Musical Traditions MT CD 301-2
(For only the second time in MT's history as a virtual publication are we able to present two reviews of the same record. I wish that this would happen more often - but getting just the one is often hard enough! As we had hoped, John Moulden's review approaches the subject from a very different direction ... and raises some very interesting questions. - Ed.)
Looking for music and song in the Belfast of the early sixties, there were the McPeakes, and Margaret Barry and Richard Hayward. And there was the Premier Record Stores. The first record I bought was of Stan Kelly, the second, Isla Cameron and Ewan MacColl; English and Scottish. Irish music and song barely made it on to records in those days, so I bought LPs of Sam Larner, Jeannie Robertson, Ron and Bob Copper before I found Paddy Tunney, Seamus Ennis or Joe Heaney. Because they were available I learned more English and Scottish songs than Irish and I love them still. I recognise no discontinuity between the various regional singing traditions in Great Britain and Ireland. Hence it is that I was asked to write this review; an outsider but sympathetic.
Nevertheless, I shouldn't have taken it on. I'm the last person who should be asked to write reviews because I have grown to dislike recordings. I find it hard to listen for long because, no matter how good the recorded performance and its reproduction, no matter how well supported by notes, pictures and references; however lovingly they are prepared and presented; however carefully representative of their subject, they are never enough. The most I can do with them is to listen to a couple of songs and marvel at the way the singer makes the song speak - and then I get to wishing that I was there, back then, or the singer was here and we were all together singing, talking, teasing, drinking and loving one another and the place and learning about people, and singing and the place for singing and the place of singing.
And it doesn't work. I can hear that Bob Hart was a fine singer, I can discern his technique and his love for and satisfaction in each song; I can see that the producers have laboured with love and care; I commend the enterprise and effort which has gone into its production - a new cottage industry, the home production of CDs. I am enormously grateful for the enterprise and devotion with which they have made available something unique, and undervalued and that a series is envisioned. There is no way we could have any remnant of this singer, these songs, this way, without them. But it's still only a document. It represents an aspect of the musical tradition only approximately; it can never do more unless it can be a link in the pursuit of a musical tradition; unless someone learns a song from the recording and sings it in their own place until it is their song and a song sung in that place.
I am concerned with two aspects of this production: with how good a document it is; and with how far it manages to subvert its users from being listeners to being singers; singing is the imperative. And that's a problem - being listened to is the natural condition of CDs - for learning to happen, either the listener needs to be a singer already or the production needs some inherent incentive towards singing - perhaps as little as a statement that these are good songs to sing. Of course, the producers expect those who buy to be singers, so perhaps it is not a criticism to say that they have not done so.
Bob Hart must be almost if not the most widely published singer in the English tradition. He featured on a solo LP (Topic 12TS225) 'Songs from Suffolk' (1973) had six items on 'Flash Company' (Topic 12TS243) (1974) sharing it with Percy Webb and Ernest Austin and one track (White Wings) on 'The Larks they sang Melodious' (XTRA1141) (1974); 21 items in all, from the Snape and Blaxhall areas of Suffolk. An interview by Karl Dallas appeared in 'Folk Review' (February 1974, Page 4) as 'The singer speaks' and a great deal of description and analysis of his singing style and the place of singing in his life and of his singing in the lives of others and in various places, in Ginette Dunn's book 'The Fellowship of Song' (Croom Helm, London, 1980). Now come these two CDs with a further 46 performances but only 25 more songs, for every item on the LPs above is also represented here.
The recordings were made, 38 songs in a morning and afternoon in July 1969 (Bob was aged 77) by Rod and Danny Stradling, and 30, of which 22 had already been recorded by the Stradlings, by Bill Leader later the same year. Simple arithmetic will show that all of these are included on the CDs, but without duplication. The album is accompanied by a 12 page A5 booklet which apart from a page describing the progress of the Stradlings acquaintanceship with Bob Hart, draws largely from Ginette Dunne's work (which book is, I suggest, necessary reading for adequate understanding of the context of these songs and their singer; the extracts are not enough, but it would be unreasonable to expect the booklet to do more) and the Karl Dallas interview, but is not always clear as to the source of quotations. It includes a listing of Bob's repertory as far as it's known; 103 items. Ginette Dunne's field tapes contain 99 and the four items unique to this production are, Banks of Allen Water, Michael Larney O, Tom Bowling and While Shepherds Watched. The booklet's contents are largely available at the Musical Traditions website. The CDs are home-produced using a laser-writer system.
