Thursday, 31 December 2009

New Year's Eve in East London

In October 2001 I spent an enjoyable afternoon with Don Jackson from Manor Park (E12). Don was extremely entertaining company, with a repertoire of music hall songs and a seemingly endless supply of jokes and stories.
Don was then in his early 60s, and had recently retired. He was living in his parents' former house, and recalled the New Year's celebrations in the street. At midnight, all the families would come out beating dustbin lids with pokers and making as much noise as possible. If anyone had a bugle, he said, they'd play that too. Gradually, over the years, fewer and fewer families joined in, and the custom had died out in the early 1960s - 1962 or '63, he reckoned.
It seems to have been widely observed locally. The following year I met Ellen Cordery, from the Bonnie Downs area of East Ham (E6), a mile or so south of Manor Park. When I mentioned this custom she said that it still persists (just) in her area. Her daughter supported her in this.
A couple of years later I had the opportunity to hear it for myself. A family who stayed briefly in my street (E7, roughly halfway between Manor Park and Bonnie Downs) came out at midnight with their pots and pans. They were the only ones who did it. They moved away shortly afterwards, and I have never heard it since.
Whether you're beating pots and pans to welcome it in or not, have a good 2010.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

More on traditional songs - and a Christmas treat

A couple of nights ago my regular folk club, Sharps, held its Christmas party. There was a certain preponderance of comic songs and party pieces, inevitably. Ruth Bibby did some clogging, which was a treat - there's a photo of her dancing here, but it's not quite the same as seeing her dance on a pub table.
There was a nice couple in from LA. I didn't catch their names, but the chap stood up and sang his party piece, 'Aunty Maggie's Remedy'. He'd learned it from his father, who'd sung it at family parties in the north of Ireland. The singer didn't know where it came from, and nor did I, but it was a fun little song that suited the evening admirably.
Of course, when I got home (and sobered up) I did some searching around for it. It turns out to be a song by George Formby Junior. As a special festive treat I'm posting here the clip of him singing it in his 1941 film 'Turned Out Nice Again':
So, of course, it isn't remotely a traditional song. However, it was clearly learned traditionally, and the singer understood it as belonging to party entertainment, ie it already has a specific place in his understanding of vernacular singing events. It's also worth noting that the melody had changed slightly in his learning and singing of it
While folk clubs may be the place for hearing what we've always (traditionally?) understood as 'traditional' songs, a whole body of other popular song is also entering a vernacular singing tradition. There's a body of material of a certain age that's becoming part of the repertoire of domestic singing events. I prefer George Formby Senior's songs, personally, but George Junior's material is clearly part of that developing tradition. (I was struck by this some years ago when Ricky Tomlinson sang 'My Grandad's Flannelette Nightshirt' in a party on 'The Royle Family').
Maybe it's time to acknowledge these vaudeville pieces the way the folk scene of the early 1970s did with music hall songs. (Thinking of which, I sang a disgraceful Sam Mayo song, by the way). After all, there are plenty of people out there now who still use such songs and their singers as cultural touchstones. Earlier this year I was in Sainsbury's, East Ham, where there's a popular cashier named Mary. An elderly man saw her across two checkouts and shouted 'Mary! Mary!' before breaking into 'I fell in love with Mary from the dairy ...'
And so, partly because I've thus now authenticated it as entering tradition, but mainly because it still makes me laugh, here's a Christmas gift of the Cheeky Chappie himself, Max Miller. Miller's the name, lady, there'll never be another ...

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Izzy Young

On a trip to Stockholm in the summer I finally got around to visiting Izzy Young's Folklore Centrum on Södermalm. (It's on Wollmar Yxkullsgatan, about 5 minutes walk from Mariatorget T-Bana station).
Izzy Young (pictured right on his 80th birthday) is a splendidly ornery chap. He was born in 1928 in New York. He's one week younger than his schoolfellow Tom Paley. Bob Dylan wrote one of the best descriptions of Izzy: 'Young was an old-line folk enthusiast ... His voice was like a bulldozer and always seemed too loud for the little room. Izzy was always a little rattled over something or other. He was sloppily good natured. In reality, a romantic.' (1)
Izzy opened his Folklore Center in Greenwich Village in 1957. The Center was a commercial venture, built on his romantic attachment and commitment to folk music. The Center sold books, records, magazines and instruments, and was a venue for concerts and events. It also became a focus for the emerging folk music scene. It was the place to go to learn about this music and the people who made it. Izzy keeps an extraordinary archive of cuttings, books, magazines, photographs.
You get some idea of Izzy's passionate romanticism from the battle to allow folk musicians to congregate in Washington Square Park. The city authorities were attempting to clamp down on these informal gatherings by insisting performers had permits. In 1961 the Parks Commissioner refused to issue permits. Izzy and about 500 musicians went down there without permits. The NYPD sent down a riot squad. Izzy was indefatigable in soliciting support for the musicians. I spent a happy half hour studying his scrapbooks of letters and press cuttings about this period.
He's probably best known because of his association with Bob Dylan, but that reflects the obsessive scrutiny of many Dylan fans rather than Izzy's own preoccupations. He was instrumental in staging concerts by many of the musicians who emerged from that Greenwich Village scene. (When I was there Izzy was very pleased that a 1967 Tim Buckley concert at the Center had finally found a CD release).
Like Tom Paley, Izzy also got the bug for Swedish music. In 1973 he closed the New York Center, and moved to Stockholm. The Folklore Centrum moved to its present location in 1986.
Izzy still stages small concerts in the Centrum. There is still a commercial aspect to it, although this is these days very much dependent on what material Izzy can obtain. He complains that people don't buy things from him, then admits that he doesn't have much for them to buy.
But he does still have the most magnificent archives and library. He complains that people don't know what to make of the Centrum: the uses that could be made of Izzy's resources depend on people having a sufficiently passionate interest in all aspects of the music. Go in and ask him about something. He showed me files of correspondence on the question of copyright of Leadbelly's music. He has an extraordinary knowledge of, and passion for, folk-derived musics from around the world. He loves poetry, and learns verse every day. We talked about Charles Aznavour, Swedish fiddle music, Mike Seeger, Zimbabwean vocal groups, Phil Ochs, Jacques Brel ...
I may love different aspects of folk music to Izzy, but in the Folklore Centrum I felt right at home. It's worth dropping in.
1: Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One (London: Pocket Books, 2005), pp. 18-19

