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Songs of English and Scottish Travellers and Gypsies 1965-2005

Compiled by Mike Yates
EFDSS ISBN-10 0-85418-2000-4

'Mike Yates has performed sterling service in the cause of recording traditional singers both in the UK and the Appalachians for over 40 years and, I’m happy to say, is still doing so.  Many of his recordings resulted in seminal LPs on the Topic label but apart from a few articles in the Folk Music Journal.  So it is most welcome, even if overdue, to see this handsome book from EFDSS, comprising 58 of the songs (including those in the introduction), which he recorded.  These give musical transcription, full texts, interesting background information as well as interesting introductory essays and notes on the performers.  The crowning glory is that it comes with a 20-track CD from the source singers of material transcribed in the book, specifically Mary Ann Haynes, Sheila MacGregor (better known of course as Sheila Stewart), Duncan Williamson, Phoebe Smith and others.  The book is full of atmospheric and appropriate photos, and is designed “first and foremost as a songbook to be learned, sung, and enjoyed by the reader”.  This is an excellent package, which should immediately be snapped up! 

This remains the case despite the criticisms and observations, which I have.
Much of the written matter has previously appeared in sleeve and CD notes, which are still available – there isn’t much new here.  And although the photos accompanying the brief biographies of the singers are obvious, none of the others are captioned – surely people would like to know (for instance) that the Mike Yates’s splendid photo on p.69 apparently illustrating the song “Green Bushes” from Phoebe Smith is actually of Lemmie Brazil?  I have a problem with some of the titles.  For instance Danny Brazil starts a song with the line “As I was going to Salisbury”, but from then onwards in the song, all place references as to the location of the ram are in Derby - and as the song is generally known as “The Derby Ram”, why confuse matters by calling it “The Salisbury Ram”?  Similarly “The Two Turtle Doves” – eh?  Danny called it “Son Come Tell It Unto Me” whilst scholars know it as “Edward” or “Son David” – so why not at least add them in brackets after the title? Seekers after those songs are likely to pass over this material.  Luckily there is a team beavering away, as I speak, to try and come up with appropriate standard song titles, based on the Roud index.  Good luck to them!

Most of the transcriptions of Danny’s songs carry the caveat “The singer’s pitch was uncertain; the transcription is an approximation” … “due to the singers weak and gravely voice”.  I agree with the last bit, but I always found Danny to be a consistent performer, whose tunes varied little, as can be seen from the many recordings made (shortly to be released as a double CD on Musical Traditions) and I found it fairly easy to get used to his style and to understand the notes he was singing.  The unfortunate result is that “Salisbury Ram” gives a tune quite unlike the one which I associate with his singing (but may of course have been sung by him the day Mike taped him), whilst “Schoolmaster’s Son” is indeed approximate, although rather too much so – several of the other songs also have inaccuracies, or occasional notes which don’t tally with the performances.  There are a number of recordings of Danny’s performances - why weren’t these other recordings investigated as an aid?  At least they can be heard- on a forthcoming double CD of the Brazil family.  There are also no indications as to tempo or style – including this (as did MacColl and Seeger in their famous book on Travellers’ songs) would surely go a long way to help understand how to perform this material.  (Just try singing “Oakham Poachers” along with Wiggy Smith to understand just how slow his performance is! – but don’t follow the transcription:  the tune transcribed here is the one Wiggy uses for the first stanza – thereafter the first two lines change to a very different tune, which doesn’t feature here – there is a much more accurate transcription in the Folk Music Journal (as long back as 1975) which could have been used).  And I’m not sure why Mick Ryan’s song The Widow’s Moor (sung by Duncan Williamson) has been included, although it is interesting to see how soon one of Mick’s songs has entered the tradition and how it is already being moulded by its performers!

Nearly half of the tracks (specifically the English ones) on the CD are currently available on releases such as Topic’s Voice Of The People set, or the Musical Traditions CDs Here’s Luck To A Man and The Bird In The Tree, but most of the Scottish material is currently unavailable and is most welcome. I know this seems a long list of faults – but don’t be put off by them – this is an important publication and a superb introduction to an important area of the traditions of the two countries.  Once this is purchased, seek out “Here’s Luck To A Man”, the CD of recordings by Mike Yates of Southern English travellers (Musical Traditions MTCD320 – 39 tracks and 79 minutes, no less!) which gives just as much documentation, but no tune transcriptions.  Lastly, Mike recorded no less than 61 songs (not including the pop material!) from Mary Anne Haynes –  despite a score or so  having surfaced on disc, wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the others – perhaps on another Musical Traditions CD?  And then there’s Duncan Williamson and…

Paul Burgess

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This album was reviewed in Issue 74 of The Living Tradition magazine.