Charlie Bridger

Won't you Buy my Pretty Flowers?

Musical Traditions Records - MTCD377

A supplementary note to this review, by Malcolm Taylor, has now been added at the end.

Three Maidens a-Milking Did Go;  I'll Take you Home Again, Kathleen;  Won't you Buy my Pretty Flowers?;  Where is my Wandering Boy Tonight?;  Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue;  The Folkestone Murder;  When You and I were Young, Maggie;  The Mistletoe Bough;  The Birds Upon the Tree;  Wait 'til the Clouds Roll by, Jenny;  Playing on the Old Banjo;  O Who Will o'er the Downs so free?;  The Veteran;  In the Spring Time;  Old Farmer Giles;  A Boy's Best Friend is His Mother;  The Brave Ploughboy;  Little by Little, and Bit by Bit;  The Gypsy's Warning;  Your Own True Sailor Boy;  The Zulu War ;  That Old Fashioned Mother of Mine;  The Ship that Never Returned;  Good Old Jeff;  That's How you get Served when You're Old;  The Jolly Waggoner;  Trafalgar Bay;  Jenny Lind Polka.
I only met Charlie Bridger on one occasion and that was almost thirty-five years ago.  Andy Turner had kindly invited me down to Kent so that we could record some of Charlie's songs in order that they could be issued on CDs.  I remember Charlie as being a very open and welcoming man who was only too happy to sing to me and I was delighted to hear him sing versions of Three Maidens a-Milking Did Go and The Folkestone Murder.  These were just a fragment of the number of songs that Charlie knew and when I left I was hoping that I would be able to return at a later date to record some more songs.  But this never happened.  Luckily Andy Turner had already recorded almost 30 of Charlie's songs and most of these recordings can now be heard on this new Musical Traditions CD.

We know that most of the early collectors were highly selective when it came to which songs they noted down from their singers.  And this, of course, led many people to think that English singers only sang 'folk songs', when, in fact, they included all kinds of other songs in their respective repertoires.  Perhaps we should not be too harsh with collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  These were classically trained musicians who, having discovered that 'folk songs' were still being sung by 'the peasantry', went out of their way to save and preserve such songs for posterity.

Luckily Andy Turner was not looking specifically for 'folk songs' when, one evening in 1983, he sat down with Charlie Bridger, turned on his cassette recorder, and listened for over two hours as Charlie sang song after song.  Yes, there were some 'folk songs' - songs, that is, as defined by Cecil Sharp and his co-collectors as 'folk songs' - but the bulk of Charlie's repertoire would, I am certain, have been rejected by Sharp as being 'non-folk'.  And that is what makes this collection so interesting, because here we have a singer showing us exactly just what kind of songs such singers were actually singing.

Interestingly, in Charlie's case, there are very few 'folk songs', but there are, for example, ten songs which come originally from America.  These are: I'll Take you Home Again, Kathleen; Where is my Wandering Boy Tonight?; When You and I were Young, Maggie; The Birds Upon the Tree; Wait 'til the Clouds Roll by, Jenny; Playing on the Old Banjo; A Boy's Best Friend is His Mother; The Gypsy's Warning; The Ship that Never Returned and Good Old Jeff; while another song, That Old Fashioned Mother of Mine, is originally from Australia.  It might at first seem strange that an English singer would have so many American songs in his repertoire.  But, in fact, if we look at other more or less contemporary singers, such as Walter Pardon, we find that they too knew many such songs.  Playing on the Old Banjo is a Minstrel song, a version of which was recorded by an English group - the Zono Minstrels - in 1913.  You can hear this recording on-line today, though frankly it now sounds extremely out-of-date to my ears.  Recordings by American singers such as Vernon Dalhart were reissued in England and some singers may have picked up songs from these recordings.  Other American (and Australian) songs would have been sung on the English Music Hall stage alongside homegrown pieces, such as: Won't you Buy my Pretty Flowers?; Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue; The Mistletoe Bough; The Veteran; Old Farmer Giles; Little by Little, and Bit by Bit; Your Own True Sailor Boy; The Zulu War; That Old Fashioned Mother of Mine; That's How you get Served when You're Old and Trafalgar Bay.

The song, I'll Take you Home Again, Kathleen, which might be thought of as being an Irish song, was written by an American called Thomas P Westendorf.  He wrote the song in 1875 for his wife who, surprisingly, was actually called Jennie.  Apparently, the tune is loosely based on the Second Movement of Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Flat Minor Opus 64.  As a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s I regularly heard the Irish tenor Josef Locke singing the song on the radio and I suspect that Locke was probably Charlie's source for this song.

As to the 'folk songs', Charlie's best know piece is his version of Three Maidens a-Milking Did Go, the text of which appeared on several different 19th century broadsides.  He also had a good version of The Folkestone Murder, a song based on an event which happened in 1857.  There has been considerable research into this murder, and song, and the details of the event are now well-known.  The Brave Ploughboy, only a fragment in this case, is less well-known, although it was in the repertoire of the Copper Family.  The Jolly Waggoner is a song which Charlie picked up at school, where he also learnt a tantalizing short fragment of the song In the Spring Time, a song which, so far as I know, seems not to have turned up elsewhere.

One song - O Who will o'er the Downs so Free? - is a poem written by Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795 - 1856) and has been given the Roud number 406, which is the number assigned to the song Locks and Bolts.  According to Steve Roud '(O Who will o'er the Downs so Free? ) is clearly the 'same' song (as Locks and Bolts)'.  But is it?  We know that versions of Locks and Bolts (or, at least the term 'locks and bolts do hinder') can be found on at least three 17th century blackletter broadsides, but Pearsall's poem shows little textual similarity to these texts or, for that matter, to the many 19th century texts which have appeared on white letter broadsides or else on the lips of singers.  Pearsall may have based his poem on the song, but I cannot really agree that it is the 'same' as the traditional song.

In common with all Musical Traditions CDs, Charlie Bridger's album comes with a well-written booklet of notes and historical photographs and Andy Turner's introduction examines Charlie's place within his community.  In 1908 Cecil Sharp had visited and collected songs from the singer James Beale, who lived in the village of Warehorne.  It was, in fact, one of Beale's grandsons who told Andy Turner about Charlie Bridger, who had been born in 1913 in Kenardington, the next village to Warehorne.  At one time there must have been a close-knit community of singers within this small area of Kent.  Many of the singers either worked together, drank together, or, in this case, played music together in village bands.  Charlie Bridger's father and grandfather played in the Woodchurch Brass Band and it was Charlie's grandfather who bought Charlie his first musical instrument, a clarinet.  You can hear Charlie playing his clarinet on the final track of this CD.

Charlie Bridger had a large and eclectic repertoire of songs.  Some came from family, others from workmates and members of various bands.  Other songs were picked up in pubs.  Essentially, though, they were songs which meant something to Charlie.  According to Charlie's wife, "If he took a fancy to (a song), he'd learn it."  We are told that, towards the end of his life, Charlie would sing the odd song or two in his local pub.  There were probably very few people present there to hear him.  Now, thanks to Andy Turner, Charlie's voice will remain with us for many years to come.  Thank you Andy for recording Charlie Bridger, and thank you Charlie for letting us all join in the pleasure of hearing you sing.

Mike Yates - 12.7.19

A supplementary note to Mike Yates' review

For many people with an interest in folk song, the repertoire accumulated from fieldwork undertaken during the so-called golden age of collecting in the years leading up to the First World War, is still regarded as definitive.  However, a quick trawl through Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website (effectively The Full English archives website, hosted by the English Folk Dance and Song Society) throws up some illuminating facts about the construction of the concept of English Folk Song.  Mike Yates has already pointed out the limitations placed on the repertoire collected by the accepted definitions at that time, which certainly resulted in many of the songs heard or suggested being disregarded (have a look at the Alfred Williams collection to see how things could vary).  But it also significantly helps to reveal how representative this repertoire was geographically, with only very limited parts of mainly rural England properly mined for material, while huge areas, for one reason or another, were hardly represented at all in this formative period.

Given that Percy Grainger is clearly the major exception in terms of his method of collecting in those early years (and even then he used the phonograph recordings he made as a basis for making transcriptions to manuscript later on), all other major fieldworkers were laboriously employing a pencil and notebook and compiling manuscript collections.  Consequently, a search of the VWML website using the following filters reveals just how much or little was collected in each county.

By exclusively searching the archives catalogues and then using the advanced search facility only, provide text for place (e.g. Kent), then add song from the drop-down menu in type, and finally manuscript from the drop-down menu in formatSubmit.  By changing the county name in place for each search, you will get hits for the pages of manuscript with songs from all the collections included (bear in mind that some collectors often have a tune page and a words page for the same song, and that Frances Collinson somewhat anachronistically generated manuscripts at a much later period).

This is what you will find:

Andy Turner points out the paucity of material collected in Kent in his introduction to the accompanying booklet, his opinion originally emanating from early visits to the library at Cecil Sharp House.  This was during the pre-TFE days and before the acquisition of the Frances Collinson manuscript collection from the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.  Consequently, the TFE website only magnified this glaring fact in producing a mere 164 manuscript hits, nearly half of them in the Francis Collinson manuscript collection which, as already stated, was compiled at a much later date from the few minor forays by Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger, amounting to around 50 songs.  Indeed, Kent was largely overlooked until the advent and wider availability of audio recording technology when fieldworkers such as James Madison Carpenter, Mike Yates, Ken Stubbs, Stephen Sedley and the BBC recordists found such wonderful music there.  Just why this happened is unknown but might have been a simple matter of where the friends and acquaintances of the early collectors lived.  Whatever, the name of Andy Turner can now be added to this list.

So, given all such comment, where do we rank Charlie Bridger as a singer?  This is subjective, to say the least.  From my point of view, I was lucky to have met and heard, amongst others, the likes of: Walter Pardon; Frank Hinchliffe; Mikeen McCarthy; Jane Turriff; Paddy Tunney; Will Noble; Bob Copper and Kevin Mitchell, all of whom I would regard as great and vibrant singers at the time of my hearing them.  My criteria for judgement is undoubtedly shaped by them and I would not hesitate to add Charlie Bridger in the same category.  This CD is a gem.

Malcolm Taylor - 24.8.19

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