Folk Roots – New Routes: Shirley Collins and Davy Graham.
I’ve written about my on-off relationship with Folk Music before and how I liked it, then didn’t, then did again. The last “did again” phase has been ongoing for maybe fourteen or fifteen years, which isn’t quite as long as the preceding “off” phase, which lasted from about 1980 to about 2004, so I’m not ruling out the possibility that I might go off it again, but I doubt it somehow.
When I say I’m into Folk music, that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation: I still don’t like most of it, and not necessarily for reasonable reasons.
Top 10 off-putting things about too much Folk Music.
- Fiddles. I don’t like the sound they make, I don’t like the moves that all the players share while playing them, like they’re pissing about around a bonfire in a forest, and I especially don’t like them being called fiddles, as opposed to violins. I don’t like bagpipes either, but they crop up less, even in folk music.
- Chunky sweaters (sometimes alright, admittedly, but I’m picky).
- Vocal enthusiasm for real ale.
- Bit in songs when they sing things like, “Fiddle-de-Iddle-De-Idle-De-Oh”
- All eight million songs that start, “I was a coal –miner in New-castle…”
- Singers getting too into it*(see Steeleye Span on Crackerjack below). Sitting on a chair is ideal, thanks.
- General air of smugness about proceedings.
Nb: If any of these things occur in the songs on Bagpuss, I tend to give them a pass, because Bagpuss is worth putting up with hardship for.
Maddy Prior being all enthusiastic isn’t the only dreadful thing about that: I hate everything about it. I don’t like the jauntiness, I don’t like anything about any of it. In fact, in this example, I probably enjoy Maddy Prior’s toothsome arm waving display of mumsiness more than anything else. Not that there’s much competition. Look at those trousers, those hats, those haircuts, the fucking fiddle, for fuck’s sake. Jesus.
Anyway, even though I make a point of avoiding all of those things as much as is possible, there’s still enough Folk music out there that I don’t so much tolerate as positively enjoy, although not to the extent that I’d dance to it, and I’m a good dancer, thanks, if a bit old.
So, who are these tolerable Folk musicians? To be glib about it, what I’m looking for in the main is a nice sounding acoustic guitar accompaniment to a flaxen haired, lamenting woman who’s singing about murdering her husband because he’s been pissing about in the woods with goats until three o’ clock in the morning. I don’t mind if it’s not exactly about that, but that sort of thing.
To be a bit more – or possibly less, who knows anymore? – specific and a bit less daft: Donovan, who I’ve written about at great length already; (The) Pentangle, up to when they first split up – I like the definite article in their name; Bert Jansch, even though he was in (The) Pentangle; Anne Briggs, who’s totally crackers and all the better for it; The Watersons, from my hometown of Hull, which doesn’t do them any harm; Dav(e)y Graham – although not all of his stuff, I don’t like The Blooze either, thanks; Nick Drake, who didn’t really record any Folk standards, unlike the aforementioned lot; some John Martyn, even though he was mates with Phil Collins and was a dreadful cunt – the two things may be related, I wouldn’t rule it out. Bits of Fairport Convention, but not very much.
They’re all British, these people. I do like some American Folk, but I tend to view the two things as being almost entirely separate entities. I’m into Fred Neil, Nico’s first album, Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan on the American side, but the latter two have taken an awful lot from the British scene, especially Scarborough Fair.
And that’s probably about it. I like quite a lot of individual recordings by quite a lot of bands, but often not the whole thing.
Bob Stanley, the journalist, also of Saint Etienne put out a compilation several years ago called Gather In The Mushrooms, and that was almost uniformly excellent – even if calling some of it “Folk Music” was a bit of a stretch. I keep getting compilations, but more often than not, they’re all blighted by items 1-10 on the above list. Ah well, hey nonny-nonny…
If it comes down to it, what I really like are a few select albums, often from bands or singers, the rest of whose output I often have zero interest in at all. Trader Horne’s album’s great, Shirley Collins’ album with Dav(e)y Graham: Folk Roots – New Routes, is one of my favourite albums full stop, and that’s the one I’m going to be writing about today.
