Friday, 23 September 2011

A Watchet Sailor

I recently spent a happy 3 weeks holidaying in Watchet on the Somerset coast. The small harbour town's development was tied up with the import and export of minerals, particularly iron ore from the neighbouring Brendon Hills. Earlier it had hosted a Saxon mint which was plundered by the Vikings, and there are a couple of good local legends around the church and the big local landowners.
For anyone interested in folk song and its collection in England, Watchet means shanties. It was the home of the remarkable singer John Short (1839-1933). Between April and September 1914 Short sang 57 songs, most of them shanties, to Cecil Sharp. He was the main contributor to Sharp's English Folk-Chanteys, providing 43 of its 60 songs.
Short had started work in the local coastal trade at the age of 14, but in 1857 moved onto deep-sea vessels. For the next 50 years he worked at sea, eventually moving back into the coastal trade. His time on the Union ship the Levant, running the Civil War blockade under a British flag of convenience, earned him the enduring nickname 'Yankee Jack'. When he finally came ashore, to look after his ailing wife, he worked in Watchet harbour.
He heard his first shanty, Cheerily Man, on his first deepwater trip. Thereafter he made a point of trying to pick up a new shanty on every new vessel, which may explain some of the range of his repertoire. This is also worth noting when we think about traditional singers' active pursuit and preservation of songs. Short was a fine melismatic singer, as the notation of a complex piece like Carry Him to the Burying Ground reveals. In his later years Short served as Watchet's town crier. The town still has a crier, but I doubt that he could share John Short's boast that his voice could be heard for 2 miles with the right wind.
What is striking in Watchet is how far Short's fame within the folk revivals has intersected with his local celebrity. There is a statue of him in the centre of the Esplanade overlooking the harbour. (I do not particularly like Alan Herriot's statue, although I prefer it to his other local statue of the Ancient Mariner). Short's former residence is marked with a slate plaque.
Some of this may reflect the interest of folk song collectors (Sharp's picture can also be found on local information boards), but that is not quite the whole story. The town's good Boat Museum has a range of Bridgwater 'flatners', local boats built for inland work along the coast. These are now making a comeback as leisure vessels, and the museum has a nice recent example named after Short. The impression is of a celebrated local figure who has also become known to the outside world through his very specific talents. These reflect on and augment his local standing.
That is both charming and appropriate. In Watchet we get a real sense of a singer as a person, and of his repertoire as reflecting that person's enthusiasm and activity. There has been a healthy push towards such an approach when thinking about folk song (1), but Watchet's relationship with John Short gave me the fullest sense of how this might work.
It was appropriate, then, that in the Watchet Town Museum I picked up the first volume in a projected 3-CD set of all John Short's songs. Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 1 was put together under the auspices of Tom and Barbara Brown. They have brought together an eclectic group of lead singers, each of whom was given free rein with the arrangement of their songs.
The result is a diverse collection that highlights the move from shanties as historical worksongs to their current presentation as social and performance pieces. One of my big dislikes of shanty sessions is their lack of variety. That is not the case here. There are some more 'traditional' representations of shanties as worksongs, but Short's musicality is given full credit both in straightforward hauling shanties like Shallow Brown (and I warm more and more to Jim Mageean's singing) and in Carry Him to the Burying Ground. Sam Lee's singing of the latter is assured and complex, but I do not find his reading of songs yet as compelling or convincing as, say, Jackie Oates's fine take on Fire! Fire! here. Jeff Warner's banjo points to the breadth of Short's musical adventuring. I'm a big fan of Jeff Warner, and particularly enjoyed his warm and delicate Won't You Go My Way? (He touches on John Short's repertoire on his new solo album, too). At its best, this CD points to the same tendency seen in Watchet: these songs are part of a man's life, and are part of how he lived that life. In celebrating the songs, we have to celebrate the singer.
* * * * *
1: See, for example, the article on Short in Still Growing: English Traditional Songs and Singers from the Cecil Sharp Collection, ed. Steve Roud, Eddie Upton and Malcolm Taylor (London: English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2003), pp. 79-80.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Some burial folklore in literary sources

