Sam Larner

Cruising Round Yarmouth
The 1958 - 1960 Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger recordings

Musical Traditions double CD and booklet MTCD369-0

MTCD369: The Ghost Ship, When I Went a-Fishing, Maids When Youre Young, Before Daylight in the Morning, Rhymes and Sea Lore, The Maids of Australia, A Reckless Young Fellow, The Girls Around Cape Horn, The Wild Rover, The Oyster Girl, As I Lay a-Musing, A Sailor's Alphabet, Duckfoot Sue, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Sing to the Oak, No Sir, No Sir, Old Bob Ridley-O, When I was Single, The Golden Fenadier, The Wild and Wicked Youth, Now Is the Time for Fishing & talk, I Wish, I Wish, The Dockyard Gate, Green Broom, The Dolphin, The Old Miser, The Skipper and his Boy, Blackberry Fold, The Wreck of the Lifeboat, Outlandish Knight, The Tanyard side, Will Watch, Talk.
MTCD370: The Bold Princess Royal, The Captain's Whiskers, The Bonny Bunch of Roses, King William & talk, Happy and Delightful, The Chesapeake and Shannon, Coil Away the Trawl Warp, The Jolly Young Coachman, The Loss of the Ramillies, She Said she was a Virgin, Game of All Fours, The Wonderful Crocodile, Donnelly and Cooper, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Barbara Allan, Barney and Kitty, Green Grow the Laurels, The London Steamer, The Bold Young Fisherman, Windy Old Weather & talk, The Haymakers' Courtship, Henry Martin, Just as the Tide was Flowing, The Dogger Bank, Over There in Ireland, The Dark-Eyed Sailor, Butter and Cheese, Napoleon's Dream, Spurn Point, The Barley Straw, Bold General Wolfe, The White Squall, Scarborough Fair Town, Final talk.
I am sure that there are many people around who remember those lovely old Folkways LPs.  They came in thick cardboard covers, and they usually had a booklet which was crammed full of notes, pictures and transcriptions.  In 1961 they issued the album Now is the Time for Fishing.  Not only was this the first album ever issued of a solo English traditional singer, but it was also the first album where the singer also spoke and reminisced about his life, that is when he wasn't singing or else quoting sea rhymes.  As an album, it was a triumph and it certainly woke me up to the fact that there were traditional singers still alive and well and singing in England.

The singer, and raconteur, was, of course, Sam Larner (1878 – 1961) a retired fisherman from the village of Winterton on the Norfolk coast.  Sometime around 1960/61 the writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners (Sam and his wife Dorcas), in company with fiddler Alan Waller.

Sam had been born in Winterton and grew up among fishermen and singers.  He said that he knew the song The Bold Princess Royal before he went to school.  His father, known as 'Bredler', sang Butter and Cheese and All, while his uncle Jimmy would sing The Rambling Young Blade.  In 1915 the composer and song collector, E J Moeran, visited the village and collected five songs from James Sutton, who was known affectionately as 'Old Larpin'.  The songs were, The Pressgang, The Bold Richard, The Farmer's Son, The Wreck of the Royal Charter and The Captain's Apprentice.  Bob Green, another singer, was Sam's brother-in-Law and was best-known for his version of the song The Wild Rover.  As Bob's son, also called Bob, sang a number of songs that Sam Larner sang, it would seem likely that Sam also picked up some songs from Bob Green senior.

According to Chris Holderness:

And, the fishermen would also sing in the various ports which they visited.  On one occasion, in 1907, Sam was awarded first prize for singing Old Bob Ridley-O in a singing competition that was held in Lerwick, capital town of the Shetland Islands.

Chris Holderness again:

These comments come from the booklet which accompanies the double CD set Sam Larner: Cruising Round Yarmouth.  Chris Holderness has carried out some fascinating research into Sam Larner's life and his introduction is just about as good as it gets.  Not only that, but we also get a lovely studio portrait of James 'Old Larpin' Sutton.

Sam Larner was 'discovered' in a pub in 1956 by Phillip Donnellan, a BBC radio producer who was then making a series of radio documentaries about working people in Britain.  Donnellan recorded some twenty-five songs from Sam.  He also passed Sam's details to Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, who had just started work on the first of their radio-ballads, and the material heard on this double CD set comes from recordings made by Ewan and Peggy.  Nineteen of these song recordings, together with speech etc., were included on the Folkways LP, Now is the Time for Fishing, mentioned above.  And these songs are included on the double CD set.  But, we also get just about everything else that MacColl and Seeger recorded from Sam Larner, with the result that we can now see exactly why Sam Larner was considered to be such an important singer.

Whenever I think of Sam Larner I also bring to mind that other great Norfolk singer, Walter Pardon.  Why?  I don't think that Walter ever met Sam Larner, though he did listen to him on the radio and had possibly heard the Folkways album.  But, whenever Walter mentioned Sam, it was as though he did know him.  It was as though they were friends, and this, I think, not only came about because of their mutual love of songs and singing, but also, I think, because when you listen to Sam singing you can hear more than just the words and the tune.  Sam put himself into the songs.  Serious songs were treated with respect, while comic ones came with an underlying chuckle and a burst of laughter at the end! Remembering how he heard Sam Larner singing at London's Singer's Club, Martin Carthy said, 'Later I understood that that evening truly was a personal watershed, but immediately I knew that I had been privileged to have been in the presence of genuine greatness.'  Sam had ended the evening with one of the great songs, his version of the ballad Henry Martin, which he called The Lofty Tall Ship.  Martin Carthy again, 'What I heard back then as a terminally weird tune with apparently endless variations (in every single verse) was as exotic as anything I had ever heard and left my head spinning.'

