Alan Lomax is perhaps best remembered for his decades of collecting field recordings of folk musicians throughout the U.S., many for the Library of Congress. But his reach broadened to Europe after 1949 when the McCarthy-era publication Red Channels branded Lomax a communist sympathizer. That year, he sailed to England ostensibly to record British folk performers for Columbia Records, which also allowed him to get far away from the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In the subsequent decade, Lomax was based in London where he edited the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. Among his various collaborators for the Scottish, English, and Irish volumes was folklorist Peter Douglas Kennedy. In 1953, Kennedy accompanied Lomax when they visited the Ship Inn, a public house in the village of Blaxhall, Suffolk, East Anglia. Reportedly, the pair had heard of the Inn’s long established Saturday afternoon sessions of folk singing and “step dancing” which they wanted to capture on tape.
Sixty years later, the Alan Lomax all-digital label, Global Jukebox, is making Singing at the Ship Inn: Alan Lomax’s 1953 Blaxhall Recordings available for download on March 4. The 11 songs show a history that goes further back than that. For one matter, the singers all seem to be on the sunny side of 60 themselves. As all the patrons in the Inn clearly know all the songs, the publicans had been trading these old ballads with each other for some time.
The program is simple and the term “primitive” certainly fits. For eight of the songs, one Wicketts Richardson serves as MC who calls each of the soloists to come on stage and sing “a little ditty.” Bob Scarce seems to be a crowd favorite as he sings four of the tunes, “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” “Three Jolly Sportsmen,” “The Poaching Song,” and “How Paddy Stole the Rope.” Cyril Poacher sings the bawdy “The Nutting Girl” and “Young Man from the Country.” Jack French leads the crowd with “The Good Ship Dolphin” and “Good Luck to the Barley Mow.” Joe Rowe gets one number, “The Blackbird.” For all eight songs, the soloist renders the verses a cappella and is joined by the crowd for the choruses. Only two songs have no vocals when Fred Pearce played the melodeon for the instrumentals “Sailor’s Hornpipe” and “Manchester Hornpipe.” For the “hornpipes,” we also hear the publicans dancing along with the rhythms in what they call “step dancing.”
Without question, this artifact is a collection of traditional songs for which the performances are authentic but not intended to be musically proficient. None of the singers is going to be dubbed undiscovered musical talent. Rather, as with many of Lomax’s field recordings, the material is what he wanted to record as time capsules of ethnic and international treasures from the common man.
In this spirit, music historians and scholars of British folk music will be interested in these recordings. While they’re billed as “British drinking songs,” the only obvious connection to alcohol is the setting where these recordings were made. Most of these agricultural and sailing stories would be just as fitting at a Sunday afternoon picnic. So if you’re a member of a Celtic musical group seeking good material to add to your song list, here’s a source for you.
According to the press release for this collection, in 1955 Kennedy and Lomax returned to Blaxhall where they made a short film called Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow, which featured several of the same singers from Singing at the Ship. It can be viewed online via the East Anglian Film Archive. So if you have a yen to see as well as hear the old doffers doing their thing, you can still do so long after all the participants have likely left us. You can see one sample, a video of Cyril Poacher’s “Young Man from the Country,” by clicking here.