Category Archives: folkie

How can a good man keep the wolf from the door?

Twenty-two years ago today, Peter Bellamy took his own life. He was 47. His discography includes three albums made with the seminal vocal group The Young Tradition and (at a rough count) seventeen solo albums, some only released as privately-produced cassettes. Most of his material was traditional; some consisted of his own settings of poetry, mostly by Rudyard Kipling; some was self-composed. One of his outstanding achievements was the Transports, a self-composed “ballad opera” written in traditional styles and telling the true story of a couple transported to Australia aboard the First Fleet in 1787. He worked with Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, the Watersons, Tony Rose, June Tabor, Dave Swarbrick, Shirley and Dolly Collins… basically, if you can think of a British folkie active in the 70s and 80s, the chances are that he worked with them at some point.

At the same time, Bellamy had a fierce commitment to his own vision – wherever it was leading him at any given time – and a reputation for independence bordering on self-imposed isolation. What his politics were nobody seems quite sure, but he had little time for the Communism of many of the 50s and 60s revivalists, or for the more woolly Guardian-reader liberalism which characterised the later folk scene. Traditional songs were his passion, and if (as it turned out) there were rather few traditional songs about fomenting revolution, going on strike or hunt sabbing, it didn’t bother him; he would sing what was there, even if it was about less right-on topics such as fox-hunting, fighting for England’s glory and loyalty to the boss. Take the political wrong notes this attitude produced, add his fascination with Kipling (the great poet of Victorian Empire), his spiky personality and his insistence on accompanying himself on concertina rather than the more ‘normal’ acoustic guitar, and it’s not entirely surprising that the 1980s – the ebb tide of the folk revival – weren’t kind to him.

By the end of the decade it seems as if the folk world had decided to leave him to it. At around this time of year a few years ago, his friend Michael Grosvenor Myer gave some details of his last days in a thread on Mudcat, from which I’ll quote a couple of lines here:

I remember his once showing me an almost empty forthcoming gigs diary, and saying words to the effect that “I did The Transports, everyone loved and respected it – and from that moment my bookings practically ceased and my career went phhhttt!” … a few days before he died, he spent the entire evening playing right back through all his records, listening carefully and as best he could objectively, and said at the end, “Well, I AM good! What the hell has gone wrong?!”

Was he good? He was an inspired songwriter, a superb interpreter of traditional songs and a unique, unforgettable singer. Yes, he was good. I don’t know what the hell went wrong, but twenty years on folkies up and down the country, from Bellowhead and the Young ‘Uns on down, are paying him the homage of listening to his music and singing his songs. If he’d hung on a few years he could have been massive. How he would have hated that.

Heffle Cuckoo Fair (Kipling/Bellamy)

Minesweepers (Kipling/Bellamy)

The Innocent Hare (traditional)

I once lived in service (Bellamy, arr. Dolly Collins; sung by Norma Waterson)

The fox jumps over the parson’s gate (traditional)

Death is not the end (Dylan)

Winter songs

[Cross-posted from 52 Folk Songs]

52 Folk Songs: white is an album of seasonal songs, mostly traditional, recorded between the start of Advent and the end of Epiphany last year. Some are religious, some are songs for cold nights and the turning of the year, and some are both. Unfortunately the album wasn’t available for download until February, by which time the moment for Gaudete and the Boar’s Head Carol had passed. But its time has come round again, so here it is.

The full track listing is:

1. A maiden that is matchless (2:07)
2. The holly and the ivy (1:49)
3. Shepherds arise (3:22)
4. A virgin most pure (4:08)
5. In Dessexshire as it befell (3:34)
6. Poor old horse (5:08)
7. On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At (4:43)
8. Come, love, carolling (Sydney Carter) (2:08)
9. The boar’s head carol (1:49)
10. Gaudete (2:49)
11. The King (1:26)
12. In the month of January (4:22)
13. The Moving On song (Seeger/MacColl) (2:44)
14. The January Man (Dave Goulder) (2:33)

Tracks 2-4, 9 and 11 have been remixed this time round, to give a better balance between the different vocal tracks. Tracks 7 and 13 are ‘hidden’ tracks, as you’ll see (or rather won’t see) if you visit the album page; they can only be downloaded by downloading the whole album. (You can play (but not download) them at the 52fs: Extras page.)

As well as hidden tracks, the white album comes with full lyrics, notes on the songs and even the odd picture. A few brief comments on the songs:

A maiden that is matchless is sung simultaneously in modern English and Middle English, with a flute part copied from Dolly Collins’s arrangement.
The holly and the ivy is not a pagan song. This was my first attempt at four-part harmony.
Shepherds arise More harmonies. Sing! Sing all earth!
A virgin most pure Another Dolly Collins arrangement (I think), this time on C whistle. Vocals in two-part harmony, partly my own.
In Dessexshire as it befell Yet more multi-part singing, plus a multi-part melodica break. I think the arrangement really works, and the song’s well worth hearing if you don’t know it. A strange and rather creepy piece of work, set on Christmas Day.
Poor old horse An old “house visiting” song, slowed down and given another massively overdubbed arrangement. Also features a quick burst of the old dance tune “Man in the moon”.
On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At Not actually strictly a seasonal song as such; scientists have established that it can get pretty parky on Ilkley Moor at any time of year. Four-part harmonies, sung as written with a few modifications for singability (I broke it up into five or six separate lines). Also features simultaneous translation for the hard-of-Yorkshire.
Come, love, carolling A contemporary religious song by the wonderful Sydney Carter. Drums, melodica and anything else that seemed appropriate; based on Bob and Carole Pegg’s version on the album And now it is so early.
The boar’s head carol is not a pagan song either. Second attempt at four-part harmony.
Gaudete This was more or less Folk Song #1 for me, thanks to Steeleye Span’s appearance singing it on Top of the Pops, so it’s always had a special place for me. More harmonies, of course.
The King Another multi-part song learned from Steeleye Span, although I wrote these harmonies myself.
In the month of January Just one vocal track on this one, taking on one of those really knobbly traditional melodies.
The Moving On song Not a massive arrangement – just drums, melodica and a couple of brief harmony vocal lines – but the texture of the (heavily-processed) melodica, the slightly over-fiddly drum pattern and the irregularity of the time signature make for an appropriately edgy, claustrophobic atmosphere. I like the way the melodica’s come out, but I’ll probably never be able to do it again – I was trying for something much simpler.
The January Man he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather… What a song.

Share and enjoy! Ho ho ho.

Thousands or more

So, what have I been listening to lately? Funny you should ask. Here’s about a year’s worth of recent listening, focusing mainly on new(-ish) releases.

It doesn’t seem very long ago that a friend at the local singaround told me that he was thinking of starting a record label. I thought this was a ridiculous if faintly brilliant idea, and took care to avoid either encouraging him (in case he did it and it was a disaster) or discouraging him (in case he didn’t and it would have been a brilliant success). Well, he did it, and the Folk Police imprint is the result. I think we’re looking at ‘success’. (Artistically, anyway; as I understand it he’s still got the day job.)

One of the first Folk Police releases, Oak Ash Thorn is a collection of Peter Bellamy’s settings of poems by Rudyard Kipling, originally released on two 1970s albums – Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye. The roster of acts contributing is the proverbial who’s who of contemporary folk: the Unthanks, Jon Boden, Fay Hield, Emily Portman, Cath and Phil Tyler, Trembling Bells… the list goes on. The songs are terrific; the performances are technically superb and the production is pin-sharp.

But what does it actually sound like? I’ve listened to it a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t entirely aimed at me. Take the introduction of Sam Lee’s Puck’s Song. It’s a fine track – Sam’s got an extraordinary voice, and his arrangement is strong enough to influence my own take on the song, more or less despite myself [*]. But he opens the track with a bit of scene-setting found footage – a random bit of speech from Bob Copper, the sound of a lark and a clip of the Coppers singing a completely different song. To me it’s a distraction at best and embarrassing at worst; it just gives me the impression that the artist thinks he’s discovered this amazing new thing called ‘folk music’. This music and its practitioners really aren’t as ancient, or as alien, as all that; I’m only two degrees from Bob Copper myself, and I suspect Sam Lee is too.

Reverence for folk music, that’s what I don’t like – particularly when it takes the form of reverence for folk-rock (Trembling Bells, the Owl Service). It’s noticeable that several artists, the Unthanks and Emily Portman most obviously, take the songs slowly and delicately, without much volume but with a kind of anxious solemnity; anything less like Bellamy’s delivery of his Kipling songs would be hard to imagine.

Pace suffers most of all. Few go as far as Lisa Knapp does with The Queen’s Men – slowing down the song until the tune is lost completely – but most of the songs are taken slower than the originals. (Although Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye were unavailable at the time this album was made, they have since been re-released – and very fine albums they are too.) Even Rapunzel and Sedayne’s Harp Song of the Dane Women – one of the better tracks here – is taken at walking pace, giving it a kind of incantatory stillness but losing the headlong weirdness of the original.

There is some excellent stuff on this album; Tim Eriksen is on noisy form, Olivia Chaney is in good voice and Jon Boden gives what’s surely the definitive reading of Frankie’s Trade (other readings are available; here’s mine [*]). It’s well worth getting if you know about Bellamy, and a must-have for anyone curious about the Bellamy/Kipling oeuvre. Even the stuff I don’t much like is good, and lots of people will like it more than I do. I guess I just find it a bit, well, polite. (James Yorkston’s Folk Songs album had a similar problem for me; Musgrave [*] shouldn’t be subdued. Brutally murdered, yes.)

You can read much more about this album, and hear the tracks by Jon Boden and Emily Portman, here, and you can buy it here (£10).


My feelings about John Kelly’s second album For Honour and Promotion are less mixed. Not entirely unmixed: I’m less keen than John on songs with lines about “dear old Erin” (By the Hush) or songs in which the singer reminisces about having his way with girls by way of a combination of persuasion and judo: the words “her feet from her did glide” or similar appear in two different songs on this album, which for me was one too many. Also I can’t hear The Days of ’49 without hearing in my mind’s ear what Peter Bellamy (him again) did with it, in comparison with which anyone will suffer. But these are very minor cavils about a truly outstanding album.

