I’m a little bit embarrassed by the under representation of traditional songs in this collection of reflections, particularly when friends so often think of me as a ‘folk’ person (while the sad reality perhaps remains that, for the most part, the idea of folk music appeals a little more than the general experience of it). So I’m glad that these two songs have resurfaced, from somewhere, into my recent consciousness, reminding me that I am not, after all, totally forgetful of the pleasures and the value of traditional songs.
When I say that the idea of it appeals to me, and I suppose I mean that I so admire the preserving, rediscovering and championing of the old ballads and folk tunes; and stand in solidarity with the whole ethos that music and song should be the birthright of the ordinary man and woman –rather than the privileged classes, with leisure, wealth and opportunity to develop art-forms which –however life enhancing, however valid their exploration of universal themes –ironically distance themselves and their craft from the vast majority of people. One important thing that the old songs do well is to celebrate the worth and the struggles of ordinary working people; including, as in these two songs, giving a voice to the various kinds of oppression and deprivation suffered by women. So, OK, when I hear these songs (if the ballads don’t stretch out to too many verses!), and when I remember them, I’m often stirred, roused. [it’s just that, I don’t know, when I compare myself to ‘real’ folk enthusiasts, I feel like I lack something of a passion: I will need to return to this in a separate essay].
Now, the anecdotal connections. The first folk gathering I attended was that Freshers’ Week at university –and I remember it surprisingly well. Jeremy Taylor was the guest; some undergraduates sang first –one earnest longhair sang both ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘Gold Watch Blues’ a lá Donovan. A lively trio sang Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me’, with fiddle accompaniment. Why I never went back, to this day I don’t know. So the first real (ie. In a pub) folk club I went to was in Cowbridge Road, Cardiff, and John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris were the guests, largely showcasing the collection of songs and tunes on this classic album ‘Amongst The Many Attractions…’ I bought it, played it much, recommended it to others… But weirdly, my visit was a one off. I don’t know why, but it was probably another 15 to 20 years before I started attending another folk club [this story is certainly for another essay.]
Meanwhile, there was Steeleye Span. Our first encounter was when Al and I went to see Ralph McTell at the Corey Hall, Cardiff. The first half support act were great fun –lively and accomplished musicians with a range of instruments, playing electrified, rocked-up traditional songs! “Who are these?” we asked the young guy sitting next to us. “Steel Ice Band” is what we heard. Days later, Allan came home with an album from this band, with a slightly different name. We played to death ‘Please to see the King’ and later ‘Below The Salt’ – loved their harmonies, and all these crazy songs about shepherds, foresters, kings and sailors, and ancient rustic rites, which we’d never heard anywhere else. When I later found ‘Summer Solstice’ (just Maddy and Tim, less electrification) in a Swansea record shop, I bought it for Allan for Christmas 72; but I loved it myself! Pastoral songs, for the most part, some narratives, a drinking song, and the final song ‘Serving Girls Holiday’, doing what I’ve said folk song so importantly does –giving a voice to the poor, working through their labours and privations, finding joy where they can. This song lists the chores of an ordinary serving girl – sweeping floors, cleaning fireplaces, milking, kneading dough, fetching herbs etc. –and inevitably, looking forward to the holiday when ‘spindle, bobbin and spool’ can be put away. Kate Rusby has recorded an equally lovely, though slightly truncated, version of this.
Sue Harris’s song, to Kirkpatrick’s squeeze box accompaniment, ‘I wish, I wish’ is apparently a version of a song much diversified, replicated and modified throughout the British Isles; giving a voice to another common ignominy suffered by young girls –wooed, impregnated, abandoned. However common this experience of betrayal, the song gives a lively, credible, individual voice to the betrayed, fleshing it out melodically with overtones of regret, longing, wistfulness and even pleasant remembrances. In its tight regular form, and its hauntingly simple melody, there’s all of that, with some ambiguity, and persistent love too.
My Sue might dispute the sincerity of the feminist-sympathising going on here. Ha. Still, how great the mind, the memory, to bring these two lovely songs back for a visit…