MT logo Letters 2014

'Truth' and the Folk Process

Dr Ian Olson continues to present us with some fascinating insights into Scottish balladry (MT Enthusiasms 74 & 75 Harlaw Battle and its Ballads).  I was especially interested in Vic Smith's belief that the 'Charlie', mentioned in The Bonnie Hoose o Airlie, was Bonny Prince Charlie, when this was historically impossible.  I am sure that many singers hold similar beliefs in relation to other songs and ballads.  And of course it is not just in songs and ballads that we can find confusion.

When I was researching material for my biography of the Swindon born left-wing writer Ralph Bates I spoke to Ted Poole, the founder of the Swindon Folk Singer's Club, who had been a friend of Ralph's brother, Leslie 'Les' Alfred Bates.  Les Bates had been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain but, unlike Ralph Bates, had remained in Swindon, where he worked for the AEU.  On one occasion Les told Ted Poole that, as a young man, Ralph Bates had gone to Montana, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, often known as the 'Wobblies').  There Ralph worked organising a union in the copper mines, but a comrade was murdered by the mine bosses and Ralph was told to leave, otherwise he would be thrown down a mine shaft (personal communication, 22.12.13).  So Ralph Bates decided to leave Montana and made his way to New York, where he became a Professor of English Literature at New York University.

This story, believed to be 'true' by Les Bates is, in fact, only partially true.  In 1930 Ralph Bates left Swindon and went to Spain, not America.  Ralph worked in the Barcelona docks and, at one point, organised a union in a fish-canning factory.  He never worked as a union organiser in Montana.  In 1939, following the Republican defeat by Franco, Ralph Bates travelled to Mexico before settling in New York.  In 1946 he became Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing and English Literature at New York University.

So, what was going on here?  The part of the story about settling in New York and becoming a Professor is correct, although this happened a good few years after his union activity in Barcelona.  But how did working in a fish-canning factory in Barcelona become changed into union activity in Montana?

I can only think of one possibility.  Was this part of the tale based on the story of IWW member, and political song-writer, Joe Hill (1879 - 1915), who was executed in Utah on a trumped-up murder charge?  A song, Joe Hill (which begins with the lines I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night/Alive as you and me/Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead"/I never died says he, I never died says he), became extremely popular within British left-wing groups from the 1940s onward.  Had Les Bates, or even Ted Poole for that matter, mixed the stories and ended up believing that it was Ralph Bates who had been the threatened union organiser in Montana?  We may never know.  But I do know that this story shows just how easy it is for 'history' to change, once it is passed orally from person to person.

Mike Yates - 2.12.14

Harlaw & Airlie

Dear Rod,

It was fascinating to read the Enthusiasm by Ian Olson and the letter by Mike Yates on the supposed inaccuracy in the telling of The Battle of Harlaw, particularly that the 'late eighteenth century fake' was an attempt to rewrite history.

You and I, Rod, will have heard Belle Stewart singing The Bonnie Hoose o' Airlie quite a number of times during our visits to Blairgowrie.  The ballad starts:

The historical basis for the telling of the tale is of the raid by Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll, on Airlie Castle, the home of James Ogilvy, Earl of Airlie, in the summer of 1640.  Yet later in the ballad, we hear: Readers with an historical bent will realise that James Ogilvy, Earl of Airlie, could not have been "awa’ wi’ Chairlie" in 1640, since Charles Stewart wasn't born until 1720!  Have the same forces been at work in Airlie as in Harlaw?

Vic Smith - 14.11.14

Re: Harlaw Battle and its Ballads

Dr Ian Olson (in Enthusiams 74) is right to pull me up over my use of the word 'barren', when describing the Harlaw battlefield, a few miles to the north of Aberdeen.  To prove his point he includes a photograph of the site, which is clearly being used to farm crops.  In mitigation, might I simply say that when Stanley Robertson showed me around the site the view was nothing like that in Ian's photograph.  It was a freezing, bitterly cold day and we spent much of the time trying to shelter from the wind behind the large Monument which, today, dominates the scene.

More interestingly, though, is Ian's comment that the ballad sung by both Jeannie and Stanley Robertson was 'a fake', one perpetrated in the 18th century to celebrate two members of the Forbes family, 'who were not recorded as being at the battle', because the family were in need of some positive propaganda after supporting 'the wrong side of the 1745-6 Jacobite rebellion'.  This sounds rather like passages of the Old Testament, where we find non-existent events (Moses and the flight from Egypt, the wandering in the desert, and the final conquest of the Promised Land, for example) being later invented in order to support Jewish claims to the land of Israel.  It is the sort of thing that has been going on for a long, long time.  Another example, told to me by a Professor of Anthropology at Manchester University, involved lengthy family genealogies that he once researched in Tunisia.  The first two or three generations were probably accurate, the rest were made up in an attempt to claim supposed long-held water rights.

If Ian is right, and I am sure that he is, then this ballad is indeed a 'fake', in that it is one which distorts, or tries to distort, history for the benefit of later, generations.  But, the ballad then entered 'the tradition', either orally or else via the broadside and chapbook press, and it is likely that it would have been further distorted as it passed from singer to singer.  I remember Edith Fowke being delighted when she told me of collecting a song about Sir Charles Napier (1782 - 1853) from the singer Marcelle McMahon, who called him 'Sir Charles Lapier'.

So, where does this leave us in respect to Jeannie and Stanley?  Were they wrong to sing this ballad?  Of course not.  Did they believe that the ballad's story was factually incorrect?  Probably not.  If anything, I would say that Stanley was quite proud of his ability to tell what he believed was the history of the battlefield that we visited that day.  And why not?  He was, after all, a member of a group of people who had been marginalized in Scotland for far too long.  A group, I might add, that had remembered so much that had been lost by other Scots.  And I, for one, am more than happy to recall that day with Stanley and to remember his singing of his ballad.  Scholars might call it a 'fake', but in doing so they are using their brains, and not their hearts.

Mike Yates - 11.11.14

The Wayfarers - Bowling Green

Please could we use your magazine for an appeal for information?  We are seeking information and the whereabouts of the folk group from East Devon called The Wayfarers.  These are not the Ripley Wayfarers nor the group in the USA.  We believe that the folk in the group were John S Fielden, Valerie Fielden (ne McCabe), and Richard Morton.  It may be that a Valerie Kellet(t) was also involved.  We have done extensive Google searches.  It appears that John S Fielden passed away in 2002.

The group appeared on programme 32 of the London Folk Song Cellar in the 1960s.  Links are here:

In particular we are also seeking the words to the best version of Bowling Green that we have ever heard.  Some are indistinct, and one verse is missing.

This is what we have to date:

Thank you

Chris Brady - 22.9.14

Mike Yates' Appalachian photographs

Sometime around 1979/80 Tony Russell asked if he could borrow some of my Appalachian photographs, so that he could use them in his magazine Old Time Music.  In the end he did not use all of the photographs.  I have to admit that I was surprised when I recently received an email from Tony saying that he had discovered the photographs in a drawer and that he was returning them to me.  I had actually forgotten all about them!  The pictures are all of performers that I met in 1979 and some pictures had been used in the booklets that accompanied the Musical Traditions CD sets Far in the Mountains.  But, there are three photographs of performers who can be heard on Far in the Mountains but who are not included in the booklet pictures.  These pictures are of Ted Boyd, Charlie Woods and Robert L Tate.

Ted Boyd was from Endicott, VA., a place that Cecil Sharp visited when he was looking for singers.  He played both fiddle and banjo and can be heard playing Sweet Sunny South, Mississippi Sawyer, Sally Gooden and John Hardy on volume 1 of Far in the Mountains, and Pig in the Pen on volume 5. I returned to see Ted some 11 months after making these recordings.  Sadly, in the intervening months Ted had suffered a stroke and was no longer able to play any instruments.  The photograph of Ted was taken in the parking lot during that year's Galax Fiddle Festival.

