27 July 2015


One of the things people often say to me after a gig is ‘How do you remember it all?’ memory is vital to a performer...  but it’s not to be trusted. Here’s a true story.
Many years ago—back in the 1970s/80s—I did a lot of work in folk clubs in Dorset. There were dozens of them, in every little town and village, and I seemed to be down there every few months. On one occasion I was early so I stopped off to see the Hardy Monument. This is how I remember it:
I was doing a folk club in Martinstown and got there early. I parked at the pub (a typical picturesque little country pub with thatched roof and a hanging sign and a car park at the front...) and across the road was a field with a footpath across it. By the stile was a finger post pointing to ‘The Hardy Monument’. Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite authors so I thought I’d go and look. It was only about half a mile away on the top of a small cliff overlooking the sea. It seemed an odd monument for an author and when I read the inscription I realised it wasn't Thomas Hardy the author but the other Thomas Hardy—Thomas Masterman Hardy who was Nelson’s friend: he of “Kiss me Hardy” fame. It didn’t matter, it was a good experience and I remembered it. In fact I remembered it vividly and used the experience as an introduction to either of a couple of songs which I associate with Thomas Hardy, the author. This summer (2015) my wife, Sue, and I had a holiday in that area and I made a point of looking up the Hardy Monument again.
We found it and weren’t disappointed but I was amazed at how wrong my memory of the first occasion was. It is not just a quarter of a mile across a field outside the pub. It was a good 10 minute drive from Martinstown to the Monument so I couldn’t have strolled there. And it wasn’t on a little cliff overlooking the sea. It is on a large hill and you could just about see the sea in the distance! The Monument looked the same though! See the picture.


Thomas Hardy, the author, knew a lot about folk music—he was a fiddle player and was aware of many songs. In Thomas Hardy’s cottage, his childhood home and where he continued to live until he became famous and rich, there are several Broadsides pasted on the wall over his bed. One of the songs I associate with him is THE FEMALE SMUGGLER. It’s obviously set in his part of the world in the era he wrote about (which was a generation before he lived). He wrote a short story called The Distracted Preacher which is a close parallel to this song. He may have known it although it's not one of the ones over the bed.
In the story Mr Stockdale, a preacher, goes to lodge with a young widow – Lizzie. He is very na├»ve and she is obviously not as good as she seems... He doesn't see what is obvious to the reader - that she is in league with the smugglers if not actually one of them herself! Then, one evening, he gets back to the cottage early and finds her wearing men's clothing and obviously preparing to go out with the smugglers. She admits it but says she only does it in the winter time and when there is a full moon! (Which is the only time a smuggling run can be done, of course!) The story finishes with a long, complicated, typically Hardy, mess of events with people being shot and presumed dead and then appearing again, alive... Lizzie giving up Stockdale for her old love, Jim, but eventually Stockdale returning and marrying her.
I am not sure of my source for the Female Smuggler. It’s a song which was found widely on Broadsides and was collected by many folk song collectors so it could have been almost anywhere. I have a vague feeling that it was from a book of Shanties, although it obviously isn’t a shanty! It’s not surprising I can’t remember the details, I suppose, because it was getting on for 30 years ago that I learned it. The recording here was made for a cassette album ‘The Cottage on the Shore’ in 1989.
I've been posting a monthly video or slide show on You Tube for the past few years, this is one of them. Because of the limitations on the size of actual videos I can post here I'll sometimes be working them together in future. That's the case here.

