Category Archives: Music recordings

Black Velvet (article from Shrewsbury folk club magazine, 1973)

[This is an article written by the late Ron Nurse for Issue 10 of the Shrewsbury Folk Club Magazine in 1973, based I think on his own research in the archives of the Shrewsbury Chronicle. Later on, when I’d moved away to Berkshire, I came across the magazine again and used it as the basis for my song Thomas Anderson (which I’ve co-credited to Ron). I don’t think any of us who contributed to that magazine in the early 70s thought in terms of copyright and intellectual property, but I wish I’d been able to confirm with Ron that he didn’t mind my re-using it here. Unfortunately, by the time it occurred to me that readers of this blog – or anyone who knows and likes the song – might find it of interest, Ron was no longer with us. If any member of his family comes across this article and objects to its being made available again, please contact me and I’ll remove it immediately. I’ve made some very light (purely cosmetic) edits.]

Black Velvet

The two figures are of solid stone, but in spite of that fact, and the pious plea once carved between them (now almost effaced), some vandal has helped the hand of time to give them many a hard knock.

WE ARE BUT IMAGES OF STONE DO US NO HARM WE CAN DO NONNE

These images which represent St. Crispin and St. Crispian, and the arch of which they are part, once graced the entrance to the “Shoemakers’ Arbour”. But that was long, long ago: now they are part of the Dingle, that elegant centre piece of Shrewsbury’s Quarry Park. In its present position it does little to grace the orderly plots and rows of flowers, but the arch does have one thing in common with the flora of the Dingle, for it was transplanted here just as they were.

Years ago the arch stood on Kingsland, high on the other side of the river, and was the gateway to one of the many guild arbours that once stood there. Until well into the middle years of the last century the tailors, smiths, butchers, saddlers, and well as the bakers and shoemakers, had small fenced-off guild halls on the stretch of open ground that was Kingsland. These made a centre for all the drinking and merrymaking which took place after the show day procession of the Shrewsbury guilds. This took place on the second Monday after the Trinity Sunday, each year.

What scenes of revelry these old mutilated effigies must have seen in those far-off days, but then, can stone eyes see? Can stone hearts feel? Mayhap it is a blessing at times if they cannot.

One cold December day in the year 1752, a tall man dressed in a handsome suit of black velvet, was standing just below the shoemakers’ arbour on Kingsland. Despite the cold biting wind he was not alone, many others were braving the elements on this dull winter’s morn. Most were here of their own free will, but not the man in black, nor the row of scarlet-clad soldiers facing him.

Behind the soldiers a motley crowd of townsfolk stood silent, and waiting for the last act of a grim drama. Soon that black velvet suit would be stained a sodden red; clothing a corpse, as cold and lifeless as the two stone figures on the arch of the shoemakers’ arbour, overlooking this grim scene.

Sharp and clear across the river, the towers and spires rose above the huddle of buildings sheltering behind the ancient town walls. Sharp and clear on the frosty air rang out the musket shots, and the towers and spires of Shrewsbury flung back the sound. But Thomas Anderson did not hear the echo; did not feel the wind which now seemed to be blowing a little colder; and there was no warmth in the ray of sunlight that broke through the grey clouds, putting its finger on the grey stone arch and its inscription. “We are but images of stone, Do us no harm we can do nonne”.

Fate has a way; a path which each of us must follow to the end. She gives favours with one hand, then takes them back with the other. The victim of this grim drama had been spared from death on the battlefield of Culloden, but only to die here on the bank of the Severn. Shot down like a mad dog this raw December day. As warning to the people of Shrewsbury town that it was dangerous to think that a Stuart King could ever again sit on the throne of England.

It all started on the 10th of June 1752. The workers of John Ritchards, master builder, had received their pay at a pub called the ‘Crown’, which once stood on Pride Hill near the old ‘Butter Cross’. The day had been very hot, and building being thirsty work, it was no wonder that some of the hard-earned pay had been exchanged for liquid refreshment. Strong ale can lower the inborn sense for caution so that when a patrol of soldiers happened to pass by the pub, they became the butt for a stream of abuse and coarse with from the drinking men.

In 1752 the events of the 45 Rebellion, when Bonnie Prince Charlie marched his army as far South as Derby, in his bid to place his father on the throne, were just that few years past to be looked upon with a romantic nostalgia. Flora MacDonald, who helped to save the life of Charles Stuart, was a heroine in the eyes of the majority of the people of Britain.

[There is a hand-drawn illustration of the archway and the effigies here in the original article, but they haven’t survived the photocopying process very well. When I have access to a scanner I’ll see if I can clean them up in Photoshop, but in the meantime here are some photographs to take their place.]

arbour3

arbour2On the other hand, the Hanoverian Prince, the Duke of Cumberland, had made a dismal failure of the only victory he ever won in the whole of his military career. For the cruelties he ordered, or allowed, against the Highland Scots after the battle of Culloden had brought him the title ‘The Butcher’.

