Every time someone starts talking about the "primitive simplicity" of folk music I'm tempted to go away somewhere so that I can laugh without offending them. For the sound of the folk music of the British Isle is as complex and even exotic as any you could care to mention.
Its variety even today is astounding and some of that variety is reflected on this record which also reflects the variety of the records available from the company which produced it. Here are the veterans of the folk music revival, A. L Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, side by side with "second generation" revivalists like Louis Killen and Enoch Kent. Here Michael Gorman, whom I once heard described as the finest Irish fiddler outside Ireland (some would delete the words after "fiddler") plays on one side of the record, while Colin Ross, a young Northumbrian virtuoso whose piping is as impressive as his fiddle-playing, plays as one of A. L. Lloyd's Celebrated Working Man's Band on the other.
It has become one of the truims of the revival that good female singers are as rare as swallows in midwinter, and yet here Topic can give us two girls of real stature, Isla Cameron and Anne Briggs, both of whom refuse to tart up their singing with intrusive prettiness. They just sing the songs, dammit, allowing their voices to display the Lyrics and the lovely melodies as the gems , they are.
And if anyone still thinks folksongs should be sung by castrati accompanied soulfully on the lute, let them give an ear or two to the shanteys on this record. Whether it's Harry H. Corbett's deservedly famous rendering of Blow the Man Down from his pre-Steptoe days, or Louis Killen's Heave Away Johnny from his recent Topic album of shanteys, these are tough,, vigorous songs with enough rhythm in them to satisfy any beat fan.
The oldest song on the record is probably The Cutty Wren, invested with the right mixture of urgency and mystery by the Ian Campbell Folk Group. This strange ritual of the hunting, killing arid ceremonial dismemberment of a wren is still practised in parts of Britain on St. Stephen's Day, and it is easy to agree with some folklorists who believe the sharing out among the poor in the last verse acquired a revolutionary significance during the Peasants' Revolt.
But not all great songs are songs of protest, and A. L. Lloyd's Skewball belongs to one of the other great subject categories, well represented in the Topic catalogue; songs about sport. There seems nothing spectacular about this particular horse race to catch the ballad-maker's fancy, but it's as widespread as the English itself, having passed also into the Negro tradition in America. But this version is probably of Irish origin.
The McPeake Family sing Jug of Punch which they have put high into the folk popularity poll. They sing it to their own Irish pipe accompaniment.
Louis Killen is the one singer to have two performances on this record which is an honour he deserves. His Up The Raw is a miner's dandling song, to be sung while jogging a baby on the knee. He is accompanied by Colin Ross on the whistle.
The only other singer who could successfully challenge Louis his supremacy among the younger singers is Enoch Kent, and the reasons for this can be heard in his powerful singing of Donal Don. This brutal ballad also has a wide currency, but whereas some of the American versions raise the sort of embarrassed smile you get from audiences at the lesser kind of horror film, Enoch's chills the blood with its bitter story.
The group of Miners' Dances towards the end of the record, in which Colin Ross plays with Alf Edwards (concertina) and Jim Bray (bass), concludes with an item in 9/8 time. Before Tin Pan Alley put a 4/4 straitjacket on people's time sense, complex rhythms like this were not regarded as outlandish by listeners and dancers.
Finally, from Ewan MacColl's fine album of Jacobite songs, the song of the Battle of Prestonpans in '45, when the Scots routed the larger English army led by General John Cope.
This record is a sampling of some of the riches from the music of these islands which have found their way on to the Topic label, from the pioneering days when larger and prosperous companies would barely risk the occasional, tentative 78, to today when the chance of commercial success has produced folk sections in some catalogues bearing little relation to the meaning of the words. In one LP, it is impossible to do complete justice to this richness, and there are omissions which I—and no doubt they—regret. But others are prepared to repair these omissions.
In the meantime, I can hardly think of a better introduction to the complex and varied sound of folk music than this record.