John has a rich and expressive voice, accompanied on this album by his own harmonium, harmoniflute [sic], guitar and cittern; he also delivers one song unaccompanied – a superb version of When a man’s in love [*]. Whether you call all the songs on this album ‘traditional’ is one for the taxonomists, but they’re certainly all old; John lists sources including “the Scots Musical Museum (published in 6 volumes between 1787 and 1803)” and “Tipperary man Charles Kickham (1828-1882)”. As you can see from the track listing, there are English and American as well as Scottish and Irish songs here; other sources cited include the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and the Mudcat Café.

If I start listing particularly good tracks it’ll be hard to stop, but I will mention three tracks with harmonium accompaniment: I’ve never heard a better version of The streams of lovely Nancy [*], and John’s treatments of Greenland Whale Fisheries and Canadee-i-o are a revelation. Both of these songs are taken surprisingly slowly; I’m not sure why this works as well as it does, but I think it’s something to do with the unselfconscious passion with which John delivers the songs (no solemnity here). The Child ballad Mary Hamilton [*], accompanied on cittern, is hypnotically brilliant, gripping the listener despite its considerable length. But if I had to single out one song as the best thing on the album it would be As I was a-wandering (often attributed to Burns, although John’s notes don’t mention this) [*]. Accompanied on cittern, John’s rendering of this song is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, in any genre.

UPDATE I’m delighted to be able to say that John’s Web site now includes clips of several songs from this album, as well as some from his (excellent) first album. Have a listen.

You owe it to yourself to hear this album if you’ve got any interest in traditional song – and if you haven’t, you should hear it to find out what you’re missing. It can be obtained from John for £10 plus postage; write to harmoniumhero at hotmail dot com.


Back to Folk Police for the label’s very first release, at least according to the catalogue number: Rapunzel and Sedayne’s first commercially-available album, Songs from the Barley Temple. I’ve got another personal connection to declare here, as I know Rachel and Sean personally & have shared quite a few singarounds with them; the night when the lights went out, a couple of verses into R+S’s Green Grow The Rushes-O, will live in my memory for some time.

As will this album, which I played until I’d worn it out with over-familiarity. (I’m planning to go cold turkey for a while and rediscover it some time next year.) It’s wonderful. Some may find the sleevenotes a bit pretentious, and to be honest I may be one of them – when Sedayne describes Porcupine in November Sycamore as an “old-time field holler in the Javanese Pelog mode” I’m left none the wiser, and I could have preferred something a bit more straightforwardly informative (perhaps along the lines of “Robin Williamson didn’t write this, but I bet he wishes he had”). But the song is superb, which is the main thing; on the album it’s 6 minutes 47, and the first time I heard it I was genuinely disappointed when I realised it was ending. (The album closes with a reprise of the song, which doesn’t seem self-indulgent or excessive; it’s just nice to hear it again.)

This isn’t an album of new compositions; only two and a half songs here are originals, while a third – Outlaws – is a setting by Rapunzel of a poem by Bonnie Parker (of ‘and Clyde’ fame). Most are traditional. Some are ‘standards’ (e.g. True Thomas [*] and a terrific Blackwaterside [*]); some are less familiar (Handsome Molly, Katie Kay, Robin Redbreast’s Testament), while one standout track is a highly unfamiliar version of a trad ‘standard’, Jim Eldon’s Owld Grye Song (more commonly known as Poor Old Horse [*]).

The songs were recorded ‘live’ and without overdubs, making for a surprisingly narrow sound palette – ‘surprisingly’ inasmuch as it doesn’t sound narrow! Rapunzel’s banjo, Sedayne’s fiddle and their voices – solo and in close harmony – are supplemented on different tracks by drum, harmonium and overtone flute, as well as by the semi-random burbling of something called a Kaossilator (which can be heard to good effect on Porcupine and Owld Grye). An unpredictable combination of elements – Rapunzel’s pure voice and banjo, Sedayne’s drones and free improvisation, the passion for the old songs which they evidently share – blends to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s a terrific album. Read another review, find out more about Rapunzel and Sedayne, and buy the CD (£10). Incidentally, the vaguely Wicker Man-ish phrase ‘Barley Temple’ has much more prosaic origins; Sean is a demon anagrammatist, and a big fan of a singer who’s already been mentioned in this review.


As it was released in 1993, this album doesn’t really belong in this post, but I’m going to include it anyway. I was slightly into folk back in the mid-1970s but only quite dimly aware of it between about 1975 and 2005; this has meant retrospectively discovering the entire careers of an embarrassing number of quite major artists (notably Nic Jones, Tony Rose, Tony Capstick and of course Peter Bellamy). What’s been even more embarrassing is the realisation that I’ve also missed out on another whole generation of folkies – essentially, people of around my own age, who started working after the Revival had more or less ebbed away, and most of whom are still going. Among whom, Jo Freya.

A caveat of sorts: as you can see from the cover art, one of these things is not like the others. This looks like the kind of generic album which used to be on sale in places like Past Times; this isn’t too surprising, as it was sold through Past Times. Gef Lucena’s Saydisc label produced a number of similar albums, including Traditional Songs of Wales (sung by Siwsann George) and Traditional Songs of Scotland (sung by Ray Fisher). In the case of this album, Gef Lucena was also responsible for the production, the arrangements (on all but one track) and the sleeve notes.

So maybe this album isn’t so much Jo Freya as Gef Lucena And Friends, Featuring Jo Freya. Either way it’s pretty good. It includes 21 songs (count ‘em), covering most of the angles in English song: love (I Live Not Where I Love [*]), war (General Wolfe [*]), love and war (The Green Cockade [*]), religion (The Carnal and the Crane), magic (the Broomfield Wager), sex (Maids When You’re Young), work (Fourpence A Day)… Jo’s in good voice throughout – on some very varied material – and some of the settings, played mainly on strings, concertina and recorders, are terrific. I particularly like the songs featuring Nigel Eaton’s hurdy-gurdy – the thoroughly daft As I Set Off For Turkey in particular – and the unaccompanied William Taylor [*], which was sung and arranged by Jo and her sister Fi Fraser.

This isn’t an album to frighten the horses (or cows); it’s tastefully done, and both the backings and Jo’s vocals sometimes sound a bit reined-in. But quiet and tasteful arrangements can work extraordinarily well in folk – think Shirley and Dolly Collins – and this album includes some really memorable versions of great songs: General Wolfe, Rounding the Horn [*], All Things Are Quite Silent, As Sylvie Was Walking, A Sailor’s Life…

You can see what Jo Freya’s been up to since 1993(!) here. You can buy this album (and much else) directly from her.


Another Folk Police album? Hey, why not.

The Woodbine and Ivy Band are a kind of Folk Police house band; their debut album features ten traditional songs, each with different lead vocalists and very different sonic atmospheres. Some singers – Olivia Chaney, Elle Osborne, Fay Hield, Rapunzel and Sedayne – also appeared on Oak Ash Thorn; others include Jackie Oates, Jim Causley and Pinkie Maclure.

The album that resulted is, frankly, rather special. The producer, Peter Philipson, clearly set the controls for the heart of the Seventies, but without confining himself to the ‘folk’ shelves: the Roaming Journeyman (sung by James Raynard) is essentially “Hawkwind play trad”, while Derry Gaol (Jackie Oates) sounds like a long-lost track from an early Robert Wyatt album, complete with Mongezi Feza-esque overlapping trumpet lines. A lot of work and a lot of listening has gone into this album: no two tracks sound alike, from the tremulous hush of Under the Leaves (Elle Osborne), through the none-more-Wicker-Man Gently Johnny (the Memory Band’s Jenny McCormick), to the kitchen-sink alternative-Christmas-single Spencer the Rover (Fay Hield) [*].

There isn’t a weak track on here; my personal favourite, though, is Poor Murdered Woman [*], in which Olivia Chaney’s beautiful and affecting vocals are perfectly paired with a backing dominated by trumpet and pedal steel.

You can read more about this album, and hear Gently Johnny and the Roaming Journeyman, here. Buy it here (£10).


Folkies are weird. When a (relatively) young and hip band like the Futureheads released Rant – an album of unaccompanied singing, including three no-messing folk songs – I expected it to be greeted with wild huzzas; at the very least I expected an approving nod or two. (Admittedly, folkies aren’t the only people who sing unaccompanied, but we do do a lot of it; I still think it’s the only way to deliver some songs with big choruses, and some solo songs for that matter.) Instead, one of the two folk fora [Lat.] that I frequent ignored it completely – not out of pique, as far as I can tell, but because the regulars genuinely hadn’t noticed it. At the other, it was greeted with a rather ungracious note about how certain traditional songs had become clapped-out and unlistenable through overuse, specifically including two of the three traditional songs on the Futureheads album.

Well, I like it. As well as those three traditional songs – The Keeper, The Old Dun Cow and (hidden track) Hanging Johnny – the album includes four of the Futureheads’ own songs and a scattering from other sources, ranging from Richard Thompson to the Black-Eyed Peas via Sparks (The No. 1 Song in Heaven). (They don’t do Hounds of Love, but you can’t have everything.) As far as clapped-out songs are concerned, incidentally, I do know The Old Dun Cow back to front, but I’d actually never heard The Keeper before I got this album; it may have been done to death in the 70s and 80s, but I wasn’t going to singarounds back then. Nor indeed were the Futureheads.

