George Withers (1924-2009)

Article excerpt

George Withers was steeped in the life, ways, and traditions of the West Country and, in particular, of his native Somerset. Born in 1924, the year Cecil Sharp died, George was one of six children: one boy and five girls. Their father was a dairy farmer and the children milked the cows in the morning before going to school and again in the afternoon after they returned home. In Bob and Jacqueline Patten's Somerset Scrapbook (1987), George reckoned that he had been milking cows since he was four years old. His father 'always sang while he was milking [...] and I always sang while I was milking, even when I had a milking machine' .

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He grew up with songs around him. Not only at home, where both his mother and his father sang, but at his uncle's neighbouring farm, where Jack the carter was a noted singer. His older sisters brought home songs they had leaned at school, and George recalled that at a very early age he was hearing songs collected by Cecil Sharp, in several cases from the very singers from whom Sharp had collected. 'I can't remember a time when I didn't know "The Seeds of Love", I rather claimed this for my own.' One of his first public performances was at his school's annual social to raise money for the school outing to Weymouth or Exmouth. The class sang 'The Old Woman and the Pedlar'. From his father he learned 'Richard of Taunton Deane', a song that was to stay in George's repertoire. His father 'taught me to not be afraid of an audience, "Get them on your side." He was very conscious of correct breathing and to never think about stage fright.'

The family farm had apple orchards but no cider press, so every year the cider apples were taken to a neighbour's farm to make cider there. 'Cider making involved periods of frenzied activity, and quiet times while the juice is running and you wait for time to screw the press down a bit more. That's the time when stories are told and songs are sung. I recall Jim and Dad, both old soldiers, singing an old song about an army recruit. It involved some bad language, which impressed me. I was about 12 years old. I only heard it once but remembered it quite well.' For many years George sang at village socials, pantomimes, and harvest suppers, where the emphasis was on entertainment and comic songs were in great demand. Then he took a farm at Isle Abbots, on the edge of the Somerset Levels. …