Article MT128

Bob Lewis

a biographical interview

My visit to the home Bob and Dorothy Lewis in March 2003 had a number of purposes.  I was working on his biography and the song notes for a CD of his singing, which was then in preparation.  I also wanted to take some photographs.  However, it was always intended that the interview would be much fuller than would be required for the CD - The Painful Plough - and a transcription for Musical Traditions was always intended.

In this transcription, I have left out my questions altogether.  The whole thing reads better without them and it is fairly obvious what they were anyway.  To the same end, explanations are in italic brackets rather than footnoted -  Vic Smith)

Well, I grew up in Heyshott, in West Sussex.  Essentially, I went to the village school there.  I could say that we lived very simply because we were actually quite poor.  Itís not that many years ago, but just to think, we had just got main water by that time, so we didnít have to go and get water out of a well.  But everything elseÖ well.  We had a cesspit job, so we did have a flush toilet, but a lot of our neighbours at that time only had the privy down the garden.  We didnít have any electric; this is in the 1950s.  We relied on oil lamps and that for lighting.  In fact thatís one of them on the sideboard there.  That one used to stand on our kitchen table in Heyshott.  Thereís a cable in it now, you can see.  I converted it.

Well, no radio, we mostly made our own entertainment.  The idea that we spent the winter evenings sitting around singing isnít true.  But singing was as natural to me in our house as breathing.  The idea that there was such things as folk songs never really occurred to me.  We just didnít think of the words Ďfolk songsí - something that was cast in tablets of stone - just wasnít there.  My only association with that idea at all was when we were at school; we had a headmaster that was keen on all that Cecil Sharp stuff and music lessons used to consist of singing those Cecil Sharp folk songs.  The idea was that folk songs was something that you did at school.

It was really when I moved out of the Midhurst area, when I first married and that, and I moved down to Elsted that I started to think about it.  Of course, I was working as an agricultural engineer at that time of day.  I got myself a cottage out at Elsted.  There used to be people that came into the pub there.  George Money and his mates from Petersfield way and we would have a sing-song in the pub.  That was quite natural to me because there had been sing-songs in The Unicorn at Heyshott.  Not a singaround type thing like you get now, formalised singaround at a folk festival or whatever.  A spontaneous thing where someone would sing a song and others would join in or whatever.  Someone might say, "Give us that old song, George" or whatever.  Somebody would strike up - in the right mood.  It was never pre- determined.  Someone felt like a sing, so you had a sing.  This was very much the sort of thing that I was used to.

One time we went to Hookís Way.  In fact Iíve got a tape somewhere, Iíll look it out for you some time, of old Alfie Ainger, not singing, but talking about his life.  I used to go over to Hookís Way periodically and some people came from what then a folk song club in Chichester.  This would be around 1960.  They turned up to this thing and they said to me, "Oh, you ought to come down to Chichester, we got this folk club thing going on down there.  Youíll have a good time of it down there." So eventually I went down there.  They used to meet up on a Friday night.  They were in The Hole In The Wall, I think, then they went to The Victoria and then they went back to The Hole in the Wall.  They shunted about a bit.  That was where I first met George Belton.  He was out at Madehurst.  I got on well with George and Milly straight away.  I used to go up and see them at Madehurst and he said " Oh!  Come up to our old Songswapper thing." (at Horsham) But I wouldnít sing, other than joining in choruses.  I wouldnít sing in a folk club because it was actually a funny sort of atmosphere to me.  It didnít feel like singing down the pub.

You had a lot of very enthusiastic people, playing guitars and things like that and singing".  It was people like Julie Felix and Ewan MacColl and the singers were doing stuff like that.  But the audience used to be quite intense.  I used to think, you know, "This is Funny" all these people sitting around here listening and someone would say, "Well, this is somebodyís version of such a song and somebody elseís version" and so on.  And some chap sitting there in a duffle coat would say, "Ooh!  You sung that song wrong.  Thatís not right and thatís so and so and thatís supposed to be this." George would sing at the folk club where I wouldnít.  He didnít give a whatsit about anybody; he would just sing.  I was a bit more wary about it all.  It was only laterly that George persuaded me to sing and eventually I got around to running the club.  The people that had done it had given up and somebody was needed to keep it going.  But I was still a bit diffident about it; I knew that whilst I had a basic repertoire of songs, I was thinking, "Well, I donít know any folk songs." I was trying to work out in my mind what they meant by this.