Whiling away my holiday with some light reading I came across several rather throwaway references to folkloric practice and belief. It is the casual manner of their introduction into literary fiction that makes them compelling as folkloric record. I was particularly struck by some references to burial practice.
The idea that a piece of land has been left undeveloped because it covers a plague burial ground has become a common one in London in recent years. Steve Roud has described the motif as 'a real growth area' (1). It may have developed alongside other similar ideas: in the late 1970s my father told me that a grassy corner of carpark outside the Fox on the Hill pub on Denmark Hill remained bare because it covered a Roman burial ground. (Pragmatism - and access to maps of Roman cemeteries - suggest that it remained undeveloped, rather, because it was awkwardly triangular and too narrow for a parking space). I'd associated the development of the motif with the post-war period, but a passing reference suggests a slightly earlier flourishing.
In Chapter 5 of Sax Rohmer's 1916 sequel The Devil Doctor (US: The Return of Fu-Manchu) we find exactly this kind of emergent pseudo-historical legend. Dr Petrie believes an islet in a south-west London park is naturally occurring. Nayland Smith is scornful in such a way as to point to the creation of authority in a legend:
'Nothing of the kind; it is a burial mound, Petrie! It marks the site of one of the Plague Pits where victims were buried during the Great Plague of London. You will observe that, although you have seen it every morning for some years, it remains for a British Commissioner resident in Burma to acquaint you with its history!'
Thinking folkloristically we might take this last assertion as evidence of the recent development of this legend. (I read this courtesy of Project Gutenberg, so I should also tip my hat here to the recently-departed Michael Hart, its founder and the inventor of the e-book).
This assertion of the 'history' of this legend is in marked contrast to another reference to burial practice I came across in fictional form. In Ambrose Bierce's short story 'A Holy Terror', a gold prospector is tipped off about a plot in a cemetery. He digs through a grave, and with chilling Biercean understatement, finds that 'This frail product of the carpenter's art had been put into the grave the wrong side up!' (2) The lack of explanation creates the effect: the detail relies on a reader's knowledge that burial upside-down is reserved for those likely to cause supernatural disturbance otherwise. (People are buried upside-down to prevent them clawing their way to the surface after death).
This is still a relatively late reference to prone burial. A recent historical survey found the last documented incident of the practice in 1916 (3). Of course, this is the sort of practice that is difficult to establish: it requires a degree of trust in the researcher that may not be inevitable given the rather extraordinary and infrequent practice. Ruth Tongue claimed to have been told of such things in Somerset in the early years of the 20th century (4). There must be some doubts about this: she said she was told of such things because she was a 'chime child', born at midnight. She wasn't. She was evidently a remarkable and gifted storyteller, but her reliability as a witness might be questionable. The Bierce reference, though, does suggest some wider familiarity with the idea.
* * * * *
1: Steve Roud, London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City (London: Random House, 2008), pp. 117-119.
2: Ambrose Bierce, In the Midst of Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939; first pub. 1892), p. 121.
3: Caroline Arcini, 'Prone Burials', Current Archaeology, 231 (June 2009), 30-35.
4: Ruth L. Tongue, 'Some Odds and Ends of Somerset Folklore', Folklore, 69.1 (1958), 44.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Paremiology and literature

I've long been interested in the relationship between folkloric items and their presentation in literary material. (It's one of the things I touch on in a talk I'm giving on St Clement's Day celebrations to the South East London Folklore Society in November). There is, I think, a tendency to underestimate the capacity of literary authors to be inventive and adaptive with traditional material, and to assume that how they present an item in their fictional, created world is identical to the way it is used in the ethnographic world around them.
A corresponding tendency is to look at literary works primarily for their folkloric content. I confess to a sinking feeling on learning that Archer Taylor's first reaction to a William Faulkner novel was 'He doesn't use many proverbs!' (1) This seems to me to miss the point on a number of levels, but that might simply be because there is no further record of what he made of the novel as a work of literature.
However, paremiology is actually an area where a straightforward reading of folkloric material can be possible in literary text. I was reminded of this after some summer escapist reading, having finally got round to Arthur Bernède's Belphégor (1927). Many of the characters use proverbial expressions, but they do so in direct speech. One might have to take into account personal characterisation employed by the author, but the proverbs here are familiar and seem to employ standard forms. Characters describe a situation more than once as 'clair comme l'eau de roche' (clear as crystal). Alain Rey and Sophie Chantreau record the phrase but give no historical antecedents (2).
Rey and Chantreau do not record the expression 'Un homme prévenu en vaut deux' (forewarned is forearmed), found in Belphégor, but it is noted in online collections of French proverbs along with the variant 'un homme averti en vaut deux'.
Another other proverbial item that leaped out at me was when the protagonist insists 'j'ai toujours eu pour principe de ne jamais vendre la peau de l'ours avant qu'il fût à terre' (I've always made a point of never selling the bear's skin before he's down). While the second part of the phrase is variable, the bearskin element is widespread, most famously found in La Fontaine's Fables. Rey and Chantreau note that in Middle French the specific mention of 'the bear' wasn't necessary (3).

* * * * *

1) Quoted in Jan Harold Brunvand, 'My Summer with Archer, and Some Unfinished Business: The 1999 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture', Western Folklore, 58.1 (1999), 4.
2) Alain Rey and Sophie Chantreau, Dictionnaire d'Expressions et Locutions (Paris: Le Robert, 2007), p. 201.
3) Rey and Chantreau, pp. 664-5.