Saturday, 28 May 2011

8: The Quality of Mersey

A traditional Merseyside song, the words reconstructed from childhood memories by Stan Kelly. I'm left at a bit of a loss as to the tune to use for this; Stan Kelly's songbook does suggest that the tune is close to 'The Banks of the Condamine', however something close to the tune of 'The Erie Canal' has been used (and suggested) by Stan Kelly at other times (who points out that he derived some of the reconstructed words from that song), and it's also this tune that's used by The Mersey Wreckers, who sing a longer version, augmented with some of their own words. I've gone along with that consensus and the tune I use here is pretty much 'The Erie Canal', mainly because I do enjoy singing the song this way.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

7: Van Diemen's Land

Stan Hugill, in his book Shanties from the Seven Seas, tells us that this transportation ballad was used as a forebitter (i.e. a song for entertainment sung around the fore bitts of a ship, as opposed to a work song), and was popular among Liverpool seamen. He prints this version with a very local flavour, collected from T.W. Jones of Liverpool. Those familiar with the later ballad "The Banks of Newfoundland" will note the similarities in both words and tune.

A letter of 1790 from Thomas Milburn to his father and mother in Liverpool (taken, printed, and distrubuted as a broadside), sets out the hardships of the voyage in grim detail: "I am arrived at this place, after a dreary passage on board the Neptune. Had I followed your good counsels I had never suffered so much distress and misery as I have done in my passage here, the bare reflection of which makes my blood run cold in my veins; and many times I had wished that I had died at home rather than to have lain at the mercy of such merciless tyrants... As an instance of our wretchedness it was customary among us when any of our comrades that were chained too us died, we kept it a secret as long as we could for the smell of the dead body, in order to get their allowance of provision… I was chained to Humphrey Davies who died when we were half way, and I lay beside his corpse about a week and got his allowance of provision and water during that time. There were about 140 died on the passage through extreme hunger and wretchedness."

Transportation to Van Diemen's land and elsewhere in what is now Australia was a common punishment for crimes such as theft and poaching, often in commutation of the death sentence. Between 1788 and 1868, the years that parts of Australia were used as penal colonies, more than 165,000 were shipped away there. Lancashire's cities provided a high proportion of those transported, so it's not a surprise to hear a Liverpool version of this song given that so many people from the city would have been sentenced in this way; however, the theme of a poacher being transported occurs regularly in many English songs such as Henry the Poacher, and versions of Van Diemen's Land existed elsewhere in the country, often given the name "The Poachers" or "The Bold Poachers". Various forms of the ballad were also printed for the broadside trade. Van Diemen's Land is #519 in the Roud Folksong Index.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

6: Back Buchanan Street

Another song for a changing Liverpool; this one was written by Harry and Gordon Dison for a BBC song writing competition in the mid-1960s, and was one of the entries selected to be peformed on TV.

It quickly found popularity around the city, which was in the midst of a 'slum clearance' programme moving people away crowded conditions in the inner cities to the nearby new towns of Kirkby, Skelmersdale (affectionately(?) known as 'Skem'), and Speke. In spite of the promise of improved living conditions, for many people there was an acute sense that communities were being broken up and that people were losing their homes and being ripped away from places they loved. This song gives voice to that sense of loss. (Given the present-day tearing down of swathes of Edge Hill, it has a new resonance.)

A recent article in the Liverpool Echo gives some of the context for this song: "Over 100,000 people began to leave the spiritual homes of their forefathers, bulldozed into the suburbs in the name of progress and slum clearance. The city’s skyline across its most visible and historic inner city districts would never be the same again. But this wasn't just about the loss of hundreds of famous streets as the Swinging Sixties dawned. It was about the separating of families, relatives, friends and neighbours who had lived together for a lifetime... These words struck a heartfelt chord with those who were now disappearing to the outer limits."

The photo used above is taken from the fascinating Lost Tribe of Everton and Scottie Road website (associated with the book of that name by Ken Rogers).

Sunday, 8 May 2011

5: Liverpool's an Altered Town

A broadside ballad of the 1830s, originally printed by Harkness of Preston; I first found this in Roy Palmer's book A Touch on the Times: Songs of Social Change. The tune is "Bow Wow Wow", regularly used for broadsides of this period.

The song is a little too, er, Gilbert and Sullivan? for my tastes. That's what it conjures up for me anyway. And I admit to cutting it down from 9 verses to 6 verses (those who want the full words, do feel free to get in touch with me). Nevertheless, I have personally lamented some aspects of Liverpool's change in recent years, particularly the compulsory purchase and demolition of Victorian homes in Edge Hill, and the enclosure of swathes of the town for the Duke of Westminster's cathedral to consumerism and chain stores, "Liverpool One". It's therefore interesting to hear a song sort of lamenting the rate and scale of change to the town back in the early part of the 19th century.

Over the course of the 19th century, Liverpool's docks expanded along the waterfront, while its population, swollen by movement from rural areas and immigration from Ireland (often en route to America and elsewhere) grew from under 100,000 to closer to 1,000,000 - above I've illustrated Liverpool as an increasingly sprawling mass by using an 1865 engraving by William Morris (whose work I wouldn't want to simplify here, but who certainly disapproved of the cramming of people into rapidly expanding cities to meet the needs of industrialisation). Of course, the emergence of Liverpool as a major city also led to much important civic architecture, and this is commemorated in the song: we hear reference to new church buildings and the grand Custom house, built on the site of Liverpool's old docks, and now itself demolished after suffering world war two damage. Today, you can look down a hole in the Liverpool One development to see the Old Dock (which this song insists was "The theme of many a sonnet") underneath. We also see reference to the expansion of land use for docks and commercial developments (such that the shoreline had receded beyond Jack Langan's, i.e. the pub run by Langan, the Irish Champion boxer, half a mile or more), and the introduction of the new police force in 1836.

It's worth noting that the enterprising people at Harkness of Preston also published very similar broadsides "Manchester's an altered town" and "Preston's an altered town", changing a few words here and there. Waste not, want not!

(I'm posting this one a couple of days late - apologies, hopefully won't become a habit!)