Icham of Irlaunde
ant of the holy lande of irlaunde.
gode sir ant pray ich ye
for of saynte charite
come ant daunce wyt me
This blarneying invitation to the dance dates from around 1300; already, the Irish were a musical nation but their troubles were only just beginning.
Some seven hundred blood-stained years later, the republic of Eire has finally and for good turned its back on Great Britain and sets its face resolutely towards America. Hopefully, Granuaile prepares her economic miracle which might at last provide enough work at home to keep her sons on their native shore instead of wandering the world.
The Ireland of the jaunting car, the Galway shawl, the white cabin nestling on the green hillside—this Ireland is fast disappearing as industry, including that specifically twentieth century industry, tourism, pulls the country's standard of living up to the level of the rest of Western Europe.
With the old ways, inevitably, die the old songs and dances except where there is enough love and enthusiasm to keep them alive. That is the way of the world. One deplores the death of so much grace and charm but the Twentieth Century is an inexorable goddess and she is also called Change. Changes everywhere. At a St. Patrick's Day concert, a showband tops the bill; they don stetsons to sing a Country and Western medley, homage to a cowboy songster. A plump youth cavorts, blowing down his saxophone; and could he dance a hornpipe, do you think, that marvellous display of casual agility? The lights dim; a blonde in a sparkly dress stands in a blue spotlight and sings The Dying Rebel to a thumping three/four beat. Her voice is broad enough or sweet enough to sing Her Mantle So Green or the stirring ballad of Willie Fieilly but later she twists as the band plays a Monkees hit. From the stalls, a disgruntled ticket-holder cries: "Why don't you play some of the good old Irish tunes?"
So maybe change will not take everything away; maybe the beauty of the old music will be its claim for survival. For, meanwhile, in Connemara, where the little fields are paved with rocks and the donkeys still pick their way over the bog on delicate hooves, perhaps gnarled hands are tuning a fiddle or an old man throws back his head and closes his eyes and begins to sing an ancient song in the Irish language in the dignified, complicated, old fashioned way. And change stands still and the passage and alterations of time cease to matter.
Wherever the Irish go, they take their music with them, and the Irish go everywhere. You can hear great Irish singing and music in Camden Town. In Birmingham. In Liverpool. In any town where there is a substantial Irish community. A Chicago policeman put together one of the best of all Irish tune books from the playing of Irish American musicians.
"Of all the countries in the world," wrote the late Sir Arnold Bax, "Ireland possesses the most varied and beautiful folk music". The music of this country is as inexpressibly various as the landscape, as stark as the Western shores, as lushly romantic as the green hills of Donegal. And as cheerfully convivial as the smoky interior of a Dublin pub. This record is a musical patchwork quilt of the beauties of Ireland, that most beautiful country.
Here is music of all kinds. For example, the voice of Dominic Behan, poet, playwright, controversy rouser, entertainer extraordinary, with a Dublin street song, The Zoological Gardens, a real echo of that handsome, Guinness soaked city on the Liffey, and also The Castle of Drumboe, commemorating the tragic rising against the English in 1916. This is the tough, jaunty, irrepressible voice of the streets of Dublin; and the noble and ornate unaccompanied singing of Joe Heaney is the expression of the Western coast, the essential core of the Irish tradition.
Here the barren landscape of bog and stone provides little enough sustenance for the poor farmers and fishermen who eke out a precarious livelihood there and who still speak Irish Gaelic as their first language. Here, the classical repertory of Irish song has survived from the remote past to the present day. Joe Heaney, native of County Galway, sings a light-hearted love song in the beautiful but fast dying Irish tongue. Little work and less money drove Joe Heaney from Galway; the song Margaret Barry sings, Our Ship is Ready, has words aching with the sadness of the exile who must leave home and loved ones for the sake of bread. The magnificent, roving tune intensifies the heartbreak of the words, "Farewell, my love, and remember me".
Break for music. Michael Gorman and Margaret Barry also live far from home, in London. Michael Gorman is one of the finest of all Irish fiddlers; Margaret Barry is a particularly fine singer but here she accompanies Michael Gorman with her distinctive banjo style while he plays a favourite hornpipe. The Boys of Blue Hill. More music—the virtuoso uillean piper, Willie Clancy, playing the old march, The Chanter's Song. The uilleann (elbow) pipes, are so called because one doesn't play them with the mouth like Scottish bagpipes; instead, the flow of air is maintained by a small bellows strapped under the arm and pressed by the elbow. Unlike the Scottish instrument, the Irish bagpipe is a discreet-toned indoor instrument lending itself to delicate treatment. To round off this selection there is a collection of polkas, where Michael Gorman and Margaret Barry are joined by a group of expatriate musicians to create something of the joyous atmosphere of a ceili band.
And Margaret Barry herself sings My Lagan Love with all the flamboyant sweetness that is the essence of her style. This song she learned from a record of the celebrated Irish tenor, John McCormack; it is a literary production, a poem written by Seosamh McCathmhaiol (Joseph McCall) which the composer. Herbert Hughes, set to an old Gaelic tune. Margaret Barry's voice and style irradiate the florid Victorian diction, turning all to grace.
Another notable singer, standing up for Donegal, is Paddy Tunney, poet and patriot, a fighting son of Erin, giving us a charming jig song notable for its wealth of references to the literary and political idols of nineteenth century Ireland, The Rollicking Boys Around Tandaragee. A fellow rebel of Paddy's, Art Kearney, sings The Song of the Dawn, written by Brian O'Higgins, who fought in the rising of 1916. The song signifies the revival of a nation.
In the capital of the debated six counties, Belfast, in British Ireland, live the multi-instrumental McPeake family, whose sweet harmonies accompanied by the plangent tones of harp and uillean pipe, have become internationally famed. Here, they sing a patriotic Irish song, An Durd Fainne, in the Irish language, and the nostalgic ballad they have made entirely their own. Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go. The picture of a hillside full of flowers is a charming place to end.
Scotland the brave. Land of mists, heather and tartan; of porridge, venison and amber coloured whisky. The Scotland of the travel posters tends also to be the picture of his native land the exile takes with him to the four corners of the earth. Or to England. Where he will sigh for lakes, mountains and the skirl o' the pipe, exotically romanticised by time and distance.
And maybe he will quite forget the real flavour of Scotland, which is stern, ribald and rational all at once. The towns have harsh, forbidding stone faces although the countryside is so beautiful it wins the heart immediately. But the Clyde is for building ships, Lanarkshire is for mining, and Scotland contains some of the blackest, bleakest industrial slums in Europe as well as so much physical beauty.
A physical beauty which itself is often the price of depopulation. Bracken usurps the homesteads. Sheep nibble where the fiddler used to play for reels and flings. The drift away from the country, the drift away from Scotland, is relentless.
Who built Scotland's character? All sorts of people. John Knox, arch puritan, furious foe of licentiousness and frivolity. And also, parodoxically, Robert Burns, poet, radical and lover. David Hume, too, chief architect of the Age of Reason, who lived in eighteenth century Edinburgh, the Athens of the North. Sir Walter Scott, who put Scotland squarely into the Romantic period, tartan and all, and helped make popular the glory of her traditional balladry.
For the visitor, life is full of pleasant surprises. They serve you crisp, hot, delicious rolls for breakfast and call a leg of lamb a "gigot" as if they were pretending to be French, a relic of the "auld alliance", in the days long before the union with England, when Scotland and France presented a united front from two directions against that country. And Edinburgh rock, which sounds as grim as granite, turns out to be confectionery, crumbly in texture and almost excessively sweet. This is something like the Scots temperament, which is not nearly so stern as it is painted. The legendary dourness of the race, on examination, is seen to be no grimness but a stoic courage, no dourness but passionate convictions intensely held.
Not till the tenth century was the name "Scotland" applied to the country north of the Cheviots, and, in that century, the dialect of English that now seems to us to be the authentic voice of Scotland began to supersede the native Gaelic.