It really coincided with that time and I thought, "Well, I really ought to start singing and that." And my mother realised that I had got interested.  And then she said, "Well, why donít you sing this, and why donít you sing that?" And then there was all this stuff come out that my mother knew that I had no more idea than the man in the moon that she knew.  And then because I was taking an interest in it, and I would spend several hours in a week with my old mum, saying, "Right, weíll have a go at this" and so on.  Well, she used to get really cross with me.  I wasnít singing them properly.  So I am indebted initially to mother being a repository of quite a lot of songs.  Some she had learned as a little girl at home and at school.  Some were the songs that everybody sings, One Man went to Mow and The Tailor and the Crow and all the usual sort of things.

Also at that time I was working as an agricultural engineer, and basically what we did; we repaired tractors and machinery, but the thrust of our business was export.  So quite a lot of the week I used to be away at farm sales and things like that, up and down the country, right up into Yorkshire and right down into Cornwall; buying up machinery and tractors, which we would cart back home - repair and the next thing was we would be going to the docks in the East End of London or Shoreham, Southampton, Liverpool, up to Hull and shipping this stuff out and it used to go all over the world.  But because I was always at the likes of farm sales and because Iíd started to get interested in these old songs and the singing bit, taking a bit more interest in it.  And when I was out and about like this Iíd meet up with all sorts of people afterwards and weíd have a sing-song somewhere.  They were the right sort of people, you see.  And really that was the time that I started going down to the West Country so much.  As a result of going down there for work, I met up with people like Bob Cann and Charlie Bate, all sorts of people.  And, of course, we had a common interest - a good sing song - letís get in the back of an old pub somewhere, a few pints and have a bit of a sing.

Of course, I had family connection down there as well.  My father and grandmother lived down there.  I never knew her.  She died before I was born.  But they lived down in Cornwall.  Not very successfully, I tried to re-establish things, try to find out where the old roots were down there.  I found a bit out.  Because, you know, they were connected with the church.  Iíve never told you, but my old dad was a parson or curate or whatever youíd like to call him, in the Church of England.  But then he had a change of heart over it.  He chucked it all up.  I donít know what it was all about.  Again, he knew a lot of the old stuff - not that I saw a lot of my father, believe you me.  But he sang bits and pieces to me when I was a kiddie.  I remember snippets of things like that.

(At this stage in the conversation, I tried to steer Bob around to his association with The Padstow May celebrations which he is still involved with) Donít want to talk about that - thatís off the record.  Itís not the sort of thing that would want anyone to suggest that I was trying to capitalise on and itís very personal.  (Bob did then talk about this involvement at length - fascinating stuff - but itís not for here.)

I donít really mind where a song that I would sing comes from.  The mainstay of what I sing is old Sussex stuff essentially; songs with connections with friends and family and my locality.  But thereís an outer ring, if you like, of things that I have picked up here, there and everywhere, quite a lot of stuff from down in Cornwall, because I started to go down there a great deal.  When my first marriage all fell apart, I spent weeks and weeks down there.  As a result of the emotional stress, I was under, I was under the doctor, I was unable to work.  In fact, I nearly killed myself at work, being oblivious of what I was doing.  I was not safe on the road.  They said to me in Padstow.  "For Godís sake, come down here and stay with us" I already had a longstanding friendship and connection with them by that time.  It became a second home to me.  I used to turn up down there and theyíd say, "Oh, you are back home again." This was in the late sixties.  For several years, it was very difficult.  But I got to meet a lot of old singers down there who have since passed on.

I started to be associated in Sussex with a lot of singers who were, by and large, a lot older than me.  Bob Blake, George Belton, George Spicer, Bob & Ron Copper, Cyril Phillips; even old Scan (Tester), people like that.  But they were, if you like, the known singers, the recorded singers.  But there was a whole raft of people that I knew who, to the best of my knowledge, had never been recorded.  Whilst people came around to collect songs, obviously, it was a bit like a fisherman throwing his rod out in the hope that was going to catch something.  You might go through somewhere and not find any singers.  Itís a rather different kettle of fish when you are actually living in a locality where you have an in-depth knowledge and you can say, "Oh, thereís old so and so, he lives there and he sings there and so on" and I can say definitely that back in the 1950s, in the Heyshott, Midhurst, Rother valley area around where I lived, a radius of about ten miles, I must have known about forty people who were other George Beltons, if you like.  Iíve got a tape of old Alfie Ainger.  He has a good repertoire of songs.  He was a publican.  He was the oldest licensee in West Sussex.  Heís held the license of the Royal Oak in Hookís Way from about 1901 as a young man and the recorded tape that I have of him there - he was over 88 years of age at the time and he was still in the pub then.  Heíd been there a hell of a long time.  Apart from that tape, I havenít got any recordings, but the pub was a magnet for people who sang; people who would come out there and sing.  The only person that I know who recorded in that pub was a woman on the folk scene called Joy Hyman.  But there were a good lot of people around who would sing a song spontaneously. 

