Reviews of VTC2CD 'Songs Sung in Suffolk'


Veteran produce yet another masterpiece. For those of us with no access to private or national collections, these CDs are incomparable value. This one contains nearly all tracks from two tapes (VT102 & 103) released in 1987 and 1989. There are 28, from 11 singers. Most are recorded in kitchens (with bird noise, clocks, etc). I'm still pondering what the original recordings sounded like - I suspect most are digitally cleaned - because none of the recordings are dated (my only quibble). Veteran have otherwise provided excellent notes (16 pages) and fine photos.


The songs are a fine selection, mixing comic, romantic, patriotic, mournful and bawdy. The singers, though necessarily advanced in their careers at the time of recording, have to a man that essential ingredient - a faith in the worth of the song - to convey it to the listener. There are many fine voices and deliveries here. And many lessons for the singer starting out. We all owe John and Katie Howson so much for this remarkable offering. Essential to any singer. Delightful for anyone.

Shreds & Patches


When John Howson moved from Liverpool to Stowmarket in 1978, one motivation was to experience some of the musical tradition he knew about having met the likes of Reg Reader and Oscar Woods. What he didn't realise was that the Blaxhall `Ship' was over 30 miles from his new home. Fortunately for him - and for us - is that'John was tipped off about local men who knew some of the `old songs', and so he began an amazing quest that ended up as a number of recordings from the mid-1980's onwards.

These two CDs are compilations of six cassettes he put out on Veteran between 1987 and 1995 under the umbrella title `Songs Sung in Suffolk', each focusing on various themes, be it comedy, balladry or the sentimental. The sleeve-notes state `these recordings come from every corner of Suffolk, from remote rural hamlets to wind-blown coastal hinterlands. These are real traditional singers, village songsters who have had their songs passed down to them by their families or communities. The recordings are studio quality, although most were made in the singers' kitchens. Passing farm wagons, ticking clocks and crowing cockerels are all part of the atmosphere.' Add to that the occasional cough or clearing of the throat, and you have the informality by which such recordings were made. Another thing to appreciate when hearing the end result, is that few of the singers recorded could be considered consummate performers, with the exception of Ted Chaplin and Tony Harvey, who later went round with Howson and a group of like-minded musicians as the Old Hat Concert Party. I recall John Howson also describing Charlie Stringer as being `quite a star' when he convened local singers to meet in the pubs in the local area.

The first title, more accurately `Popular Folk Songs, Old Songs and Ballads' sung by traditional singers from Suffolk, consists of 28 items. These range from Fred Whiting singing `The Faithful Sailor' which he describes as known all the way up the east coast of England - not far wrong since both Kentish born singers George Spicer and Charlie Bridger had it in their repertoires. My personal favourites have to be Fred Whiting's version of `Sheepshearing and Thatching', `the Blacksmith's Mantrap' and `Barley Mow', which are rendered in a robust style. If I have any criticism to make, it is that many of the songs are very familiar and unremarkable to the folk `revival' - but remember - they have been handed down by real people and not book learnt.

`Comic Songs, Music Hall Songs and Parodies' continues in similar vein with the same singers. The same adverse comment can't be made here, with the exceptions being `Paddy Stole the Rope' performed here by Tony Harvey, and Cyril Barber's version of `The Old Sow' which was made famous by Leslie Sarony. Ted Chaplin is on form with `the Fella with the Trombone', but this is his sole contribution here - for his `the Wooden-legged Family' and `Is Izzy Azzy Wozz?' I had to dig up my `the Old Hat Concert Party' cassette. The acid test to the question `is it any good?' would be answered if I learn anything from it. You bet! Apart from `It Won't Take Very, Very Long' by Clifford Arbon and `Violets are Blue and Roses are Red' by Gordon Woods which Fred Cottenham of Chiddingstone once sang, I have already cast a covetous eye over `You've got a Long Way to Go' and `I was There a-Watching Them' (Tom Smith), and `I Finish Them Off (Hubert Freeman).

Folk in Kent

These two complementary CDs follow Stepping It Out in continuing the programme to reissue on CD all the material Veteran issued on cassette since the late 80s. All the advantages of the CD format over cassette are apparent here, with cleaner sound and smarter presentation (the opportunity has been taken to expand the notes – general, biographical and song-specific – and photographic content of the booklets). The recordings are modern (though I couldn’t find any dates listed), and were mostly made in the singers’ kitchens, with very occasionally passing farm wagons, ticking clocks and crowing cockerels that add to the atmosphere; the technical standard is uniformly high. The first of the two CDs concentrates on the more familiar repertoire, with standards such as Sailor Cut Down In His Prime, When Jones’s Ale Was New, The Barley Mow, The Nutting Girl, John Barleycorn and Flash Company all sturdily sung, and some to unusual tunes too; in fact, the only thing lacking is the chorus response!; however, there are also plenty of less well known songs that should be heard more often – I particularly liked Australia (poignantly sung by Geoff Ling) and Bungay Roger (by Charlie Hancy). The second CD may be more limited in appeal, as it (quite naturally) consists exclusively of songs that are comic in some sense of the word. The humour is gentle, though often bawdy and risqué, owing much to the music-hall, and there are several parodies of celebrated songs from outside the acknowledged folk canon – like Geoff Ling’s hilarious self-composed version of Among My Souvenirs that might be considered dubious taste in some quarters. Although the humour quotient is inconsistent, some of it old-fashioned and of variable quality and relevance, there’s still much richness to be mined in this lively seam, and several of these songs deserve rehabilitation. Most of the singers appear on both discs, and it’s symptomatic that you can hear almost all the words sung, whatever the speed of delivery and however pronounced the regional accent. A very entertaining pair of releases.

Folk Roundabout

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