Reviews of VTC4CD 'Down in the fields'
The artistic and commercial success of the Voice Of The People series pointed the way to present British traditional song and music and showed it off at its very best. These two albums follow that example and deserve to be considered in the same category.
It is clear that Reg Hall had creamed off the very best of the huge Topic catalogue and the many other recordings that were available to him for his epoch-making project. In choosing items for these two albums, John Howson had a smaller base to choose from in selecting from his own Veteran label. Geographically, he has also restricted himself to the south and Midlands of England. Given that smaller scale, it is surprising that John has been able to present such a universally high standard of on this pair of albums. Very few of the performances here would seem out of place on VOTP
Of course, there is an overlap of singers on the two series, with the likes of Johnny Doughty, Walter Pardon, Scan Tester, George Spicer and the Bampton Morris heard on both. Walter Pardon stands out in this collection, but then he would in any traditional singing company. Other highlights come from Gordon Hall and his mother Mabs, George Withers and Fred Whiting. It's always good to have the ear turned by a singer new to you and in this case it has been the fine voices of Norman Perks from Gloucestershire and Ted Quantrill of Suffolk. Four songs are from Bob Lewis of Sussex; these are well chosen, for Bob is a wonderful, underrated singer, currently at the height of his considerable powers.
The albums are well programmed to vary mood and style, with humour and instrumentals mixed in to add to the variety. If the Voice Of The People was for you then you will also want these two. The biographical and song notes are fuller and more satisfying than they were on some of the early Veteran cassette releases.
When reading the title of this anthology the words 'where the buttercups all grow' just naturally follow. Sure enough this highly popular song is included in a lovely programme of songs and tunes that as the booklet notes declare "embody the spirit of country life". The selection of twenty four items from previous cassettes to make this CD must have been a difficult job, but the results are mightily pleasing.
The song titles may seem well-known, 'All Jolly Fellows', 'John Barleycorn', 'Bonny Labouring Boy', 'Three Maids A-Milking' etc, but familiarity need not breed contempt in this case, they are grand songs, well worthy of their long lives. As for the singing, it's grand too. Jeff Wesley, Bob Lewis, George Spicer, Will Noble, Gordon Hall and the rest, put in some wonderful performances. Hall blasts away thoughts of the genteel waltz time that 'Green Broom' usually gets with a stentorian 1 1 minute drama that threatens to blow listeners out of their seats. Bob Lewis pulls off one of the album's highlights with his tongue in cheek rendition of 'Sussex Pig', his polished tone and confidential manner make the boasts in this song of the giant animal seem all the more outrageous. Jeff Wesley opens with another highlight, 'All Jolly Fellows That Follow the Plough', to an unusual tune, while Will Noble's forthright style gives full value to 'The Squire of Tamworth'.
Let me not forget the instrumental music here. Billy Bennington playing Hammer
Dulcimer, Scan Tester with a delightful 'Country Schottische' on concertina,
and Bob Cann and grandson Mark Bazeley playing their 'Family Jig' on
melodeons. What a treasure to have family music, and how well Mark carries it
on now that Bob has gone.
This is a totally satisfying collection. If music had calories I'd be two stones heavier already.
English Dance & Song
Subtitled "an anthology of traditional folk music from rural England", this handsome collection – a companion volume to When The Wind Blows – presents more "traditional performers recorded in their locality, whose songs and tunes have been passed down to them by their families and communities". It’s another effective and well-planned selection taken from Veteran’s extensive back-catalogue of cassette releases, recordings having been made mostly between 1975 and 1992. This is the real thing, genuine folk music from the rural environment – whether the singers embrace purely rural subject matter or music-hall ditties. I particularly like to hear Jeff Wesley from Northamptonshire (a popular figure at Whittlebury Song & Ale), and the sturdy, proud tones of the redoubtable Will Noble from the Holme Valley tradition, but there are plenty of other delights on offer here – Mabs Hall, George Spicer, Bob Lewis, Gordon Hall’s epic version of Green Broom, George Bradley’s vibrant rendition of The Two Sisters, accompanied by Tufty Swift – while Bob Blake’s mellow version of John Barleycorn renders the tale’s customary grisliness curiously (almost) pleasant! The instrumental contributions come courtesy of Scan Tester’s concertina, Billy Bennington’s hammer-dulcimer, a Bob Cann-Mark Bazeley duet, and the Bampton Morris. By the way, if you’ve previously found Veteran releases skimpy with notes, it’s pleasing to note that this one is enhanced by the provision of some fine biographical notes as well as notes on each individual track, its recording and source.
