It was the radio series 'Ballads and Blues' that gave its name and some of its programme ideas to the first London folksong club. It met in the. Princess Louise in High Holborn and was an immediate success. By 1956 its resident performers were Peggy Seeger, Dean Gitter, A.L. Lloyd, Seamus Ennis and Ewan MacColl. In the course of the next four or five years the club was forced to change premises a good deal. It moved to ao hotel in Bloomsbury and from there to a small pub near the British Museum, then to the Market Tavern in Covent Garden, to the King and Queen in Paddington Green, and then to No. 2 Soho Square, where it occupied the boardroom of the A.C.T.T. (Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians).
In 1961, the club changed its name to THE SINGERS CLUB and moved premises again, this time to the Pindar of Wakefield in Kings Cross Road. By this time, Gitter had returned to the United States and Seamus Ennis was back in Ireland. The three remaining residents were now joined by Joe Heaney and Enoch Kent. In the next four years, the club. moved premises several times — to the John Snow in Soho, then to The New Merlins Cave in Margery Street, and later to The Union Tavern, on Kings Cross Road. The ten years residency at The Union Tavern was, perhaps, the most significant period in the Singers Club history. During that time dozens of new singers were introduced into the club. Feature evenings (programmes built around a specific theme) became a regular club activity; 'The Festival of Fools' (a dramatised survey of the years's news) became an annual event, and scores of new songs were written and given their first performance in the rather down-at-heel little pub.
It was in the early 1950's that the idea of the folksong dub first began to emerge in Britain. That idea was born out of a two or three year period of furious activity on the part of a handful of enthusiasts. Alan Lomax, the American collector and folklorist, had produced his popular radio programmes, had collaborated with David Attenborough in presenting a series of six television folksong programmes for the BBC and had followed this up with a fourteen-week series on Granada TV for a programme called THE RAMBLERS. Theatre Workshop, after. six years of touring with 'Johnny Noble' a ballad-opera which made great use of unaccompanied folksong, had staged its short season of very successful Sunday afternoon folksong concerts. A. L. Lloyd's Come All Ye Bold Miners had been published and the Worker's Music Association had begun to issue 78 rpm discs of traditional songs. The People's Festival (forerunner of 'The Fringe') in Edinburgh had staged its late-night ceilidhs. The skiffle movement was getting into its stride, Peter Kennedy's Sunday-morning radio series 'As I Roved Out' was beginning and the BBC's Saturday-night light programme series, 'Ballads and Blues' had come and gone.
At this stage in the revival, radio and television played a very important role, but equally important was the fact that trade. union branches of the N.U.R., the A.E.U., D.A.T.A. and the Firebrigades Union were beginning to stage their own folksong evenings. And the music was beginning to get on to the streets: the Soho Festivals saw Lloyd, MacColl and Isla Cameron sharing the stages in Soho Square and Golden Square with Humphrey Lyttleton and Ken Collier's band, while at the same festivals Michael Gorman, Willie Clancy and Michael Byrne could be heard every night of the week at almost any Soho street corner providing music for the London Dancer's.
In January 1977, THE SINGERS CLUB moved back into its original pub, The Princess Louise. It was a memorable occasion, for among the audience there were some who had been present on that first night twenty-five years before. Of the original residents only the two singers featured on this disc were present. After a few weeks, the club was forced to move again and here we are now, just a few yards down the street, at the Bull and Mouth.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that THE SINGERS CLUB should become a venue for folk enthusiasts from all over the world. Every Saturday night, the small upstairs room is filled to over-flowing with folk from Brixton and Bilbao, from Stepney and Adelaide, from Penge and Oporto, from Manchester, Chicago, Cardiff, Milan, Hamburg, Eccles and Stockholm. For now the folksong revival appears to be a world wide phenomenon. But who would have thought it on that opening night at The Princess Louise a quarter of a century ago?
About The Singers
Ewan MacColl has been active in the British Folksong Revival since the early 1950's. In 1956, he was joined by Peggy Seeger. Since then the two of them have been active in almost every aspect of the revival, as singers, songwriters, arrangers, teachers, and as creators (with Charles Parker) of the radio-ballads. They have worked on radio, in television and films.
