The Life and Times of A. L. Lloyd
by Dave Arthur
Pluto Press. pp.456. ISBN: 9780745332529
A hugely detailed account of the life of a truly extraordinary man. We had worked with him briefly - he was the producer of Oak's 1970 LP, Welcome to Our Fair - and I had seen him perform at The Singers' Club, and elsewhere, and knew a little of his involvement with folk music ... but that, it seems, was but a tiny part of what he achieved in an incredibly busy life.
He was born in 1908, in Tooting, south London, to parents who were also both Londoners. And immediately we discover an aspect of Bert which continued throughout the rest of his life ... despite being blessed with a phenomenally good memory, he invented the details of almost all of his life, for reasons that no-one is really able to fathom. He professed to be the bastard son of a Welsh mother and a Greek shipping tycoon father - which was rather more colourful than the truth.
He was orphaned in 1925 at the age of 16, and went to Australia as an assisted passage migrant. His brother and two sisters had died at various times during his short life, and his mother died in 1924 (all of tuberculosis). His father was also too ill to look after the boy - and died not long after Bert left for the other side of the world.
There, he spent between 5 and 8 years, first as a farm dogsbody, and later as a 'labourer' on a sheep station - which meant he had to do pretty-well anything/everything. I wrote 'between 5 and 8 years' because, although he is traceable to the passenger lists of the steam ship Demosthenes, sailing home to England and landing in May 1930, he frequently claimed to have still been in Australia in 1934.
He had been bright enough to go to grammar school in England, and was an avid reader of all and everything. He appears to have been the sort of person for whom the phrase 'autodidact polymath' might heve been specially invented. On his return, he dived into the world of literature - and at a most intellectual level - and into politics, as a result of his experiences as a Union member in Australia. He became friends with Leslie Morton (proprietor of the Daily Worker), Christina Foyle (owner of Foyle's Bookshop, where Bert subsequently worked), Dylan Thomas, and a whole host of other people on the artistic and political side of London in the Thirties. It also turns out that somewhere along the way he had become a talented artist and cartoonist.
The period between the Thirties and the Sixties, as presented here, is something of a blur of important people Bert knew and worked with, publications he wrote for, projects he contributed to, and jobs he worked at. Even if I were familiar with them all it would be pointless to try to describe this part of his life (or I'd be writing a review as long as the book!), and you'd just be confused. Suffice it to say that along the way Bert found time to learn at least half a dozen languages - well enough to translate Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and some of Lorca's poems - write for Picture Post, work for BBC Radio and travel extensively in eastern Europe. Oh - and go to war!
This is a long book (456 pages) with small text and narrow margins - and it's just crammed with information! Given my intended readership, I'll try to stick to the parts of it which deal with 'Folksong'. This first rears its head with regard Bert's time in Australia. Whilst there, he 'committed to memory' a number of songs, and 'wrote dozens more in school notebooks' (which have never been found!). In later years when these songs began to appear on his numerous recordings, it was found that they appeared to other Australian collectors as ‘the verses that the people should have sung, but carelessly forgot to’ (Terry MacDonald). Bert's response was that he'd been singing them for decades and involuntarily changed them - as well as tinkering with them a bit. I would have thought that this was quite a reasonable response - except that he'd not mentioned this in the Notes to the several LPs concerned. Many collectors, particularly John Meredith, a stickler for ‘authenticity’, contended that the versions of Australian songs that Bert came up with were ‘too good to be true’ – they invariably had superior lyrics and tunes to the material that Meredith was finding. Worse still, Bert’s recorded songs (his 1956 Riverside album Australian Bush Songs was the first LP of bush songs) were often the ones that caught the imagination of a number of Australian folk singers in the 1960s and 1970s – singers such as Gary Shearston who recorded ten of Bert’s songs on his 1963 album The Springtime it Brings On the Shearing, complete with Bert’s vocal mannerisms and song accompaniment. What does all this remind me of?
Apart from a great deal of work on eastern European folksong and folklore (of which I know so little that my comments would be worthless), the next time we encounter Bert in folksong mode is the publication of his The Singing Englishman (1944), his slim first attempt at synthesising folk song with his Marxist world view. Here I catch Dave Arthur's first small error - he quotes Georgina Boyes, from her article The Singing Englishman: An Introduction and Commentary, but fails to give a footnote citation to say that this article was part of the MT publication of The Singing Englishman ... although this information does appear in the Bibliography, under 'Boyes'.
Next are Bert's 30 or so LPs. Again, there's not the space, nor the inclination, to comment on all of these - particularly as he's not a traditional singer. Next comes the publication of his (and Vaughan Williams') 1959 Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and the 1967 Folk Song in England. There are pages and pages of comment and opinion (both positive and negative) about these books, which will be so familiar to my presumed readership that I see no need to comment on them further here. Suffice it to say that by around 1955, Bert's other work in journalism (in the widest sense) was starting to dry up, and that from then on he began to concentrate on folk song as his main interest, and method of earning a living.
The 2003 reissue of the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs as Classic English Folk Songs is briefly mentioned:
Now, if any of his comments about the song's provenance were true, one would be tempted to ask why 'the collector' - Bert in this case - had not 'thought it fit to publish' when he wrote The Singing Englishman (1944), or The Penguin Book (1959), or why he didn't follow his own 1966 advice and publish it in Folk Song in England the following year? Maybe because all that he'd said about the song's provenance was a pack of lies? And he knew it - one should always remember his comment to Mike Waterson to the effect that he was always prepared to accept that, in the light of further research, his pronouncements on any given theme might ultimately prove to be ‘bullshit’. This is, of course, one of the curses of the autodidact - the tendancy to believe what seems logical, in the absence of the hard evidence to the contrary. Another curse of the autodidact is the tendancy to 'lecture' - something of which Bert is accused by many commentators in this book. This is probably because we believe that everyone else will find our 'discoveries' as interesting as we do! Maybe this is why so many of us become teachers - as indeed Bert did towards the end of his life.
Enough of that! This is a hugely detailed account of the life of a truly extraordinary man. It took Dave Arthur many years to research and write it, and one would imagine that little has been omitted. Yet my own recollection of Bert was primarily of an astonishingly good raconteur, and possibly the most mannered singer I have ever heard ... and there's very little of this to be found discussed amongst its 456 pages. Indeed, we have to wait 'til page 334 before we encounter any real discussion of his singing. Graeme Smith (once of Flowers and Frolicks) said that Bert’s singing style is: 'not a mimicked 'traditional' style. It is distinctly individual and mannered. It incorporates techniques (use of melodic ornaments, subtle variation in vocal intimacy, the shape and placing of slides and vibratos etc.) used by English traditional singers, though in comparison to Lloyd, much more sparingly.' Very true!
I've thoroughly enjoyed reading this book (even as only a 'proof copy' with all its attendant typos and lack of an index), and I unreservedly recommend it to almost everybody - even if quite a lot of it doesn't directly relate to traditional song and singers.
Rod Stradling - 26.4.12