When someone gathers together traditional folk songs from a particular region, it generally tends to be the case that these are from Up North, Down South or to the West Country. The Midlands tend to be less well-served, despite a rich seam there to be mined. Indeed, a search of the Internet suggests that the last time anyone compiled such a collection was back in 1971 with the Roy Palmer-curated The Wide Midlands – Songs, Stories And Tunes from the Central Countries.
However, this sorry situation has now been put to rights by Jon Wilks, a Solihull-born Brummie journalist and singer whose interest in folk music was sparked on discovering his grandparents met and courted at grandparents met and ‘courted’ at Cecil Sharp House. Today he runs Grizzly Folk, an online blog dedicated to traditional folk and music hall songs from in and around Birmingham, Midlife, sung in a proud Brummagen accent, the result of over a year’s research, being a natural progression.
His two main sources are Palmer, obviously, and Cecilia Costello, a singer of Irish decent born near the Bull Ring in Digbeth in 1884 who variously worked making screws and as a brass polisher in the Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary in Winson Green. Her own recordings, collected in 1951 and 1954 by Marie Slocombe from the BBC Sound Archive, can be found on an album released in 1975.
The material there was wide-ranging, but her contribution here is very much rooted in the streets where she grew up. An amalgamation of two different songs, as you might surmise ‘Aye For Saturday Night (My Bloke’s a Peaky)’ is a reference to the Peaky Blinders gang. The first song raises a rousing glass to drinking and other weekend carousing, bookending the lines
“My bloke’s a Peaky, and he’s none the worse for that;
He’s got bell-bottomed trousers and a Peaky Blinders’ hat;
He’s got rings on his fingers, and round his neck a daf,
So all you nosey-parkers can take it out of that”
a fragment of a folk poem set to a tune by Wilks.
The collection actually begins out of Birmingham, with ‘The Brave Dudley Boys’, a song collected by Palmer and featured on The Wide Midlands about 18th century activists the Dudley Colliers. Opening with the anachronistic sound of a steam train (the first wasn’t operational in the UK until 1802) and set to a hammering industrial rhythm and distortion effects with shanty-like “yah boy ho” backing vocals, it recalls “the days of good queen Bess” when they led a riot against escalating food prices and low employment at the tail end of the 1780s, things being defused before they got out of hand by pacifier Lord Dudley Ward who calmed the men and held back the advancing soldiers.
Sounding a particularly resonant note given the new and lost landmarks and the labyrinth of road works and diversions currently taking place in the city, the amusing handclap stomp and ragtime picked ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ is ascribed to music hall performer James Hobbs and recounts some poor bloke returning to his home city and not recognising it, albeit Wilks has updated the lyric to include several contemporary references such as long vanished pub The Ship Ashore and veteran nightclub Snobs, recently relocated after forty odd years on its original site.
Accompanied by acoustic guitar, the Irish roots of ‘Navvy Boots’ can be clearly heard (unsurprisingly, The Dubliners recorded a version), a song collected in Pelsall Common near Walsall in 1967 when sung by Eileen Hannoran, a traveller, to members of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre. While it may have its roots in the many Irish emigrants who worked as navvies in the Midlands on the construction of the railways and canals, the song itself tells of one such labourer who spends the night with his lover, boots still on, and ends up having pay child maintenance for his fun.
Up until as late as the mid-nineteenth century it was apparently not uncommon for there to be wife-selling markets up and down the country, the wives often willing participants eager to rid themselves of some shiftless husband given that divorce was hard to come by, and is recorded here in two songs, ‘John Hobbs’ and ‘Bandy-Legged Lett’, the latter reprised in demo form as the final track.
Fingerpicked, the first tells of an unfortunate shoemaker who found his wife Jane to be a right “tartar” and when he found no buyers at Smithfield market hung himself with the rope he used to drag her there. The second, found in Bilston Library by Jon Raven who recorded it on his Kate of Coalbrookdale album, is a more humorous rowdy calypso stompalong as Samuel Lett looks to flog off wife Sally, “good looking and sound as a bell”, but with a voice like one too and eating and drinking him out of house and home.
His missus has no connection to ‘Birmingham Sally’, an unaccompanied tale of star-crossed lovers kept apart by class and economic barriers, that dates back to the early 1800s and also features on The Wide Midlands, sung there in a female voice, by Chris Richards. Meanwhile, built on a throbbing bassline, the instrumental ‘Buffoon’ gives the original Morris tune a whirligig dancefloor Hammond organ groove that kind of sounds like a mash up of the Albions and Men Without Hats.
Set to cascading notes, the music hall-styled waltzer ‘Colin’s Ghost’ is one of two songs collected in 1906 in Kings Norton from a Mrs. Webb and has nothing to do with spectral matters, being, rather, the tale of how a young maiden discovers the supposed ghost haunting the village lanes is, in fact, a rather comely shepherd with whom she strikes up a far from disembodied relationship. The other Webb-derived song is the fingerpicked ‘Adieu, Adieu’, also known as ‘The Flash Lad’ and recorded by pretty much anyone who’s anyone in folk music, from Roy Bailey, The Watersons and Fairport to Richard Thompson, Eliza Carthy and Brass Monkey, the lyrics here an amalgam of various versions.
The remaining number comes from Roy Palmer’s book, Songs Of The Midlands. Collected from G. Hayward, an actor with a mummers troupe in Newbold, in 1899 by W.H.D. Rouse, ‘There Was An Old Man Came Over The Sea’ is a stark ballad, the acoustic accompaniment punctuated by dry drums, electric guitar solo and cattle prod jolts, about a woman reluctantly forced by her mother into marriage and bed with a snivelling and snuffling decrepit old coot who then dies, presumably from the exertions of the night.
The folk tradition of the Midlands, and particularly Birmingham, has been pretty much ignored for the past 50 years, the likes of singers and collectors such as Costello and George Dunn little known outside of dyed-in-the-wool folk circles. With this album, Wilks may have hopefully lit a torch to attract other moths to the flame.
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‘Colin’s Ghost’ – live: