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Reviews of VT145CD 'The Gower Nightingale'


"Phil Tanner – The Gower Nightingale" is another masterpiece. Presented in one of those nice big CD cases (like "Voice of the People" and the Copper family offering), this production sums up everything that is so good about the way John Howson sets about his work.


If, like me, you grew up in a house with no TV but with parents addicted to radio, the voice of Wynford Vaughan Thomas will be one of those memory jolts, like the smell of railway steam, and the Sig. Tune for "Housewives' Choice". "The Countryside In …" series was as evocative a piece of broadcasting as any that the BBC has ever produced. Thomas’ voice, from a 1976 radio programme about Phil Tanner, opens this recording, and is a simply stunning piece of production, a beautiful piece of juxtaposition.


The recordings are from the 30s and 40s, some by Columbia, some by the BBC, but have been re-engineered and restored in such a way that they are as fresh as next week. Apparently, some of the tracks were at one point left to rot in the BBC archive because they weren’t of "sufficiently good quality for processing". How technology has progressed, and how Charlie Crump must be praised for his CEDAR work.


But I am not here just to praise technological wizardry. Phil Tanner’s voice and repertoire are worth the purchase price on their own. "Sweet Primroses" and "The Gower Wassail" are two high points, but not the only ones. "Barbara Allen" makes a welcome appearance along with, guess who, "Fair Phoebe and the Dark Eyed Sailor". There is also some fascinating "mouth music" in the form of the "Gower Reel". Sung for weddings as it apparently was, there is perhaps a poignant sociological significance attached to this music through the poverty of the times, but it is also great fun.


And before you start confusing me with any sort of expert, the accompanying booklet is, as always, full of accessible information and detailed research. The notes have a lot to say about the music, but they also set it in its background, and give it far more meaning than the recordings on their own could ever do. Another fine example with which to end.



A superb package from the Veteran label who have probably done more than any other to keep archive material of classic UK folk singers and musicians commercially available. The CD comes in a maxicase with 48 page book giving a biography of the singer, song notes and information on life in the Gower peninsular in the first half of the last centuy when Phil Tanner was growing up and living in the area. The album includes a classic radio broadcast by Welsh author and folklorist Wynford Vaughan Thomas, plus recordings from the 30s and 40s including his classic BBC sessions. All of the songs are in English, as the Gower at the time was an area of Wales that in many ways had closer links with the Westcountry than with Welsh speaking areas. This is classic, quality singing and mouthmusic, lovingly remastered and packaged and given the treatment it deserves. The singing of Tanner conveys many emotions but what shines through is an element of mischievousness coupled with a joy of singing, and doubtless of living, in a simple yet close rural Welsh community. Well done Veteran!

worldmusic.org.uk & Spire Folk


This CD is a tribute to one of the finest traditional singers of the twentieth century, Phil Tanner. With an introduction by Wynford Vaughan Thomas taken from the programme Amiable Eccentrics which was broadcast on Radio 4 in 1976, to put the singer and the recordings into context, it evokes a time when life was at a gentler pace, expectations were simpler and many of the comforts of contemporary life were beyond imagination Phil Tanner, the "Gower Nightingale" died in 1950 aged 88.


This album is a compilation of recordings from the Columbia recordings initiated by the folk song collector Maud Karpeles under the auspices of The Folk Song Society in 1936, and recordings made by the BBC in 1937 and 1949. The latter are now part of the archive of the Museum of Welsh Life. Using recordings from different sources and two decades, there is inevitably some overlap with two sets of the Gower Reel, The Sweet Primroses and the Gower Wassail, but this enhances the CD as a documentary source.


Phil Tanner's voice is a delight. The ease with which he sings reflects the times and enchants the listener and, despite his age at the time of the recordings, his diction is clear. His voice brings together a West Country burr with a Welsh lilt: the part of the Gower Peninsula where he lived was English speaking and, like part of Pembrokeshire, was a 'little England. With the exception of The Parson and the Clerk, this album features his traditional repertoire although he also sang popular and comic songs. Among the songs are Young Henry Martin, Barbara Allen, Bonny Bunch of Roses, Fair Phoebe and the Dark Eyed Sailor and Swansea Barracks. Technically, the recordings have come out very well.


The 48-page booklet which comes with the CD is excellent, giving details of his life, the songs and their settings and the area in which he sang. Biographical details are written by Doug Fraser, while Roy Palmer writes about the songs and relevant customs.


This album will help to introduce another generation of singers and listeners to the singing of another era with both the historical background and the style of singing reflecting another way of life. Many people will discover that they have been singing songs that may not have survived had it not been for Phil Tanner and the people who recorded him. Veteran has helped to ensure that they are not in danger of being lost for some time to come.

