17 January 2019


Songs we should all know.

When I started going to folk clubs in the late 60s there were certain songs which you could guarantee to hear almost every time—so often that, although they might have been decent songs, they became boring. The Wild Rover became notorious and eventually everyone stopped singing it; Will You Go Lassie Go lingered on much longer, and still does to a certain extent especially as a farewell song at the end of the evening; Step It Out Mary, The Leaving of Liverpool, Fathom the Bowl, Jones’s Ale were all sung to death. I’m sure you can add others.

Those of us looking for more ‘serious’ traditional songs took as our ‘Bible’ the famous Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and it often became a competition to see who could sing their particular choice of song learned from that before someone else did. It is a great collection of songs and I still sing many of them. It’s been redone in the last few years with different versions but I don’t think the ‘new’ ones have the immediacy and attractiveness of many of the others even if they are more ‘authentic’ in many ways.

So the songs from that book and Marrowbones became the core repertoire of several generations of folk club performers. They were the songs you were expected to know—not necessarily well enough to perform them but to be aware of.

(I always have trouble with that… “do you know a song called….?” Yes. Will you sing it? Well I don’t know it well enough to sing it, I just know of it.  We need another word to differentiate know and know.)

A while ago a friend gave me a second hand book as a present. It’s English Folk-Song and Dance by Iolo A. Williams published in 1935 in the English Heritage Series by Longmans. The editors were Viscount Lee of Fareham and Sir John Squire, who also wrote the introduction. Iolo Williams is described as ‘Sometime Honorary Secretary of the Folk-Song Society’. They are hardly what you could call true ‘folk’ or even ‘folkies’!

Williams (1890-1962) was an author, journalist and Liberal Party politician. His books include a couple of volumes of his own poetry and several books about poetry and then some non-fiction books about diverse subjects like flowers, book collecting, English water-colours and the firm of Cadbury. 
From the intro to this book I learn that he did some song collecting particularly in Sussex and Surrey. He describes folk music as being the music of the ‘English peasantry’ (although true peasants haven’t existed in England since the Middle Ages.) He lists these as being ‘agricultural labourers, cowmen, shepherds, woodmen, road menders and other such rural wage earners, but also the class just above these in the social scale, the small farmers and other country tradesmen.’ These are the people he thought were a source of songs but not the ones he was writing his book for, they were obviously much more middle class. He lived in that early 20th century class-ridden world of touched forelocks, bicycling vicars, country Squires etc which we know from Agatha Christie novels and the like.
Folk dance '30s style. Village Green or Oxford College?

Part of the book is dedicated to folk dance and it is very much the kind of dance the EFDSS folk dance clubs did—very polite, very ‘proper’. There is also some Morris largely taken from the ideas of Cecil Sharp.

The one thing which struck me most of all when I read the book was how familiar all the songs he mentions are. And how, if you know them all, you have a pretty thorough grounding in the English folk song tradition. (The missing bit would be the more modern industrial songs which were ignored until the 1960s.)

A selection, picked at random, includes: 

The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea; The Trees They Do Grow High; Scarborough Fair; Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor; The Keeper; Raggle Taggle Gypsies; The Loss of the Ramilles; Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles); Jolly Fellows That Follow the Plough; The Farmer’s Boy; The Seeds of Love; Down in Yon Forest; the 12 Days of Christmas; and many more…

Most of those have been in my repertoire at one time or another, some of them still are,  and I could sing a verse or two of most of them—or mumble through the tune at the very least. I know them in the second sense: know of them, am aware of them. Here are links to my version of two of them:

How many of them are sung very often in our folk clubs/festivals today though? There seems to have been a move away from true traditional songs towards new songs or songs written in a mock traditional form. There’s nothing wrong with that but it should be based on a sound knowledge of the tradition. The fact that open mic nights have taken over from folk clubs for many younger people hasn’t helped. Many people do not know what a folk song is.  A while ago someone asked me about the songs I’d performed at a charity gig—”Did you write them?” she asked. “No, they’re folk songs, they’re traditional” I replied. “Yes, but who wrote them?”

Many years ago—probably in the 1980s—I remember reading an opinion that the reason why so many of the really good pop groups of the day were Scots or Irish as opposed to English (they were talking about U2, the Waterboys and so on) was because they had grown up with a background in their own folk music, had probably even played at sessions in the local pubs, whereas English pop groups only knew English/American pop music and were just rehashing what had come before.
Two of Pete's folk tales books

Williams’ other ‘big thing’, and something which I wholeheartedly agree with him on, is that many ‘local songs’ are actually far more widespread. Many, if not most, songs are found all over the country and calling a particular song ‘a Sussex folk song, or a ‘Derbyshire folk song’ is false. It is just that a version was found and popularised in that county. Songs don’t stop being sung just because you’ve crossed the county boundary. A few songs, probably due to the subject matter, are limited to a region (although not necessarily a county) but many spread over at least a quarter of the country and some are found everywhere—with versions in other countries even.

Labelling a song (or folktale) in this way is a very good marketing tool though, as the early collectors like Sharp found, and the tradition has been continued with The History Press’ series of folk tales books and I’ve been as guilty of it as anyone else!
Other links:

Please feel free to leave a comment.

18 November 2018


10 of my favourite tracks from Europe:

A few months ago I did a Blog Post about 10 records which had influenced me as a musician. They were a mixture of all kinds of genres from my teenage forays into pop and blues through folk revivalists and a sprinkling of what could be called ’World Music’.  It was a very popular post with a lot of readers and some good comments. It inspired me to follow it up with this one. FIND IT HERE

Although most of what l actually perform myself is traditional English folk songs I don’t listen to a lot of that on recordings—I prefer it live. But I do listen to a lot of folk music from other parts of the world, particularly from Europe. I find much of it very exciting and it has influenced my playing.

So this is a selection of some favourite recordings from Europe—some are tracks I’ve known for decades, others are recent discoveries.



from the album Live at Olympia.

This is one of my favourite albums of all time. It must have been an amazing concert. Through most of the 1980s I ran a local radio folk programme (Chiltern Radio from Dunstable) and whenever I played a track by Stivell I had requests for more. He bridged the gap between a folk singer and a pop star. At that time there was a huge upsurge in Breton identity—moves for independence and language teaching, in much the same way as happened in Scotland and even Cornwall! I love the way the bombards, the Breton national instrument, are greeted with a huge cheer. It still makes me come out in goose pimples. Unfortunately the movement seems to have faded away and I read recently that the Breton language is in danger of dying out. LISTEN HERE

 KARIKAS EGYUTTES Hová mész, hová mész

Back in the early 1990s my daughter Lucy made several trips to Hungary and Romania to research traditional music for her university degrees. This eventually led to our Anglo-Romanian band Popeluc. This album by Karikas was one she brought back from her travels. I don't think Karikas were known outside of Hungary but I really rated them highly. Although they are Hungarian and Popeluc’s music was Romanian it all comes from Transylvania and is very similar. The Hungarian folklorist Karoly Kos said words to the effect of: 'In Transylvania the Hungarians, the Romanians and the Gypsies all play the same music, but they each play it with their own particular accent.’ (Pre WW2 he could have added the Jews but they are almost non-existent in the area now.) LISTEN HERE

HEIEMO OG NYKKJEN: Kirsten Braten Berg

This is an ancient Norwegian ballad. It was on a 4CD World Music sampler set which Sue and I bought ourselves for Christmas. We played it on Christmas Day and I liked this track so much I listened to it a couple more times. In the night I dreamed words to it and scribbled them down. Much to my surprise they still made sense in the morning! It became The Lads They’d Been a-Drinking which I recorded on my False Waters CD in 1995. I had no idea what the Norwegian song was about but my subconscious’ ‘translation’ was not too far from it—at least in mood. It’s about a young girl abducted by an evil spirit.  Even more oddly, a couple of years later events almost identical to the plot of my song were in the news and people assumed I’d written the song about them! LISTEN HERE


From Album Lost Soul

I bought this album on the strength of a couple of tracks played on Radio 3’s Late Junction and it instantly became a favourite. Spaccanopoli started life as a community group in Naples—particularly a band for parades and festivals. Much of their music shows this community input. There are influences from all over the Mediterranean region—Italy, Spain, N.Africa, the Middle East…  Their other claim to fame is that they and their music featured regularly in the TV series The Sopranos, which I have never seen! LISTEN HERE


A more recent find: I came across this band by accident when I was doing some research into Klezmer music. As their name suggests they play a unique fusion of Gypsy, Klezmer and Jazz. I very often don’t like fusions—they aren’t one thing or another—but I do like this band. Their singer seems to have it all – technical ability, soul and the ability to put over a song. Djelem Djelem is one of the standards of the Gypsy/Rom repertoire and has also been done by Goran Bregovic (see below). It tells of the trials and tribulations of an oppressed people and calls for them to stand up and be proud. LISTEN HERE

LEILIA: Piedras Contra Tanques (Stones Against Tanks) 

LEILIA are a 6 piece female group from Galicia in NW Spain. They describe their music as ‘tambourine music’ and they do use tambourines  alot but on their albums they have some really good backing musicians using clarinets, pipes, accordion, guitars etc. Galicia is the tip of Spain which pokes out into the Atlantic (Finisterre and St James of Compostella etc) and it has always had many maritime links with the ‘Celtic’ fringes of Britain. This shows in the music. They are a recent discovery of mine and I love their sound. They started by researching the almost forgotten traditional music of their region but, I think, much of their work is now reworkings or new compositions in the traditional style. LISTEN HERE

KAYAH & BREGOVIC:  Jesli Bog Istnieje

 Goran Bregovic is ‘The Man from Sarajevo’ - born in what was then Yugoslavia but playing music from all across the Balkans and beyond he is a World Music superstar and has appeared at WOMAD several times. I included him in my previous Post. For this CD he has teamed up with Polish superstar Kayah. Of the 10 tracks on the album I have 8 of them on other Bregovic albums but they are very different arrangements and they come over as fresh and new. I can’t say which arrangement I prefer. The lyrics are credited to Kayah and I am not sure whether she has written entirely new words to the tunes or has translated them. LISTEN HERE

Crni Voz by Boban Markovic Orkestrar featuring Felix Lajko

I don’t know where I got this sampler from the Hungarian record label Fono from, but I’m glad it came my way. There is hardly a dud track amongst the 15 very varied pieces of traditional music from Hungary and its neighbours. This is the opening track. Boban Markovic is a superstar in Eastern Europe and Felix Lajko, who is from a younger generation, is also huge. I described this piece as being like a very ’high’ Jimmy Hendrix getting hold of a fiddle and doing his thing. The You Tube video here is a whole performance (46 minutes) The track I would pick out starts at about 13 minutes in.  LISTEN HERE




FC come from the Constanta region of Romania which is a very different place to Maramures in the mountains of northern Romania which I have visited and played the music of with Popeluc. The brass band tradition was introduced to the area by the Ottomans who ruled the area for centuries. FC boast of being the ’fastest band in the world’ which is not something I’d usually approve of but it works for them. I had the pleasure of working with them at a concert in Tenterden, kent some years ago and they know how to work an audience (and get every penny they can out of them! Their encore went on for ages while a man with a hat went round collecting paper money from everyone!) A friend who plays brass said that they must be really highly qualified,  musicians from top academies because ‘they do things you can’t do on brass instruments’… They’re not, they are self taught from a tiny village with no mod cons and most have probably never even been to school! (This is not my favourite track but I can’t find that!)


Still from the Balkans:
I had this track on a sampler LP back in the 1980s. I found it fascinating, very different to anything I’d heard before. I particularly liked the rather ‘primitive’ accompaniment. Over the years we have become much more accustomed to Bulgarian music. LISTEN HERE

And I've got all this way without mentioning Brexit! Whoops!

To finish off I thought I should include a bit of Popeluc who I've mentioned a couple of times: LISTEN TO POPELUC
For my web site with links to You Tube, other Blog posts, and to buy books and CDs, and everything else you need to know go to: https://petecastle.co.uk