Reviews of VT115CD 'As I went down to Horsham'


 

This release is almost worth purchasing for the booklet alone, with exemplary notes on the songs and fascinating biographies of these two fine singers. Mabs, born at the tail end of the 19th century, still possessed a sparkling voice when these recordings from the family repertoire were made in the 1980s, and son Gordon is no less engaging, whether tackling historical ballads or children's singing games.

 

Recent folk converts will be interested to hear Mab's unadorned take on 'Studying Economy', lately brought to prominence by The Devil's Interval, whilst Gordon's variant of 'The Outlandish Knight' contributes to the canon of this popular ballad. Elsewhere the range of songs is eclectic, with tragedies such as the rarely heard 'The Royal George' rubbing shoulders with the raucous humour of 'The Molecatcher', the words of which were assiduously avoided by respectable early collectors.

 

With Mabs and Gordon generally alternating songs, a particular treasure here is the inclusion of two duets amongst the dozen previously unreleased recordings, including an unusual version of 'Come Write Me Down', often associated with that other Sussex singing family the Coppers. The warmth of these performances makes this collection a real delight from start to finish.   (**** review)

Rock & Reel

 

This CD is a real gem, a wonderful selection of songs from Mabs Hall (a truly extraordinary woman by all accounts, the informative and entertaining sleeve notes documenting, amongst her plaudits, saving hundreds of workers from an explosion in a munitions factory … now you have to buy it to find out more!) and her son Gordon, who had sung these songs all his life but became particularly interested in them at the age of 48, spending his retirement ‘learning more about his mother’s songs, writing them down and spending hours in the local library researching them’.

 

You get a great sense of character, passion, fun and modesty from the voices of Mabs and Gordon Hall. Amongst the ballads, broadsides, singing games and street cries, interesting and unusual versions of ‘the canon’ feature; ‘The Outlandish Knight’, ‘Come Write Me Down’ and ‘Cecilia’ (‘The Female Highway Man’) to name but a few, as well as less well known songs.

 

The velvety-voiced Gordon sings a haunting version of the historical ballad ‘The Royal George’ and ‘Salonika’, depicting a woman’s view of the Greek port used as a base by the British Army, with a satirical, jaunty tone. ‘My Old Wife’s a Good Old Creature’ also features, in which it’s nice to hear a song about a wife who is not portrayed as a nagging, scolding, devilish creature! And ‘The Horsham Ram’, more usually known as ‘The Derby Ram’, featuring the chorus proclaiming ‘It’s a lie, a lie, a lie sir…’ As a Derbyshire girl I find this shocking, of course it’s true, is it not?

 

Mabs sings the wonderful ‘Studying Economy’, informing listeners how to live a rather lavish lifestyle on not very much money, and a beautiful version of the broadside ‘Banks of Inverness’, the infamous story of William and Mary. Her interpretation of the children’s singing games ‘Ginny Jones’ and the wonderfully comedic ‘Sweet Mother Dear’ is full of fun and cheeky spirit. This is a must!

English Dance & Song

 

In terms of quality, the Veteran label has excelled even its own exemplary standards with this CD, featuring twenty-eight songs by mother and son combination Mabs and Gordon Hall. Just under half the tracks have been previously unissued, but the reappearance of the balance in the current format is certainly most welcome.
 

What every sound recording of Gordon inevitably lacks is his tremendous physical presence and overt histrionics during his performance. Of all the singers I have ever encountered, his was certainly the most dramatic of deliveries, during which he would frequently stalk the room and gesticulate wildly in order to emphasize points in the narrative, while every line ended with an emphatic expulsion of breath which resonated like a shot from a gun. This latter feature is in evidence here, as is his periodic dropping into speech at times for emphasis. Gordon was also very fond of clever word play, and one item here (track 25), based on a letter written to Mabs by a man who never returned from the Great War, is particularly representative. He similarly follows the widespread convention of dropping words where they might prove offensive, leaving the listener to supply them mentally, based on the word that ended the preceding line.

 

Significantly perhaps, the CD features only two tracks of the duo singing in tandem (well, line and line about, that is); and, indeed, they seldom duetted on the rare occasions that Mabs could be persuaded to appear before a folk revival audience. Their version of 'Come Write Me Down' is carried by a fine modal tune, quite unlike that of the better-known version from the Copper family of Rottingdean. In later life, at any rate, Mabs had a modest repertoire that consisted of 'small' songs, which she had learned from parents, close relations, and family friends. None of her seventeen featured items runs longer than two minutes forty-five seconds, while half a dozen are of less than a minute's duration. Conversely, Gordon must have become possessed by the spirit of the noted Horsham singer Henry Burstow (1826-1916) during the period the family lived in Burstow's house. The latter claimed to know more than four hundred songs. Gordon was constantly adding to his own repertoire, so that by the end of his days he may not have fallen far short. Of his nine solo songs here, only three of the epic items lasting five minutes or more are included: 'The Outlandish Knight', 'The Horsham Ram', and his tour de force, 'The Molecatcher', this last-named--in reality two or three songs sewn together, plus an extensive recurring chorus--running to just under nine minutes. Roud index number 21 is cited, but several others ought be ascribed to it as well.