Hardy's bed showing Broadsides on wall
Hardy's fiddles


Having difficulty remembering things is a perfectly normal part of aging. We all joke about it but we also, secretly, worry that when we can’t remember a word or a name it’s a sign of approaching senility. There’s probably a good scientific reason why we have those problems but the one I like best is that by a certain age your brain is so full of knowledge that it takes that much longer to access the bit you want—like your computer searching through a huge file. I find that the best way to remember that thing that is on the tip of my tongue is to think of something entirely different. It then suddenly appears.
But how about when you are performing? Have you ever worried that there might come a time when you won’t be able to remember the next bit of the story or the words of a song?
I’m not sure that it happens like that. At least I hope it doesn’t! I don't think you will ever turn up at a gig and not be able to remember anything at all. I think it will be just the odd item in which you'll suddenly go blank, and then, if you are a professional and have been doing it for long enough, you'll know how to get over that. This is not based on scientific research, just on my own observations, but I suspect that songs and stories live deep down somewhere in the parts of your brain where things survive in an unadulterated state - rather like a feezer. Once you can access them they are perfect. It's the part where your name and childhood memories and the bits which are integral to your ‘self’ live. Just as you can often remember things that happened 30 years ago but can’t remember why you went into the kitchen so you have no problem recalling whole songs and stories. 
That is not to say that you never forget them. Everyone has the occasional lapse when a song just stops half way through and you cannot remember the next bit. It has nothing to do with age, it’s more about concentration. I know that when it’s happened to me it’s because a) I’ve been living the song or the story and have been unaware of the outside world and then, for some reason you come out of ‘the zone’ and you panic. Or b) something has distracted me and I’ve started thinking about that instead of what I’m doing.
I find that, with songs, it’s usually the beginning which goes a.w.o.l - I can’t remember the first line or even the tune. After a few seconds of thought I can usually pick up the chorus or a memorable ‘hook’ and then I’m away. It doesn’t always work! I remember an occasion many years ago—I was probably still in my 30s—at a high powered event I gave a long, informative introduction to a song, gave it the big build up, and just dried. I couldn’t remember it at all—not even the title! I had to sing something different!
A friend some of you may know (Roy Harris) tells a story which might be true, but probably isn’t, that he had to give up on a song because he couldn’t remember the chorus. When he got home he looked it up and the chorus was “ Fa la la la la la la la”!
Strangely it seems to be items which you know really, really well and have been doing for years in which you get a sudden lapse rather than a new one. That is probably because with a new item you are slightly worried and are concentrating really hard whereas with an old favourite you get too relaxed.
Stories tend to be different because, usually, they don’t have set words which it is vital to recall and as long as you can remember what has got to happen you can waffle your way into it. You don’t ‘memorise’ stories in the same way either, you know the plot so you just tell the story in the same way that you tell about your holiday, or what you saw on your way to work. (But a bit more fluently and imaginatively, I hope!) If you do forget a bit you can usually recover by saying something like— “Now I haven’t told you that while all that was happening…” In other words do a flash-back!

So fingers crossed for many more years of memory!

If you'd like to know more have a look at my web site  http://www.petecastle.co.uk 
You may also like to consider subscribing to Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine (  http://factsandfiction.co.uk  )  It's quarterly and covers all aspects of storytelling with news, reviews etc

My You Tube channel contains a lot of videos of both songs and stories.

Have a look at the previous postings below and if you have any comments please post them. I'd welcome your (constructive) comments and would be very pleased if you did sign up to 'follow' me!

7 July 2015



One of the things I love about traditional songs (and stories) is that they remain relevant. They might be centuries old but when you sing them people can identify them with contemporary issues.
Recently the song Dixie and the flying of the Confederate flag in parts of USA has been at the top of the news as the epidemic of unarmed black men being shot and killed by white police has outraged everyone there and astonished us here . (Although it’s not entirely unknown in UK!) I thought we’d consigned that sort of thing to history back in the 60s and 70s, but not so.
President Obama excelled himself, I thought, with his sermon and singing of Amazing Grace at the church in Charleston. It was what we had been expecting from him and hoping for ever since his inauguration. Sadly, it’s only now, in the final days of his presidency, when he could be a lame duck, that he seems to be daring to be himself. Alright, I guess that performance hardened the attitudes of his detractors who didn’t want a Black in the White House but, to me, it seemed real.


So how is this relevant to me? In 2007 I went to Washington DC to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival—as a representative of Kent where I was born—a ‘cultural exemplar’ no less! It was one of those life-changing experiences. One of the first things which struck me about Washington was the multi-racial nature of the place. At least on the festival site there were couples of every possible racial mix walking hand in hand. But that was in the ‘posh’ part of the capital city. I knew it wasn’t like that everywhere.
Our part of the festival was marking the 500th anniversary of the founding of Virginia so, as well as the Kentish contingent, there were a lot of people from that state—black, white and Native American. Superficially they/we all seemed to get on well but I believe I half overheard a racist conversation going on once and some of the blacks told us about how they had no electricity or running water in their village because the white powers-that-be didn’t want them to be too comfortable or established. (Note: ‘their’ village!)
I sang I Wish There Was No Prisons several times there thinking that the American audience would be able to identify with it and would find the use of ‘their’ tune interesting. No-one ever said anything to me but I did hear a whisper that someone was uncomfortable with it because of the racist connotation of the tune.
I WISH THERE WAS NO PRISONS is a seemingly innocuous little bit of nonsense. In 1994 a group of us—all singers who came from or who lived in Kent—got together to record an album of Kentish Folk Songs—The Keys of Canterbury. It did very, very well and was repressed a couple of times so it has only recently been discontinued. (The artists involved were myself, Bing Lyle, Ron Spicer, Andy Turner, Bob Kenward and Dave & Kath Grabham.)