Thereís a sort of artificial idea, to my mind, whether itís come about from the BBC or from the EFDSS or whatever it was; that was this very rigid idea of who was and who wasnít a traditional singer.  Well, if you come to it through their interpretation of it, then Iím not a traditional singer.  And anybody that sung professionally or for any sort of money would be considered so.  Or anybody that dressed up and did any sort of turn as a music hall or entertainment would have ever fitted into that category.  Why on earth they got themselves into this straightjacket sort of thinking, I donít know.  As a result, I suspect that they wrote off or dismissed quite a lot of really good singers, who they didnít bother to get to know when they werenít doing their turn.

I used to go and sing at harvest suppers, farm suppers and the like, with old Cyril Phillips.  I used to get asked to quite a lot of harvest suppers, especially around the Midhurst area; quite a number.  I used to think, well, rather than doing it on my own, letís get a gang of us together and so I can remember saying to George Belton, "Thereís a harvest supper at so-and-so, do you fancy coming along?" So weíd do that and it almost became a reciprocal sort of thing because George or Cyril would get asked to do things and theyíd include me.  That was the time when Cyril was living at Cuckfield.  We had some funny old run-ins with Cyril, I donít mind telling you.  I could tell you a story or two about that.

Well, Cyril, as you know, he was a bit highly-strung.  He obviously had emotional problems or whatever you like to call it.  Cyril used to put an old straw hat on and a smock.  I can remember going to Highbrook and at that time I was staying up with old Bob Fry (in Horsted Keynes).  There was a chap called Geoff Cohen, who asked us to a harvest supper at Highbrook, near Ardingly.  Iíd got a smock and Cyril had got a smock and we were sat in this table up in Highbrook Village Hall.  I thought, "You cunning old sod!" We were eating supper and it was a good old spread with about 23 different varieties of home-made wine on offer.  I think Cyril had a go at all of them.  He sat there and heíd got these old cords on tied up around the knees with "yorks" and heíd got these old hobnail boots on with bright red socks, but one of these hobnail boots the toe was like that, the soles and the uppers had parted company.  He was sitting up there with his legs crossed and this red toe poking out and wriggling about.  I knew exactly what he was doing, but heíd got this place mesmerised looking at these toes poking out of his boot.  He was a past master at some of those things.

He turned up at the singaround one night over at the White Horse at Sutton and I thought "Whatís he bloody up to now?" Heíd got this old corn sack with him and he made a fuss of throwing it down by the fireside place.  Anyway we thought, "Weíll wait for it" and anyway in the course of the evening, he gets this sack and he unties it and he starts foraging around inside it, you see, and when heís got all the attention, he extracted from it a pair of long johns, Well, if I tell you this pair would have fitted The Long Man of Wilmington (Chalk Figure on the South Downs) and then of course the spiel came, " A chap left these on my doorstep with a note saying that he thought they might do me a turn!" Dear oh dear!

Well, after a while we thought, well we never see one another unless someoneís got a do on, like one of your dos over in Lewes (the folk clubís regular Sussex Singersí Evenings) It was either I said it or George Belton said it.  Iím not sure who it was exactly but some one said, "Well, why donít we have a get together once a month.  Letís fix up on a pub and find somewhere where we can meet up and we can have a few beers and have a yarn, and a few sandwiches, something like that and we can have a sing." Well, that sounded like a good idea and out of that came the Sussex Singarounds which have been going for more than thirty years now.  So we got everybody out of the woodwork from Bob Blake, Cyril Phillips, Mabs and Gordon Hall, George Spicer, Ron Spicer, Johnny Doughty, Len Pelling.  You name it they all came to it.  The Coppers, though not Bob at that time of day because his missis was still alive and wasnít well and Bob wasnít able to come, but John and Jill and Jon Dudley and Alan and one or two other people from Peacehaven.  It started that we said well, one month weíll meet up at The Fox at Charlton, up my way near Goodwood, another month, weíll go and weíll meet up at the George & Dragon at Dragonís Green.  That was near Horsham and handy for people like Bob Blake to come to it.  And then the third month, we were going to meet at the back room over at the Central Club in Peacehaven.