Peggy's American traditional songs and Ewan's Scots and English ones have combined to form a formidable repertory. They have performed on concert stages the world over. Two of their children act as accompanists on this disc.
The term blackleg was originally used to describe racehorse swindlers and gamblers who betted without intending to pay their losses, and is thought to allude to the legs of a rook, another name for a swindler. Since 1865, it has become the generally accepted term for a scab or strikebreaker. The hatred and contempt of organised workers for those who desert to the enemy is perfectly expressed in this hard-hitting song from County Durham.
THE RAMBLING MAN
This American version of "The Gaberlunyie-Man" (No. 279, Appendix, in the Child collection of ballads) has turned the Scots beggar man into a new world nomad. The ballad has rarely been collected at all in the United States, but to this day it is a favourite amongst traditional and revival singers in Scotland, where it lives a vigorous and varied life.
It isn't often that one finds a traditional ballad as lyrical and tender in feeling as this one. Here there is no blood, no cruelty, just two people in love and determined to consummate their love as quickly as possible.
JOHN J. CURTIS
This song was taken from the singing of Andrew Rada, Shenandoah. Pennsylvania in 1946. John J. Curtis was a shotfirer in the Morea Colliery and he lost his light in 1888. Thereafter, led by a boy, he roamed the anthracite region singing this ballad and selling broadsheets on which IT was printed. The text was made for him by the Lansford bard. Joseph Gallagher.
The "hero" of this song died on the gallows on January 10, 1894, in McDowell County, West Virginia. He worked for the Shawnee Coal Company and was said to be "black as a crow, over six feet tall, weighed about 200 pounds, was raw-boned and had unusually long arms." One pay-day night, he killed a man in a crap game over a dispute of twenty-five cents In the traditional song repertory, the gambler, drunkard and murderer John Hardy is occasionally confused with the epic black railroader. John Henry
Feigning death in order to entice a shy young woman into one's bed might, in these times, be regarded as an unnecessarily devious stratagem. But for Willie it works. According to Professor Child the theme "enjoys considerable popularity in European ballads" The song is a great favourite with Singers' Club audiences.
THE BALLAD OF SHARPVILLE
In I960, in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa, blacks taking part in a peaceful demonstration against the iniquitous pass-law were mowed down by the police. Sixty-seven blacks were killed in the space of seven minutes. This song was written a few days after the event. The mounting struggle of the people of Southern Africa and, in particular, the recent events in Soweto, have had the effect of maintaining the song's topicality.
I first heard this song from Elizabeth Cotten, a black woman from North Carolina who had come up to Washington D.C. It has changed since then — Libba used to play with a two-fingered left handed style, gently and with a kind of almost tender urgency. The song has now become an old favourite and has passed through the often careless hands of the revival and become many things to many people. To me. it is still Libba's song, and I have inserted another of her pieces, "The Wilson Rag" into the break in the middle.
The river Ythan rises at the Wells of Ythan in Aberdeenshire and empties into the North Sea near Newburgh, a mere 35 miles away. Not much of a competitor in the big river stakes! Nevertheless, the Ythan has inspired this almost perfect portrayal of rural courtship proving, once again, that small can be beautiful.
This story is told in North Carolina, but its theme is a common one in European folktales. Usually the central figure is a simpleton who repeats his instructions over and over, forgetting them when he stumbles.
TH' OWD CHAP
In this Lancashire version of "Our Gudeman" (Child 274), our unfortunate hero is neither drunk nor particularly scandalised by the evidence of his wife's infidelity. One feels that he has become accustomed to the weight of his horns and all that matters to him now is having the last querulous work in the verbal battle with his contemptuous spouse.
RATTLING ROARING WILLIE
The hero of this short piece is a fiddle player. Robert Burns added the third stanza as a compliment to his friend William Dunbar, a member of the Edinburgh club. The Crochallan Fencibles. And "one of the worthiest fellows in the world".
UP IN WISCONSIN
The writer of this song. Don Lange, lives in Iowa, where he drives trucks for a living. The last verse was written by Peggy.
Christine Culbert is a London teacher who hails from Yorkshire. She wrote this song as part of a song writing seminar, which took place in London in 1968.
I'M A ROVER
This handsome night visit song has become one of the great dub choruses throughout Britain. It is generally used to wind up a Saturday night at the Singers' Club.