DAVID MILTON – Songs From The Bell Man (Story Records Strec1801)

Songs From The Bell ManProduced by and featuring Ange Hardy, this is the debut album by an affable chap from her home town of Watchet in Somerset who, in addition to running weekly shanty nights down the pub and being an established stone sculptor also serves as the local football referee and Punch and Judy Man. Not to mention, holding the position of Town Crier, hence the album’s title, Songs From The Bell Man. And, of course, that commanding voice.

Joined by Lukas Drinkwater on double bass, Archie Churchill-Moss on accordion fiddle player Tom Moore, and percussionist Olly Winters-Owen, with shanty vocal contributions from The Old Gaffers, it’s a collection of both traditional and self-penned songs documenting Watchet’s long history. Case in point being album opener ‘The Watchet Sailor’, a tale about hearts-stealing Jack Tars that he first learned when he was about eight, sung unaccompanied.

The first of the original material follows, accordion backdropping ‘The Last Shift In’, a catchy waltzer lament for the closing of the Wansborough Paper Mill, where he once worked, in 2015 after over 260 years, the intro of ‘Wasson Boy’ being a greeting at shift change to see if all as going well. A Celtic melody setting of Tennyson’s poem with Hardy on whistle, ‘Crossing The Bar’ tips the hat to a former Watchet crier, one Yankee Jack, it being one of his favourite songs. A familiar shanty, ‘Greenland Fisheries’ returns to traditional waters, the maritime imagery carried over into the self-penned ‘The Last Long Ship’, another Celtic mist melody carrying the poignant story him joining a recently widowed Watchet lady to bid farewell to her husband by consigning his ashes to a Viking funeral, a flock of geese flying past in perfect formation to the flickering flames.

It’s back to traditional shanty shores with the unaccompanied ‘Won’t You Go My Way’, another song learned from Yankee Jack, the Old Gaffers singing the title refrain and the number flowing into the lengthily titled Morris tune ‘Oh dear mother what a fool I’ve been. Six young fellows came a courting me. Five were blind and the other couldn’t see. Oh dear mother what a fool I’ve been.’

Another melancholic gentle waltzer with music hall influences, ‘Emma Louise’ dates back to Milton’s days working at the mill some thirty years back, a love song not to some young lass but a boat, or at least his fanciful imaging of two sail boats he knew about, the lyric another lament for something that’s come to end of its useful life.

The final Milton song, ‘Old Be’n, nods to another former member of the Court Leet, Ben Norman and the wealth of local history knowledge about Watchet harbour he carried with him. If you’re looking for comparisons, this one points to Stan Rogers.

It ends with two unaccompanied traditional numbers, ‘Row On Row On’ being a setting by Tim Laycock to words from the 1864 journal of a New Bedford whaler concerning fears of an approaching storm and arousing reading of ‘Bye Bye My Roseanna’, a shanty cocktail of Scandinavian and Mississippi versions of the song about a sailor’s ocean-roaming life. A fine album indeed, Oyez, oyez.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.songsfromthebellman.co.uk