What's Afoot


Well, what an absolute pleasure this CD has given me.... Phil Tanner is described in the very full CD notes as 'one of these islands greatest traditional folksingers' and who am I to argue with that! Phil had sung all his life but was unknown outside his own small region of the Gower peninsular until being 'discovered' in 1930, and then appearing on the BBC in 1936 ... by which time he was already 74 years old! An article in Picture Post in 1949 resulted in another two recording sessions in that year.


Nine centuries ago the Normans repopulated the Gower with people from Devon and Somerset, and the area was always known as 'English Gower'- and remained so until the late 19th century, with a self-contained, static population who rarely intermarried with their Welsh neighbours. Phil Tanner was born in Llangennith in 1862, as one of seven children, and started his working life as a weaver in his father's woollen mill. Later he became a jobbing farm worker - specialising in hedging and ditching for a variety of employers. All the Tanner family were well known singers and from them he got many songs. He also picked up material from other local singers, journeyman weavers and gypsies. He was famous for his ability to remember songs, and at one time he had almost a hundred in his repertoire, and in later years still regularly sung about thirty. He was well know for his part in the traditional wassailing, and. his Gower Wassail song is here heard in full:... as he also sings the verses that would be a

response from within the house. Phil was much in demand locally for after-wedding celebrations... where he would sing and also 'diddle' the tunes for dancing. thus he was able to provide the music for the whole night. On this CD he 'diddles' 3 versions of the Gower Reel (variously known as The Wrexham Hornpipe, the Manchester Hornpipe or Pigeon on a Gate) and Over the Hills to Gowerie ! (Over the Hills to Glory). He has a superb tenor voice that totally belies his 87 years - is spot on in tune and shows a great sense of drama and timing.


The recording includes his superb Gower Wassail with its unique, poetical and atmospheric verse


We know by the moon that we are not too soon,

We know by the sky that we are not too high,

We know by the stars that we are not too far,

And we know by the ground that we are within sound.


There are also great renditions of Henry Martin, the comic Parson and the Clerk - as well as many other well travelled folksongs ... including Barbara Allen, Oyster Girl, Bonny Bunch of Roses'.. and the one I've had in my head for weeks.. his lilting, bouncy Sweet Primroses


There is a spoken introduction by Wynford Vaughan Thomas, which is interesting, but does not stand much repeated hearing... so now I just skip onto the songs! The production is the usual excellent standard for which Veteran are noted... and the very interesting booklet is also well researched and produced... altogether a great CD!

Shreds & Patches


Phil Tanner was undoubtedly one of the finest Welsh traditional singers ever to be recorded. An English-language singer, who lived in the Gower region of South Wales, he was first recorded in November 1936 at the age of 74, when Maud Karpeles arranged for him to travel to London to make two 78rpm discs for Columbia. Those recordings ("Young Henry Martin", "The Sweet Primroses", "The Gower Wassail Song" and "The Gower Reel") are included on this CD, as are two performances recorded in Llangennith by the BBC, about a year later ("The Oyster Girl" and "The Gower Reel"). The other songs and mouth music by Tanner on this CD date are BBC Welsh Region recordings dating from 1949. They include, among others, Phil's versions of "Barbara Allen", "The Bonny Bunch of Roses", "The Parson and the Clerk", "Young Roger Esquire", "Swansea Barracks" and "Fair Phoebe and the Dark Eyed Sailor". These are classic performances, previously unavailable, which makes this a reissue to treasure. It is filled out with a BBC radio talk about Tanner by Welsh author Wynford Vaughan Thomas, originally broadcast in 1976, which paints an evocative picture of Phil and the village in which he lived.


No lover of English traditional song will want to be without this CD. Since very few good quality field-recordings were made of British source singers before Peter Kennedy pioneered collecting with a tape recorder at the beginning of the 1950s, these Columbia and BBC disc recordings are to be treasured. Their quality is remarkably good, and the regret is that only a dozen items from Tanner's large repertoire were caught for posterity. Would there were more!

Canadian Folk Music


`Amongst the best traditional recordings made in these islands' claimed John Howson of this album in the last issue of Songlines. Since Howson runs the Veteran label I was sceptical, but as I listened to The Gower Nightingale my doubts quickly evaporated.


Phil Tanner was born in 1862 into a family of weavers and singers in the Gower-that strangely un-Welsh peninsula to the west of Swansea - where he lived until his death in 1950. He was an agricultural labourer but singing was his real vocation. His repertoire was prodigious; one night in 1948 he went to the pub and sang 88 songs 'without faltering'. He was 86.


Tanner was first recorded, by the Folk Song Society and the BBC, in 1937. This makes up half of this CD, and although he was 75 at the time he was in fine form. A singer of wit and seriousness, with a lovely light voice, he was always in control, whether in a bitter-sweet song such as 'Sweet Primroses', something a bit spicy like 'The Oyster Girl' or the great ballad 'Barbara Allen'. He was still singing wonderfully when the BBC visited him the year before his death, and ten of the songs included here were taped then.


The recordings have been brilliantly restored by Charlie Crump, and the CD comes with a wonderfully illustrated booklet about Tanner and the culture he came to embody. My only remaining doubt concerns the beginning: a slightly smug talk by Wynford Vaughan Thomas that's more about himself than Tanner.



Phil Tanner was born in 1862 but wasn't `discovered' until the 1930s. The Tanners were already well known as a singing family at that time but it wasn't until Phil was taken to London in 1936, to be recorded for an appearance on the BBC radio programme In Town Tonight, that his singing became more widely known.


One of the people who championed him in those early days was broadcaster and author Wynford Vaughan Thomas. Appropriately this CD begins with an appreciation of Phil by Vaughan Thomas from a programme broadcast in 1976 entitled, "The Gower Nightingale" - hence the CD's title This opening part of the album is both informative and entertaining and thus a true tribute to a fine traditional singer. There follows eleven songs and also three tracks of Phil's `mouth music', the latter of which is very similar in style to Irish lilting.


The recordings were made during the 1930s and 40s and have been digitally re-mastered from the BBC originals from the Museum of Welsh Life, and the Columbia recordings (remember that label and its 78 r.p.m.s!) which are part of the Reg Hall collection. The reproduction quality is outstanding considering the raw materials Charlie Crump, the recordings restorer, had to work with!


There are some classic traditional songs here. Among the better known are, Young Henry Martin, Barbara Allen, The Dark Eyed Sailor, Wassail Song, and the highly entertaining The Parson and the Clerk.


Considering his advancing years (he was in his seventies when he was first recorded) Phil's voice is strong and his diction clear. No wonder then that so many of his songs were sung by the many revival singers in the burgeoning folk scene of the late 60s and early 70s, and continue to be performed today. This CD however is more than an archive recording because once again, with their usual thoroughness, Veteran have produced extensive accompanying notes by Doug Fraser, John Howson and Roy Palmer on Phil's life and the songs therein. This makes it an almost perfect reference work on the life and times of that great singer "The Gower Nightingale", Phil Tanner.


For those of you who collect songs from source singers this has to be a 'must buy'.

Lancashire Wakes


The tracks on this CD date from BBC recording sessions in the 1930s and 1940s, most of which were previously available on LP and now reissued here in digitally remastered form augmented with additional materials and alternate versions.


By way of introduction, this CD reissue also includes a whopping 13 minutes of "radio portrait" of Tanner by author and broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas (who first christened him with the "Gower Nightingale" epithet). It is debatable as to the value of this as anything other than as padding and historical curio since it does little to flesh out the character of Phil Tanner the singer, and deals primarily in nostalgic whimsy and inaccurate generalisations ("only in Wales do people sing hymns in pubs") which leave an image of Tanner as a rustic curio.


I'd probably have preferred the radio portrait as a few quotes in the booklet, or as interactive materials on the CD. Few listeners are likely to want to sit down and listen to the two tracks of Vaughan Thomas with anything like the frequency that one would want to listen to Tanner's singing, and as such they become eminently skippable. The singing, however, is sublime, and it is almost impossible to listen to this and not become an enthusiast. The delivery is filled with style and humour and conveys far more sense of personality than the radio feature.


Phil Tanner has long been cited as one of the key sources for singers in the revival, and it is wonderful to hear the direct links between style and material that were passed on to another generation of performers. Many of the songs on this disc could be seen as definitive sources for well known versions performed by any number of recent artistes.

Each track is filled with verve and stylistic nuances that are sheer listening pleasure and serve as a wake up call to any of us \who think we're "getting there" with unaccompanied singing. As a sourcebook for style, this CD is indispensable.


Despite my minor niggles the CD is undoubtedly a "must have" representing as it does the most complete digital collection of Phil Tanner's songs (only a fraction of Tanner's repertoire was ever recorded in high enough fidelity for reproduction), but it does feel a little like the available material has been "stretched" to fit. (there are, in addition to the lengthy radio feature two different versions of Banks of The Sweet Primroses and The Gower Wassail). With UK CD prices being what they are this may raise a few questions as to value, particularly when tracks have already been reissued on Topic's seminal 'Voice of The People' series. Nonetheless, this is a release that strives by its very nature to be definitive, and to a great extent, suceeds.

English Dance & Song


Today I'm listening to the newly released CD by Phil Tanner, an event I've been dreaming of since CD technology came into being. It arrives via the dedicated work of John Howson, mastermind of the Veteran label, a labour-of-love outfit specialising in recording genuinely traditional singers and musicians. The original recordings were made over fifty years ago, but Howson's diligence and passion for restoring them enables us to hear the voice of one of the greats of traditional song in modern day quality, for which he and his team deserve the highest praise.


I say one of the greats as a polite bow towards objectivity. What I really think is that, despite his South Walian birth, Phil Tanner is the greatest of all the recorded singers in the English style of singing. Pointless to compare him against the stylists of Scotland or Ireland, he stands up with Larner, Cox, Brightwell, Poacher, Hinchliffe, Will Noble, Jeff Wesley and Fred Jordan, the man I most readily compare him with.


He shares Jordan's storytelling style, albeit more assertively and with a preference for a brisker tempo. He uses changes of pace and emphasis as his decorations, for the most part, rather than note-bending and at times lets in a hint of humour or drama to illustrate the text, for instance, when he sings `Stand off young man, and don't be so deceitful' in The Banks of the Sweet Primroses, using a slight quickening of pace and a chiding manner to bring the line to life.


Phil Tanner was born in February, 1862, in Llangennith, West Gower, youngest of the one girl and six boys born to Isaac Tanner, a weaver, and his wife, Jennet. The Tanners enjoyed a family life that included plenty of singing and the seasonal customs of the district. Jennet died when Phil was sixteen. Young Phil took to farm work and hedging and ditching until, in 1886, he married a publican's widow, moving into the Welcome to Town pub, a place well suited to his pastime of learning old songs.


In course of time, he became famous locally as the man for a song or a bit of mouth music for any occasion. He learned traditional and music hall songs, along with Victorian tearjerkers (as did Fred Jordan) also the bidding rhymes, recited to invite villagers to weddings, and seasonal pieces such as Wassail songs. He became the oracle',, on local traditions and an ever-ready entertainer who would sing at the drop of a hat. He sang whenever he could, right up until his death in 1950.


In 1937 he recorded for the Columbia Record Company. The popular magazine Picture Post printed a splendid article on him in 1949. That same year the BBC recorded him on discs stored in their archive and in 1967 the English Folk Dance & Song Society licensed these 78s for issue on vinyl. The resultant LP became one of my treasures, though I later came to pray for a reissue with the cleaned up sound possible today. I'm delighted to say that this has happened. We can now hear Phil Tanner's artistry flourishing in all it's glory on CD.


The album is called The Gower Nightingale and it's on Veteran VT145CD It contains all the recordings ever made by Phil, plus a short radio piece about him by Wynford Vaughan Thomas and a book of notes and lyrics. I urge you to buy it, to drink in the wonderful tone, range, pace, judgement, diction and sheer joyful delight in the act of singing that this grand old marl, demonstrates.


Tanner's music does not have to be souped up to please anyone. It does not need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the present century. His style is timeless and will never date. Listen with open ears and minds and you will know.



Phil Tanner was one of the most important source singers of the lot. Not in the wealth of his recorded repertoire-of 90 songs he knew, only ten were committed to tape- but in his style. Tanner, from Gower, was recorded first in 1936, by which time he was already well into his seventies. Even then his power, dynamics, and accuracy-confidently nailing top E's and F's in the zone fainter hearts fear to tread - would shame many a singer half that age. But it's his sense of excitement, drama and enjoyment that make his singing irresistible. Henry Martin, with soaring high notes and flamboyant ornamentation, becomes a cinematic thriller in his hands. The Parson And The Clerk, on the other hand, is irreverent fun, while he imparts the usually elegaic Sweet Primroses with driving rhythm and melodic idiosyncracy. Add in the rare Swansea Barracks, Gower Wassail-surely the grandest and most poetic of all wassail songs-and skilled mouth music, and you've a singer who has to be heard by everyone with even a passing interest in the tradition. For me he is number one.


Veteran have done us proud with this collection (Voice Of The People had a few highlights but you need them all in one place), and their presentation is lavish, the deep-pan CD case holding a thick booklet crammed with background detail and great photos. The only problem is finding enough material to fill a CD. So, as well as later takes of Primroses and Wassail -Tanner at 87 singing almost as strongly, and adding extra verses-you get 13 minutes of broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas's affectionate but patronising spoken portrait. Rich in colourful detail, but sprinkled with the kind of patrician fogey-ism that will irritate some listeners, on balance it's worth hearing. But whether plummy BBC-speak is what you want to hear first on a CD of one of the greatest traditional singers ever, is another matter. Do buy it anyway.




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