I knew that I wanted to write about a Kathleen Ferrier song, And I suspected that it was going to be ‘What is Life’ (from ‘Orfeo’) though it never felt like the one I most remembered…and then recently I heard Colm Tobim on Desert Island Discs who picked this one and a distinct Aha! Lightbulb moment of recognition and recollection reminded me that this indeed was the song, from a disc of Ferrier favourites, which had brought me such shivers of delight in my youthful listening.
My sister Judith may never know how much she indelibly engraved onto the soundtrack of my early years. Working as she did in London, and coming home to the valleys on visits during school holidays, she blew in with a touch of the exotic and the what’s-happening-in-the-capital in her tastes: one sensed that she had been exposed to a whole otherness of culture, droplets of which she shared, with modesty, but with generous enthusiasm, on these visits.
Musically these were often in the form of EPs (exotic enough!) – ‘extended play’ 45rpms, usually with a couple of tracks on each side, and a glossy ‘picture’ sleeve. These were beatnik times, late 50s, early sixties, pre-swinging sixties (though Judy was there for that too) and although my understanding of the scene was hazy to say the least, I can see that she availed herself to some extent in the experiences presented by the surging interest in folk clubs etc. (She told me, a few years ago, that she had seen the young unknown Paul Simon singing in one of these, as he did, of course, in the early sixties). So, I can remember her bringing home a ‘Tommy Makem and the Clancey Brothers’ EP – some fine Arran jumpers on the cover; I certainly recall at least one Joan Baez EP, with selections from her early Vanguard albums of traditional ballads. ‘All my Trials’ was on there.
But Judy’s treasures also extended us classically. One EP was a concert from the Hollywood Bowl; another was of Mary O’Hara’s harp music. And yet another was of Kathleen Ferrier. And wow. This was a voice quite unlike the familiar chanteuses from the radio: – very different from the girliness of Brenda Lee or the nasally womanliness of Connie Francis; not a belter like Shirley Bassey or Anne Shelton; different from Doris Day and Helen Shapiro… If there were four tracks on the EP, the aforementioned ‘What is Life’ was certainly one of them, and I liked the touch of drama, the touch of implied theatre about it as much as I liked the voice.
But this song ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ was something else. The extraordinary timbre of that voice is highlighted by the unaccompanied singing on this traditional song. Only with late adult reflection do I begin to think of the incongruities of this kind of recording: songs that were birthed and nurtured from the rawness of oral tradition, shared in proud regional lilts in ragged impromptu sessions…here ‘polished’ with technical perfection of RP, with exquisite trilled rhotics accentuating the practised precision of diction and enunciation – not just the “ rrrolling” sea, but even within words – “brrring him..”, “sea brrreeze..” None of this incongruity occurred to me when I fell in love with the recording, or matters much now, if truth be told. That extraordinary trembly contralto makes of this simple song something starkly other.
There’s not a lot of it as a lyric – a woman is longing for a southerly wind to bring her sailor lover back home, and that’s it; and perhaps the sparseness of the content – the lexical repetition within its three choruses sandwiching two simple verses –adds to the poignancy and charm. And in childhood, not just mine, there’s always something mysterious and alluring about sea imagery isn’t there – think of those John Masefield poems, quinqueremes of Nineveh etc, and the lonely sea and the sky. Here the sound and images of ‘ships in the offing…’, ‘the deep rolling sea..’, ‘the barque/bark(?) bearing my lover to me..’, ‘the bonny breeze..’ all blew salt-tanged airs that swelled my childhood imagination.
Judy’s gifts and visits were always doing that, as I said. Here she had the help of this wonderful singer whose early death (and yes, a bit like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse and Eva Cassidy) gives her legacy the quality of myth and legend, and why not.