16 September 2018

10 ALBUMS - which formed my musical self

Without these 10 albums I would not be me.

There was a thing happening on Facebook recently where musicans were invited to post 10 influential albums over 10 days. These were mine:

I'll write a bit more here and add some You Tube links as well: 

1 Martin Carthy: Sweet Wivelsfield

Here is my first one and it will probably come as no surprise. When I first started seriously going to folk clubs and looking for gigs there were always queues of other young men of a similar age and also armed with guitars also looking for gigs... and we were all influenced by Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Bert Jansch etc This album epitomises Martin for me. 
Listen here: Shepherd O Shepherd 
I have sung the song for years but I learned it from a book, not from Martin. 

2 The Shadows: Apache 1960

If it hadn't been for The Shadows I would never have wanted to play the guitar and my whole life would have been very different. In fact I would be a very different person. This isn't an album in fact. My best and most influential Shadows records were ex-Juke Box 45s I bought from somewhere (the market?) Kon Tiki, FBI, Man of Mystery but, above all Apache which came out in 1960. I had my first guitar a couple of years later and learned to play by playing Shadows tunes with a friend.
Here is an unusual video of The Shadows playing Apache.  It's not your usual neat, clean image – and no dance! Apache

3 The Valiant Sailor: Songs and Ballads of Nelson's Navy sung by Frankie Armstrong, Roy Harris, A.L.Lloyd and Martyn Wyndham-Read. 1973.

This is one of the most obviously influential of my choices. It's one of the many albums A.L.Lloyd put together for Topic. Bert Lloyd himself was a huge influence for me through his writing, singing, collecting, arranging... I reckon at least 25% of the songs in my repertoire must owe something to him in some way. And Roy Harris, who is at his prime here, was both my mentor and one of my best friends. I learned Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy from this LP and recorded it on my first album in 1978... and I still sing it quite often. 
Two tracks to listen to: 


4 Bob Dylan, Desire 1976

I first heard Bob Dylan in about 1963. Someone brought one of his first LPs to school and I thought it was horrible! It was as foreign to me then as Mongolian throat singing would have been. But I soon came to appreciate him and could have chosen several of his albums here. I think Desire is probably my favourite, it's one I keep going back to to listen to for pleasure. They are good songs, many co-written with Jacques Levy, and Scarlet Rivera's fiddle and Emmylou Harris' vocals add an extra bit of class. I bought my copy when Luton Library were selling off their vinyl - a bargain!

 5 Salif Keita, Soro 1987

This wasn't the first African LP I bought but it was instantly a favourite. He has an amazing voice. It was recorded in Paris so I suppose it's Afro/French folk rock! Later albums became more mainstream. Salif Keita is a prince of the Mandinka tribe from Mali. He was ostracised by his father, who would not accept his son becoming a musician! Years ago I saw a long documentary about his life in which he spoke at length about his musical ideas, tradition, fame etc. We see eye to eye on a lot of things and as he is more or less my age he would be one of the people I'd include in my dream super-group if ever I could do my version of the 'Travelling Wilburys!' 

6 Goran Bregovic: Songbook: 2000. 

More world music. I discovered Bregovic through his film music and that is what this album is – a selection of songs from films like La Reine Margot, Time of the Gypsies and Underground amongst others. The songs are mostly based on trad music from the Balkans (he's from Sarajevo) and are performed by some top class folk musicians (plus people like Iggy Pop and Johnny Depp!) Underground is one of my favourite films – surreal, comic, sad.... based on the breakup of Yugoslavia – and Ederlezei, from Time of the Gypsies, was very much the inspiration for my arrangement of Buckworth May Song on my CD Mearcstapa. I was trying to marry a Balkan brass band with an English May song, and it worked!
Kalashnikov from the film Underground 

7: Ewan MacColl etc, The Ballad of John Axon 1958. 

Not the best of the Radio Ballads – the music is too American – but it was the first, so that can be forgiven. The story of John Axon has local relevance for me and I wrote a version of it in my Derbyshire Folk Tales book. Axon worked on the High Peak Railway between Stockport and Buxton and prevented a major rail disaster at Whaley Bridge just a few years before the Ballad was written. He lost his life in the process.
The Radio Ballads had a huge influence on work I've done for several major projects where I've interviewed people, taken their words and stories and made them into songs or, in the case of the Mountsorrel Community Play – a whole script! I love the process.

 8  The Incredible String Band: Liquid Acrobat As Regards the Air 1971. 

(You can't get much more different to Ewan MacColl!) The first folk club I went to was at college (Bretton Hall). When we left Sue and I went to live near Holbeach, Lincs. We started going to clubs around there and formed a trio playing mainly our own songs which were heavily influenced by ISB. As I got more and more interested in traditional music they were pushed out of my repertoire. By the time I went pro in 1978 I was doing almost entirely trad songs, but I still enjoy listening to ISB. On this album Darling Belle reminds me of work done by Bill Caddick, Tim Laycock and Pete Bond a few years later - Sunny Memories, A Duck On His Head etc

 9 The Rock Machine Turns You On 

(sampler) 1968 Bob Dylan, Moby Grape, Spirit, United States of America, Zombies, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Leonard Cohen, Blood Sweat & Tears, Simon & Garfunkel, Taj Mahal, Electric Flag, Roy Harper, Tim Rose, Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera. This was probably the first album Sue and I bought together after we moved to Holbeach. I knew a few of the artists but others were a very pleasant surprise. It's a great mix of folk, blues and rock. This track was originally done by the great Howling Wolf and has a 'guest appearance' by LBJ!)

10 Blue Dor by Popeluc. (1995) 

Sue insisted that I include this one even though I was the 'Pe' in Popeluc. It is here to represent the huge learning experience it was playing with and to the people of Maramures in Romania. It taught me a lot about what a living folk culture is and how different it is to a British folk club! Playing in front of an audience made up of folklore experts, Gypsy musicians and local villagers for the first time was a slightly intimidating experience but after a few minutes they stopped listening intently and returned to eating, drinking, dancing and joining in so we knew we were doing it right. It felt a great compliment when I was grabbed by the Gypsy musicians and made to sit with them rather than returning to the top table because “You're a musician”. Although the group doesn't exist any more I'm very proud of the album.
There is nothing from this album on YouTube so here is a special video. Horea miresii is a song sung to the bride at Maramures weddings. This was performed by local village women at a party. It always brings me out in goose bumps! And I wasn't even in the country at the time of the recording so I don't feel it is cheating too much to include it here!) 


27 July 2018


The NHS: been and gone in a lifetime?

Programme cover

Back in the early 1980s, when we lived in Luton, I was doing research on Bedfordshire folk songs and I came across something called 'A Christmas Merrymaking in the Oldenew Times' written in 1888 by a Mr H.O.Williams for the Parish Church Yuletide Festivities. It was described as a ‘masque’ and was a cross between a pantomime and a mummers play. Some of the jokes were a bit obscure—to do with the politics of the times—but others translated very well into the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s. I presented it as a shadow puppet play several times and, a few years later, did a radio version for Chiltern Radio with local folk luminaries like Barry Goodman, Graham Meek and Ray Aspden playing some of the roles. There were 5 or 6 songs included in the script. I don’t know what the original music was like but I found that they fitted well known folk tunes beautifully.
Most of the songs don’t work outside the play but this one will stand alone and I’ve been singing it quite regularly in recent years. It is Williams’ words set to the trad tune of A Sailor’s Life (as made famous by Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention    Listen here
For my version of A Doctor's Life   Click here

Oh, a gruesome life is the doctor’s life
As he calls on his patients ill,
He chops at the great and he chips at the small,
And he puts it all down on the bill!

Oh! Ho! For the lancet, the potion, the leach,
Rare tools in a master hand,
And so long as they use them to cure our ills
Sing cheers for the Doctor band!

With his gold headed cane and his tall top hat
And his coat tails all a-dangling around
He doles out the medicine that keeps folks ill
And he carves at the limbs that are sound.

Oh! What does he dream of, the doctor glum,
As he dozes at night in his bed?
He dreams of the fevers, the fits and the plagues
That are bringing him his daily bread.

