Cecilia Costello

"Old Fashioned Songs"

Musical Traditions Records MTCD363-4

MTCD363: Talk;  Cruel Mother and Talk;  I Wish I Wish;  Green Wedding;  Wexford Murder;  Handsome Cabin Boy;  Bring Back My Johnny;  Frog and the Mouse;  Betsy of Ballantown Brae;  Jew's Garden;  Maid That's Deep in Love;  Write Me Down;  Shule Agra;  Grey Cock;  Cruel Mother (Father's);  Bring back My Johnny;  Grey Cock;  Farewell He;  Love it is a Killing Thing;  Betsy of Ballantown Brae;  Maid That's Deep in Love;  Shule Agra;  Handsome Cabin Boy;  Green Bushes;  Cruel Mother;  Talk.
MTCD364: A Little Drop Left in the Bottle;  Rosemary Lane;  My Bonny Irish Boy;  Kitty Wells;  I Once Loved a Young Man;  Liza's Wedding;  Peaky Blinder;  She's Not No Airy Fairy Lady;  No Irish Need Apply;  I Have Roamed Many Lands;  May I Come Home Again;  Over Hills and Lofty Mountains;  Aye for Saturday Night;  Bunch of Shamrock recitation;  No Green in Her Eye;  I Once Had a Sweetheart;  If I Do I Do;  Only a Year Ago;  The Policeman;  You'll Want Me Back Some Day;  The Royal Divorce;  Are We to Part Like This Bill;  When you get up in the Morning;  You've Quite Forgot Your Mother;  Farewell to My Country;  Wedding Bells;  Green Grow the Rushes;  Paddy You're a Villain;  Come Along with Me My Lady Love;  Lady in the White Silk Dress;  Window Cleaner / Bill Poster;  I Dare Not Go Home;  Sailing in My Balloon;  Faithless Little Doner;  I Come From Sweet Tyrone;  Barbara Allen;  The Only Bit of English;  Dear Old Mother;  Puss;  Sail Away;  I Don't Like Work;  Ain't it Nice to have a Father;  Is Your Mother in, Molly Malone?;  The Table was Laid for Three;  Send Me a Simple Daisy;  Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty;  When London's Fast Asleep;  Black Eyed Susan;  Won't You Tell Me, Daddy;  Stop the Cab;  Some They Call Me Ikey;  Saturday Night;  Chuck Him Up;  Mother Had an Apple;  You're Not Dead Yet;  Johnny, When You Come Over;  Only a Chimney Sweeper;  Mary Was a Milkmaid;  Cuckoo's Nest;  I lost My Love and I Care Not;  I'll Stick to the Ship / Queen Elizabeth;  Kathleen;  No Irish Need Apply (folk club).
There are many images in folk songs which seem to remain in my mind for ever.  When, over fifty years ago, I first heard Louis Killen singing his monumental ballad of slavery, The Flying Cloud, I was struck by the line 'To the burning shores of Africa/Where the sugar cane does grow'.  A year prior to hearing those words I had flown from the Island of New Caledonia to Fiji.  It was late afternoon/early evening when the small plane began to descend over the Pacific island and the daylight was beginning to fade.  There were fields of sugar cane everywhere and, as was the practice, the cane had been set on fire to drive out the rats and snakes before the cane could be cut by hand.  The whole island seemed to be on fire, great clouds of smoke hanging heavily in the air.  I knew that the 'burning shores of Africa' referred to the heat, rather than to an actual fire, but somehow or other I could not get that memory of Fiji out of my head.  Then there was a line in a folk carol, 'Hell is full of mice'.  OK, I have never been too keen on the little four-legged creatures, but hell, if infested with mice, did not sound too scary.  But somebody or other, possibly Lucy Broadwood, came up with the suggestion that originally, centuries ago, the word had been 'mist', which would have been pronounced with a long 'i', making the word sound like 'my-st'.  Over the years the word could have evolved into 'mice'.

