Monday, 24 December 2012

63: Birkenhead Wassail Song

A "wassail" song - that is, a song for door to door carol singing. The term wassail comes from an Anglo Saxon toast meaning "be in good health", and this is quite simply a song wishing good health to the people of the house you're knocking the door of (and then trying to extract a small amount of money from them). This song was collected by Janet Blunt from Mrs Haigh and Miss Kelk of Birkenhead in 1921. (Those who've been following my blog for a while may recall Mrs Haigh as the source of the Birkenhead version of The Bitter Withy.) This was one of the songs they remembered carol singers performing in their youth. I got the words and tune off the English Folk Dance and Song Society's "Take Six" site.

Matthew Edwards (now resident on the Wirral and a fount of knowledge about all manner of songs) has done a bit of additional detective work:
I've managed to trace the two sisters who gave this song, and two others (The Bitter Withy and Christ Was Born In Bethlehem), to Janet Blunt in 1921. They were Annie Beatrice Haigh and Rosamond Kelk, daughters of a bank accountant, who lived in Claughton, Birkenhead in the 1870's. Their father, John William Kelk, was originally from Brigg in Lincolnshire, but both daughters were born in the Wirral.

They told Janet Blunt that they remembered the songs being sung by child waits at Christmas in the streets of Birkenhead 30 or 40 years earlier. Where the songs might have originated is now almost impossible to tell since the population of Birkenhead at that time had grown very rapidly in a short time with the new inhabitants coming from many different parts.

The photo is of carol singers on the wirral from the Bay TV Liverpool site. Haven't heard any carol singers coming to the door in Bootle for a few years - is carol singing door to door something that's been discouraged these days? If so, it's a bit of a shame.

The Roud folksong index lumps this in with other Wassail songs as #209

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

62: The World Was In Darkness

An advent song... but the usual questions come up: is it really a Liverpool song? Is it a folk song? Hard to say, but this was a big part of my childhood growing up in the 80s and 90s. I learned this as a kid at St Monica's Church, Bootle, where we used to sing it when lighting the candles on the advent wreath. It's been synonymous with this time of year ever since.

I've recently been passing the song on by singing it with my son as we light the candles on the advent wreath at home, and I was pushed by the rest of the household to include it on the blog on the grounds that it easily fitted within my loose rules for inclusion as it was a song I'd 'collected' in Liverpool. A bit of googling later, I could find only a few scattered references to the song or its words - and in fact one of the tiny number of places the song was quoted was quite local, up in Formby.

So in the absence of any other records of this song as I heard it sung, and in the joint spirit of archiving and nostalgia, I'm recording this as a tiny little memento of the Bootle Catholic advent traditions from my own childhood. And if anyone has any information about the source, or other places where this is sung, I'd be glad to hear it. The image above of the wreath above is taken from the website of the Parish of St Giles, Aintree.

Friday, 30 November 2012

61: O Scottie Road

This is a song I first learned from a couple of Evertonians I met. They could only remember a bit of it, but after some digging around, I found a set of words and discovered that it was a very close adaptation of the Manchester song Collyhurst Road. Even if it does turn out to have been derived from something sung at the other end of the East Lancs Road, it's still a decent song, and by the looks of it this version has a long enough history in Liverpool, with someone saying they heard a skiffle group singing it in the 50s. Plus, from the point of view of my project, one thing of interest is the very close similarity between the words here and those recalled by Stan Kelly as The Quality of Mersey (which as I said last week also bears similarities to certain versions of The Cruise of the Calabar).

Scotland Road has such a place in the history of the city, it's strange to sing about it now that it's only a shell of its former self. So much of the road is demolished, and what remains isn't in a great state (see photo above). I guess songs like this serve as reminders of how much Scottie Road used to be synomymous with the city. Also, I have to say, it feels weird to be singing an Evertonian song, but I'm sure I'll recover...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

60: The Cruise of the Calabar

A song about the perils of life aboard a canal barge; a parody of tales of danger and bravery on the high seas, the humour comes from the somewhat underwhelming nature of the (mis)adventures and locations. This version is one I found in a packet of reproductions of street songs and ballads (the Liverpool Packet No. 1 sold by Scouse Press). Fritz Spiegl (writer, humorist, and principal flautist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) transcribed it from a copy in the Liverpool Record Office, noting the original had been "made almost illegible by some anonmyous amateur entertainer who made illuminating (but equally feeble) alterations. He was determined, for example, to get an easy laugh by mentioning the word 'Bootle' as often as possible". The tune used was that of the ironically named song 'Limerick is Beautiful'. The words are as was sung by Billy Richardson for many years at Sam Hague's in St James' Hall on Lime Street. The African American Theatre Directory, 1816-1960 explains that "Sam Hague's Slave Troupe" was a minstrel troupe under Sam Hague, well-known English minstrel man and clog dancer; they toured around the USA and Britain from 1865 before settling more or less permanently in Liverpool in 1870. Billy Richardson was one of the troupe's great comedians, a "stump speaker" who delivered witty monologues on local issues.

