Article MT012

Sophie Legg

A conversation with a West Country Traveller

Betsy, Charlotte, Jim, Eddie and Sophie (1900 to 1918) were part of one generation of the West Country travelling family, the Orchards.  They spent much of their early lives travelling the Cornish roads and lanes, selling hardware and haberdashery from a horse-drawn van, visiting local fairs and markets, and occasionally making journeys 'up the country'.

Sophie's son, Vic Legg, recently recorded a conversation with his mother about the times and the singing ...  Vic's questions and comments appear in bracketed italics.

(Do you know the family tree going back very far?) - Not to my great-grandparents; back as far as my grandfather.  The only thing I can say about the great-grandparents is what I've heard - that they originated from Colmstock in Dorset.  That there were seven brothers - they were either farmers or farm labourers - and there was one sister, her name was Sophie, she was a school teacher apparently.  Why the brothers all growed up and left her I don't know, but they said that they left behind a row of cottages.  And I think that about four of them came away with the Romanies and eventually married them or lived with them, I'm not sure which.  Two they said joined the Metropolitan Police Force, and one became a Customs and Excise Officer.  I've got no proof of any of this, this is hearsay, this is from the family.  That's all I actually know about them.

But I did know my grandfather - he was named Jim.  He used to sing a few songs, quite a few songs actually, but I was only four when he died, so I don't remember him singing.  - (He sung quite a bit for Aunt Betsy and Aunt Charlotte?  Apparently they went and looked after him for a time) - Well, they looked after Granny when she was ill, and I think they were up there helping to look after him when he was ill; he died four years after Granny died.  Well he used to potter about singing a bit, I think.  He would sing if they went anywhere together, a crowd of them.  Jim the Carter Lad was one of his favourite songs.  - (Apparently it was a warning to people) - It was, yes, that he wasn't feeling in a very good mood.

(You said of course you think some of them were farming stock, don't you?) - That was the Orchards' origination.  They came away with Romanies whose names I don't know. - (Did they make a differentiation ...?) - Not really, not the Romanies between themselves.  There was always considered a bit of difference between the Romanies and Show People ... travelling fairs.  There was a difference there, but among the travellers themselves there was no differentiation.  They were just travelling people, that was it.

I wouldn't say they were all singers and dancers, but quite a few of them were.  And I don't think they made any difference, they just accepted them as they were.  Some could dance all right, some were mediocre, and the singing was the same, but as long as they did their bit they were accepted.  - (I suppose there was one or two musicians as well?) - Yes I had some cousins that could play the accordion, the old type of accordion, melodeon I think it's known now, and the banjo; I had a brother that could play the banjo and the accordion which they used to play for stepdancing.  They never accompanied any singers, they were always unaccompanied.

(Were they considered good singers?) - They were, yes, they were considered to be decent singers and my brother was considered to be quite decent with the accordion and banjo.  I don't think they had any particular style, they just liked the way they sang and the way they played.

(Who passed the songs on, mostly?) - I think in our case it was Mother, because she would be singing around while she was working.  She passed them on to the family, they picked them up as they was with her; she would be singing, doing her work, singing.  Father didn't sing as much on the round, he would sing at anything we were doing, wedding, meeting, fair or something like that. - (So, mostly the women, then?) - Well, I think that's so, as I say they would sing as they were working all around, they'd carry on singing and the children would pick it up.

(What sort of songs did they like most?) - They liked a song with what they called 'a good meaning'.  An old song, that's what they would say it was, a good old meaning song, that was the sort of song they liked - a song with a meaning to it.  They had no preference I don't think actually.  - (Did you choose to learn any particular songs?) - No, you didn't give it any thought, you just picked them up as they came along, you didn't give any particular thought to any particular song.  - (Any reason why you were drawn to a particular song?) - No, I don't think so, there was just one or two that you liked better than others. (sound clip Catch Me if You Can)

(Did many songs get lost - not passed on to the younger generation?) - It's possible.  I don't think it happened in our family because we learned them from our parents, but it's quite possible that it did happen with other people, I don't know.  - (Within the confines of our own family what Granddad and Granny used to sing basically, you and Aunt Betsy and Aunt Charlotte learnt them?) - Yes we did, but for other people I don't know.

They used to go to fairs and some markets.  Our family never went to many markets, but they used to go to some of the fairs.  Mostly to meet people they hadn't seen for a long time, and for enjoyment.  They'd all congregate in the pub and have a dance and a song, meet people they hadn't seen in a long time, because people didn't travel as far, back then, as they do now.  They'd go away, perhaps they wouldn't see them for months.

(So they'd stick to a certain area, but the fairs was the meeting point for them all to come to?  At a particular time of the year.  I suppose they got news of families?) - Well, someone might have been away up the country and met someone that one of our family hadn't seen for years, they'd bring the news back how they were getting on and what they were doing.  Well, that was how the songs came about, they would travel to different counties, they'd travel up the country as they called it, they'd learn a song up there off some other travellers that were up there, they'd come back and sing it and then the rest would pick it up.

(Was there any sort of other people that would have done that, coming the other way.  It wasn't just travellers that were travelling around in those days, was it?) - No, there was people in local villages would sing old songs which they'd pick up.  Farmhands, yes.  There used to be what they call jobbers, used to travel from county to county, they'd get a week's work on one farm or another, anywhere they could get a bed in the barn and a bit of food - they had a bit of news to carry and perhaps a song that they'd picked up.  Be in a pub and sing it - (and that's another way that the songs came in to the repertoire?) - That's right.