The greedy doctor has a vested interest in keeping his patients ill and getting paid!

“You may not be able to read a doctor's handwriting and prescription, but you'll notice his bills are neatly typewritten.”  (Earl Wilson, U.S. journalist)

Other quotes:
“Though the doctors treated him, let his blood, and gave him medications to drink, he nevertheless recovered.”  (Tolstoy, War & Peace)

“Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing.” (Voltaire)

Historically doctors were not highly thought of. They were called quacks, sawbones and such like and were usually no more qualified than the barbers who they succeeded. If you called in a doctor you were either very rich or very desperate. You were more likely to healed by the wise woman or the local witch whose remedies were based on centuries of trial and error.
Now though, things have changed. The National Health Service is one of our best-loved institutions, as shown by its portrayal in the Olympic Games opening ceremony in 2012 but it seems under threat at the moment.

English newspapers and all the other media have been full of material about the National Health Service recently. (When it isn’t Brexit!) There are also hundreds of campaigns to save local health facilities—hospitals, care homes, other services… and it has all coincided with the 70th anniversary of the start of the NHS on 5th July 1948.
For those of you who might be reading this outside the UK (or those who are too young to remember much about it and just take it for granted) the NHS was one of the most momentous things implemented by the post war Labour Government. Before that, as in most other countries, if you needed medical treatment you would have had to pay the doctor or the hospital in the same way that you paid the plumber or the car mechanic. If you couldn’t afford it you couldn’t have it.
From that date on though, everyone was entitled to free medical care paid for out of taxes.
It was a great idea and it was, for a while, the envy of the world… and it would have remained so if later governments had given it the resources it needed. Most people I know would willingly pay a few pence more on Income Tax in return for a good NHS.

Right from the start dentists and opticians were not fully included which was a mistake and hospital doctors, particularly the most highly qualified specialists, were allowed to continue private practice at the same time as working for the NHS—big mistakes! In fact the whole idea was vigorously opposed by many in the medical profession right from the start!
When money got tight the Blair government paid for hospitals by PFI which gave the NHS debts which will go on for ever and to make ends meet more and more aspects of the service are being sold off or farmed out; bought up by (largely) American firms and the whole NHS idea is creaking at the joints—like most 70 year olds!

Pete and his dad, June 1947

It has never occurred to me to pay for a doctor. I have always assumed that I will get what I need and, luckily, I haven’t needed anything very complicated so I have. That is apart from in my first few months:

I was born 17 months before the NHS began operating and my birth cost my parents a fortune!  Many years ago, when I started doing family history research, I asked my parents to write their life stories. When it got to 1947 Dad wrote:
‘Our first son Peter Richard was born in Ashford HospitalWe have receipts showing we paid for 12 days in hospital at £5.5.0 per week =  £8.19.0, and to Dr Bentley of North Street: £4.4.0 for professional attendance.’
So Dad remembered my birth as a shopping list of prices! A total of £13.3.0 which does not sound a huge amount but the average weekly wage at the time was only about £5.
I don’t know how they scraped together nearly 3 weeks wages to pay for that amount of time in hospital or why it was thought necessary. I wonder whether Dad’s parents contributed because Mum and Dad were living with them at the time.

That had puzzled me over the years—particularly the ‘why’  - and I had not been able to come to a conclusion until I happened to see part of a programme in the BBC series Midwives. I don’t like the series at all—it strikes me as very smug and coy and I don’t like the religiosity of it all, (a horrible mixture of sex, religion and hypocrisy!) but the bit I saw was when a woman who was about to give birth was trying to ensure that no-one else was in the house because she would have been embarrassed about the noise and the mess involved if there had been. It struck me that knowing my parents, and particularly my grandparents, that would have been the reason Mum went away to a neutral place. (A few months after my birth she and I went stay with her parents rather than stay with the Castles and I bet that was for similar reasons…)

So, when I was born there was no National Health Service to look after me. I wonder if there will still be one when I need it at the end of my life? 

For more see my new web site https://petecastle.co.uk 

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.