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THE WILLETT FAMILY - Adieu To Old England

THE WILLETT FAMILY - Adieu To Old England
Musical Traditions MTCD361-2

This is not a family group in the sense of its members singing together as a unit like the Coppers, Wilsons or Watersons, but here three individuals from this family of travellers from Kent each perform solo. In 1963, Topic Records released their first ever LP of English traditional singers, The Roving Journeymen, which featured Tom Willett and sons Chris and Ben, its 11 tracks having been recorded by Bill Leader and Paul Carter in 1962; five of these have since resurfaced on subsequent Topic anthologies (Hidden English, Three Score And Ten and individual volumes of the epic Voice Of The People series). Prior to that however, Ken Stubbs, who had been credited by Topic for first locating the Willetts, had recorded their singing two years previously, in 1960, and it’s Ken’s recordings that constitute the bulk of this Musical Traditions two-disc set, which handily presents the three men’s complete recorded repertoire. In order to do this, four songs which were not recorded by Ken have been culled from other archive sources: Tom’s Died For Love from the aforementioned Topic LP and Chris’s three titles (The American Stranger, Once I Was A Servant and A-Swinging Down The Lane) from Mike Yates’ much later (1978) recordings (which had first appeared in LP format on Topic’s 1979 Travellers… anthology). Although incurring some duplication, true completists might have welcomed “mopping up” with the inclusion here of the six not-hitherto-recompiled tracks from The Roving Journeymen (which the set’s playing time could have accommodated if required), the recording quality of all of which – although not necessarily the performances thereof – is unarguably superior to their 1960 counterparts. However, the fact that the complete Roving Journeymen LP is now available as a digital download from Topic might be considered sufficient compensation.

Turning from essential discographical detail to the songs themselves, these were obtained from the oral (aural) tradition, from the singing of relatives or of people in common meeting places. Many – such as Riding Down To Portsmouth and The Game Of Cards – closely follow the texts collected by such figures as Sharp. Others, such as The Folkestone Murder, A Blacksmith Courted Me and The Rose Of Ardene, were well-known among the traveller community. The range is expectedly wide, with versions of Lord Bateman, While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping and Adieu To Old England unashamedly complementing lesser-known songs such as The Bold Deserter, pure music-hall (The Flower Girl) and broadsides like The Old Miser (a highlight of the set in this rendition by Chris).

As far as allocation of singers goes, Tom (recorded at age 82!) gets by a long chalk the most coverage (the whole of the first disc and four items on the second, two of these being jointly performed with son Chris); Chris sings eight items, and his younger brother Ben just two (he was “shy about singing” and could only be persuaded to sing these two songs in public).

Chris is described in the accompanying booklet as “one of the foremost exponents of the mid-20th-century Gypsy singing style, and quite as great a singer as his father was”, and I particularly enjoyed his renditions of The Old Miser and The Oyster Girl. There’s no disputing however, that Tom is very much the elder statesman of the Willett dynasty; his vibrato-laden delivery may take a bit of getting used to, but it’s measured and almost always confident – although some listeners may find a whole disc of Tom a touch unremitting (indeed, a critic writing of the Topic LP argued that “the collector who just wants to hear good folk-songs well sung is likely to find this record a trifle austere”). It’s interesting, though, to compare father and son’s respective versions of the American song A-Swinging Down The Lane (for all that they were recorded 18 years apart) and it would’ve been nice to carry out a similar exercise with Chris and Ben’s respective takes on The Little Ball Of Yarn (although, usefully, Chris’s version is available on Topic’s recent I’m A Romany Rai set). We’re also encouraged by the helpful MT booklet notes to listen to the Willetts’ interpretations alongside those of other source singers (e.g. Phoebe Smith, George Spicer, the Brazils, May Bradley) in parallel recordings.

A handful of the songs are represented only by fragments (one lacking even a working title), while Never Change The Old Love For New unfortunately deteriorates into a series of false starts and discussions; but this MT release still does its job just fine in presenting a rounded and comprehensive portrait of the Willett family members’ repertoire. Whatever, it can be seen as an important edition that further expands our knowledge of the songs and distinctive performing styles of the traveller communities. Presentation-wise, the set is up to the usual high Musical Traditions standard, with the exception of an uncharacteristic lapse in accuracy whereby the listed track-timings are conspicuously badly awry; especially in respect of disc one (while one of the tracks on disc two even purports to be of 3:95 duration!).

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 99 of The Living Tradition magazine.