Sam had a number of 'big' songs in his repertoire.  Alongside Henry Martin we find versions of The Cruel Ship's Carpenter, which Sam called The Ghost Ship and Appalachian singers call Pretty Polly, The Golden Vanity, which Sam called The Golden Fenadier, The Outlandish Knight and a stunning version of Barbara Allen.  He also, along with Henry Martin, The Ghost Ship and The Golden Fenadier, had many songs which were related to the sea.  Some, such as A Sailor's Alphabet, The Dockyard Gate, The Dolphin, The Skipper and His Boy, The Dark-Eyed Sailor, Coil Away the Trawl-Warp, Will Watch the Bold Smuggler, The Bold Princess Royal, The Loss of the Ramillies, Windy Old Weather, The Dogger Bank and Scarborough Fair Town are relatively well-known and have been collected on a number of occasions.  One song, however, appears to be unique to Sam, and this is The London Steamer.  The booklet notes tell us nothing about the events surrounding this tragedy, although the facts can easily be ascertained.

The SS London sank in the Bay of Biscay on 11th January, 1866, en route to Australia.  The ship had sailed from Gravesend with 239 persons on board and, being heavily overloaded with 345 tons of railway iron, went down during a storm.  There were only 19 survivors, including Captain Martin, the ship's Australian captain.  Several poems were composed after the event and it may be that Sam's song is based on one such ode.  Even the Scottish poet William McGonagall felt moved by the tragedy and his poem The Wreck of the Steamer 'London' while on her way to Australia, which underestimates the number of passengers, begins with the words:

By contrast, Sam's song overestimates the number of fatalities.

Like many other singers, Sam Larner carried a goodly number of well-known broadside songs in his head, some, such as The Reckless Young Fellow, As I Lay a-Musing ( a version of One Night As I Lay on My Bed), The Wild and Wicked Youth, The Skipper and His Boy, The Old Miser, The Barley Straw, Green Grow the Laurels and Bold General Wolfe were only remembered in fragmentary form; others, such as, The Wild Rover, Clear Away the Morning Dew, I Wish, I Wish, Green Broom, Betsy the Milkmaid, The Tanyard Side, Happy and Delightful, The Bold Young Fisherman, The Haymaker's Courtship, Just As the Tide Was Flowing, Butter and Cheese and All, The Bonny Bunch of Roses-O and Napoleon's Dream, remained as more or less complete songs.

One thing that Walter Pardon commented on when it came to Sam's songs was the number of songs that he (Sam) knew which tended towards the bawdy, in one way or another.  Here we can find complete versions of Maids When You're Young Never Wed an Old Man, The Maid of Australia, The Jolly Young Coachman (The Coachman's Whip), All Fours (complete with Sam's final spoken comment of "She like it, di'n't she?") and No Sir, No Sir.  Surprisingly, the notes to this latter song fail to mention the 1928 recording, titled The Spanish Merchant's Daughter, that was made by the Stoneman Family from Galax, VA.  The recording was first reissued on the influential Folkways Anthology set of LPs and has subsequently been reissued on a number of CDs.

We are finally left with a number of songs which belong to several genres.  There is King William (The King and the Keeper), a one verse fragment of the old black-letter broadside The Loyal Forrester, or, Royal Pastimes (there is a copy in The Euing Collection of English Broadside Ballads, Glasgow.  1971), which was sung by Pop Maynard and his friend Joe Jones.  Pop's fragment is included in Ken Stubbs's book in The Life of a Man (London.  1970) and Joe's short version can be found on MTCD320.  The Hammond Brothers also collected a set in Dorset at the beginning of the 20th century and this is printed in Frank Purslow's book Marrowbones (London.  1965).  Another song, She said She Was a Virgin, belongs to what Rod Stradling calls 'another of those 'spare parts' songs', and there are a handful of songs that may, or may not, have originally come from Ireland, as well as a few music hall and minstrel songs.  Over There in Ireland, which Rod Stradling cannot trace, may be identical to a song of that name which is mentioned in Chapter 9 of Robert L Wright's Irish Emigrant Ballads & Songs (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1975).  Rod also comments that Sam's version of the song Old Bob Ridley-O is 'almost the only English one' (the song being originally from America).  However, as Alfred Williams said that, 'the song was very popular throughout the Thames Valley.  I have met with several different versions' I would suggest that, at one time, the song was indeed popular with singers, though not with song collectors, apart from Alfred Williams, who failed to note down versions.  With hindsight, we may say that many songs which were frequently sung by singers were omitted from the notebooks of song collectors who, as we now know, approached their collecting with, at times, rather narrow minds.  Thankfully, Ewan and Peggy were not so blinkered and this set of songs does, I am glad to say, include a number of songs which would have been omitted by earlier collectors.

It seems incredible that these recordings were made over fifty years ago, and that we have had to wait so long before we could hear them all.  But, they are now with us and all praise must go to the collectors, who made the recordings in the first place, to Christ Holderness for his excellent biographical notes, and to Rod Stradling for producing yet another outstanding set of CDs.  God only knows how he manages to do it, but he does and we are all in his debt.  And, most important of all, let us remember Sam Larner and the generations of singers who passed their songs down to him.  If the Folkways LP Now is the Time for Fishing was a triumph, then this set is doubly so!

Michael Yates - 21.12.14

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