Here’s a great one for fans of traditional folk that love to see how songs change from place to place. Like many modern listeners, I first encountered ‘There Was an Old Man Came Over the Sea’ on Lankum‘s album, Cold Old Fire  – a haunting, disturbing version featuring a spellbinding performance from singer, Radie Peat. Maybe, like me, you made the assumption that it was an Irish song, but the briefest of glances beneath the bonnet shows that it comes from nowhere and everywhere. We’ll come to that later.
Tag: Folk from the Attic
This post is as much a tribute to one man as it is as history of ‘The Brave Dudley Boys’.
The more you delve deeper into traditional folk music in the UK, the more you encounter certain names – figures that may be little known outside the cannon, and sometimes no better known within it, but loom large over their own area of expertise. As soon as you start spending serious amounts of time with traditional and old songs from the Midlands, for example, you come up against the mighty Roy Palmer.
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.
‘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…
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.
Fresh from my Steve Roud interview, having learnt that the folk singer is an entirely modern construct, today I found myself itching to get my guitar out and dive into an old sea shanty. Let’s be clear, though: while this is some kind of performance of ‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’, it doesn’t in any way bear any resemblance to the original ‘Greenland Whale Fishery’ [Roud 347]. Nor can I claim to be a folk singer. In fact, it’s probably best that you – the reader – limit yourself to thinking that this isn’t really a performance at all. More a murmuring. Possibly an accident. I don’t think you’ll find that too difficult.
In the months that I’ve been interviewing folk singers for this blog, one thing that tends to come across perhaps more strongly than anything else is the sense of enthusiasm for the subject. It doesn’t seem as though traditional folk music, in England at least, is something you get into lightly. It becomes a bit of an obsession. You suddenly find yourself with a head full of stories and a library (you never had a library before!) full of obscure books and archaic biographers of people who were once as caught up in it all as you now find yourself.
Like most modern performers, I think I first heard ‘When First I Came to Caledonia’ sung by Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy on their first Waterson:Carthy album. For years, in fact, it was pretty much the only song I’d return to again and again. The melody is haunting, and given that I was in my early twenties and living in southern Japan – an old mining and coastal region, warmer but not dissimilar to the place in the song – there was something very familiar about the story of a young man working far from my family, homesick but fascinated in equal measure.