And then there was that opening couplet from Cecilia Costello's splendid ballad The Grey Cock.  'I must be going, no longer staying/The burning Thames I have to cross'.  I saw the words in the original Penguin Book of English Folksongs, before hearing the recording on an American Caedmon album (later re-issued by Topic Records of London).  I thought that this image of a person having to cross a burning river was truly amazing, even though another part of me suggested that it was actually a metaphor for attempting the impossible.  One day, talking to the late John Brune, I listened as John suggested that the word 'Thames' was a corruption of an ancient word once meaning the horse-hair that was used by millers to make sieves for sifting flour.  Friction would sometimes set the 'terse' (I think that was the word he used) on fire.  Again, over the years, the word had metamorphosed into the word 'Thames'.  It was, I thought, a fanciful idea, one that I am still not too sure about.1  But, like the 'burning shores of Africa' and those rodents of hell, it has stayed with me for many, many years.

In the early days of the (first) folk revival collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams had a pretty good idea about what sort of songs they were seeking to collect.  They also, for that matter, believed that folk singers were members of the 'peasantry', people from a rural background who had learnt their songs from their family and friends.  Sharp and his friends were only too happy to collect folk songs (as they saw it) but not songs from, say, the Music Hall.  We tend to criticise the early collectors for having what now seems to have been a rather blinkered view.  But we should, of course, remember that they were usually classically trained musicians who were primarily drawn to folk songs because of the tunes, rather than the words.  Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the early collectors would often print those tunes that were modal in character, rather than, say, tunes that were sung in the major scale, and this has led to a rather distorted view as to what constitutes the majority of English folk song tunes.

Well, in the last hundred or so years, many attitudes to collecting have changed, perhaps the most important being that collectors now look for whole repertoires, rather than picking out the songs and tunes that they prefer themselves.  As I have said before, when the American folklorist and labour historian Archie Green came up with his all-embracing concept of vernacular songs, he was doing us all a favour.2  But, back in the early 1950s, when the second folk revival began, collectors were still hampered by the notion that they should only collect 'folk songs'.  It is, of course, wonderful that we can today listen to 1950s' recordings of singer such as Harry Cox and Charlie Wills, but, unfortunately, we can only hear those songs which the collectors felt were important enough to be recorded.  In other words, we were still only getting those songs deemed to be 'folk songs'.

Cecilia Costello was one of the singers discovered in the early 1950s.  It seems that her son wrote to the BBC telling them of his mother's singing.  Somehow or other Peter Kennedy, then working for the EFDSS, got wind of this letter (perhaps the BBC passed it on to the Society) and Kennedy, possibly in company with musician and dance-caller Pat Shuldham-Shaw, visited Mrs Costello on 11.8.51, when they recorded ten songs from her.  These were My Johnny (Roud 1422), The Grey Cock (Child 248), Fare Ye Well Cold Winter (Roud 803), Love It is a Killing Thing (Roud 308), Betsy of Ballantown Brae (Roud 566), I am a Maid that's Deep in Love (poud 231), Shule Agra (Súil a Grú) (Roud 911), The Handsome (or Female) Cabin Boy (Roud 239), The Green Bushes (Roud 1040) and The Cruel Mother (Child 20). 

On 30.11.51, Pat Shuldham-Shaw, along with Maria Slocombe from the BBC, returned to Mrs Costello's home, this time with a BBC recording van in tow.  On this occasion they recorded a total of twelve songs and ballads for the BBC archives.  There were four Child ballads - The Cruel Mother (Child 20), The Jew's Garden (Child 155), The Green Wedding (Child 221) and The Grey Cock (Child 248) – a couple of Irish songs - The Wexford Murder (Roud 1412), Shule Agra (Súil a Grú) (Roud 911) – and a set of songs that easily come within Cecil Sharp's definition of 'folk songs' – I Wish, I Wish (Roud 495), The Handsome (or Female) Cabin Boy (Roud 239), My Johnny (Roud 1422), Betsy of Ballantown Brae (Roud 566), I am a Maid that's Deep in Love (Roud 231) and Write Me Down (Roud 381).  On 16.1.54 Maria Slocombe returned to Birmingham and recorded another 'folk song', this time a version of The Frog and the Mouse (Roud 16) from Mrs Costello.

