Category Archives: 52 Folk Songs

A wet weekend

SATURDAY

My weekend’s drinking got off to an unusual start, with two hours of abstinence surrounded by beer.

Back a bit. I’ve been going to the Chorlton Beer Festival most years since it started, what with it being a beer festival, in walking distance, in and around (and in aid of) a rather nice local church. What I’ve never done, there or at any other CAMRA fest, is volunteer. For a while now, I’ve been feeling a bit bad about being the totally passive subs-paying variety of CAMRA member (particularly since the discounts available locally mean the sub pays for itself), and this year I decided to get my feet wet with a quick bit of festival staffing.

Never having done this before, I found I was enormously apprehensive – both in general terms (what would it actually be like?) and about the specific question of (not to put too fine a point on it) beer. My only experience of pint-pulling came from an afternoon stint at the Club Mirror trade event a few years back. This was essentially a beer showcase for licensees, and the beer was free – for the guests & for those of us on the stillage side of the table, if we wanted to sample the goods and/or were getting thirsty. Trade was reasonably brisk, but there was plenty of time for sampling – by the end of the afternoon I estimated I’d had about four pints in total. (Didn’t feel it, oddly enough. Must have been all that running up and down.)

Obviously an event where everybody’s paying will have different rules from one where nobody is, and I wasn’t expecting the Chorlton fest to be anywhere near as liberal as that. But my stint as a volunteer was going to be my only visit to the fest: I didn’t want to end up going home without having had anything at all. The advice sent out to volunteers set my mind at rest to some extent:

Staff are encouraged to taste the beers in order to familiarise yourself with what is available so you can recommend beers to customers. Please do not misuse this privilege. Your bar manager will give you a staff glass when you arrive – mark it with insulation tape showing your name. When going on a break, you may fill your glass. Please drink responsibly.

That didn’t sound too bad, particularly the bit about filling your glass. What did worry me was what would happen at the end of my stint – would I be able to buy some tokens and hang on as a punter? Or would they confiscate my ‘staff’ glass and insist I paid the full whack? (And if they did, what would I do?) I was still speculating (pointlessly) about this when I walked down to the church on Saturday afternoon.

Ah. Saturday afternoon. You may have spotted the flaw in my plan to ease myself into CAMRA volunteering with a little light pint-pulling. The festival was open Thursday evening, Friday evening and on Saturday from lunchtime to 9.30 p.m. For what must have seemed like good reasons at the time, I’d decided to volunteer from 6.00 to 8.00 on Saturday.

Was it busy? Yes, it was busy. It was very busy. There were about eight of us between the bar and stillage which had been set up at one end of the room, serving 20-odd beers – mostly from handpump – to… lots of people. At one point I remember thinking the crowd was thinning out a bit, and then realising it was still three deep along most of the bar. I took orders, pulled beers as quickly and efficiently as I could manage (balancing speed against froth), did mental arithmetic to work out what to charge and then did some more to work out which numbers to cross off on the token sheet – or sheets; a couple of times I was handed three separate sheets, all of them partly completed. Then I did it all again, and again. (As, of course, did all the people around me, most of whom were already doing it when I arrived and were still there when I left.) I spent the first ten minutes dashing unnecessarily up and down behind the bar and getting under people’s feet (sorry), working out where everything was and in some cases wasn’t (a couple of beers had already gone off). Then I got the hang of it. My pump-jockeying was getting quite good by the end of it, too.

Did I taste the beers to familiarise myself with what was available? Well, I did get a staff glass, but actually putting anything in it wasn’t an option. This was partly peer pressure – I could plainly see that nobody else was drinking anything, apart from one guy who was on water – but mainly it was just because there wasn’t time: even if the entire front row of drinkers was being served (which we did sometimes manage) there was always the row behind them, and the row behind them. It was endless. When I left, I suppose I could have pulled myself a cheeky familiariser on the way out, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that while everyone else was still working flat out – and besides, by that stage the beers were starting to get a bit scarce.

As for hanging around to sample the fest as a punter, certainly nobody made any move to take my glass off me, so that was one less worry. The only problem was, by then two of the three bars serving beer had completely run off and closed up; the only bar where beer was still being served was the one I’d just come from. It wasn’t that I didn’t fancy a beer – by this stage I really fancied a beer – but I didn’t fancy queuing up to get served by somebody I’d just been working alongside, let alone doing it two or three times over so as to spend £5 worth of tokens. So I parked my glass on a table and came home, via the Sedge Lynn (Phoenix White Tornado) and Pi (Se7en Brothers EPA).

The moral of this story is that I should have been more selective about which period I volunteered for – and that anyone who does volunteer (knowingly!) for a busy period at a beer fest is an absolute hero. (I’m still aching four days later – what it would have been like to serve all evening, and then do the take-down, I can only imagine.)

SUNDAY wasn’t quite what I’d expected, either.

In a conversation on Facebook earlier in the week I’d chanced to use the phrase “Manchester’s improving daily” – the title of a Victorian broadside ballad about the transformation of the city during the Industrial Revolution. A passing member of the band Edward II picked up on this and asked if I was coming to their ‘mini-festival’ – entitled Manchester’s improving daily – that weekend at the Angel. (It wasn’t quite such a coincidence as that makes it sound – the phrase was in my mind because I’d seen it earlier in the week, on a poster which was presumably advertising the event.) As well as performers giving renditions of selected Victorian ballads, the afternoon was going to feature two sets by Edward II, who are a kind of mutant reggae ceilidh band; there would be food and, the Angel being the Angel, a wide range of beers. The idea of standing in the sun with a beer listening to Victorian reggae appealed to me rather a lot, so on Sunday afternoon I headed out.

Then it started raining. By the time I got into town it was raining really heavily. I decided to take the bus to the Angel and got into an altercation with the bus driver, who’d never heard of the Angel (or, presumably noticed it) and didn’t know what fare to charge: “How much do you usually pay?” “I don’t, usually I walk it…” I got there to find the pub rather full – standing room only – and Edward II in the process of packing up: clearly the rain hadn’t been factored in. I got a drink (Stockport First Gold) and mulled over what to do. While I was mulling I overheard somebody telling somebody else that Edward II were going to do a set at Band on the Wall instead, and that there was a “scratch acoustic thing” going on upstairs. I headed upstairs, to find – not a scratch anything, but – the estimable Mark Dowding and Chris Harvey, who recorded an album of Manchester Victorian broadsides ten years ago. Still nowhere to sit, though. I stood through “Manchester’s improving daily” (none other) and then decided to go somewhere else to take the weight off.

The particular somewhere else I had in mind was the Smithfield – a pub I’ve always rather liked, though it’s never been the most opulent of drinking experiences. It’s recently started a new lease of life as a joint venture between Blackjack and an independent beer distributor. It’s also practically next door to the Band on the Wall, so it seemed like the ideal place to pass the time until Edward II were ready. I ended up having three Blackjack beers – You Bet, Jabberwocky and Full House – and an Alechemy Citra Burst. Three pale ales and one tripel, two on keg (You Bet and Full House), two on cask. They were all terrific; I started with You Bet but thought Jabberwocky shaded it in terms of complexity and interestingness – although I did catch myself thinking, heretically, that it would have been nicer just a bit colder. (It was a hot day.) And Full House, at 9.2%, was just superb.

As for Edward II, when I went to the Band on the Wall they had a sign up saying that they weren’t going to play after all, but ‘events’ would continue at the Angel. I shlepped back to the Angel and found no events going on, so I went home. An hour later – by which time it was a pleasant, sunny evening – a note appeared on Facebook to the effect that they were going to play after all, at the Angel. Blast! But then, if I’d hung around at the Angel – or in the Smithfield – for another hour I’m not sure I’d have been able to stand, let alone dance.

And the moral of that story – well, it’s a bit like the story of Trillian’s contact lenses in one of the later Hitchhiker books. The moral is that if you go home you miss out, sometimes, and if you stay out it’s a waste of time, sometimes. The trick is knowing which is which.

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It’s a cold place in winter

…is old Hartlepool. It’s not so warm in April, either.

I spent the weekend in the oldest part of Hartlepool, for the Headland Folk Festival. Organised by esteemed folk trio the Young ‘Uns, the Headland FF didn’t aspire to be a competitor to Cambridge or the Green Man – no James Yorkstons or Ukulele Orchestras here. There were concerts – Polish shanty singers Brasy were particularly memorable – but the main business of the weekend was the singarounds. In my memory the weekend is already blurring into one continuous singaround, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon (when the Young ‘Uns and the Wilsons led everyone who was still there in a mass rendition of… Sea Coal, what else.)

Anyway, over the weekend I spent a fair amount of time in pubs, and here’s what I saw. And drank.

The rather ironically-named Cosmopolitan had one handpump, offering Hobgoblin. I swerved it and looked in the beer fridge, which had some passable supermarket-ish bottles (Maxim, Marston’s EPA, that kind of thing) – including one from a brewery I’d never heard of. Local speciality ahoy! I ordered that one and turned it round to check the details of the brewery on the label. The details of the brewery on the label began with the word “Lidl”. (The beer wasn’t great either.) To be fair, I never saw that beer again – and I checked that fridge every time I went in the Cos, what with not really fancying the Hobgoblin. Next time I was in, the most interesting thing I could see in the fridge was the Maxim, which I duly asked for; the barman said it had only just gone in the fridge and would I prefer Newcastle Brown. “I’ll have the Maxim,” I said. “Right, Newcastle Brown,” he said. (I don’t think he was doing it deliberately – I had terrible trouble making myself understood the whole time I was there. Simple things like asking a bus driver for a £1.70 fare – my whole intonation was off, somehow.) Anyway, I had the Newkie Brown, which was… well, what do you want, it was Newkie Brown; it was OK. What I will say for the Cos was that they did a very nice roast meat bun with chips and gravy (even if the barman tended to hear the word ‘pork’ as ‘beef’); they also hosted quite a few acts over the weekend, including the self-explanatory women’s vocal group She Shanties. Nice pub, shame about the beer, basically.