A little further up the Leeds-Liverpool canal in Burscough, a very different version (also full of Liverpool locations) was collected in 1953 by Fred Hamer from Emma Vickers, who came from a family who lived and worked on the barges - one of the few (perhaps the only?) songs about the inland waterways to be collected from people who actually lived that life. Her version has some similarities to Stan Kelly's reconstruction The Quality of Mersey, which makes me wonder if there's any connection between that song and the Cruise of the Calabar.

The Leeds-Liverpool canal was built between 1770 and 1816, with a final connection to the Liverpool docks built in 1822, and was of massive importance supplying coal and other goods to the city, as well as taking goods from the port inland. (The canal has a special place in my own heart because I grew up right by it in Bootle.) The photo above shows a horse-drawn barge at Chisenhale Street Bridge in 1814 - it's astonishing how rural it looks, now long since swallowed up by the urban sprawl. The canal now stops short of Chisenhale Street, though you can still see the bridge over where the canal used to be.

In the Roud Folksong index, this is #1079

Sunday, 11 November 2012

59: My Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier

Frank Kidson collected a verse ("I'll dye my petticoats, I'll dye them red") and the chorus of this song from Alfred Mooney, a railway clerk, who had heard it "walking in Scotland Road, behind a Liverpool basket-girl who with her companions was singing the verse to the tune". It was published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol. 2 No. 9, 1906. The song was published under the title of "Shule Agra", basically writing out in English syllables the Irish "Siúl a ghrá", which apparently means something like "Go, o love".

There are many Irish versions of this song; perhaps the most well known version today is the macaronic "Siúl a rúin", which has a full Irish chorus (the title is often rendered "Shule Aroon" in English). The nature of the war to which Johnny has gone is not always specified - for those looking to theorise sometimes it's said that he's gone to France. I'm not really prone to that kind of speculation, given that the song has a long history, with versions as early as the 17th century, so it's probably not wise to pin it to any particular war. It's not as though there there's a shortage of conflicts that have left people to weep for lost love. Whatever the songs origins, it has certainly travelled well, with a well-known American version "Buttermilk Hill". In the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Anne Gilchrist also notes the similarity to the American sea-shanty "Let the Bulgine Run"/"Eliza Lee".

The painting I've used above by Hugues Merle, "A girl with a basket of apples", and is from the Sudley House collection - I had a lot of trouble finding a suitable picture, so this one was chosen in tribute to the fact that this version song came from a basket-girl. Merle was French, so it might take a bit of imagination to mentally place this one singing an Irish song on Scotty Road, but do your best.

Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier/ Shule Agra/ Siúl a ghrá is #911 in the Roud folksong index.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

58: Buckets of the Mersey

We certainly love our public art in Liverpool, from the Lewis's statue exceedingly bare to the Superlambanana. Even so, I was surprised to find that this particular sculpture, the Piazza fountain on Drury Lane (which I've only ever heard called the "bucket fountain"), had its own song. I found it in Spin magazine (published by The Spinners) Vol. 8 No. 1, 1970. The words are by Stuart McTavish, and the music attributed to Jennie Williams.

The fountain was designed by Richard Huws and was completed in 1966. The website Seven Streets has an excellent article on its history in which they quote Huws at some length: "It is a waterfall of a strange new kind... Instead of streaming steadily, water hurtles down unexpectedly in detatched lumps in all directions... The sight and sound of waterfalls is so spellbinding that they have always been centres of attraction in the landscape, and in the places where we work we are prompted to create them artificially... To make it more exciting we contrive various means of providing additional animation, a very simple device which interrupts the regular flow, so as to create a round of action. The sound and movement of which is no longer that of the ever-monotonous bubbling river, but that of the restless, temperamental sea."

The only problem is, as the song says, the thing never seems to be working...

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

57: The Battle of the Boiling Water

File under "sectarian doggerel"... let's just say if you started singing this at a Scottish football match you'd probably find yourself arrested. The title, of course, parodies the Battle of the Boyne.