In 1998 we decided to do a second volume which was called ‘apples, cherries, hops and women’ (a quote from Dickens.) It was the same core group of artists minus Bing who was off touring in America with a theatre company and Ron who had died. Maria Cunningham joined us and one of her offerings was a song she’d written as a tribute to Ron.
When I was looking around to choose what I should sing on the new album I came across I Wish There Was No Prisons and immediately decided to do it. Since then it has become a regular part of my repertoire for when I need a chorus song which everyone can join in with without any problem.
Here it is on You Tube                                           https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qSWf0zFvYo

I Wish There Ws No Prisons comes from the singing of Ron Spicer's father George Spicer (1906-1981). He was one of the foremost traditional singers from Kent abd can be heard on a Topic LP 'Blackberry Fold' (1974).  
George was born at Little Chart, near Ashford, in 1906 and worked as a herdsman around the Dover/Deal area until 1940 when he moved to Sussex. He had a wide repertoire of songs, many of which he’d learned from other members of his family or from neighbours. They were in various styles from old folk ballads like Henry My Son to Music Hall songs.
Unlike some traditional singers who only sang in the privacy of their own homes, or to themselves whilst they were working, George was a born ‘performer’ who loved to sing at the local pubs. This resulted in him sometimes ‘putting on’ a voice, as if he was trying to mimic a trained singer and ‘milking’ the audience reaction to certain lines. Approved sources say that genuine traditional singers don’t do those things but some obviously did!


As I say, I didn’t give much thought to ‘Prisons’. It was a jolly, humorous song and good to join in with. I thought it a bit odd that it should use that particular tune but folk music is full of strange things like that! So where did the tune come from?I Wish I Was in Dixie is one of the iconic American folk songs—all be it, one that divides the country. Its authorship is still disputed although it is generally accepted that one Daniel Emmett had a lot to do with it, either as actual author or, at least, populariser. It was definitely a product of the American ‘black face’ minstrel scene of the 1850s. That probably started with actual black performers and was then copied by white men ‘blacking up’ (viz Al Jolson) and continued, in this country, until well into my adult life with The Black & White Minstrel Show on BBC TV from 1958-78. By the time that show finished it was becoming more and more controversial as we became aware of the inherent racism in both the songs and the whole premis.
There were minstrel troops in the British Music Halls in the 19th century and it was probably from there that the tune entered the English tradition.
I Wish I Was in Dixie—in the original version, pokes fun at Southern Negroes and the way they speak. Like many of Stephen Foster’s songs which were so popular on both sides of the Atlantic it is in patois (what Wikipedia primly calls 'African American Vernacular') and in it all the happy blacks love ‘de ol’ plantation’ and the ‘massa’. When it was taken up by the Confederate States as one of their anthems the ‘humour’ took on a whole deeper level of spite. It has continued to be played and sung however: it was one of the favourite songs of Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley recorded it—and it’s played by marching bands at Southern Universities... There are all kinds of performances of it on You Tube.
Now, though, you’d have to think hard before you sang it in USA, unless, of course, you wanted to make a particular racist statement.

I can never imagine myself singing ‘Dixie’. For a start I have no connection with the southern states of the USA and no great interest in them, and secondly it represents everything I dislike about that culture—the gun toting, bigoted, racist, redneck. (I’m not saying that everyone in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia etc is like that but that song represents, to me, those that are.)  Neither can I understand the obsession some people here have with the USA generally. Why do they dress and eat like American’s? What is so great about an American Diner? How can anyone bear to drink cola? Why do English people want a confederate flag on their car or tattooed on their arm? What is so great about a film just because it’s made in Hollywood?
I would be the first to say that there is some great music in America—much of it in or from the South—but I don’t want to play it. I’m interested in it largely because of the way it reflects on the music of England—my music.

I don’t suggest that Dixie and the Confederate flag should be forgotten. No, they should be remembered as a dark part of U.S. history in the same way that the swastika is a dark part of European history. If we forget them they will re-emerge.
I won’t stop singing ‘Prisons’ but I might point out the problems with the tune...

If you'd like to know more have a look at my web site http://www.petecastle.co.uk 
You may also like to consider subscribing to Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine ( http://factsandfiction.co.uk  )  It's quarterly and covers all aspects of storytelling with news, reviews etc

My You Tube channel contains a lot of videos of both songs and stories.

This blog has come quite soon after my first one. That's partly so that I could learn better how to do it and because the subject was topical. I won't be writing blogs too often - I'm aiming at once a month, but it depends on what comes up and when inspiration strikes. I'd welcome your (constructive) comments and would be very pleased if you did sign up to 'follow' me!