Allowing for duplication of recordings (we may be surprised to know that Slocombe and Kennedy actually made a total of 92 recordings - including duplicates and pieces of speech) this gives us a total of some sixteen songs - all of which could be classified as 'folk songs'.  Luckily, in the 1960s and early '70s a number of other collectors visited Mrs Costello and collected over sixty other songs and snatches, which I will consider later.  Firstly, though, we must return to Peter Kennedy.

Kennedy began working for the BBC as a song collector in the early 1950s, before returning to the EFDSS.  When he left the EFDSS he moved to Dartington Hall, where he began issuing cassette recordings on his Folktrax label.  One such cassette featured Cecilia Costello.  According to the scant notes provided with the cassette, Kennedy stated that he had visited Mrs Costello on two occasions, 8th and 11th, August, 1951.  It seems odd that the songs 'collected' on the 8th were the same as those collected on 30.11.51 & 16.1.54 by the BBC.  In fact they were the same recordings which Kennedy had tried to pass off as his own.  Over the years Peter Kennedy has come in for all manner of criticism.  Attempted deceptions such as this can only add to the feeling that there was something definitely wrong with his approach to song collecting and his treatment of the singers that he recorded.3

I mentioned above that the Edwardian collectors believed that folk singers came from the rural 'peasantry'.  But, of course, Mrs Costello hardly fits that mould, coming, as she did, from Birmingham, England's second city and a hub of industrialisation.  Recently, I was told that when the Wiltshire song collector Alfred Williams noted some songs from singers who were then living in the town of Swindon, he would ignore this fact and write down the name of the village where they had originally been born, ignoring the fact that they were then living in a town.  So how was it that Mrs Costello knew so many fine songs? The answer, of course, was that she had learnt many of her songs from her father, Edward Kelly, who had travelled to Birmingham from Ballinasloe in County Roscommon.  Her mother, incidentally, was also originally from Ireland, in this case from Galway.  She was, as it has been noted before, only one generation removed from rural Ireland.  Edward Kelly was not the only Irishman to travel to England in the 1800s, nor was he the only Irishman to bring his songs to England.  I often wondered whether or not Packie Manus Byrne passed on any of his songs to people in England during his many trips to England prior to his being discovered by the English folk clubs.  And the splendid Norfolk singer Walter Pardon was quite certain that some of his songs must have come to his village via Irishmen who had been brought over to North Walsham to work on a local canal.

The texts to most of the songs that Peter Kennedy and the BBC recorded from Mrs Costello had previously appeared on English broadsides and we know that many Irish songs appeared on such English sheets.  Most likely they came from Irish singers then living in London or some other English city.  We may also suggest that some of Mrs Costello's songs were extremely popular at one time.  For example some broadside printers issued a song Answer to Ballantown Brae which suggests that sales of the broadside Betsy of Ballantown Brae were sufficient to merit a follow-up sheet.

This new Musical Traditions double CD includes all of the Peter Kennedy and BBC recordings on the first CD, while the second CD contains later songs, collected by Charles Parker & Pam Bishop, Jon Raven or Roy Palmer, which show a much broader range of material.  There are some songs that may have come from her father, or other members of her family, but there are certainly a goodly number of songs which reflect Mrs Costello's love of the Music Hall.  We are told that, as a young girl, 'She scraped together the twopence for a seat at the Tivoli (now the Hippodrome) in Hurst Street (Birmingham) on so many occasions that the singer, George Robey, noticed her assiduity and rewarded it by a visit to her home in Pershore Street and the gift of a month's complimentary pass.'4

