Topic Records TSCD706 (CD, UK, 1999)
Compiled and annotated by Laurence Aston;
Produced by Tony Engle;
Design by John Haxby
- Eliza Carthy and The Kings of Calicutt:
from Eliza Carthy and The Kings of Calicutt (TSCD489, 1997)
- Nic Jones:
The Flandyke Shore
from Penguin Eggs (12TS411, 1980)
- Brass Monkey:
The Flash Lad
(Roud 490; Laws L12)
from Sound and Rumour (TSCD501, 1998)
- June Tabor:
from Aleyn (TSCD490, 1997)
- John Tams:
From Where I Lie / Sheep Counting
from Unity (TSCD508, 2000)
- Anne Briggs:
(Roud 397; Laws P15)
from Anne Briggs (12T207, 1971)
from Rising (TSCD506, 1999)
- Pop Maynard:
Polly on the Shore
from We've Received Orders to Sail (The Voice of the People Series, Vol. 12) (TSCD662, 1998)
- Martin Simpson:
The Keel Row
from Martin and Jessica Simpson: True Dare or Promise (12TS446, 1987)
from Common Tongue (TSCD488, 1996)
- Sam Larner:
The Lofty Tall Ship
(Roud 104; Child 250)
from A Garland for Sam (12T244, 1974)
- Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick:
from Life and Limb (TSCD491, 1994)
- Louis Killen:
Young Edwin in the Lowlands
(Roud 182; Laws M34)
from Ballads & Broadsides (12T126, 1965)
- John Kirkpatrick:
Sweet Jenny Jones (Adderbury) / The Sherborne Jig (Sherborne) / The Sherborne Jig (Longborough)
from Plain Capers (TSCD458, 1992)
- The Watersons:
from For Pence and Spicy Ale (12TS265, 1975)
- Walter Pardon:
Van Diemen's Land
from Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land (The Voice of the People Series Series, Vol. 4) (TSCD654, 1998)
- Shirley Collins:
A Blacksmith Courted Me
from Heroes in Love, TOP95, 1963)
- Harry Cox:
The Bold Princess Royal
(Roud 528; Laws K29)
from We've Received Orders to Sail (The Voice of the People Series, Vol. 12) (TSCD662, 1998)
- Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight:
Some Old Salty
from Once in a Blue Moon (TSCD478, 1996)
There are very few countries in the world so untouched by the tides of history—migration, the rise and fall of dynasties, religious and ideological oppression, political upheaval, the cross-currents of trade—that their traditions have evolved in a vacuum. Perhaps such cultural isolation can be found among the Polynesian islands or inaccessible areas of the Amazon rainforest or the self-imposed stasis of Imperial Japan or the asceticism of the Shakers in the midst of contemporary affluence. Yet in everyday discourse we often talk of being English or French or Greek or American as if each of these national badges signified a homogeneous culture susceptible to cut and dried definition and easily identified by an agreed set of values and characteristics. But when you look closer at these badges they usually conceal an ever-changing amorphous collection of personal and social experience which defies such certainty.
Most people who live in the British Isles for instance probably share enough common ground to use the expression 'English' without constantly having to explain themselves. Convention dictates that my understanding of what being 'English' means has sufficient in common with what you understand so that we can use the term unchallenged. Yet the idea of 'Englishness' is like a rainbow: you seem to see it clearly—yes over there—as the sun shines through after the rain but as you move closer it appears to be further away always eluding your grasp. This is rather like what has happened in our folk music.
The melodies and harmonies the voices and instruments the lyrics and the stories we call English folk music seem utterly familiar. But this repertory is mercurial and multifaceted indefinable even when we seem to know everything about the sources, connections and history of each dance tune and song. So deep is it rooted in our collective experience that often we are no longer sure how it came into our individual lives.
When folk musicians interpret this repertory some many draw on the personal associations of tune or lyric and see themselves as links in a chain of traditional experience, while others may recast the same material creating new work that remains faithful to its origins. Through each we hope to hear afresh those ancient threads in our folk music that give us the illusion of continuity—the rainbow in the sky.
The recordings on this album—all drawn from the Topic Records catalogue—are by artists whose work continues to contribute to this process. The compilation also celebrates Topic's sixtieth birthday—an important milestone in the label's history and its commitment to folk music.
First among equals is the Waterson-Carthy family of musicians. The Watersons sisters Lal and Norma, brother Mike and second cousin John Harrison—made their first recordings for Topic in the mid-sixties as an a cappella group—and their role in the folk revival and their influence on many singers of the time and later is widely acknowledged. In 1975 they released For Pence and Spicy Ale, a critically acclaimed album which featured Mike, Lal and Norma and new member Martin Carthy (who had replaced John Harrison). A typically eclectic mixture of well-known and obscure songs it included the delightful Sheepshearing which combines two songs originating in Wiltshire, one about the end of shearing and the other about the completion of the harvest, both occasions for what the singer and musicologist A.L. Lloyd described as “ceremonial booze-ups that are an echo of ritual seasonal feasts of the past when people felt they were taking some of the power of the gods through gluttony.”
