Thursday, November 01, 2012

"Songs and Southern Breezes"

Cecil Sharp House

This evening was intended to commemorate the Eightieth anniversary of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. This turned out to mean the Eightieth anniversary of the English Folk Dance Society merging with the English Folk Song Society. Worth celebrating. Cecil Sharp House is exactly half way between Bayreuth and a rather old fashioned Anglican church hall. It's both the very heart of English Folk Music (definitely with capital letters) and it's a place where people go to learn country dancing. In the basement, the beardiest barman I've ever seen sells real ale.

The first half of the evening consisted of the aforementioned Shirley Collins giving an illustrated talk about the life of Bob Copper. Bob, as well as being patriarch of the Copper Family and therefore the main cause of the Second Folk Revival, was a BBC broadcaster and collector of folk songs during the 1950s. This was the last time when it was still possible to go into an English country pub and have a good chance of bumping into an old fellow who never went to school, started working as a farm labourer at the age of eight, and could sing to you songs as they were sung to him by his grandfather. The living tradition, to coin a phrase. He could reasonably claim that Noah Gillette’s version of the Bonny Bunch of Roses represented a direct link to the age of Napoleon. The talk was illustrated with fascinating archive recordings which I had never heard before. An old gentleman singing through an interminable “Pickle-ally Bush” which left you wondering how many relatives he would have to go through before someone paid off the ruddy hang-man; another one singing a unique version of Long Lankin (”Cruel Lincoln”) which Mr Copper said was as precious as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The second half of the evening was a rare performance by the actual Copper family themselves. I've heard them once before in their Young Coppers incarnation, but this was a multi-generational, extended line up, doing a good selection of the family repertoire, running the gamut of human experience from “isn't working on a farm awful” to “isn't working on a farm brilliant” interspersed with family history and memories of Bob and the previous generation. (He only bought a tuning fork when the Coppers were invited to appear at the Albert Hall. Up to then, they’d used a cow-bell.) They aren't all professional musicians, but they have preserved a style of singing down through multiple generations, and they love it. They all clasp hands warmly in the last verse of Drive Sorrows Away (”although I'm not rich and although I'm not poor / I'm as happy as those who have thousands or more”). In a way, there is nothing better than hearing them throw themselves into Sweet Rose of Allendale and joining in the harmonies of Sportsmen Arise. Cecil Sharp House isn't the heart of English folk music, of course: it’s these people, and a few others like them. 

A charming, informative, moving evening.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

Here's a thing. Although I describe myself as liking folk music, it's becoming more and more apparent that the music I actually know is what might be described as "singer-songwriter", and that I have virtually no repertoire of the sort of traditional songs that you often mention in "a unique version of Long Lankin" way, or "more melancholy than Dave Arbuckle's version of Once A Jolly Milkmaid".

So my question is this: can you recommend a single CD, or small set, from which I could learn all or most of the songs that Everybody Knows?