and Folk Roots without having changed many of the things which received such adverse criticism last time.  Since the reviews obviously meant so little to them, one wonders why they continue to crank out the review copies, particularly to journals which don't really address their intended audience anyway.

I received the Folk Roots copy first and gave it a brief, unfavourable review.  A few days later, Keith Summers asked me if I'd like to review it for MT.  I declined, feeling that it wasn't really worth the space.  Two weeks later I received a copy direct from Saydisc, together with a note saying that it was being sent to me "at the suggestion of Peter Kennedy".  Clearly, they want it reviewed!  OK, here goes ...

This CD is made up of Peter Kennedy's recordings from the 1950s and is essentially a re-release of the above mentioned vinyl offering.  The booklet notes are by Kennedy himself.  For some reason, the Barrow-on-Humber Plough play and the Easter Jolly Boys have been removed, and their place taken by Headington Quarry Morris, Symondsbury Mummers and a further seven songs, apparently with some sort of 'calendar' connection. Not wishing to be unfair, I will only deal with a few of the customs I am familiar with.

The 5 minute Headington Quarry Morris section has William Kimber playing seven tunes, once or twice through.   That's it - not a jingle of a bell is to be heard!   The notes say nothing at all about the tradition, the dancers or the dance - concentrating instead on the well worn story of the Sharp/Kimber meeting.  Is this really still considered relevent?

Bampton Morris's similar length section contains just 72 seconds of audible music; the rest being heard as faint background to comments by Albert Townsend and William Brooks, and to Billy Wells' recitation of his poem The Fool, which takes up most of the track (and which is, needless to say, of primary importance to the Bampton tradition - in the Jubilee they talk of little else!)  The track listing indicates that the music is by fiddler Bertie Clark but, upon inspection, the notes reveal that two of the tunes are played, not by Clark, or Wells, but by Helen and Peter Kennedy!  In fact, the information that the wittle and dub upon which Helen Kennedy plays Go and Enlist were given to her by Billy Wells is actually vouchsafed twice (just in case we don't realise how vital and relevent this is).  And I don't think Bampton will be too happy to read that they are "... the only village in the Cotswolds with an almost unbroken Morris dance tradition".  Might not Chipping Camden, or even Abingdon make similar claims?  Camden, what is more, is actually in the Cotswolds.

The Padstow Hobby Horse ritual gets almost eight minutes but, of that, only about 48 seconds appears to be of the song itself.  Charlie Bate plays the tune through a couple of times on his 'old accordion' (what patronising rubbish - are we to suppose that he had a 'new' one too?) and talks briefly about the custom - as do four unnamed 'others', one of whom recites three verses of the night song, which are presented in the notes as if they were part of the day song.  The extraordinary observation in the notes that "At intervals the horse chases a young lady under the skirt of the horse for a few minutes of the dance" is repeated, despite Roud's calling attention to it (and to "the Teaser's phallic club") in 1983.

The Abbots Bromley section still begins with Helen Kennedy (again) playing 'The Old Tune', which still has no definite connection with the tradition - and is thus still misleading.

Of the individual songs, two are carols without any particular custom connection at all, other than a supposed association with Christmas, since the word appears in each of them.  We also get Dives and Lazarus and The Bitter Withy - what customs are these connected with, I wonder?  Certainly, the notes make no mention of any.  And do we really need to be told that the latter reminds Kennedy of The Jew's Garden, or is this just an oportunity to repeat some anti-Jewish and anti-Gipsy slanders?  The Gower Wassail song clearly has ritual connections - but are these retained when it is sung, not by a local like Phil Tanner, but by an unconnected Cornishman, Charlie Bate?

One of Derek Schofield's objections to the original LP was that the recordings were all 25 to 30 years out of date, yet the notes rather obscured this fact.  This time the recording dates have been included, yet the notes remain oddly anachronistic.  The introduction appears to place itself in the '90s, yet of the text describing the customs as they were in the '50s, little has been consistently amended.  Thus, in the Castleton section we find that "Until 1957 when this recording was made, the other horse rider, also a man, was known as 'The Woman', but this man-woman part is now taken by a decorative 'Beauty Queen', on this recording riding side saddle on her own horse".  This would have made no sense, even if he had got 'The Lady' right.

The booklet notes remain, to quote Steve Roud "... a prime example of pastiche-writing to create a desired effect.  In this case, to link distinct customs and traditions in such a way as to create the idea of common origin and purpose, mysterious 'ancientness' and Merrie England coziness.  ... it doesn't matter because ... the general public has been fed for so long on such fakelore that it is all they expect."  The booklet is still "riddled with assumptions, misleading comments and inaccuracies".

While I fully realise that this CD is squarely aimed at the 'Heritage' market, and at a Joe Public who will be completely ignorant of what it purports to represent, I would have hoped that a supposedly reputable company like Saydisc, and a researcher like Kennedy, could have come up with a 'product' with considerably more integrity.  Still, I'm sure Traditions magazine will like it.

Rod Stradling - 18.8.97

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