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Reviews of VTD8CD 'Many a Good Horseman'

Nobody's going to claim that Veteran releases will appeal to everyone, but for the enthusiast of popular traditional music-making, they are as good as it gets. Here we have a welcome opportunity to replace old cassette copies of these mid-Suffolk field recordings from 1958 -1993 with shiny new, digitally polished versions.

With its singers, melodeon players and mouth organ players-the latter including the likes of Jack Pearson and Alf Cresswell, who simultaneously accompanied themselves on bones - this offers a captivating insight into the vigorous musical culture of a remarkably compact geographical area. Amongst the earliest recordings are Emily Sparkes and bricklayer Stan Steggles, both characterful singers of traditional ballads - the former's wistful 'The Iron Door' complete with chiming domestic clock, the
latter more resonantly captured in the local pub.


Throughout the ensuing thirty-five years covered, the repertoire gleefully mixes ballads, music hall and popular song of the 19th and 20th centuries, to illustrate what 'traditional' really means within the context of a local community. As always with Veteran, a chunky booklet offers a treasure trove of pictures and information on songs and performers, making this release a must for anyone with an interest in 'the music of the people'. (***** review)

R2 (Rock & Reel)

In 1985, John Howson published a survey of traditional music from the Stowmarket area, supplemented in 1993 by a double cassette of recordings.

In itself this was rare and valuable record of a disappearing world of East Anglian singers and musicians. It gave a unique insight into styles of playing and singing that would hardly be encouraged in the mainstream world of folk music, but which have influenced many of the finest performers in the genre. These recordings, after undergoing sound enhancement using today's technology, have been re-released as a fascinating 78-track double CD on John's Veteran label, and it makes a fine addition to his portfolio.


Recording quality is about as good as you can get from the period, forgiving occasional ticking clocks and other background noises, and one is quickly absorbed into a wide range of ballads, popular songs of the time and dance tunes. One is drawn into the world of the old-time rural pub session, in which mighty songs such as 'Barbara Allen', 'Bonny Bunch of Roses' and 'Died for Love' rub shoulders happily with dance tunes, 'Yellow Rose of Texas', 'Lassie from Lancashire' and comic items such as 'Trousers on the Door' in a mix typical of the period. It is remarkable that ballads such as 'Banks of the Sweet Dundee' seem to have as many tunes as singers, and a couple of versions by Stan Steggles and Charlie Carver demonstrate this well.


The tunes are often well-known, simple melodies that at first glance would not seem to be particularly special, but it is striking to hear how these performers could create such lift in their music, probably as a consequence of the close association with step dancing. This collection of precious recordings is a joy to hear and also a most useful historical record that effectively captures the essence of a unique regional tradition.


English Dance & Song


This is a mighty double CD of recordings of traditional singers and musicians from mid Suffolk. It was first released as two cassettes with John Howson's book of the same title in 1985. The tracks have been digitally spruced up, and the liner notes have the quality and detail to be expected from the Veteran label. Most of the 150 minutes worth of recordings were made by John in the late 70s and early 80s, but there are earlier ones recorded in 1958 to 1960 by Desmond and Shelagh Herring. The area, centred on Stowmarket, has been less heavily researched than East Suffolk (Blaxhall, Cyril Poacher, Jumbo Brightwell, etc). It provides another invaluable archive of traditional music making by an older generation of local people in their pubs and homes. All will have passed on by now.


Listening to it brings more smiles than elegiac sadness. You can hear pub chatter and the clink of glasses in the background. Clocks tick in people's houses, and cars drive by. And this is music for fun. There are music hall songs and popular songs from the radio alongside the melodrama of traditional songs. The lively polkas and hornpipes are for dancing to. The favoured instruments are melodeons and mouth organs. Perhaps there is a touch less self-awareness than in the East Suffolk recordings. Singers of particular note include Gordon Syrett recorded at Mendlesham Green, Stan Steggles and Emily Sparkes at Rattlesden, and Charlie Carver at Tostock. Reg Pyett, recorded at home in Mendlesham, is notable among the melodeon players. But there are too many performers to mention. The enthusiasts who will buy this album will honour their memories and carry on their music in different ways through a community of interest.

The Living Tradition


In 1985, John Howson's research into the traditional folk music of mid-Suffolk were published in a book. It traced village by village characters who played, sang and danced in the pubs around Stowmarket. The cassettes from that project have now been digitally edited, enhanced and released as a double CD of 39 tracks each.

Not only do these make darn good listening they are also an intriguing insight into the social history of the area. Emily Sparkes - `Sweet William', `The Iron Door', `The Fox & The Hare' and Stan Steggles `Eggs & Bacon', `Banks of the Sweet Dundee', `Bonny Bunch of Roses' have remarkable repertoires that have been handed down through generations of their families. A lively recording from Tostock Gardeners Arms in 1960 has Charlie Carver giving renditions of `Faithful Sailor', `Sweet William' and `Blackberry Fold' amongst others. There's `Buttercup Joe' from an unknown singer at Tostock. Gordon Syrett sings `Mistletoe Bough' and `Jim the Carter's Lad'. There's melodeon players, Reg Pyatt -'Yellow Rose of Texas': Accordion players, Tom Smith - `Cuckoo Waltz' and no less than seven mouthorgan players, two of them mastering playing the bones at the same time.