It was a fact that none of the early Hanoverian kings captured the least spark of respect or loyalty from their British subjects. The only thing in their favour was the fact that they were Protestants.

Then in the year 1750, Prince Charles Stuart renounced the Catholic religion and declared himself a member of the Church of England. Then in 1752 he was plotting to kill or capture the Hanoverian family, and place the ill-fated Stuart line back on the throne.

All these facts made the Whig authorities somewhat jittery. Watch was kept for any hint of the Stuart cause being supported by the people, the faintest sign of which must be stamped out quickly, before the fire could spread.

The affair which started at the ‘Crown’ in Shrewsbury would be looked upon as a demonstration in favour of the Stuarts, for some of the pub’s patrons were wearing white roses, and bawling Jacobite songs at the red-coated soldiery. It is on record that one of the songs they sang was this one, once very popular but now seldom-heard.

OVER THE WATER TO CHARLIE

Come boat me o’er, come row me o’er
Come boat me o’er to Charlie
I’ll gie John Ross another bawbee T
o row me o’er to Charlie

Chorus:
We’ll o’er the water, we’ll o’er the water
We’ll o’er the water to Charlie
Come weal, come woe, we’ll gather and go
And live or die wi’ Charlie

It’s weel I lo’e my Charlie’s name
Though some there be abhor him
But oh! To see ‘Auld Nick’ gaun hame
And Charlie’s foes before him

I swear by moon and stars sae bright
And the sun that glances early
If I had twenty thousand lives
I’d gie them a’ for Charlie

I once had sons, I now ha’e nane
I bred them toiling sairly
But I would bear them a’ again
And lose them a’ for Charlie

[There’s a version from Mudcat including the melody. Ron didn’t have the advantage of the Internet when he wrote this article. – DH]

Needless to say, such conduct by the citizens of Shrewsbury could not be overlooked. Something had to be done to bring the common rabble back into line, and to show them to what end their traitorous action could lead them. Therefore the stage was set for the tragic even which took place six months later.

Thomas Anderson, the man in the handsome black velvet suit, was killed on that steep green slope, just downriver from the ‘Boathouse’, for more than one reason. He had deserted from Sir John Ligonier’s regiment of dragoons. It was alleged that he had taken part in the 1745 rebellion, and that when the black velvet was stripped from his body, a sash was found next to his skin: the colours of the Chevalier, given him for the part he had played in the bid to depose the Hanoverian King George II. But the real reason was to put fear into the hearts of the people of Shrewsbury, especially the ones who had the audacity to sing rebel songs before the red-coated troopers of the Kind.

Although it is almost 200 years since ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ died in Rome, an old embittered drunk, yet we still sing the old songs. Who has never heard ‘The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond’, ‘The Skye Boat Song’, or in the smaller circle of folk song clubs ‘Bonnie Charlie’s noo awa’ or ‘Johnnie Cope’? The words and music of these songs are the same as they always were, yet they have a feeling of bitter sadness that one can almost taste. All the flame and passion has gone from them.

Could these songs have once lit the fires of civil war in Britain? In1752, some men thought so. 

Ron Nurse
(Article transcribed by David Harley, to whom all errors may be attributed…)

Housman in the Salley Gardens

Update: I’m working on an arrangement of the tune for a recording project: here’s a rough (rather busy) but potentially interesting sketch of the arrangement:

After I wrote my earlier review of the CD ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (by Michael Raven and Joan Mills), in which I specifically mentioned that Michael had set When I Was One and Twenty to the tune better known as Brigg Fair, I had a thought. I mentioned in passing in that article that the theme of the poem is not dissimilar to that of the Yeats poem (based on an imperfectly remembered folk song) Down By The Salley Gardens. The Yeats poem was published in 1889, and A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, so it’s very likely that Housman knew the Yeats poem, though for all I know, he may have written his own poem before he came upon Salley Gardens. I’m not sure it matters all that much: I’m not doing a PhD thesis. 🙂

Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.

In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.

Anyway, a quick turn around the fretboard demonstrates that the melody Maids of Mourne Shore, the one most commonly associated with Down By The Salley Gardens since Hughes used it for his setting in 1909, would also work with When I was One and Twenty. As would any of the other tunes associated with or set to the Yeats poem, I guess. Oddly enough, the melody to The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, usually assumed to be the song that Yeats was trying to recreate, probably wouldn’t work so well, at any rate without some modification to accommodate the length of the lines. According to the music historian A.V. Butcher, Butterworth‘s setting to One and Twenty was related to a folk melody, but which one is unknown. Certainly the setting doesn’t ring any bells with me.

