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.
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. As with the previous CD, Shirley's notes are about the people and the context of the performances, rather than about the songs themselves. The original recordings included some spoken descriptions of the songs by the singers, and a few short passages are included on the CDs, but several direct quotations are included in the song notes.
The first CD in the set includes twenty-six tracks from a number of different singers, including Phoebe Smith, Rebecca Penfold, Charlie Scamp, Tom and Chris Willett, and several others. The performances are generally of a high standard, as might be expected from singers of their reputation. Rebecca Penfold was suffering from the effects of influenza when recorded and yet her performances are so confident and clear that one is left wondering how they could be bettered. The songs themselves are, as is so often found with the English Gypsy singers, fragmentary or garbled, in a way that is not observed so frequently with singers from the settled communities.
One track that stands out is the recording of seven-year-old Sheila Smith performing 'Dear Father, Pray Build Me a Boat' ('If Were a Blackbird'). While it could be considered a bit of a curiosity, it is instructive in that it shows how the style of singing is so firmly embedded in such a young singer. Another interesting choice is the juxtaposition of two versions of 'A Blacksmith Courted Me', the first by Charlie Scamp, followed by the same song from his step-sister Phoebe Smith.
The second CD is given over to recordings made by Peter Kennedy at the Hughes camp near Blandford in Dorset in April 1968. Thirty of the tracks are sung by Carolyne Hughes, with two others by her husband John and one from her daughter Carrie Warren. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger had visited Carolyne Hughes ml 963 and recorded a number of her songs. Some were recorded by both collectors. The variation between the texts of the songs as given in the CD notes and in MacColl and Seeger's book, Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland, is astonishing. In 'A Blacksmith Courted Me', for example, only two lines in the whole song approach congruence. It is an extraordinary achievement, to live so deeply inside the song as to be able to convey its sense without having to rely upon a consistent text. This is a case where it is the singer and her performance that command our attention, without being distracted by the notion of a standard version.
Good People, Take Warning
For this three-CD set the focus is on ballads, and guest editor Steve Roud has chosen to write a comprehensive, and very readable, introduction to the topic. He rapidly takes on the question of what constitutes a ballad and concludes that the simplest definition is the most useful--a ballad is a song that tells a story.
The focus in this selection is (unlike the two previously considered) firmly on the ballad itself and, as a consequence, only brief biographies of the performers are given, as part of Reg Hall's introduction. In geographical terms, the selection has been made from England, Scotland, and Ireland, with just one contribution, by Phil Tanner, to represent Wales. English ballads represent 31 per cent of the total, Scottish 26 per cent, and Irish (North and South) 41 per cent. Steve Roud's notes for each track describe the origin of each of the songs, usually referring back to broadside sources, as well as other collected versions.
So here we have a collection of sixty-one stories told in song, of which just over a quarter (sixteen ballads) are included in F. J. Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Most of those were recorded in Scotland, with England coming second with five, and Ireland contributing two--this last statistic should not be surprising, given the title of Child's work, but one cannot help but wonder about the missed opportunity. The majority of the balance are songs that were published on broadsides in the nineteenth century. Steve Roud emphasizes that this is not to say that they originated in print, but that the broadside is a reliable and datable source. And I like his analogy that, if the grand ballads favoured by Child are the costume dramas of traditional song, then the broadsides are the soaps.
Many of the songs are familiar, but Steve Roud has tried to present a broad picture of the ballad genre. They range from Jeannie Robertson's magnificent 'Johnnie Cock', all nine and a half minutes of it, to George Bloomfield's simple, and unusual, 'Young George Oxbury' (a version of 'Georgia The songs are, of course, important. You don't, I believe, sing a ballad unless you care about the story you are singing. But the performance does matter and there are some outstanding performers on these CDs, and certainly no poor ones.
All of these CDs are enjoyable and there is much to be gained from repeated listening. I couldn't say that they are 'better' than the original twenty-volume Voice of the People set, but the thematic approach works well and gives these selections a coherence that encourages listening in a different way.
I should not conclude this review without mentioning Peter Kennedy's photographs of the singers, a number of which are used to illustrate the booklets. He was a talented photographer, with a good eye, and his black-and-white portraits are remarkable. I hope that, one day, it will be possible to see the whole collection as an exhibition or a book.
Peter Kennedy's collection of his own and his colleagues' recordings has still to be fully exploited and I look forward to the promised issues by Topic of further cleaned-up and properly presented selections. These three collections are a wonderful start to what should be an outstanding set of new CDs, and Reg Hall, Topic Records, and the British Library, as well as the two guest editors, deserve the greatest credit for having made them available.