Musical Traditions Records MTCD375-6
CD 1: Up in the North; Daughter of Shame; A Miner's Dream of Home; Eighteen Pence; The Fox and Grey Goose; Home Sweet Home; Old King Cole; Oh What has Changed You; One of Our Streets; Put a Bit of Powder on it Father; The Week Before Easter; Chick Chick Chicken; Break the News to Mother; Billy Brown; A Little Bird built a Nest; The Mistletoe Bough; I Parted My Hair in the Middle; Teddy O'Neill; A Frog he Would a Wooing Go; As I Was a Walking; Father's got a Job; The Titanic; The Wandering Girl; If Those Lips parody; The Dumb Maid.
CD 2: The Banks of Sweet Dundee; I Wish I Was Single Again; Little Cock Sparrow; Young Folks Old Folks; Three Jews from Jerusalem; After the Ball; Old Johnny Bigger; The Bailiff's Daughter; Jack and the Squire; Villikins and Dinah; The Little Shirt me Mother Made for Me; A Man that's Done Wrong; Mother Caught a Flea; Your Faithful Sailor Boy; Good Company; What did You do in the War Daddy?; Needle Cases; A Group of Young Squaddies; I'll Sing of Martha; Oxford City; The Ship that Never Returned; Maria Marten; Old Mammy Mine; The Ship I Love; The Warwickshire RHA; William and Mary; Young Williams; Hitler's Dream; Murphy's Little Girl; The Orphan Girl; A Dialect Story.
The songs and recitations of Freda Palmer (1908-91) of Leafield, Oxfordshire, were recorded by four collectors between 1974 and 1978 and these recordings are drawn together for this album to create a comprehensive musical biography. When listening to song collections of this kind the background details can be just as interesting as the songs themselves, and the accompanying notes greatly enriched my own listening experience. The biographical accounts of Freda help to paint a picture of this 'charming, beautifully turned out lady', whilst the song notes and full texts are useful companions to the songs themselves. The transcriptions of her own musical recollections and local stories give particularly rich insight into the context in which the songs were sung and their personal significance to her.
From Freda's accounts of her family's involvement in the gloving trade it is evident that gloving and singing went hand in hand. Freda described how her mother, who herself started gloving at the age of nine, would sing songs at her gloving machine. When Freda started work at thirteen there was no room for her machine at home, so she would work at her aunt Elizabeth's bungalow and they would sing as they gloved together, with their machines facing each other. It is details like this that brought the songs to life for me, and I was able to build up a picture of how songs were an integral part of Freda's daily entertainment within both her family and her wider community. As well as being part of local performance group the Wychwood Players, Freda sang in church and in pubs, and later in life was invited to sing at folk clubs and Sidmouth Folk Festival.
Rather than being a collection of purely traditional songs, this collection displays the breadth of Freda's repertoire, which included broadsides, music hall hits, and a wide range popular songs of the time from both Britain and America. Alison McMorland also recorded some of Freda's children's songs, and Little Cock Sparrow is notable for being one of only twelve known recordings and one of the rarities amongst Freda's repertoire. A gleeful version of Old King Cole is quickly revealed to be a bawdy song drowned in double entendres and not the nursery rhyme I expected. Freda's songs offer a window into a bygone era, where jovial families shriek Put a bit of powder on it, father!, wronged women are embroiled in melodramas, soldiers pine for their mothers at home, slapstick scenarios unfold in waxwork museums, and Billy Brown the clown stands on his head at inopportune moments. Some of the jokes show their age and are lost on me, without knowledge of the shared societal context, but it's clear they were tear-jerkers, be they tears of mirth or woe.
Freda's chirpy, characterful voice was unornamented and without affectation. She evidently favoured major-keyed melodies with catchy choruses and it's easy to imagine many of the songs going down a storm in a crowded pub or music hall. The Little Shirt My Mother Made for Me, recorded by Gwilym Davies in 1975, captures a public performance with an accompanying chorus of singers and provides further context. Many of the recordings, by Alison McMorland, feature Alison herself singing along, as well as Freda's friend Albert 'Son' Townsend. This may not have followed the conventional collecting style, but I feel it gave those recordings an extra liveliness. I also enjoyed the snippets of Freda speaking about the songs. She sometimes remarked "that's very old, that one", perhaps suggesting that the imagined age or rarity of a song gave it an extra currency for both singer and audience.
There are a few songs that are described as being unique to Freda Palmer. I was intrigued and looked up a few titles, if only to see whether I could shed any light on their origins. A brief online search suggests that songs like Old Mammy Mine and What Did You Do in the Great World War, Daddy were written by popular London-based hit writers of the early to mid-twentieth century and would have been contemporary pop songs of Freda's time. With a little more digging some more substantial information on these songs could be revealed beyond my brief search, and it is evident they are not as unique as assumed, with other recordings freely available online. However, this doesn't detract from the richly detailed notes that are provided.
Rather than creating the illusion of Freda Palmer as a traditional singer in a vacuum, this musical portrait gives a vibrant picture of her varied repertoire and offers a glimpse into an everyday life in which shared song was an integral part of entertainment, be it at the gloving machine or in the local pub.
Emily Portman - 7.12.18
First published in Folk Music Journal, 11, 4 (2019) with permission of the editor.
This was intended to indicate that they were the only known example of them having been noted from the lips of a traditional singer - Ed.