You know, I enjoy writing about this stuff much more than I do writing about security*.  It’s a pity no-one is ever likely to pay me to do it. 😉 But then, as someone I worked with on a drama project once pointed out, the best way to kill your enthusiasm for a hobby is probably to start doing it for a living.

*Well, I’ve been doing that for about 25 years, so it’s easy to get blasé.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

A Shropshire Lad – CD Review

[Added a reference to a more recent blog]

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d come across some Housman settings by the late Michael Raven on a 1994 CD with Joan Mills.

I now have a copy of the CD, and am getting a great deal of listening pleasure from it: beautiful singing from Joan, and super guitar playing from Michael. It’s an object lesson in how good a no-frills, no-overdubs, no-edits recording can be.

The album consists of a generous 33 tracks (a running time of just under 80 minutes): 17 settings of Housman poems are interspersed with 20 Welsh guitar pieces (some of the instrumental tracks consist of two pieces played back to back). All the Housman lyrics are from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, except for The Deserter, In Midnights of November and Half Moon, which are from ‘Last Poems’. The Welsh tunes are all traditional except for Galaru and Rhoslan Reel, which were composed by Michael Raven. (And yes, he was born in Cardiff, so I guess they certainly also qualify as Welsh!) Nearly all the settings use traditional tunes: according to the notes, Michael wrote the tunes to The Deserter and Is My Team Ploughing, though the tune to The Deserter sounds to my ear pretty close to a well-known tune associated with Henry Martin to me.

Setting and singing Housman is harder than you might think. The form of so many of his poems does lend itself to strophic folk-  or folk-like melody, but make no mistake: Housman was a scholar and a very adept craftsman in terms of his writing, and though his style lends itself very well to art song – hence, the number of settings by Butterworth, Vaughan Williams et al. (there are some links here) it would be easy for some of his lyrics to come over as somewhat stilted and self-conscious if set unsympathetically.

Fortunately, both the singing and the settings here are very sympathetic. Even where a well-known melody has been used (Brigg Fair, Geordie and Lord Gregory for example) the performers have not been afraid to alter the melody and metre to fit the words if necessary. To the extent that I’ve been getting additional value from the CD playing a little game of ‘Name That Tune’ (“Is that Kate of Coalbrookdale?”) Nevertheless, the poems themselves have also been altered where deemed appropriate. For example:

  • The verses of Bredon Hill (XXI) have each lost a line (I probably wouldn’t have noticed had I not also set that poem to music – the omission doesn’t seem to harm the song)
  • Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree has acquired a repeat and a half to the last line
  • The fairly lengthy Come Pipe a Tune has been cut down considerably and without disrespect to the full length poem as printed, it probably works better in its abbreviated form as a song.

To paraphrase Phil Ochs* – who is probably remembered  nowadays (if at all) as a ‘protest’ singer, though he was much more than that and also composed several excellent settings to poems by Poe, Noyes et al – it’s not unreasonable that ‘the discipline of music’ should sometimes modify and shed a different light on an existing poem as it develops into a song.

*Oddly enough, I was reminded of Ochs by a line in The Deserter – “And, call it truth or call it treason” – which was echoed by Ochs, quite possibly deliberately, in I ain’t marching any more:

“…Call it peace or call it treason, call it love or call it reason, But I ain’t marching any more…”

True Lover, on the other hand, uses the same tune and arrangement as Cold Blows The Wind (a version of The Unquiet Grave) recorded in the 60s on an LP by Jon and Mike Raven with Jean Ward. It’s an inspired choice: there is a distinct echo of the revenant theme of The Unquiet Grave in Housman’s lyric, while a passing resemblance in the phrase “So take me in your arms a space Before the cast is grey” to the refrain of the very different Blow the Candle Out gives it an added edge, though that may purely serendipitous.

All that said, this isn’t the most ‘folkie’ of albums. That’s not a criticism: I’m no purist.  Joan’s singing style sounds well-trained but not operatic, making fluent use of folkie ornamentation. Michael’s guitar style as an accompanist and soloist is eclectic, reflected in his use on various pieces of classical, flamenco and steel-strung acoustic guitars. Not that you’ll find much in the way of flamenco staples like rasgueado or golpe here, but the brighter tone of the Ramirez flamenco guitar gives Come Pipe a Tune in particular an almost Mediterranean flavour. Rather than the open tunings, drone notes and linear melodic lines of, say, Martin Carthy, his approach to the steel-strung guitar is more a matter of rhythmic attack and variations in picking style. Perhaps Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree is the closest to that school of guitar, though I think it’s more a matter of convergent influences than an attempt to emulate that school of guitar playing (of which I remain an aspirant member, by the way). On the left hand, I note some techniques you don’t usually find a classical guitarist using, even the occasional ‘blue-d’ note and some slightly jazzy hard sliding chords in Good Ale.  In general, though, his work here features a complex blend of melody, and countermelody, chords and bass, that sometimes recalls Renaissance lute music, sometimes mediaeval music. If you enjoy John Renbourn’s incursions into those areas, you may well enjoy the solos here.