CD2 gives us songs such as Barbara Allen (Child 84), Rosemary Lane (Roud 269), My Bonny Irish Boy (Roud 565) and I Once Loved a Young Man, this latter song has been ascribed the Roud number 954, which applies to the song The Yellow Handkerchief/Flash CompanyI have always felt that this latter song has a rather fixed form and a constant tune, whereas I Once Loved a Young Man is instead a collection of loose 'floating' verses, which could have come from any number of other songs.  Then there is an American Minstrel Show song, Kitty Wells (Roud 2748), which must once have been popular in England because singers such as Frank Hinchliffe, Geoff Ling, Henry Burstow and Walter Pardon also knew the song.  The words were, of course, printed on British broadsides, including The Poet's Box of Dundee.  This sheet probably dates from c1900, although the Poet's Box apparently continued to sell such material until c.1945 and I recall the Scottish singer Belle Stewart mentioning that she had used their sheets to remind her of songs that she had heard others sing.

Another songs, Saturday Night I Lost My Wife (Roud 20273), can also, directly or indirectly, be traced back to the American Minstrel Shows, in this case to the song The Old Grey Goose (Roud 3619) which was possibly composed in 1844 by one A Fiot and sung by 'Aken, the celebrated banjoist'.  It was certainly one of the songs that the New Christie Minstrels performed in the late 1840s.

Cecilia Costello also knew the Irish/American song A Bunch of Shamrock (Roud 3769), though only as a recitation.  It is suggested that she may have got this via a Charlie Poole recording, Leaving Dear Old Ireland, which Poole recorded in America in 1929.  But, to the best of my knowledge this recording was never reissued on an English, or Irish, 78rpm record.5  There are a few other songs here which have turned up elsewhere, such as the American (?) composition, No Irish Need Apply (Roud 1137), Aye for Saturday Night (Roud 5701) which can be linked to the well-known song The Hexhamshre Lass and Green Grow the Rushes (Roud 24180), which was published on a broadside by Haly of Cork and later collected by the Irishman Sam Henry.  It is, of course, a different song from the one that Robert Burns penned (Roud 2772).  Amazingly, just about all the remaining songs on CD2 have previously eluded Steve Roud.  Most come in fragmentary form, although a few appear to be almost complete.  These include Liza'a Wedding (Roud 24184), May I Come Home Again? (Roud 21988) and Over Hills and Lofty Mountains (Roud 24207).  A couple of fragments are interesting from a historical point of view.

One short piece, The Royal Divorce (Roud 24187) comes from a previously unknown song concerning the divorce of Joséphine de Beauharnais from Napoléon Bonaparte in 1810, while You're Not Dead Yet (Roud 24213) tells of General Redvers Buller (1839 - 1908) a man who gained fame fighting in the Zulu Wars.  His later actions during the Boer War, however, led to his downfall.  In both these songs the authors are unknown.  However, I can add that While London's Fast Asleep (Roud 13677) was written by Harry Dacre and sung in the Halls by Marie Tyler (1875 - 1905).  The fragment that Mrs Costello sings is actually the song's chorus.

I said above that today we tend to collect whole repertoires from singers.  We no-longer 'cherry pick' those pieces which appeal most to the collector, so it came as something of a surprise to read in Vic Smith's review of these CDs the following:  'A question that is bound to arise, however, is whether the likes of a 30-second croaky snatch of Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty deserves a place alongside the regal magnificence of the 1951 recordings.'  I really thought that we had got over that the idea that some songs were somehow 'better' and, accordingly, more important than others.  I certainly am grateful to discover exactly which songs Mrs Costello knew.  I also wish to know why she liked and sang these pieces, what the songs meant to her, and so am happy that some snatches of conversation are also scattered through these recordings.

I believe that when Bill Leader issued his LP Cecilia Costello - Recordings from the Sound Archives of the BBC (LEE 4054) in 1975 he sold very few copies of the album.  I can only hope that Musical Traditions will do better with their sales.  This double CD set is a remarkable tribute to a wonderful singer.  It gives us a fantastic insight into one person's repertoire, and, because of this, it gives us a wonderful insight into just who that person was.  Yes, Mrs Costello will, I expect, be chiefly remembered for such pieces as The Grey Cock and The Cruel Mother.  But, for me, there was far more to her than that.

Mike Yates - 21.5.14


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