Friday, 20 November 2009

Josh Beasley

On the 26th September I was in Greenwich. I don't get down there much, and I was struck by a lengthy wall of memorial graffiti on the Thames Footpath, just outside the Greenwich entrance to the Foot Tunnel.
Beginning at the left hand end of the wall, the heavily-covered memorial is clearly dedicated to 'Josh' (see above).
Seventeen-year old Josh Beasley went missing on Christmas Eve 2007, after going out skating with friends. His body was found further up the river a month later. He had drowned.
As is the case with other people who have died tragically young, Josh was commemorated by his friends in a number of ways. Photos on the Facebook Memorial page show that not only were memorials drawn here, but it was also the site of extensive floral tributes.
As ever, the messages are emotional, and great creative skill has been expended in the cartoons and images.
What surprised and impressed me was that the wall was still covered in these memorials nearly two years after Josh's tragic death. Other memorials I have photographed, like those to Khaleel Khan, were removed soon after their appearance. I hope that this means a more sensitive attitude to the grief enshrined here. It may be that the memorial is subject to constant renewal by Josh's friends.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Briggs Award winner

The Judging Panel commended Ronald Hutton's book Blood and Mistletoe (Yale UP) as a further contribution to his ongoing work on the origins of contemporary witchcraft.
They noted Owen Davies's Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford UP), strong bibliographical work, as Runner-Up,
The winner of the 2009 Katharine Briggs Award is Kathryn Marsh for The Musical Playground: Global Tradition and Change in Children's Songs and Games (Oxford UP). Building on work by Iona and Peter Opie, Julia Bishop and Mavis Curtis among others, this is a serious and impressive book on change and development in childlore. The Panel's full citation will be published in Folklore, but I'd like to add my congratulations.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Shortlist for the Briggs Award 2009

The Katharine Briggs Award is the annual book prize of the Folklore Society. There's a particularly strong shortlist this year, with the Judging Panel saying they were 'pleased to report ... a substantial number of good quality entries'. (The length of the list gives some idea of this, as many previous shortlists have only been about 6 books long).
Alphabetically by author, the shortlist is as follows:

Bever, Edward, The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan)
Davies, Owen, Grimoires: A HIstory of Magic Books (Oxford UP)
Evans, Nicholas, Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us (Wiley-Blackwell)
Fimi, Dimitra, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History (Palgrave Macmillan)
Hutton, Ronald, Blood and Mistletoe (Yale UP)
Marsh, Kathryn, The Musical Playground: Global Tradition and Change in Children's Songs and Games (Oxford UP)
Mees, Bernard, Celtic Curses (Boydell & Brewer)
Newton, Michael, Warriors of the Word: The World of Scottish Highlanders (Birlinn)
Sumpter, Caroline, The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale (Palgrave Macmillan)
Sutherland, Alex, The Brahan Seer: The Making of a Legend (Peter Lang Ltd)

The winner will be announced, as usual, at the buffet following the Briggs Lecture. That takes place this coming Tuesday, 10th November, at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square, London, at 6.30pm (more details here).
I'm also very much looking forward to the lecture itself. Professor John Widdowson, a former President of the Folklore Society, will be speaking on 'Folklore Studies in English Higher Education: Lost Cause or New Opportunity?'. Professor Widdowson played a crucial role in establishing the Centre for English Cultural Tradition (CECTAL) at the University of Sheffield. I did my Masters in Folklore there in its later guise as the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NatCECT).
Like many English folklore scholars I have some anxieties over the future (and, indeed, the present) of it as an academic discipline here. That isn't a national/regional concern: although it fares somewhat better in Scotland, it is still not in a particularly strong position, and even some of the bigger American schools have been affected by cuts and retrenchments. Indeed, what makes Professor Widdowson's lecture even more valuable is his long experience at Memorial University, Newfoundland. It may not make comfortable listening, but I expect a customarily thoughtful and incisive appraisal.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Exploring the Extraordinary

I find it quite difficult to blog about my current research. Discreet items of collectanea are one thing, but I'm cautious about pre-empting my longer-term analysis. So, it's nice to be able to mention what a good time I had yesterday at the Exploring the Extraordinary network's first one-day conference in York. (The bill is here, if you want to see what you missed).
I've developed something of an aversion to interdisciplinary conferences: too often there's no sharing of disciplines, no searching for points of contact, just some monomanic shouting and no listening. Yesterday, by contrast, was a rather pleasurable sharing of methods and interests. I had little in common with most of the speakers - I'd go so far as to say that I probably disagree quite strongly with some of them - but there were points at which our researches overlapped, and we were able to share material at those fringes. (I had an interesting chat with David Woollatt, for example, who's working on contemporary Spiritualism: it's peripheral but not unimportant in my work on ghost beliefs). I enjoyed it greatly. (Thanks Hannah and co for the efficient organisation, too).
I think the network's a useful resource, and will become even more useful the wider the breadth of scholarly approaches and disciplines it embraces. The JISCmail list is here, if you want to sign up, and they also have a Facebook group.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Eyam's plague

I'm becoming increasingly interested in weather vanes as an indicator of local identity. This delightful rat is in Eyam in Derbyshire. Eyam is rather a lovely village, and its local history attractions are very much geared to the story of the plague outbreak of 1665-6.
I'm deeply fascinated by folklore about rats, so I couldn't resist this. What's perhaps most striking about it is that, according to the local legend, the plague didn't arrive in Eyam with an influx of rats. A local tailor is supposed to have received a parcel of cloth infested with fleas carrying the disease.
Even such a rattophilic folklorist as I am can hardly feel that the rats are getting a bad press out of this, though. One folk indicator of plague outbreaks is that the rats start dying. Indeed, to go back to an unrelated post, Tom Dudley died of the plague after removing the corpses of five recently-dead rats from the water closet of his business premises behind Darling Harbour in Sydney.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Roud 166