There is too much here for a track by track description, but here are a couple of tracks I particularly wanted to explore in a little more detail.

Is My Team Ploughing? is sung unaccompanied, and the tune is credited to Michael Raven. It’s kind of interesting to compare it to the Butterworth setting, Whereas the dialogue between the dead and the living in the Butterworth setting is marked by a change of melodic line from high and ethereal to a vigorously delivered line with a more aggressive piano part, Joan Mills has to use the same tune for both sides of the dialogue. She establishes the contrast by delivering the ‘dead man’ side of the dialogue forcefully whereas the ‘live man’ is gently delivered, suggesting a reluctance to reveal that he has taken his place: “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart – never ask me whose.” Both work equally well: in fact, I’d find it difficult whether I prefer this version or the rendering by Pears and Britten of the Butterworth setting.

When I was one and twenty (A Shropshire Lad XIII), sung (very beautifully and also unaccompanied) to the tune of Brigg Fair, resolves a small problem for me. Some years ago I set A Shropshire Lad XVIII, of which there is no setting here, to a tune you can find here, if you care to: Oh when I was in love with you. More recently, I realized that the same tune would work for When I was one and twenty, and wondered whether to use it for that instead. However, I won’t. Though I can’t sing it as well as Joan, the tune better known as Brigg Fair makes a perfect companion for this lyric, with its hint of young love gone bad reminiscent of Yeats’s Down By The Sally Gardens (itself based on a folk song).

[Added later: I subsequently had some thoughts about the similarity in theme and form – you could quite easily use the same tune to carry both lyrics – between Sally Gardens and One and Twenty. This dabble with ethnomusicology is at Housman in the Salley Gardens.]

In case you haven’t noticed, I like this recording a lot, and it’s now sitting comfortably on both my iGadgets. In fact, it’s the first time in over 20 years that I’ve had the urge to review a recording (and it’s probably the first music review I’ve ever done that wasn’t commissioned). There is also a companion book with full staff and tablature notation: I haven’t seen it, as my sightreading and tablature skills are at best minimal.  There is more information on the CD and book on the Michael Raven web site – ordering information here.

My own Housman settings (including MP3s – strictly demo versions, not commercial quality) are here, if it’s of any interest. And if it isn’t, that’s still where they are. 😉

And finally, a track listing for the CD.

  • On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble (Shropshire Lad XXX1)
  • Megan’s Daughter (guitar solo)
  • Bredon Hill (Shropshire Lad XXI)
  • Rhoslan Reel (written by Mike Raven)
  • Half Moon (sung unaccompanied: Last Poems XXVI and XXVII)
  • White Rose of Summer (guitar solo)
  • New Mistress (Shropshire Lad XXXIV)
  • Galaru [composed by Michael Raven]/The Blackbird (guitar solos)
  • Along the Fields (Shropshire Lad XXVI)
  • Long Live Mary (guitar solo)
  • Is My Team Ploughing? (Unaccompanied: Shropshire Lad XXVII)
  • Bard’s Dream (guitar solo)
  • Ludlow Recruit (Shropshire Lad III)
  • Megan who lost her garter (guitar solo)
  • Come Pipe a Tune (Shropshire Lad LXII)
  • Lady Mine/Gogerddan (guitar solos)
  • Midnights of November (unaccompanied, Last Poems XIX)
  • Rising of the Lark/Weep not for me (guitar solos)
  • True Lover (Shropshire Lad LIII)
  • Beside the Seashore/Good Ale (guitar solos)
  • Goldcup Flowers (Shropshire Lad V)
  • Where are you going? (guitar solo)
  • The Deserter (unaccompanied, Last Poems VIII)
  • Clover (guitar solo)
  • Loitering with a vacant eye (Shropshire Lad LI)
  • Lady Owen’s Delight (guitar solo)
  • Farewell to barn and stack and tree (Shropshire Lad VIII)
  • My lady is more fair (guitar solo)
  • Wenlock Edge (Shropshire Lad, XXXIX)
  • Snowdon (guitar solo)
  • When I was one and twenty (unaccompanied, Shropshire Lad XIII)
  • Farewell to Llangyfelach (guitar solo)
  • Shrewsbury Jail (Shropshire Lad IX)

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow