A quiet and unassuming man, it’s hard to reconcile the chap who sidles up to us with the boisterous youngster in those classic Top of the Pops re-runs.…
It’s a big weekend for folk music, especially if you’re in London and you’ve got a thing about The Watersons. On Friday, The Gift Band (made up, in part, of Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy), release their latest album, Anchor, on Topic Records (you can order it by clicking here), and that’s swiftly followed by a launch party on Sunday (it’s at the Union Chapel, and you’re all invited).
In investigating Birmingham songs, I’ve come to realise that two source singers in particular stand out. Perhaps the most widely known was Cecilia Costello, a Digbeth singer of Irish decent that may have acquired at least some of her repertoire following a spell working (not residing) in a Winson Green workhouse. She was visited twice in the 1950s by Marie Slocombe of the BBC Sound Archive, and again in 1967 by Charles Parker, the resulting recordings being released in 1975.
Iona Fyfe is sitting in a cafe in Glasgow, desperately trying to get her Skype to behave. “I’m a terrible example of a Millennial,” she says, apologising unnecessarily for having only spent 20 years on this earth. “I think I’ve only used this once in the last year,” she continues, giggling. There’s no need for apologies, I tell her. Had she spent her time faffing around with technological tomfoolery, she’d not have had the time to devote to becoming one of the UK’s most acclaimed young torchbearers of traditional music.
I pack the last of the chairs away and crawl out from the cupboard under the Whitchurch Folk Club stage, where Eliza and Martin Carthy…
‘Colin’s Ghost’, eh? If there’s a more English sounding song title than that, I’ve yet to find it. And I have to say, I’m rather delighted to have found it on my quest through songs from Birmingham and the wider Midlands. I can go even further than that, too, because this song is about as close to home, proximity-wise, as it gets for me. You see, ‘Colin’s Ghost’ [Roud 1600], was collected from a woman who was born and raised in King’s Norton, a mere stone’s throw (providing you can throw stones approximately eight miles) from the area I spent my formative years. I can’t rightly confess to having ever seen Colin’s ghost, but I can certainly imagine the lanes that the narrator speaks of (although she singularly fails to mention the drive-thru McDonalds that shone like beacon in the centre of King’s Norton whenever I passed through it as a child).
It probably wouldn’t be too far from the truth to suggest that, for many of us, the first contact we have with traditional folk music comes via the sea. There can’t be many Brits that don’t know at least the first verse of “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor” (Roud 322), after all, and some of our biggest and best singalongs started life in the sagging belly of an overloaded ship.
In last week’s blog post (‘John Hobbs‘) I wrote a little about the life-and-death decisions that must be made around singing in your own regional accent. Any conclusions I came to leapt eagerly from the window with this week’s song: ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’. On the surface, it’s such a triffle that it’s hard not to ramp up the Brummie-ness, but as with many of these old songs, doing so feels a little like you’re taking from some of its undeniable dignity. Deliberations! Who’d be a folk singer?
What a weird little song this is, and quite startling in subject matter, too. As is the wont of many people developing an interest in traditional folk songs, I recently began investigating the songs from the area I come from – Birmingham and the surrounding West Midlands. Hardly a glamorous place in times gone by, the songs that really leap out out of the archives tend to be unrelentingly grim, or at the very least clothed in the thin veil of black humour.