Thatís what we started off, but then we found that we were always ringing up one another to find out where we were supposed to be next month.  We rapidly dropped the idea of Dragonís Green because that landlord had got a lot of people in and the place was humming with a lot of people coming in expecting an event and you couldnít hear yourself think, never mind sing.  We thought, "Blow this.  This isnít any good up here." So we then went, this was Bob Copperís idea.  We phoned up old Mike Campbell, out at The Fountain at Ashurst and so we started going there on a fixed monthly basis.  We started going there and met up with old Len Pelling and he became part of the gang.  Then Mike Campbell got in trouble with the brewery, he hadnít paid his beer bills or something.  Well, he finished up having to go to Hellingly (mental hospital).  He had problems and he lost the pub and that was the end for us too.

From there, we went down to John McLennon, who kept The Norfolk Arms in Steyning and we had a very happy association with that pub.  He used to want us to sing in the saloon bar, but we said "No, the public will do us fine.  Weíre happy there." But because he had to shut down all his fruit machines and one-arm bandits when we were there, none of the local lads used to come in when we were there.  So his trade was suffering and it was me that suggested that we moved on and I knew the couple that kept The White Horse at Sutton.  We they used to have singing things in their old pub in East Meon in Hampshire.  Theyíd been badgering me to came and have sing songs there for some while and so we went there and stayed for a long time until on Barry, the landlord died.  Sheila tried to keep the pub on her own but it got too much for her.  Of course Vic Gammon and Will Duke were coming along by then and they suggested that we go to The Jolly Sportsman at East Chiltington.  That didnít last very long.  The people who invited us there were giving the pub up and we went for a little bit to the Central Club, the Coppers, sung in the kitchen out the back.  Then Vic and Will suggested The Ram at Firle and thatís where weíve been for many years now, at least a dozen years.

So I suppose the idea of the singarounds in the first place was for all of us to get together, so we could sing if we felt like it or sit and yarn or whatever.  Always at the back of my mind, and certainly this idea evolved, was that I couldnít think of a better way of singers to learn songs straight off the traditional singers of Sussex, learning them then and there.  From the horseís mouth rather than saying, "Well, I learned it from George Belton, but I learned it from a gramophone record." To actually learn from a person and to know the person is a different thing to learning it through the media, recordings or things like that.  Itís not the same thing, is it?  It was always an idea to encourage people with an interest in traditional song, hopefully to help to preserve, well "preserve" is perhaps not the best word to use; to sustain a living oral tradition.  And a lot of younger performers started to come along.  Vic & Will, Marilyn Bennett, Dick Richardson, Jim Ward, a good cross section of who was around.  Jill Roberts, Bobís daughter used to come when she was working in Sussex.  Then we had all sorts of people who happened to be down, some Americans.  Meridian Television came to it one time at Firle and they set all this gear up and lights and all in this tiny back room.  It was like a furnace in there.  They recorded the evening and then they tagged it on, a few minutes, to a show called The Pier and the rest of the programme was about the Gary Glitter show!  Quite bizarre!  The BBC radio have been down to record it at times, when it was at East Chiltington.  It tended to be a bit artificial when something like that was happening.  Itís not really like a fly on the wall, is it?  Where we go from here with it, I donít know.  Bob Copper sometimes comes if George Wagstaff can persuade him to come over, but apart from Bob, we havenít seen them for quite a while now.  Hopefully, it will go on.

The way the singing is seen in the media upsets me.  Itís not broad enough.  Itís all become swept up into one big package or enterprise, so that you hear the same things said over and over again.  "Well, if weíve got to have traditional singing, weíve got to have them." You know?  Iíve been fortunate.  Iíve been asked to do evenings alongside Bob Copper at Tonbridge and elsewhere and I really felt privileged to do that.  Itís great, just us and the songs without and spiel or razzmatazz.  And I was recorded at an evening up in London and a chap, I donít know who it was (from Bobís description, it was Andrew King)He asked me if he could record me and later on I found that it had been put in the National Sound archive.  He was doing stuff for the British Library.  So I was quite pleased about the thought of that.

