Songs of Seduction

Folk Songs of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - various preformers

Rounder 1778

This is the first of the Alan Lomax Collection reissues of what was the old (1961) Caedmon series of Folk Songs of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, subsequently re-released on Topic in 1966 as 'Folk Songs of Britain'.  Cover pictureThat it is the first such release, despite being number two in the original sequence, may be due to its having outsold the rest of the series combined - or so I'm told.  I used the word 'reissues' with care, since this is - mercifully - not just a CD copy of the LP; it has been 'revised and extended' by Peter Kennedy, and Rounder have pushed the format to its limit with 74 minutes and 6 seconds of seductive songs.  This is a very welcome change from the 1998 releases of the 'World Library of Folk and Primitive Music' CDs, which did repeat the vinyl content - the England volume being under 49 minutes in duration. (This, I'm informed, was not the fault of Rounder, but a decision of the Lomax Trust who have the ultimate say about what form the Lomax Collection volumes assume in their new digital medium).

This present release features eight extra tracks, accounting for some 17½ minutes further enjoyment, and it might be good to have a look at these first, since some, at least, will be completely new to many readers, whilst I would presume that the tracks from the Caedmon/Topic LPs will be quite familiar to most.  But first I should add that many of these latter which featured as cut-down versions on LP, now appear either fully, as recorded, or with some of their missing verses restored.  A very welcome move!

Track one is Blackbirds and Thrushes, perhaps better known as Hares on the Mountain, sung to Peter Kennedy by Dickie Lashbrook, in Lifton, Devon.  His accent sounds like a Devon one, but the notes tell us he was 'still plying his trade, working with pony and trap in Cornwall, as a travelling chimney sweep' when he was recorded.  Still, Lifton's only a couple of miles from the Tamar.  He sounds like an old charmer, and sings the three verses he knows with relish - but I wouldn't call him an especially good singer, particularly when followed by Jeannie Robertson!  Possibly an odd choice for an opener?

Track seven is Paddy Taylor playing the reel Rolling in the Ryegrass, which follows Jimmy McBeath's Toorn-a Ma Goon, as it's a variant on the same basic tune, rather than because it has any inherent connection with seduction.  That notwithstanding, it is first-rate flute playing, a pleasure to hear, and makes a nice break between the vocal tracks.  Mr Kennedy favours us with the information that 'Irish country flute players aim for as breathy and coarse a sound as possible, deliberately avoiding any purity of tone that will cause loss of rhythmic effect'.  A wee bit of a generalisation there, perhaps?  He does go on, though, to give us some substantial information about Paddy and his family - a welcome innovation, and in stark contrast to many of the other entries to be found here.

Much the same can be said of track 8 - Michael Gorman plays The Jolly Tinker tune before Thomas Moran sings the song.

Track thirteen is The New-mown Hay from William Rew of Sidbury, Devon - yes, the same 'Mr Rew' from whom Kennedy collected a good number of really excellent dance tunes.  He has another really excellent tune for this song and sings it well in the declamatory style so often found in southern English villages (and so rarely copied by revivalist singers, for some reason).  The fact that you follow the song with interest, despite every pair of lines being repeated, marks him as a very good singer who - without recourse to any obvious ploys - gets on with the job of telling the story.  A very nice track.

The texts of all the songs on this record, in common with (all?) the others in the Collection, have been transcribed in the booklet.  I'm sorry to have to report two minor transcription errors and one major one in this short song - particularly when, with the repeats, there ar two chances of getting it right.  Nor do we learn anything about William Rew from the notes.

Track fourteen has a very young-sounding Belle Stewart singing The Overgate, with Hamish Henderson joining in the choruses and, presumably, various Stewart children or grandchildren chattering quietly in the background.  That Belle has to stop singing to have a good cough during one of the choruses detracts not one whit from the charm of this delightful track.  Kennedy tells us nothing whatsoever about the singer, but does supply five further verses to the song, which Jeannie Robertson had in her version.

There are also ten fairly major errors in the text transcription of this song, one half verse has been omitted completely, one word added, and a line Belle does not use has been inserted - albeit enclosed in square brackets - into one of her splendid three-line verses.  Is this 21st century scholarship?

