Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

'... and They Calls I Buttercup Joe': Albert Richardson, the Singing Sexton of Burwash, 1905-76

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

'... and They Calls I Buttercup Joe': Albert Richardson, the Singing Sexton of Burwash, 1905-76

Article excerpt

Statistically, the songs 'Buttercup Joe' and 'Farmer's Boy' are key to the repertoire of traditional singers collected in the second half of the twentieth century. Both were recorded on gramophone records by Albert Richardson of Burwash for the British Zonophone Company in 1928 and 1932, respectively--the first time that a traditional singer was recorded for commercial purposes. However, comparatively little is known about Richardson, apart from a precis published in Musical Traditions in 2001. (1) This article aims to apportion Richardson's role in the tradition, exploring his roles locally and publicly, together with his singing repertoire.

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Pre-First World War provincial newspapers are rich sources for researchers investigating performers and their repertoires at smoking concerts and other homespun public performances. This heyday of reporting had passed by the 1920s, and virtually nothing is mentioned in the local press concerning music-making in or around Burwash, Sussex, until Albert Richardson made his debut in 1927. (2)

Albert George Richardson was born in Penshurst, Kent, on 29 April 1905, the second son of Ebenezer and Ellen Richardson. The 1881 census lists Ebenezer as being the youngest son of John Richardson (1836-1907) of Rockhill House, Broad Oak, Heathfield, a miller, whose sons all took up similar vocations. At the turn of the century, two of Ebenezer's brothers worked the mill at Park Farm, which was bought and converted into a hydroelectric power generator by Rudyard Kipling when he took on Bateman's in 1902. (3) In his obituary, Ebenezer Richardson was described as 'a miller by trade [who] worked in windmills some years ago, but in later years was a house decorator'. (4) At the start of Albert's story, in 1927, his family was living at Greenfield Road, Burwash. In fact, Ebenezer had returned to the village in 1912 where he had married Ellen Emma Pagden ten years earlier. In 1907, when he was reported as a mourner at his father's funeral, he was living some twenty-four kilometres away at Penshurst; when Albert's sister Annie was born in 1911, the family had moved to the Uckfield district. Ebenezer is also known to have served abroad during the First World War. By the 1920s he must have left the milling trade. (5)

Discovery

Albert Richardson's story started innocently enough at a British Legion dinner held on Saturday, 12 November 1927, at the Rose and Crown Inn. We are told that

  After the toasts of 'the King', and 'the Prince of Wales' and 'Absent
  Friends' had been honoured, the Rev. L. G. Meade proposed 'the
  Visitors', to which Major Meade replied. Major Stallard, Major
  Jefferson, Mr. Penloe and Mr. Dines also spoke. Major Meade gave some
  amusing experiences of his travels in India, Persia and Mesopotamia,
  which kept the company in roars of laughter. He also contributed
  recitations. The harmony was contributed to by Messrs. Bowen, J. G.
  Self, W. Maude-Roxby, Turk, T. Pagden, J. Burberry, A. Richardson, F.
  Langridge, Major Jefferson and B. Catt, with Mr. J. G. Self at the
  piano. (6)

Albert was presumably there as representative of the local Rover Scouts group, even though his grandfather, the tailor Thomas Pagden, was also present. Whether or not he had been properly briefed as to the nature of the smoking concert that evidently followed the dinner is unknown, but something significant happened that impressed Major Meade, who had come up from Brighton to speak at the function at the request of his brother, the Revd Lionel Meade. The motivations of Major Walter Lambert Meade (1883-1959) in promoting Richardson's career seem to have been purely philanthropic. After leaving the Foreign Service, Meade was to find modest success as a playwright, radio broadcaster, and compiler of screenplays for films. It is evident that he had the right media contacts. (7)

Six months later, on Monday 14 May 1928, Major Meade had arranged for the twenty-two-year-old Richardson to sing at an evening concert at Queen's Hall in London and later for a radio broadcast. …

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