The programme for the Folk Festival listed one venue as Harbour of Refuge (Pothouse); I assumed this was a pub called the Pothouse which the organisers had romantically designated the Harbour of Refuge for festival-goers. It’s actually a pub called the Harbour of Refuge, which everybody calls the Pothouse – or rather, the pub management call it the Pothouse (it’s even on their beermats), and everybody else calls it the Pot. They had two handpumps, serving Jennings’ Cumberland and Cameron’s Strongarm; I naturally went for the latter, only to find it was just going off. I had a genuinely local bottle, Lion’s Den Headland Bitter, which unfortunately didn’t appeal to me at all (can’t remember why, but I don’t think it was an interestingly strong flavour of any description – I think it was just rather insipid). The next time I was in I noticed a barmaid pulling half-pints of Strongarm with enormous frothy heads into pint glasses, then stashing them carefully in the beer fridge; I took this as a hint that there was still something wrong with the Strongarm and had a bottle of Black Sheep. When I finally got a pint of Strongarm at the Pot it was pretty good – a red-brown bitter, with a big, densely malty flavour.

Having half an hour to kill one morning I wandered into the Globe. The Globe is an unpretentious boozer, which hosted acts and sessions during the weekend but on that particular morning hosted nobody but a bunch of regulars and me. The landlady clocked me as a folkie the moment I walked in and asked, “Are you going to be entertaining us?” Er, no, I muttered – to which one of the old boys standing around said, “Ah, but y’already are.” Cheers. My pint of Strongarm was served with the biggest head I’ve ever seen – a massive Mr Whippy thing, standing two or three inches proud of the top of the glass and making the beer quite difficult to drink (what are you supposed to do with it?). (This may also explain the thing with the half pints at the Pot.) The beer, when I got to it, was rather good – it was very cold and bordering on flat (unsurprisingly) but somehow both of those things worked in its favour. The flavour was better than it had been at the Pot and quite distinctive – a dark, woody maltiness, not at all sweet. Cheap, too. The prices at the Cos, the Pot and the Fish (see below) were at what I think of as Stockport rather than Manchester levels – £2.50-90 rather than £3.20-60. The Strongarm at the Globe was going for £2 flat.

Leaving the best of the Headland to last, I can’t think of anything bad to say about the Fisherman’s Inn, except that it’s carpeted throughout. This is a disadvantage because it means that when a group of rapper dancers turn up to do their thing (after making themselves the bare minimum of room in the midst of a crowd of shanty singers) you can’t actually hear their feet on the boards, which in turn means that seeing it from two feet away is merely gobsmacking rather than outright incredible. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Fish (they don’t have much truck with long pub names in Hartlepool) is a lovely little pub with a great atmosphere; it’s also got great beer and some appreciative punters, judging from how quickly the guest beers turned over in the course of the weekend. I had Wold Top Headland Red (a mildly hoppy variant on the local dark bitter style), Bradfield Farmer’s Bitter and Stout, and Burton Bridge Porter; nothing outlandish (and certainly nothing pale’n’oppy), but all good solid beers and all in good nick. They also do pork pies for £1 – sadly, I never got round to checking them out. Should fate for any reason guide your steps to the Headland, get yourself down there; I’d even say it’s worth the detour from Hartlepool proper (10-15 minutes on the bus, don’t try walking it unless you absolutely have to). And if, like me, you get the chance to push your way into the pub while it’s crammed to capacity with people singing shanties very loudly, don’t miss it. I was hoarse the next day, but it was worth it.

A pound, or even a guinea (£1.05), won’t buy you a lot of beer these days. In a Spoons on a Monday, I’ve had a £1.99 pint knocked down to £1.49 with a token, but that’s the absolute limit – or so I’d have said. I’d come to Hartlepool with a walletful of Spoons tokens, and back in Hartlepool proper on the Sunday I found myself with half an hour to kill before my train at the Ward Jackson, one of Hartlepool’s two JDWs. At the Fish I’d been intrigued by some old pump clips above the bar from Black Paw brewery – a micro down the road in Bishop Auckland, it turns out; when I saw Black Paw Bishop’s Best on the bar at the Ward Jackson, I had to go for it. Another brown, malty, not particularly sweet, vaguely woody-tasting beer; it reminded me of the way Holt’s bitter used to taste. On form it would have been really interesting, if a bit challenging (i.e. it would have taken me two or three pints of the stuff to actually get to like it – another similarity with old-style Holt’s). Unfortunately the pint I had was rather noticeably lacking in condition, either because it was ready to go off or because sparkling those enormous heads had sucked all the CO2 out of the cask (Are you sure about this? Zymurgy Ed.) Not at all dislikeable – I’d have it again – and at least it didn’t break the bank. At my local Spoons, the session-strength guest beers are priced up at £2.25; at the Ward Jackson they were £1.55. With the beard voucher, that made it £1.05. Not all the prices were affected; they were offering two cans of Sixpoint for a fiver, same as in town.

