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in the Traditional Idiom


Local Songs

Who is This Man?

Filling The Gaps

Music CV

Of What do I Write?

Bedfordshire Song

Words and Music

Stories in the Songs










Songs In The Traditional Idiom



The tradition is fascinating. The songs within the tradition invariably recount stories of events, people, customs etc. from the past. The oral tradition has meant that the songs have not survived totally unscathed so the versions that were collected by the likes of Cecil Sharp at the beginning of the 20th century and Fred Hamer, who collected extensively in Bedfordshire in the 1950s, are essentially accounts of the original stories with various slants put upon them by one performer or another over the years. Even with this alteration it is probable that many songs bear some resemblance to those originally composed, particularly where the story was sensational at the time of writing, as would have been the case with the story of the Red Barn murder, for example. The broadside ballads clearly would have survived in their original forms as they were committed to paper at the time of writing and usually recounted such stories as pit disasters, the proceeds from the sale of the broadsides sometimes being used to provide for the victims’ families. The relevance of the broadside as a way of documenting social history was brought home to me very strongly many years ago by the book A Ballad History of England by Roy Palmer (pub. Batsford 1979)



What is this fascination with the tradition? Why not just sing traditional songs instead of writing my own?

Local Songs



Different parts of the country have varying numbers of traditional songs written about their localities. Broadside ballads exist to recount the stories of major political events, industrial disputes and disasters, military campaigns etc. Many different traditional songs were found in counties across the country with clear stories about the events in one locality or another. However, although song collectors like Fred Hamer worked extensively in the Bedfordshire area, most of the songs found in the county were variations on songs found all over the country: songs like John Barleycorn. There are a few examples of songs like lace tells (simple work songs similar in form to children’s skipping rhymes) which would be sung to accompany the lace work common in the area but, unfortunately, few other examples of songs with specific local connections seem to exist. It is possibly surprising to many that Bedfordshire does have some very interesting history, stories, legends and customs (some still alive) that are unfortunately not captured in traditional song as similar stories might have been in some other parts of Britain.




Filling The Gaps



Why does Bedfordshire not have this wealth of traditional or broadside material of local significance? I do not intend to argue this point but I’m sure there must be many reasons. Whilst researching for the Shropshire Iron project, too, I found that there also seemed to be little material from that area recounting anything relevant to 18th century Coalbrookdale. As a result, what I have done is to try and make up for this apparent lack of specifically local Bedfordshire and 18th century Shropshire industrial song by writing some of my own in the musical and lyrical styles of songs of the past. Although I know I run the risk of not obviously being recognised for my work, I would be extremely pleased to see some of my songs slip seamlessly into the repertoires of singers of traditional material and be accepted by all as if they were actually traditional songs. There are other similar songs that many now sing, not knowing that they are in fact relatively recent compositions: Bring Us A Barrel is a good example.




What Do I Write About?



Bedfordshire has a whole raft of local stories, history, legends and customs although, to many, much of it appears to be well hidden. Regarding nationally significant history, the county was home to perhaps the world’s most successful author, John Bunyan, and Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was kept a virtual prisoner at Ampthill Castle while her divorce was plotted at Dunstable by Thomas Cranmer (whose son-in-law also came from the county). Local legends include the story of the Devil’s attempt to steal the church tower at Marston Moretaine and the subsequent origin of the nearby Devil’s Toenail. Much of this material can be found in the many local history books and books about local legends and stories. Local customs include the living traditions of the local Morris sides celebrating Plough Monday and May Day but also their own local tradition of touring the 8 pubs of one village in one night under the title of The Toddington Tour.




Words and Music



The lyrical content of the songs is clearly important in that the choice of words - some archaic where appropriate - can all add to the effect of completing as ‘traditional’ a feel to the song as possible. The period about which the song is being written can dictate the likely choice of language. However, the tunes are also very important in achieving the desired result too. There are many musical styles within the tradition and I try to use whichever is appropriate for the song I am writing. A punchy, traditional, unaccompanied style suits songs of local legends like The Witch of Conger Hill and again, the period during which a story is set can suggest obvious choices of musical style: the story of the Flitwick Chalybeate Water Company is quite strange and unintentionally humorous. The company was founded in 1888 and closed in 1938 so it easily fits into being lampooned in a music hall style.














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                            Graeme Meek