If they met at a fair they'd be all in together and, as I say, they would sing, have a dance, play the music - well, we'd celebrate in a way, all around the fire in the evening in the summertime.  Several travellers stay in one place, they'd have a song or two.  They'd meet at weddings and have a bit of a do there, a celebration.

The only chance of picking up a new song would be if there was somebody there who'd been away and come back, they'd picked up the song while they were away - (I suppose you'd have to be with them a long time to learn the song properly) - Yes, I think that's where some of the mispronunciation came in, they'd pick it up the best they could, in a short time.  They couldn't read or write, they were illiterate, it had to be passed from one to the other.

I never had any real ambition to be a singer - (But Aunt Betsy and Aunt Charlotte were quite well known for singing?) - Yes.  You see, when I came along I was years behind the others.  My brothers and sisters was years older than me.  That type of singing was going out, actually.  The more modern type of singing was coming in, country and western and that type of thing, and I wasn't called on to sing so much, not that I could sing much, anyway.

(What sort of age difference was there between you and the others?) - Well, Uncle Eddie he was the youngest boy, he was 4 years 7 months older than me, then there was a gap of 8 years between him and the next one.  He died when he was 20, so it made a bigger gap than ever, actually.  Uncle Jim & Aunt Charlotte and Aunt Bet ... Charlotte & Bet was married when I was 6 years old, and I was only 11 years old when Jim got married, so it was Uncle Eddie and myself were left behind - I was 11 and he was about 15.  He had finished school, because we finished at 14 back then.  I was the only one left at home. Well, he was living at home but there was a good many years difference.

(Did any one particularly impress you as a singer?) - Not really, you weren't impressed by anyone, they sang and they were accepted and that was it.  Nobody queried whether they were good singers or bad, there wasn't any of them that you would call today a singer, there was no outstanding tenors or sopranos. they were just ordinary country singers.  Your Granddad, my father, he was quite a good, a good folk-type singer, he had quite a good folk-type voice.  They used to like to hear him sing.  - (No false accents - sung naturally?) - That's it.

My favourite of those family songs, and I can't give you no reason why, is Down By the Old Riverside (sound clip).  Simply that I liked it, that was all, it appealed to me.  I feel it's a good thing to keep it going, to keep the old songs going.  Keep the folk singing up, otherwise it's going to die out.  There's not many travellers now, not many travelling not now, most of them are settled down.  What they were singing is traditional and should be kept going, I think, if they think about it at all.  They're keeping up an old tradition.  They should sing it as they've heard it, they shouldn't put any gimmicks to it or try to better it or anything else, just sing it as they've learned it.

As I say, the majority of people, not only gypsies, were illiterate back in those days, they accepted things as they heard it, they didn't analyse it.  There was a lot of probably mispronunciations, misreadings - well, they didn't read, misunderstanding, mispronunciations, dialect, all comes into it.  You'd say that, if you heard a song sung today and you'd never heard of Wormwood Scrubs and somebody said that someone was sent to Wormwood Scrubs you'd wonder what they was on about, wouldn't you?  It's just silly.  But they accepted everything at face value.  They never analysed anything or queried anything, because they didn't know.

Your Grampy, that's your Dad's father, lived in South Cerney in Gloucestershire.  He was a true Gloucestershire man with a local dialect.  To your Granddad, toast was not toast it was twost, beans were not beans they were be-uns, a coat wasn't a coat, it was a cwot.  If you couldn't do anything it was "thee cusn't du't".  If you aren't going to do anything "I bisn't going to du't".  You see all that came into it.  Probably a lot of the songs were passed on with words like that in it.  - (So, if the dialect was heard by someone who didn't understand the dialect ...?) - Didn't understand the dialect and just accepted it.  I mean if your Granddad was singing about John's coat he'd be saying John's cwot; if it was drinking a toast, it'd be a twost.  Well, people wouldn't know what it meant, would they?  Yes. I think that's what happened with a lot of it.  - (And you know of songs where that's happened do you?) - I don't actually know of songs, but I think when you talk about that sort of thing, that's where it happened.

(I think there's an example in one of the songs in our family, Uncle Jim's song Just Beginning to Sprout - 'beautiful eyes and lovely hair, and everything 'perhay''). - Yeah, well there's something wrong there you see, but what should have been there?  - (Exactly.  Where do you think Uncle Jim picked that song up from?) - I've no idea.  He picked it up from somebody for certain.  I don't remember my parents singing that very much; I think he picked it up from someone else.  It got into the family eventually, but I think he must have picked that up from outside the actual family. - (There's a case in point of a word that we don't understand being incorporated in a song and don't know the origins of it) - There was a meaning to it at sometime - (But nobody questioned it at the time) - No.  They didn't that it was wrong - accepted it at its face value.  That was what somebody said, so that was it.  That's how most of these things happen, I think.

(So there's a couple of good examples there.  What with Grampy Legg and Uncle Jim's song - nobody really questioned the odd sound of a word) - No, and because as far as your grandfather was concerned, he was speaking correctly with his bisn'ts and casn'ts and cusn'ts.

Vic Legg - 14.2.98


Having seen the finished article, Mrs Legg asked us to add the information that her Mother had been a really good step dancer.  The whole extended family had been steppers when she was a girl, and sister Betsy was among the better of the younger generation.  As for musicians; they expressed a real preference for the mouthorgan music of the Crocker family for the stepping (Sophie's great grandparents were Crockers), believing them to be much more rythmic than the melodeon players they generally encountered.  When there wasn't a musician available they'd step to their own mouth music - 'tuning', as it was known. - Ed.

Article MT012

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