Twenty years on Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy continue to produce outstanding albums on the Topic label, now with their daughter Eliza, whose vibrant fiddle-playing and singing brings new dimensions to the Waterson:Carthy house brand. Rambleaway / Valentine Waltz is the opening track of their 1997 album Common Tongue, on which they are joined by guest melodeon-player Soul Rose. The linking of these two waltzes is a fine example of the group's inspired approach to their source material.
Eliza Carthy provides our opening track with Whirly Whorl, a variant of one of the many songs dealing with the sexual incompatibility of old (and usually wealthy) men and charming young girls. Taken from Eliza Carthy & The Kings of Calicutt, the musicians are Saul Rose, melodeon; Andi Wells, drums; Barnaby Stradling, bass; and Maclaine Colston, hammered dulcimer. Eliza plays mandolin and the arrangement is augmented by the horns of J. Simon Van Der Walt, Jak Duff and Toby Shippey.
Martin Carthy is also heard in a bouncing brass arrangement of The Flash Lad by Brass Monkey, the group he originally formed in the early eighties with singer and accordion-player John Kirkpatrick. The group's first album was released by Topic in 1983 and featured Carthy and Kirkpatrick with the original line-up of trumpet-player Howard Evans, trombonist Roger Williams and percussionist Martin Brinsford. For their second album released in 1986, Richard Cheetham replaced Roger Williams and after a long period of inactivity it is this line-up that recorded their 1998 album Sound and Rumour, from which we hear The Flash Lad, a song based on the vigilante exploits of the eighteenth century novelist Henry Fielding.
Carthy and Kirkpatrick have frequently worked together in other contexts but Kirkpatrick is best known for his championing of the music for Morris dancing and in particular the various squeeze boxes used in its accompaniment - the Anglo concertina the button accordion and the melodeon family of instruments. In 1992 Topic reissued Plain Capers, the album John Kirkpatrick originally recorded in 1976, in which he explored a marvellous selection of Morris dance tunes from the Cotswolds. The medley of Sweet Jenny Jones and two versions of the Sherborne jig begins however with Sue Harris playing the introduction to the first tune on the piano while Kirkpatrick plays the piano part on the jig.
The fiddler Dave Swarbrick's collaboration with Martin Carthy goes back to the mid-sixties, and here we have a version of Byker Hill, adapted from the Tyneside song Me Ginny Sits Ower Late Up and a mainstay of the original Carthy / Swarbrick repertory. This energetic performance, recorded live in 1990 in California and released on their Topic album Life and Limb, gives free rein to both musicians' instrumental skills.
Topic has always been in the forefront of traditional music recording but three of our selections indicate how contemporary folk artists are reinventing the genre: Tarras, John Tams and June Tabor.
Tarras are a young five-piece group from the North East of England who infuse traditional tunes and original songs with a rich blend of acoustic bass guitar cittern accordion percussion and fiddle in highly inventive arrangements. Their first album kicks off with the spirited instrumental Parson's Green. Tarras are Emma Hancock, fiddle; Ben Murray, accordion; John Redfern, percussion and guitar; Rob Armstrong, cittern; and Joss Clapp, acoustic bass.
The voice of John Tams, one of our finest singers, is usually associated with the Albion Bond of 1977 and their landmark album Rise up Like the Sun, and subsequently in The Home Service with Bill Caddick and many of the players from that classic Albion line-up. From Where I Lie / Sheep Counting is a combination of two original songs by Tams from his first unreleased as yet untitled solo album and features an extraordinary arrangement for guitar voices and marimba that evokes a world of dark disturbing secret pleasures.
June Tabor's charismatic singing has assured her a continuing place in the English folk scene as she has weaved in and out of traditional folk-rock and jazz settings during the last thirty years. Her collaborators include Nic Jones, Martin Simpson, Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy, The Oysterband, Huw Warren, and the Creative Jazz Orchestra. From her 1997 album Aleyn we hear her sing the lyrical Devonshire tune April Morning sensitively accompanied by Andy Cutting on diatonic accordion and the violin of Mark Emerson.
Often seen as a major figure in the evolution of the guitar in folk rock alongside Martin Carthy, Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson, Martin Simpson signalled his territory on Golden Vanity, his debut album for Bill Leader's Trailer label on which Pretty Polly sat next to Dylan's Love Minus Zero / No Limit. He appears in our compilation in a typically adventurous acoustic/electric guitar arrangement of The Keel Row with Laurie Harper on fiddle which comes from his 1987 Topic album True, Dare or Promise.
