Veteran is an independent English record company and mail order business that is wholly dedicated to the musical and performing traditions of the UK and Ireland. At first glance that might not seem like anything extraordinary. There are, after all, dozens of labels releasing the folk music and songs of these islands, but it's the word "traditions" that holds the key to Veteran's uniqueness. While a "folk" record may be defined by almost any criteria the performer or listener chooses to apply to it (how many times are we going to hear that old chestnut about singing horses before everyone tires of it?), a "traditional" performance is defined not only by repertoire but by style, process and context.
Perhaps the most easily agreed adjective that can be applied to traditional performance is "authenticity," or, as Cornish traditional singer Vic Legg said to me one time: "you can always recognise 'the real thing' when you hear it." The CDs here are all, indisputably, 'the real thing.' Entirely "field" rather than studio recordings, these albums are sparse, immediate, intimate affairs that either attract or repel the listener solely on the quality of the performances.
There's another "key" word -- "quality". While these are, inevitably, small-scale releases destined for a minority audience, their uncompromising attitude to performance is applied equally to quality of recording, presentation, liner notes, the whole package. That, again, is something unique, a fact reflected by the BBC's recent decision to devote the entire hour of its weekly folk, roots and acoustic radio show to selections from the Veteran catalogue. Happily, a couple of recent conversations with Veteran's founder John Howson resulted in a good-sized parcel of CDs arriving at GMR.
The Yellow Handkerchief
Phoebe Smith is probably the best-known name among these artists, having been previously recorded for several collections by the Topic label. Here, that difference between "folk" and "traditional" that I mused upon in the introduction is perfectly summed up in the booklet notes by her son Manny. In a quote eerily reminiscent of a line in Bob Dylan's "Talking New York" (sheesh, I should get out more!) he states: "Mum had such a clear voice and when she'd had a glass or two of Guinness she would sing and you could hear her at the other end of the village, but when she was recorded for the record they wanted her to sound like a folk singer, so her singing is subdued."
There's nothing subdued about the performances on The Yellow Handkerchief, but rather as fine an example of the open, unaccompanied, declamatory gypsy style as you're likely to hear. There's nothing hurried either, Smith sang her ballads not for the sake of melodic diversion, but for what they are -- stories in song. Her astonishing phrasing and savouring of every syllable results in "A Blacksmith Courted Me" and "The Sheepfold," clocking in at almost eight mesmerizing minutes apiece. "Barbara Allan" (a whopping eleven minutes) conclusively reminds the listener of the true meaning of the word "epic" (a narrative poem told in elevated style, according to my dictionary), when too often the word is applied to bombast, posturing and fakery.
While these performances are genuinely compelling, they're by no means "easy listening," so the inclusion of short, lighter material like "Old Gypsy's Waggon" and "Wings of a Swallow" provides welcome contrast. There's even a track that consists of Smith step-dancing to Martin Byrnes' fiddle, during which she lets out a delighted "whoop!" Interestingly, three of the songs on this collection, "A Blacksmith," "Game of All Fours" and The Yellow Handkerchief" (aka "Flash Company") all found their way into the repertoire(s) of Maddy Prior and/or June Tabor - just two of the contemporary performers who readily acknowledge the huge legacy of the traditional singing gypsy women like Carolyne Hughes, Margaret Barry and Phoebe Smith. Play this CD loud enough to be heard at "the other end of the village" or, if you're a city dweller, in your car with the windows down at traffic lights....
Catch me if you can
Staying with traditional singing gypsy women, here's a CD subtitled "Songs from Cornish Travellers," recorded by Pete Coe in 1978. At the time of recording Betsy Renals, Charlotte Renals and Sophie Legg were 78, 77 and 60 years old respectively. These three sisters were all members of the Orchard family who spent the early part of the last century travelling round Cornwall in a horse-drawn wagon, hawking brushes, wicker baskets, drapery rugs and ornaments. An integral part of this way of life was singing and making music, and what we have here is an opportunity to hear three genuine "song carriers," who learnt their repertoire from family and friends. It's a wonderfully varied repertoire too, encompassing traditional songs like "The Dark-Eyed Sailor," "The Bonny Bunch of Roses" and "Lord Lovell," comic "ditties" like "The Crabfish" and "Just Beginning to Sprout" to broadside ballads like "Young Billy Taylor." Throw in some "step-dance tuning" (lilting), a few music-hall numbers and some marvellous spoken reminiscences and humorous asides and it all adds up to a superbly realised and heart warming package.
Merrymaking and Proper Job!