As I said, it is evident that this is a labour of love; of love for Bob and his singing; and for English singing in general. It is much to be commended, especially in its technology which is labour rather than capital intensive and geared to low volume production - though one slight problem with the CDs arises from the paper labelling; they can't be played on every machine. What criticisms there can be are minor and mostly correctable.
Let's be negative: going back to 1969, it strikes me that 38 songs in a session wasn't quite fair - no matter the eagerness of the singer - and there is some hint of voice strain in some of these performances. To be fair, back then, there was not such consciousness, and it's likely that there was not then any thought in Rod and Danny's minds of commercial release - though there probably was in Bill Leader's. At the same time in the light of Bob's complaint, reported in the booklet, that, in 1969, people in his locality no longer wanted to hear his more serious songs, it must have been a joy for him to find an audience for the songs he most liked and an affirmation of his worth that he should be recorded. Hence this may not be fair criticism. Certainly an earnest of the degree to which the producers valued the artist is that a proportion of the profits from the sale of the CD will be given to the Hart family (while the rest will go to financing similar productions). Further, it's clear that by 1973 their valuation and that of other enthusiasts had allowed him to reassert the repertory which his community had formerly rejected.
There has been much disquiet of recent times concerning the extent to which our knowledge and our feelings about singing traditions have been distorted by collectors' choices; what they chose to preserve. There is a hint of this in the prodigious overlap in the commercially released recordings of Bob Hart. It may have been mitigated in the Stradlings' case because Bob provided them with a list of about 60 songs from which they were invited to make choices; and Bob chose his favourites. It would be enlightening to know which these were - probably the 22 but the notes don't say which ones. Perhaps this information could be added to the website.
It is good that all the songs recorded in these sessions have been included; the singing tradition does not only contain songs according to the classical definition of folksong. It's clear though, that the picture is still not complete. I think that the producers' choices were somewhat biased towards that classical definition (At least we can know the fullness of Bob's repertory from the list given in the booklet and hear them on Ginette Dunn's recordings - wherever they are.) And what about the duplicates? Oral tradition is repetitive in its nature; hearing the same song from the same or another person, in another way, at another time is a crucial part of it. Might Musical Traditions offer custom made CDs of the other performances to those who would like to hear a further dimension? (At 72min 17sec and 67min 32sec little more could be fitted in here!)
The recordings are clean and clear, thanks to Paul Marsh's work on what may have been unpromising originals, some of which were re-recordings from domestic tapes made on domestic equipment, and which had been unplayed for 25 years. They reveal a strong well-articulated, slightly nasal voice, often with the freshness and some of the sound of the young Fred Jordan. I'm in two minds whether to suggest that the song texts might be placed on the website; they can be useful for those who wish to learn the songs - or they might interfere with the ideal oral learning. I'm also equivocal about the decision to eschew notes on the songs. They have their uses and I'm sure they would not have had too many mistakes.
What the recordings also reveal is that, in the terms of his own society, the only one in which judgement of him could be legitimate, Bob Hart was a very fine singer, tuneful, clear, without "put on", relaxed, showing feeling but always allowing the song to speak on its own terms. (Dunne pp 205-217). He is also, by the same virtue, a worthy representative of his community and its singing tradition. He had good songs, his performance of them affirmed their worth; they are worth hearing, he is worth hearing, they are worth singing. These two CDs provide a fair representation of him and them.
So, gentle reader, if you have read so far, my last word is buy! And my last, last word is, learn some of the songs.
John Moulden - 30.9.98