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Early Music

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Penny Merriments: Street Songs of 17th Century England
TRADITIONAL

The Courtiers Health, or The Merry Boys of the Times [02:40]
The Country Lass [04:07]
The Crost People, or A Good Misfortune [07:12]
The Countryman's Joy [02:44]
Seldom Cleanly [03:38]
A Merry Jest of John Thomson and Jakaman His Wife [04:45]
The Seven Merry Wives of London, or The Gossips Complaint [04:01]
Old England Grown New [02:50]
Good Advice to Batchelors, How to Court and Obtain a Young Lass [03:07]
Neptune's Raging Fury, or The Gallant Seaman's Sufferings [03:13]
The North Country Lovers [04:18]
The Lunatick Lover [04:08]
The Downfall of Dancing [06:14]
The Saint Turn'd Sinner [03:51]
An Old Song on the Spanish Armada, or Sir Francis Drake [02:07]
The Female Captain, or The Counterfit Bridegroom [04:25]
London Mourning in Ashes [04:07]
The Famous Ratcatcher [02:57]
The City Waites
Recorded at St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London, September 2004
NAXOS 8.557672 [70.25]

 

Broadside ballads have seldom sounded as entertaining as here. These folk ballads, the street songs of the seventeenth century as the disc’s subtitle has it, ranged over the political, scurrilous, sexual, historical, religious and saucy in equal measure. Though printing gave them currency and a degree, at least, of permanency, most would have been heard, sung rather than read and the element of topicality was, then as now, of primary concern. Yesterday’s broadside ballad was as old hat as yesterday’s newspaper.

The City Waites, with singers Lucie Skeaping, Douglas Wootton and Richard Wistreich to the fore, are accompanied by an apposite assemblage of instruments; cittern, theorbo, baroque guitar and bass curdal (I’m not sure either) as well as recorder, fiddle, bum fiddle (I’d rather not ask) and bagpipes. Each ballad is surely and wittily, sometimes warmly or wanly, characterised and the variety is as wide as the ballads themselves. Thus we take in Royalist sentiment and alcohol in The Courtiers Health, or The Merry Boys of the Times with its anti-Papist rough edge. We also encounter Wistreich’s splendid comic turn, a sort of Max Miller-meets-Chaucer, in The Crost People, or A Good Misfortune a generic though hilarious Peeping Tom ballad. The foolish and the rustic are very much part of the tradition and you’ll hear an example of the latter in The Countryman's Joy. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to trace the lineage of the broadside ballad back to the border ballad and far forward to the late nineteenth century coster songs of the Music Hall – that’s certainly implicit in A Merry Jest of John Thomson and Jakaman His Wife.

There are ballads of men complaining of women and of women complaining about men; there’s a female toper’s ballad in The Seven Merry Wives of London, or The Gossips Complaint and a Good Old Days ballad in Old England Grown New, sung to Greensleeves, which could have been written today – "new houses are built and the old ones pulled down" as well as complaints about fancy new French fashions, beards, diseases and the like. Instructions as to how to win a maid (that’s putting it mildly) are given in Good Advice to Batchelors, How to Court and Obtain a Young Lass whilst Wistreich’s oak-y voice enlivens The Lunatick Lover and its hints of the Elizabethan lute song tradition. The Saint Turn'd Sinner is a sprightly patter ballad sung by Douglas Wootton to a captivating Eccles tune and replete with some outrageous rhymes whilst The Female Captain, or The Counterfit Bridegroom is one of those cross-dressing ballads that explore things I can’t repeat here – mainly to do with two young women and an inflated sheep’s bladder - oddly enough there was a female jazz pianist in the 1930s who did much the same thing. On a less provocative note Lucie Skeaping relishes the adulterous band-swapping antics of The Downfall of Dancing, an activity that’s never likely to go out of fashion for as long as men and women wield fiddle, bow and baton.

This is a delicious piece of entertainment. Bawdy or brave, nautical or noxious these ballads explore the stuff of life in all its messiness and truthfulness. This would count for little were the performances merely dutiful but, even in the confines of a studio, this band’s zest is palpable, their accents and colours infectious, the instrumentation and vocal antics fusing with élan. Job done, the reviewer usually boxes away his disc never to be heard of again. Not this one.

Jonathan Woolf



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