Part of Article MT250

In the Land of Lost Content

Some reflections on the singer Fred Jordan

It is a folklorist's illusion that folklore communities are pure, that the pure old tradition is the one most worth studying.

Alan Lomax1

Fred Jordan (1922 - 2002) will need little, if any, introduction to the readers of Musical Traditions.  For some fifty years he was a giant in the world of English traditional folk singing.  And yet, as Roly Brown said in a recent letter, there has been little said about him following his death, apart from a few short obituaries.2  Fred's story is, of course, well known.  Born in Ludlow, the youngest of five children, he left school when only 14 to work as a farm labourer and became especially fond of working with horses.  His mother had been a singer around the home and Fred would proudly tell how, at the age of 6, he won a prize of £1 for singing one of his mother's songs, The Gypsy's Warning, in a competition held in Ludlow Town Hall.  Fred had quite a number of songs from his mother.  Others came, initially, from neighbours, fellow workers and from some of the Gypsies who either camped around Ludlow or else had settled there.  One of his best known songs, The Outlandish Knight, came from the singing of some Locks, when Fred heard them singing at their campsite on a nearby hillside.

In 1950 the American folklorist and folksong collector Alan Lomax was hounded out of the United States because of his political beliefs.  Lomax settled in London, where he was immediately befriended by the English song collector Peter Kennedy.  Fred Jordan must, by this time, have become quite well known as a singer in the area around Ludlow and when Alan Lomax visited Shropshire in search of singers he was told about Fred by a neighbourhood blacksmith.3  Lomax mentioned his find to Peter Kennedy who, in turn, visited Fred in 1952.

Just suppose that Fred Jordan had been born sometime around 1860 and that Cecil Sharp or some other Edwardian folksong collector had encountered Fred when he was in his seventies.  The collector would, I am sure, have noted five or six of Fred's songs, including The Outlandish Knight and John Barleycorn, one or two of which may have found their way into a regional song collection or, perhaps, onto the pages of the Journal of the Folk Song Society.  We may, if we were lucky, have been told that Fred was a former farm labourer, though it is doubtful if anything else would have been said about him.  But, Fred was born in 1922, just two years before Cecil Sharp's death, and was discovered by folklorists in 1952, when he was just thirty years old.  Peter Kennedy, then also thirty years old, had been seconded to the BBC from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, to help out with a recording scheme.  The BBC had realized that English accents and regional dialects were, in fact, rapidly disappearing from the countryside, and so, in order to help actors learn these dialects, they planned to send people out into the shires to record these accents and dialects before they vanished.  And one way to record dialect was to seek out people who knew folksongs and to record their singing along with their conversation.4  But, would there be any people left who actually knew any folksongs?  After all, the Folk Song Society had amalgamated with the English Folk Dance Society in 1932 because the song people believed that there were no more songs to be collected, their work, as it were, being ended.  But, here indeed was a splendid traditional folksinger and an amazingly young one at that!  Indeed, Fred Jordan so impressed Peter Kennedy that he promptly invited Fred down to London to sing at the English Folk Dance and Song Society's annual Albert Hall shindig.  This performance led to other engagements away from Shropshire and, for almost the rest of his life, Fred attended folk clubs and folk festivals throughout England and Scotland.

In 1966, having met Fred for the first time early that year, I spoke to Gerry Sharp, then the director of Topic Records, and Gerry agreed to issue an LP of Fred.  This was Songs of a Shropshire Farm Worker (Topic 12T150) and included fourteen of Fred's songs.  These were: We Shepherds are the Best of Men; The Ship that Never Returned; Down the Road and Away Went Polly; All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough; The Watery Grave; The Dark Eyed Sailor; Three Old Crows; John Barleycorn; The Banks of the Sweet Primroses; The Bonny Boy; Polly's Father Lived in Lincolnshire; The Royal Albert; Down the Green Groves and The Farmer's Boy.  Topic used one of my photographs of Fred for the album's cover.  It was one of many pictures that I had taken of him.  Fred was standing outside his home, Washwell Cottage in Corve Dale, and was casually dressed.  Actually, he was rather too casually dressed so far as some of his neighbours were concerned - his shirt was sporting a few tears -and I came in for quite a bit of criticism when I next paid a visit to Corve Dale.

There was one notable song missing from the Topic album, The Outlandish Knight.  As this song was already available on an American LP we decided not to include it on the Topic album.  As I said above, The Outlandish Knight was a song that Fred had learnt prior to meeting Lomax and Kennedy.  In fact, with one exception, We Shepherds are the Best of Men, all the songs recorded for the Topic album were songs that Fred had learnt prior to 1952.  This was not a deliberate policy, rather I asked Fred to sing songs that I had previously heard him sing.  We Shepherds are the Best of Men had been taught to Fred by the song collector Fred Hamer, who had met Fred in the late 1950s.  Hamer agreed to teach Fred songs in return for Fred singing to him.  A few years later, in 1974, Topic issued a second album - When the Frost is on the Pumpkin (Topic 12TS233) that had been recorded by Tony Foxworthy.  This time there were eleven songs: Six Pretty Maids (The Outlandish Knight); The Banks of Claudy; Break the News to Mother; Barbara Allen; Turmot Hoeing; The Horn of the Hunter; When the Frost Is on the Pumpkin; The Seeds of Love; The Bonny Bunch of Roses; When Joan's Ale Was New and The Volunteer Organist.  Interestingly, at least five of these songs had entered Fred's repertoire at some period after he had recorded his first album 8 years earlier.  So what was going on?