Full of Variety and interest, this collection boxes the (English compass, with Sussex and Kent particularly well represented. The recordings come from tapes made between 1964 and 1995 for the Veteran series, and are well presented in CD form.
Though there are three tunes, unaccompanied singers predominate. As you'd expect, the perennial farming song, 'All Jolly Fellows Who Follow the plough' and 'John Barleycorn' appear, but there is more. Tithe collecting vicars come to grief in 'The Suckling Pig', lewdities like 'Down in the Fields Where the Buttercups all Grow' pop up from the music-hall and sibling rivalry spills over into murder in the Child ballad 'Two Sisters'. Less familiar are Charlie Bridger's Kentish version of the broadside' Three Maids A-Milking' recorded by Any Turner at Stoney-on-Oxney and the hammer dulcimer tune 'Rose Cottage' from Norfolk. George Spicer features as light relief. The warmth of Bob Lewis's singing comes over, 'Sweet Country life' making demands of the reach of many. His 'Jolly Woodcutter' has the jauntiness of a Sussex harvest home and deserves wider performance.
The tracks have been well selected, most moving at a lively pace, an indication perhaps that the singers knew to command attention rather than demand it. The songs don't linger - most are told in less than three minutes - all of which draws attention to Gordon Hall's characteristically terse contribution, 'Green Brooms' , which leaves little change out of eleven.
As a sampler, a first source of 'real' folk music and to encourage further investigation of the singers (many of whom are no longer with us), 'Down in the fields' is an admirable compilation. I found the stories being told within the songs compelling. A fascinating and enjoyable selection
Folk in Kent
Although both CDs predominantly feature unaccompanied song, there are some songs on which the audience are heard joining in the chorus as well some instrumental tracks. The South-West of England is represented by George Withers (Somerset), Bob Cann (Devon) and Mark Bazeley (Devon) on the first CD, and George Withers (Somerset) and Tommy Morrissey (Cornwall) on the second.
There is a wealth of talent here. 'Down In The Fields' includes Jeff Wesley, Bob Lewis, Scan Tester, Will Noble, and Gordon Hall, plus many other familiar names. Of particular note is 'Three Old Crows' sung to the tune of 'Ye Banks and Braes', by Charlie Clissold, from Gloucestershire, who presents the song as an 18th century psalm, complete with lining out and a final "Amen". The landlord of the Golden Lion in Newton Abbot used to do a similar performance.
'When The Wind Blows' features, among others, Stan Hugill, the last British shantyrnan, Staithes Fishermen's Choir, Johnny Doughty, Walter Pardon, with Bob Lewis and Gordon Hall once again. Gordon's version of 'Caroline and her Young Sailor Bold' and the tracks by the Staithes Choir are particular favourites.
If I had to choose to buy one of the albums I would probably buy the first 'rural' anthology. If, however, you do buy it and find it is the type of music to which you warm, I guess that you will soon invest in the second. For people who do not know the work of Veteran, these albums are an excellent introduction and I am sure that they will want to buy some of those on which these artists are featured at length. For those who already own some, perhaps all, of the albums, it is a joy to have a selection of highlights brought together and to hear such fine musicians and singers alongside each other.
Enjoy a 'session' in the comfort of your own armchair ... or your car.
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