I was gratified to have formed something of a rapport with Gordon over a number of years, a relationship I have documented elsewhere. The anecdote recounted here, telling how Mabs's mother would knock a book out of her young daughter's hand, condemning reading as a waste of time, has a personal resonance. On one occasion, my partner and I were at Gordon's bungalow in Pease Pottage. Mabs and Heather were pouring over the family photograph album (numerous items from which are reproduced in the CD booklet), and when Gordon and I left the room to look at his book collection, Mabs apparently indicated her disdain. Her parents had known hard times: eight years before Mabs's birth they and their three children had been in Croydon Workhouse

 

The song notes, by Mike Yates and John Howson, are meaty, informative, and, to use current jargon, 'user-friendly'. In addition to details of historical development--they are particularly strong on broadside issues--virtually every version of each song by a 'traditional' performer available in the CD format is cited. One visual jars a little. An image of a broadside headed "The Outlandish Knight' turns out on close inspection not to be the ballad featured, but rather a song concerning a social mismatch between a knight and a labouring man's daughter. But this in no way detracts from the overall excellence of the product. A very worthwhile addition to any collection, the more so now that the stock of field recordings of English singers raised within that musically conducive but now extinct social milieu is practically exhausted. Absolutely essential.

Folk Music Journal

Some people don’t like Gordon Hall’s way of singing. He was often derided as if he was just a stereotypical pub singer - “Its now or nevour-ah, come hold me ti-ight-ah, kiss me my de-arling-ah, be mine to ne-ight-ah.” But this is not an accurate or fair description - for a start, he didn’t sing Elvis songs!  His style was loud and robust and he did use those distinct phrase-ending – “ah” sounds but there Is great intelligence behind that big voice. There are subtle changes of pace and little variations in tone and, indeed in the melody, that enrich and enliven the story. Despite the power and volume of his voice, there is what I can only describe as “tenderness”. In fact, in my personal list of great singers, he is very near the top

His mother, Mabs, was in her eighties when these recordings were made. Some reviewers have described her as “elderly” and “fragile”. One even says she’s “past her best”. I don’t think this is a fair description either as, although there are times when she strains to reach the higher notes, the overall impression is of a lifelong understanding of the songs. Even if her vocal stamina and suppleness are fading, the skill is still there. It’s not the voice that matters — it’s the ability to let the songs come through.

And this a most wonderful collection of songs. 28 tracks ranging from ancient ballads to children’s rhymes. There’s a couple of duets (in which Gordon shows that he can sing quietly when he wants to) but most tracks are solos, the majority by Mabs. She sings some very interesting and unusual pieces including Studying Economy which, despite its modern sounding title, is actually an 18th century broadside. There’s a lovely version of A Fair Maid Walking In Her Garden and a terrific

variant of Sovay, the Female Highwayman which she calls Cecilia. The tune has a loping rhythm as in the well-known Pentangle version but, here, the rhythm is nowhere near as emphatic and the story unfolds in a much more natural way. (Not that I dislike the Pentangle version but they did sometimes overdo the jazz at the expense of the story). Gordon’s contributions include The Royal George, another rare survival from the 18th century; My Old Wife’s a Good Old Creature (which makes a pleasant change from all those misogynist married man songs) and an extended version of The Molecatcher. Gordon was well-known for adding extra verses to songs and would often sing very long versions of ballads. A couple of these are included here but more can be found on another CD, “Good Things Enough” published by Country Branch. (That CD is one of my all-time favourites).

Here, I think, is the essence of English traditional singing but, like the essences one uses in cooking, it may be too strong for some palates. This CD is not going to appeal to people who prefer the weaker flavours (or watered-down pap) of modern singers like Lisa Knapp, for example. To appreciate this

CD you will need much more patience and imagination — but, believe me, the rewards are worth it.                                                                       Shreds & Patches

 

It must have been some time in the late eighties early nineties I attended a concert in Sussex hosted by Shirley Collins and featuring Bob Copper, Will Duke, Ron Spicer, Bob Lewis and Gordon and Mabs Hall. Although I was to have the enjoyment of hearing and seeing the other artists perform on many occasions, it was the only time I was to see and hear Mabs Hall and have the pleasure of experiencing the obvious delight she took in performing with son Gordon. Veteran's CD includes two hitherto unreleased duets between the two 'Come Write Me Down' and 'A Sailor from Dover' which not only highlight their enjoyment in singing together, but also their completely different singing styles. Of the 28 tracks some 12 are previously unreleased, and of these, nine are recordings of Mabs. Although some are brief, they are still very much of interest, especially her versions of the Victorian singing games 'Sweet Mother Dear' and 'We Won't Go Home Until Morning /Push The Business On'. From Gordon we get one unreleased six and a half minute version of 'The Outlandish Knight' but of the remaining previously released tracks five I think are from the Veteran tape by Gordon 'In Horsham Town' which is no longer available, and includes 'The Royal George, 'Sweet Lavender' and his characteristically enlarged version of 'The Molecatcher'. Although his rather idiosyncratic style and charismatic delivery make Gordon possibly less accessible than his mother and other traditional singers from his locality, I suggest rising to the challenge is well worth the effort. As with previous releases, the packaging and informative booklet continue to maintain the high standards we. have come to expect from the Veteran label.

Folk London

 

"As I Went Down To Horsham" Mabs & Gordon Hall. VT115, 28 tracks, 64 minutes.

Gordon and his mum have appeared on several Veteran recordings, and here we have a round-up with others previously unavailable. This is a delightful collection of originals. Words on website.

Folk Kernow

 

This new release from Veteran has over an hour of songs from Mabs and Gordon Hall - mother and son from a West Sussex singing family. Thirteen of the twenty eight tracks have never been previously released. They range from mighty ballads from Gordon Hall to Victorian children's singing games from Mabs. The recordings were made by Mike Yates and John Howson. There are extensive sleeve notes and photographs which give an in-depth biography of both singers and their family. The notes on the songs are, as one would expect from Veteran, exhaustively comprehensive. You get Roud numbers. comparative versions mentioned and other sources of variants on record with catalogue numbers. Wonderful help for serious students of traditional song.
 

It is a great shame that Mabs (1899 - 1992) was not recorded in her youth as her sweet and gentle voice shows signs of considerable age in these recordings. She must have been a very compelling singer when she was younger. I would have liked to know more about when the recordings were actually done. We are told that Mike Yates heard her sing when he arranged to record Gordon and subsequently arranged a gig for them at Islington Folk Club in 1985, so one must surmise that the recordings were made that year when she was 86. Her ability to impart a song and get under the skin of it is masterly. Just listen to Cecilia (a version of Sovay). She has a very straightforward delivery - no frills and trills - which is delightful to listen to. She had a comprehensive repertoire of broadsides, ballads, music hall songs, humorous ditties and singing games, many of which have never been recorded elsewhere. She got them from friends, family and, having worked behind a bar in her youth no doubt got some from hearing them in the pub. She was blessed with a remarkable memory - an enviable asset in a singer. There is an excellent sample of her singing repertoire on this CD, though I am not sure why Cruel Frederick, a spoken excerpt from Struwwelpeter, has been included. Surely we all remember that from our own early schooldays and it is hardly original, or even English in origin.

Gordon Hall (1932 - 2000) is difficult to categorise as a singer. He learnt some songs from his years as a youth living in London and many from the family, so he has impeccable source singer credentials. But, he spent his retirement years researching songs in libraries so he could add to traditional versions of songs he had from literary sources which is a characteristic of the revival singer. His style owes something to travellers' voice production and seems to resemble his mother's hardly at all although when they sing alternate verses as they do in Come Write Me Down they go together surprisingly well. Many commentators remark that his singing was extremely idiosyncratic. He puts extra syllables indiscriminately into any word that is slurred. He also adds the syllable - ha to the end of every line, although reportedly those who heard him sing live never complained of this. But in a recording it can get very annoying. He was noted for having the longest versions of ballads which he would tailor to his live audiences by omitting or adding verses as the fancy took him. Examples of his ballad compilations on this CD are: The Outlandish Knight which runs to 61/2 minutes, The Horsham Ram (a version of The Derby Ram) at nearly 6 minutes and the last track is nearly nine minutes of The Molecatcher. Quite a feat of memory and stamina. By the end of the record he either grows on you or you have switched off entirely. The juxtaposition of Gordon and Mabs helps reduce the likelihood of listener "turn-off' by giving a variety to the delivery and overall feel to the CD.
 

Congratulations to Veteran for putting out this superbly-produced CD of historic material. I am particularly impressed by the booklet which is full of information that adds to the enjoyment of the songs. Whilst I am willing to bet that it will not get into the charts of best-sellers, for those of us who long to hear more of how singing was done in the past it will occupy a prominent place in my CD collection.

