Down by the Old Riverside
Musical Traditions Records MTCD345-7
CD 1: Harry Brazil - The Old Riverside; Doris Davies - The Old Riverside; Danny Brazil - The Old Riverside; Lemmie Brazil - The Old Riverside; Lemmie Brazil - God Killed the Devil O; Danny Brazil - Limpy Jack; Hyram Brazil - Game of All Fours; Angela Brazil - Sally Monroe; Lemmie Brazil - Sally Monroe; Harry Brazil - Young Man Cut Down; Danny Brazil - Betsy the Milkmaid; Danny Brazil & Denny Smith - Hornpipe 1; Alice Webb - Bold Fishing Man; Weenie Brazil - Son Come Tell it Unto Me; Angela Brazil - Son Come Tell it Unto Me; Son Webb - Son Come Tell it Unto Me; Danny Brazil - The Crabfish; Harry Brazil - Green Grow the Laurels; Lemmie Brazil - The Bonnie Black Hare; Danny Brazil - Barbry Allen; Debbie & Pennie Davies - Barbara Allen; Danny Brazil - Rambling Irishman; Lemmie Brazil - Stepdance No 2; Danny Brazil - Jack and the Robber; Harry Brazil - If I Were a Blackbird; Danny Brazil - The Golden Glove; Alice Webb - The Watercrease Girl; Harry Brazil - Dear Old Erin's Shore; Danny Brazil - The Croppy Tailor; Lemmie Brazil - The Bitter Willow; Alice Webb - The Bitter Willow; Danny Brazil - My Schoolmaster's Son.It seems almost impossible to believe that collectors interviewed so many members of the travelling (though now largely settled) Brazil family over so many years and recorded such a wealth of material that even this magnificent three CD set uses only a portion of the total amount available. And what a cornucopia of riches this proves to be. Nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century ballads and pastorals in such solid forms that it belies the fact that, in reality, this material had largely ceased to engage the attention and emotions of the general population a century earlier than these items were collected. One thinks of Flora Thompson's old singer in the pub who, during the 1880s or '90s, was allowed on sufferance to perform the by-then outmoded Outlandish Knight at the end of an evening consisting increasingly of what Harry Cox rightly termed 'squit'. That such a profusion of older cultural material has survived on the lips and fingers of this marginalised group is, on the one hand, admirably astounding, and, on the other, symptomatic (and a damning indictment) of the officialdom which has long enforced exclusion from general society by means of persecution, harassment and outright racism.
CD 2: Weenie Brazil - The Cruel Ship Carpenter; Danny Brazil - The Cruel Ship Carpenter; Harry Brazil - Once I Courted a Damsel; Lemmie Brazil - Irish Jig; Joan Taylor - A Group of Young Squaddies; Danny Brazil - McCaffery; Harry Brazil - 'Tis My Delight; Danny Brazil - Shake Hands and be Brothers Again; Lemmie Brazil - The Pretty Ploughing Boy; Harry Brazil - The Pretty Ploughing Boy; Danny Brazil & Denny Smith - Hornpipe 2; Danny Brazil - My Love Willie; Angela Brazil - Nobody's Child; Danny Brazil - Bold Keeper; Harry Brazil - Bold Keeper; Danny Brazil - Down in the Coalmines; Harry Brazil - Three Charming Black Boys; Danny Brazil - Three Brothers; Danny Brazil - The Folkestone Murder; Lemmie Brazil - Dance Tunes; Harry Brazil - The Banks of the Lea; Danny Brazil - The Banks of the Lea; Doris Davies - Rock All Our Babies to Sleep; Danny Brazil - Underneath Her Apron; Harry Brazil - Long A-Growing; Danny Brazil - The Gown So Green; Harry Brazil - The Gown So Green; Alice Webb - The Gown So Green; Lemmie Brazil - Smile A While / Little Luck Jig; Harry Brazil - Green Bushes; Lemmie Brazil - Green Bushes; Danny Brazil - Brandon on the Moor.
CD 3: Danny Brazil - A Blacksmith Courted Me; Harry Brazil - A Blacksmith Courted Me; Tom Brazil - A Blacksmith Courted Me; Lemmie Brazil - Died For Love; Danny Brazil - A Bold Fisherman Courted Me; Angela Brazil - The Poor Smugglers Boy; Harry Brazil - The Flower Show; Danny Brazil - The Banks of Sweet Dundee; Lemmie Brazil - Stepdances Nos 1&2; Harry Brazil - I Wonder if the Old Folks Think of Me?; Danny Brazil - An Old Man Come Courting Me; Lemmie Brazil - I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day; Danny Brazil - The Salisbury Ram; Danny Brazil - Three Tunes; Danny Brazil - Rolling in the Dew; Lemmie Brazil - Little Sir Hugh; Danny Brazil - I Met A Maid; Danny Brazil - The False Bride; Lemmie Brazil - Three Tunes; Danny Brazil - Poison in a Glass of Wine; Lemmie Brazil - Shot Like a Bird on a Tree; Danny Brazil - The Little Ball of Yarn; Danny Brazil - Henry Martin; Lemmie Brazil - The Irish Girl; Danny Brazil - Lord Bakeman.
I cannot applaud loudly enough the editor's decision to juxtapose different versions of the same song by disparate family members. Disc one, for instance, begins with a quartet of versions of The Old Riverside, beloved for its moral (or amoral, rather) sting in the tail by both travellers and gorgios alike. Three further versions available on CD are listed. My personal favourite, however, that sung by Freda Palmer of Leafield (Oxfordshire), has regrettably never been reissued since its appearance on the Topic vinyl album 12TS254 in 1975. As it happens, both Lemmie Brazil's timbre and accent remind me a lot of Freda.