Charlie Woods, a tobacco farmer, who also played fiddle and banjo, was from Hogpatch Hill, nr. Rocky Mount, VA., and was the first person that I recorded in the mountains. Charlie can be heard playing Cripple Creek & Shooting Creek, Chilly Winds, Hog Patch Hill and Pretty Girl Down the Road on volume 1, and Cindy, Eighth of January/Green Mountain Polka and Walking in the Parlour on volume 5.

Robert L Tate, lived up the mountain above Dan Tate's house (they were distantly related) at Piper's Gap, VA.  I met him one afternoon as I was taking a walk along a dusty mountain road.  He stopped his pickup truck to ask if I was lost.  We got talking and he said that he could play a few banjo tunes if I was interested.  He drove me back to where I was staying, to pick up the recording gear, before we went to his home to make the recordings.  I asked him if he knew any "old tunes" and he rattled off Sally Ann, Old Molly Hare and Baby-O without stopping between each tune.  These can be heard on volume 5, along with Down by the Stillhouse and the song The Lawson Family Murder.  Two other tunes, Fortune and Piper's Gap (actually a version of Cleveland's March) can be heard on volume 2.

Mike Yates - 1.9.14

Re: The Beautiful Music All Around Us review

Dear Musical Traditions,

I'm hugely grateful for your invaluable publication and wish it long life in every way.  In particular I'm grateful to your many thoughtful reviewers and the attention they give to traditional music, its makers, and its interpreters.  This morning I specifically refer to Chris Smith's hugely generous review of The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience.

I couldn't ask for more and I'm grateful to him.  However, there were a couple points he raised where we differed.  Chris suggested I write in with some clarifications.

One is that I was aware of Joseph Spence's recording of Ain't No Grave, but in revising the book, originally 900 pages down to its present 504 (!), I dropped its mention as it no longer bore immediate relevance to that chapter's discussion.  Also, years ago I received from Chris himself a copy of Bill Greensmith's Blues and Rhythm article on the Parchman prison bands.  While aware of it, I didn't draw from it for the purposes of my chapter.  So it didn't enter into an endnote, or the works cited list, which, as readers here all know, substantively differ from more inclusive bibliographies.  Anyway, I'm glad Chris mentioned that good article and I commend it to everyone's attention.

I guess the biggest difference we have centers on how to approach The Unfortunate Rake.  Is it one song or many?  Chris's position raises a significant point, one that folksong historians have long grappled: the question of underlying identity.  I think, as do so many others, and I imagine Chris himself feels this way: that performances point the way.  Surely, Louis Armstrong's St James Infirmary Blues gives us a different song than Dick Devall's wrangler in Tom Sherman's Barroom.  We can hear in their singing so much more musical history than texts alone can provide.

Yet in this piece we find repeatedly (even in its parodies) more than just a borrowed line here or there.  We find an instantly recognizable, extended pattern embodied in the funeral march.  What's so astonishing is how this core of poetic imagery has maintained its coherence across so many settings and styles, let alone its travels from the Old World to the New.  For this reason, I approached Texas Gladden's performance as a retelling of the Anglo-Irish broadside, one that has achieved abiding life in so many ways.  In the book I describe it as a kind of public property, a created work whose artistic responsibility many have borne.

Many thanks to Musical Traditions and to Chris Smith.

Stephen Wade - 21.7.14

A Postscript on the Reverend Geoffry Hill and his Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols

Some time ago Musical Traditions published my article The Reverend Geoffry Hill and his Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols (MT Article 261).  At the time I had no idea that Hill may have collected some other, as yet unpublished, songs.

Recently Malcolm Taylor, the EFDSS Librarian, who is sadly soon to leave that post, sent me an email asking if I would have a look at a dozen songs that were in the Harry Hurlbutt Albino manuscript collection, which is housed at Cecil Sharp House.  All the songs are in a single, folded document and on the first page, by the title for the song To Mow Down My Meadows is the note, apparently written in Albino's hand, which seems to read 'From G. Still's collection'.  When the Albino collection was first indexed in the 1970s the name was certainly transcribed as 'G. Still'.  This is the only reference to this collector, but, as the twelve songs are all housed together, it seems likely that they were all collected by 'G. Still'.

It should be added that none of the songs is accompanied by details of the singers, including their names, or of the place(s) where they were collected.