Mardles

 

The Hall family of Horsham, West Sussex was a singing family, yet unlike the members of other more well-known “singing families”, Mabs and her four sons would sing mostly at family gatherings; they did not frequent folk clubs, and not all their songs were folk songs. One of the sons, Gordon, developed his own arguably quite idiosyncratic singing style entirely independently of the “folk” scene, for he had no specific knowledge of that scene until a visit to a folk club in the early 1980s and a chance reading of a folk magazine article about Bob Copper, whom he subsequently visited with his mother. These occurrences made him realise that his mother’s “quaint old songs” were more important than he’d hitherto realised, and so he devoted his retirement to researching these and other songs from the folk corpus. Word got round about Gordon’s dynamic singing and unusual songs, and Mike Yates recorded both Gordon and his mother in the mid-1980s.

Gordon (who died in 2000) was a fine singer indeed, with a truly unmistakable, forthright and intensely commanding (and loud!) delivery and a rich, full tone. Some distinctive features of his style (such as his penchant for emphasising ends of lines with an exaggerated “ya”) verge on mannerism, and not everyone will warm to his singing (some folks found it positively intimidating!), but I find it easier to get used to than the interpretive quirks of some other more widely feted traditional singers and in the end Gordon’s striking individuality and his compelling passion amply win through any initial misgivings. Mabs was a singer of charm and character too, and although by the time she was recorded (then in her 80s) she lacked the evenness of tone and delivery with which Gordon was blessed she was still in remarkably good voice. The drawback was that by that time she had forgotten many of her songs, and so the majority of these recordings of Mabs are either short songs (including fascinating variants such as Cecilia) or fragmentary performances.

This disc has 28 tracks, out of which Mabs gives us 16 songs and one decidedly macabre little poem, whereas Mabs duets with Gordon on just two selections (including a strange – to our Coppered ears! – variant of 'Come Write Me Down'). The remaining ten songs present Gordon in typically formidable full fettle, and although he was known for singing the fullest versions of his songs he would equally readily crop or omit verses in performance depending on his mood or how he was being received. Having said that, none of his renditions ever seem to drag or go on too long – you can decide for yourself on the marathon (eight-minute) rendition of 'The Molecatcher' or the comparatively brief six-minute 'Outlandish Knight' and Horsham Ram – a variant of the famous Derby beast. Gordon’s take on 'The Bitter Whaling (amusingly typo-ed as Wailing on the outer track list!) Grounds' is suitably persuasive, and economic at just two and a half minutes, while his gloriously stentorian 'Sweet Lavender' street-cry would certainly persuade me to buy his wares! One or two of his performances (eg 'Blandford In The Mud', 'Salonika') verge on the “shouty” maybe, but I’d much rather hear this kind of unbridled involvement with a song any day than experience an anodyne rendition. In fact, I find Gordon’s singing both captivating and hugely enjoyable; if you do too, then I’d urge you to acquire his solo CD Good Things Enough (on the Country Branch label, and also available from Veteran’s mail order service), also seeking out the four other Veteran releases which include tracks by him.

Even if you’re not totally won over, you can’t deny the importance of this treasurable release (which by the way comes with the usual excellent, fulsome standard of booklet) in bringing to our attention two under-appreciated traditional singers.

Acoustic Rotherham (David Kidman)

 

This CD is made up of collated field recordings of two of the most prolific traditional singers to come out of Sussex, Mabs and her son Gordon Hall. Sadly both are now deceased, Mabs at 93 in 1992 and Gordon at 68 in 2000 so I suppose that this collection could be regarded as definitive. Some tracks were released on earlier tapes, but 12 of the 28 tracks are previously unreleased.

The recordings are sharp and clear and provide a wonderful insight into the repertoires of this couple, with Mab’s voice obviously that of an elderly woman but still remarkably clear and strong, and Gordon’s the deep and resonant, if slightly nasal, bass it always was.

The songs are a varied selection from Broadsides, Victorian Music Hall, Children’s Ditties and the Traditional, and range from snatches, (mainly from Mabs, and all the more intriguing for that), to the full blown ‘The Molecatcher’ (Gordon’s and 8.43 mins long). The highlights for me were ‘Come Write Me Down’, a slightly different version to The Copper Family’s, with a different tune; ‘William Taylor’ by Mabs (sadly just a snatch); ‘The Horsham Ram’ from Gordon, obviously related to the more famous Derby version; ‘Coming Home Late’ (Mabs and related to ‘Seven Drunken Nights’) and finally ‘The Bitter Whaling Ground’ by Gordon. But this is only a first impression selection and given the chance I’d probably list most of the 28 tracks

The CD presentation is excellent with a 24 page booklet with the life stories of both participants, learned notes on the songs and photographs bringing the pair to life.

 

Unicorn magazine
 


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