Many moons ago I briefly recommended a CD by Mark Bazeley & Jason Rice entitled Moor Music and declared it: an open window to a music not only "as it was," but more importantly "still is," in the Dartmoor region of Devon. If that CD indeed offered "an open window" through which to hear this tradition, then these two open the door, invite you in and make you a cup of tea! Jason (and Mark) also appear on Merrymaking, but the predominant figures are Jack Rice (Jason's grandfather) and his cousin Les Rice, who mainly play mouth organ and concertina respectively. The recordings made between 1981 - 2000, in Chagford, Devon, also feature various other Rice family members. The title, Merrymaking, is a reference to the custom of forming free-reed bands (called Merrymakers), for local carnivals and fairs. Consequently, the repertoire and style of performance is unfussy, uncomplicated and undeniably "merry" throughout. With thirty tracks of Polkas, Waltzes, Hornpipes, Jigs, Schottisches, Barn Dances and the like, coupled with comprehensive and booklet notes, Merrymaking is both a fascinating record of local social history and an absolute joy to listen to!
The Bob Cann (Bazeley's Grandfather) album, Proper Job! consists of recordings made between 1952 and 1978. Significantly, a few of these recordings were made not in some far-flung corner of Dartmoor, but in the Royal Albert Hall, London. Significant, because Cann achieved the rare distinction of being a wholly traditional musician who gained recognition beyond his locality during his own lifetime. Cann's enduring legacy is not only to be found in his extensive repertoire of Dartmoor dance tunes but in his innovative mastery of the melodeon. A useful comparison can be made with Billy Pigg in the assessment of Cann's importance. If the definitive "soul" of the music of the North-East is to be found in the intuition and improvisation of Pigg's pipes, then it's South-West counterpart is here in the drive and dexterity of Cann's melodeon. Proper Job will be a welcome addition to anyone's collection of English traditional music, and, to aspirant melodeon players, indispensable.
They sailed away from Dublin Bay
Liam Farrell (banjo) and Joe Whelan (accordeon) are veterans (!) of the London Irish scene. Their playing spans the years of relatively isolated, rural traditional music finding new outlets for it's expression in city pubs "across the water," to the boom-years of the Ceili Bands (Farrell and Whelan were members of The Hibernian and The Four Courts, respectively). On this CD (recorded over two nights in 2001) they're joined by fellow-traveller Reg Hall with the reassuringly familiar thump of his vamping piano, and James Carty, a younger musician who plays the old-style music on the flute. The repertoire is, unsurprisingly, Irish traditional music, pure and simple -- jigs, reels, waltzes, polkas, marches and hornpipes. The arrangements generally fall into the parameters of the old joke -- how do you know when there's a ceili band at your front door? They knock twice then all come in at once. That being said, there's nothing remotely "jokey" about this music, for while members of the "post-Planxty" generations (like me) may be initially disoriented by the absence of guitars, bouzoukis, complex rhythms, sudden time changes and dynamic variety that predominate in so much of the modern genre, this is wonderful stuff. This is Irish music played with enormous skill, empathy and verve by musicians who live and breathe it. Old-fashioned? No, these are genuinely "timeless" and utterly captivating performances.
The girls along the road
John Kennedy is something of "a legend" in traditional circles in Northern Ireland, known as a singer, musician, writer of songs and tunes and music teacher, but was a name previously unfamiliar to me. Consequently this CD, subtitled "traditional songs, ballads and whistle tunes from Co. Antrim", came as something of a revelation. Kennedy was born in 1928, and his voice, though weathered by age and cigarettes, still carries a song with excellent pitch and precision, along with an indefinable "sparkle" that transmits a sense of a performer with genuine charisma to the listener. The majority of the songs are traditional, sourced from either his mother or other singers from his locality. Almost all of them are unfamiliar (to me, at least), and the titles alone are enough to beg further investigation by anyone with a love of traditional song. Who could resist the promise inherent in such tracks as "The Corncrake among the Whinny Knowes," "The shipcarpenter's wife," "The Lass with the Bonny Brown Hair" or "The Cloghmills Factory Girls?" The whistle tunes, meanwhile come largely from the largely overlooked Ulster marching fife band traditions, with an original reel thrown in for good measure. His playing is solid, rather than flashy, and his timing and phrasing are spot-on. Since the release of this CD, Kennedy has recorded a further album of his instrumental compositions, and his music is now the subject of a book by Fintan Vallely. The girls along the road, meanwhile, captures a performer recorded, perhaps, in "the nick-of-time" and serves as both a demonstration of Kennedy's considerable talents and a valuable source of repertoire and inspiration for any singers up to the task of tackling these fine songs and tunes.
