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DAVE ARTHUR - Bert: The Life And Times Of A. L. Lloyd

DAVE ARTHUR - Bert: The Life And Times Of A. L. Lloyd
Pluto Press (in association with EFDSS) ISBN: 9780745332529

Bert Lloyd died thirty years ago. A generation of young folk music enthusiasts will have grown up since then, none of them having seen him perform, and most unaware of his enormous influence on the English folk club scene, during its heyday in the 1960s and 70s.

Many older folkies will first have come upon A L Lloyd as the co-compiler, with Ralph Vaughan Williams, of The Penguin Book Of Folk Songs, published in 1959, an important source in our quest for new material to perform at the weekly local folk club. Around the same time we came to know him as a charismatic performer, both through his recordings on the Topic label, and live, in the clubs themselves. The slightly wild, androgynous voice of this tubby, balding man, delivered with hand cupped behind ear and a rictus of a grin, took his performances into emotional territories of cool violence and insinuating eroticism that few other revival singers would have attempted to enter. He was also a captivating teller of stories.

Over the next couple of decades, it became possible to put together a picture of Bert Lloyd, gleaned from hearsay, record sleeve notes, the odd interview, and the radio programmes he made for the Third Programme. As a young man he’d worked on Australian sheep farms, and later gone to sea on whaling boats. As a Communist, he had travelled behind the Iron Curtain, and brought back recordings of exotic music from places like Romania and Albania. This roving existence seemed to qualify him in particular to deliver the Outback ballads, the sea songs and shanties that were a potent part of his repertoire. Dave Arthur’s compendious and long-awaited biography fills in this picture, following its subject from birth in 1908 to death, after some years of illness, in 1982. It makes plain the great range of his abilities: self-taught scholar, linguist, translator, journalist, documentary film-maker, broadcaster, musicologist, and maker of folk songs. His ability to synthesise something rich and strange from mundane fragments and neglected ballad texts gave the folk world the enduring Jack Orion and Reynardine; and many of us had an early, heady whiff of the music of other cultures from his Topic anthologies, and radio programmes like The Voice Of The Gods and The Folk Music Virtuoso.

One of Bert’s great virtues lies in its broad documenting of the widely varying social and cultural contexts through which Lloyd progressed: from humble beginnings in South London; through the time in Australia as an assisted migrant, then back to London to join the teeming world of the bohemian left; working for Picture Post and the BBC (though he was effectively blacklisted for most of the 1940s); and, after winning a singing competition at Cecil Sharp House in 1948, as an increasingly influential figure in the incipient folk music scene.

Lloyd as an individual comes through most clearly in the earlier parts of the book, where his vivid correspondence and later retrospective memories concerning the 1920s Australian sojourn provide a glowing autobiographical patina. As the book progresses, the narrative is increasingly taken up by others, while Lloyd himself seems to become more fragmented, carefully partitioning his life and revealing only certain aspects of it, while keeping others hidden, depending on whom he is dealing with. The life, too, is shadowed with tragedy: the suicide of his first wife, the death from drugs of his beloved son, and, very early on, his immediate family – father, mother and siblings – wiped out by TB. There is also the question of how much of Lloyd’s own testimony is made up. He had a great penchant for fantasising, for example inventing diverse identities for his parents – in one instance, a complete fabrication, he became the illegitimate son of a Welsh cook and a Greek shipping millionaire.

But Bert Lloyd’s habit of reinventing himself is one of the intriguing things about his character, and an engaging aspect of this biography. He was a shape-shifter, trickster, and for every person who found him cold and remote, another, like Norma Waterson, remembers “a very loving man, a wonderful man.” And the richness of the worlds he inhabited, much of which is portrayed vividly in the words of those who shared them with him, is a reminder that we don’t yet have anything like a decent spoken historical account of the golden days of the British folk music scene, and that its witnesses are growing old, or have already been silenced for good. Dave Arthur’s Bert is a giant’s step on the way to setting down that account.

Bob Pegg


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This album was reviewed in Issue 94 of The Living Tradition magazine.