The tune is basically 'Brighton Camp'/'The Girl I Left Behind Me'. Jim Caroll has recalled a set of words that his father learned on the Liverpool building sites, and notes that he himself heard the song on the docks during his apprenticeship in the 1960s. The Battle of the Boiling Water also appears in Frank Shaw's 1970 book You Know Me Anty Nelly? - he published a version of these words as part of a set of skipping rhymes he got from a girl called Susan Wheatley, aged 13 at the time. Those versions are both from the Catholic/Irish Nationalist point of view, although I've seen fragments from the Orange point of view too.

As I wrote earlier when explaining the background behind The Orange and the Green, Liverpool has had its fair share of Sectarian conflict (see Frank Neal's book Sectarian Violence - The Liverpool Experience for a thorough account). But when I wrote that post I thought, rather naively, that such things were largely in the past. Events in the last week, with clashes between rival groups at an Irish community march, following on from confrontations (photographed above) during a march celebrating the life of James Larkin in July, show that if you scratch the surface, the sectarian tensions have not necessarily gone away. Worse than that, Liverpool's Irish community risks becoming a battleground for wider right wing and left wing culture wars, with far-right and other groups committed to inflaming sectarianism for their own purposes. In such a context, putting up a song like this may well come across as mere shit stirring. Nevertheless, I think the worst thing we can do is forget Liverpool's history of sectarianism and brush it under the carpet, otherwise we're doomed to revisit it. This song (relatively innocuous as these things go) is just one little reminder of a time when such sectarianism was a fabric of everyday life. A time which I hope won't be returning any day soon.

An interesting aside is that Brian Jacques, the Liverpudlian author of the Redwall series of books, was clearly familiar with the song as he has one of the characters sing a song with the same title and the same rhythm - just with completely different non-sectarian words! - in the novel Taggerung.

The Battle of the Boiling Water is #19411 in the Roud folksong index.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

56: Ranzo

Shanty time again - an interesting version of a halyard shanty, as sung by sailors in Liverpool in the mid 19th century, noted down by Margaret Harley, and published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol. 5 No. 18 (1914).

This shanty was particularly popular with whalers, although as noted before, the whaling trade in Liverpool was never a particularly major industry; at its height in 1788 there were around 21 vessels. The image above is a painting by Francis Huswick of the Baffin, built in the city in 1819 at a time when whaling was already in decline in Liverpool.

This shanty sometimes goes by the name of Reuben Ranzo, and as one might expect, there has been a good amount of speculation as to who this "Ranzo" might be, although very little in the way of clear conclusions. Whoever he was, the shanty which bears his name is #3282 in the Roud folksong index.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

55: In My Liverpool Home

This is surely one of the best known Liverpool songs. Pete McGovern wrote the first few vaguely autobiographical verses in 1961, using the tune of the cowboy song 'Strawberry Roan'. Subsequently, the song has accumulated more and more verses, until it had hundreds of the things. In fact, in 1991 BBC Radio Merseyside released a casette tape with a 60 verse version of the song. Some of the verses floating around are from Pete McGovern himself, but many of them are not - people just kept adding to it. I haven't kept the song going for TOO many verses - just 9 of them!- but I've included a few of my favourites from different sources (some of these verses I know like the back of my hand from hearing so many people people singing the song; others I've picked up from online sources, in particular Gerry Jones' excellent Liverpool Lyrics website).

Of all of the songs that came out of the Liverpool folk revival, this is probably the one with the biggest claim to have become 'traditional', given the way that it's been passed on and added to (not to mention parodied). As was noted in McGovern's obituary in The Independent following his death in 2006: "The lyrics about overcrowding, sectarian violence and stealing from lorries may not be the image that Liverpool Council would want to promote, but the song is regarded as the city's anthem and it plays a significant part in its culture. 'I wrote it in 1961,' said McGovern, 'but a lot of people have said to me, "You didn't write that. It was written in 1848".'"

The chorus refers to the "exceedingly bare" statue outside the Lewis's department store (or at least the building that was the Lewis's deparment store until it closed in 2010). The sculpture (image above) is by Jacob Epstein and has as its official title "Liverpool Resurgent", although it is more colloquially known as "Dickie Lewis".

