Friday 29 April 2011

4: Poor Old Horse

This mixolydian tune, with some of the words, was collected by Frank Kidson from the singing of Mr Mooney of Liverpool. Frank Kidson (1855-1926) was one of the pioneering collectors of folk song in England, and it was in Liverpool, where he lived and worked as a picture dealer and pawnbroker, that he did some of his most important research. Alfred Mooney, a railway clerk, was one of his Kidson's key Liverpool informants.

The song is published in the Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol. 2 No. 9 (1906); although published under the heading "Sailor Songs", it is not the sea shanty of the same title ("They say old man your horse is dead..."), but its land-based relative. Originally the words were/are used by mummers in the 'Old Horse Play' around New Year's Day, sung in rural villages of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and elsewhere. The mummers bring a wooden horse from door to door and sing of its demise - the death of the horse perhaps symbolising the death of the old year. The words found their way to the cities as street ballads on cheaply printed broadsides (the image I use above is taken from one of these broadsides): you can see copies printed by McCall of Liverpool and Kiernan of Liverpool in the Bodleian Library broadside collection.

So an interesting example of the Liverpool broadside printers' influence in bringing rural folk-song to the city, and with a tune that I haven't heard anywhere else (if anybody knows of this tune being used in other places or for other songs, I'd be interested to hear about it). Poor Old Horse, in its many different varieties, is #513 in the Roud Folksong Index.

Friday 22 April 2011

3: Liverpool Lullaby

This one is from the Liverpool folk singer Stan Kelly, who describes it as an "industrial strength lullaby", sung to the Tyneside tune 'Dollia' (also used for the Sandgate Dandling Song). The song was picked up and recorded by Cilla Black and Judy Collins, among others, and became something of a hit.

A few people seem to find this lullaby a bit bleak. After I'd been singing this in a bar in Massachussets, someone came up to me and said "You always sing such dark songs, it makes me think you spend the rest of the day in an asylum". I'll be honest, I don't think of this one as bleak - in fact, I've always thought of this as a very tender song. True lullabies are expressions of love over and in spite of everything. And yes, I do sing this one as a lullaby to our kid.

(By way of illustration, I picked a picture of Terence McDonald's sculpture outside the Liverpool Women's Hospital, Mother and Child, because I think it captures so well the mixture of tenderness and experience that you get in this lullaby - even if the kid being addressed in the song would be a bit older than the baby in the sculpture.)

An additional note - someone recently asked me what "The Lune" is, referred to in the line "Now Nelly's working at The Lune": the answer is that it was a laundry.

Friday 15 April 2011

2: Blood Red Roses

The great Merseyside shantyman Stan Hugill describes this halyard shanty as "a real 'Cape Horner' very popular in Liverpool ships". There are numerous well-informed and interesting debates about both the meaning and the authenticity of the phrase "Blood Red Roses" (see, for example, this discussion at The Mudcat Cafe); and some tend towards thinking it's more historically accurate to sing "Come down you bunch of roses/Come down you red red roses", etc. I'm afraid I'm not informed enough to comment on these debates, I'm just singing this as I learned it at shanty singing sessions.

Many Liverpool ships sailed around the Cape en route to Chile or Peru for the saltpetre and guano trade respectively, as well as to Australia (the picture I use here is of the Clipper Ship Red Jacket of the White Star Line in the ice off Cape Horn, making its return voyage to Liverpool from Australia). The dangers were well known; Dallas Murphy's Rounding Cape Horn tells us that at least 100 ships were lost off Cape Horn between 1850 and 1900, including Liverpool ships such as the Wasdale - and "Lost overboard at sea off Cape Horn" was a familiar turn of phrase in the obituaries of the Liverpool Mercury.

In the Roud folksong index, this is #931

Friday 8 April 2011

1: The Orange and the Green

This song was written by Tony Murphy of Liverpool c.1960. It was performed around the local folk clubs and was subsequently picked up and recorded many times. It's to the tune of the Irish ballads "The Wearing of the Green" and "The Rising of the Moon".

Liverpool, owing largely to its history of Irish immigration, has the highest proportion of Catholics of any city in England; the same history of immigration has meant that it is also the English city where the Orange Order is at its strongest. The Orange Lodge march up my street every year, and, in spite of being raised Catholic, I remember standing on the doorstep and watching the fifes and drums and the pipe band go by every July. Although I never grew up with a sense that Liverpool was a city of sectarian violence, thank God, I soon learned that you didn't have to go too far back to uncover the tensions in this city. See Frank Neal's book Sectarian Violence - The Liverpool Experience for a historic perspective, and that kind of trouble is still there in people's living memory. When I was singing this song earlier in the year, an older Catholic recounted tales of an Orange mob throwing rocks at Archbishop Heenan in 1958, and the calls for retribution that followed.

And yet, in spite of these tensions, people did intermarry. This song expresses some of the frustrations encountered by those born of such mixed marriages. No doubt the intrusion of sectarianism into people's domestic bliss could cause a great deal of pain - but this song shows an ability to laugh at the daftness of it all.

What am I doing?

This project is inspired by Jon Boden's A Folk Song A Day, and John Thompson's An Australian Folk Song A Day. I was a keen follower of what Jon Boden was singing, and when I saw the Australian Folk Song A Day project born in its wake it got me thinking: could you do the same with songs connected to Liverpool?

Liverpool is where I was born, it's where I live. True, I've headed out of the city often enough for study and work, but I keep finding my way back. And although I've picked up all kinds of music from all kinds of people, when I'm singing in pubs and folk clubs nothing seems more real to me than singing about my home.

In the end, I figured that having to post about a song every day might drive me mad, so I decided to set up this blog with the slightly more resonable aim of presenting 52 Liverpool folk songs: one for every week of the year. I'm going to try and put up a good spread of songs here - sea songs, 19th century broadside ballads, songs from the folk revival, some recently written songs, children's songs, football songs, etc. Some songs will be well known, others less so.

What counts as a Liverpool folk song? Basically, they're songs tied up with the place - some songs tell stories about the city and its history. Some songs were collected in the city at various points in the past and were well-loved by those who lived here. Some were written by songwriters born here and steeped in the atmosphere of the city. There's no hard and fast rule - basically, I'm happily considering anything collected in the city or written here (although a mere mention of Liverpool in passing probably wouldn't make it a "Liverpool song" for me!). And I reckon stuff associated with the nearby towns of Bootle, Birkenhead etc is fair game too. I'm not a purple bin fascist!

Some of these songs I've learned from hearing other people sing them, but when I draw on a written source for the words or music, I'll point the reader towards that.
Some sources that have been enormously valuable to me have been:
Gerry Jones' Liverpool Lyrics site
Stan Kelly's Liverpool Lullabies songbook (online version, with just the words, here)
Stan Hugill's Shanties of the Seven Seas

There are lots of other sources that I've looked at that will come to mind when I talk about each song in turn.

I don't have any pretentions to having a great voice or providing professional level recordings. All of the recordings are going to be unaccompanied and straight through a mic into a minidisc player in my house. I'm just doing this for fun, out of love for my city, and with the hope that people will hear the songs and learn them.