On 1st July this year the Daily Mirror reported that Aurica Cosmescu had been hospitalised in Brasov, Romania, following a shooting accident. She was wearing a black and white jacket when she was shot by a man hunting magpies.
This potentially tragic accident is a striking echo of the traditional song 'Polly (or Molly) Vaughn (Bawn)', number 166 in Steve Roud's Folksong Index. In the song the incident is usually blamed on poor light or weather conditions. Polly pulls her apron over her, sometimes to keep off the rain. Her lover is out hunting and shoots her, believing her to be a swan. In Harry Cox's charming Norfolk phrase, 'He shot his own truelove in the room of a swan'. The lover is appalled at what he has done. His relatives tell him not to run away but to stand trial, as no punishment will follow for his terrible mistake. Here's a version recorded in 1952 in Arkansas that tells the story up to this point.
Older versions of the song from the British Isles don't stop there. When the lover gets to court, Polly's ghost intercedes on his behalf. She appears and tells the court that this was an accident. This is a nice embodiment of the belief that those who have died untimely deaths are more likely to become ghosts, and will intervene to finish some unresolved business before they can rest.
I've just been learning Harry Cox's fine version of this song, 'The Fowler', and will be singing it at the Spectres at the Feast event in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, 3 October 2009


I've long been intrigued by this graffito, which has stood for some years in Wild Court, WC2. The photo was taken in 2006, but it's still there. And I still don't know what it means.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Das volk dichtet

Piers Merchant, the former Tory MP for Beckenham (later an adviser to UKIP), died earlier this week. A member of the Major government, he stepped down after a particularly asinine sex scandal. (Even one of the local papers recalled him chiefly as 'Tory sleaze MP').
As somebody who'd grown up in Beckenham I watched the unfolding scandal with some amusement. Most of all I enjoyed a letter in the Guardian of 3rd April 1997, noting the following local piece of graffiti:
'Piers Merchant is a slag'

Friday, 25 September 2009

Archive material on the Custom of the Sea

Whilst having a look at the Time Online Archive blogs, I came across this review of their coverage of the Mignonette case. It's good to see the archive material in this extraordinary case.
In 1884 the Mignonette was sailing to Australia when it ran into difficulties. The crew were left in a lifeboat without supplies. They killed a turtle, and drank their own urine. Richard Parker, the cabin boy, drank sea water and fell ill.
After 17 days they were in trouble. In accordance with the Custom of the Sea the captain, Tom Dudley, proposed that they draw lots with a view to killing and eating one of their number. The other two crewmembers, Edwin Stephens and Edmund Brooks, were not keen on the lottery. As Parker was already ailing, Dudley suggested they kill and eat him.
They did so.
On their return to England, Dudley, Stephens and Brooks made no secret of what had happened. They were surprised to be arrested for murder. There was a clear determination on the part of the British legal system to establish a test case: Dudley and Stephens were convicted. The statutory death sentence came with a recommendation of mercy given the circumstances, and they were released after six months' hard labour. (A. W. Brian Simpson's Cannibalism and the Common Law is a brilliant survey of the legal machinations in the case).
Many of the comments on the Times Archive blog have suggested that the cannibalism is less horrific than the murder. This is not quite the point. When Tom Dudley got back to shore he was quite candid about what they had done, and why. He fully expected their actions to be understood, as indeed they initially were. The Custom of the Sea included the killing. Indeed popular tradition had it that they were only brought to court because they had not observed every nicety of the Custom and drawn lots. I was interested to see that that argument also made its appearance in the Times comments, too.
The pattern of killing and dismemberment may seem outrageous now, possibly because we have so little context for it, but it seems to have been fairly standard throughout the 19th century. There are plenty of historical and literary sources for comparison. Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket features a very similar killing. Poe's narrative was probably based on survivors' accounts from the whaleship Essex. By a bizarre coincidence, the victim in Poe's novel was also called Richard Parker. For a more darkly comic account, but still conforming to this model, try Canto the Second of Byron's Don Juan.
I was initially interested in the subject because of the songs and ballads dealing with it. Here are two broadside ballads that deal with the historical case of the Francis Spaight, an emigrant ship which capsized in 1835. The crew drew lots before killing and eating Patrick O'Brien, a cabin boy. There are plenty of other serious songs and ballads on the subject, and they are all remarkably similar. I'd argue that this is because it was all too well known as a possibility.
As the Custom of the Sea came to be less of a threat, you also begin to find more comic songs on the subject. The Custom of the Sea comes to be, as it is for most of the people who have sent comments to the Times blog, so remote as to be culturally alien.
I was talking about this very subject at the Folklore Society's recent Sea in Legend and Tradition weekend. I have also written on it at greater length in a forthcoming article on William Makepeace Thackeray's poem 'Little Billee'. The article will appear in the next (2010) issue of the Folk Music Journal.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Ghost hoaxes

Peter Millington has sent the following to the Talking Folklore newsgroup:

The Boots branch in Lincoln was built over a section of the old Roman city wall, and the public was occasionally allowed in to view it in the basement. Apparently the shop’s porter was a bit of a card. Every now and then, he would dress up in a Roman soldier’s costume, and walk silently across the distant end of the basement within the view of the sightseers. They would then swear that they’d just seen a ghost – naturally.

Whether or not the visitors were put wise to this wheeze I was not told, but it seems likely that the Lincoln Boots ghost could have entered local folklore. Can anyone tell me if this happened?

In the course of my ongoing research I've come across similar stories of such practical jokes. One hotel night security officer used a remote control to switch a ceiling fan on, creating unexplained spectral effects with the emergency lighting. Like Peter, I've also not come across the evidence of these stories actually entering local tradition.

What intrigues me is their relation with actual ghost beliefs. (This short introduction gives more information about my research). Reimund Kvideland has suggested that these kind of practical jokes indicate a decline in the belief, but he also acknowledges that such practical jokes could be used, too, "to defend a belief or to secure its continuation." (1)
Certainly they rely on traditional images and motifs which may not reflect current belief: one practical joker told me his intended victim had simply said "You look bloody silly in that [white sheet]" when the "apparition" happened. But this imagery, and the fakery, may also serve to reinforce a different set of beliefs. Discrediting an incident like this may not discredit the historical body of beliefs and images on which it relies, but may serve to nuance and reinforce them further.
1) Reimund Kvideland, 'Legends Translated Into Behaviour', Fabula, 47.3/4 (2006), 261

Tuesday, 25 August 2009


On a recent trip to Stockholm, I spent another happy day in Skansen. Founded in 1891 by Artur Hazelius, Skansen is basically a large folklife theme-park. Hazelius brought together historic buildings from around Sweden - there are mills, a church, farmhouses, a Sami settlement, village workshops, a funicular railway, etc etc - and laid them out in a park on Djurgården, an island in the middle of the city. It was designed to show off all aspects of Nordic life, so it also has a zoo.
This year I stayed on into the early evening and heard a fiddle recital in the Delsbogården, followed by a folk dance display. Both were definitely of an historical cast. The musicians and dancers were costumed. The dance was set up as a recreation of a 19th century wedding dance, with the presenter explaining where the different dances had come from, and how they had reached these fictional festivities.
I am not particularly a fan of costumed re-enactments and revivals, as there often seems something stale about them. Music on Skansen is a rather more complex phenomenon, however. In the early years of the park, large musical gatherings were organised. These were costumed, but they brought together for the first time some of the outstanding traditional musicians from around the country. Fiddlers predominated, but these events also brought to the fore a number of other musical instruments and styles which were nowhere near as familiar as they are today, including Sami yoiking, and the nyckelharpa which now seems almost quintessentially Swedish but was extremely localised at the time.
Coincidentally I picked up on this trip an excellent 3-CD reissue of the earliest documentary recordings of Swedish traditional music - 'Swedish Fiddlers from the Past / Äldre svenska spelmän' on Caprice Records (CAP21604). These phonograph recordings were made by ethnomusicologist Yngve Laurell between 1913 and 1920 at the musical gatherings on Skansen.
The subsequent dance music revival owes an enormous debt to the performances captured by Laurell. Many of these traditional players went home at the end of the summer seasons and themselves took an active role in collecting and preserving tunes. Olof Tillman, for example, was recorded by Laurell, probably in 1920 (he was working as a carpenter at Skansen as well as playing music). On his return to Dalarna he enthusiastically began noting down local tunes. He taught his sons, with whom he played extensively in later life. When he was recorded for Swedish radio in 1957 he described the extinct dances he had reconstructed. The participation of traditional musicians in what we might too easily describe as revival events should never be underestimated.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Khaleel Khan

At about 12.30am on Saturday 30 May, 16-year-old Khaleel Khan was cycling with his cousin and two friends on Ron Leighton Way in East Ham when he was hit by a police car. Police and witnesses agree that the car was not using its siren. There is some dispute about whether its blue light was flashing. Khaleel hit the windscreen of the car, flew into the air, and then hit the road. He was pronounced dead half an hour later. The cause of death was a severe fracture of the neck at the base of his skull.
In a familiar pattern of memorialisation, the crash scene was shortly decked with tributes. Flowers, messages, and photographs were left along the barriers of Ron Leighton Way. Such wayside shrines have become a traditional form of memorialisation. (See, for instance, the tributes included in Scott Wood's photographs of such shrines).
What was so striking about the tributes to Khaleel Khan were their scale. Aside from the floral and paper tributes, friends also tagged the pavements of Ron Leighton Way and the walls facing the accident site.

The tributes covered walls on the Holme Road side of Ron Leighton Way.

There are nicknames and school affiliations, using SMS emoticons and referring to Khaleel by his initials (KRK).

The messages also ran across walls on the other side of Ron Leighton Way, and into the side street by the market.

The memorials were even run across the upper storey back wall of shops on East Ham High Street North.
Folklorists have a duty to record these memorials, a melancholy tribute to creativity. The photos here were all taken on Friday 5 June. The tags are already being erased.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Marking the passing of three greats

I was dismayed to return from holiday to news of the deaths of a number of people I admired greatly.
Mike Seeger was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. His older half-brother Pete was already playing banjo. Mike and his younger sister Peggy learned from the string of influential visitors to the house - John and Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, etc. Mike became an accomplished musician, playing banjo, guitar, fiddle amongst others.
Mike became involved in locating and recording traditional musicians. He was responsible for Elizabeth Cotten's debut recordings. She may not have been difficult to track down (she was working as the family nanny), but he also sought out and learned from musicians like Dock Boggs, Eck Robertson, the Stoneman Family, and others. He channelled what he learned about their music into his own performance. (Jeff Todd Titon has some nice comments on Mike Seeger's musical abilities here).
He was hugely influential on the course of the Folk Revival of the 1950s/'60s. The New Lost City Ramblers (formed in 1958 with John Cohen and Tom Paley) played a big role in demonstrating that this music did not have to be sanitized to reach an audience. He continued studying and learning traditional American musics. He never wrote much, but made every performance a practical demonstration of his thorough-going understanding of the music.
By contrast Edward D. Ives, known universally as Sandy, was an academic folklorist and fieldworker. He wrote a series of important monographs on poet/songsters, and the transmission of their songs into local oral tradition. In these he sought to understand the complex networks of local relationships and traditions, and how these find aesthetic reflection.
If that all sounds grimly academic - it isn't. His books are hugely readable, and show on the page the qualities that made him such an effective and brilliant communicator in the field. His book Joe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978) begins with a poignant account of being contacted by a Welfare Department. Sandy's Christmas card to an informant, Herby Rice, was 'the only coherent piece of paper the man possessed' (p.xxvii). It is unsurprising that his guides to fieldwork remain so valuable and useful.
I was introduced to Sandy Ives' work by Dr Julia C. Bishop when I was a postgraduate student at Sheffield. Julia was also employed part-time on the James Madison Carpenter collection, to which end she shared desk-space at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen. One of her great delights in this was that Stanley Robertson, who has died aged 69, was in the office next door.
Stanley was a gentle and intelligent man, conscious and proud of the immense Scottish Traveller traditions he was carrying. He had a huge repertoire of ballads, and was an outstanding storyteller. (There are several CD releases of his material). He was also an able piper. He was courteous and generous with his time at Aberdeen, even if he could be very funny about academic studies of his traditions: 'They tell me what it is that I'm doing; it's very interesting'. He was a marvellous writer, publishing plays as well as collections of his stories.
He was also, in his quietly determined way, an intransigent opponent of prejudice against Travellers. It was this championing of the enormous cultural wealth of Travellers that had brought him to Aberdeen University. Ian Olson has written a fine obituary in the Scotsman, with more information.
I only saw Stanley perform once. I remember him telling a ghost story, and being helplessly entranced by his narration. I remember specific details, and the astonishing uncanny atmosphere he created through his absolute narrative mastery. He described a specific type of rain, and simply recalling the hand movement he used is enough to explain it all again to me. He was a very great man.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Folklore in local novels

I whiled away some time on holiday reading a Dutch translation of Joost Hiddes Halbertsma's Frisian novella 'It Heksershol' (The witch-hole, a local name for the village of Molkwerum).
I'm always wary of reading local novels as simply ethnological records. There are two main dangers. One is that authors don't get the artistic credit for adapting folk culture in their own literary constructions. (They cease to be artists, and become just observers). The other, especially problematic with authors who are consciously attempting to establish the literary credentials of a minority language, is that the broadly political aspects of their work tend to get sidelined. Such writers are often trying to create a regional cultural identity in their work, rather than just reflect one. This involves a highly focused use of source folkloric material.

That said, such novels do rest heavily on local folklore. Halbertsma's account of how Gosse Knop sold his soul to the devil, the amazing things that happened to him on his travels through Friesland, and how he came to a bad end, weaves rich elements of local lore into its narratives. These can be teased out: they're not the whole picture, but they add to it.
In one sequence Gosse has lost his shadow, which is discovered when he steps into the light during a dance. That's the point of the episode, but Halbertsma enriches it with all sorts of details about the dance itself. He tells us when such a dance might be likely (after an auction), the instrument they danced to (a fiddle), and even some of the dances and tunes (they dance the Schotse-drie, and Gosse's predicament is revealed during the Utrecht march).
It's also possible to hear something of the spoken language culture. This has the huge caveat, of course, that I read it in a Dutch translation and not in its original language, but the sound of language is emphasised in some of the stories. An origin story is offered for the name Ameland. According to the skipper of a boat, Heintje Pik (the devil) had given names to all of the islands along the Frisian coast and written them down in his notebook. Beneath the last name he wrote 'Amen', but then realised that he'd forgotten one of the islands, so he wrote '-land' after it. Because Heintje is from Amsterdam he doesn't pronounce the -n at the end of words, so Amenland becomes Ameland. This isn't just a story directed against Amsterdammers, it gives a sound to history.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Sexuality of Unborn Male Child

A nice sexual rumour that I heard in the ticket queue at Waterloo Station on the 1st August 2005:

Two white women in their early 20s, either students or recent graduates, were discussing families and gay children. One mentioned a belief that if you have unprotected sex whilst pregnant with a boy, he will grow up to be gay. Neither of the women believed this.

I had not heard it before or since, and I wondered how widespread it might be.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Ghost of Michael Jackson

The death of Michael Jackson has triggered a frenzy of folkloric activity. Tasteless jokes are already proliferating, as they do after any personal tragedy. Rumours are circulating about his death and burial.
It was not surprising then when television footage appeared that seemed to show a ghostly figure stalking Neverland. As a folklorist researching belief in ghosts, I'm much more interested in the responses on message boards than I am in the footage itself. Where parapsychologists study the reality or otherwise of the phenomenon, folklorists look, as Linda Dégh put it, at 'the nature of human creativity to be discerned through the report of such experience'. (1)
So from the perspective of my research, it's fascinating to see the very people who are most devoted to the memory of Michael Jackson also being the most critical in their assessment of the images on the film. News reports from the message boards have covered a wide range of responses, from the simple analysis of the phenomenon per se ('It's clearly not a shadow because ... there's no one there to make a shadow, plus it's completely see through'), via the hopeful ('Maybe it was Michael, telling us that he is still here with us in spirit'), right through to the dismissive ('You guys are craaaaaazy! It's too tall to be Michael ...')
What was most striking about the last quoted correspondent, RebeccaMJ, was that her comments rested on a body of implicit belief about spirit activity. Michael Jackson wasn't roaming Neverland, she wrote, because his spirit is "resting and at peace. Only disturbed souls creep around'. RebeccaMJ is clearly expressing a hope for the star's post mortem peace, but she is also dismissing this particular ghostly phenomenon by validating a much wider set of beliefs. I've come across this narrative device before, and I'm interested in probing it further.
1: Linda Dégh, 'Foreword', in Leea Virtanen, "That Must Have Been ESP!": An Examination of Psychic Experiences, trans. John Atkinson and Thomas Dubois (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p.xii

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Bob Lewis CD review

Ahead of next week's Folklore Society event involving Bob Lewis, I'm reposting here a review I wrote in Folk London of Bob's 2003 CD The Painful Plough. Apart from the link to the Veteran Music site, it's as written and published at the time.

THE PAINFUL PLOUGH – Bob Lewis (Foxide Music, RUST105, available from Veteran Music)

I’m always surprised that so few people seem to listen to recordings of traditional singers. There are some really excellent traditional singers still around, and Bob Lewis from Sussex is amongst the very best.

Like his earlier release, A Sweet Country Life for Veteran, the new CD contains songs that Bob learned from his mother, along with songs picked up from other Sussex singers like George Belton and Cyril Phillips.

Bob Lewis has a wonderfully warm voice. His delivery, too, is an absolute treat – understated and with minimal adornment, he concentrates on getting each song across with maximum clarity. This allows him a huge flexibility with his material. He is, I think, at his best on some of the intense and melancholy pieces he had from his mother (Live All Alone and Spread The Green Branches are standout songs which can only cause regret that Bob’s mother – a shy woman, apparently, but with an astonishing repertoire of great songs – was never recorded herself).

He also handles more rumbustious material well. Although not a barnstormer like Gordon Hall, he puts over comic songs like Farmer Giles or A Trip to Southend with great charm and humour. This fits neatly with Vic Smith’s useful notes describing him finding the intensity and formality of folk clubs as ‘rather strange’.

There are 16 songs (and a recipe!) on this CD. From the wistful to the comical, they are all characterised by Bob’s supreme mastery as a singer. This CD is an utter delight, repaying repeated listening. Go and buy one.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Singers and their Smocks

Gavin Atkin, in his interesting comments on an earlier post, really hit at a whole number of historical problems within folklore. Folklorists are often mocked for our seeming obsession with self-definition, but these are big (and unresolved) issues within the discipline. In part, therefore, what follows is me thinking out loud, and in part it's a revisiting of points I've made elsewhere in various forms (and which I hope to see published at some stage). It's hardly intended to be definitive, even if I thought that were possible.
I'm by no means convinced that we share a common understanding of the notion of 'folk' itself. Within the folk music world, particularly, there has been a tendency to use the word as if we all agreed on its meanings, without actually clarifying how we understand it. Perhaps that's a negotiation to avoid opening several cans of worms ... 'Folk', in these terms, is both the people performing the lore, and also an adjective describing the essential character of the lore.
Although in practice it's often used as a synonym, 'tradition' seems somehow clearer. It seems to imply some kind of transmission, and isn't predicated on the idea of which groups might have such a tradition. 'Tradition' seems to recognise that any group of people might have such a thing of their own, regardless of who they are: there will be traditions of the officers' mess, just as there are of rural pubs.
Of course, that still raises the problem of the transmission itself. As Gavin indicates, what do we do with a song that's only recorded rarely? One of the things I'd been thinking about before the Sing London launch was the place of composed political songs. (I'd been pondering this following the news that one of the murderers of Victor Jara was finally to be tried for his role in events in the Chile stadium, Santiago). We know, for example, that the National Agricultural Labourers' Union published a songbook for singing at meetings. This was the first such national union, and the music was an integral part of its recruitment and meeting campaign. The songs have not turned up that often in oral tradition, but they have turned up: Walter Pardon had several, which he'd learned from his uncle, a local union organiser. (See Mike Yates' interesting article on them). The very character of the songs might suggest they wouldn't just turn up everywhere, but they have a certain authority within their tradition.
However, once we start talking about 'tradition-al' in musical terms, it suggests that the song belongs to a certain and specific tradition, and adds (for some commentators) criteria other than just transmission. Some critics have required anonymity of origin, and the implication of a certain age. 'A Grand Dream of Napoleon' but not 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner', if you like.
Is this a form of inverted snobbery? Is this an attempt to create something noble and worthy out of pub-singing by discreetly sweeping aside other aspects of the tradition? That would hardly seem tenable to anyone who'd spent time in a folk club, but it does seem to inform some thinking about traditionality in music. Dave Harker, for example, notes that Cecil Sharp thought the song 'Dicky of Taunton Dene' '"had all the character of a traditional ballad", whereas country people knew it to be a townsman's mickey-take of a caricatured yokel'. (1) Whether Sharp liked it or Harker didn't doesn't ultimately change the fact that people were singing it. Interpretative distaste is misplaced here, as it takes the emphasis away from the singers themselves.
Which is where the smocks come in.
This is Howard Millen, a fine singer from Bethersden in Kent. The Millen Family have an interesting repertoire of part-sung 'glees', which they recorded for a rather good CD, 'Down Yonder Green Lane'. A couple of these songs also appeared on the recent Kent compilation Oyster Girls & Hovelling Boys. Alongside this repertoire, Howard has an extensive assortment of comic songs from all over the place. Indeed, with other family members and neighbours, he toured the south east as a comedy rustic act called the Cider Sippers. It's a surprisingly resilient tradition: there have been several attempts to retire the Cider Sippers, but they still keep getting offers of gigs.
For these gigs, Howard wears this smock. It's about 100 years old, and Howard's older brother Gerald has talked thoughtfully about the significance of its style and pattern. Howard got the smock from his father-in-law, David Wickens. I asked if David had ever worn it for work. Oh no, said Howard, just for singing comedy songs round the pubs, where Howard (an idiosyncratic and entirely self-taught musician) sometimes accompanied him on piano. Howard, a countryman himself, follows this tradition of comedy rusticism. They sing 'Buttercup Joe' (a big hit in the 1920s for Albert Richardson), along with various songs learnt more recently from Wurzels albums.
This was clearly a big tradition. Over in Sussex, Cyril Phillips (left) was singing at harvest suppers, also wearing a smock and performing music hall songs parodying rural life. He even seems to have carried a folding five-bar gate for his act! Among his songs were music-hall pieces like 'The Rest of the Day's Your Own' (known to some singers in Kent as 'The Farmer's Boy', confusingly enough).
There is a danger that we base our judgements on vernacular singing on what we would prefer singers to be singing rather than what they are actually singing. Bob Lewis, who sometimes sang with Cyril Phillips at harvest suppers (see the splendid photo below), said that he initially found folk clubs an odd and intense experience, quite distinct from the pub singing he had actually experienced. He said he became aware of an artificial idea about who was or wasn't a traditional singer. In particular, he thought there was an idea that anyone who had ever earned money singing, or had dressed up and performed any kind of music hall or light entertainment turn, couldn't be a traditional singer. His conclusion makes depressing reading: "As a result, I suspect that they wrote off or dismissed quite a lot of really good singers, who they didn't bother to get to know when they weren't doing their turn".
This clearly indicates a sensitivity to different kinds of songs, but without dictating what traditional singers do or don't sing. As I say, I think this is a complicated question, not least because of the residual weight of earlier thinking (which isn't always explicit, and which we can't just ignore). I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to discuss tradition and traditionality with Bob Lewis at the forthcoming Folklore Society Members' Evening event. In particular, I'm looking forward to celebrating a rich and varied set of singing traditions in all their complexity.
Cyril Phillips (left) and Bob Lewis
(1) Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British 'Folksong' 1700 to the Present Day (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985), p. 197

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Proverbs in current use

You never catch a fox in the same trap twice.

I heard this last week from one of the workers who had occupied the Enfield Visteon factory in April. He used it when referring to the role of Unite, the union at the plant, in alerting management to a challenge on the question of pensions.
This doesn't feature in W.G. Smith, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, ed. F.P. Wilson, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

Monday, 8 June 2009

Sing London/Singing History, and the Take Six website

Two interesting events in London this week have set me thinking again about traditionality in music.

Tonight, June 8th, at the British Library, Sing London launch their regional Singing History booklet. This is one of a series of eight such local pamphlets, which will be supported by educational material, covering Oxfordshire, Plymouth, Sunderland, Manchester, Norfolk, Kent, and Birmingham. The booklets will also be available for download here, where four are already online at the time of writing. The London booklet is not currently available there, but is on the British Library site.

The booklets vary in quality, and I'm unimpressed that some unfinished booklets have been uploaded. The Sunderland booklet lacks an introduction or acknowledgements (evidently having used the Plymouth template for the latter), while the Oxfordshire booklet lacks some pictures and has the wrong cover. Notwithstanding its rough edges, the Sunderland booklet is the clearest-designed as an educational tool. I'm looking forward to the Kent booklet, which has been put together by the educational group Music for Change, and seems to cover a fairly broad range of local occupations.

As an organisation, Sing London are more interested in the vernacular practice of singing than in traditional song per se. For someone used to the folk scene, this makes a refreshing change. There are domestic song traditions that are not usually included in folk song collections, although they are clearly thriving. At a now-defunct karaoke night in E7 I would sometimes hear unaccompanied rebel songs and country ballads in with the usual pub r'n'b and pop power ballads, suggesting (at the very least) that singers had other repertoires of songs apart from their karaoke favourites. It hinted at different registers of singing.

The Singing Histories lean more towards the folk scene. According to one press release, the project 'aims to preserve regional songs by making them accessible to new audiences, thereby giving folk music back to the folk'. Sing London have worked on this with the English Folk Dance & Song Society. Accordingly they cover some good songs collected by earlier folksong collectors, and the London launch will also publicise the recorded collections in the National Sound Archive. In the case of the London booklet, this means a number of songs mentioning London recorded from traditional singers from outside the city, which may not exactly reflect the city's music.

Some of the booklets also contain songs written more recently in 'the folk idiom', ie written and sung in a folk club culture. I am not dismissing such songs (I have written some myself). Many songs by Cyril Tawney (right), for example, have a very wide circulation. (One is in the Plymouth booklet). My anxiety is that they may not reflect a more representative and/or thriving singing culture. Perhaps I am unnecessarily over-sensitive on this count - the London booklet does contain 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner', after all, which I don't believe I've ever heard in a folk club - but I have always been uneasy about presenting folk-club composed songs as being synonymous with the tradition they aim to reproduce. They can, and do, acquire a traditional life in certain social groups, but at the moment of composition they are not traditional. They are awaiting the selection of the folk process. This may be the problem in publishing broadside songs which never attained any broader traditional circulation: they have an historical value, but may not reflect actual traditions of singing.

The notion of the 'folk idiom' itself is somewhat problematic. It is based on a selective recording of folk songs by earlier collectors, who cherry-picked from singers' repertoires. In many cases they were more interested in (some) songs than in where and when they were sung. The folk clubs developed, to some extent, to perpetuate this model of folk song and folk singing. I'm not saying that it's wrong (it has developed in its own way), just that it may not adequately reflect wider aspects of traditional singing. There has also been a tendency to draw a line of equivalence between the traditions of the folk club and the traditions of the singers from whom club singers learnt their songs. Both are certainly traditional, but they are not quite the same.

Viewing 'tradition' as a series of artefacts can underplay the dynamic role of the people who actually perform that tradition. After all, if a tradition has to be 'given back' to the folk, might this not suggest that 'the folk' had already stopped using it as a tradition? This slightly curatorial tendency rubs up against Sing London's overall purpose of getting people to sing.

Any apparent contradiction here may only be resolvable in the practice of singing. I don't hold with the contrarian view that, because the collectors were only reflecting part of the repertoires of singers, we should therefore reject everything they actually did collect. I'm delighted, therefore, that on Tuesday evening at 6.30pm the EFDSS's 'Take Six' website goes live. This lottery-funded project has seen the digitisation of six manuscript folksong collections covering the first half of the 20th century - Janet Blunt, George Butterworth, Francis Collinson (below), George Gardiner, Anne Geddes Gilchrist, and brothers H.E.D. and R.F.F. Hammond.

I've been previewing the site for a while now, as I have a special interest in Collinson's work. It's a complete digitisation of every page of manuscript, fully indexed and searchable. In the case of the Gilchrist collection, this means that the complicated cataloguing has finally been standardised. Full access to the images of the manuscripts will be followed by an educational outreach programme. It's a great resource, and gives some idea of the riches that lurk in the corners of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Hopefully it will facilitate further local research to place the collected songs in the broader context of vernacular singing.

I've been mulling over ideas like these for some time now. A couple of other recent events have also been preying on my mind, but I'll come back to them. First I have to go off and sing.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Research into Contemporary Belief in Ghosts

My current research project, conducted at the University of Hertfordshire, is into contemporary belief in ghosts in post-war England.

All of the post-war opinion polls and surveys suggest that belief in ghosts has been steadily on the rise over the last 60 years. What might this mean? Does it mean that more people believe in ghosts? Or that they are more prepared to say so? One question that goes unasked is what people actually mean when they say 'ghost'. Might the increase in stated belief mean a change in popular definitions?

Accordingly, I've begun my research with some simple (but big) questions. What do people mean when they say 'ghost'? How is this understanding reflected (or not) in their beliefs? Are the things people believe the same as the stories they tell? What is the relationship between belief or non-belief and experience? How do these beliefs fit into other, maybe more orthodox, beliefs?

Quite apart from library research, these questions clearly demanded fieldwork amongst believers and non-believers. I've been conducting interviews, and also distributing a questionnaire. The plan is to continue this field research early into 2010, and then spend the majority of next year working through my findings.

My research is primarily into the situation here in England. Because of the University location, I'm concentrating to some extent on Hertfordshire. However, this is by no means a restricted or parochial survey - there have been huge demographic shifts in the post-war period, and I am interested in the ways in which ghost beliefs may reflect changing cultural influences. As such, I'm more than happy to consider broad comparative international material.

So, within those parameters, I am looking for participants and informants. The questionnaire is available to download below. and it can be returned to me electronically. I'm interested in as broad a range of responses as possible, from believers and non-believers alike. I'm also looking to identify possible informants for interview. This is more restricted geographically than the questionnaires, obviously, but I am still rolling out the interview programme and still looking for participants.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Local names (SE1)

I used to take my boys to play football up at - well, you'd know it as Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, but we all call it Bedlam Park.

I noted this from Mrs Barbara Jeffery in 1998. Mrs Jeffery was approaching retirement at that time, and had lived all her life in and around south east London. The park she was talking about now houses the Imperial War Museum, in a building purpose-built as the Bethlehem Mental Hospital in 1815. The last patient moved out in 1930, and Lord Rothermere bought the site, donating it to the London County Council as a tribute to his mother, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth. Mrs Jeffery was taking her sons to the park in the early 1970s, but her usage of the place-name remained current at the time of collection.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Keith Summers

As the 4th annual festival in his name comes to a close, it might be a good time to acknowledge here the life and work of Keith Summers, who died 5 years ago. Other people knew him better, so I don't just want to rehash their obituaries or memories, which are better off being read in full on the Musical Traditions site (obituary and memorial page). I just want to pay tribute to a thoughtful and intelligent fieldworker.

Keith was very much in the finest traditions of amateur collectors. He'd fallen in love with traditional music, and began making recordings in the late 1960s. He found singing traditions still alive, and documented them enthusiastically. He travelled up to East Suffolk from his Essex home, and made a series of invaluable recordings. These were released commercially: highlights featured on Topic's Voice of the People CD set, and the recordings are now lodged at the National Sound Archive. He wrote sensitively about both the traditions he found there, and his own place in recording them, in his monograph 'Sing, Say or Pay!', which is the best introduction to his musical voyage of discovery.
Keith was never restrictive in his musical tastes: he recorded extensively in County Fermanagh, and was enthusiastic and passionate about all forms of traditional music. The breadth of his taste was a marker for the range of Musical Traditions magazine.
What distinguished him as a fieldworker - he disliked 'collector', preferring 'recorder of traditional music' - was his instinctive realisation that this music reflected a social life. As a sociable fellow, he was at his ease in situations where people shared company and music. People liked being around him, and musicians recognised that not only was he good company, he knew what he was hearing, too. It's a mark of the man that he was able to get practical jokes out of some notoriously prickly characters.
His sociability may have led to him being underestimated, but he was sincere and enthusiastic. I've few proud moments as a singer, but hearing Keith call me a 'good old boy' after a song is one of the proudest. He could be hilariously, obscenely, funny. I'd introduced myself because my Dad was born in his home town, Southend. When he discovered which pub my Dad was born in, Keith waved his arms in horror, saying 'Fuck me that's a rough pub', all in one breath. When he found that I was a West Ham fan he even became rude (he was a loyal Southend fan). I once heard Ken Hall introduce Keith at the Musical Traditions club in Fitzrovia with the words 'God help us, anything could happen'. It did. Keith sang 'Always the Bridesmaid' (one of his specialties) and (as ever) brought the house down. It wasn't affected: singing was a genuinely social event. He also remains the only person I've ever heard in a folk club sing 'Davy Crockett' (with missing lines completed by Doc Rowe); it illustrated a point about Southend's Saturday morning cinema clubs, and deep-sea fishing. Or maybe it was illustrated by them. It certainly said a great deal.
I didn't get a chance to know him well, but I knew and trusted his judgement, just as the musicians he recorded did. He valued them, and his recordings show that. We should value him for that.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

After the Ball Parody

An earlier post about a parody of a popular song brought in a number of responses. Gavin Atkin (now of Marden, Kent) sent me this one, which he remembers his father singing:

After the ball was over
She lay on the sofa and sighed
Put her false teeth in salt water
And took out her lovely glass eye
Propped up her leg in the corner
And hung up her wig on the door
And the rest of her went to by-byes
After the ball!

I've also been told that this was current in Herts/Cambridgeshire in the late 1970s/early 1980s. (I'll post the variant if I can get it taken down accurately).

I never tire of these parodies, and I also never tire of body-part songs, so expect more (and feel free to send me more).

Friday, 1 May 2009

May Day, 1954, Ashford, Kent

In Ashford, Kent, the garland-carrying is less ostentatious. A correspondent writes on May Day, 1954:

'This morning three girls (looking the Marsh or Gipsy type) came to the door with a pole held between two girls with a thick navy cloth draped over it. - "Would you like to see the garland?"

'I was busy and refused. We have only been here three years, and it was only when they had gone that I remembered that it was May Day. I went to our neighbour next door and asked if it was a local custom. She said that in the old days and up to the last war children brought these wreaths or garlands to the door on May morning always covered. In answer to the question you lift the curtain and criticise the garland - saying if it is better or worse than the others you have seen; and if it is up to standard you reward with a copper or two.'

Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (St Albans: Paladin, 1977; first pub. 1959), p. 283

My mother grew up in Ashford, but does not recall this custom.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Doc Rowe

I'd like to acknowledge publicly the debt I owe to Doc Rowe, who remains one of the most inspirational fieldworkers I've ever had the pleasure to meet, as well as being thoroughly good company. He continues to add to one of the most important post-war collections and documentations of folklife in the British Isles, and long may he do so.

The photo was taken in Sheffield, 2007, and shows Doc (left) receiving the Coote Lake Medal from Professor Will Ryan, then President of the Folklore Society.

My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean Parody

I heard this from a classmate from Forest Hill in the early 1980s:

My granny went down to the cellar
To see where her gas-leak could be
She struck a match for to see better
Oh bring back my granny to me

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Old Owl

There was an old owl, lived in an oak
The more he saw, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
So take a tip from this wise old bird
- recorded from Howard Millen of Bethersden, Kent, 2007