Thursday, 10 January 2013

64: Oh Mr Cameron

This song is written by Norma Parry, the mum of singer and onetime Liverpool Echo Merseyside busker of the year Alun Parry. The tune is adapted from an old music hall song (Oh Mr Porter, I'm guessing). Alun's performed it at various trade union events as well his own Woody Guthrie folk club in the Ship and Mitre, and it's since been picked up as a protest song by loads of people. In particular the Liverpool Socialist Singers (pictured above singing on the steps of St George's Hall at a rally against changes to public sector pensions) have made it their own, and have passed it on to various other similar choirs.

Clearly, you don't have to be a revolutionary socialist to have sympathy with the song, given recent omnishambles... I just wish the song didn't leave Ed Miliband off the hook, given that he stands just as much as the others for everything that is wrong with the modern political class!

Monday, 24 December 2012

63: Birkenhead Wassail Song

A "wassail" song - that is, a song for door to door carol singing. The term wassail comes from an Anglo Saxon toast meaning "be in good health", and this is quite simply a song wishing good health to the people of the house you're knocking the door of (and then trying to extract a small amount of money from them). This song was collected by Janet Blunt from Mrs Haigh and Miss Kelk of Birkenhead in 1921. (Those who've been following my blog for a while may recall Mrs Haigh as the source of the Birkenhead version of The Bitter Withy.) This was one of the songs they remembered carol singers performing in their youth. I got the words and tune off the English Folk Dance and Song Society's "Take Six" site.

Matthew Edwards (now resident on the Wirral and a fount of knowledge about all manner of songs) has done a bit of additional detective work:
I've managed to trace the two sisters who gave this song, and two others (The Bitter Withy and Christ Was Born In Bethlehem), to Janet Blunt in 1921. They were Annie Beatrice Haigh and Rosamond Kelk, daughters of a bank accountant, who lived in Claughton, Birkenhead in the 1870's. Their father, John William Kelk, was originally from Brigg in Lincolnshire, but both daughters were born in the Wirral.

They told Janet Blunt that they remembered the songs being sung by child waits at Christmas in the streets of Birkenhead 30 or 40 years earlier. Where the songs might have originated is now almost impossible to tell since the population of Birkenhead at that time had grown very rapidly in a short time with the new inhabitants coming from many different parts.

The photo is of carol singers on the wirral from the Bay TV Liverpool site. Haven't heard any carol singers coming to the door in Bootle for a few years - is carol singing door to door something that's been discouraged these days? If so, it's a bit of a shame.

The Roud folksong index lumps this in with other Wassail songs as #209

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

62: The World Was In Darkness

An advent song... but the usual questions come up: is it really a Liverpool song? Is it a folk song? Hard to say, but this was a big part of my childhood growing up in the 80s and 90s. I learned this as a kid at St Monica's Church, Bootle, where we used to sing it when lighting the candles on the advent wreath. It's been synonymous with this time of year ever since.

I've recently been passing the song on by singing it with my son as we light the candles on the advent wreath at home, and I was pushed by the rest of the household to include it on the blog on the grounds that it easily fitted within my loose rules for inclusion as it was a song I'd 'collected' in Liverpool. A bit of googling later, I could find only a few scattered references to the song or its words - and in fact one of the tiny number of places the song was quoted was quite local, up in Formby.

So in the absence of any other records of this song as I heard it sung, and in the joint spirit of archiving and nostalgia, I'm recording this as a tiny little memento of the Bootle Catholic advent traditions from my own childhood. And if anyone has any information about the source, or other places where this is sung, I'd be glad to hear it. The image above of the wreath above is taken from the website of the Parish of St Giles, Aintree.

Friday, 30 November 2012

61: O Scottie Road

This is a song I first learned from a couple of Evertonians I met. They could only remember a bit of it, but after some digging around, I found a set of words and discovered that it was a very close adaptation of the Manchester song Collyhurst Road. Even if it does turn out to have been derived from something sung at the other end of the East Lancs Road, it's still a decent song, and by the looks of it this version has a long enough history in Liverpool, with someone saying they heard a skiffle group singing it in the 50s. Plus, from the point of view of my project, one thing of interest is the very close similarity between the words here and those recalled by Stan Kelly as The Quality of Mersey (which as I said last week also bears similarities to certain versions of The Cruise of the Calabar).

Scotland Road has such a place in the history of the city, it's strange to sing about it now that it's only a shell of its former self. So much of the road is demolished, and what remains isn't in a great state (see photo above). I guess songs like this serve as reminders of how much Scottie Road used to be synomymous with the city. Also, I have to say, it feels weird to be singing an Evertonian song, but I'm sure I'll recover...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

60: The Cruise of the Calabar

A song about the perils of life aboard a canal barge; a parody of tales of danger and bravery on the high seas, the humour comes from the somewhat underwhelming nature of the (mis)adventures and locations. This version is one I found in a packet of reproductions of street songs and ballads (the Liverpool Packet No. 1 sold by Scouse Press). Fritz Spiegl (writer, humorist, and principal flautist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) transcribed it from a copy in the Liverpool Record Office, noting the original had been "made almost illegible by some anonmyous amateur entertainer who made illuminating (but equally feeble) alterations. He was determined, for example, to get an easy laugh by mentioning the word 'Bootle' as often as possible". The tune used was that of the ironically named song 'Limerick is Beautiful'. The words are as was sung by Billy Richardson for many years at Sam Hague's in St James' Hall on Lime Street. The African American Theatre Directory, 1816-1960 explains that "Sam Hague's Slave Troupe" was a minstrel troupe under Sam Hague, well-known English minstrel man and clog dancer; they toured around the USA and Britain from 1865 before settling more or less permanently in Liverpool in 1870. Billy Richardson was one of the troupe's great comedians, a "stump speaker" who delivered witty monologues on local issues.

A little further up the Leeds-Liverpool canal in Burscough, a very different version (also full of Liverpool locations) was collected in 1953 by Fred Hamer from Emma Vickers, who came from a family who lived and worked on the barges - one of the few (perhaps the only?) songs about the inland waterways to be collected from people who actually lived that life. Her version has some similarities to Stan Kelly's reconstruction The Quality of Mersey, which makes me wonder if there's any connection between that song and the Cruise of the Calabar.

The Leeds-Liverpool canal was built between 1770 and 1816, with a final connection to the Liverpool docks built in 1822, and was of massive importance supplying coal and other goods to the city, as well as taking goods from the port inland. (The canal has a special place in my own heart because I grew up right by it in Bootle.) The photo above shows a horse-drawn barge at Chisenhale Street Bridge in 1814 - it's astonishing how rural it looks, now long since swallowed up by the urban sprawl. The canal now stops short of Chisenhale Street, though you can still see the bridge over where the canal used to be.

In the Roud Folksong index, this is #1079

Sunday, 11 November 2012

59: My Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier

Frank Kidson collected a verse ("I'll dye my petticoats, I'll dye them red") and the chorus of this song from Alfred Mooney, a railway clerk, who had heard it "walking in Scotland Road, behind a Liverpool basket-girl who with her companions was singing the verse to the tune". It was published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol. 2 No. 9, 1906. The song was published under the title of "Shule Agra", basically writing out in English syllables the Irish "Siúl a ghrá", which apparently means something like "Go, o love".

There are many Irish versions of this song; perhaps the most well known version today is the macaronic "Siúl a rúin", which has a full Irish chorus (the title is often rendered "Shule Aroon" in English). The nature of the war to which Johnny has gone is not always specified - for those looking to theorise sometimes it's said that he's gone to France. I'm not really prone to that kind of speculation, given that the song has a long history, with versions as early as the 17th century, so it's probably not wise to pin it to any particular war. It's not as though there there's a shortage of conflicts that have left people to weep for lost love. Whatever the songs origins, it has certainly travelled well, with a well-known American version "Buttermilk Hill". In the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Anne Gilchrist also notes the similarity to the American sea-shanty "Let the Bulgine Run"/"Eliza Lee".

The painting I've used above by Hugues Merle, "A girl with a basket of apples", and is from the Sudley House collection - I had a lot of trouble finding a suitable picture, so this one was chosen in tribute to the fact that this version song came from a basket-girl. Merle was French, so it might take a bit of imagination to mentally place this one singing an Irish song on Scotty Road, but do your best.

Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier/ Shule Agra/ Siúl a ghrá is #911 in the Roud folksong index.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

58: Buckets of the Mersey

We certainly love our public art in Liverpool, from the Lewis's statue exceedingly bare to the Superlambanana. Even so, I was surprised to find that this particular sculpture, the Piazza fountain on Drury Lane (which I've only ever heard called the "bucket fountain"), had its own song. I found it in Spin magazine (published by The Spinners) Vol. 8 No. 1, 1970. The words are by Stuart McTavish, and the music attributed to Jennie Williams.

The fountain was designed by Richard Huws and was completed in 1966. The website Seven Streets has an excellent article on its history in which they quote Huws at some length: "It is a waterfall of a strange new kind... Instead of streaming steadily, water hurtles down unexpectedly in detatched lumps in all directions... The sight and sound of waterfalls is so spellbinding that they have always been centres of attraction in the landscape, and in the places where we work we are prompted to create them artificially... To make it more exciting we contrive various means of providing additional animation, a very simple device which interrupts the regular flow, so as to create a round of action. The sound and movement of which is no longer that of the ever-monotonous bubbling river, but that of the restless, temperamental sea."

The only problem is, as the song says, the thing never seems to be working...