I didn’t go into the Ship; as a bloke I met on the bus put it, “A lot of people won’t go in there, they think it’s a bit rough… well, it is rough…” Then there was the bizarrely polysyllabic Gaietys, which looked closed every time I passed; from the outside it somehow managed to combine the dourness of a Scottish back street boozer with the teenage tackiness of a 70s sports pub (“that’s more of a modern place” – bloke on the bus). After the Globe I was in no mood for mingling with the locals, or not without a bit of folkie backup. I somehow doubt I missed much in the way of beer. (I saw lots of Whitbread Trophy, incidentally – on keg it’s still big in the north-east, apparently.)

I was ready for a pale bitter by the end of the weekend – but then, by the end of the weekend I was ready for a number of things, including a good night’s sleep. By Sunday evening I’d been to two concerts, sung eight songs at seven sessions (two at the Fish, the rest at the Pot), drunk thirteen pints in five pubs, and slept for about twelve hours. It was a good weekend.

Folk ‘n’ ale

The relationship between pubs and singarounds is surprisingly complex; getting a good match is harder than it might seem.

My main, fortnightly, singaround is based at a pub in Chorlton which has had quite a chequered history. When we started going there it was in a bad way; they served Landlord, Taylor’s Best Bitter and Golden Best, and if you were lucky two of them would be on at the same time. I remember a time when the beer ran out altogether, and by way of compensation the barman came round with the last few pints from the barrel in a jug; nice gesture, but it tasted about as good as you’d expect. The relative emptiness – well, let’s not mince words, the very nearly absolute emptiness – of the rest of the pub didn’t bother us; in fact it was all to the good, as it made the pub nice and quiet for us.

What did bother us after a while were the effects of the lack of custom; as well as pumps running dry, this led to the management being very reluctant to bar anyone, which in turn led to some, er, lively scenes in the rest of the pub. But we kept going, feeling vaguely that we were helping keep the place open. Unfortunately it didn’t work, and we spent several evenings parked rather uncomfortably in the corner of lounge bars in other pubs in the area. (The great pre-requisite for a singaround is a room: an upstairs room, a back room or ideally a snug.)

Fortunately, the Beech (this being the pub I’m talking about) reopened under new and, frankly, much better management; on an average night there’s a choice of about six decent beers, some of them very decent indeed. It’s not a craft beer joint, but it covers the range – from Hobgoblin to Oakham via Summer Lightning and Landlord; the beer’s always good and it’s not over-priced. (“Not over-priced” is a phrase which here means “somewhere in the range from £2.80 to £3.60”.) Unfortunately (for us), on an average night the place is rammed: as the MC of our singaround said the other night, “Around this time of the evening we enact a traditional ceremony, in which men come into the public bar and shout at each other.” The second half of the evening tends to be rather heavy on big songs with rousing choruses.

The room, the beer, the noise; getting them all right is harder than you’d think. For a while, when the Beech was being redecorated, we decamped to Dulcimer, where we occupied half of a rather large upstairs room. The landlord rather sportingly supplied a stack of beer tokens for participating singers and musicians; essentially, anyone getting there in the first half hour could count on a free pint. Since the beer was good, Dulcimer scored very high indeed on the beer front; less so on the room and the noise (it was big shouty numbers most of the way).

Another, monthly singaround has recently been launched, although it hasn’t got a permanent home yet. It started in an upstairs room at the Briton’s Protection. It was a great afternoon; the acoustics of the room were a bit soft (big room, lots of soft furnishings) but we got an excellent crowd. Also, the beer was good and Not Over-Priced.

Emboldened, we had a singaround in the snug at Peveril of the Peak. The room was great acoustically – if a bit small – and the pub was quiet; too quiet, in fact: the bar called last orders at 9.15 (!!!). The beer was Not Over-Priced (see above) but it was very dull – Jennings’ Cumberland, Deuchar’s quote IPA unquote, that kind of thing. Also, 9.15!

So we had a singaround in a side room at the Crown and Kettle. The beer was rather fine (Allgates!) and N. O.-P. Finding myself short of a drink at the end of the evening I went for a bottle of Ticketybrew’s Dubbel, which was very nice and… well, not very over-priced. Sadly the room wasn’t great – rather a lot of noise from the main bar.

(Not easy, this. Not especially interesting, maybe, but you have to agree it’s not easy.)

So then we had a singaround in a back room at the King’s Arms (Salford). There was quite a wide and interesting variety of beer, which wasn’t over-priced.The room was very pleasantly full of singers and had a door which closed – a rare and welcome feature. Unfortunately it also had a constant trickle of low-volume muzak from a defective PA which the bar staff were unable to turn off(!). Cursed, we are, cursed I tell you.

Our latest singaround to date was in a back room at the Gas Lamp. The room was amazing – tiled walls making for maximum reflection, which would be awful for a band playing different parts but is just what you want with unaccompanied singing, whether you’re dealing with big harmonies or quiet solos. The pub wasn’t particularly quiet, but our voices bouncing off the walls made so much noise I didn’t much care. As for the beer, there were two hand pumps on the bar, only one of which was working; it was serving a >5% black IPA from the Six O’Clock brewery, which (although very palatable) was over-priced, viz. £4. (This is less than Port Street Beer House are charging for it, admittedly.) Almost everything else was even dearer. I wound up having three pints (to be precise, a pint of the Six O’Clock, a pint of Jever and a 500 ml bottle of Franziskaner dunkel) and paying £12.80 – which would buy you four pints at most if not all of the pubs listed above, and would have covered two full evenings at Dulcimer. Really not good. Lovely room, though, and a great evening.

So bring me a back room (door optional) with tiled walls; bring me a pub (or bar) that’s solvent but not too busy; and please, bring me beer that’s Not Over-Priced. Alternatively, bring me a barrel and set it upright

Clubland

B&B recently broached the topic of clubs – not nightclubs (as nobody calls them) but social clubs, places to drink and see some entertainment. There are three I’ve been to in my local area, although I’m not a member of any of them and there’s only one I’d consider visiting for the beer.

The enigmatically-named Lauriston Club (whose interior you can see here) is a members’ club; apparently you pass two signs on the way in, reading respectively “MEMBERS ONLY” and “VISITORS WELCOME”. Beer is cheap-ish but there’s no cask. There was originally a large detached house on the site; this was later converted to serve as the local Liberal Club, which closed in 1962 (the 60s weren’t kind to the Liberals in this area). The club reopened under its current name, as a members’ club without any political affiliation (or any other particular raison d’etre as far as I can see). But it clearly had a substantial following – more substantial than the hard core of regulars you’ll see in there now; when the building burned down in 1982, a new building was put up on the same site and the club lived on. The video shows a group of us who performed in the front bar one night, to an audience slightly larger than the group was. NB I am not the Phil playing guitar (although I am in shot a lot of the time).

The local Irish Association Social Club – universally known as the Irish Club – is self-explanatory. They put a lot of music on, dances in particular – sometimes with fairly well-known DJs, sometimes with a ceilidh band, sometimes one of each on the same night. Since I occasionally play in a ceilidh band, I’ve seen quite a lot of the inside of the Irish Club. The beer isn’t cheap and there’s no cask. They’ve made a couple of ventures into interesting bottles – Schneider Aventinus was a particularly memorable guest – but most nights you’re best off just getting a pint of San Miguel and planning on drinking it before it warms up.

The third of the three is in a different class, at least on the beer front. For several years I used to go to the local Cricket Club once a week, for the Folk Club (clubs are good for function rooms). Norman, the barman, always had a smile and a friendly word for anyone he’d known for 20 years or more, which let most of us right out. But he did pull a good pint, and the beer was seriously cheap – £1.60 a pint when I started going, or about 2/3 of what were then pub prices. There were two hand pumps: one of them was for Holt’s bitter, and so was the other one. If you didn’t like Holt’s bitter, well, you could get used to it. (This was actually one of the reasons I went back week after week – miss a couple of weeks and you had to get acclimatised to the beer all over again.)

After I’d been going for a few years there was an upsurge of interest in acoustic music, and suddenly the club was a lot busier. Norman was slowing down by now in any case, so the management put a barmaid on alongside him; she was less than half his age but every bit as friendly, and had that infuriating Guinness-derived habit of pulling 4/5ths of a pint and letting it settle before topping it up. On special occasions they started switching the second pump to carry a guest ale; word had it that Norman didn’t approve.

Three or four years ago I stopped going very often, having got into folk music (long story). The last couple of times I went back the only Holt’s beers were the keg range; the two hand-pumps were devoted to rotating guest beers, generally well-chosen and in good nick. They were still being pulled on the 4/5-and-wait principle, annoyingly; on the other hand, they were still about 2/3 of pub prices. And there was a plaque behind the bar with Norman’s name and dates.

Sound on sound

[Cross-posted from 52 Folk Songs]

52 Folk Songs: white is an album of seasonal songs, mostly traditional, recorded between the start of Advent and the end of Epiphany last year. Some are religious, some are songs for cold nights and the turning of the year, and some are both. Unfortunately the album wasn’t available for download until February, by which time the moment for Gaudete and the Boar’s Head Carol had passed. But its time has come round again, so here it is.

The full track listing is:

1. A maiden that is matchless (2:07)
2. The holly and the ivy (1:49)
3. Shepherds arise (3:22)
4. A virgin most pure (4:08)
5. In Dessexshire as it befell (3:34)
6. Poor old horse (5:08)
7. On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At (4:43)
8. Come, love, carolling (Sydney Carter) (2:08)
9. The boar’s head carol (1:49)
10. Gaudete (2:49)
11. The King (1:26)
12. In the month of January (4:22)
13. The Moving On song (Seeger/MacColl) (2:44)
14. The January Man (Dave Goulder) (2:33)

Tracks 2-4, 9 and 11 have been remixed this time round, to give a better balance between the different vocal tracks. Tracks 7 and 13 are ‘hidden’ tracks, as you’ll see (or rather won’t see) if you visit the album page; they can only be downloaded by downloading the whole album. (You can play (but not download) them at the 52fs: Extras page.)

As well as hidden tracks, the white album comes with full lyrics, notes on the songs and even the odd picture. A few brief comments on the songs:

A maiden that is matchless is sung simultaneously in modern English and Middle English, with a flute part copied from Dolly Collins’s arrangement.
The holly and the ivy is not a pagan song. This was my first attempt at four-part harmony.
Shepherds arise More harmonies. Sing! Sing all earth!
A virgin most pure Another Dolly Collins arrangement (I think), this time on C whistle. Vocals in two-part harmony, partly my own.
In Dessexshire as it befell Yet more multi-part singing, plus a multi-part melodica break. I think the arrangement really works, and the song’s well worth hearing if you don’t know it. A strange and rather creepy piece of work, set on Christmas Day.
Poor old horse An old “house visiting” song, slowed down and given another massively overdubbed arrangement. Also features a quick burst of the old dance tune “Man in the moon”.
On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At Not actually strictly a seasonal song as such; scientists have established that it can get pretty parky on Ilkley Moor at any time of year. Four-part harmonies, sung as written with a few modifications for singability (I broke it up into five or six separate lines). Also features simultaneous translation for the hard-of-Yorkshire.
Come, love, carolling A contemporary religious song by the wonderful Sydney Carter. Drums, melodica and anything else that seemed appropriate; based on Bob and Carole Pegg’s version on the album And now it is so early.
The boar’s head carol is not a pagan song either. Second attempt at four-part harmony.
Gaudete This was more or less Folk Song #1 for me, thanks to Steeleye Span’s appearance singing it on Top of the Pops, so it’s always had a special place for me. More harmonies, of course.
The King Another multi-part song learned from Steeleye Span, although I wrote these harmonies myself.
In the month of January Just one vocal track on this one, taking on one of those really knobbly traditional melodies.
The Moving On song Not a massive arrangement – just drums, melodica and a couple of brief harmony vocal lines – but the texture of the (heavily-processed) melodica, the slightly over-fiddly drum pattern and the irregularity of the time signature make for an appropriately edgy, claustrophobic atmosphere. I like the way the melodica’s come out, but I’ll probably never be able to do it again – I was trying for something much simpler.
The January Man he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather… What a song.

Share and enjoy! Ho ho ho.

Skim the cream off

For the last year I’ve been recording a folk song a week and uploading them to a site called 52 Folk Songs. As the name implies, my plan when I started it up was to keep going for a year. I’ve now reached week 52; over the last year I’ve uploaded something like 130 songs and taken up four different instruments* as well as the ones I played at the start**. Time for a bit of a breather, I think.

And there’s a beer connection. Well, sort of. As well as the 52 main weekly songs, I’ve been recording one or two extra songs a week, not all of them folk songs. This week the ‘non-folk’ selection was Ewan MacColl’s song Ballad of Accounting – a slightly unfortunate title, calling to mind somebody trying to be hearty and come-all-ye about double-entry book-keeping. Actually it’s not that kind of accounting. Not at all.

What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?
Were you content in the evening?

The song’s a challenge thrown down to everyone who was ever born without a silver spoon in their mouth. As if to say: This life of yours, what did you make of it? And, most importantly: People wanted to keep you down – did you let them?

What’s it got to do with beer? This. Verse four:

Did you ever demand any answers,
The who and the what and the reason why?
Did you ever question the setup?
Did you stand aside and let them choose while you took second best?
Did you let them skim the cream off and then give to you the rest?
Did you settle for the shoddy? Did you think it right
To let them rob you right and left and never make a fight?

Did you settle for the shoddy? That, for me, is exactly what CAMRA came to combat – shoddy beer; more precisely, shoddy substitutes for decent beer. Decent beer is what I believed in when I first heard of CAMRA, and what I still believe in now – decent beer for everyone. Which is also why I try to avoid getting drawn into the world of the £12 bottle and the £5 half; I don’t think there’s a future for beer in letting them skim the cream off, even if I can sometimes be one of the ones doing the skimming. With Tim Martin a Kipper and Right-Libertarians making themselves heard on the smoking ban, it’s easy to forget how left-leaning the real ale scene was in the early days of CAMRA. But I think the founding ideas of CAMRA had a real affinity with the Left: it was all about the drinkers (not the brewers) and it was all about all the drinkers, not just the tickers and cognoscenti. There was a campaign for real ale, because real ale needed to be fought for – and it needed to be fought for because big business wasn’t on our side: there was too much money to be made out of not selling it and not brewing it in the first place. I read this evening (in comments at B&B) that the CAMRGB (look it up) holds that “it is important that a brewer makes their beer how they choose” – after all, “if the consumer doesn’t like it they won’t drink it”. The capitulation to the business point of view is total. Presumably, if a brewer wants to reduce the quality of their beer and spend the money on advertising, that’s OK too – people wouldn’t drink it if they didn’t like it.