It’s a nice album. The louder and more aggressive songs perhaps work better – there’s a limit to how much sensitivity and restraint four blokes can deliver – but the arrangements are interesting throughout and the harmonies are spot-on. In conclusion may I say, in my role as an ageing bearded folkie, that it’s an Encouraging Sign when A New Generation discovers (cont’d p. 94)


The Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a short album consisting of 15 short songs (they range from 2:01 to 2:39). Seven are sung by the songwriter Stephin Merritt, the other eight shared between Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms. A bit more Merritt would have been good – he has a beautiful singing voice. The sound palette is rather insistently synthesiser-heavy; TMF haven’t used any synths for their last few albums, and this is the return of the repressed, or something. According to the booklet there are a whole range of instruments being played here – guitar, piano, autoharp, cello, trumpet, flute, violin, accordion, musical saw… I’ve only been able to make out the first five of these, and some of those have been processed to the point where they sound like synth patches; presumably the rest are even lower in the mix. The dominant sound of the album is the swish, blatt and scronk of the more experimental end of mid-80s synth pop.

But all you really need to know is that there are songs on this album with lyrics like this:

“A pity she does not exist, a shame he’s not a fag.
The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag.”

“I’m gonna fly back to Laramie,
Let Laramie take care o’ me till they bury me.”

“Oh if only you were the only boy in town
For then I could not play the field and let you down
I would not go half-mad
For each passing lad
With eyes of blue, green, grey or brown…”

“I have taken a contract out on you,
I have hired a hitman to do what they do.
He will do his best to do his worst
After he’s messed up your girlfriend first.”

Not to mention a brief, sad, funny song called (self-explanatorily) I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh. (If that title on its own makes you laugh, you’ll like this album. It still gets me every time.)

‘Witty’ is one word for writing like this, but I don’t think Noël Coward [*] ever had this kind of emotional range; there’s frustration, bitterness and rage in these songs, as well as multiple shades of love and lust. This is great songwriting; even the slightest songs give you something to think about, and the best wring your heart out. Another time more acoustic instruments would be good, and more vocals from Stephin, but still – a fine album.


Have I mentioned the Folk Police label recently? They’ve got a compilation album out, you know. No, not that one; this is an album associated with a one-day “Weirdlore” festival, which was scheduled earlier this year but unfortunately didn’t happen.

“Weirdlore: Notes from the folk underground”: what’s that about? Nobody seems entirely sure. What you get here includes three songs about witchcraft, one about shape-shifting, one about tree-worship and one about moss. One song is about Grendel and one about Loki; there’s a song in Cornish and an instrumental with a title in Anglo-Saxon. So that’s ‘weirdlore’ for you, perhaps.

The CD booklet includes some rather unhelpful stuff about what this genre isn’t, which sometimes gives the impression of being written by people who don’t actually like folk: this isn’t “the narcissistic mid-Atlantic songwriter strummery, the same-old same-old bearded Folkistani clichés or the Coldplay-with-banjos syndrome”, nor is it “over-serious wickermania, twee faux-pagan pholklore and retro-folkadelia” (Ian A. Anderson). May I also add that these aren’t folk singers “sitting in a dilapidated pub somewhere churning out endless verses about someone with a stupid name getting garrotted” or “bottom-of-the-bill nobodies, with a battered acoustic guitar, bleating on about their crummy lives”; nor indeed are they “Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling et al pick[ing] up multiple Mercury and Brit nominations along with their royalty cheques” after making music that “has, wincingly perfectly, been dubbed The New Boring.” (Jeanette Leech)

For me all this prompts two questions: “so what do you like?” and “are you sure you ought to be listening to folk music?” Call me excessively logical, but it seems to me that if I wanted to hear music that couldn’t be confused with ‘bearded Folkistani clichés’ and ‘endless verses about someone with a stupid name getting garrotted’ I’d be best off avoiding English traditional songs altogether – and if I didn’t want to hear anything even slightly resembling ‘narcissistic mid-Atlantic songwriter strummery’ from ‘bottom-of-the-bill nobodies with a battered acoustic guitar’, cutting out songwriters playing acoustic guitars would be a good move. (And if I really hated “twee faux-pagan pholklore and retro-folkadelia” I probably wouldn’t listen to many songs about witches and moss.) The thing is, there’s an awful lot of music out there that passes the no-beardie, no-strummery, no-faux-pagan tests with the greatest of ease: I’ve listened to a lot of Underworld and cLOUDDEAD in my time, a great deal of Faust and Soft Machine, and a fair bit of Bach. So why on earth should I listen to folk, if most of it’s so bloody awful?

What seems to be at work here is a rhetorical device that people often use to promote a new variety of something to a sceptical audience, outflanking the punters’ resistance by endorsing their prejudices instead of challenging them – “Don’t like folk? Think it’s tedious rubbish? Well, you’re right – most of it is tedious rubbish! But not this kind of folk…” (See also BrewDog.) I think it’s a really bad idea, on more than one level. Most obviously, it’s not doing any favours to all the other folkies in the world; you’re either on the bus or yah boo sucks, boring same-old twee Folkistani nobodies! (See also BrewDog.) I also think it’s not a good look on an emotional level: it’s based on maintaining a constant level of negativity, with every blessing offset by a curse, instead of trying to move the conversation away from what’s bad altogether. Plus it plays havoc with your critical vocabulary: once you’ve come out with blanket condemnations like the ones I’ve quoted, what will you do if you hear an unknown singer-songwriter with an acoustic – or a bearded folkie doing a full-length Young Hunting [*] – and you actually like what you hear? (Answer: you’ll probably end up using the word “different” a lot, falling back if necessary to regroup at “indefinably different”.)

On a more positive note, Ian Anderson describes music of the ‘weirdlore’ school as “diverse, original, fascinating and occasionally delightfully eccentric stuff” which is “indefinably [sic], umbilically connected to our sometimes odd English folk traditions or reflect[s] their spirit”. So I guess that’ll have to do: it’s all different, it’s original, it’s indefinably umbilically connected. Weirdlore: it’s new, it’s interesting, it’s vaguely sort of folk…ish.

I should probably review the album, shouldn’t I? There’s a fair amount of reverence on display here, unfortunately. Unlike Oak Ash Thorn, there aren’t many acolytes in the temple of folk-rock on this album, but there are several people who have looked back a little further – to West Coast psychedelia, to Roy Harper, to Nick Drake, to early Jethro Tull (sorry, Ian) and especially to the Incredible String Band. There are a few introspective finger-pickers, singing about who knows what; then there are those three songs about witches, along with several others whose sound can only be described as “wifty-wafty”. Several of the contributors here seem to have watched The Wicker Man a hundred times without ever getting as far as the last scene. (Christopher Lee’s the villain, people! It’s a horror film, not a holiday programme!) Moving up the scale a bit, there are some acts – Wyrdstone and Foxpockets in particular – who are basically doing interesting variations on indie; I’d give them a Peel session, or whatever the equivalent is these days.

And then there’s the really good stuff. In roughly ascending order: Pamela Wyn Shannon‘s Moss Mantra is hypnotic, magical and rather funny – although, given that it comes from an album called The Phantasmagoria of Plant Mantras, not all of these effects may have been intended. Alasdair Roberts‘s Haruspex of Paradox – the song about Loki mentioned above – is entrancing; it very nearly justifies that awful title. (Let’s not revive prog, eh?) Hora by the wonderfully-named Boxcar Aldous Huxley is a rackety rendition of a traditional Eastern European dance tune, featuring klezmer-ish clarinet and musical saw. (‘Hora’ is a style of dance – it’s a bit like calling a track Jig.) It sounds great – reminiscent of Barry Black, one of the great lost albums of the 90s – although the folkie old fart in me can’t help thinking they’d sound even better if they put some hours in, found some dancers to play for and did it properly. (My daughter, who dances to this kind of thing, heard it and said “yes, if you sped it up it would sound like a hora”. Out of interest, I’ve tried speeding it up using Audacity; about 60% faster, it sounds terrific.) Harp and a Monkey are an odd band, who seem to look back to an altogether different corner of the 1970s. Forty years ago the Northwest of England was awash with folk acts, mostly playing working men’s clubs, with a bias towards jokey and local material. This was where Mike Harding came from, not to mention Tony Capstick and half a dozen other ‘names’ who you probably wouldn’t have heard of. Singing topical and political songs in their own accents, with a folkie d-i-y vibe (a child’s xylophone is a central part of their sound), Harp and a Monkey seem to evoke that lost period in British folk and bring it into the twenty-first century. Unusually, on this album they perform a traditional song – the shaggy-dog story/dirty joke The Molecatcher. They claim, scrupulously, that the chorus and some of the verses are their own additions; I would never have known. A terrific rendition – more please. Sproatly Smith are a wonder and a mystery; I don’t know who they are, how many of them there are or what they play. The image which came to mind on hearing their Rosebuds In June, and which has refused to be dislodged ever since, is “it’s like something from the Wicker Man, if the Wicker Man had been a 1960s children’s TV series about time travel”. On reflection… yep, that’s precisely what it sounds like. Finally, there are Rapunzel and Sedayne, appearing for the fourth(!) time in this post, and on this occasion playing an absolute blinder. R+S excel themselves with The Innocent Hare – a lolloping, languidly exuberant reading of a hunting song from the Coppers’ repertoire. Sedayne’s fiddle and the interplay of his and Rapunzel’s voices have never sounded better; it’s a wonderful track. (The hare gets away, in case you were wondering; the hunters give up, go off to the pub and drink her health (hares are always female). Happy ending!)

My advice? Bearing in mind my own strictures on people who accentuate the negative, let me just say that an EP consisting of the six tracks listed in the previous paragraph would be worth a tenner of anyone’s money. (It would also have a much more cohesive sound and feel than the full album. Just saying.) All that and another nine tracks, several of which are thoroughly listenable (I am available for ads and poster campaigns), and some of which you’ll probably like more than I did. Yours for £10 from Folk Police.


When it was released last year, every review of King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’ Diamond Mine seemed to include the word ‘folk’; one even described the songs as ‘typical folk songs’. This sparked off the original idea for this post, which was going to set Diamond Mine alongside John Kelly’s album and perhaps one of the Folk Police ones, with a view to working out what ‘folk’ meant in this context.

Then I forgot all about it, and ended up writing a review of eight different albums without even mentioning this one.