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

54: Blow the Candle Out

This tune for Blow the Candle Out was noted down by Frank Kidson, who collected it from W.H. Lunt in Liverpool sometime in 1882-83. It appears to be unpublished, and I found it while going through the Lucy Broadwood manuscript collection in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Does anybody know whether it's similar to versions sung elsewhere? I've just bought my dad a copy of Roud and Bishop's New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, and I noticed that the tune given for "The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter", collected in Herefordshire in 1952, is rather similar: the notes there say the tune is "frequently found with come-all-ye ballads" and that Norman Cazden, in his Folk Songs of the Catskills, suspects it is Irish in origin, which would fit with it being found in late 19th century Liverpool.

Kidson's manuscript has the tune only, with no words, but it's not much of a problem to find a set of words from that period, as this was a very popular song among the broadside printers, and there are loads of copies from all over the country. I've based the words I'm singing here on the broadside by Harkness of Preston, who we know were active in printing for the Liverpool market.

This tale of unscrupulous apprentices knocking up young women and then legging it has a long history, with the earliest known set of words in print back in 1714. With the Merseyside councils currently investing to increase the number of apprenticeships, young women should be on their guard.

Blow the Candle Out is #368 in the Roud folksong index.

Monday, 17 September 2012

53: Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?

I may be stretching a point here on what constitutes a folk song, but this really is one of the great Liverpool songs, written by Ian Prowse and recorded by his band Amsterdam, released in 2005. Since it was recently covered by Christy Moore on his album "Listen" it's been making various appearances around the folk clubs.

This has been the week that the Hillsborough Independent Panel gave their report, releasing documents that proved that the 96 Liverpool fans crushed to death while watching a football match in April 1989 were victims of police and emergency service negligence and mismanagement - and that the memories of the 96 were then smeared by police and politicians as part of the biggest cover up operation in British history.

For years, our failure to "get over" tragedies like Hillsborough has led to uncaring people sticking the tag "self-pity city" on us. Now that the families of those who've died have shown why it's important to keep the memory of the dead alive and to fight for truth and justice, I chose this song because it's one of the most powerful reflections I know of Liverpool as a city of memories and tragedies and hopes. They are the fabric that the city was built out of.

What Ian Prowse wrote in this song is really a psychogeography of Liverpool. We start at the pyramid in St Andrew's churchyard (shown above) - famous for the local folklore that says that that William Mackenzie, a notorious gambler, made a pact with the devil that if he was dealt a winning hand, the devil could have his soul when he was dead and buried. He was eventually laid to rest above the ground in the pyramid tomb (some say with the winning cards in his hands), figuring that if he was sitting upright and never buried, the devil couldn't come to take him. We're then taken on a tour of memory - the slave trade, Mathew Street and the birth of Merseybeat (including the story of Allan Williams, the man who gave the Beatles an early break in his venue the Jacaranda but, then in his own words "gave them away" before they got famous - a real tale of 'what ifs?'). We're then taken through the tragedies of the famine ships and emigration from Ireland, the Jamie Bulger murder, and the crush at Hillsborough, with fans left to die while "Yorkshire policemen chat with folded arms".

If we try and forget the pains of the past, then we forget the very things that have shaped the city. We forget our memory and history. Truth and justice rely on the power to remember.

I know this song sounds a little strange a cappella, but if there was ever a week for it, here it is.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Out of the country for a couple of weeks

I'm away on my travels for a while, and so won't be able to record anything for the blog for a couple of weeks. But I have a couple of good songs ready for my return! See you then...

Saturday, 16 June 2012

52: Last Night We Had a Do

Can't say I know too much about this song. A fragment is included in Frank Shaw's book of Liverpool children's rhymes You Know Me Anty Nelly? - "Last night we had a do, some chipped potatoes too..." - but that's as far as it goes. The version I'm singing here comes from Stan Kelly's songbook, and he says that it's "deconstructed from childhood memories". The Spinners recorded an album bearing the title of this song, but the album doesn't actually include this song or anything like it. Anyway, if it triggers anybody elses memories about different versions, let me know.

The image above is of the painting "The Party", by Liverpool born painter Steve Proudfoot. It was part of the John Moores Prize exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in 2010.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

51: Little Jimmy Murphy

Alfred Perceval Graves (poet and collector of Irish folk music, and father of the poet Robert Graves) published the tune and words for this ballad in the Journal of the Irish Folk Society Vol. 13 (1913). Graves collected it from Humphrey Jones, in Harlech, Wales; but in turn, the Harlech source had "collected 'Little Jimmy Murphy' from an Irish street ballad singer in Liverpool in the year 1840, when he himself was a lad of 18. He said the ballad had such a success in the Irish quarter of Liverpool that the coppers positively rained from the windows upon the singer beneath".