This has come out a bit more Mr Angry than I intended – I guess that’s what comes of doing Ewan MacColl songs.

So, anyway: 52 Folk Songs. Featuring 52 traditional songs, 42 other traditional… shall I start this again? Featuring 94 traditional songs, 34 non-traditional songs, and some others that I haven’t kept tabs on. Also featuring me singing and playing a bunch of different instruments. Lots of multi-tracking. Lots of songs you probably don’t know. All good stuff, apart from this one Dylan song which didn’t come out quite… er, never mind. Basically, all good stuff. Check it out.

*Melodica, zither, concertina, ukulele.
**Flute, recorder, whistle(s), drums.

Shifting the gear

(Crossposted from 52 Folk Songs and based on comments posted at fRoots.)

The Indigo album marks the first quarter of the 52fs year: 13 songs down, 39 to go. With that in mind, here’s a quick retrospective post on the project.

Songs posted so far: 34
Traditional songs: 22
Contemporary songs: 12 (authors: Peter Bellamy, Bellamy/Kipling, Peter Blegvad, Noel Coward, Bob Dylan, Green Gartside, Richard Thompson, Lal Waterson, Joss Whedon)
Whistle tunes: 3
Songs with backing: 11 (including all the last eight)
Backing instruments: 4 woodwind, 3 free reed (including a melodica I didn’t own two months ago), drums (not played for 30 years), voices, some programming

I had no idea there was going to be all this playing involved when I started! The next frontier is harmony; the ‘white’ album (over Christmas and New Year) is going to feature a fair amount of singing in parts, something I’ve never done before. It’ll be great, probably.

So, what have I learned so far?

1. My voice sounds very different when recorded. Very very very different. Obviously I knew this already, but spending a lot of time with my recorded voice has really brought it home to me. Lots of takes, lots of close listening, and you start hearing a voice that’s very different from what you thought you were producing…
1a. …and start thinking “maybe I need to work on that”. In my head I’m always giving a peak performance – that hypnotic Musgrave I did that time, that back-wall-nailing Trees They Do Grow High… Listening back, this turns out not to be the case; a lot of the time, particularly on first takes, what I hear is just this bloke singing…
1b. …and sometimes not in a terribly distinctive voice – although sometimes I do listen to a take and think “that’s me – I’ll do more like that”. I’ve been singing all my life, and singing in public on a fairly regular basis since 2004; it seems weird to be thinking about ‘finding a voice’ now, but there it is.

2. Although I’ve always seen myself as an unaccompanied singer, it turns out that accompanied singing is a lot of fun…
2a. …especially drones (which I never thought I’d get into)…
2b. …but also harmonies, rhythm tracks, chords (I love my melodica)…
2c. …although doing them all multi-tracked is an incredible time-sink…
2d. …which imposes definite limits on how close to perfection I can afford to get…
2e. …and layering separate tracks recorded without a click is an absolute no-no, unless you really enjoy wielding the virtual razor-blade in Audacity. There’s timing that sounds absolutely regular, and then there’s timing that is absolutely regular, down to the tenth of a second – and that’s a lot harder.

3. Uploading home recordings to a Web site is not going to enable me to give up the day job. (Fortunately I like the day job.) Obviously I knew this already too, but it’s really been brought home to me…
3a. …that there aren’t millions of people who like listening to this stuff, at least not online, not all the way through (why don’t people just leave the thing playing?) and…
3b. …there definitely aren’t millions of people who like downloading it; and, more generally…
3c. …the Web is no place to build a profile, unless you’re very talented, very photogenic, very lucky or gifted with a herd of football-playing pigs; it’s a great shop-front, but I think you still need to build awareness in the real world. There is just too much music out there for a single project like this to make much of a splash. (Or maybe it’s a slow-burning splash; there have definitely been more plays per day per track of the songs on the Indigo album than the ones on its Violet predecessor. We shall see.)

4. Bandcamp’s statistics distinguish between ‘complete’ (>90%) plays, ‘skips’ (stopped before 10%) and ‘partial’ (>10% but <90%). The number of partials and skips is extraordinary, not to say slightly alarming. (On the other hand, the songs with the most partial plays generally have the most full plays as well, so I suppose it all works out.) Aggregating all three, my top five tracks are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
3 Derwentwater’s farewell
4= Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
4= The unfortunate lass

On full plays alone, the top five (or seven) are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 The unfortunate lass
3 There are bad times just around the corner
4 The cruel mother
5= Derwentwater’s farewell
5= Us poor fellows
5= The death of Bill Brown

Propping up the table (sorted on all plays together) are

28. Hughie the Graeme
29. St Helena lullaby (Rudyard Kipling)
30. Serenity (Joss Whedon)
31. Percy’s song (Bob Dylan)
32. The unborn Byron (Peter Blegvad)

(I’m excluding the album-only House[s] of the Rising Sun from the list; hence the last place is number 32, not 34.)

