You Never Heard So Sweet: Songs by Southern English Traditional Singers

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CD + 56 pp. booklet. Topic TSC671. [pounds sterling]12.00.

I'm a Romany Rai: Songs by Southern English Gypsy Traditional Singers

2 CDs + 80 pp. booklet. Topic TSC672D. [pounds sterling]13.50.

Good People, Take Warning: Ballads Sung by British and Irish Traditional Singers

3 CDs + 140 pp. booklet. Topic TSC6731 [pounds sterling]16.00. .

When Peter Kennedy died in June 2006 an arrangement was made that resulted in his master tapes and associated documents being placed with the British Library, with financial assistance from Topic Records, who gained the rights to produce a new series of recordings, based on Kennedy's collection. The first fruits of this venture are the four CD selections that have recently been issued by Topic Records, three of which are reviewed here. These have been produced with the tag The Voice of the People, recognizing the success of the twenty-CD set issued in 1998. Reg Hall is, once again, the series editor, but a slightly different approach has been adopted for the new CDs. Each selection has been made by a guest editor, who has been allowed to make their own decisions about the content and the form in which the songs and notes are presented. This makes for some interesting differences between the CDs. Although the majority of the songs on the CDs were recorded by Peter Kennedy, his collection included many that he had collected with others, such as Sean O'Boyle and Hamish Henderson. There are also tracks recorded by others working at the time, including Seamus Ennis, Bob Copper, and Philip Donellan.

The packaging for the CDs is slightly different to the 1998 set, with a board slip case enclosing the 'jewel box' and booklet. The booklets, now perfect bound rather than stapled, are as comprehensive as might be expected. Each one opens with the introduction to the whole series by Reg Hall, but once that is concluded it heads off in the direction chosen by the guest editor.

You Never Heard So Sweet

The guest editor for this selection is Shirley Collins and it is described as Songs by Southern English Traditional Singers. Those who know of Shirley's deep love for her native Sussex will not be surprised that eighteen of the twenty-six songs on this single CD come from that county (East and West), alongside seven collected by Bob Copper from Hampshire, and one from Kent. Shirley's notes in the booklet are personal, recounting memories of the singers she knew and warmly greeting those she hadn't encountered before. And her notes are mainly about the people who sang the songs and the context in which they sang them. Some of the names are familiar and frequently encountered on other recent recordings: Bob, Ron, and Jim Copper, George Maynard, and George Spicer, for example. Others were less familiar to me, as they were to Shirley Collins. There is not, though, a performance on this recording that fails to delight. The majority of the songs are old favourites and do not need much introduction for the audience who will listen to these recordings.

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It is the choice of performances and singers that gives this CD its character. Shirley has created an emotional experience out of her love for the music, for the people, and for the south-eastern counties. I may be biased, because this is the part of the world where I grew up, but it comes across to me as a quintessential selection of the finest of the songs of south-eastern England, and one of which I cannot imagine tiring.

I'm a Romany Rai

Shirley Collins is also the guest editor for the second selection under consideration here: a pair of CDs of songs by southern English Gypsy singers. Again, many of the names are familiar, though the geographical distribution is wider, going as far north as Suffolk to meet Phoebe Smith and westwards to Devon, to hear Rebecca Penfold. All of these recordings were made by Peter Kennedy, some in the company of his aunt, Maud Karpeles. …