The name 'G. Still' is a mystery, as this seems to be the only time that a collector with this name has ever been seen.  Albino (1889 – 1957) lived in Gloucestershire, variously in Bourton-On-The-Water, Lower Slaughter and Moreton in Marsh, and collected songs in the Cotswolds during the period 1913 – 1938.  So was the unknown Mr/Ms Still also from this part of the world?  Or, if not, was he or she from a neighbouring county?  I ask, because when I examined the name 'G. Still' it seemed quite possible that it was not 'Still' at all, but that it was, in fact 'Hill' and the obvious 'G. Hill' is, of course, the Wiltshire vicar turned song-collector Geoffry Hill (1846 – 1925) of East and West Harnham, near Salisbury.

The twelve songs are:

According to Malcolm Taylor, all of the Still/Hill songs in the Albino manuscript collection appear to be in Harry Hurlbutt Albino's handwriting.  Had they been in an unknown script, then we could possibly have compared them to known examples of Geoffry Hill's handwriting, but, as I say, this is not the case.

There is one other factor which may, or may not be, be relevant.  Looking at the texts we can see that occasionally, as in the Vocal Dance, we find words being written down with a west-country 'z' - as in 'zeee' instead of 'see', or 'zing'instead of 'sing' - and the 'z' sound was certainly once used in Wiltshire, the Reverend Hill's home county, though, to be fair, this sound could also be found in other west-country regions.  (Nor should we forget that some Music Hall singers sang 'rustic' songs with the 'z' sound when performing all over the country.  I suspect that many such pieces would have been composed, initially, in London.)

So, are these twelve pieces originally from the Reverend Hill's collection, or was there really another collector called 'G. Still'?

Mike Yates - 17.6.14

More Sam Larner

Since retiring I try and get out on my bike into the leafy green lanes of rural west Oxfordshire as many days as health and weather allow.  Typically I cover nine or ten miles.  This exercise is much sweetened by listening to music through earphones connected to my Kindle Fire.  Among my frequent companions are John J Kimmel and Don Messer, Alfred Monmarquette and the Carolina Buddies, Abel Browning and Packie Dolan.  But today I spent a very pleasant hour with that great Norfolk singer Sam Larner.  All thanks to the anonymous donor (elevate that person to sainthood immediately) who posted the four fifteen minute radio broadcasts on line as a free download (see below) and kindly alerted us to it via this website.  I could scarcely have been much happier.

Moving away from my personal rustic idyll and veering towards scholarly research, we may observe that some of these songs, including several - such as Napoleon's Dream - in more complete versions than the broadcasts allowed and others not broadcast at all, were issued on a vinyl album by Topic in 1974 (12T244).  The originals of these recordings by Philip Donnellan, who also makes a damn fine job (not in the least patronising) on the four programmes of linking the songs together, are (we learn from the vinyl notes) housed in the sound archives of the BBC and the opportunity for a potential future CD release presents itself.

Larner's narrative includes one of the best descriptions of oral transmission and cultural absorption I have heard.  Some of his stories about being out on the rolling sea (to reference Joseph Spence) are both poignant and moving.  He recalls winning a competition in Lerwick Town Hall in 1907 by singing and stepping to the American song Young Bob Ridley-O.  When in Lerwick for Up Helly'a in January 1978 I spent all night following the galley burning spectacle in that very same Town Hall and a mighty impressive building it was too.  I can't help but think of the physical polarity of coming off a cramped trawler into that cavernous expanse.  My favourite of Larner's comments heard here is, "You can put that in your pipe and tell 'em they en't 'eard that on the wireless."  A man who was fully aware of the special character both of his skills and his repertory.

There was also a Folkways album (FG 3507) issued in 1961, which contained recordings made by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger.  The booklet gives a list of a further forty-eight songs which they recorded from him but were not included there.  Given that Peggy Seeger was gracious enough to allow some of their recordings of Caroline Hughes to be issued on the MT label recently perhaps we might see a future Larner release from the same stable.  Certainly it's long overdue.

Keith Chandler - 13.4.14

And as you read this, your Editor is striving to make this idea a reality - Ed.