Things look slightly different if we sort on full plays, as there are six songs for which the ‘complete play’ count is stuck at zero – these songs haven’t been played all the way through at all. What are you like, world? There’s some great stuff here:

The unborn Byron
The death of Nelson
Percy’s song
Boney’s lamentation
Dayspring mishandled (Rudyard Kipling)
Danny Deever (Rudyard Kipling)

Generally the newer stuff seems to have gone down less well than the traditional songs – which are, after all, what 52fs is all about, so I can’t really complain.

5. Even if I were the only audience – which I’m not, although (as we see) for a couple of tracks it’s a close thing – 52fs is proving to be an incredibly enjoyable and absorbing project; I’m learning all the things about music I’ve always vaguely thought I ought to know, as well as some unexpected but useful things about my voice.

Here’s the link to the album again: 52 Folk Songs – Indigo. Roll up! Roll up! And here are links to a couple of personal favourites, plus a couple which may have had less attention than they deserve.

Pints of ale and bottles of sherry

When I’m not drinking, baby, you’re on my mind
When I’m not sleeping, honey, when I ain’t sleeping,
When I’m not sleeping, you know, you’ll find me crying
– Jackson C. Franks

when I’m drinking, I’m always thinking,
And wishing that Peggy Gordon was there.
– Anon.

When I’m not drinking, and sometimes when I am, I’m often singing. Like Darren – whose Blog O’Beer has recently re-emerged under the name of Folk and Ale – I’m a bit of a folkie. I’ve been singing at folk clubs for eight and a bit years, generally unaccompanied but without a finger in my ear. (Nor do I wear sandals. I have got a beard, though, and obviously I’m fairly fond of real ale.) For about the last three years I’ve been a dedicated traddie, devoted to that great ocean of songs that you never hear on the radio.

Last year Jon Boden of Bellowhead put together A Folk Song A Day: a Web site featuring a different song, newly recorded, every day for a year. There were arguments in the comments about some of the choices, but by and large AFSAD was a magnificent project. (And is. The Webmaster is currently cycling through the year for a second time, re-upping the songs month by month; if you missed it first time round, check it out.) Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and AFSAD has had quite a few emulators: there’s An Australian Folk Song A Day (which has been going for eight months), A Liverpool Folk Song A Week (six months) and A Folk Song A Week (seven weeks).

And there’s my own project, 52 Folk Songs, which is just about to enter its eighth week. The idea of 52fs is that the revitalisation of old songs shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of star musicians like Jon Boden, who have armies of fans, state-of-the-art recording facilities, multi-instrumental musical talents, encyclopedic knowledge and a pleasing and tuneful voice. No, we singers can all play our part – even if we have very few of those attributes, or none at all.

I therefore set myself to record and upload a folk song every week for a year. Common sense and good taste might have suggested limiting myself to one song per week, but if they did I wasn’t listening: there are quite a few extras there too, not all of which are even folk songs. Tenuous links between the songs chosen can be traced, for those with unfeasibly large amounts of time on their hands, at 52fs. The total for the first six weeks is 14 songs and three tunes:

1 Lord Bateman (FS01)
2 The Death of Bill Brown (FS02)
3 The Unfortunate Lass (FS03)
4 The Cruel Mother (FS04)
5 Lemany (FS05)
6 The London Waterman (FS06) + Constant Billy
7 Over the hills and far away
8 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
9 My boy Jack (Rudyard Kipling)
10 Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
11 Down where the drunkards roll (Richard Thompson)
12 Child among the weeds (Lal Waterson)
13 Hegemony (Green Gartside)
14 Spencer the Rover + Three Rusty Swords / The Dusty Miller

Not content with inflicting these assorted squawks on the world, I’ve now had the unmitigated audacity to make them available under the guise of an ‘album’: 52 Folk Songs – Violet. This is the first in a series of eight virtual ‘albums’ (I use the quotation marks advisedly) that will be appearing over the year, unless I’m prevailed upon to stop. It can be downloaded at 52 Folk Songs – Violet for a token payment of 52p (you see what I did there). This gets you 40 minutes of what can loosely be called singing and some frankly amateurish whistle-playing, plus a hastily thrown-together PDF file containing full lyrics plus assorted pictures, comments, musings and afterthoughts. The whole lamentable package is fronted by the most un-folk-like image you could imagine (“what’s the purple doughnut for?” – my wife).

Alternatively you can download the tracks individually and pay nothing at all, or simply listen online. It might be even simpler just to listen to something else instead.

But don’t let me put you off. 52 Folk Songs is at http://www.52folksongs.com.

The purple doughnut is here.

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