Well, it seems obvious today, though, at the time, it was a little confusing.  Fred Jordan was a very fine singer - one called 'traditional' by many people.  And 'traditional' singers, by definition, were people, usually elderly, who sang songs that they had learnt many years ago from parents and early friends.  Such people were no longer active in learning new songs, probably because the people who had taught them songs were no longer living and/or there were precious few places left where 'traditional' singers could meet to sing and learn 'new' material.  But Fred was quite young and his frequent visits to folk clubs and festivals brought him into contact with other singers.  And these people were singing the sort of songs that Fred liked to sing himself, so it was surely only natural that Fred should start to pick these songs up during his travels.  And there was something else.  When I first met Fred we would often go into Ludlow on a Saturday night to hear people singing in a pub called the Hen & Chickens.  It was a pub used by both Gypsies and Gorgios, and people would sing in turn.  When all the singers had sung one song the first singer would then sing a second and so a second-round of songs would commence.  On a good night there could have been three or four rounds sung.  Some years later I remember spending a night with Fred at one of the National Folk Festivals.  And what struck me was just how similar the event was to those evenings in Ludlow.  Most of the people in the room were singers of one kind or another and, like the Ludlow evenings, singers would take it in turn to sing one song before a neighbour followed with another.  Was struck me about Fred that night was just how relaxed he seemed.  It was as though he was still sitting in the Hen & Chickens, having a really enjoyable night with his friends and fellow singers.  The Festival had, I thought, replaced those far away nights in that convivial pub and Fred was back in his element.  There was also another memory that night.  I had once asked Fred if he knew the song Cold Blows the Wind (The Unquiet Grave).  “No”, he said, “but May sings it.”  May was, of course, the Gypsy singer May Bradley who, a few nights later, sang the ballad to us.  As May sang I noticed that Fred's lips were moving.  There was no doubt that he knew the song, but, so far as he was concerned, it was May's song and not one that he would sing.5

Interestingly, there is, I believe, a parallel between Fred Jordan's musical career and that of another famous singer, one who was also discovered by Alan Lomax, although this time the singer was an American - the great singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known as 'Leadbelly'.  In July, 1933, Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.  John Lomax, as a representative of the Library of Congress in Washington, was searching for folksongs, but there seemed to be little in the way of singing at Angola, that is until a warder brought Leadbelly to their attention.  Playing a heavy 12-string guitar and singing in a deep, rumbling manner, Leadbelly began with a version of the old cowboy song The Old Chisholm Trail, which he called Western Cowboy.6  He also sang them his version of the old waltz (Goodnight) Irene,7 as well as a version of the British ballad The Gallis Pole (The Maid Freed from the Gallows)8 and any number of southern folksongs.  John Lomax and his son Alan were delighted:

One song recorded by Leadbelly was titled Governor O K Allen and was a plea to the Louisiana Governor requesting a pardon.10  John Lomax took the recording to Governor Allen and, a few months later, Leadbelly was released, although it is not certain that the Lomax recording had made any difference.  Nevertheless, Leadbelly thought that it had helped his release and promptly set about helping Lomax collect songs at other prison farms.  Eventually, in 1934, the pair arrived in New York, where Lomax set about 'using' Leadbelly to illustrate lectures that Lomax was then giving.  In February, 1935, a March of Time newsreel was made which recreated the details of Leadbelly's release.  John Lomax and Leadbelly played themselves in a manner that is, today, highly embarrassing.  But the film became well-known and Leadbelly found himself being invited to all kinds of musical events, many of which were outside of John Lomax's control.  Soon Leadbelly was meeting musicians such as Cab Calloway, was mixing in left-wing circles (much to John Lomax's disgust) and was singing the popular songs of the day.  In other words, Leadbelly was no longer 'free from contamination' and so John Lomax and Leadbelly went their separate ways.  But, was Leadbelly actually an 'uncontaminated' (whatever that means) singer before he met John Lomax?  According to Lomax: But this was not how Leadbelly himself quite remembered it: And as to not listening to the radio, well this seems odd for a man who was later to record a song with the title Turn Your Radio On.

This short outline of Leadbelly's life does, I think, show a number of similarities between both Leadbelly's and Fred Jordan's musical careers.  Both had picked up many songs in their early days.  They were then visited (and 'discovered') by outsider folklorists, who were delighted with the singer's 'uncontaminated' repertoires.  For example, in 1952 Peter Kennedy's initially only recorded the sort of songs that Cecil Sharp would have noted, had Sharp met Fred.  These were: Six Pretty Maids (The Outlandish Knight), Turmot Hoeing, The Field of Barley, The Jolly Waggoner, Barbara Allen and The Dark-Eyed Sailor.  A brief spoken comment about singing was also preserved on a BBC disc:

Clearly, Fred knew his place when talking to the BBC man.  Note the deferential use of the word “Sir”.