Yes and this venture now.  Peter (Collins) started talking to me about doing recordings.  He came down here a couple of times and set things up.  I donít know how many songs he recorded, more than he can possibly use.  Then he had me up to sing for an evening at his place at The Beacon at Crowborough in January and he said, "Blow me!  Bob, Tonight youíve sung four songs that Iíve never heard you sing before." Well, itís difficult.  I had a rough sort of count up, but itís something over 200 songs that I know from memory.

Going back through the years, I was also recorded at your place (the folk club in Lewes) on that record by Karl Dallas, that came out as The Brave Ploughboy (Xtra XTRS 1150 The Brave Ploughboy: Songs and stories in a Sussex pub.  Various artists (1975).  Then Mike Yates came and recorded me when I was living in Patcham and that ended up on a cassette for John Howson (A Sweet Country Life, Veteran Tapes VT 120, 1990).  Iíve stayed in contact with Mike since then, but of course, he lives up in the North now.  Then John Howson put together that When May Was All In Bloom (Veteran VT131CD When the May is All in Bloom Traditional singers from the South East of England.  Bob Copper, John Copper, Louie Fuller, Gordon Hall, Bob Lewis, Ron Spicer).  Thereís also some of my songs on some of the compilation albums that he has put together such as Down in the Fields (Veteran VTC4CD Down in the Fields: An Anthology of traditional folk music from Rural England, Various performers (2001).  VTC4CD Where the Wind Blows An Anthology of traditional folk music from Coastal England, Various performers (2001).

I get asked to sing at the folk clubs in this area and some further afield, and festivals - yes, Iíve been asked to go to Whitby and to Sidmouth a number of times; Broadstairs, Falmouth, Dartmoor, yes, up and down the place.  Iím going to Sidmouth and Whitby again this year.  Iíve also been asked to go to traditional singing weekends like John Walthamís one in Dorset and the one here at Seaford.

Thereís been people on at me to go to America and Iíve said, "Fair enough.  You fix it up and Iíll go." But then I didnít hear anything.  Yes, several times Iíve been asked - it goes back to the time when Gordon (Hall) was alive and singing.  Jon Dudley has been encouraging me, saying how much theyíd enjoyed it.  But Iím not going to write begging letters, but Iíd go if it was arranged.  I think Iíd have to go on my own because it wouldnít be Dorothyís thing and perhaps she could come over after and we could have a holiday.

But Iím certainly looking forward to Sidmouth and Whitby.  To me Whitby is a great singersí festival.  I think Jeff Wesley and his missus are going to be there, Iíd look forward to doing something with him because we get on really well together.

Song Notes section:

I took along the print out of my initial research on the songs for Bobís CD 'The Painful Plough' - mainly using Steve Roudís Folk Song Index - and asked Bob to record his comments on each song.  He came up with some very interesting stuff:

The Cobbler - Gordon Hall and I spent a lot of time discussing songs and particularly old Henry Burstowís songs.  One of the songs that cropped up at that time was The Cobbler.  Gordon had given this to me, a copy of Lucy Broadwoodís notes.  Gordon had done an awful lot of research on stuff like that.  Itís all in Henryís writing, look at all that.  Thereís a lot of Henry Burstowís songs and amongst them was The Cobbler.  And I had up there an old school book, a sort of intellectual book for improving the knowledge of children, full of fables and Greek mythology and all that and there was a fuller version of the song in there.  And my version is between Henryís and that.  And the chorus was "Derry DownÖ" so I knew that tune that was going to fit it anyway.  I know that it can be dated back at least to the 1730s.

The Golden Glove - The Broadside writer could set it anywhere to make it local.  Probably old when published on broadside.

Live All Alone - I learned it from my mother.  Donít know any more of it than that.  Never heard any more of it than that.  Remember discussing it with Gordon Hall and we both knew that it was associated with Henry Burstow.  Thatís probably where it comes from.