linkin' o'er the Lea
Here's another one from the rich singing traditions of Northern Ireland, this being a collection of "traditional folk songs and ballads from Tempo, Co. Fermanagh." I've been a sucker for this kind of thing since my exposure to an old Topic album entitled Mrs Sarah Makem - Ulster Ballad Singer at an impressionably young age. It's often said that "a picture is worth a thousand words," so the booklet photographs of Maggy Murphy are worth considering. In many ways, they're strikingly similar to the photos on the John Kennedy album. Both show a person obviously old in years but young at heart, looking fitter than they have any right to be, with a face split by a huge grin and fun and "divilment" etched into every "laughter line" around their eyes. The performances recorded between 1952 and 1996 (!) fulfil the promise of the pictures. Murphy comes across as a supremely talented, confident performer and a "larger-than-life" personality with a terrific delivery and an accent that could cut cheese. Whether she's delivering comic songs like "Crockery Ware," and "Paddy and the ass" or a classic ballads like "Edmund in the lowlands low" and "Molly Bawn" she holds the listener's complete attention by the strength of her material and remarkable vocal talent. For anyone seeking a familiar comparison, Murphy reminds me somewhat of Dervish's Cathy Jordan (who I happen to think is unutterably wonderful). Jordan bucks the prevalent trend among contemporary female singers to concentrate purely on "sweetness" by allowing the content of a song to determine her vocal delivery, and it's a lesson she more than likely learned from singers of Maggy Murphy's generation. You want an example of what I meant by "the real thing" in that introductory paragraph? One listen to Maggy Murphy will bring you to the heartbeat of traditional singing.
John Cocking is a native of the Pennines in the north of England, where he has worked with heavy horses, made his living as a dry stone waller and been the kennelman for a pack of hunting beagles. With that kind of rustic pedigree it's little wonder that Cocking has amassed a fine repertoire of traditional rural songs that he's performed solo, as a member of The Holme Valley Tradition singing group, or in partnership with Will Noble. What does come as a huge surprise is that this CD contains only one song, for this is a collection of "North Country monologues." Being a "song and tune" man I instinctively put this one on the bottom of the pile, thinking that it would hold limited interest for me. Listening to the CD, however, opened the floodgates to a wave of childhood memories, as my maternal grandparents spent their latter years in Blackpool. "There's a seaside town called Blackpool, that's noted for fresh air and fun, and Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom went there with young Albert, their son." What's that old fool on about? (You may well ask). Well, those lines come from a hugely popular comic monologue written by Marriott Edgar in the 1930's, called "Albert and the Lion." While that one doesn't feature on this CD, plenty of Edgar's works do. Cocking performs (with impeccable comic timing) "The Jubilee Sov'rin," "The 'Ole in the Ark," "Uppards," "Three Ha'pence a Foot," "The Recumbent Posture" and "The Return of Albert."
While this is all well and good for me, and will undoubtedly delight those old codgers who remember the variety performer Stanley Holloway with any affection, what the hell's it got to do with anyone else? I'll tell you what -- the discovery that the writing and performance of monologues (both comic and otherwise) isn't merely a quaint relic of yesteryear, but a continuing tradition. Foremost among the recent writers whose works appear on this collection is Kevin Collier. The opening lines of his "Troopers" contains the key not only to Cocking's modus operandi, but the underlying philosophy of Veteran, and, perhaps, the essence of "traditional performance" itself:
Let us step back in time for a moment
To the year nineteen-hundred and five
Before vids and TV's, cassettes and CDs
When all entertainment was live...
And there you have it. Damn all those type-written words that I've expended about "style, process and context," all those hand-wringing appeals to "directness," "timelessness" and "authenticity," all those semi-apologetic, weasely-worded (sailing dangerously close to facile notions of "noble savagery") adjectives that I've glibly thrown up in the course of this review. Collier, via the mouth of Cocking, has, in those few, simple lines, aligned the whole thing exactly where it belongs - it's about VALUES.
Green Man Review (by its very nature as a review 'zine) tends to concentrate on "products." Books, CDs, films -- they make 'em, we review 'em. Veteran CDs are, of course, products, but products that come with an important caveat in that, primarily, they're "performances," rather than "recordings." While the vast majority of CDs are about as spontaneous as a wedding photograph, Veteran holds up the aural equivalent of an instamatic, and grabs the "snapshot." Anyone who's attempted that particular approach to photography will know full well that it's a "hit and miss" affair. Rest assured that what you get with any Veteran release is made up, entirely, of the "hits." These CDs (all of them) constitute the next best thing to actually "being there." You can always recognise the real thing when you hear it.....