So modern Scots is really an importation from the north of England all the time. In fact, all through
the Middle Ages, the lowland Scot called his speech not "Scots" but English-"Scots" to him always meant Gaelic.
On this record of the music of Caledonia, Dolina Maclennan sings in Scots Gaelic and Lorna Campbell sings a song translated into English from that language, nowadays spoken more freely in Scots settlements in the New World than in the Old. The Fisher family have a song in English, Joy of my Heart, a fine Gaelic tune, and the process has been reversed—its lyric praising the beauty of the Western Isles has lately been translated back into Gaelic.
During the Middle Ages and for a long time afterwards, the division between the Gaelic Highlands and the English Lowlands was a very real one. The bare-legged Highlander, garbed in plaids, slept on bundles of heather, fished, hunted and plundered cattle from the hard-working Lowlanders, who could not understand a word their wild countrymen spoke and were already living in towns and founding industries, like God-fearing people.
The Highlanders were tribal, clansmen bound in loyalty to their chief, living roughly in rough country, accepting no authority but the chief and largely dependent on him for their livelihood. By the end of the Middle Ages, English-speaking Scotland was a self-respecting member of the European community of nations but there always remained in the blue distance these natives who seemed like foreigners.
Despite the illusory bond of language, Scotland and England fought like cat and dog until 1603, when James, the son of ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, became the sixth king of that name in Scotland and the first king of that name in England. One prince united the nations; strife, it would seem, was at an end.
But the evil fortunes of the House of Stewart willy nilly involved the land from which they came. When the Stewarts were turned peremptorily off the throne at the end of the seventeenth century and left to wander disconsolate through Europe, the old-fashioned, feudal Highlands still supported the Jacobite cause and paid the price in blood. The Lowlands, already profiting from union with England and fiercely Protestant, into the bargain, wanted no more of the autocratic, Catholic Stewart line.
But the Stewarts were loved in Scotland. The tragic Jacobite cause is reflected on this record in Isabel Sutherland's song, King Fareweel, a song she says "has always seemed to me to be like a bugle call or a battle cry." And after the defeat of the famous Jacobite rebellion in 1745, the Highlands were crucified and the Lowlands prospered.
In the heart of the rural North East, there were prosperous farms that hired a multitude of farm servants and housed them in stone built huts or "bothies". This practice continued until our own day. During the long winter evenings, these bothies were the scene of much music making and we call the songs associated with them "bothy ballads".
There are two favourite such ballads on this record—Sleepy-toon, finely sung by Norman Kennedy, and Bogie's Bonnie Belle, sung by Winnie Campbell. This last is a story of love gone sour told with all the wry honesty of the Scots. This record brings the musical history right up to the factories and mills of the industrial revolution, too; Ray Fisher sings a graphic and lively industrial piece, The Spinner's Wedding.
Ray Fisher is a young woman who has consciously learned her way of singing from that of the great Scots women singers. Two of these singers, and they are two of the finest singers you could wish to hear, appear on this record. Both are of the "Travelling" or tinker stock and both have a way with a song to melt the stoniest heart.
Jeannie Robertson, sometimes called "the greatest ballad singer in the world", is represented by a salty slice of underworld life, the broadside ballad, The Bonny Wee Lassie who Never said No, and Belle Stewart performs one of the masterpieces of Scots balladry, The Dowie Dens of Yarrow.
The traditional ballads of Scotland, dating perhaps from Medieval times, perhaps before, are one of the great, though anonymous, glories of Scots literature. Ewan MacColl sings another great ballad, Minorie, also called The Two Sisters, widely known in England and America, too, and believed to be of Scandinavian origin, relic of the constant intercourse between Scotland and Scandinavia over the centuries.
You can hear, too, the savage but noble sound of the Highland war pipes, the most famous bagpipes of all, played by Alex Stewart, husband of Belle; and the record closes, fittingly, with a song by Robert Burns, Scotland's finest poet and one of the most warmly human and utterly human men who ever lived, A Man's A Man for A' That.
This record is Scotland in little, a brief glance at her history, a quick look at the fabric of Scots life. Here we have some small but tangible and genuine a part of Caledonia herself.
Sea Songs and Shanties
Of all the varied kinds of English folk song, none has more broad appeal than the sailor songs. They're of two sorts: songs for diversion, and songs for working to. The amusement sort are often called foc'sle songs or forebitters, because they were likely to be sung either in the men's quarters below or (in good weather)up on the foc'sle head with the singer sitting on the bitts and the crowd off-watch lolling on the hatch-covers. The work songs are called shanties, usually short songs with solo lines and choral refrains. The foc'sle songs tend to tell a good tale, while with the shanties the sense of the words is unimportant; the point was in the rhythm that allowed the gang to time their movements and heave or haul together. Nowadays both kinds of songs are more sung ashore than at sea. The foc'sle songs keep their popularity on account of their salty lexis. The shanties are enjoyed chiefly because they give everyone a chance to join in heartily. As this sampler record shows, both sorts are strong, seemingly indestructible, likely to be loved by generations yet to come.
Blood Red Roses — One of the best of halyard shanties, undeservedly little-known until it became current in the folk song clubs fairly recently. Old Cape Homers have been unable to suggest the meaning of the refrain. Stan Hugill, in his excellent Shanties from the Seven Seas quotes a fragment that may be relevant:
Ho Molly, come down
Come down with your pretty posy.
Come down with your cheeks so rosy.
Ho Molly, come down
The Black Ball Line — The Black Ball line started in 1816, its little 300-500 ton ships flying the red swallow-tail flag with a black ball in the middle, ran regularly twice a month from New York to Liverpool and back, whatever the weather. They were heavily sparred and carried large crews. The officers were notoriously hard, working pressure was fierce, and a great deal of vehement singing went on. The best experts say this shanty was likely to be used either for hauling on the halyards or shoving at the capstan bars.
Maggie May — The song is heard in many sea ports, but the Liverpool variants are the best known and the widest sung. The tune is known also to the words of the Kentucky slave song, Darling Nellie Gray, published as the composition of Benjamin Russel Haxby, whose father's house in Ohio was one of the 'stations' of the underground route by which Negro slaves were smuggled northward. Various other sets of words have been fitted to the melody, notably, Keep your feet still, Geordie Hinny. and the Australian Neumereila Shore. Both Nellie Gray and Maggie May derive from a transportation song, Charming Nellie Ray, a version of which is quoted in the journal of Charles Picknell of the convict ship Kains, wrillen in 1830. The present version is mainly from Maggie Swift of Wellington Grove.
The Plains of Mexico — Shanties are usually sung prettied up in the folk song clubs, with tightly organised choruses and a musical discipline quite at odds with the rough and tumble work-song, ship-board origins of these songs. The Watersons sing an ocean going shanty in an ocean going way, roughly with plenty of guts. John Harrison sings the lead. The Santyanna refrain probably has a negro origin; Southern American negroes often adopted the name of the famous Mexican general Santa Ana as a song burden. It has been suggested that the phrase really derives from a seaman's prayer to Sainte Anne, the patron saint of Breton seamen.
Reuben Ranzo — A great favourite among topgallant halyard shanties, it has been suggested that 'Ranzo' is a corruption of the name Lorenzo. American whaling ships often recruited Portuguese seamen in the Azores, and Ranzo may have been one of these. However, if the song originated in whaling vessels it seems to have spread quickly to ships of other kinds and became as well known to British as to American seamen.
Lowlands Low — The tune of this halyard shanty derives from the well-known Miller of Dee, which became widely current after its appearance in Bickerstaff's opera Love in a village in 1762. Sharp heard a version from a seaman in Cornwall, and Hugill gives one from a Tobago Negro. The present version mainly follows Hugill. The 'Lowlands' refrain is probably an echo of the Golden Vanity ballad.
Do Me Ama — A foc'sle song that probably came into being during (he 18th century. It derives its story from an old chapbook tale of The Squire and the farm servant. The song has appeared in prim a few limes, most recently as Jack the jolly tar in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. It is still occasionally to be heard from traditional countryside singers, and may owe its survival to the fact that in the story the common sailor most cheekily gets the better of the squire — a theme for which country singers show lasting affection.
Boston Harbour — The bold Captain W.B. Whall was the first to print this song in his pioneer collection of Sea Songs and Shanties. He says, 'It is evidently the work of a seaman . . . and was very popular between the years 1860 and 1870.' It is a foc'sle song, a forebitter not a shanly. The Bow-wow chorus is borrowed from an influential music-hall song of the mid-nineteenth century.
Blow the Man Down — Hoisting the yards was often a long, heavy job. Accordingly, the halyard shanties were likely to be long, rambling songs. They were usually made up of alternate solo and chorus lines. The crew would rest on the rope while the shantyman sang his solo line and then take a good pull (sometimes two) as they bawled the refrain. Blow the Man Down is a classical halyard shanty that originated in the ships of the Black Ball Line. It is led here by Harry H. Corbett in true Liverpool style.
The Handsome Cabin Boy — In the 19th century, broadside texts of the Handsome Cabin Boy remained steady sellers on the fairgrounds and in the backstreets of provincial towns for sixty years and more. A very widespread song, ashore as well as afloat, it is still not infrequently found among traditional singers in eastern England and north-eastern Scotland.
Away, Haul Away — This was a favourite short-drag shanty, used almost exclusively for hauling aft the foresheet or sweating up halyards to take in. the slack — jobs that called for a short pull but a good 'un. Well known both to British and American seamen on the Western Ocean run, it is first cousin to the better-known Haul Away, Joe. The tune carries a whole anthology of verses, some decorous, others not.
The Coast of Peru — The English whaling ship Emilia was the first to inaugurate the Pacific spermwhale fishery in 1788, rounding Cape Horn to fish in the waters of the South Sea Islands and the coasts of Chile and Peru. By the 1840's, the days of the South Seamen were numbered but they left behind a fine memorial in their songs, of which The Coast of Peru is perhaps the most impressive. Tumbez, mentioned in the last verse, is in the far north of Peru, on the Gulf of Guayaquil near the equator. Its girls are remembered in several whaling songs.
All for me grog — The Watersons got this song from the collections of Frank Kidson. Helen Creighton, the distinguished Canadian collector, found a version in Nova Scotia and suggests that the song was originally a music-hall favourite. The song is well-known in Australia in versions relating to the adventures of a pastoral worker. As a sea shanty, the song was used in English ships for both capstan and halyard work.
The Greenland Whale Fishery — How old is this song? In the Waterson's version the date 1864 is given which is thirty years too late for Greenland whaling, for by 1830 the Greenland grounds were fished out and the expeditions had transferred their attention to the seas of Baffin's Bay. In any case, we know the song is very much older than it seems, for it was already in print as a broadside before 1725. The Dutch and English had opened up the Greenland grounds (where, by the way, they fished for right whales, not sperm whales) early in the 16th century so the song came into being some time between then and the opening years of the 18th. It remained a great favourite, being reprinted over and over again by broadside publishers, and many versions of it have been collected from country singers during the present century. It's one of the great sea songs.
A Hundred Years Ago — It is not clear whether this halyard shanty was first sung aboard American or British ships. It has close associations with the Baltimore clippers, but John Masefield heard it sung on British ships in his seafaring days, and the singer who gave it to Cecil Sharp knew it as an English sailors' song. It may be a seaman's re-make of the mid-19th century minstrel song called A Long Time Ago. Whoever made it, it was a good, nostalgic sounding shanty for the long hauls.
Goodbye, Fare Thee Well — Traditionally, this one was sung at the capstan when the anchor was raised for the homeward run, a big moment for men who might have been away for a year or more. W.M. Doerflinger says that when the shantyman led the gang in this song, 'cheering from other vessels in port rang across the water to wish the homeward-bounders luck'. I'here are countless verses to this song. Those sung here are mostly from Stan Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas.