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