A public reeling from the impact of skiffle music as sung by the majority of its British exponents might be pardoned for wondering exactly where am the relationship — so noisily trumpeted abroad by the skifflers themselves — between this peculiarly British effusion and folksong! That the connexion does, however, exist can readily he appreciated on playing this E.P. Given the opportunity actually to recognise the tune, hear the words, the roots of share are laid bare.
Here on this disc are four of the most famous of all skiffle pieces … in their original folksongs form as it had developed by the middle of the twentieth century. Cumberlad Gap — in skittle guise a Hit Parade Number One — is revealed as a charming mountain fiddle tune, whose original lyric commemorated a pass through which one of the most famous tactical manoeuvres of the American Civil War was made. The folk version of Sylvie is a Southern field song whose simple, unadorned narrative style is, in its thematic adherence to the everyday actions of working people, closely analogous to country blues. The sea shanty, Sail Away, Lady is of course the song which formed the basis of the skiffle hit, Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O. And, finally, Freight Train is sung here exactly as it was first taught to Peggy Seeger by Libby Cotton, the North Carolina housemaid from whom the plaintive little melody and nostalgic words were first "collected".
Peggy Seeger herself grew up in Washington. D.C., where her parents both professional musicians, were exploring the rich collection of American folk American in the Library of Congress, transcribing, arranging, and editing for various publications. Peggy and her sisters were surrounded by this material using the songs in work and play, helping their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, in the preparation and publishing of a folksong book, and so on, during their most formative years. Peggy was thus familiar with the singing styles and repertoire of folk artists from many localities by the time she had grown up and perfected tar technique on guitar and five-string banjo — a fact which shows itself today in the breadth and authority of her singing.
Isla Cameron, born in 1930 in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, was taken to Newcastle-upon-Tyne before she was a year old — but her mother saw to a that sly was as well acquainted with the songs of her native Scotland as she was with the Northern English variety by the time she left school! Basically an actress with a fondness for singing for pleasure rather than profit, Isla has appeared in a number of West End productions and many radio series both as an actress and as a singer, and was for not years with Theatre Workshop — where she met Ewan MacColl, the distinguished folk singer who taught her most of the songs she knows today.
Guy Caravan, the male member of the trio, a year older than Isla, has only been a musician for seven years: an astonishing fact considering the range and versatility of his singing and the excellence of his guitar and banjo technique. A Californian by birth, Carawan first became interested in folksong while taking his Master's degree in sociology at the famous University College of Los Angeles.
The most noticeable thing about all ballads is their masterly incompleteness. The minstrel who wrote, composed and sang his story, had a lifetime of opportunity for perfecting his composition. The incompleteness of his technique was the practical result of long experience. All ballads are stories — but in none is the story more than partly told. It comes to the listener in small scraps of information — but each so adroitly chosen that the whole story unfolds itself in the heart. It is full of gaps, it leaps from essential to essential, but it never misses anything that matters.
She hadna been about the King's court
A month, but barely three
Till frae the King's court Marie Hamilton
Marie Hamilton durstna be.
The King is to the Abbey gane
To pu' the Abbey tree,
To scale the babe frae Marie's heart;
But the thing it wadna be.
O, she has row'd it in her apron,
And set it on the sea —
"Gae sink ye or swim ye, bonny babe,
Ye'se get nae mair o' me".
Books made the ballad old-fashioned. The theatre supplanted it. The ballad declined from the hall to the street. Then poets who recognized the beauty of the old poems began to write, in imitation, ballads in a literary form. William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in particular, attempted to create new stories in the old manner. But, however well written, these 19th century literary ballads were reproductions. They had not the breath of reality, the immediacy which belongs to the passionate telling of an actual history. "The Tay Bridge Disaster" is not as well written as "Shameful Death" — but, in spite of its absurdities, it is near to the spirit of the ancient ballads: and that is why it finds a place in this anthology.
It was in the 20th century that a greater revival began. Thomas Hardy's ballads are not reproductions. With ease and certainty he writes of his own time. Brilliantly contrived, exciting and deeply moving, "A Trampwoman's Tragedy" is just as arresting as the tragedy of Marie Hamilton. More recently the ballad has attracted the attention of several contemporary writers.
Though the book and the theatre and the cinema eclipsed the ballad, broadcasting has done much to revive it. Ballads are for the home not the public building; and broadcasting and the gramophone record can bring them back where they belong. There is no such thing as an exact text of any ancient ballad. Each singer has made his own version of words and tune. Nor is it possible to set a date to any early ballad: all that is claimed for this disc is that the poems on Side One are all older than those on Side Two.