Thursday, 1 April 2010

Songs from the past

Further to the previous post Hardy's poetry: downbeat but great, I just had an e-mail from Ken Trickett Voll of Buena Vista, Wisconsin. His own story is unusual in itself; Ken has part-German, part-Devonian roots, arising from his father Gert being interned at POW Camp No. 42 (Exhibition Field Camp), Holsworthy, during World War II. Ken's mother, Carla Trickett, was a maid in service at Soldon Manor; the two met briefly during one of Gert's several escape attempts and married after the war, emigrating to the USA to avoid prejudice.

Anyhow, to the point of the post: Ken sent me some sound files of partially-restored cylinder recordings and notes belonging to his late mother. According to her diaries, they comprise a trio of songs recorded by Cecil Sharp during a tour of Dorset and Devon in the early 20th century. In his notes Sharp writes of Percy Grainger being present at some of the recording sessions, which places the likely date as 1908, when Grainger is known to have been collecting tunes while on a concert tour of the Westcountry. 2

The first, unnamed, song is performed by Cedric "Brassy" Nupson, a Hampshire-born thatcher and keen fisherman living in Starcross. Unfortunately all but the first two and the last verse were too damaged to recover. "Mr Nupson regaled us with accounts of catches of unlikely size," Sharp wrote, "after which he sang a version of The Unfortunate Rake." This broadsheet song spawned many variants including The Streets of Laredo, and the highly interesting thing in this one is its Exeter setting (it mentions the St James district, near Exe Bridges) which makes it a 'missing link' between the English versions and the American St. James Infirmary Blues.

The second, also by Mr Nupson, is a bawdy song called My Angledog (possibly NSFW); I won't ruin the point of the song by explaining (see footnote 3 for spoiler if you must). It is rather fun because it's a glimpse at the kind of material Sharp obtained as raw recordings; as is well known, he typically bowdlerised his transcripts).

The third, which was the reason Ken got in touch, is a recording of Lydia Garger of Wareham, Dorset, singing a song called Great Things. They recorded in The Angel, Wareham Forest (the pub renamed The Silent Woman after featuring in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native). Sharp noted "Liddy" to be a tiny but formidable lady, almost a dwarf, who before singing needed to warm up on a prodigious amount of chewing tobacco, along with pale ale "which she downed with great gusto despite her diminutive stature. As she drank she told us of the folly of her youth, when she had 'left her head and heart on the dance floor'. We soon had no money left, but Percy organised a whip-round and all was well". The lyrics of Great Things are the Thomas Hardy poem of the same name I recently mentioned, showing that Hardy wrote it nearly a decade before its publication in his 1917 Moments of Vision. (Of interest, the Mellstock Band have also set the words to music).

Ken tells me he has severe doubts about the pieces being autochthonous folksong, and I don't disagree. The literary origin of the Great Things lyrics pretty obviously suggest it to be a parlour performance piece; conversely there's something of the flavour of music hall about My Angledog - its title word is the only regional dialect word in the song. Not that this necessarily matters: highbrow songs such as Thomas Moore's Oft in the Stilly Night and faux-rustic ones such as the charmingly naive Buttercup Joe have become well-established on the folk circuit.

A quick search through the British Library 19th Century Newspaper online archives rather confirms my suspicions of non-amateur origins, in that The Era for 8th January 1881 finds a Miss Lydia Garger getting star billing in pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Exeter. It's a sufficiently unusual name and the dates look about right. Then as now, I suppose, pantomime was a valuable, if stereotypical, work opportunity for persons of restricted growth. I've had no luck finding any more about Cedric Nupson or why he was called "Brassy".

However, I'm not too bothered; Ken's find is absolutely fascinating, and I'm sure more background will come to light. Enjoy!

1. Files copyright Ken and Hannah Trickett Voll, 2010.
2. See p.125, Percy Grainger, John Bird, 1999.
3. But if you need a spoiler, see Passing down old Devon dialect, Laura Joint, BBC Devon, for "angledog".

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful trio of early recordings, Ray! And how provident that your reader in Wisconsin should have kept them in the family all this time. I shall certainly listen to them over and over again until I have thoroughly memorised and analysed every nuance of Brassy Nupson's and Miss Garger's performance. They remind me, curiously, of someone else's voice, but I can't for the life of me think whose at the moment. Doubtless it will come back to me next time I speak with you. But well done again on an excellent coup for the JSB Blog.