Folk Roots – New Routes
“They likened me to a lumbering Jersey cow.”
“Who you are whilst you’re asleep isn’t necessarily who you thought you were yesterday. It’s an optical illusion of the inner ear…”
London, 1964. Shirley Collins a 29 year old from Hastings with an element of sympathy for Ewan MacColl’s dictum that folk singers should only sing songs from their region, but not to the militant degree that MacColl insisted on, was introduced to Folk guitar innovator Davey Graham by her husband and producer John Marshall.
She wasn’t keen on the idea as Davey Graham was considered part of the Jazz scene, which Collins had no truck with whatsoever. “I really hate jazz, it makes me just fidget and get angry.”
Graham played his version of the traditional She Moves Through The Fair, a song about a young woman who’s sure that her father won’t mind her marrying a poor boy, except he does mind and she kills herself, before haunting the poor lad and reminding him that they’re getting married soon. You know, like Nicole Kidman in The Others – a ghost who doesn’t realise she’s dead.
Graham’s arrangement of She Moves Through The Fair, as heard on his semi-official bootleg After Hours (recorded after a gig at Hull University in a student’s bedroom, apparently with his consent) had a droning quality, reminiscent of the mystic east, due in part to Graham’s revolutionary DADGAD tuning that he’d worked out whilst travelling in Morocco in order to play along more effectively with the locals’ instruments. There’s a contemporaneous television explanation and demonstration of that that I’d link to here, but the bootlegged one is a better version. Plenty of people read this rubbish I churn out – surprisingly – but very few people ever watch the videos. I find that odd, myself. Still, what do I know?
In music, the drone isn’t exclusive to any culture in particular. In India, most of the strings of the sitar are there in order to drone along with the melody, and the same is true of bagpipes in Scotland, and the sintir of Morocco. Bagpipes do the same thing and, as I’ve said, are the worst. Apart from accordions. Even then, it’s a close run thing.
In short, adding a drone to a tune that was Irish in origin was simultaneously groundbreaking and traditional. In Davey Graham’s hands, there were certainly elements of African and Indian music in his arrangement, but it didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
All this took place in around July 1963. While The Beatles were recording a cover of the Motown hit Money, and Paul McCartney’s All My Loving, Dav(e)y Graham was inventing world music at least three years before George Harrison toddled off to India to get Ravi Shankar to teach him the sitar.
Anyway, Shirley Collins was impressed by his arrangement, especially as she’d been expecting some sort of anger-inducing Jazz noise, and they worked out the songs they’d record on – unfortunately – the only album they’d ever make together.
It wasn’t as if they didn’t get on because they did. To an extent. The older, wiser, more sensible Collins was taken with his excellent manners as well as his groundbreaking guitar style, but otherwise found him somewhat impenetrable.
“He always had some book tucked in his pockets, something very rarefied, in Sanskrit perhaps or about Eastern religion. He used to show me this stuff and I used to think ‘I don’t understand it and I actually don’t want to understand it!’ So I always felt a bit intellectually inferior when Davy was around.”
The cover of Folk Routes – New Routes nicely illustrates the disconnect between the two. Shirley’s nicely turned out, providing that nicely turned out means you look like a school teacher who was once young and beautiful but who has had to adapt from someone who could get ten year old naughty boys to behave themselves by not overtly disabusing them of the notion that, somehow, she might find them attractive if only they work on their long division instead of tormenting the studious girls with amphibians and worms, into one whose disapproval and approval were more overt and complex, but probably less likely to be misinterpreted as flirtatious. Inscrutable, you know, but you still want her approval for reasons that you can’t quite put your finger on…
…Just like Davey Graham, at 24, in his leather jacket looks like he does. His leather jacket was about the extent of his similarity to The Beatles at that point, as he fingers a basic D chord on his guitar and looks to Shirley for her blessing, even though he probably doesn’t quite know why. Just like those hypothetical primary school kids I was telling you about in the paragraph above.
So, even though they’re an incongruous pair whose relationship wasn’t to last, what they did produce is absolutely shit hot. Well, it is as far as I’m concerned, and I’m pretty far from the only one. However, the folk community, lead by Ewan MacColl took the opposite view, resulting in an anonymous review that produced the unpleasant comparison between Shirley and a Jersey Cow that I cited above.
Fuck them, though. I can’t remember if I’ve actually heard someone say this, or if I just made it up, but there’s a suggestion that people who don’t like Folk music like this album, and people who do like Folk, don’t. I don’t know, maybe I just don’t get it, but if you’re prepared to tolerate acoustic guitars and flaxen haired women lamenting, and you don’t like this, I’m buggered if I know what’s wrong with you, but it sure as hell is something.
Your traditional chunkily pullovered, real-ale swilling, finger-in-their-ear, I-was-a-coalminer-in-New-castle folk music aficionado is, at heart an, erm, traditionalist, I suppose. What that means is that they don’t like change very much. Several of the songs on this album, whilst traditional, are, er, traditionally sung by men. Shirley Collins, to the best of my knowledge, is not and has not ever been one of those. Traditionally, ahem, that was alright, as long as the singer changed the gender pronouns, but Shirley doesn’t. Maybe that’s the issue. I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t care either
At this point, I ought to point out that as a non-traditionalist, at least as far as a lot of Folk music goes, that means I’m unencumbered with much in the way of knowledge relating to the origins and meanings of many of these songs. I never having heard any of these songs sung by men – most of them at any rate – these versions were my first exposure and, having done a bit of research, it would appear that my interpretations aren’t really in line with other people’s. Maybe I’m just plain wrong about them, maybe they’re open ended. Who knows? Well, some people with Arran sweaters and beards flecked with Bunghole’s Old Peculier might, but knickers to those wankers.
I’m not going to write about every song on the record, even though I like all of it, or we’ll be here all week…
The first song on the record, and one of the two on it that I actually had heard previously. The Bert Jansch version on his 1966 Jack Orion album. Bert, as was his wont, approaches the whole thing quite a lot more aggressively than Davy Graham does here. Vocally too, perhaps inevitably, Bert sounds pretty unhinged in comparison to the knowing, calm clarity that Shirley Collins brings to the above version. I like both of them, and although the arrangements are very similar indeed, the effect is akin to hearing both sides of a story. Bert sounds like he’s had Nottamun Town inflicted on him, it’s shaken him to the core, and left his nerves shredded. Shirley’s and Davy’s is an almost stately recounting of exactly the same story but it leaves the listener with the impression that Davy’s outline is far more, um, organised, I suppose. Methodical. Bert’s unhinged version suits his playing. The crystalline purity of Shirley’s voice is as close to presenting the opposite result of Bert’s sorry tale of woe.
Nottamun Town isn’t about Nottingham in England, but rather somewhere in America, where the song originates, oddly enough. I say, oddly, because it sounds pretty English to me but, as I said earlier, what the hell do I know? Anyway, lyrically, Nottamun Town is similar to the far better known Scarborough Fair inasmuch as it’s a song that describes impossible things. Scarborough Fair is a sort of Soldier, Soldier song, by which I mean it’s about one person cleaning another out, giving the impression that the first person is into the person, but they have to do various things in order to prove their love for them. Things that are impossible, our just never ending. The sort of chaotic imagery thing that mummers used to put on in their touring plays in medieval times. In Scarborough Fair, the narrator wants shirts sewing without using any thread or seams, a field in the sea ploughing and planting with seeds, then reaped with a sickle made of leather, and so on, and so on. A load of impossible shit, in other words. Nottamun Town‘s a variation on that theme but in terms of descriptions of: a grey horse with green markings, but all its hair’s black; the horse stands still but throws its rider, who gets back on and rides it around on their own feet. It doesn’t make any sense in that way, but the imagery, being impossible, leaves the listener unable to put it in a box and leave it all neatly comprehended. Because you can’t. I like that sort of medieval, proto-psychedelic lyricism, myself. I’m a sucker for it, really. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds isn’t a million miles away from it.
Collins’ and Graham’s version, as I’ve said, is altogether calmer than Bert Jansch’s, a bit like some people some people dig the strangeness, and some people are freaked out by it, and left gibbering. Take your pick, I guess. I like both versions, and I like the fact that, despite the fact that the words and notes played and sung are, fundamentally identical, its the way they’re played and sung that show us that one man’s meat is another’s poison.
Hares On The Mountain
Nottamun Town’s not really a girl song or a boy song, the same as Scarborough Fair isn’t, but Hares On The Mountain is, and perhaps Shirley, as a girl singing it brings a different, unpalatable to some, perspective to it.
I think it probably does, but as the above version was the first one I’d heard, and as I didn’t really think about it in terms of being a boy’s song, my interpretation appears to not tally with what seems to be generally accepted takes – any of them,. Having made a point of listening to other versions of it, I have to say I’m not taken. There’re fiddles and Fiddle-de-Iddle-De-Idle-De-Ohs on the ones I’ve heard, and, as I said, I struggle to get past that sort of thing.
One traditional interpretation, in terms of a boy singing it, is that Roy Palmer, noted folklorist, says, “This is not merely a series of sexual metaphors, but an echo of the ancient songs and stories of metamorphosis, in which the pursued woman runs out of transformations and falls to the man.” Steve Roud and Julia Bishop, noted folkies, said, “To confuse the magical transformations in this ballad to the similes of (the) song, and to assume that one necessarily derives from the other, requires a giant leap of faith, backed by nothing more than the coincidence of hares, fishes, and so on.“
On the whole, it’s more or less accepted that the song was sort of inspired by the old story of The Two Magicians, who chase and fight each other by turning into different animals in response to what the other turned into.
Anyway, my perspective on the song bears no resemblance to any of the ones I’ve cited up there because I take it as a young(wish) girl’s exasperation at the stupidity of young(ish) lads, and how she’s not going to waste her time on them and spend her time doing something more productive instead.
“If all the young men
Were hares on the mountain
How many young girls would take guns and go hunting?“
The next two verses are basically the same thing, except for blackbirds and fish, but the last verse…
“But the young men are given
To frisking and fooling
So, I’ll leave them alone and attend to my schooling“
All of which suggests to me that hares, blackbirds and fish have all got their shit together but human boys just act like dickheads and, consequently, Shirley decides that she won’t be wasting her time on any of them.
I see it as a complaint about infantile lads, myself. Mind you, being inclined that way myself – a touch infantile – maybe I’m just of the (inevitably infantile) belief that everything’s about me anyway.
Reynardine is, more or less, about a sexy German were-fox. I know that only because I already knew about the legend of Reynard The Fox. If you didn’t know anything about it, you’d be hard pressed to pick up many details from the song itself.
The song Reynardine is a bit like when there’s a massively popular film series out at the pictures – like Star Wars or something – and there’re tie ins with absolutely everything, including crisps, the manufacturers of which make some half-arsed effort to create potato shaped versions of robots that just look like circles.
It’s based on the medieval legend of Reynard, who’s a stereotypically wily, anthropomorphic fox who gets into scrapes with other anthropomorphs, including Tibert The Cat, which is where the violent character of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet gets his name from. Tybalt is referred to as The Prince of Cats by, particularly, Mercutio, who makes a few comments relating to this, telling him he’s going to take one of his nine lives in the swordfight that precipitates his own death, and the beginning of Romeo’s downfall.
One of the Reynard stories was used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales too – The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Reynard was obviously a big deal, as well he might be.
The stories of Reynard the Fox started in France (“Renard” is French for “fox” now, although it was the popularity of the Reynard stories that lead to that being the case, following “goupil”, which was the previous term) and are often tarted up forms of satire. Reynard’s a peasant hero whose vulpine background reflects the status of the human commoner. He ends up making fools of the more aristocratically inclined animals, such as the aforementioned Prince of Cats, as well as Isengrim the wolf, and the clergy. In Disney’s Robin Hood, Robin Hood is a fox and the Sheriff of Nottingham’s a wolf, again following the Reynard characterisations.
When he needs to hide away, Reynard goes to his castle – which isn’t a terribly working class option for most commoners, especially if you’re a fox – Maupertuis. This castle is mentioned in the song, but Reynard(ine) doesn’t really sock it to the man here, so much as ingratiate himself with the local girls, who he invites back to his castle for reasons unspecified. But, as a fox, presumably he’s, erm, foxy and the girls are all into that.
Graham’s accompaniment is, once again, stately and intricate. He often gets compared with Bert Jansch, and you can see why: they were both innovative, neither of them really had anything to do with electric guitars, and they were both extraordinary innovators. However, in terms of style, they’re not very similar, as noted previously in their radically different playing of the same notes – more or less – of Nottamun Town. To my ears, Graham’s playing was much closer in style to John Renbourn, with whom Jansch played in (The) Pentangle, and also as a duo from time to time. Renbourn was perhaps a more academically inclined student of the guitar and was particularly keen on rearranging medieval instrumentals for the guitar, which wasn’t a medieval instrument, being invented, as it was, in Spain in about the 12th century. Even that wasn’t really what most people would consider to be a guitar as we know them. That came much later, in around the middle of 19th century. Anyway, yeah, Graham’s guitar playing is stately, restrained and sympathetic.
Shirley Collins’ voice, which I’ve not really mentioned beyond a few positive adjectives, is a thing of beauty. I have no idea why Ewan MacColl’s authoritarian viewpoint lead so many of his disciples to slag her off, and I can only assume that they were jealous. Go on YouTube and enter Hares On The Mountain. There are a lot of female singers’ versions of it up there and, while some of them are pleasant enough, they sound like sandpaper on a cheese grater in comparison to Collins. I’m a big fan of Anne Briggs, whose voice is at least as good as Collins’, if rougher and more lived in. Sandy Denny’s is somewhere between those two, and beautiful with it. Jacqui McShee’s, the girl in (The) Pentangle, is clear, effective and the epitome of the flaxen haired, lamenting folky girl.
But Shirley’s my favourite, even though she doesn’t go for melodramatic warbling. Her voice is absolutely perfect, and you shouldn’t piss about with perfection, and she doesn’t.
This song doesn’t go into much detail about Reynard(ine): the narrator sees a young girl talking to Reynardine, who invites her to his castle, and she goes with him. That’s it. I suppose that, in its day, Reynardine was such a famous, popular story that the writer – whoever it was – was more or less just hopping on the bandwagon and didn’t really feel the need to go into any more detail. Like crisp manufacturers in the time of Star Wars.
Proud Maisrie is also known as The Gardener which I had also – sort of – heard before as it appears, like Nottamun Town, on Bert Jansch’s Jack Orion album although, unlike Nottamun Town, I didn’t realise until recently.
The reason I didn’t realise, I suppose, is because Bert Jansch doesn’t actually sing any of the words at all, and his guitar playing, as I mentioned in the Nottamum Town entry above, is much more violent and much less controlled than Graham’s is. I didn’t really like Jansch’s version much, not least because it’s not entirely instrumental because he sings variations on “Die-Doo-Der-Die” all the way through it, which is a little too close to Fiddle-de-Iddle-De-Idle-De-Oh for my liking.
Our Shirley sings the proper words though, and, as usual, she sings it beautifully and it suits her slightly-older-but-still-good-looking school teacheriness perfectly. It’s about a gardener who knocks on a girl’s door and asks her to wear various flowers and plants instead of clothes. The implication being, of course, that he’ll be able to see more of her flesh than he otherwise would. The girl doesn’t tell him to bugger off. Instead, she says, in that case, you, Mr Pervy Gardener, instead of clothes, can wear snow, rain, wind and clouds.
What does that mean? That means that while the girl could get all shirty – presumably not one made of rhododendrons – with him about his request, what she does instead is beat him at his own game with wit, leaving him looking like a twat. Full of horticultural and meteorological imagery without being po-faced about it and with a verbal slap at the denouement, it’s the perfect vehicle for Collins. I just hope she enjoyed singing it as much as I like listening to it.
The Cherry Tree Carol
The last song I’m going to write about from this album – even though I like everything on it – I’ve picked out because I really shouldn’t like it very much at all.
First, the accompaniment isn’t on a guitar, it’s on a banjo, which I’m not a fan of, although I don’t loathe them like I loathe accordions, fiddles or bagpipes. Second, it’s a Jesus song, and I’m not religious in the slightest, even though I’m interested in them. Maybe that’s it, but not really.
Maybe what I like about it is the way that it presents Joseph, the Virgin Mary’s wife. Joseph, who everybody knows is not Jesus’ father because that’s God, is generally barely mentioned in stories because it’s all about Jesus and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mary. Whenever I thought about Joseph, I wondered about how he felt about the whole thing. You know, his young virgin wife gets pregnant and tells him that God impregnated her. Oh aye? Either Joseph was a total moron, or he had one hell of a lot of trust in Mary, or God; or he just didn’t give a fuck (an unintended pun, but it appealed to my base nature).
This song presents Joseph exactly as I’d like him to be: passively-aggressively pissed off about the whole fucking thing.
Mary and Joseph are out walking, Mary’s preggers with Jesus, and she asks Joseph to pick her some cherries from that tree because she’s too pregnant to be clambering up trees and what have you. And Joseph finally loses his rag and tells her, “Let the father of your baby gather cherries for thee.” You know, like someone whose wife was pregnant with some other bloke’s child would after she told him that she’d not been unfaithful, but God did it. Honest. I love that.
Anyway, foetus Jesus pipes up from the womb to the cherry tree and tells them to bow down so that his pregnant mother can pick cherries without having to shimmy up a tree to get them, and they do! Poor old Joseph, eh? Not only has God impregnated his wife and left him to run around after his wife, but he can’t even get snarky about it and make her do without a couple of cherries to make a point about how he’s the living embodiment of a spare prick at a wedding. I suppose, on the plus side, if he was harbouring any doubts about the father, this little demonstration of dominion over nature might have nudged him towards believing her. Perhaps it was for the best, eh?
That would be plenty by itself for a lot of folk songs – Reynardine, I’m looking at you – but The Cherry Tree Carol is no bag of pickled onion Monster Munch allegedly shaped like R2-D2, and what you would expect to happen, happens.
Joseph, gobsmacked at the unborn child of God’s ability to get trees to bend their boughs just by talking to them, takes it upon himself to have a little chart with Jesus. And what would you ask an unborn child? Well, you might come up with something more psychedelic than Joseph, I suppose, but in those days, you’d want to know when he was planning on being born, and that’s what Joseph asks.
But the answer is decidedly odd. We know what the answer should be, don’t we? 25th of December, right? But it’s not. The unborn Jesus tells him “On the fifth day of January my birthday shall be“.
What? Now, as I’ve said, I’m not a folk music scholar, but my interpretation is that either Jesus is telling Joseph the wrong answer just to annoy him, you know, to give him the impression that he’s got longer to decorate his bedroom, or build the cot, or something, so that Mary’ll shout at him for being a useless twat, or he just didn’t know, or he – somehow – got it wrong.
Anyway, it turns out that it’s something to do with the calendar changing and the point at which this song was written, Christmas Day really was on the 5th of January. Apparently. I don’t know. Like Hares on the Mountain, I like my interpretation better, so fuck you God. Gasp. Yeah, you heard. I bet Joseph would dig that. I should know, I was him in the school play when I was 6. That’s right.
So, Hey Nonny Nonny, there you have it. If you’re not familiar with much folk music, and if you’re a bit scared of it, this might change your mind a bit. It sure as hell does it for me.