First things first: the first song on this album genuinely sounds as if it could be a traditional song, or at least a song written in the neighbourhood of traditional songs. At least, it does to begin with:

Today John Taylor starts his month away
On a boat 110 miles East of Aberdeen
A dozen men, thirty days with 24 hours in each
Of shattered boyhood dreams and not much sleep

I’d much rather be me.

No! Tell us about John Taylor! Tell us about the life of a North Sea fisherman! Don’t tell us how you feel about it all – why would anyone care how you feel about it all, especially when all you can think of to say is that you’re glad it’s not you? We know that already – that’s practically the entire point of telling us about a hard life like John Taylor’s, to sympathise with him, praise his fortitude and endurance, and thank the Lord it’s him going out there and not us. “I’d much rather be me” – is that it? Is that the depth of your imaginative identification? What a falling-off – a verse and a chorus and we’re out of Shoals of Herring territory and into me-me-me. Bloody singer-songwriters…

Such were the thoughts that went through my head, particularly when KC got through the second verse and embarked on a ruminative section built on the tried and tested “I’d much rather be me”.

Hey ho. There are seven tracks on this album: an opening instrumental, John Taylor’s Month Away, then four deeply personal songs written in chains of semi-private semi-metaphor (“For after our accident we lost our no claims/And now I hate those pastel shades”). The last song, closing the album, is the shortest and simplest, and perhaps the best:

It’s your young voice that’s keeping me holding on
To my dull life, to my dull life

Beautiful and affecting. And this is, above all else, a beautiful album. KC’s voice is the voice of an angel, and Jon Hopkins’s arrangements and production are elegant and sometimes startlingly inventive. (My Blackwaterside is heavily influenced by the production of Your Young Voice.) The whole album has a still, untroubled atmosphere; songs emerge from the hush and gradually merge back into it. But the songs themselves – wordy, playful, always spoken by an “I”, always addressed to “you” – have more in common with the songs on the Magnetic Fields album than with any of the traditional songs I’ve mentioned. (The situations in the Magnetic Fields songs are fictionalised vignettes described straight, in the show-tune style; the KC songs take real situations and describe them opaquely, in the singer-songwriter style. But the two forms are very closely related: they’re both about revealing while not revealing, and in both cases what’s being revealed and not revealed is an emotion felt by the writer.)

Interviewed in 2008, James Yorkston disclaimed the label of ‘folk’ for his own work:

Folk is a word that means something different to practically everyone you ask, from the music in the fields passed down from mouth to ear to all the different music that’s out there. For me the word “folk” has always meant traditional folk so for me the word “folk” doesn’t describe what I do because I write pop songs, even though they’re not very popular. One may say it’s folk and that’s one’s opinion and that’s fine but it’s not my opinion, folk has always meant traditional folk. It’s not a big thing, it’s not a war cry or anything.

To put it another way, if Diamond Mine is folk, then ‘folk’ means two completely separate things. It’s simpler and more straightforward, surely, to say that KC also writes pop songs, even though they’re not very popular. Still – nice album.


So, to sum up, “Buy my mate’s records.”
- Not entirely! Four of these nine albums are on the Folk Police label (and I paid for all of them except Weirdlore). Hand on heart, the Woodbine and Ivy Band and Rapunzel & Sedayne CDs are great albums; the other two I didn’t rave about particularly. The one album you should get before any of the others is John Kelly’s.

He’s not a mate as well, by any chance?
- Well, I know him to talk to. I’m more of a fan.

While we’re doing Qs and As, what’s so great about all this traditional stuff anyway?
- I always say it’s the words, which may explain how I can rave about John Kelly and Stephin Merritt in the same post. Listening back to some of these songs, it occurred to me that that’s literally true – often what anchors a song in my mind is a single word, usually one that’s not quite right. Boney’s Lamentation: “We marched them forth in inveterate streams“. Inveterate streams! The Innocent Hare: “Relope, relope, retiring hare!” Relope! More generally, what you get quite consistently in traditional songs is turns of phrase which snag in your mind because they’re just rhythmically and musically perfect. The Innocent Hare is full of them; a favourite of mine is “Go tell your sweet lover the hounds are out”. Why ‘sweet’? Why does ‘sweet’ make it such a good line? Lines like this have been polished through repetition and re-remembering over the years – polished till the pebbles shine.

The songs aren’t all that great, though. And they haven’t all been preserved through oral transmission for any length of time, for that matter.
- Everyone’s a musicologist all of a sudden.

No need to get narky. I’m arguing with myself, remember.
- I’m hardly likely to forget.

Yes, well.
- Moving along. There’s obviously something about the impersonality of traditional songs – the way that they’re not in the singer-songwriter style – that appeals to me. This may not apply to anyone else, but then again it may: I suspect that once you’ve got the taste you never quite go back. But I think what I really love about folk music is that it’s a participative art form, based on a collective sharing of the material: Jo Freya sang William Taylor, so did John Kelly and so have I. They’re totally different renderings – they even have different words and tunes to some extent – but it’s the same song. And the song’s still there for the next singer to pick up. That’s the real point of all those asterisked links up there; they’re not (just) a cheeky attempt to drive traffic to my 52 Folk Songs site. Everyone can contribute; everyone can do the very same songs. Folk is really unusual in this respect. When singers contribute to an album of songs by Leonard Cohen, you get a Leonard Cohen tribute album. When singers contribute to an album of traditional songs, you get a folk album.

And what do you get when one person records a traditional song every week for a year?

52 Folk Songs, of course. Six download albums are now available, with two more to come; some of them are quite good and all of them are remarkably cheap.

Moving along… Final question: why now?
- The idea for this post has been buzzing around for a while, which is probably why it’s ended up being so long. It had to be written now because I’ve just succeeded in tracking down a copy of the Magnetic Fields’ monumental triple album 69 Love Songs – in name at least, a definite influence on my own project – and expect to be immersed in it for some time. Which means it’s going to be Goodbye, Piccadilly, farewell, Leicester bloody Square on the trad front for a while.

You think it’s going to be good, then?
- I already know five of the 69 songs, and three out of those five are among my favourite songs in the world. I think it’s going to be good.

Enough?
- Or too much.

You divers bold

Here’s my version of Child ballad #68, variously known as “Young Hunting”, “Young Redin” and “Earl Richard”. It’s one of the strangest stories in a collection that has plenty of them. It’s not so much the supernatural elements which make it unusual as the fact that they’re essential to the resolution of the plot – a plot which is about a rather sordid murder case.

My text comes mostly from the version recorded by Tony Rose, who credited it to a folk singer called Pete Nalder. On looking at the original in Child’s collection (which is online) it turns out that Nalder did an extraordinary job piecing together a coherent song out of a disparate and fragmentary set of texts. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’ve gone back to Child and tweaked it some more.

Here’s Nalder’s text and my text, and some notes on where it all comes from. Child has eleven versions, lettered A to K. Three of them – G, H and I – are short fragments; of the other eight, A and J tell a slightly different story, while D, E and F end (or break off) part way through. (It’s version 68F, more or less, that was later collected as “Earl Richard”; it’s been recorded by Spiers and Boden, among others.) B, C and K all tell the whole story. What Pete Nalder seems to have done, as you’ll see below, is to piece together a complete song from at least five different versions, probably B-E and J. For myself I either used or modified every verse of Nalder’s version except one (verse 13, the one with the “heavy smell”). I added three verses, all corresponding to verses in versions C and D. Like Nalder, I ended up using something from all of versions B, C, D, E and J.

A blank in Nalder’s column means I’ve added a verse; a blank in my column means I kept Nalder’s verse.

Pete Nalder Phil Edwards Child source
Title: Young Hunting Title: Earl Richard Young Hunting: A, K
Earl Richard: D, F, G
As she was a-walking all alone
Down in a leafy wood
She has heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
The lady stood in her bower door
In her bower door she stood
She heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
C, E, K
“Bower”: C
“Wood”: E
She thought it was her father dear
Come riding over the land
But it was her true love Earl Richard
Came riding to her right hand.
C (Note 1)
“Come down, come down, you fine young man,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
“Come down, come down, young Earl Richard,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
B-F, K
“stay the night”: B, C, F, K
“O I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor come into your arms at all
For a finer girl than ten of you
Is a-waiting beneath the town wall.”
B-F, K
“come into your arms”: E
“Oh well, a finer girl than ten of me
I wonder now how that might be?
For a finer girl than ten of me
I’m sure that you never did see.”
C, E
Then he has leaned him across his saddle
For a kiss before they did part,
And she has taken a keen, long knife
And she’s stabbed him to the heart.
C-F
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, you fine young man
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can weary wait in alone.”
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, young Earl Richard,
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can wearily wait alone.”
D-F
“Until the flesh it rots”: from Young Henry, a later American version
(D has “till the blood seeps from your bone”)
But as she walked up on the high highway
She’s spied a little bird up in a tree,
Saying, “O how could you kill that fine young man
As he was a-kissing of thee?”
 C-E, G, J
“Come down, come down, you pretty little bird
And sit upon my right knee,
And your cage shall be made of the glittering gold
And the spokes of the best ivory.”
 A-G, I-K
“I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor sit upon your right knee,
For as you did serve that fine young man
I know that you would serve me.”
 A-G, I-K
“O then I wish I had my bended bow
And my arrow close to my knee.
I would fire a dart that would pierce your heart
As you sit there a-piping on that tree.”
 D, F, I
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
And nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly across the sea to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
Nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly away to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
D, I
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken that fine young man
And she’s walled him behind a stone.
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken young Earl Richard
And she’s laid him upon a stone.
E (Note 2)
And she has kept that fine young man
For full three-quarters of a year
Till a heavy smell it began to spread
And it filled her heart with fear.
 Verse omitted E (Note 3)
So she’s called unto the servant girl
And this to her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
She’s called to her servant girl
And unto her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
E
B, D, F and J all have “there’s a dead man in my room”,
which is a bit less effective
So the one of them’s took him by the shoulders,
And the other one’s took him by the feet
And they’ve thrown his body in the River Clyde
That runs so clear and so sweet.
Body in the Clyde: A-C, H, J, K
Head and feet: E
Hands and feet: F
And the deepest spot in Clyde’s water
It’s there they’ve thrown Earl Richard in
And they laid a turf on his breast-bone
To hold his body down.
Deepest part of the river: A-C, K
Turf: A, K (Note 4)
And they had not crossed a rig of land,
A rig but barely one,
Before they saw his old father coming
A-riding all along.
D, J (“rig of land” only in J)
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For we’ve come a-seeking for my only son
Who used to visit your gate.”
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For I’ve come a-seeking for my eldest son
Who used to visit your gate.”
D, J
And there came a-seeking for this fine young man
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for this fine young man
Full many’s the lady bright.
And there came a-seeking for young Earl Richard
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for young Earl Richard
Full many’s the lady bright.
 B
Now the ladies turned them around and about
And they made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “We greatly fear that your son is dead
And he lies ‘neath the water and drowned.”
And the lady turned around and about
And she swore by sun and moon
Saying, “I never saw your son Earl Richard
Since yesterday morning at noon.”
A, J; G and K have the swearing but not the turning around (Note 5)
“I fear, I fear the Clyde’s waters
That run so swift and so deep
I fear, I fear your son has drowned
And under Clyde’s waters he does sleep.”
A, D, J (Note 6)
“So, who will dive from either bank
For gold and for fee?”
And the young men dived from either bank
But his body they could not see.
J; A and K have the unsuccessful diving but not the offer of gold
Then up and speaks that pretty little bird
A-sitting up high in the tree,
Saying, “O cease your diving, you divers bold,
For I’d have you to listen to me.”
 A, C, H, J, K
“And I’d have you to cease your day diving
And dive all into the night.
For under the water where his body lies
The candles they burn so bright.”
 A, C, H, J, K
So the divers ceased their day diving
And they dived all into the night.
And under the water where his body lay,
The candles they burned so bright.
 A, C, J, K
And they have raised his body up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
And they have raised Earl Richard up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
 A, J
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “O who has killed my only son
Who used to follow my hounds?”
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “Oh, who has killed my eldest son
Who held my hawk and hound?”
 J (Note 7)
Then up and speaks the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his light leman took his life
And then threw his body in.”
Then up and spoke the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his true love took his life
And then threw his body in.”
 J
“O blame not me,” the lady says,
“For it was the servant girl.”
So they built a fire of the oak and ash
And they put that servant girl in.
A, B, J
But the fire wouldn’t take upon her cheek
And the fire wouldn’t take upon her chin,
And nor would it take upon her hair
For she was free from the sin.
A, J; similar to B, C and H (Note 8)
And when the servant girl touched the clay cold corpse,
A drop it never bled.
But when the lady laid her hand upon it
The ground was soon covered with red.
B, C, J (phrasing from J)
So they’ve taken out the servant girl
And they’ve put the lady in.
And the fire it reached a ruddy red,
And all because of her sin.
A, B, J (Note 9)
And the fire took fast upon her cheek,
And the fire took fast upon her chin,
And it sang in the points of her yellow hair,
And ’twas all because of her sin.
A, B, J, K (third line from K)

Notes

  1. Nalder presents the key meeting as a chance encounter, making the lady’s violence seem more than usually excessive. Most Child versions have the victim as the lady’s “true love”.
  2. I felt all right about changing this, since in Child the lady doesn’t put the body either on or behind a stone. There is a stone in version E, but it’s her doorstep; it’s only really there for a rhyme.
  3. The nine-month time lag only appears in version E; I thought the song worked better if it was all happening in the same time frame. The ‘heavy smell’ was Nalder’s invention (in version E word begins to spread, which is a bit different). I don’t think it was a great idea – it’s bound to break the mood.
  4. I put this back in to prepare for the discovery of the tell-tale turf on the body when it’s brought to the surface.
  5. Child has the (guilty) ‘lady’ turning around and about and swearing (in versions A and J), not the ‘ladies’ (who only appear in version B). This was another case where I thought Nalder’s change worked less well than the source.
  6. The second half of this verse is my addition. I was pleased with the parallelism, although I’ve realised since that it’s not a true parallel (“I fear the waters” vs “I fear that your son is dead”).
  7. “Held my hawk and my hound” is straight from version J; I preferred it to “used to follow my hounds”, which conjures up images of the father as an MFH. On the other hand, both the original and Nalder’s version definitely have “only son”, not “eldest son”; it just came out like that, m’lud.
  8. Versions B, C and H are a bit nastier and more judgmental – they specify that it was only the servant’s hands that were burned by the fire, since she (or in version H he) had used them to help cover up the murder. Version B has an even more discriminating fire – it won’t burn the lady’s cheek and chin either, but only the “false arms” that had previously held the victim (which seems a bit harsh, considering that the story starts with him dumping her).
  9. The fire flaring up is a great detail, but it’s not in Child. In several versions the last couple of verses are longer than the rest, as the ballad writer tries to get more information in while keeping to the basic structure of one idea to each verse; I think Nalder made the right move by splitting this last verse in two, even though it means introducing another idea.

So that’s the work that goes on, or can go on, when you get a folk song out of a Child ballad; June Tabor did something similar when she turned Jamie Douglas (Child 204) into her song Waly Waly. When you look at the source, not one of Child’s recorded variants makes as good a song as Nalder’s composite version, and some of them are so fragmentary as to be unsingable. For instance, here’s version I in its entirety:

‘Come down, come down, thou bonnie bird,
Sit low upon my hand,
And thy cage shall be o the beaten gowd,
And not of hazel wand.’

‘O woe, O woe be to thee, lady,
And an ill death may thou die!
For the way thou guided good Lord John,
Soon, soon would thou guide me.’

‘Go bend to me my bow,’ she said,
‘And set it to my ee,
And I will gar that bonnie bird
Come quickly down to me.’

‘Before thou bend thy bow, lady,
And set it to thy ee,
O I will be at yon far forest,
Telling ill tales on thee.’

That’s your lot. Admittedly that’s an extreme example, but the only versions without any gaps are J and K, which miss out a lot of the early part of the story told by versions A-E.

I think what this brings home to me is just how hard it is to sustain one of the recurring myths of folk music – that it is (or ought to be) Folk Music, the music of the people; that revivalists are simply reviving songs that have fallen into disuse for a couple of decades or centuries, ultimately with a view to taking them back to the people who let them slip in the first place. If you want a singable version of Child 68, you can’t just pick up the text. (There’s also the unavoidable fact that the song in all its versions is written in Scots rather than English, although clearly that won’t be so much of an issue for some singers.) And picking up a text and working with it is what you do with any traditional song – whether it’s a Child ballad, a song that Cecil Sharp collected from a farmworker in 1904, or an unknown song that you’ve just found in a collection of Victorian broadsides.

I’m coming round to the view that folk music is essentially a bank of songs or a repertoire. A broadside, a Child ballad, a song collected from a farm labourer or a Traveller: these are all traditional songs, because they’re all from the accumulated traditional repertoire. And they’re still traditional songs – they’re still part of that repertoire – no matter how you piece the text together and no matter how you perform it.

Folk music as a body of songs is more or less complete, on this reckoning; there aren’t any folk songs being written, more or less by definition. Nor are the Beatles, Arctic Monkeys, Take That or whoever “the folk songs of the future”: there will be no folk songs of the future, because the traditional repertoire isn’t being laid down any more. But it’s there, and it’s big, and it’s a damn good repertoire.

This is what differentiates folk from popular music – but, intriguingly, brings it closer to classical music. When a folk audience hears a song like this one

they will already know it. That’s true for scores if not hundreds of songs, and for the real standards (like this one) it’s an understatement: they’ll know it inside out. They’ll know every word of the song and every note of the tune, and they’ll have heard it sung by several different people (at least seven in my case). What you’re listening to isn’t the song, it’s what the singer does with it. And a folk singer isn’t a folk prophet or a tribune of the people; just a specialist in a particular body of words and music. That’s good enough for me.

Shifting the gear

(Crossposted from 52 Folk Songs and based on comments posted at fRoots.)

The Indigo album marks the first quarter of the 52fs year: 13 songs down, 39 to go. With that in mind, here’s a quick retrospective post on the project.

Songs posted so far: 34
Traditional songs: 22
Contemporary songs: 12 (authors: Peter Bellamy, Bellamy/Kipling, Peter Blegvad, Noel Coward, Bob Dylan, Green Gartside, Richard Thompson, Lal Waterson, Joss Whedon)
Whistle tunes: 3
Songs with backing: 11 (including all the last eight)
Backing instruments: 4 woodwind, 3 free reed (including a melodica I didn’t own two months ago), drums (not played for 30 years), voices, some programming

I had no idea there was going to be all this playing involved when I started! The next frontier is harmony; the ‘white’ album (over Christmas and New Year) is going to feature a fair amount of singing in parts, something I’ve never done before. It’ll be great, probably.

So, what have I learned so far?

1. My voice sounds very different when recorded. Very very very different. Obviously I knew this already, but spending a lot of time with my recorded voice has really brought it home to me. Lots of takes, lots of close listening, and you start hearing a voice that’s very different from what you thought you were producing…
1a. …and start thinking “maybe I need to work on that”. In my head I’m always giving a peak performance – that hypnotic Musgrave I did that time, that back-wall-nailing Trees They Do Grow High… Listening back, this turns out not to be the case; a lot of the time, particularly on first takes, what I hear is just this bloke singing…
1b. …and sometimes not in a terribly distinctive voice – although sometimes I do listen to a take and think “that’s me – I’ll do more like that”. I’ve been singing all my life, and singing in public on a fairly regular basis since 2004; it seems weird to be thinking about ‘finding a voice’ now, but there it is.

2. Although I’ve always seen myself as an unaccompanied singer, it turns out that accompanied singing is a lot of fun…
2a. …especially drones (which I never thought I’d get into)…
2b. …but also harmonies, rhythm tracks, chords (I love my melodica)…
2c. …although doing them all multi-tracked is an incredible time-sink…
2d. …which imposes definite limits on how close to perfection I can afford to get…
2e. …and layering separate tracks recorded without a click is an absolute no-no, unless you really enjoy wielding the virtual razor-blade in Audacity. There’s timing that sounds absolutely regular, and then there’s timing that is absolutely regular, down to the tenth of a second – and that’s a lot harder.

3. Uploading home recordings to a Web site is not going to enable me to give up the day job. (Fortunately I like the day job.) Obviously I knew this already too, but it’s really been brought home to me…
3a. …that there aren’t millions of people who like listening to this stuff, at least not online, not all the way through (why don’t people just leave the thing playing?) and…
3b. …there definitely aren’t millions of people who like downloading it; and, more generally…
3c. …the Web is no place to build a profile, unless you’re very talented, very photogenic, very lucky or gifted with a herd of football-playing pigs; it’s a great shop-front, but I think you still need to build awareness in the real world. There is just too much music out there for a single project like this to make much of a splash. (Or maybe it’s a slow-burning splash; there have definitely been more plays per day per track of the songs on the Indigo album than the ones on its Violet predecessor. We shall see.)

4. Bandcamp’s statistics distinguish between ‘complete’ (>90%) plays, ‘skips’ (stopped before 10%) and ‘partial’ (>10% but <90%). The number of partials and skips is extraordinary, not to say slightly alarming. (On the other hand, the songs with the most partial plays generally have the most full plays as well, so I suppose it all works out.) Aggregating all three, my top five tracks are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
3 Derwentwater's farewell
4= Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
4= The unfortunate lass

On full plays alone, the top five (or seven) are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 The unfortunate lass
3 There are bad times just around the corner
4 The cruel mother
5= Derwentwater's farewell
5= Us poor fellows
5= The death of Bill Brown

Propping up the table (sorted on all plays together) are

28. Hughie the Graeme
29. St Helena lullaby (Rudyard Kipling)
30. Serenity (Joss Whedon)
31. Percy's song (Bob Dylan)
32. The unborn Byron (Peter Blegvad)

(I'm excluding the album-only House[s] of the Rising Sun from the list; hence the last place is number 32, not 34.)

Things look slightly different if we sort on full plays, as there are six songs for which the 'complete play' count is stuck at zero – these songs haven't been played all the way through at all. What are you like, world? There's some great stuff here:

The unborn Byron
The death of Nelson
Percy's song
Boney's lamentation
Dayspring mishandled (Rudyard Kipling)
Danny Deever (Rudyard Kipling)

Generally the newer stuff seems to have gone down less well than the traditional songs – which are, after all, what 52fs is all about, so I can't really complain.

5. Even if I were the only audience – which I'm not, although (as we see) for a couple of tracks it's a close thing – 52fs is proving to be an incredibly enjoyable and absorbing project; I'm learning all the things about music I've always vaguely thought I ought to know, as well as some unexpected but useful things about my voice.

Here's the link to the album again: 52 Folk Songs – Indigo. Roll up! Roll up! And here are links to a couple of personal favourites, plus a couple which may have had less attention than they deserve.







Although I’m not rich

I’m a folkie, in a small way. In my teens I was mildly, vaguely into folk – folk-rock, really – until punk happened; I forgot all about it then, and didn’t rediscover it until three or four years ago. By that time I’d been a regular performer at a local folk club for several years, but the folk club didn’t lead me to folk music – I would have got there much sooner if it had done. (As I’ve said elsewhere, on an average night there you can hear sizeable helpings of anything but – and as folk clubs go it’s not by any means unique.)

Anyway, three or four years ago a combination of circumstances let me to discover – fall headlong into – folk music, and I haven’t got out yet. I still go to folk nights and sing songs, but nowadays I’m a dedicated traddie, devoted to that great ocean of songs that you never hear on the radio.

Last year Jon Boden of Bellowhead put together A Folk Song A Day: a Web site featuring a different song, newly recorded, every day for a year. There was some debate about some of the choices (I think “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” worked better than anyone had expected), but by and large AFSAD was a magnificent project. (And is. The Webmaster is currently cycling through the year for a second time, re-upping the songs month by month; if you missed it first time round, check it out.) Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and AFSAD has had quite a few emulators: there’s An Australian Folk Song A Day (which has been going for eight months), A Liverpool Folk Song A Week (six months) and A Folk Song A Week (seven weeks).

And there’s my own project, 52 Folk Songs, which is just about to enter its eighth week. The idea of 52fs is that the revitalisation of old songs shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of star musicians like Jon Boden, who have armies of fans, state-of-the-art recording facilities, multi-instrumental musical talents, encyclopedic knowledge and a pleasing and tuneful voice. No, we amateur singers can all play our part – even if we have very few of those attributes, or for that matter none of them.

I therefore set myself to record and upload a folk song every week for a year. Common sense and good taste might have suggested limiting myself to one song per week, but if they did I wasn’t listening: there are quite a few extras there too, not all of which are even folk songs. Those with time to kill and/or severe insomnia can read about the tenuous links I’ve made between the songs chosen each week at 52fs. The total for the first six weeks is 14 songs and three tunes:

1 Lord Bateman (FS01)
2 The Death of Bill Brown (FS02)
3 The Unfortunate Lass (FS03)
4 The Cruel Mother (FS04)
5 Lemany (FS05)
6 The London Waterman (FS06) + Constant Billy
7 Over the hills and far away
8 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
9 My boy Jack (Rudyard Kipling)
10 Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
11 Down where the drunkards roll (Richard Thompson)
12 Child among the weeds (Lal Waterson)
13 Hegemony (Green Gartside)
14 Spencer the Rover + Three Rusty Swords / The Dusty Miller

Not content with inflicting these assorted squawks on the world, I’ve had the effrontery to present them to the public under the guise of an ‘album’: 52 Folk Songs – Violet. This is the first in a series of eight virtual ‘albums’ (I use the quotation marks advisedly) that will be appearing over the year, unless I can be induced to stop. It can be downloaded at 52 Folk Songs – Violet for a token payment of 52p (you see what I did there). This sum (which could do some genuine good in the world if donated to an appropriate charity) will get you 40 minutes of what can loosely be called singing and some frankly amateurish whistle-playing, plus a hastily thrown-together PDF file containing full lyrics plus assorted pictures, comments, musings and afterthoughts. The whole lamentable package is fronted by the most un-folk-like image you could imagine (“what’s the purple doughnut for?” – my wife).

Alternatively you can download the tracks individually and pay nothing at all, or simply listen online. Or you could listen to something else instead.

52 Folk Songs is at http://www.52folksongs.com.

The purple doughnut is here.

Share and enjoy.

And come to dust

The Belgian radical surrealist journal Les lèvres nues once featured a slogan which I found simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and intensely inspiring:

SAVE LIEBKNECHT

For someone with my kind of politics, “Remember Liebknecht” would be a great slogan, one to bring a tear to the eye and a clench to the fist; “Avenge Liebknecht”, even. But “Save Liebknecht” is something else – it evokes all those feelings but takes them somewhere else. As if to say, we’re not just going to bring about an irreversible transformation of capitalist relations of production and the everyday life they produce, we’re going to transform the past! The choice of Liebknecht rather than the more obvious Luxemburg is interesting, too – as if to say, we’re going to do a proper job; we’re not just going for the top-rank heroes here. History? The revolution spits in its eye. By the time we get finished, the wind will be blowing into Paradise!

Those crazy surrealist Belgians. But, visiting the British Library the other day, looking at a proof copy of “the Ballad of Reading Gaol”, I found myself feeling something very similar. The thought process went something like, “Oscar Wilde do two years hard labour? Stuff that. No way. We’ll have to do something about that…” And I realised it wasn’t the first time I’d felt the urge – the determination, almost – to change the past; I felt it when I discovered the work of Primo Moroni and realised he’d died the year before (aged 62). For some reason the English folk music scene seems to be particularly rich in might-have-beens, or rather really-shouldn’t-have-beens. OK, Mike Waterson and Johnny Collins both made it to 70 (although that doesn’t seem old these days) but Tony Rose was only 61 when he died, and Tony Capstick didn’t even see 60 – and he’d ditched the folk music twenty years before that. Get Cappo Cleaned Up will be high on the agenda of the post-revolutionary temporal rectification unit (musical branch). Not to mention non-fatal disasters such as Shirley Collins’s dysphonia or Nic Jones’s bloody brick lorry. And then there’s Bellamy:

Peter Bellamy dead by his own hand, in 1991, aged 47? No. Absolutely no way. We’ll definitely have to do something about that.

Earlier today something reminded me of this old post, in which I revealed (or rather discovered) that in some ways I’m more oriented towards the past than the future. The future, obviously, is where things are going to have to get fixed, but at a gut level I feel there are hopeful – vital – possibilities buried in the past, which we need to preserve and can revive. Which is part of why I identified with Moroni – an activist but also a historian and archivist – and why my book’s partly a work of history.

It’s also, perhaps, why the things I spontaneously feel determined to put right are things that never will be. Or not, at least, until the revolutionary conquest of time both past and future. SAVE BELLAMY!

You are the fairest creature

Listen, if you can (the audio may be taken down before long), to this. It’s one of those traditional tunes that seem to do everything that a tune can or should do, twining around the scale like ivy and resolving back where it started. It’s a particularly fine rendition by Jon Boden, with a harsh, keening fiddle accompaniment (played by Jon) which perfectly accentuates the darker notes of the song. I think it might be the best thing Jon’s done all year.

If it has been taken down, have a listen to this:

That is a beautiful song.

