Monday, 2 July 2018


Is it time for storytellers and folk singers to man the barricades, to stand up and be counted, to provide a real opposition to what it happening in this mad world of ours, rather than to continue to be ‘nice’ in public and just complain by posting harmless messages on Facebook and similar?

"Folk Music is Fun."
"Storytelling is for Toddlers."

They are the two stereotypes which haunt the two related art forms with which I have been involved for most of my life. But they are mistaken stereotypes. Some folk music is fun, and some storytelling could be for toddlers but both are only small aspects of the whole.
The media, particularly local newspapers, seem incapable of writing the word ‘folk’ without appending ‘fun’ even when the rest of the content points to it being most inappropriate


Text. "Tonight at the Somewhere Arts Centre Pete Castle will present a set of Victorian Murder Ballads…"   Fun?
Hansel and Gretel can upset some people!

We have now had a revival of oral storytelling well under way for about 30 years and it has been discussed in papers, magazines and on Arts programmes on TV and radio but still, if a storyteller is booked for an event, it is assumed that it will be for the childrens’ area; and in schools they are naturally pointed towards the younger age groups rather than the older ones. That might partly be because the staff think the older pupils have more important things to do with their time than just listen to stories, (Attainment Targets to reach, lists to learn, boxes to tick!) but it’s more that, without thinking, the ‘powers that be’ associate storytelling with the simple bed-time story before mummy tucks you up ready for sleep… A story cannot possibly be powerful or harmful, can it? Some people think it can and complain if you do one they consider 'inapproprate'.

The Folk Revival has been underway for even longer—several generations, but still the majority of people are ignorant about it. Blame the press!

But you can’t just blame the press—it is also what the public expect. They have been brainwashed to expect ‘folk’ music to be mediocre and singalong and, probably, Irish!  Even when it isn’t it takes a long time to register that this is something more.
Two Heads and Tales (film still)

I recently did a performance with my friend and fellow storyteller Nicky Rafferty. We called it Two Heads and Tales. It was a one-off event and we decided not to plan it but to just let one story (or song) lead to another. We knew that we both had large enough repertoires and enough experience to be able to do it like that. We weren’t going to go blank and not know what to do next. In fact the opposite was true—shall I do this one or that one…? The only planning we did do was to run past the other a few titles: these are a few things I’d like to fit in if appropriate. It gave us a starting point but we didn’t fit them all in by any means.
Based on that selection we decided not to shy away from difficult stories and in the end we included Mr Fox, Appley and Orangey and the songs Fanny Blair and the Two Sisters, but there were also lighter twists on heavy ideas

’My mother chopped my off, My father picked my bones… ‘ sings the murdered child in Appley and Orangey. I followed that with Jack Goes Hunting (Fish, Fowl or Fur) in which a man also gets his head cut off; but it’s a story with a moral—don’t pick your nose! 
A couple of stories are on You Tube at The Three Sillies and Money, Money, Money 

It was great fun to work together. We both usually work solo and to have someone else to bounce off was an added stimulus. The audience enjoyed it too although a few days later someone commented that it was all ‘a bit grim’. The ’difficult’ aspect was obviously not what she was expecting. She wanted the ‘folk fun’.
It is very easy to be put off by comments like that and to steer clear of controversial material. I was talking to someone else about ‘self-censorship’ and we will probably have a piece on that subject in Facts & Fiction  storytelling magazine soon. Link to Facts and Fiction But why are we storytellers and folk singers so scared of upsetting the audience?

The theatre puts on difficult plays—they don’t censor King Lear or Titus Andronicus; some stand-ups go out of their way to say outrageous things and to crack bad-taste jokes; satirists explore the current news and put a focus on the misdeeds of our leaders… why can’t, or don’t, storytellers and folk singers do the same?
‘Oh, we don’t want politics in folk clubs’ has been a frequent comment.