Farmer Giles - Yes, that was one of the regular songs that was sung.  In one of Arthur Beckettís books, Spirit of the Downs or Wonderful Weald, I canít remember exactly which.  One of the places that we used to hold our singarounds, was The White Horse at Sutton, tucked right underneath the Downs.  In Beckettís account of going to Sutton, he describes being in the pub after there had been something like a farm sale.  The pub was bursting at the seams with what Beckett describes as a sort of rough agricultural types and poor farmers.  There was a lot of rough banter and singing going on and he didnít think it was very polite singing.  Amongst this singing was a song that he describes as interminable with a "Toor-ri-li-oor-ri-li-aa" chorus.  I actually twigged that what they were doing, and this is absolutely typical, was taking the piss out of Beckett and his companions in whatever it was.  It was a countrymanís song denigrating Londoners and the big city types and putting one over on them.  Apparently, he was totally oblivious to the fact that they were taking the rise out of them.  Iím absolutely certain thatís what was happening there.  I remember it being sung when I was a kid.  It was quite a regular sort of party piece with a lot of the singers around the Midhurst area.  I knew parts of it, but I learned the song in its entirety from Cyril Phillips.  He filled in the bits that I didn't know.  I donít always sing all the verses.  I think that thereís some sort of connection between that song and the book Tom Cladpoleís Visit to London.  I canít verify it because I havenít got the book, but I have heard it said several times.

John Barleycorn - Well that again was a common piece that was sung around the place.  I know that chap that was noted for singing it was the chap from Fittleworth, George Attrill.  But I can show you the source of the song where I learned it from.  It was printed in a book called The Nationís Music.  (The Nationís Music, English, In 5 volumes.  Preface & Notes by Robert J Buckley.  No date of publication.  Published by Cassells, Picture of George V in frontispiece).  In fact, I have been ferreting about amongst some of the old song books that we had a home.  Iíve got it here; Iíll show you.  The song is obviously older than this, the bookís got this sort of thing, All Among The Barley, The Bailiffís Daughter of Islington, The Death of Nelson, The Farmerís Boy, The Mistletoe Bough, Lass of Richmondís Hill, Sally In Our Alley, Tom Bowling, a mixture of all sorts of things, national songs, art songs and quite a few traditional songs.  The most surprising song in there to my mind was Dame Durden - described as being ĎWritten by a Celt and Adopted by a Saxoní.  Book says tune was written by Purcell.  Showed it to Bob Copper.  "Henry Purcell died in 1695, the greatest of all musicians, living or dead, was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and an organist at Westminster Abbey, Dame Durden owes its long popularity to its humour and its ability to fit in with agricultural England, where Dorothy Draggletail has been for centuries the reproach for the woman whose skirts failed to maintain the standards of neatness and tidiness." But of course, The Coppers cleaned the song up, They donít sing it the way it was written.  It was a bit more explicit than that.  (The book has "They all began to mate" where the Coppers sing "meet"!).  Hearing that it was credited to Henry Purcell, Bob was quite surprised.  And old John wasnít none too pleased about it.

John Barleycorn - yes, well as you know I recorded that on The Brave Ploughboy.  I was never too happy with it, the way I sung the second half of the verse.  I donít know what quite made me do it, but when I heard that tune used for something else, it made me change that way I sing it, so now in latter years, I donít sing it the way that I used to.

The Crockodile - I remember hearing that from a number of singers years ago, but the one that I particularly remember singing it was Bob Blake.  But it was a song that I remember that we used to have on an old 78, dating from the 1920s or sometime, I suppose.  In order to squeeze the whole of the song onto one side of a 78 meant that they had to sing it at absolute breakneck speed.

The Ox Ploughing - Youíre quite right, Baring-Gould found it and put it in his Songs of the West.  It has been found in Devon and Cornwall.  I first heard the song in Cornwall.  Iím going back over 30 years now.  There was a chum of mine who lived on Bodmin Moor who used to sing it and he used to come to the Wadebridge folk club when Meryyn Vincent and Charlie Bate and all them used to go.  I always loved the old song and he wrote it out for me.  I never learned it.  It was one of these things, I kept meaning and I kept meaning to learn it.  I said to myself, "Well, I will get around to learning that one day." Eventually, it worked its way to the top.  But you can say that I actually learned the song down in Cornwall.  I know that there were two or three versions of it around down there in Cornwall.

It was quite interesting, because I went to our singaround over at The Ram (at Firle) and I said, "Well, Iím going to have a go at this old song." Bob (Copper) was there.  So I sang this Ox Ploughing song.  Well, the next month, Bob and John turned up there and Bob brought with him correspondence with a lady whoíd lived in Telscombe Cliffs.  She had the very self same song.  Sheíd written it out and given it to Bob.  She, as a girl, had heard the lads singing it on the farm in the War years (2nd World War!).  This was in Cornwall, so this would take it back to the 1940s.  Now whether the farm lads had learned it out of Songs of the West or what I donít know, but it was still a song that was alive and still being sung locally in those years.  Now, the man that I learned the song from was a shepherd.