The most unusual part of this song is the string of nonsense syllables in the chorus, preserved in all known versions. The theme of the song is usually understood to be the 1798 Irish Insurrection, with some going so far as to suggest that the Jimmy Murphy's stated crime of courting Kate Whelan in the 3rd verse is a veiled reference to Cathleen ni Houlihan, a mythical personification of the Irish nation alluded to in Irish nationalist literature. Anyway, important to have something that represents the close association between some (though by no means all!) of Liverpool's population and the cause of Irish independence - Liverpool's Scotland Road constitutency even elected an Irish nationalist party MP in the person of Thomas O'Connor between 1885 and 1929. And of course it gives us a nice insight into the kind of thing street ballad singers were singing in the first half of the 19th century.

In the Roud folksong index, this is #7951

Sunday, 27 May 2012

50: Blow the Man Down

For the 50th song on this blog, I thought I'd go back to the very first Liverpool folk song I knew of - I've had the chorus of this song rattling around in my head since I was 7: "Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down, to me whey hey blow the man down, Blow him right back into Liverpool town, gimme some time to blow the man down!" The tune I sing here is the one I've known since then, at slight variance in its 2nd half to most of the tunes I've seen written down... this is almost certainly because of the distorting effects of memory recall, but I see no point in 'correcting' my childhood memory of the tune in the interests of some false authenticity.

That said (getting off my high horse now), apart from that chorus I don't really know what other words I learned as a child, although I definitely remember the reference to Paradise Street, because the song would go through my head whenever I walked down there. There are numerous versions of this halyard shanty, but I can state with 100% certainty that the words I'm using here, based on the singing of Stan Hugill, aren't the ones I was taught as a child. They tell the story of an assault on a police officer; the protagonist in the song is accused of being a thief sailing aboard the trans-Atlantic Black Ball line, but protests that he is a victim of mistaken identity, and is actually a 'flying fish sailor'. According to Hugill this meant "a John who preferred the lands of the East and the warmth of the Trade Winds to the cold and misery of the Western Ocean" - such flying fish sailors were seen as softies in comparison to those who sailed under the harsh conditions of the Black Ball Line.

Paradise Street, once at the heart of Liverpool's sailortown, is now almost entirely engulfed by the monument to chain-store consumerism that is Liverpool One. Nevertheless, if you do find yourself 'rolling down Paradise Street' for some reason, you'll see the beautiful gates of the Sailor's Home (pictured above) have been installed there as some kind of reminder of the street's maritime history.

The various versions of Blow the Man Down are all #2624 in the Roud folksong index.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

49: Go To Sea Once More

A cautionary tale from Mersey shantyman Stan Hugill's Shanties of the Seven Seas. Versions of this song were also collected from American sailors by W.M. Doerflinger, W. Roy Mackenzie and others, and it's been recorded by Jerry Garcia out of the Grateful Dead so perhaps because of that I get the impression that a lot of people think of it as more of an Northern American song - but like many sea songs, it's something that spread from port to port across the world, and this is the version that Hugill says was "very popular with Liverpool seamen". Hugill also remarks on the fact that the tune is somewhat reminiscent of Greensleeves (which I suppose it is) and that this version of the song was a forbitter (i.e. a song for entertainment rather than a work song) "since it had no all-hands-in chorus".

A.L. Lloyd, who recorded versions of this song which he had collected from Wales, writes in the sleeve notes to "Leviathan!": "Who was Rapper Brown, the villain of the piece? Particularly during the latter days of sail, many lodging house keepers encouraged seamen to fall in debt to them, then signed them aboard a hardcase ship in return for the “advance note” loaned by the company to the sailor ostensibly to buy gear for the voyage. Paddy West of Great Howard Street, Liverpool, was well-known for this" (we have, of course, already heard about Paddy West...)

One of the interesting aspects of the song is its reference to the whaling trade: on the Liverpool museums website, Stephen Guy writes that "Today scant remains to remind us of this little-known period which ran parallel with the early growth of Liverpool. One place is Greenland Street, off Jamaica Street in the city centre. The waters off Greenland were among the places the Liverpool whalers hunted lucrative sperm whales and other species valuable for their oil-rich blubber and baleen - whalebone used for making ladies’ corsets (stays). It is likely that Greenland Street got its name because it housed the warehouses, counting houses and offices linked to the whaling industry... Whaling was dangerous, particularly when icebergs were around, and in 1789 it was recorded that four Liverpool whalers were lost. In 1827 only one whaler, The Baffin, was operating full-time out of Liverpool and by 1830 there was no more trade out of the port." The picture I'm using above, "Success to the James of Liverpool" is one of the few known paintings of a whaling ship operating out of Liverpool and dates from c.1810-1820.

In the Roud folksong index, this is #644

Sunday, 13 May 2012

48: A Double Thick Marmalade Butty

An affectionate tribute to childhood malnutrition by Frank Lewis, a Merseyside teacher, I think this was written for and first recorded in the mid-70s by The Jacksons. This was for a long time a part of the repetoire of Billy Maher and Jacqui and Bridie, and like many songs here, it plays into the tongue in cheek nostalgia that characterised the Liverpool folk revival. Gerry Jones' excellent Liverpool Lyrics website has a set of words to the song provided by Frank's daughter Sarah; Gerry's website also includes a tribute from a former pupil, who says "around 1982-85, Frank Lewis was my teacher in Primary School. He was from Liverpool,and he would get his guitar out and sing it to us".

Since recording this earlier today, I've found a youtube video apparently featuring Frank Lewis with Roy Brobyne singing this song in what looks like a fine living-room singalong!

The image above is a still from the 1965 BBC documentary "The Singing City", and shows 3 kids having a picnic on the traffic island in front of the entrance to Lewis's department store.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

47: Every Other Saturday

Seeing as it's the FA cup final later today, I really thought I should add something appropriate. This is a massively popular Liverpool F.C. song, and you can hear it most matchdays in The Albert pub - any 'errors' can and should be blamed on the people drinking there, as that's what I'm basing the version here on! It should be said that this was originally a Rangers F.C. song (cue disparaging comments about how Scousers will steal anything and everything). But of course, the nature of folk music is that it travels and is adapted to new contexts. This version has become pretty solidly rooted in Liverpool F.C. traditions, to the extent quite a lot of Liverpool fans do express surprise when they find out that this is a song borrowed from the singing of Rangers fans. Certainly its been adapted to our needs both melodically and lyrically. The final words of the song ("I'd walk a million miles for one of your goals"), to a tune borrowed from 'My Mammy', pay tribute to Kenny Dalglish, former star player and currently manager.

It should be noted that some people might wonder whether the very idea of talking about "Every other saturday" off is completely obsolete given that most of Liverpool's matches are played on a Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, any other time than Saturday! And can any working person really afford the ticket price on their 'half day off'?

Friday, 27 April 2012

46: The Ellan Vannin Tragedy

A song written in 1961 by Hughie Jones of Liverpool folk group The Spinners. (Hughie Jones is, of course, still an active part of the Liverpool folk scene; he runs the Everyman Folk Club, which due to the refurbishment of the Everyman met for a while in the Fly and the Loaf but has now moved to a new venue on the corner of Oldham Street and Roscoe Street.) This song commemorates the loss of the SS Ellan Vannin, which sank in 1909.

The SS Ellan Vannin was an iron paddle steamer with the Isle of Man Steam Packet company, and was built in Glasgow in 1860. In the early hours of 3 December 1909, the Ellan Vannin set sail from Ramsey for Liverpool with passengers, cargo, and mail, but during the journey weather conditions deteriorated. By the time Ellan Vannin had reached the Mersey Bar lightship, the waves were over 25 feet high, with winds of 80 miles per hour. The ship sank, and all 21 crew members and 15 passengers drowned.

The image above is a depiction of the disaster drawn by Arthur Burgess and printed in The Graphic newspaper of December 25 1909 - I found it on The Wreck Site, an online database of shipwrecks.

Friday, 20 April 2012

45: Poor Paddy Works on the Railway

A song celebrating (or should I say commiserating?) the Irish navvy at work; this version was collected from Albert Gillmore of Birkenhead and published in The Shuttle and Cage: Industrial Folk Ballads edited by Ewan MacColl. Gibb Schreffler, whose knowledge of shanties is greater than my own, has made me aware that the tune here is very similar not only to that used by Stan Hugill, but also one published by Whall in Ships, sea songs, and shanties, so it seems (possibly unlike other variations e.g. that collected from Newton Heath Railway Shed, Manchester and also published by MacColl) that what we have here is a version used at sea.

Although now very much sung by people with their feet on dry land - slightly further south in Cheshire it was even popular with fans of Crewe Alexandra ("the railwaymen") - this song has a long Liverpool association from its use as a capstan shanty. Edward Keble Chatterton, in a 1923 book called The Mercantile Marine, quotes Liverpool shipowner Sir William B. Forwood: "On the morning of the 20th November, 1857, I embarked by a tender from the Liverpool pierhead. It was nearly the top of high water. The crew were mustered on the forecastle, under the 1st Mate, Mr. Taylor. An order comes from the quarter-deck. ' Heave up the anchor and get away.' Aye, aye, sir.' 'Now then, my boys, man the windlass,' shouts the Mate, and to a merry chantie:
'In 1847 Paddy Murphy went to Heaven
To work on the railway, the railway, the railway,
Oh, poor Paddy works upon the railway'
'The anchor is away, sir,' shouts the Chief Officer. 'Heave it a-peak and cathead it,' comes from the quarter-deck, and the tug retriever forges ahead and tightens the tow-rope as we gather way. Bang, bang went the guns, and twice more, for we were carrying the mails, and good-bye to old Liverpool, and the crowds which lined the pierhead cheered, for the Red Jacket was already a famous ship, and it was hoped she would make a record passage."

Irish navvies in their thousands were responsible for work on many of the wonders that made Liverpool a great 19th century power, including the construction Liverpool-Manchester Railway, the world's first inter-city passenger railway. In spite of their essential role for the economy, however, at the time they were more often associated with criminality and disorder, as noted by Roger Swift in The Irish in Britain, who describes "three days of fierce fighting between 300 Irish navvies and 240 English railway labourers engaged on the line of the Chester and Birkenhead Railway" in 1839.

The Daniel O'Connell referred to in the fifth verse was the Irish Member of Parliament who lived from 1775-1847, campaigner for Catholic Empancipation and the separation of Ireland from the Union.

The Spinners sang a different version of this song under the title 'Fillimiooriay'; the song has travelled widely, as witnessed by the existence of American versions with titles like 'Poor Paddy Works on the Railroad' and 'Poor Paddy Works on the Erie'. It is #208 in the Roud folksong index.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Just writing a quick line to say that after a short hiatus, I'm ready to get back into the swing of things here. Temporary loss of hearing took some of the pleasure out of singing for a while, but I've recovered and just enjoyed a great couple of weeks in Liverpool getting my voice back, singing at the Ellesmere Port Shanty Festival and at the singarounds in St. Stephens, the Lion Tavern, and the Derby Arms (Aughton). So I'm very excited to start up my project here again; I plan on posting song number 45 this Friday.

Sadly, a year has now passed since I started, so I haven't reached my target of singing a song a week for a year, but these things happen; and at least this means that I can free myself of the artificial restriction of singing only 52 songs! I now plan on carrying this project through to 60 songs. Which means you'll be stuck with me for a bit longer...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

44: M.V. Statesman

As I've got quite a few shanties and sea songs on here, I thought it was important to include something from the post-WW2 Liverpool ships. Not for delicate ears, this one is studded with expletives - a fine demonstration of the phrase "swearing like a sailor". This is one of a number of songs collected by Ron Baxter of Fleetwood during his time in the Merchant Navy (1966-1974). As he explains, "In 1966, a skinny 17-year-old clad in a navy rain-coat two sizes too big boarded the S.S. Clan Sutherland. The watchman promptly told him, 'Don't be a bloody fool, son - go back home to yer mam!' This was my welcome to the Merchant Navy. But it was on that first trip that I was introduced to a class of songs virtually ignored by folk-song collectors - the Merchant Navy songs... my collection is a mixture of crude, unpolished, light-hearted parodies, although there are several gems. The majority decry the Company, the Master, the Officers, and the engines. They frequently poke fun at gay stewards, though I can't remember ever meeting any homophobics at sea."

The M.V. Statesman is one of a family of songs (usually known as M.V. Hardship) to the tune of 'Villikins and his Dinah' complaining of on-board conditions. This Liverpool version directs its anger at a particular ship in the Harrison's Line, and Ron Baxter notes that "unlike most of the other songs I collected, this is a 'lower-deck' song".

T. and J. Harrison was a shipping line founded in Liverpool in 1853. They liked using the same ship names over and over again, and Harrisons actually had six ships called "Statesman"; the 2nd incarnation of the Statesman was torpedoed by a U-boat during the first world war, and the fourth incarnation was sunk in WW2 by a German air attack off the coast of Ireland. The photo above is, I believe, of the fifth incarnation of the Statesman, built in 1944, purchased by Harrisons in 1948, and sold off in 1962.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

43: The Rambling Royal

A song about a Scouse deserter trying to get back to his girl in Birkenhead. I found two published versions of this song; the first was in Roy Palmer's Everyman's Book of British Ballads. He writes that "this forceful tale of protest goes back at least to 1798, when Irish rebels had a version beginning 'I am a real republican, John Wilson is my name'". The song definitely survived in Liverpool well into the 20th century, and the version Palmer includes was collected by Phil Colclough, a folk revival singer of some note from Staffordshire who in his early life had joined the Merchant Navy and sailed out of Liverpool. Bert Lloyd also collected a version of this song from Frank Jeffries, a "seaman of Liverpool"; his version is published in Sing Magazine, Vol. 6 No. 6 (1962). It's substantially the same as the one from Colclough in both words and tune, only with a bit more ornamentation.

Given that both the deserter and the Birkenhead girl who promised to conceal him in her bedroom would have been severely punished for their actions, in a certain sense this is as much a song of daring as many tales of wartime heroism. I certainly start to admire the Rambling Royal's swagger and bravado by the time it gets to the last verse.

In the Roud folksong index, this is #982, grouped together with other deserter songs that are clearly very close relations, including 'The Belfast Shoemaker'.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

42: Maggie May

A public service announcement warning sailors about unscrupulous brasses, this song is as scouse as scouse. Several versions are given by Stan Hugill in Shanties of the Seven Seas, and the song retained a popularity well into the 1960s as a standard for skiffle groups - The Beatles, recalling it from their skiffle days as The Quarrymen, recorded a fragment of it on Let It Be.

As a town catering for sailors, Liverpool was riddled with prostitutes. As the sign above suggests, it's not without them today. A popular topic of conversation surrounding this song is whether Maggie May was a real person or simply an archetypal lady of the night; Hughie Jones of the Spinners remarks: "My first job was as an office boy in Duke Street and I’d heard the rumour that Maggie May lived at number 17. One day somebody came in and said a funeral has just gone by and it was Maggie May and that was in 1952. I thought that can’t be true because I’ve always known the song... Was she still alive in the 50s? It is possible. Maggie May had many contemporaries of course. One was called Jumping Jenny and the famous one was The Battle Ship, pretty ominous really."

Maggie May is #1757 in the Roud folksong index.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

41: The Swan Swims So Bonny

Another version of a ballad in Francis Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads - Frank Kidson collected this version of "The Two Sisters" from "an Irishman in Liverpool", and the tune, together with a fragment of the words, was published in The Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol. 2 No. 9. Later, he published the song with an expanded set of words from a variety of sources in A Garland of English Folk-Songs. This murder ballad has a long history as part of English and Scottish tradition, and almost certainly predates its first appearance in print as a 1656 London broadside. Child also notes that the the tale appears appears on the European continent, with Swedish, Norwegian, and Slovenian versions. Kidson says that "the story almost invariably is to the effect that a woman, jealous of her sister, pushes her into a stream near a mill-dam. The half-drowned sister is discovered by the miller's daughter, who calls to her father that there is either a swan or a lady in the water... afterwards a harper, passing along, finds the lady's body and from her anatomy makes a harp... stringing it with her long yellow hair, making the wrst pins from her finger bones, etc. The harp being placed on a stone begins to play of its own accord, and denounces the sister".

The picture above is of Maurice Ferrary's sculpture "Leda and the Swan" at the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Ok, so it's about a different myth (that of Zeus seducing Leda after visiting her in the form of a swan) but I think the representation of deceit and of the merging of woman and swan fits very nicely with this ballad.

The Swan Swims So Bonny (often called "Binnorie", "The Two Sisters" and many other things) is #8 in the Roud folksong index.

Monday, 9 January 2012

40: Back Home To Bootle Again

I heard this fine pub-crawling song at a singaround a while ago, but didn't know the source of it until I saw it on Billy Maher's "Songs of Liverpool" CD. The song is by Joe Orford, who lives in Crosby I believe, and has written a number of fine songs with a local flavour.

The photo above is a 1965 shot of the entrance to Hackins Hey off Dale Street. Taken by Pat Weekes, it comes from the "Streets of Liverpool" website. Anybody "drinking their way along Hackins Hey" shouldn't find it too hard these days - as far as I'm aware, there are only three pubs along there at the moment - The Saddle Inn, Ye Hole In Ye Wall (Liverpool's oldest pub, opened back in 1726), and The Jupiter. However, this medieval lane has always been an important place of business in the town - what better place, then, for the important business of a piss up? Even if it is a long and winding way home on the bike to Bootle.