8 June 2019

HERE BE DRAGONS!


DRAGON, DRAKE, FIREDRAKE, WYVERN,
SERPENT, WORM, WURM, WYRM, LINDWORM


Dragons, or dragon-like creatures, can be found in almost every mythology in the world. They have been with us since time began. No-one knows where the original idea came from or what inspired it although there are many theories which range from an inherited, species-wide genetic fear of snakes, to the discovery of dinosaur bones by our early ancestors, although that idea was probably invented by the romantics of the Enlightenment. No one of these ideas alone can be wholly accountable though, we just know that human imagination and fears have created a monster which has lived with us since the beginning of time, was a warning on the edge of ancient maps, and in a slick, aero-dynamic form is growing ever more popular in today’s world of TV box sets and computer games.


For the sake of this article I’d like to split the world of dragons into two: Eastern dragons—Chinese, Japanese, Korean—have probably influenced our thinking a little but only in more recent centuries and largely through their depiction on pottery and in prints. The influence was probably felt more by artists and poets, and the aristocracy , rather than by the ‘people’. 

The Western dragons are the ones which most concern us. They have become an integral part of our folklore and modern fiction and even, in a way, of our religions and national identities.






St George
the most famous dragon slayer?

We all know what a dragon is like and what it does. In a way there is only one dragon story and it can be found in the Norse sagas, in Beowulf, in the legend of St George, and as Smaug in the Hobbit.
Briefly the standard dragon story goes: the dragon, which has been slumbering in the corners of the memory, suddenly bursts out of the fringes of the world, perhaps because he has been disturbed by a trespasser who might have stolen a jewel from his hoard, and it lays waste to the land by flying around, eating cattle, sheep and young maidens, and by breathing fire. When the country is on its knees and everything else has been tried a hero appears and manages to subdue or kill it.
There are numerous versions and I included a little known one set in Chesterfield in my book of Derbyshire Folk Tales (I suspect there are others in many of the other books in the series):

“...a dragon flew down from the north laying waste all the countryside in its path. A brave priest attempted to stop the dragon by climbing to the top of Winlatter Rock which is on the moors near Chesterfield, and spreading his arms in the form of a cross. The dragon could not pass this holy sign so it summoned up great winds and storms to lash the holy man and blow him from the rock. But the priest refused to move. He stood there so long and so firmly that his feet sank into the rock and left an impression there which can still be seen to this day.
 Years later the dragon, perhaps guessing that the priest was dead, came back and once more started spreading destruction around the area.
Three brothers took a huge iron bar to the blacksmith and asked him to forge it into a sword…. When they reached the summit of the rock one brother rested the sword in the priest's footprint while another ran back to Chesterfield to call out all the local men to come with their swords to help. The third brother went to the church to keep lookout and to ring the bell to sound the warning when the dragon appeared.
After a few hours the dragon arrived, flying through the evening sky like a fiery airship, destroying buildings, woods and crops as it passed. It blew a huge plume of flame towards the gigantic sword which glowed red hot like a beacon. The men of Chesterfield who were gathered round the rock held up their swords like a forest of crosses and they reflected the light back at the dragon. The dragon turned tail and sought out darkness and safety down in the depths of the Blue John Mines near Castleton where he remains to this day, waiting until it is safe to attack Chesterfield again.

Perseus (looking remarkably like St George)
rescuing Andromeda
The depiction of a dragon as being like a lizard with wings is a comparatively recent idea. It was developed in the Middle Ages when it was part of the whole idea of chivalry, good Christian Knights, King Arthur, the Round Table etc. It was influenced by the old British/Welsh legends of the Mabinogion and earlier, particularly the story about the two competing red and white dragons imprisoned under Vortigern’s castle in North Wales.
In earlier times dragons were more associated with dwelling in water rather than in flying through the air. Even the dragon which St George famously slew came up from the depths of a lake to devour the young maidens who were sacrificed to it. (This is, of course, a retelling of the earlier Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda right.)
Further back the idea of the monster from the depths is found in the Old Testament of the Bible with the image of Leviathan which draws on Jewish and other Middle Eastern religions. 


