BELINDA KEMPSTER & FRAN FOOTE – On Clay Hill (From Here Records SITW013CD)

On Clay HillAny recording that comes out of the Stick In The Wheel stable is worth listening to and if you’re familiar with their From Here collections On Clay Hill will delight you. If you aren’t acquainted with them, go and rectify that immediately. Fran Foote is SITW’s harmony singer and Belinda Kempster is her mother, making Fran the third generation of singers in the family (at least) since many of these songs come from her great-uncle, Ernie Austin.

So what we have here is a collection of traditional songs, many of which are Essex variants differing slightly from what we think of as the “standard” versions. The album begins with ‘John Barleycorn’, which Ernie recorded on Flash Company for Topic way back in 1974. The story is familiar but this version is new to me – don’t ever say that traditional music can’t throw up anything new. ‘The Sheep Shearing Song’ (otherwise ‘Rosebud In June’) is from the Copper Family and Belinda and Fran treat to a rather mournful shruti box accompaniment – the only instrument used on the record. ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’, ‘Bushes And Briars’ and ‘Female Drummer’ are all well-known but coming from a family tradition in this way gives them a special frisson. The harmonies on ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’ are wonderful.

‘Little Bugger’ is a song that Ernie wouldn’t sing in mixed company. The song is a version of ‘The Crayfish’ but Belinda and Fran gave it a new title from his version. ‘Dearly Missed’ is Ernie’s title for ‘The Blue Cockade’, performed with the drone of the shruti box and tight harmonies. In spite of the sad story it has a happy ending in the shape of a final verse that I hadn’t heard before. ‘Nutting Girl’ has an unusual chorus and ‘Knife In The Window’ is another song with several titles and shares a tune with ‘Hares On The Mountain’. There is still some confusion as to who’s small clothes are actually cut but never mind. ‘Bonny Labouring Boy’ and ‘Tarry Trousers’ both differ from more well-known versions.

The final track of On Clay Hill is ‘Ernie’s Song’, a brief snippet of him singing the first verse of a music hall song performed on the boards by Sam Mayo. It sort of brings things full circle.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Dark Eyed Sailor’:

Belinda Kempster and Fran Foote – new album feature

Belinda Kempster and Fan Foote

From Here Records release On Clay Hill, Stick In The Wheel harmony singer Fran Foote’s debut album with her mother, Belinda Kempster.

Belinda began singing traditional songs in the 1960s:

“Our family has a history of farming and working on the land; these songs come from that way of life – at work and at play”.

She met her husband in a folk club, and Fran grew up immersed in the local folk scene, learning songs from her parents from a very young age. As mother and daughter, Fran and Belinda have sung together privately for years, but it’s only now we all have a chance to hear Ian Carter’s recordings of their unique interpretations of mostly Essex-collected traditional songs. Encouraged by band and label founders Nicola and Ian, they bring timeless renditions without frills or fuss to a repertoire that is rich and varied.

Many of their songs were learned from Fran’s great uncle and farm labourer Ernie Austin, who was recorded for Topic’s Voice Of The People release Flash Company in 1974. Austin lived and worked in the small village of Bentley, just outside Colchester, and sang songs related to his work and recreation. Stuff you’d sing down the pub.

‘Ernest Austin is now 83 years of age and he lives in a small village to the east of Colchester in Essex. He left school at 12 to work as a kitchen boy in a farmhouse, earning 3/6d in return for a 60-hour week. For most of his early life he worked on the land as a farm labourer until, with experience, he became an agricultural engineer, retiring at the age of 70.’ Flash Company, Topic Records sleevenotes

This collection of songs are made up of those taught to Belinda by Ernie and from private family recordings. Also included are personal favourites from Belinda’s repertoire: “we want our family’s music to be documented – this is the tradition of our family and singing these songs together feels like coming home”. Clay Hill Road is an area of Basildon that Belinda and Fran have always lived near.

Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter set up From Here Records to release their own Stick In The Wheel material. This has expanded into a label concerned with the transmission of English folk music and culture into the wider world, including the critically acclaimed and ongoing project English Folk Field Recordings, and now their harmony singer Fran Foote.

Label website for pre-orders:

‘Dark Eyed Sailor’ – official video:

VARIOUS ARTISTS – From Here – English Folk Field Recordings Volume 2 (From Here Records SITW011CD)

From Here Volume 2Curated by Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey of Stick In The Wheel, the second volume of From Here is every bit as intriguing and entertaining as its predecessor. Recorded wherever the artists were with just two microphones, these performances are sometimes raw and earthy and sometimes delicate and beautiful. Some of the artists are well known, others less so and same is true of the music.

There is a sort of chronology about the album. It begins with what Nancy Kerr calls a mediaeval song, ‘Gan Tae The Kye’, which she pairs with a popular north-eastern tune ‘Peacock Followed The Hen’. From the same geographical area comes ‘The Sandgate Dandling Song’ sung by Rachel Unthank and I must admit that I’ve never really listened to it properly. It’s a lullaby, yes, but with a very hard story wrapped up in it and Rachel’s matter-of-fact delivery emphasises the hardship. The first instrumental set is the delightful ‘Cottenham Medley’ by C Joynes, about whom I know almost nothing.other than the fact that he lives in Cambridgeshire. The other two sets are from the north-east: Kathryn Tickell’s dazzling ‘Bonnie Pit Laddie/ Lads Of Alnwick’ and ‘Nancy Clough’ by Sandra and Nancy Kerr, who thus gets to open and close the set.

The chronology begins to break down now. Richard Dawson’s ‘The Almsgiver’ sounds old but which Richard wrote recently and is perfectly in keeping with the feeling of the project. You may think you know ‘Barbera Allen’ but this version by Mary Hymphreys & Anahata will be new to most listeners. Coincidentally (or not) it also comes from Cottingham. June Tabor revisits ‘The Kng Of Rome’ and rising star Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne tackles ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’. There are two distinct versions of this song, both by Charles Coborn, and Cohen goes for the political one. Both this and ‘The King Of Rome’ are set around the turn of the 20th century even though the latter was written much more recently. Appropriately, they are followed by Grace Petrie’s ‘A Young Woman’s Tale’, her updating of a song that began with the words “At the turning of the century…”, a clever juxtapositioning. Politics – although with a small “p” – return with Chris Wood’s ‘So Much To Defend’ which would appear to be made up of true stories.

Other, but not lesser, artists are Cath & Phil Tyler, Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp and Belinda Kempster, who is the mother of SITW’s Fran Foote and a very fine singer, now working as a duo with her daughter. That sort of emphasises the idea that we’re listening to a continuing tradition that has been caught in a moment of time.

Dai Jeffries

Label website:

Nancy Kerr – ‘Gan Tae The Kye/Peacock Followed The Hen’ – the video of the recording: