The excitement aroused by The Young Tradition in England, at clubs and through best-seller recordings, confirms Einstein's theory that space-time is curved. In other words, if you go back long enough, and in the right way, you can reach our own time and even the future. The vitality of the group, like that of the best young singers today, stems from the eagerness both to know everything and to give everything a fresh look. This trio does it with old English folk song, which they make sound as if it grew in their own back yard because all mustiness is rubbed away and it regains the feeling of reaching out to the new and unexpected that it must have had when it came fresh from the heart and mind of its creators. Occasionally they baffle scholars with a "discovery" which proves, upon research, to be, unbelievably, a new composition.
The group has no leader; it is a unit made up of three people, a diverse bunch who look and sound completely unalike until they sing together. In the group songs, the melody line is taken by Peter. He comes from Norfolk and Kent, was an art student before he took to singing, and wears wild ties, baggy trousers and colored vests. Heather, who puts harmonies between melody and bass, is twenty-one, served in the army, and attended London University.
Her background is Yorkshire, and she wears anything on stage. Royston, who sings bass, is, at thirty-one, the daddy of the group. He maintains his dignity by wearing elegant clothes and trying to look his age, which is only possible for him first thing in the morning. He comes from Surrey, loves chamber music, and has had paying jobs, from truck driver to advertising executive, before turning to music.
The following notes are individually or collectively by The Young Tradition.
THE INNOCENT HARE — A typical English hunting song, charming despite its bloodthirstiness. We learned it from the singing of Bob and Ron Copper, and it is probably closer to the "Copper sound" than anything else in our repertory. Royston's bass line is not, however, the same as that used by the Coppers, and Heather's harmony is a definite addition to the Copper pattern. After hearing our arrangement described, Ron Copper said to us; "I've been telling Bob for years we should have a young lady sing with us!"
THE LYKE WAKE DIRGE — The dirge as we sing it is an adaptation of Aubrey s manuscript version of 1686. Descriptions of the song have come from Scotland and from the north of England as far south as Yorkshire, and the idea of the departed soul going on a hazardous journey to Purgatory has its parallels throughout Indo-European lore. Widespread too is the belief that alms given by the living will be given back to the donor at the beginning of the soul's journey, so that a pair of shoes given away during the subject's lifetime will enable his soul to cross prickly Whinny Moor without injury. Whether the dirge was sung, chanted or recited over the corpse is not clear; there is no evidence of an air to the dirge in the tradition. The tune used here was given to us by Hans Fried, who heard it long ago from an old Scots lady, Peggy Richards.
BYKER HILL — Collected by John Hasted, this is a boastful collier's song from Tyneside. Mentioned in the song is the tune of Elsie Marley, a well known Northumbrian dance, and Geordie Charlton, apparently a local character. Geordie has identical mention in a sea shanty as having a pig that did a dance when he hit it with a shovel.
KNIGHT WILLIAM AND THE SHEPHERD'S DAUGHTER — We all three love ballads, but up to the present we have sung them as solos. This is our first attempt to apply group singing technique to one of the "big" songs, and to do so we have had to employ various combinations of voices from verse to verse. Since learning this and working it out we have come across even longer versions of the same story, but this fifteen-verse account did not seem to us in need of further expansion.
THE TRUTH SENT FROM ABOVE — This is a traditional carol, collected in 1909 by Vaughan-Williams from Mr. W. Jenkins, of King's Pyon, Herefordshire. The tune is in the Dorian mode, and has affinities with several others, including "Searching for Lambs." In 1823 it appeared in Hone's list of carols. Heather, who learned it at school, here sings it solo.
THE SINGLE MAN'S WARNING — Heather says, "this was a song I had thought to use as a solo, but it was not to be. One of the trials of being in a group, I suppose." She discovered it while browsing through the manuscripts on microfilm in the Cecil Sharp House. It was a tiring process — his writing is somewhat illegible and the cracks on the film become confused with the lines on which the music is writ — but, as she says, it can be rewarding. This song was collected in 1903 from Tom Sprachlan of Hambridge, Somerset. She thinks Tom must have had matrimonial problems; several of his songs are on this theme.
THE BANKS OF CLAUDY — This, along with "John Riley," is probably the most widespread of the "broken token" ballads. We adapted it for three voices from the singing of the Copper family of Rottingdean. The theme of the returned sailor whom the faithful girlfriend fails to recognize is one of the top three tales in folklore all over the English-speaking world. This version is as true to type as any, except that the actual token is not mentioned.
DERRY DOWN FAIR — This Dorset version of Young Rambleway doesn't end as the more familiar variants do, with the girl going home to her parents sadder, wiser and pregnant. Here the end is a boastful half warning, half invitation from Rambleway himself: "My hat, cap and feathers, my dear, you shall wear, and a bunch of blue ribbons to tie up your hair." And that is the limit of what any girl can expect of him. The words were collected by Hammond from Robert Barrett, of Puddletown, in 1905. The tune is not Mr. Barrett's, however, but came to us in its present form by mistake. We liked it and kept it. Royston and Heather sing it duo, with Peter on chorus.
THE FOXHUNT — We learned the song from Peter's brother-in-law; it was originally sung by Mr. Stephen Pole, a Norfolk singer, who gave it to Dr. Vaughan Williams. The song was begging for staggered rhythms and natty takeovers, so in a tentative way we complied with the requirements. This represents some kind of new direction for us. We may well go this way for a while, exploring the rhythmic niceties of the songs we learn.
THE HUNGRY CHILD — We have a friend called Judith Piepe. She once came into collision with a Folk Drag, one who knew All About The English Tradition and could tell a traditional song any day. So Judith wrote him a couple, which he averred were rural gems from the seventeen hundreds. When she told him the truth he went away and hasn't been heard from since. Splendid. So, we thought, was one of the songs. Judith calls it "The Procrastination Song." We prefer to call it "The Hungry Child."
PRETTY NANCY OF YARMOUTH — There are many songs with this title; some have parallel texts, others dwell on the hardships of a sailor's life at sea, giving no account of the girl's marriage to another, which is the subject of this variant. It was collected in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire.
WATERCRESS-O — Roger Watson, who wrote this song, is a friend of ours; we could almost claim to have discovered him. Royston comments; "Early in our friendship, he gave me this song. He has written much since then and many good singers have relayed his material around the clubs, but I still think that this is one of his best three songs. It is anecdotal, being taken from his grandmother's memory of a time in her childhood, when, as a miner's daughter, she experienced the privation brought on by the meagerness of strike pay. Most of Roger's songs are taken from real life; his feeling for both stories and melodies is surer than most writers of today; his only worry with songs of the quality of Watercress-O is that the singers should do them justice."
THE OLD MISER — Peter says, "I learned the song from hearing Harry Cox sing it at the Windmill, Sutton in Norfolk. I do not have the total recall memory attributed to traditional singers, not even the ability to know so short a ballad on only one hearing. There were tape-recorders present. To my knowledge this ballad has never previously been collected from Harry, although other versions of this particular song are not uncommon and the story line is encountered time and time again under various titles and employing only slightly different details. The present text has a more bloodthirsty ending than most, with multiple deaths equalled only by "The Banks of Sweet Dundee" and "The Boston Strangler."
THE WHITSUNTIDE CAROL — Thomas Coningsby of Whaddon in Cambridgeshire, from whom this carol was collected, tells how the men of the village used to go into the woods on Whit Sunday morning, cut oak branches, and lay them on the doorsteps of all the houses. Then they would go round in a group singing this carol. And so here, as has happened in other old songs, the high moral tone of the early verses is linked with what is obviously a pagan custom.