We now know that one of the songs given to Peter Kennedy, The Dark-Eyed Sailor, had been supplemented with verses that Fred had seen in the Farmer and Stockbreeder magazine; so, like Leadbelly, Fred had already been taking songs from print.  When I first met Fred in 1966 I was surprised to find a copy of Lucy Broadwood's folksong book English County Songs tucked under his bed.  Perhaps this should not have been such a surprise.  Elsewhere the American folklorist Gershon Legman has noted that the genuine Scottish folksinger was a person who was likely to have a well-thumbed copy of Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany on his, or her, bedside table.13

Leadbelly was taken by John Lomax to the cities of Washington and New York.  Fred Jordan was invited down to London by Peter Kennedy, so that Fred could sing at both the Albert Hall and at Cecil Sharp House.  On one occasion he was asked to learn a version of the song The Seeds of Love that was to be sung at the Albert Hall.  On another occasion, at Cecil Sharp House, he met the Sussex singer George 'Pop' Maynard and learnt the song The Banks of Sweet Primroses from George's singing.  And, finally, both Fred and Leadbelly parted ways with their big city mentors, only to forge their own successful musical careers, both learning and singing many new songs as they did so.  In Fred's case these songs included such folk club favourites as The Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Horn of the Hunter, The Galway Shawl, The Recruited Collier and Napoleon Bonaparte.14

The chief difference between Leadbelly and Fred Jordan seems to have been the fact that Leadbelly became active in Left-Wing politics, whereas Fred Jordan remained outside of politics.  It was Leadbelly who composed and sang songs such as The Bourgeois Blues, Mr Hitler, The Scottsboro Boys and The Roosevelt Song in the company of, say, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax.15  Fred Jordan, on the other hand, preferred to keep his own company, and his beliefs to himself.

It is easy, with hindsight, to see and to understand just what happened to Fred Jordan following his discovery by the outside 'folk' world.  It should, in fact, have come as no surprise to discover that, as a singer, he was still keen to pick up and sing new songs.  As Danny Stradling said:

But is that really true?  On the surface it seems to be a fair enough comment.  But I ask because I never once heard Walter Pardon sing any song that he had no known for many years.  True, Walter was happy to be given verses to songs that he only partially remembered so that he could sing the whole song again, but that, I think, is different.  And what about singers like Harry Cox or Johnny Doughty, singers who clearly saw a distinction between their songs and the sort of things that were being sung on the radio or television, and who clearly disliked modern popular music?  Again, there is a difference, because, as Danny says, Fred learnt songs from the Revival - the sort of songs that he clearly liked - whereas singers of Harry Cox's generation seldom travelled far from home and were certainly not invited to many folk festivals.  In the past the problem has been that collectors have often sought out elderly singers.  They may only have paid one or two visits to these singers and so had no idea what was going on when they (the collectors) were not around.  Fred Jordan, on the other hand, was still a young man when he was discovered.  Thank goodness that he was invited to so many folk music gatherings and that, throughout his long life, he was able to entertain so many people with his beautiful singing and for his common sense.  (He once told me off for talking about songs too much.  “There's more to a man than just his songs”, he said.  Wise words indeed.)  Whenever I now think of Fred, I recall these lines by Houseman that form part of the poem A Shropshire Lad, and remember one of Fred's neighbours saying, “Oh, you mean the Shropshire Lad”, when I mentioned Fred's name.


The Song Two/Three Old Crows (Roud 5)

The first song that I heard Fred Jordan sing was his version of the old ballad of The Three Ravens, a song that had first appeared in Melismata.  Musicall Phansies.  Fitting the Court, Cittie, and Countrey Humours, published in London in 1611.  In its original form, the ravens discuss what they might take from the body of a knight who lies slain in a nearby field, but in the later Two/Three Old Crows we find a far more mundane conversation.  And yet, mundane or not, the song continues to be especially popular throughout England.  As is common in most modern versions, Fred's set was sung to a previously popular tune, in this case The Quartermaster's Store.

Sung by Fred Jordan at his home in Corve Dale, Shropshire, 1966.  This recording is now available on the Veteran CD A Shropshire Lad (Veteran VTD148CD).  Over the years I have also recorded three other versions of the song.  In 1975, with the much appreciated help of Gwilym Davies, I recorded two versions from singers in Gloucestershire.  These were Two Old Crows sung by Bob Cross of Witcombe and Three Old Crows sung by Charlie Clissold of Morton Valance.  Both recordings can be heard on another Veteran CD Down in the Fields (Veteran VTC4CD). Charlie Clissold's version is interesting in that it takes the form of a church performance, one with the 'minister' leading the congregation of singers.  The spoken “Amen” at the end of the song is further confirmation of this.  Finally, in 1989, Bob Lewis, then living in Patcham, Sussex, gave me another version, similar in form to that performed by Charlie Clissold.  Bob also told me how he had learnt the song. In Bob Lewis' set we find the spoken phrase “Old thing” which could, I suppose, have originally been “All sing”. * pronounced 'carn'.


Mike Yates - 15.6.10

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