Who's that at my bed window -
Songs of love and amorous encounters
Topic TSCD 660
Love songs in their various manifestations are "the very stuff of traditional song" according to Reg Hall, so it is not surprising that four volumes are devoted to them. The wide availability of material to choose from would also explain why the standard of performance on these four albums is so remarkably high.
For those who are very familiar with the Topic catalogue, this album of love songs will hold fewer surprises than some others in the series, because of the high proportion, 20 out of 25, which have been previously available on Topic vinyl. Of the remaining five, two are very familiar performances. One is Margaret Barry sings one of her pot-boilers, She Moved Through the Fair in a different performance, this one live at 'The Bedford' in Camden Town in the 1950s. It is remarkably quiet for a London pub recording, apart from the whistler who wrongly thought he was augmenting the performance, and certainly her singing soars in this totally conducive setting. The other is Walter Pardon's Let the Winds Blow High or Low (sound clip), more familiarly known as The Irish Girl. This recording is dated May 1974, which presumably explains its inclusion here, as the version on the Leader album 'A Proper Sort', still in the clutches of the dreaded Mr Bulmer, is from July 1975. The important point is that this is really beautiful singing.
That leaves three recordings which have previously been less widely known - and each one is a delight. Harvey Nicholson was unknown to me. His 1953 performance of The Copshawholm Butcher is also recorded in a very attentive pub setting, this time in Cumberland, and the attention he is commanding is very well deserved for his lovely sense of timing and delivery and a splendid distinctive voice that holds up well in the first class company of this album. Then there's the New York Irishman, Frank Quinn from a 1926 Columbia 78 singing to his own fiddle playing. Unlike many of the Irish recorded in America, he had no background as a public performer in vaudeville or Irish dance hall and his fine performance of Down by the Tanyard Side (sound clip) has more of the feeling of something that would be heard on a field recording, rather than a major label studio. The other non-Topic item is another Irish emigrant, this time in London. Paddy Breen's name crops up on a number of recordings of Irish music in London pubs in the late fifties and early sixties playing whistle with the Gorman/Barry partnership. As far as I know no example of his singing has been released before and it comes as a lovely revelation, a subtle understated performance of a very fine ballad, On the Banks of the Silvery Tide (sound clip) - "action, villainy, emotion and morality in its nine verses".
Elsewhere, there are a number of the classic well-known performances that have inspired so many by the likes of Jeannie Robertson, Jimmy McBeath, Lizzie Higgins, Belle Stewart, Willie Scott, Phoebe Smith, Bob Hart and a consummate rendition of Blackwaterside (sound clip) by Paddy Tunney. This masterly singing rates as one of the best performances in this whole collection.
Another very moving offering here is the exquisite voice of Sarah Makem. One subject that both traditional lyric songs and ballads seem to deal with very effectively is love relationships that go across class barriers. We certainly hear this in Sarah's The Factory Girl (sound clip); the most convincing part of the whole piece is this response from the girl to the rich gentleman's approach. Sarah's very effective and natural use of tremelo just adds to the delight.
As well as demonstrating a wide range of some of the finest singers, this volume also shows the breadth of approach to encounters in love that the people have in their songs. There's the fairly idyllic tale of the shy Bonny Wee Tramping Lass who is very many miles from Betsy Bell, who would have anyone who would show an interest. The Old Petticoat takes a comical look at the subject whilst being less risqué than other items found here. There are some familiar formulae; Standing in Yon Flowery Garden has its seven years and broken token whilst The Copshawholm Butcher combines elements found in The Little Gypsy Girl and Basket of Eggs.
The last example to be given in this review is of one of the best known of traditional songs. The Seeds of Love (sound clip) has become a rather hackneyed vehicle in the folk clubs, so it is really uplifting to be able to listen to the way Pop Maynard treats the song, relishing each note and reminding us that it is a thing of great beauty.
That's two of the love song volumes reviewed and the pleasant feeling is that I still have volume 6 to look forward to ...
Vic Smith - 2.12.98
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