Jeannie Robertson crops up again on the 'previously unreleased' track sixteen with She is a Rum One - but this is quite untrue, though it is to be hoped unintentionally so.  In fact, it's the same recording as appeared on Rounder/Lomax's Jeannie Robertson 'Portrait' CD in 1998, and there correctly attributed to 'Alan Lomax, recorded November 1953, London'  This must be correct, because after the song she says "Don't look at my face when I'm singing that rum song!" and he clearly replies "Oh, I'm sorry!"  With this present offering, the recording attribution is to 'Peter Kennedy and Hamish Henderson, Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1953' and the track is quoted as having a 1:50 duration.  In reality the duration is 2:42, the same as the 'Portrait' track - though the spoken comments have been removed.  If there actually is a Kennedy recording of this song, I don't see how it could be of all the seven verses and choruses in the booklet and still knock 52 seconds off the timing!

There are seven transcription errors here - and more meddling with the text.  In the penultimate verse Jeannie sings:

He laid her down upon a bank
'Til he provided a plaister
She jump-ed up … to her feet
Sayin' "I hope you'll never … end it"

While Kennedy writes:

He laid her down upon a bank
Till he provided a plaister
She jump-ed up upon her feet
Saying: I hope you'll never aist'ter
I don't want to be pedantic about the 'Till', but why inset 'upon' in the space Jeannie leaves in the sung line?  And what in the world is an 'aist'ter'? … except a rhyme for 'plaister'?  Moreover, Alan Lomax - transcribing the same verse, from the same recording, in the 'Portrait' booklet - manages to get it all right (except for the 'Til, which he renders as 'and'.)  I'm beginning to get the feeling that these transcriptions - if that's what you can call them - are telling us something about Mr Kennedy and his attitude to the singers he recorded.

Harry Cox is the next new entry and the next track with Knife in the Window - and as might be expected from this singer and of this vintage (recorded 1953) it's a cracker.  Verse three has been cut from the recording, but there's no indication of this in the booklet.  I may not like it, but I can understand the need to shorten some of these tracks (though in this case the missing verse only lasts for 20 seconds!), but I do think that the booklet should be clear about what has been done.  Instead, some verses are enclosed in square brackets with the word 'Omitted' in bold above the text - no problem about understanding what that means.  Then there are similar verses titled 'Additional verse' - does this mean the singer normally included this verse, but forgot it during the recording, or that Kennedy knows of an additional verse …or what?  And then there's this verse (and several others like it) where there's no indication whatever that it's not on the disc.

There's also this business of lines in square brackets - these are lines which the singer does not sing in the recording.  Are the lines we find enclosed in the brackets forgotten, cut or added by Kennedy …or what?  I must assume the latter, since he has added a line to the second verse of Belle Stewart's Overgate.  I've heard and loved Belle's singing since the mid-sixties - and that three-line verse has been a constant joy to me.  And I've never heard her sing it with four!  Maybe he doesn't understand the appeal of asymmetry?  But surely his likes and dislikes should not be the issue here - a transcription should be just that, and the only differences between the sung and the written ought to be either the results of honest mistakes, or misunderstandings.

Pursuing this line of enquiry, I turned away from the new material for a moment to have a look at the older tracks, and in particular, that outstandingly glorious 3½ liner from Cyril Poacher's Nutting Girl - with which, you will realise, I am pretty familiar.  This is outrageous!  Not only is the first verse cut with nary a square bracket in sight, but the bastard has actually had the temerity to add a half-line to Cyril's verse - without brackets!

It's of this fair young damsel, she was nutting in the wood
His voice was so melodious, it charmed her where she stood
In that lonely wood She could no longer stay
And what few nuts she had, poor girl, she threw them all away …
Just who the hell does does he think he is … God Almighty?  I hope Cyril's ghost haunts him!

He's also added a quite unnecessary 'she' to the first line and changed the Suffolk 'strew' to 'threw'.  Not content with this; having removed the first verse in so cavalier a fashion, he leaves the last verse in, despite putting it in square brackets in the text, and heading it 'Additional verses' - yes, plural!

