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.

1 comment:

  1. Just to mention, too, that those fine singers Kevin and Ellen Mitchell are staying on in London after the Keith Summers Festival, and will be performing at Sharps, Cecil Sharp House, on Tuesday 12th May. More details at