Bold Fisherman - Well, I sort of knew it, but I suppose I learned it from George (Belton) as much as anyone.

Spread the Green Branches - Now my mother knew that and she had a friend.  They were both in the Womenís Institute in Heyshott, Edith Wright, and at that time of day, my mum used to go down to Edithís cottage, just down the road from us (in Heyshott) and theyíd spend the afternoon drinking tea and singing old songs to one another.  And theyíd also play the piano together.  Thatís where I got the song from.  I think, of course this was in the Rother valley, I think that the source of the song was probably, Henry Hills of Lodsworth, which is only about a couple of miles from where we lived.  From what I know, I think a collector went round.  I wish I could think of his name.  This was in the 1900s.  I just canít think of the name.  (Later established as Percy Merrick) There were umpteen collectors went around in Sussex at that time.  They came down here in droves.  This collector might have published some of the songs of Henry Hills and I think that is where it might have come from.

Young and Single Sailor - Again thatís something Iíve heard sung around.  I also sing The Dark Eyed-Sailor which another song, another broken-token that was very widespread around.  The trouble is that if I start out saying Iím going to sing The Dark-Eyed Sailor, Iíd end up singing the other one.  They are a very similar thing.  Itís something that I remember being sung up at The Cherry Tree at Copthorne.  Because old Pop Maynard used to sing it and part of the gang that used to go there at that time of day all used to join in.  Ken Stubbs and them.  I can remember singing it also at the Songswappers (in Horsham).

A Capital Ship - Thatís a song that I learned at home.  It was one of the party pieces that we did and it was in those Francis Day sixpenny songbooks.  Things that you sung for a bit of fun indoors.  It was obviously well known in America as well.  It dates from the same sort of period as The Chinese Bumboat Man and things like that.  I think that it dates from the time of the Opium Wars and a time when the Royal Navy were switching from sail to steam.  Iíll show you the sort of thing that I mean.  (Shows picture from a book of an early RN Steam/sail ship) With this type of vessel, they had the best of both worlds.  Thatís the period that song dates from.

The Trees are All Bare - Another song I knew at home and that I picked up, of course, when I heard George Belton sing it.  Now the other singer who sang it was George Townshend (from Lewes).  But you must remember that George Townshend use to go to the Songswappers things as well.  So which George learned it from which, Iíve no idea, or if they learned it separately.  I certainly knew some of the song at home.

A Sussex Wassail - Iíve always known that.  You say that wassail songs were heard in Gloucestershire and Somerset westwards, you must remember that West Sussex and Kent was every bit as strong for apples and cider growing.  As a kid, I remember in Duncton, they said that Apple Howling had died out.  What the EFDSS and various people who have written about it have said about Apple Howling was that the Duncton thing and old Spratty Knight and so on had packed up and that it had died out.  I think that it still had a revival after the last war.  Because I can remember being at Duncton, at The Cricketers, with my father when they were out there and all this was going on because there was an orchard alongside the pub and I said to him.  "What are they doing?" And he said, "Well, they are wassailing the apple trees." I donít remember any guns being fired but they were certainly singing.

Of course, they always wassailed bees as well.  Always, in Sussex, they wassailed bees.  Iíve got a mate of mine, Eric, who lives in Duncton.  Heís got a cottage by the village school in Duncton, lived there all his life and weíve talked about it.  His father-in-law was one of the old wassail gang and he had a farm and orchards up by Duncton Hill, there, what they called Botany Bay and they all used to come there to Ericís father-in-law to do the business.  Whether it was just a sporadic thing for a couple of years and it finally fizzled out, but it certainly had another revival.

The other wassail song that I learned was in Cornwall from old Charlie Bate and that was The Gower Wassail from Wales.  Now, who Charlie Bate learned it from, I donít know.

A Farmer's Toast - Iím indebted to Martyn Wyndham-Read for completing the verses that I knew to that.  Thereís the Farmerís Toast Mug and you can find the verses that I sing on there.  It was not always sung, it would have been spoken.  But several of these farm supper, harvest supper type songs would be cumulative in that someone would start singing and the next verse would be sung by someone round the table and it would be added to, "Hereís a health toÖ " and "Hereís a health to somebody elseÖ " and so on.  And so bits have been tagged on to the song and other bits have been lost or forgotten.

Vic Smith - 7.6.03

Article MT128

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