When we perform in concerts and workshops, we like to organize our material thematically, relating sets of songs to their social, cultural, and historical backgrounds and contexts. In this venture, however, we have strayed from that ideology and have chosen instead to present a group of songs which we like to sing, but which are linked by no strong thread of thematic continuity. Thus we range from classic ballad to singing game, from British broadside to American lyric song, adding a good smattering of recently-written material and a few odds and ends for good measure. Our title comes from Rudyard Kipling's poem Oak, Ash & Thorn, which was recently set to music by Peter Bellamy. When he visited us in Marlboro, Peter made a point of making the trip to Brattleboro, just down the hill from us, to visit the house where Kipling lived during his four-year stay in Vermont.
On to the songs. Of the recently-composed material, most of the songwriters are English. Cyril Tawney, of the West Country, is responsible for FIVE FOOT FLIRT, a lament on a faithless love. "Pumping away," of course, is not the vulgarity which many of our audiences seem to consider it, but refers to the action required to operate the treadle bellows of the old-fashioned church organ. The story of OUR BILL is common as a folk tale on both sides of the Atlantic and is always, at least according to the raconteur, based on fact. This telling of the imaginative use of a concrete-mixer is the work of Lancashire's Bernard Wrigley. Liverpool (again in Lancashire) has produced more than its share of ballad makers, and here is represented by Glyn Hughes and SETH DAVEY, or COME DAY, GO DAY, the song of a Jamaican street entertainer who was a common sight in Liverpool at the turn of the century. And last (of the English songwriters), in the place of honor way behind the band, comes Roger Watson, author of many first-rate songs about goings-on in his native Derbyshire. SALVATION BAND was one of his earliest and Tony sings it from the heart; he was raised as a Salvationist and his father played trombone in the band. But no brass here, only concertinas.
Malvina Reynolds, the "Muse of Parker Street," has long been a commentator on the American social and political scene, and her songs are known the world around. We first sang THE ALBATROSS in 1972 at a concert tribute to Malvina, a program of her songs performed by members of the Pick'n' and Sing'n' Gather'n' of Albany, N.Y. and thereabouts. She considers it to be one of her best songs. So do we.
The albatross, known to deep-water sailors as a goney or gooney-bird, appears again as a symbol of freedom and escape in THE WINGS OF A GONEY. Probably presenting a much truer picture of the whalerman's life than the many more lively songs which express the exuberance and excitement of the chase, this little lament was found by Gale Huntington in the logbook of a New Bedford whaler. Our variant comes from the singing of A. L. Lloyd, who has given the song a more British flavor. Also nautical, though totally opposite in mood, is THE HANDSOME CABIN BOY, a popular broadside ballad of shipboard carryings-on. We learned our version from Louis Killen; it derives from that sung by one of the greatest ballad singers of all times, Jeannie Robertson of Aberdeen.
Since coming to this country, we have tried to seek out and learn American variants of British ballads, particularly those sung in the North-East. Such a ballad is KATE AND HER HORNS, found as a broadside in Britain although it appears not to have been collected from oral tradition there. Tony's version is based on the set sung by the late George Edwards of Roscoe, N.Y., a Catskill singer with a fine repertoire of traditional ballads. It is printed in Norman Cazden's Abelard Song Book. A very "literary" piece, it is interesting to note that this recent text is almost identical to the set given by the unknown soldier of Sandgate, Vermont, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, who published his Green Mountain Songster as long ago as 1823. It is also very, close to another Vermont text, from Fred Atwood of Dover, collected by Margaret Mac Arthur in 1961. SAVE YOUR MONEY WHILE YOU'RE YOUNG is a native American song which was common in the lumber camps of the North-East, as well as in Michigan and Ontario, where this variant was recovered by Edith Fowke. It came to us along a chain of revival singers, through Barry O'Neill and Sara Grey.
Back to England. Our version of BARBARA ALLEN, that most venerable and best-loved of ballads, was also found fairly recently (1964) by Ewan MacColl. He, with his wife Peggy Seeger, collected it from an English gypsy, Caroline Hughes, in Dorset. STAINES MORRIS does not come from oral tradition. It was first recorded in Elizabethan times as a lute piece though as sung here the tune derives from the one given in Playford's English Dancing Master of 1650. The present text is the Maypole Song from Actaeon and Diana, a collection of "drolls and farce jigs," musical skits of the Restoration. Tune and text were married by William Chappell, and since the "discovery" of the song in Chappell's Popular Music of the Olden Times, printed in the 1850's, this setting has come to be one of the "hits" of the British folk music revival. Our source for OATS AND BEANS AND BARLEY GROWS was Tony's mother, Amy Barrand, who remembered playing the game as a child. We filled out her text from other Lincolnshire variants. Keeping things in the family, Tony first heard ALBERT AND THE LION recited by his father, though he learned his text from a recording by Stanley Holloway, music hall performer extraordinaire. It is perhaps the best known of the Holloway monologues, and has delighted millions around the world.
Last (somewhere in the middle) is a medley of banjo tunes, SALT RIVER AND COLORED ARISTOCRACY. Thanks to Sara Grey for my first (and only) banjo lesson, and to Howie Bursen, Frank George, Billy Vanaver and Taj Mahal. Also for Tony's percussion, which effectively stops me from slowing down in the middle.
John and Tony at present reside in Marlboro, Vermont where they teach Psychology and the Arts at Marlboro College, as well as maintain a full schedule of concerts in colleges and coffee houses.