In his essay in the new book ‘An Introduction to Storytelling’ from The History Press, Prof Mike Wilson suggests that the time has come for storytellers, as ‘professional liars’, to shine the spotlight on the liars and fake-news pedlars of politics, advertising and the media because we can do it in a subtle, good natured way that just might get home.
He says: “I might suggest that we should also adopt the moniker of the ‘honest liar’ to describe the storyteller who lies playfully to expose the bigger lies of the deceivers and con-artists…”

Our Money Money Money set mentioned about does just that… as long as the audience is perceptive enough to put their prejudices aside and take it on board!
So, come on all you Honest Liars, forget the folk fun and leave all those carefully honed sentences to one side for a while—and, just occasionally, get your soapbox out and expose the wrongs of the world we are living in.


Saturday, 5 May 2018


Battle at Chitral

I might have found an important new source singer... but it's too late to know!


My second ever blog post (in July 2015) was called From Chart to Charleston  click here to read it

It was about the song 'I Wish There Was No Prisons'. This time I'd like to return to the song but from an entirely different angle.
As well as writing a Blog post about it I had previously posted a You Tube video. It might be a good idea if you looked at that as well before going any further... click here to listen

 'Prisons' is a folk song from Kent. All the accepted sources will tell you that the only time it was collected in the tradition was from George Spicer, a farm worker from Kent who later moved to East Sussex. It can be found on a Topic LP of his songs – 'Blackberry Fold'. I recorded the song for a CD of Kentish folk songs mainly because it was a jaunty piece of nonsense. The only other person who has recorded it, as far as I know, is the East Yorkshire singer and pleasure boat man Jim Eldon who credits George Spicer as his source.

I was therefore, very surprised to get an email, out of the blue, from a man called David Rogers, asking about the song. He'd heard my version and immediately recognised it as a song his granddad used to sing! This is what he said:

Ernest James Rogers in uniform
Hi Pete, Hope I can get some help with my query, here goes.
I grew up with my great-grandfather and great-grandmother in Sussex from age 18 months. Ernest James Rogers lived in Kent for much of his life, moving to Sussex when he was in his 50's (I believe). He served in the army (Buffs Regiment) in the Boer War, in Northern Ireland in the Risings, and in WW1 - all over the place until he was invalided out on medical grounds. He was an inveterate story-teller and song-singer, and had a good voice. Among those I can recall was the ’Oakum Picking song’. However, having researched the title I find that the only versions I am able to find differ quite markedly from the one he, and I later, sang. I appreciate that my memory may not be all that it was, but these are the words I recall.

"I wish there were no prisons, I do, don't you?
'Cause Oakum Picking gives me such a licking,
When I go in for a little bit of nicking,
With me hands, with me dukes,
With me dukes and dirty maulers."

(which isn’t, actually, very different to George’s or mine…)

Ernest and Helen Mary Rogers
He (Ernest) and his wife lived in Whitstable immediately prior to moving to Sussex. He had a Shoe-makers Shop (hand-made boots and shoes); she was manager (and possibly proprietor) of a General Store in the town.
Ernie's family were Kentish people, in the main farm labourers or tenant farmers. At one point he worked in the Asylum at Chartham as a mortuary attendant as well as a 'water-boy' in his earlier life. I guess all these types of employment would have left him open to a wide range of occupational songs. Indeed, I was told-off many times for singing various of his army songs in the presence of my Gt Grandmother, who was a truly Victorian lady, who had trained as, and worked as, a school teacher in her younger years.
I wonder if you are able to advise whether you know of any other versions of the Oakum Picking song; and/or if you've ever heard the version I related?

In further correspondence David went on to tell me more about his very complicated family and, in particular, Ernest:
“Some years ago I had begun to write as much about my childhood with Ernest James and Helen Mary (his wife) as I could recall, believing them (at that stage) to be my grandfather and grandmother. We all lived in what amounted to a tin-roofed, wooden bungalow which Ernie and his sons had built in a 3 acre plot of woodland in rural Sussex...
The longer I live, the more I respect him, both as a man and a tutor/teacher. Never having known a father, he became, I guess, my father figure. Indeed I recall calling him Dad quite often. He never complained nor did he try to stop me using that title.
I learned the interest and keenness that I began to acquire (from 18 months or so) throughout my childhood and up to his death when I was 16'ish from him. There seemed never to be a job he wouldn't have an attempt at, even though he readily admitted he might know very little about it.
While I cannot quite remember all the steps and stages he demonstrated in making shoes, for example, much of it still sticks in memory, and my love of working with leather, wood and metal certainly either came directly from him, or from (some of the) genes passed down the Mulligan line (his father).

