How Folk Songs Should Be Sung

Folk singer Martin Carthy examines the rise and fall of Ewan MacColl’s Critics Group.

Immediately after the success of the BBC Radio Ballads, Ewan MacColl set about the Herculean task of trying to drag British folk music into mainstream culture. Frustrated by the dreary amateurishness of folk song performance, he decided to establish his own centre of excellence to professionalise the art. He called it “The Critics Group”. MacColl tutored select artists “to sing folk songs the way they should be sung” and to think about the origins of what they were singing. He introduced Stanislavski technique and Laban theory into folk performance and explored style, content and delivery. BBC producer Charles Parker recorded these sessions to aid group analysis. 40 years on, the tapes have come to light. For the first time, a clear sound picture can be constructed of this influential group in action. Former group members Peggy Seeger, Sandra Kerr, Frankie Armstrong, Richard Snell, Brian Pearson and Phil Colclough recount six frantic years of rehearsing, performing and criticising each other. They recall the powerful hold that Ewan MacColl exerted which was eventually to lead to the collapse of the group in acrimony and blame. Presenter Martin Carthy MBE, now an elder statesman of the British folk music scene, shared many of McColl’s ambitions but didn’t join the group himself. He listens to the recordings and assesses the legacy of MacColl’s controversial experiment. Producers: Genevieve Tudor and Chris Eldon Lee A Culture Wise Production for BBC Radio 4

Listen at: How Folk Songs Should Be Sung – BBC Sounds

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Shirley Collins: The voice of England’s true soul music

Think about what fires and inspires great literature. Passion, intensity, strong characters,  gripping stories, powerful imagery, a timelessness of theme and emotion that can make something written in, say, the 18th century still seem fresh and relevant today.

The same ingredients also apply to great music, meaning that a crossing of the genres often provides memorable creations: Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are arguably the highest profile examples, but did you know that T’Pau’s China In Your Hand is about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein?

It’s usually at this point that the quote, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is trotted out and attributed to Frank Zappa (although it seemed it was actually the American actor and musician Martin Mull who first used the phrase), but although it’s a nifty bit of word play it’s also bollocks.Music has inspired some incredible writing, from the pioneering rock journalism of Lester Bangs to chroniclers of music history such as Greil Marcus to the current crop of outstanding memoirs, especially from women such as Tracey Thorn, Viv Albertine and Cosey Fanni Tutti. Continue reading

Give Us a Tune: “Wally, Wally”

Traditional

Oh, waly, waly up the bank and waly, waly down the brae,
And waly, waly up burnside where I and my love used to go.
I was a lady of high renown that lived in the North country;
I was a lady of high renown when Jamie Douglas courted me.

And when we came to Glasgow town, it was a comely sight to see,
My lord was clad in the velvet green and I myself in cramasie.
And when my eldest son was born and set upon his nurse’s knee,
I was the happiest woman born and my good lord, he loved me.

There came a man into our house and Jamie Lockhart was his name
And it was told unto my lord that I did lie in bed with him.
There came another to our house and he was no good friend to me;
He put Jamie’s shoes beneath my bed and bade my good lord come and see.

Oh woe be unto thee, Blackwood, and an ill death may you die,
You were the first and the foremost man that parted my good lord and I.
And when my lord came to my room this great falsehood for to see,
He turned him round all with a scowl and not one word would he speak to me.

“Come up, come up, now Jamie Douglas, come up the stair and dine with me,
I’ll set you on a chair of gold and court you kindly on my knee.”
“When cockleshells turn silver bells and fishes fly from tree to tree,
When frost and snow turn fire to burn it’s I’ll come up and dine with thee.”

Oh woe be unto thee, Blackwood, and an ill death may you die,
You were the first and the foremost man that parted my good lord and I.
And when my father he had word my good lord had forsaken me,
He sent fifty of his brisk dragoons to fetch me home to my own country.

O had I wist when first I kissed that love should been so ill to win,
I’d locked my heart in a cage of gold and pinned it with a silver pin.
You think that I am like yourself and lie with each one that I see,
But I do swear by Heavens high, I never loved a man but thee.

‘Tis not the frost that freezes fell, nor blowing snow’s inclemency,
‘Tis not such cold that makes me cry, but my love’s heart grown cold to me.
O waly, waly, love is bonnie a little while when first it’s new,
But love grows old and waxes cold and fades away like morning dew.

Nick Cave, PJ Harvey & Henry Lee

 

“Fucking hell! That’s a one-take video,” Nick Cave said about the decades-old but still smokin’ hot collaboration with PJ Harvey.

“Nothing is rehearsed at all except we sit on this ‘love seat’. We didn’t know each other well, and this thing happens while we’re making the video. There’s a certain awkwardness, and afterwards it’s like, oh…” Asked if he was actually beginning his brief romance with Harvey in this three-minute video, Cave confirmed, “Yeah, exactly.”

“Henry Lee” (aka “Young Hunting”) is a traditional folk song catalogued by Francis James Child as Child Ballad and has its origin in Scotland.

Like most traditional songs, numerous variants of the song exist worldwide, notably under the title of “Henry Lee” and “Love Henry” in the United States and “Earl Richard” and sometimes “The Proud Girl” in the United Kingdom.
The song, which can be traced back as far as the 18th century, narrates the tale of the eponymous protagonist, Young Hunting, who tells a woman, who may have borne him a child, that he is in love with another, more beautiful woman. Despite this, she persuades him to drink until he is drunk, then to come to her bedroom, or at least kiss her farewell.

The woman then stabs him to death. She throws his body in the river — sometimes with the help of one of the other women of the town, whom she bribes with a diamond ring — and is taunted by a bird. She tries to lure the bird down from the tree but it tells her that she will kill it if it comes within reach. When the search for Young Hunting starts, she either denies seeing him or claims that he left earlier, but when Hunting’s remains are found, in order to revoke her guilt, she reveals that she murdered him and is later burned at the stake. [sources: The GuardianWikipedia]