In many of the North European and Scandinavian mythologies the world was created from the bones of an enormous sea monster, the different parts of its body becoming the islands and seas. In a simplified form it has come down to us as the well known folk tale ‘Assipattle and the Muckle Mester Stoor Worm’ in which a very unheroic hero (Assipattle is a nickname for someone who likes to laze in the ashes by the fire rather than go out and do a hard days work) kills the monster by sailing into its mouth, down to its stomach and then setting fire to its liver! In its agony the stoorworm vomits him out again.

Worm, also spelled wurm or wyrm, is, of course the old Germanic and hence English word for a dragon. In many ways it is a far better description of the creature in its earliest form and it is a word which is preserved in many British landscape names, often places which have circular ditches preserved like the Worm Hill near Buxton or another near Washington, Tyne and Wear which is just down the road from the setting of the famous Lambton Worm tale. (Wormwood Scrubs was a place famous for the number of snakes found there!)




Pete's Dragon from TheMain Street Electrical Parade
at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World.
Another name for a dragon is drake or dracu which harks back to the ancient Greek source ‘drakon’ and from that we get the famous name Dracula. The real Vlad Dracula, far from being a literary vampire, was a Transylvanian warrior and hero who, like his British counterpart—King Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon, had a dragon as a symbol.
Why are we still so keen on dragons then? Why do we enjoy them, even love them – particularly the friendly ones like Pete’s Dragon? I think that, if we imagined them into being to explain various freaks of weather or geological events then we now see them as the ultimate Super-Villain. But, a Super-Villain which is defeatable as long as the right Super-Hero comes along... and who knows, perhaps we could be that Super-Hero. If Assipattle can do it then so can we!




Most of the dragon tales mentioned above, along with several others, can be found in my book 'Where Dragons Soar and other animal folk tales of the British Isles' along with stories of real cats, dogs, cows, wolves and so on.

This post is adapted from one I wrote for The History Press Blog The History Press 

Pete Castle has been a professional folk singer and storyteller for over 40 years. He has worked all over the UK and occasionally abroad. He has a range of books and CDs available from his web site.

22 March 2019

TURPIN WAS A HERO


With my hero, Turpin was a hero, He was a valious Turpin-O.



Everyone knows of Dick Turpin. If you mention ‘highwaymen’ he is the one who comes to mind. There are several traditional songs about him and it seems that just about every pub in the country claims to have been visited by him! 
His most famous exploit is, of course, the ride from London to York on Black Bess. 200 miles in one day to escape from the law.
But, in reality Turpin was not a ‘Gentleman of the Road’, not the Hollywood picture of a gallant, polite, brave robber. Definitely not a Robin Hood figure. And, if anyone rode from London to York it wasn’t him!

Dick Turpin was a thug: a house breaker, horse thief and killer. He started life as a butcher and expanded this to include rustling, poaching and deer killing. As a member of the notorious ‘Essex Gang’ he became feared around the Essex/East London area for their violent, horrible crimes:
“On Saturday night last, about seven o'clock, five rogues entered the house of the Widow Shelley at Loughton in Essex, having pistols &c. and threatened to murder the old lady, if she would not tell them where her money lay, which she obstinately refusing for some time, they threatened to lay her across the fire, if she did not instantly tell them, which she would not do. But her son being in the room, and threatened to be murdered, cried out, he would tell them, if they would not murder his mother, and did, whereupon they went upstairs, and took near £100, a silver tankard, and other plate, and all manner of household goods. They afterwards went into the cellar and drank several bottles of ale and wine, and broiled some meat, ate the relicts of a fillet of veal &c. While they were doing this, two of their gang went to Mr Turkles, a farmer's, who rents one end of the widow's house, and robbed him of above £20 and then they all went off, taking two of the farmer's horses, to carry off their luggage, the horses were found on Sunday the following morning in Old Street, and stayed about three hours in the house.”
[from Read’s Weekly Journal Feb 1735]


Eventually the rest of the gang were captured and hanged at Tyburn but Turpin escaped and by 1837 had changed tack to highway robbery in the area around Epping Forest. When the law came too close Turpin moved north to York and changed his name to John Palmer. As the song says he was eventually brought to trial and hanged for the shooting of a game-cock.

Turpin’s fame is due mainly to the author William Harrison Ainsworth who featured him in his novel Rookwood. It is there that the ride to York and Black Bess are introduced and the death of the gallant horse at the end of the journey tugged at enough heart-strings to make the story a success and Turpin a hero.