Now listen to this:
Scritti Politti, “Hegemony”
There’s no getting away from it – at some level that’s the same song. (And yes, Googling establishes that Green Gartside was a folkie in his youth, and specifically a huge Martin Carthy fan. There’s a small puzzle here, though, which is that Carthy didn’t record the song until 1980, after Scritti Politti had recorded “Hegemony”. He did sing it as part of the score of the theatrical version of “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which was staged at the National Theatre in 1978 and 1979; perhaps Green was in the audience. Either that, or he heard Peter Bellamy’s version, released in 1975.)

I’m slightly staggered by this. Picture a fan of cutting-edge contemporary art who turns his back on the edgy echo-chamber of conceptual this and reinterpreted that, and rediscovers craft – good stuff well made. And imagine that, a few years down the line, he’s appreciating a particularly well-made pot, when he realises that it’s a Grayson bloody Perry. That’s me that is. Here’s a song which does what folk songs do, and does it so well – a slow, deliberate melody; lyrics that say one or two simple things, but simple things that have stayed true; a spare, delicate arrangement. No anxiety, no uncertainty, no rough edges, no contemporary resonance that wasn’t equally resonant 200 years ago. And here’s a song which is pure punk (intellectual wing): it’s all uncertainty and rough edges, an urgent, gabbled bulletin from the front line of one man’s confrontation with the world that faces him. And it’s the same bloody song.

As it happens, although I was vaguely into folk in the 70s – and I did see “Lark Rise” – I never really heard that much of it: Steeleye, Pentangle and, er… By 1979 I had given up on it altogether, partly in reaction against Steeleye’s new direction but mainly because the cultural earthquake of punk had seemed to make it utterly irrelevant. So I never heard “Sweet Lemany” until after I’d got back into folk, 30 years later, in search of the well-made pots of the tradition. Even then I only heard it at singarounds; it was only when I heard Jon Boden’s version last week that I really listened to it. And suddenly I’m back with Green in 1979, agonising over the production of meaning and semantic instability in ‘beat’ music in that legendary Camden squat, and I’m in my room at Cambridge poring over the sleevenotes and feeling his sense of the utter necessity of intellectual work and his despair at the isolation it brings with it -

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

And then I’m not.

As I was a-walking one fine summer’s morning,
Oh he fields and the meadows they looked so green and gay;
And the birds were singing so pleasantly adorning,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

Hark, oh hark, how the nightingale is singing,
And the lark she is a-taking her flight all in the air.
On yonder green bower the turtle doves are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering, Arise my dear.

Arise, oh, arise and get your charming posies,
They are the fairest flowers that grow in yonder grove.
I will pluck off them all sweet lilies, pinks and rosies,
All for my Sweet Lemeney, the girl that I love.

Oh, Lemeney, oh, Lemeney, you are the fairest creature,
Yes, you are the fairest creature that ever my eyes did see.
And she played it all over all upon her pipes of ivory,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

How could my true love, how could she vanish from me
Oh, how could she go so I never shall see her more.
Well it was her cruel parents who looked so slightly on me,
And it’s all for the white robe that I once used to wear.

In retrospect there’s something nightmarish about the political life lived with the kind of intensity that Green appeared to advocate back then. Certainly there’s a nightmarish quality, rather than a hopeful or liberating one, about the idea that everything could and should be transformed, from the conventions of pop songwriting to the living conditions of the band – after all, what if you forgot something, or allowed your guard to slip, and the old world crept back in? (“And ‘common sense’ is things just as they are”.) But if you get to the point where everything is a problem, the problem that you need to deal with is all yours. Green has dismissed the recordings of this period as “some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default … evocative of extraordinary times and a bit winceworthy”. For all that he’s the artist, that seems more like a list of symptoms than a description of the condition. I think something like “Hegemony” is best seen as the product of an attempt to fuse three things – the music, the politics, the personal sense of urgency and wrongness – which didn’t really belong together and certainly didn’t fit together. It struck some extraordinary sparks – thirty years on I still know “Hegemony” word for word, which is saying something given that I’m not even sure what all the words are – but it couldn’t ever work. The trouble was, the fact that it didn’t work chimed with the personal sense of the world’s wrongness, which was validated by the politics, and round the process went again.

I remember reading an interview with Jackie Leven, in about 1980, in which he talked about having worked his way to a place where he’d regained his innocence – “waking up a virgin the morning after the gang-bang” was his image. Green recovered his psychic virginity by journeying into shiny manicured pop – a long way from the anxiously self-deconstructing racket of “Hegemony”, and a long way from “Sweet Lemoney” too. As for me, Scritti Politti’s first few releases meant a huge amount to me at the time, and an important time it was too – Green was a lasting intellectual influence on me, just before Raymond Williams and a couple of years ahead of Guy Debord. So it’s interesting – and somehow at once chastening and heartening – to think how much of the power of those songs came from the music; and how much of the music, in this case, came from a song that had nothing to do with the manufacture of consensus and a lot to do with love and flowers.

“Hegemony” is still strange, powerful and unsettling; some of the songs Green wrote a couple of years later, on the cusp of his rediscovery of pop, are amazing (“The ‘Sweetest Girl’”, “Lions after slumber”, “Jacques Derrida”). But I’m going to stick with Limandie, playing on her pipes of ivory at the break of day. For all the tradition-garbled pastoral imagery, that song’s still about something true – and it’s something much more livable-with than “Hegemony”‘s anguished protest at the impossibility of changing everything immediately. The old songs endure, with their strangely elaborate melodies, their stock of familiar images and their tiny repertoire of subjects – love, sex, babies, death. They’re songs to remember.

Musicians are cowards

Arcade Fire, or rather the popularity and critical esteem of Arcade Fire, mystify me. I mean, they’ve got that big, soaring, early-Springsteen-ish thing going on, but… well, is that it? The other day I looked at some of their performances – well, a couple: I watched this performance from Jonathan Ross’s programme, then I watched one of the Glastonbury performances, and then I just got tired. (Nice to see a hurdy-gurdy on stage, I’ve got to admit, although playing it in heels was surely a bad idea.) Partly I wanted to stop before I was tempted, even out of morbid curiosity, to click on the link that said

Arcade Fire & U2 – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Ugh.

A couple of years ago I wrote a parody of the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. I sang it at a local folk club a while ago, and found myself introducing it with a version of one of Tom Lehrer’s lines – “And if you get the urge to sing along, would you please repress it.” I got the laugh, but that phrasing stuck in my mind afterwards. One of the great things about singing with other people is precisely that you don’t repress the urge: you let rip. It’s easy to assume that there’s something regressive or infantile about this. Certainly it feels as if there’s something sophisticated and adult about sitting in silence and not joining in, but the reverse isn’t necessarily the case. What you’re singing when you let rip isn’t necessarily “la la la”, or “no nay never” for that matter; it can be

With my hump along, jump along,
There drives my lad along:
Pretty, Sparkle, Berry!
Goodluck, Speedwell, Cherry!
We are the lads that can follow the plough,
We are the lads that can follow the plough.

(The tune is equally fiddly.) To be part of a roomful of people singing that is an accomplishment, and takes a bit of practice, but when you get there it’s deeply satisfying – in a way that’s not at all repressed. (We are not the lads that can follow the plough, clearly, but I don’t think this is much of a score against folk music; the crowd at a Queen gig was not in fact going to rock anyone, after all.)

What’s this got to do with Arcade Fire? I believe that rock music is deeply involved with the kind of repression I’ve referred to: it challenges it, but in a very compromised and uncertain way. In other words, a lot of rock music has an anxious quality which isn’t contradicted by, but goes hand in hand with, a certain kind of soaring exultation: Can we (and you in the audience) break down our self-imposed expectations and make a hell of a lot of noise together? No we can’t… no we can’t… but right now you and me We Can! Hell Yeah Yes We Can!… and rest. And repeat. If you can wrap it all around some vague transformative rhetoric – Can we make the world a better place? No we can’t… but right now We Can! – then so much the better.

There’s something deeply spectacular about this, in the sense of grafting a sense of active – and rebellious – participation on to a state of passive spectatorship which is never really challenged. This, I think, is the real fraudulence of presenting Bono or Chris Martin as a political figure: their entire career rests on acting out the impression that repressions are being triumphantly overcome, in a performance which by its very design challenges nothing in the outside world. To take this as a basis on which to mount some sort of rhetorical challenge to real oppression and real injustice is deeply confused, and self-deceiving on the part of everyone concerned: it’s as if Peter Falk and Telly Savalas were holding press conferences demanding better crime detection.

That U2 collaboration tells its own story; it seems to me that the sound of Arcade Fire is very much the sound of imagined triumph over imagined repression, in a style that goes back to “Born to Run” and beyond (even in 1975 I remember thinking that this Springsteen person sounded awfully old-fashioned). Arcade Fire really remind me of someone else entirely, though. I mean, look at them: there’s about twelve of them on stage, most of them playing un-rockish instruments, several of them female, and they make a lot of use of choral vocals and drones. And their album art looks a bit eccentric and home-made, and their songs seem to encapsulate unsettled states of mind, with a vague radical edge. And they’re from Canada. Specifically, French-speaking Canada. More specifically, Montreal. In short, what Arcade Fire really made me think was that there was a market for something like Godspeed You Black Emperor!/A Silver Mt. Zion* – something a bit like that, only upbeat, marketable, radio-friendly: a Lloyd Cole to their Orange Juice, a Kasabian to their Primal Scream.

What’s interesting here is that GYBE!/ASMZ never do that repression/release/exultation thing: the sound they make is loud, challenging and exhilarating, but there’s nothing apologetic or anxious about it, and no sense that We’re Changing The World Right Now! It’s just a great big sound, and it’ll sweep you away. The music’s powerful in an honest, unpretentious way – something that GYBE!’s ‘post-rock’ shares with equally uncompromising forms of music like thrash, or most kinds of dance music. But even so, there’s a lingering sense that the music is there to overcome your resistance: listeners are envisaged as those willingly repressed audience members, holding it together and not letting down their guard, with a lot of the pleasure coming from an almost masochistic submission to the overwhelming power of the music. As I get more involved with folk music – and, probably not unrelatedly, as I get older – this seems like going a rather long way round: wouldn’t it be simpler just to drop your guard, willingly and cheerfully, and take the risk of looking a bit stupid for the greater good of unself-conscious pleasure?