A 32 page booklet gives bi-ogs and photos and extensive notes about the songs and tunes. Many of the tunes can be found in EATMT's book 'Before the Night was out'. Veteran can be congratulated on their continuing release of these source singers. Much material would be lost without them.


Around Kent Folk


This double album was first published on cassettes in 1985, along with a wonderful book, subtitled "A survey of traditional music making in Mid Suffolk". But these CDs present a much clearer sound than the cassette tapes through the use of modern equipment. So much so that, despite having the tapes for any years, I can hear lots of things that I'd never noticed before.

And what wonderful things are there! Most of these recordings were done by John Howson in the early 1980s but there are some earlier pieces from rare archives. The title may give you some idea of what to expect. It, comes from an old man's comment if a singer forgot his words, referring to the fact that even a good horseman might hit a stone while ploughing and have to retrace his steps to straighten the furrow. Thus, some of these singers may forget their words or stumble over the tune but, in the end, the whole field is well ploughed. This is where our traditions have had their roots sustained and they are ripe for harvesting by anyone who wishes to learn the old songs and tunes as they were played in the old days.

A full track-list, notes and all the words of the songs can be found on the website. Plus, of course, lots of other wonderful CDs, tapes and books. The Veteran catalogue is a real treasure trove and these CDs are pure gold.

Shreds and Patches


 This is a collection of field recordings made in Mid-Suffolk between 1958 and 1993 and previously released on audio cassette although the double CD has three new tracks and one omission.

I am always a bit nervous about reviewing this type of recording as the factors that govern inclusion are influenced by scholarly considerations rather than entertainment. The 78 songs and tunes have been recorded in a variety of domestic and public locations with equipment of varying quality. Despite remastering some of the tracks require close attention.

What we have is an invaluable archive of material actually performed by 28 rural singers and musicians in the second half of the twentieth century in their homes or in the pubs. The material ranges from the traditional to musical hall and vaudeville including two versions of Suffolk's favourite piece of Victorian sentimentality 'The Faithful Sailor'.

As with all Veteran releases there is a bulky set of notes on every track and potted biographies of the performers. This can be purchased direct at www.veteran.co.uk or look out for John Howson's stall at events like the Stowmarket Traditional Music Day.

Folk London

This is an extremely important archive of the performances of singers and musicians, most of whom are no longer with us. It was originally released on two cassettes along with John Howson's book of the same name, published in 1985. The recordings have been remastered from digital copies of the original tapes now in the British Library National Sound Archive, giving a clearer and more comfortable listening experience than the originals. The whole production is exceptionally well-produced and deserves a place in the collection of every East Anglian music library and every traditional music

The sleeve notes are, as with all Veteran productions, extremely comprehensive and informative. There is even more information about the singers and the words of all the songs on the Veteran website: www.veteran.co.uk. This set of recordings is probably not going to sell in its thousands, though anyone who has any interest in real traditional singing or tune-playing from the 'old boys' would gain immeasurably from buying and listening to the songs and tunes and snippets of talk by these performers. Like much of the Veteran output its value lies in its preservation of original performances so they can be used as reference points for style and repertoire in the future.

Sam Steggles recorded in Rattlesden in 1958 has a superb version of Bonny Bunch of Roses. Emily Sparkes, recorded in the same village in 1958/9 by Desmond and Shelagh Herring had some interesting variants of ballads that occur throughout the UK: Oxford City, Earl Richard, Died for Love and No Sir No. Many of the singers were elderly when recorded, so were probably not at the peak of their performing best when recorded, but in many cases technique has not departed with age and the ability to put over a story in song still shines through. Charlie Carver recorded in the Tostock Gardener's Arms had a great way with a song - it is a shame there are so few recordings of him. Fortunately Hubert Smith was only in his 50s when recorded at Thorpe Morieux in 1983 and it is quite clear we are listening to a relatively young man with a good vocal technique. The most recent recording is of Stowmarket's George Wade playing a popular tune medley on mouthorgan in 1993 at Haughley.

I am mystified as to the logic behind the order in which the songs were arranged on the original tapes, and why this original order is retained on the CDs. They were not arranged chronologically, geographically nor in alphabetical order of singer or song. It is a pity that the opportunity was not taken to have all the songs from one singer grouped together in order to hear the whole recorded repertoire of each singer - something that a student of technique might have preferred, though this might have made for a less immediately listenable pair of CDs. But that is really only a little niggle.
That aside, John Howson and Veteran deserve a big round of applause for making available in much more listener-friendly form this beautifully-produced and researched set of CDs.



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