Left: a 'crossing the line' (equator) party.

David’s father was a Canadian soldier who had a relationship with an English girl and, when David was born, admitted that he was already married in Canada.

“My father dabbled in repairing and selling motor vehicles before he joined the RCEME and was posted to England as Captain Mulligan, where he met my mother. She was in the army too as an NCO. As was the case for many, they fell in love, she became pregnant by him. When I was born and he saw and held me, he apparently admitted that he was married back in Canada, wanted to take me back with him, but my mother gave him his marching orders, and the rest as is said, is history.

Because of illegitimacy on his mother’s side in a previous generation it turned out that David’s aunt was actually his granny and his grandparents were in fact his great-grandparents… (I said it was complicated!) This is why Ernest is so much older than one would have expected. As well as I Wish There Was No Prisons/The Oakum Picking Song Ernest had other songs one of which is a mystery:

Battle for Chitral Fort

“...since I wrote to you (and received your response) I have spent a lot of time trying to recall all of the songs that Ernest James (my great-grandfather) used to sing, and I, as a child sang along with him, or at least tried. Thus far I haven't been terribly successful.
One phrase from a song, or perhaps it was a poem, or piece of prose, has returned. The words which came back to me were "And we all went up to Chitral (pronounced ChittEral) for to hear the cannons roar!"
Then later came additional words from the same piece, something like: "and while the lads were doing their stuff, Lord Chinnery was in dock!"
“Chitral is on the north-west frontier of India, in the mountains. Ernie had been (as he often said) "In India" though apparently not in the Indian Army as some of the family had believed, but with British forces.
He regularly spoke about enlisting under false papers, about the Boer War, about being in Ireland during
 the 'Risings',and before being invalided out of the army, fighting in France in WW1. Ypres, Verdun and other names of battles and places were mentioned in relation to where he had supposedly been fighting.
Whether the reason for his 'being unfit for service' is related to a gassing and related breathing difficulties he later suffered, or the trench-foot which he had graphically described Ernie was an inveterate 'story-teller' and Oh how I wish I had listened more carefully when I was a toddler and as I grew up. I daresay there are many, like me, who wish the same!

Part of one tall tale which I do remember related to when he was serving in India, the British troops being on one side of a substantial river, and the 'enemy' on the other.
Apparently, there was plenty of fruit growing on the opposite side of the watercourse, and none on theirs. Thus, Ernie and a mate swam across under the cover of darkness, avoiding the sentries in the enemy camp, managed to collect a couple of sackfuls of fruit and make their way back without discovery. Whether this was true, or even had any grain of veracity in it remains a mystery!

Like David I have been unable to trace the Chitral song. Chitral was an important campaign in the Afghan Wars (1895) and much has been written about it but no-one seems to know the song/poem. (Do you?)

So Ernest James Rogers seems to have been pretty much a contemporary of George Spicer living in much the same area (north-east Kent) and sharing at least one song—I Wish There Was No Prisons. George admitted to not remembering where he learned the song and regretted that he had never got the rest of it. Wouldn’t it be great if his source was Ernest!

“It would certainly be interesting to see if the use of any of Ernie's snatches of songs /prose /poetry might jog any memories and elicit any kind of response from anyone else out there in the wilderness, wouldn't it?
I'd be happy for you to mention names, and if any responses came back, to provide them with my email address if requested.”

So if anyone out there knows any more about the Chitral song, about Ernest James Rogers or anything else relevant please get in touch and I’ll pass it on to David.

 Pete Castle web site:  click here 

         Pete on You Tube: click here