While reading through the header notes to each song, both here and on other CD issues from the Musical Traditions stable and elsewhere, I was struck once again by the sheer usefulness of the digital medium. Steve Roud's databases - one for song, one for broadsides - with more than a quarter of a million items in total are resources which would have been practically impossible to compile and maintain in pre-PC days. Much cited, but seriously under praised, this review seems an appropriate place to sing Steve's praises, thank him for his diligent and untiring efforts, and offer gratitude for his willingness to share freely the fruits of his Herculean labours. As one co-editor of the hardcopy version of MT is fond of saying, "A manly clasp of the buttocks to you", Steve. The song index allows us to draw tentative conclusions on the distribution and popularity of each specific item; while the broadside index suggests antecedents for those pieces which have (and perhaps more significantly, have not) been recovered from the oral tradition. And there are plenty of items in this set which fit that bill.
Debbie and Pennie Davis, whom Mike Yates recorded singing this wonderful version of Barbary Allen (also reissued within the past few months on the integral CD in Yates' EFDSS-published song book Traveller's Joy) when they were aged 'about ten', are pictured as adults, though it lacks a date. As pre-teens their vocal style was fabulous. Do they still sing, one wonders? And if so, do they still sing in unison? The Bonny Black Hare (1/19). Well, who would have thought it? And from a female singer at that. The header notes proclaim only five collected versions, adding that its familiarity among revivalist circles is likely to be due to the 'Carthy/Swarbrick recording' (page 16). This is certainly true in part (and I remember it myself from those long-vanished days of the early 1970s - see article), but it is Bert Lloyd's gently tinkling voice which runs through my head whenever I think of those oddly-timed lyrics. Lloyd, largely forgotten it seems, for his live performances nowadays, was perhaps the most enthralling and spellbinding singer ever to perform within a Folk Revival context.
Of Rock All the Babies to Sleep (2/23) the commentator suggests, given that one of only three versions documented in the Roud Index was collected from Elizabeth Cronin, 'Maybe the Brazils picked it up during their 27 years travelling in Ireland?' But there is a far more likely explanation, and it extends geographically only as far as the nearest record shop. As Lyn Murfin observes in an obituary of the Traveller singer Sophie Legg, which will appear in the upcoming issue of Folk Music Journal, when a youngster her family had long possessed a 'wind-up gramophone', and via this route she (and other Travellers) became fond of the songs of blue yodeller Jimmie Rodgers. I would be surprised if the Brazils did not have similar access to technology, and suggest that Rock All the Babies to Sleep derives ultimately from Rodgers' 1932 recording for Victor, released here in England a short time later on the budget Regal Zonophone label (catalogue number MR 2200).
It's perhaps surprising that no version of The Highwayman Outwitted/The Farmer from Cheshire is included, although we get a version of the similarly-themed Jack and the Robber here. More than two decades ago - the very period, in fact, during which the majority of this material was being collected - Sam Richards noted the widespread popularity of that song among West Country Gypsies, declaring it to often be the first item offered by a new informant, and concluding that its narrative, featuring the outwitting of slow opponents, appealed particularly to the travelling community. Is it simply that none of the Brazils had it, or has it been excluded, in favour of 'the principal collectors ... having presented [the editor] with what they thought represented the best examples of both performances and recording amongst their collections' (page 10)? Whatever the case, we need to bow down gratefully before Peter Shepheard and Gwilym Davies, in particular, for graciously allowing us to share their rich harvest.
(Parenthetically, Lemmie plays a spirited selection of dance tunes on her old single-row squeezebox, only a couple of which have gone into circulation within revivalist circles, although there are a number of others which perhaps ought to follow suit.)
For once the philosophy behind what are essentially inaccurate song transcriptions, textual entities which never existed in the forms as printed, is refreshingly laid out clearly (on page 10). A three-tier system is claimed for 'unusual words or pronunciations', namely, ignored when the meaning is obvious, footnote explanation given when apparent, and italicised when not. But that usage is not consistent. In the very first transcription (on page 11), for example, the word 'repair' is italicised, even though the obvious meaning is, ' 'Til daylight did appear.'
Only on such a specialist CD with a limited potential clientele would it be possible to get away with including the items by Danny Brazil, A throat injury resulted in him singing in a raspy whisper. Yet I (and obviously others) find his modified vocal style completely endearing. Similarly out-of-the-box is the speech heard at the end of 1/2, when a cacophony ensues as other family members prompt the singer : 'I knows a lot of words but I can't bind them together.' Attempts to cajole the otherwise unidentified 'Freda' to sing, however, prove abortive. This contextual material adds immeasurably to the collected items, revealing a human dimension which can never be conveyed adequately in written form.
The inside back cover usefully features a full listing of the entire Brazil family's repertories, as far as they have been collected at any rate. How much more useful, however, would a tabulated list giving an indication of which family member had a version of each song have been? But by any standard it is truly remarkable that so much nineteenth, even eighteenth and seventeenth century material has survived so late, and generally in substantially solid form. One may forgive the fact that Henry Martin comes with only two verses intact in Danny's version (3/23), and (implicitly) only one in Lemmie's repertory. Glory instead in the multiple extended versions of Barbary Allen, Lord Bakeman, Banks of the Sweet Dundee and many others, and relish those items which have become more abbreviated in transmission.
And don't you believe what anyone tries to tell you. This really is the final harvest of the old tradition. And this really is the most important commercial release showcasing the English tradition to have appeared in many a long day. I cannot stress it enough : absolutely essential.
Keith Chandler - 1.7.07