LISTEN HERE TO PETE'S 1979 RECORDING OF TURPIN HERO  TURPIN HERO ON YOU TUBE


So where did Ainsworth get the idea of the famous ride? Possibly from a highwayman who lived a century before Turpin—Swift Nick Nevison. I told the story of Swift Nick in my book of Nottinghamshire Folk Tales. Here is an abridged version:
John, or William (or even, perhaps, James) Nevison, he was known by all those names, might have been born near Pontefract in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and if he wasn’t it could have been at Wortley near Sheffield. It must have been in or around the year 1639. His father was either a wool merchant or the steward of Wortley Hall. Either way he was in a stable job and the young Nevison had a comfortable upbringing. Young Nevison was always up to mischief and often in trouble and when he was about 13 years old the law was after him for something fairly serious, it might have been stealing from his father but we’re not sure. Rather than face the music, he ran away to London where he worked as a brewer’s clerk for a few years before taking a ship to Holland where he became a soldier with the Grand Old Duke of  York.

When the wars were over Nevison returned to England and nursed his ailing father and when the old man died he put his soldiering skills to use as a Gentleman of the Road, a highwayman. He quickly gained a reputation as a polite and gallant robber who did no physical harm to his victims. He was also handsome and charming to the ladies, the very model of Hollywood’s idea of a highwayman as played by Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, although I’m not sure that either of them ever  played a highwayman….

Nevison [used as] his main base the Talbot Inn in Newark from where he and his gang  made it unsafe to travel along the Great North  Road anywhere between York and Huntingdon. For a while he was mistaken for his own ghost!
And now we come to the famous deed, the ride from Kent to York. Why Nevison was in Kent I don’t know, perhaps things had become too hot for him further north, or perhaps he was just after rich pickings in a new landscape, but he apparently robbed a traveller at Gad’s Hill, near Rochester and, fearing that he’d been recognised, decided on an amazing plan to give himself an alibi. He caught a ferry across the Thames and then rode to Chelmsford where he rested for a while. The he rode on to Cambridge and to Huntingdon where he joined the Great North Road. Stopping regularly for short breaks to rest his horse he eventually reached York at sunset. He had travelled 200 miles in one day...

On finally reaching York Nevison stabled his horse, washed, changed his clothes, and then made his way to the bowling green where he knew the mayor and other important people would be gathered. He made sure he was noticed and spoke to the mayor as he placed a bet on the outcome of the game.
Nevison had obviously been correct when he feared that he had been recognised because he was soon arrested for the Gad’s Hill hold up but he was able to call on the Lord Mayor of York to give him an alibi—if he had been placing bets and having a conversation with the mayor in York at 8pm how could he have possibly been in Kent that morning? He was found not guilty although the story of how he had tricked the system soon spread and Nevison became a hero. Even King Charles admired his deeds and it was he who gave Nevison his nickname ‘Swift Nick’. . .
FOR INFO ABOUT NOTTINGHAMSHIRE FOLK TALES, OR TO BUY THE BOOK  

The idea of a lone rider on a brave horse performing a famous journey seems to be made for folklore and if there isn’t such a story you invent one! In the USA the same motif has been attached to Paul Revere….

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

[Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]

The story of Paul Revere’s Ride, which took place in the Revolutionary War (American War of Independence), is that he rode from Boston to Lexington and Concord to warn the revolutionary leaders that the British army was on their way to arrest them. In fact he was not a lone rider but one of a team and Revere himself never reached Concord—he was captured at Lexington. But why let facts get in the way of a good story!

OTHER LINKS
PETE'S WEB SITE
PETE'S YOU TUBE CHANNEL


7 February 2019

HAUNTED MINES


Ghostly lead miners and underground battles—lead mining in Derbyshire.


T'owd man, carving of a lead miner
One of the most iconic images of Derbyshire is the lead miner. Lead has been mined in the county since Roman times, and probably before. The lead miner is a common character in the folklore of the county—particularly in stories like The Little Red Hairy Man. (see my book of Derbyshire Folk Tales)
 In early times lead, like most other minerals—coal, tin, gold (Once a miner, forty-niner and his daughter Clementine...) was mined by one man who dug his little hole and, if he was lucky, found enough ore to keep himself and his family. In Britain though, from the 1700s on, it became more of a proper industry with mine owners who employed men and much larger mines which eventually used a network of canals and railways to move their product.


For Daniel Defoe’s description of his meeting with a Derbyshire lead miner see my YouTube video for the song 6 Jolly Miners also mentioned below: Pete sings 6 Jolly Miners





High Tor, Matlock

If you have seen the scars of lead mining which still mark the hills all around Derbyshire you’ll have noticed that they follow straight lines. The lead ore was found in seams or rakes which were often invisible on the surface so the miners would dig down in a suitable place and then follow the lead under the ground—without really knowing where they were going! In some places—High Tor in Matlock is a good example—the lead was near the surface so instead of holes they dug out great ‘canyons’. When I first saw them I assumed they were 
natural, an earth slip or fault line, possible caves.

It is not hard to understand that someone could start mining in one place and someone else in another and they’d gradually realise that they were mining the same seam from opposite ends! It would lead to trouble! That is the situation in the song: The Blobber and the Windmill Lease.




The Blobber and the Windmill Lease 

was sent to me, along with several other songs, by a friend who hoped I might sing it. (One of the others was 6 Jolly Miners, mentioned above, which had already been a mainstay of my repertoire for many years and is on The Derby Ram CD Info re The Derby Ram CD

     
                                        
I’ve tidied up the words a tiny bit to make it more singable and put it to that well known tune ‘Come All You Tramps & Hawkers’ which is one of those ‘workhorse’ tunes which have carried many different sets of words over the years. It fits like a glove.

The story: The Blobber is an established mine, the Windmill Lease a newly opened one. Blobber’s owners believe that the Windmill Lease is on their seam and to prove it their Agent (manager? overseer? foreman?) comes up with a clever idea: instead of mining the seam thoroughly they just strip off the top soil so that they can trace its course—and it leads straight to the Windmill Lease, who had to close down. This was an actual, historical event in the Wirksworth area in the 1740s when the song was written. Apparently it was still being sung 130 years later but then disappeared.


MAGPIE MINE

A more famous parallel to the situation concerned Magpie Mine which is near Sheldon, in the middle of nowhere really, near Bakewell. Whereas most mining remains are just spoil heaps and lumps and bumps, Magpie Mine is well preserved with the buildings and winding gear still fairly intact. The buildings look exactly like the more famous Cornish tin mines which is not surprising because in its later years it was worked by Cornish miners and one of the newfangled Newcomen steam engines, invented in Cornwall, was installed there to drain out the lower reaches which were below the water table. (There was one at Winster as early as 1717).

(There was a lot of interaction between the miners of Cornwall and Derbyshire. Winston Graham mentions it in Poldark which is meticulously researched; Six Jolly Miners has ‘There’s one of us from Cornwall and two from Derby town….’ and the Castleton May Day garland ceremony shares a tune with the Cornish ‘Floral Dance’ (who pinched it from whom!?)) Link to Castleton May Garland
 
Magpie Mine was at the junction of several seams and there were three other mines nearby. The fact that they were worked by local men and the Magpie by the Cornish added to the rivalry. At one point the Magpie Mine and the Red Soil Pit bumped into each other below the ground. Both insisted that they were in the right and it was their lead. (How you would solve that problem amicably I can’t imagine!) There were pitched battles and both sides tried to smoke out their rivals by lighting fires under ground. Eventually the Magpie miners lit a fire consisting of a toxic mix of straw, and coal tar ( and possibly sulphur) and in the panic which ensued several Red Soil men were suffocated.

Many of the Magpie miners were arrested and held in Derby Gaol and 18 were finally charged with manslaughter, although most of them were acquitted because they hadn’t deliberately set out to kill anyone. After that, for the rest of the 19th century, the Magpie was dogged by bad luck but struggled on until 1958 although it was producing little lead in the latter years. 
It is believed that the widows of the Red Soil miners put a curse on the Magpie and it was, perhaps still is, believed to be haunted by the ghosts of the three dead men.

On the day I went and took the photos used here it was cold and blowing a gale. Very bleak. I didn’t have my camera, only my phone, and the wind was buffeting so strongly it kept on switching it from camera to help. Or perhaps it was the fingers of those ghostly miners!
Other links you might be interested in:


17 January 2019

A CORE REPERTOIRE

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:

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