To put it another way, is there anything in the world better than what these people are doing? Take a look at this. We’re still in Montreal, the instruments are not rock and it’s a big group (23 people including two dancers), but you could never mistake them for GYBE! – let alone Arcade Fire.

Anyone who doesn’t smile during that clip deserves to have Laughing Len quoted at them – “You don’t really care for music, do you?” Music you’re actually making, with or without a clogger in a white mini-skirt calling the tunes: there is nothing like it. (And, as that clip illustrates, it actually does change the world.)

*I love them dearly, but there is no way I’m going to follow them through every twist and turn of The Re-Naming Of Thee Bandes. GYBE! and ASMZ to me they will always be. (And let’s face it, you’re not going to think I’m talking about anyone else.)

The real thing, yeah

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

Following the lead of several beer bloggers, here’s what would be on my ideal jukebox.

I’ve got quite mixed feelings about background music in pubs. (I exempt music sessions and singarounds, which are about making music rather than having it in the background, and which don’t invite an audience: if you’re listening, the chances are you’re also playing or singing.) The only kind I can’t stand is the kind that’s too loud to hear yourself speak; I don’t even like that kind of volume in a club for as long as I’m not actually dancing, and in a venue where you can’t dance it seems downright perverse. I’m not crazy about piped music, or amplified live music for that matter, where it’s loud enough to be intrusive; too much of that and you start hankering after silence. But relatively quiet music can make a good backdrop to a drink and a chat.

The big exception to the rule about intrusively loud music is the jukebox, which I appreciate at more or less any volume. Really, the jukebox is commodity capitalism in musical form: it delivers music in discrete packages, each of which can be purchased for the same fee, and by doing so it generates both demand and competition: if you don’t like what someone else has put on, put your hand in your pocket and buy your own choice. All the same, there’s something liberating – empowering, even – about being able to turn your desire for music so quickly and easily into effective demand: a good jukebox lets you dredge up the song that’s going through your head, be it a B-side or a buried album track, and fill the room with it almost instantaneously. It’s not a million miles away from the buzz of singing a new song at a singaround – although obviously in that case there’s more effort involved, and no money changing hands.

Anyway, here are some songs I’ve filled rooms with in the past and hopefully will do again.

Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”
“Where immobile steel rims crack, And the ditch in the back roads stop…” What’s it mean? What’s he going on about? Half a minute later it doesn’t matter. Bliss.

the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”
For a long time I couldn’t pass the Crescent in Salford without going in, and I couldn’t go in without putting this on the jukebox. (To be fair, I only went down that street about once a week.) “I went down to the demonstration, To get my fair share of abuse…” Them weret’ days.

Wizzard, “See my baby jive”
The greatest single ever released. If it doesn’t lift your mood a bit you may be dead.

Radiohead, “Paranoid android”
Sometimes it’s not about lifting the mood. “From a great height… From a great height…”

Mott the Hoople, “All the young dudes”
This single had almost mythical status when I was growing up, largely because nobody I knew had a copy. If you ever found it on a jukebox, what a song. My friends and I were fascinated by the spoken passage that you can just make out in the fade – “I’ve wanted to do this for years… There you go!

David Bowie, “Sound and vision”
I think we don’t always hear how weird this single is. It sounds as if the elements of a pop song have been shuffled and then put back together; they’re all there but nothing fits properly. It’s only let down by patches of downright ineptitude – he should have got rid of that saxophonist.

the Phantom Band, “Throwing bones”
Today on this programme you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. And folk, and angsty singer-songwriter introspection, and quite a lot of Krautrock. And Scottish accents.

the Pet Shop Boys, “Left to my own devices”
There had to be some Pet Shop Boys (at least, when I’m in a pub there often is). “Being boring” and the wonderful “What have I done to deserve this” were strong contenders, but this won out – the eight-minute album version, of course. (You may detect a theme emerging here. By my reckoning these eight tracks come in at 47 minutes.) Strings by Trevor Horn, rap by Neil Tennant:
I was faced with a choice at a difficult age
Would I write a book, or should I take to the stage?
But in the back of my head I heard distant feet:
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat.

You can’t say fairer than that.

In dark and empty skies

Nineteen years ago today, Peter Bellamy ended his life.

I didn’t pay much attention to folk music between about 1976 and 2001, so Bellamy’s death in 1991 passed me by. More to the point, I’m afraid that Bellamy’s career passed me by; I remember hearing one track by his unaccompanied vocal group The Young Tradition, but at the time I just didn’t get it. (Who would want to sing folk songs unaccompanied, in a raw and unadorned style that harked back to the way people used to sing them? What can I say, I was so much older then.)

After I started getting back into folk music, and in particular after I started spending time on the Mudcat, I began to hear Bellamy’s name dropped. I followed up a few suggestions and rapidly realised I’d been missing something big. Bluntly, anyone who thinks they know about the folk revival of the 1960s to 1980s and doesn’t know about Peter Bellamy is a bit like a classical music expert who’s never heard of J.S. Bach.

It’s hard to overstate Bellamy’s achievement – although not, sadly, his success. For me he towers over Ewan MacColl, and may even have the edge on Dolly Collins. Consider: here’s Bellamy in the role of (in his own words) “boring bleating old traddy”, singing a song from the Copper Family repertoire with Louis Killen singing harmony.

Here’s one of Bellamy’s settings of poems by Rudyard Kipling, sung by the Young Tradition (the poem can be found here).

And here’s an eighteenth-century broadside ballad sung by June Tabor:

I lied: “The Leaves in the Woodland” is a Bellamy composition – words and tune. It’s one of the highlights of his extraordinarily ambitious 1977 “ballad opera” The Transports, which tells the true story of a couple transported to Botany Bay in the late eighteenth century. In 1977 I had other things on my mind, musically speaking, and with one thing and another I didn’t hear The Transports until quite recently. I’m regretting that now – it’s stunning. It’s through-composed (music by Bellamy, arrangements by Dolly Collins) and played on period instruments; the lead roles are taken by Mike and Norma Waterson, with supporting parts for June Tabor, Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Cyril Tawney and Bellamy himself, among others.

But the songs are the thing. Most folkies, even those most immersed in the traditional repertoire, never turn out more than a couple of songs which can be sung alongside traditional songs and not stand out. Exceptions are rare and striking (Tawney, MacColl, Dylan before he got bored and moved on). In The Transports, Bellamy basically wrote a whole album of them (a double album in its time – the CD version is 75 minutes long). Not only do his songs sound like long-lost traditional ballads, they each have a place in the plot of the opera – and in most cases advance it. The most remarkable example is “Roll down”, a shanty (sung by Cyril Tawney) which has entered the repertoire of contemporary shanty-singers like Kimber’s Men, despite the fact that its lyrics include a fairly detailed account of a transport ship’s voyage from England to Australia.

Not every song is as strong as “The Leaves in the Woodland”; come to that, not every singer sounds as good as June Tabor (Mike Waterson’s singing on this album is something of an acquired taste, to say nothing of Bellamy’s own). But The Transports is a towering achievement in anyone’s language. And I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of Bellamy’s traditional work, or his long and fruitful engagement with Kipling, to say nothing of his love of the blues and his ear for a cover.

I suppose I should say something about Bellamy’s politics, although it’s hard to know what. His father was Richard Bellamy, a fairly high-ranking member of the British Union of Fascists, but it would be absurd to label Peter Bellamy as an extreme right-winger. Certainly he was never on the Left, and regarded the radical wing of the folk revival with suspicion and hostility; I think he’d have agreed that traditional songs were songs of the people, but interpreted that last word more in patriotic than class terms. (What he would have made of the Imagined Village is anybody’s guess.) But at the end of the day I think he was genuinely uninterested in politics; a cultural patriot rather than a political nationalist. That he was a personal friend of Dick Gaughan speaks volumes; according to Gaughan, Bellamy “spent his life in the place Hugh MacDiarmid called “where extremes meet”, the place where I believe all artists should live”.

Bellamy’s suicide, at only 47, remains a tragedy and remains a mystery. Dick Gaughan commented,

it is my belief that Peter never quite produced the masterpiece which his talents suggested; he came close on many occasions but always gave the impression that each was just another step on the road to truly finding his real voice. I have a suspicion that frustration with this search may have played a part in his death.

“Try again, fail again. Fail better.” We all fail in the end, God knows, but few musicians ever tried so hard or so persistently, or failed with such superb results, as Peter Bellamy.

“Bernard, Bernard, he would say, this bloom of youth will not last forever: the fatal hour will come whose unappealable sentence cuts down all deceitful hopes; life will fail us like a false friend in the midst of our undertakings. Then, all our beautiful plans will fall to the ground; then, all our thoughts will vanish away.”

Peter Bellamy, 8/9/1944 – 24/9/1991

Then take up the strain

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
- Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

There’s an old Chinese story about an acolyte who asks his teacher what he should do (to achieve enlightenment, or with his life, or that day, it doesn’t really matter). Sweep the path, says the teacher. He sweeps the path for an hour. The teacher takes one look at it and slaps his face. It’s not clean! He sweeps the path for two hours. He goes down on hands and knees and picks off every last speck of dirt. He tells the teacher he’s finished. The teacher takes one look at the path and slaps him again. It’s not clean! Not knowing what else to do, he sweeps the perfectly clean path for the rest of the day. As the sun sets the teacher comes out of his cell, looks at the path and slaps him once more: It’s not clean! Despairing, the acolyte pleads with the teacher to tell him how he can possibly make the path any cleaner than it is. The teacher takes a handful of rose petals and scatters them on the path. Now it’s clean.

Here’s a song by the Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers (starts at about 1:40, but the first part of the clip is worth watching).

You can read the lyrics here. The chorus goes like this:

Rise again! Rise again!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men
Those who loved her best and were with her till the end
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

I last heard that song at a singaround last week. Continue reading

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