Nic Jones made one outstanding album for Topic in 1980. Titled Penguin Eggs and combining songs by contemporary writers with traditional songs the album has an integrity derived from the way that Jones transcends his material the words seeming to come from his own experience. The best example of this is The Flandyke Shore (a variant of High Germany and Fair England's Shore), in which a tale of personal tragedy whose imagery is marvellous in its simplicity is belied by the hymn like theme. Nic's voice and guitar are accompanied by the melodeon of Tony Hall.
Nurtured in the cultural melting pot of Centre 42, a trade union-backed project to deliver left wing culture to audiences outside of London in the early sixties, Anne Briggs came under the influence of A. L. Lloyd. She emerged as a major interpreter of traditional songs whose unself-conscious style was itself to influence many of the rising female singers of the day including Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior. Reynardine is one of the great folk songs (with many variants in both England and Ireland) whose melody and story stays with you long after you hear first hear it. Ann Briggs' version comes from her eponymous 1971 Topic album.
If the idea of a readily identifiable Englishness is to be found anywhere in our folk music it is surely in the singing of traditional performers who have been able to make recordings in recent times and in doing so have provided some sense of continuity with the past. Chief among these is Harry Cox, heard here in The Bold Princess Royal. Recorded under the supervision of the composer E. J. Moeran in a Norfolk pub at the end of 1945, this is a classic sea story which vividly recounts how a mercantile sailing ship rebuffed an attack by a pirate. Moeran is said to have “discovered” Cox at the end of the First World War, but it was not until the latter part of his life that this versatile singer and fiddler came to greater public attention when he was visited and extensively recorded by various collectors and then appeared on radio and television.
Another influential Norfolk singer was Walter Pardon, whose huge repertory of old country songs first surfaced through the recordings made in 1974 by producer Bill Leader and singer Peter Bellamy. Pardon's version of the epic ballad Van Diemen's Land is one of many historic performances he gave of songs he learned from older members of his family who themselves had learned them from their elders. The ballad graphically warned mid-nineteenth century poachers of the penalty of being caught red-handed: enforced deportation to Australia as a convict.
Shadows of former generations are even more evident in the singing of the Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner. His robust voice and sometimes idiosyncratic storytelling attracted many listeners when he took part in Singing the Fishing, the award-winning radio ballad made by Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, first heard on the BBC Home Service in August 1960. Larner was born in 1878 and was a herring fisherman for most of his working life before ill-health forced him to retire from the sea at the age of 55 in 1933. The Lofty Tall Ship (sometimes called Henry Martin), recorded by Philip Donnellan in the late fifties, is another ballad about an encounter at sea between merchantman and pirate but on this occasion its conclusion is tragic.
Even greater pathos is expressed in the ballad Polly on the Shore sung by George ‘Pop’ Maynard, a Sussex singer born in 1872. The song, whose bloody sea battle acts as a warning to young men to avoid being press-ganged into the navy, must have had strong personal resonances for Maynard, who lost his wife Polly in early middle age. This recording dates from 1956.
Shirley Collins' distinctive approach to the traditional repertory of her Sussex family and community was certainly inspired by the good fortune of hearing in person singers such as Pop Maynard and Harry Cox during the Fifties. She become a key figure in the Revival but also created influential collaborations with the singer-guitarist Davy Graham and later with Ashley Hutchings, progenitor of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and the Albion Country Bond. As a young woman, Collins worked with the American collector Alan Lomax and was able to research and record the folk music of the Southern Appalachians alongside her own English country music. A fine example of the latter is her version of the Sussex love song A Blacksmith Courted Me.
Another performer who championed traditional a cappella singing is Louis Killen. Born in Gateshead County Durham, Killen's career has encompassed a diverse range of settings including work with Johnny Handle, Pete Seeger, Peter Bellamy, and Robin Williamson. He recorded for Topic in the early Sixties and Young Edwin in the Lowlands, dating from that period, is a classic example of the way in which a nineteenth century melodrama can be heard afresh.
The final track in our compilation is both a celebration and a valediction. Lal Waterson recorded two albums with her son Oliver Knight, each revealing an extraordinarily rich seam of original songwriting: Once in a Blue Moon, released in 1996 and A Bed of Roses, released posthumously in 1999. From the first of these comes Some Old Salty, in which apparently surreal lyrics are set to a nostalgic tune that sounds like a collision between a revival hymn and a sea shanty with a chorus that will stick in your head for days to come. The singers are Lal Waterson, Maria Gilhooley, Norma Waterson, Jim Boyes, Barry Coope, Lester Simpson, and Oliver Knight.
(Laurence Aston, August 1999)
Musical Traditions review by Rod Stradling