Calm down, Stradling … a few deep breaths, please! … now, back to the 'previously unreleased' tracks.  Actually, there's only one more, number 32, Firelock Stile, from Harry Cox.  Er … am I being overly suspicious in thinking that it sounds extraordinarily like the one on Kennedy's 1965 EFDSS album LP1004?  Let's see … hmm! … they're both in exactly the same key, but there's a two second difference in the playing time … put 'em on together … perfect stereo! - at least for about 20 seconds.  The only difference seems to be that the LP version has a variable tempo - Harry slows down and speeds up as he goes along, as he would and should, of course.  The CD version could have been varispeeded to iron-out this 'inconsistency' …  My son, who knows about such things, has just told me that modern digital editing suites have software which will automatically straighten out such irregularities of tempo.  So, a bit of wiggling with the turntable speed control and … that sounds like pretty-near perfect stereo all the way through!  Can it be that these two tracks are also the same recording?

Nah! - that's conspiracy-theory stuff.  I've been watching too many Oliver Stone movies.  It must just be that Harry Cox is an extremely consistent singer.  Because if it were true, and if the She is a Rum One slip-up was not unintentional … then that would begin to cast doubt on the authenticity of other Kennedy recordings - even of their ownership.  This is too bizarre!  If that were the case, one might begin to wonder about the legality of some of the recordings on those Folktracks cassettes he's been selling for years - those recordings that were made at the same time as he was employed by Lomax, the EFDSS and the BBC.

No, this is clearly rubbish!  Far too many 'ifs' in the above conjecture … just a load of mean-spirited nonsense on my part.  Please forget I ever mentioned it.

All the remaining 25 tracks have been heard before on the LP versions of the record, but some have had previously-cut verses reinstated on this CD.  I can't tell you which ones because I don't own an LP to compare it with, and because the inconsistencies in the booklet texts make it impossible to tell from that source.  For those readers unfamiliar with some of this material I would say that every song is very well worth hearing and owning, and that many are superlatively wonderful.  Moreover, they are presented here with a noise-reduced, crystal-clarity which is right up to Rounder's usual extremely high standard of audio excellence.  For anyone wishing to check the record out in their local store before buying, I'd suggest giving an ear to any of Jeannie Robertson's five contributions (tracks 2, 16, 24, 28 and 33), or Harry Cox's four (10, 17, 29 and 32), while Davie Stewart's The Merchant's Son and the Beggar Wench (track 30) really must not be missed.  Of the less-well-known singers here, I greatly enjoy the songs from Thomas Moran (The Jolly Tinker - track 9), Annie Jane Kelly (The Magpie's Nest - 20), Harry List (The Light Drago'n - 23) and the glorious Lal Smith (The Bold English Navvy - 31).  Even Jimmy McBeath's shamefully slender contribution - the 40 second Toorn-a Ma Goon and two verses of The Wind Blew the Bonny Lassie's Plaidie Awa' is to be treasured.

You may gather that I like this record very much indeed.  I only wish I could say a tenth as much for the accompanying booklet.  It's one of life's cruel ironies that the person who made most of these wonderful recordings (Peter Kennedy) should apparently know and care so little about the performers and their songs.  When faced with his enormities (above), it might seem petty to point out that scarcely half the transcribed verses are without mistakes, and a good number seem to feature the words he imagines the singers should have sung, rather than what they actually did.

The booklet text is supposed to have been 'revised' by Kennedy in 1999, and one might presume that the previously unreleased tracks would have had their notes written then.  Yet most of them display the same faults as the originals - often just telling the story of the song, as if the listener was incapable of figuring this out for himself by actually listening to the track.  We learn absolutely nothing about new entries William Rew or Belle Stewart, not to mention a good number of the original singers, and rarely anything of serious import about the songs.  In fact, of the twenty six performers who share the 33 tracks on this CD, the booklet notes tell us something about only thirteen of them, and most of these inclusions are extremely brief.  How is this possible, when Kennedy has passed 40 years as a professional folklorist since he recorded these people?

You may be wondering why the name of Alan Lomax has rarely appeared in this review, since this is one of the 'Alan Lomax Collection' series.  How many of these 33 tracks were actually recorded by Lomax, do you suppose?  A guess - anyone?  Would you believe one complete very short track, plus three snippets?  He was also involved with Kennedy in the recording of a further half dozen or so, but his solo contribution is slightly less than 3 minutes of the 74 on this CD.  Nice work if you can get it!

But it's a pity to get depressed about such trifles in the face of so much wonderful singing - rush out and buy this CD - you won't regret it … and see if you can get a discount for not taking the booklet.

Rod Stradling - 23.3.00

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