A True Furrow to Hold
MT Records - MTCD378
1 - Jim the Carter Lad; 2 - Interview; 3 - The Lad In The Scots Brigade; 4 - The Constant Farmer's Son; 5 - I am a Donkey Driver; 6 - The Bold Fisherman; 7 - The Dark Eyed Sailor; 8 - When the Fields are White with Daisies; 9 - Green Broom; 10 - The Little Shirt Mother my Made For Me; 11 - The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime; 12 - If Those Lips Could Only Speak; 13 - All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough; 14 - Barbara Allen; 15 - Little Footprints in the Snow; 16 - My Old Man; 17 - Never No More for Me; 18 - The Banks of Sweet Primroses; 19 - The Rest of the Day is Your Own; 20 - The Soldier's Prayer; 21 - The Sussex Toast; 22 - The Old Rustic Bridge; 23 - The Roving Navvy Man; 24 - Has Anybody Seen my Tiddler; 25 - A Birthday Song; 26 - The Volunteer Organist; 27 - Time Gentlemen Please & Toast.I have to confess that I'd never heard George Belton's singing before opening up the padded envelope that arrived from Rod a couple of weeks ago, although his name was familiar. Well, this is a treat. Assured and animated performances of a broad-ranging repertoire including many of the classics of the English folk song canon, alongside a large slab of Music Hall, much of it performed in live situations with plenty of atmosphere.
In the course of a current research project I came across an editorial in a 1960s issue of English Dance and Song in which the then editor Tony Wales urged his fellow revivalists to "take advantage of every opportunity to soak in something through personal contact with a traditional singer or musician", as way of enhancing their performance style. Wales put his money where his mouth was. He started the first folk club in Sussex, the 'Songswappers' at Horsham, with the expressed intent of mixing the neophytes of the burgeoning folk scene with local traditional singers, Bob Blake and George Belton among them. Wales and Sean Davies recorded fourteen of George Belton's songs in 1967 for the EFDSS LP All Jolly Fellows, and all of these songs appear here, though sourced from different recordings. Thirteen were made by Tony Wales in 1961, and represent the 'Sharpian folksong' end of George's repertoire, familiar titles like The Sailor Cut Down, a well sung if fairly standard-issue Dark Eyed Sailor, and a full text of Barbara Allen. His Constant Farmer's Son is a fine version, resembling variants collected by Sharp, Baring-Gould and Gardiner in its melodic shape and refrain, and clocking in with an impressive eight stanzas, The Banks of Sweet Primroses comes with a melody interestingly different from the usual one, while The Bold Fisherman is performed with a rock-steady pulse in the 5:4 rhythm characteristic of this song and others collected in Sussex. George sings lyrical pieces like these with careful pacing, accurate pitching and dignity, adding little vocal decoration save a little vibrato and a few slides. They are of the highest class.
A different side of George Belton, however, is revealed by previously unissued recordings which come to us courtesy of Jim Ward, Vic Smith and Keith Summers, and which complete a record of the singer's entire repertoire. Most of these are more recent, lighter pieces than the EFDSS material, though a couple of comic items did find their way onto that LP, My Old Man possibly gaining admission by flashing its Child ballad ID, since it's a version of Our Goodman, albeit one in which there's no mention of the intoxicated state of the gullible husband. Like many of the tracks, this is a live recording with enthusiastic audience participation, and George can barely contain his delight in the performance - a delight that's infectious. More rollicking entertainment is supplied by The Sussex Toast - an inventively-rhymed drinking song I know as Good Companion - and by music hall pieces such as the mildly risqué Has Anybody Seen My Tiddler and the catalogue of off-the-leash debauchery here titled A Birthday Song. Both George and his audience are clearly having tremendous fun with these songs, but sentimental tear-jerkers too are part of the package, The Old Rustic Bridge and The Volunteer Organist being delivered with all due solemnity. There are a couple more oddities to report: I Am a Donkey Driver is an ode to the fleet-footed asinine Derby winner 'Jerusalem Cuckoo'; and Footprints in the Snow which, as a fan of bluegrass music, I was surprised to find amidst the track listing. It turns out that the old Bill Monroe standard is actually another English music hall composition!
Proceedings are closed, appropriately, with Time Gentlemen, Please, a comic piece previously unregistered even by Steve Roud himself, and a cheeky little toast that demonstrates George Belton at his most mischievous. You'd never have got to know singer and man properly through the highly accomplished but relatively staid offerings on that old EFDSS album, but this release provides a thorough-going portrait of a versatile and entertaining performer that I'd have been very happy to have heard in his heyday.
Brian Peters - 23.5.20