Sam Larner radio broadcast

Hello Rod,

Wonderful that the anonymous Critics Group member has made available the four parts of the radio broadcast featuring Sam Larner (see Latest News).  I wish I had been aware of its existence when writing the recent article about Sam and the singing in Winterton.  Coincidentally, John Halliday located the first two parts of the broadcast on Youtube the other day.  The programme was Sweet Lives and Lawless Billows and it was broadcast on the Midland Home Service in 1967.  The recordings of Sam seem to be the ones made by Donnellan in 1957 and 1958, ie the ones from which the Topic Records selection was made.  These in fact seem to have been the only recordings Donnellan made of Sam.

Of associated interest, and also courtesy John Halliday's discovery, the Philip Donnellan film version of the Singing the Fishing radio ballad is available to watch on Youtube in five parts.  It is perhaps about time that Donnellan's work, on radio and with film, gained the recognition it deserves.

All the best,

Chris Holderness - 26.2.14

Bill Smith's Camera Boy

Hi Rod,

When you and I produced the CD Bill Smith: A Country Life a couple of years back, this was one song that conspicuously lacked background information.  I've been searching for more information about it for years.  I've recently been given the loan of an archive of music hall songs (from Buckles and Beaux, a local but sadly defunct music hall society) and found it bound into a collection of sheet music.

Further digging revealed a recording by the American Will F Denny from 1899 released on cylinder. Downloadable from  As far as I can tell it never made it to 78.  Denny only sings three verses, omitting the 'Johnny went to the seaside' verse that Bill sings.

Interesting that Bill should have known such a complete version of such an obscure song.  Below is a comparison of the lyrics that Bill sang alongside the original words, an interesting study in itself of the 'folk process' in action.

The Camera Boy
Sung by Bill Smith

Now Johnny Biggs was the pet of dogs, he was the pet of Pall Mall
He was such a pet they’ve lately bought for him a camera
They’ve took it out and placed it on the artful little dog
And then he saw some rampin’ girls a playin’ at leapfrog

Then up comes Johnny with his camera and he’s took the bloomin’ lot
Up comes Johnny with his camera and oh what a nice snapshot
And now he’s got the photograph and the girls all near and far
Have sworn that they will do away with Johnny and his old camera

Now Johnny walked down a country road, he gave his hat a twist
And then he saw a coming up a lady cyclist
But then there was a pothole and the lady hit the dust
And when she recovered herself she found her pneumatic tyre was bust


Now Johnny went to a football match a ladies football team
And for a while the game went on as any pleasant dream
But then there was a scrimmage and the blue team fell the ground
And very quickly some of them become turned upside down


Now Johnny went to the seaside-oh a quiet little spot
For the girls they were all bathing for the weather it was so hot
But when they came back on shore Lawks how they did screech
Some tramps had stolen all their clothes and left one towel each


Recorded 1980

      Up Came Johnny with his Camera
Words Albert Hall & Felix McGlennon, Music Orlando Powell

Johnny Briggs was an artful youth, the pride of Ma and Pa
So much a pet they lately bought for him a camera
He took it out and rambled round when oh the artful dog
He saw a lot of romping girls were playing at leapfrog

Up came Johnny with his camera, and took the blessed lot
Up came Johnny with his camera, and oh what a nice snapshot
And now he’s got the photograph and the girls both near and far
Have sworn that they will make away with Johnny and his camera

Johnny rambled down a country lane and gave his hat a twist
As he saw coming down the road a lady bicyclist
But all at once there was a smash – the lady in the dust
And just as she discovered her pneumatic tyre was bust


Johnny went to the football match the ladies’ football team
And for a while the game was smooth as any pleasant dream
Until there was a scrimmage when the blue team fouled the brown
And all the girls got mixed about – some of them upside down


Johnny rambled by the seaside – t’was a quiet little spot
Some ladies there were bathing for the weather it was so hot
But when they came back on shore, Oh Lor how they did screech
Some tramp had stolen all their clothes but left one towel each


Copyright 1896

Andrew Smith - 26.2.14


Rod Stradling - e-mail:  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos  GL5 2HP, UK

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