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Gloucestershire Ballads

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March 2009

At the Society’s March meeting Roy Palmer (with backing vocals from his wife) introduced the Society to Gloucestershire ballads in an evening that felt strangely like the illegitimate love child of Lark Rise to Candleford and the Wurzels....

Since retiring from his position as headmaster of a Birmingham comprehensive school, Roy Palmer has become a noted authority on traditional songs and street ballads. He has written for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and has published articles in specialist journals and a series of books on the folklore of different counties. He also has a fine voice, which proved handy for his visit to the Society...

Unfortunately, a written account is unsuited to sharing the ballads themselves, although several were sung, and others played from recordings, including The Shepherd’s Song (which originated in the Cotswolds, but versions of which made their way around the country), The Jovial Foresters (a ballad from the Forest of Dean which is still sung today by choirs in the area), and George Riddler’s Oven. This last ballad was adopted by the Gloucestershire Society, founded in Bristol in 1567 and with branches all over the country, as their official anthem. Like many rural ballads the song celebrates drinking and the pursuit of women! The musical talent of Gloucestershire folk, however, seems to have been in some doubt: as one commentator remarked, “what they lack in quality, they make up for in quantity: I have heard as many as forty songs in an evening”. (And not one of them in tune: no wonder drinking has becoming a traditional accompaniment to ballad singing...)

Mr Palmer also shared the stories of some of those to whom we owe our knowledge of this aspect of our cultural heritage. James Madison Carpenter was an American studying for a PhD at Harvard in the 1920s, whose research focused upon British sea shanties. He travelled round the country in an Austin 7 and collected recordings of rural ballads (in addition to the shanties) using wax cylinders, the earliest form of audio recording. His study of shanties took him to Bristol, where he encountered sailors who had first been at sea as far back as the 1880s and was able to obtain recordings of various shanties (songs which accompanied specific shipboard tasks, such as raising the anchor) and fo’c’s’le songs (sung whilst the sailors were at their leisure). He caught pneumonia while sleeping in his car in the North of Scotland, but was taken in by a local farmer, who nursed him back to health, and presumably sang him enough ballads to him to fill a book. Sadly, he never published the vast majority of his collection, but on his death it was left to the Library of Congress, and remains an important primary source of research material.

Another “character” who contributed to modern knowledge of traditional folk songs was Alfred Williams, who was born in South Marston, near Swindon. His early education was as a “half-timer”, i.e. someone who attended school in the mornings and worked, in his case as a farm hand, in the afternoons. He left school at the age of 11 and ended up working at the Great Western Railway works in Swindon. Clearly a man with a passion for self-improvement, he taught himself Latin and Greek, wrote poetry, and published articles and, indeed, books on Wiltshire. His health declined, and he was compelled to leave the railway works in 1914. To assist his recovery he bicycled. Relentlessly. He covered a total of 13000 miles in 2 years, mainly in the Lechlade area. Although he was from time to time mistaken for a German spy, an occupational hazard for eccentric cyclists at the time, he managed to note down around 800 folk songs, 250 of which were published in a book, “Folk Songs of the Upper Thames”. Sadly, the book contains only the words, and not the score, although this can sometimes be deduced when a version of the song turns up elsewhere, a phenomenon which is not uncommon. The cycling clearly did the trick: Williams’ health improved so much that he was declared fit to join the army. He was posted to India, where he taught himself Sanskrit. He returned home in 1919.

In addition to the rural ballads, Mr Palmer introduced the Society to “street songs”, which began to proliferate with the advent of the printing press. Sold on the streets for a penny, these proved to be a mass-market success for the printers, and added a genuinely local touch to Mr Palmer’s talk. “The Gloucestershire Tragedy” concerned a Mary Smith of Thornbury who poisoned her father and was hanged at Gloucester. It seems, however, that the story is fictional: those prepared to do a little digging will discover that, amongst other inconsistencies in the song, no Mary Smith appears in contemporary court records. It seems likely that the writers of the ballads drew on the perennially popular topics of crime, accidents, sport, and politics to sell their songs. Unlike the enduring rural ballads, these street songs were usually ephemeral in nature, much like today’s tabloid stories: some, however, passed into the repertoire of songs to be remembered and passed down the generations.

While Thornbury may have harboured a murderer (at any rate, according to the song) at least it came off better than Oldbury. Another song, “The Trowman’s Fall”, makes reference to “Oldbury shore near Severn side, Where honest people us’d to abide...” and goes on to suggest that, after a ship founders on the banks of the Severn, the residents will “rob the dead and strip the wreck”! Of course, many would argue that all these old songs contain a kernel of truth...

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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