I suppose it is a mark of getting of getting
older that one laments the supposed loss of ones heritage. Perhaps
it is more to do with harking back to school days and wondering
why 'if it was good enough for us why is it not good enough for
today's children.' On the other hand, some things we were made
to do at school have caused us to have a bad taste in our mouth
when we are re-presented with them in later life.
I had nothing against Miss Mackintosh (name changed
to protect the innocent) at Stepps Primary School. She used to
come in on Thursdays to try to instil some sense of music into
our empty heads. In those far off days any normal schoolboy would
be out emulating Bobby Charlton rather than getting the larynx
around Bobby Shaftoe. Yet Miss Mack insisted we sit indoors
in the summer sunshine learning our folksong heritage. And that
is what it amounted to. I never heard the 'classics' at primary
school. Music was simply about All through the Night and
By yon Bonny Banks. We tried to do our best. But it was
quite frankly boring. I would rather have been fighting my friend
Stephen or chasing Diane and June round the playground. Memories!
I wonder if today's Games Boy has to splutter through 'Camptown
So I am afraid it is with trepidation that I
approached Richard Stoker's 2002 offering for Voice and Guitar
- Eight British Folksongs.
Here are at least five of my early horrors: All
Through the Night, Londonderry Air, Early One Morning,
The Oak and the Ash and Bobby Shaftoe. They bring
back memories of sitting near the front of the class and a certain
bully trying to stab me with a set of compasses! At least he got
caught by the mistress!
However Stoker has tempered these 'well known'
numbers with three which are 'hidden gems'. The Noble Duke
of York, The Keys of Canterbury and The Poacher.
Now on inspection the Noble Duke turns out to be what I
know as The Grand Old Duke of York. Aaargh. More memories
of enforced dancing lessons. Imagine some poor middle-aged teacher
trying to inculcate the rudiments of country dancing into children
from a mining community! Well she did succeed. I can still trip
a light 'Hesitation Waltz' and a rumbustious 'Eightsome Reel.'
And let's face it, the 'Gay Gordons' had no connotations for us
'when we were seven.'
But I am older and wiser now. I see parts of
my heritage destroyed or made politically incorrect. There was
a time when I was unable to read Biggles or The Famous Five for
fear of upsetting some guardian of public morals. Fortunately
this madness seems to have waned. George and Ginger can have their
adventures once more. However there are things that are going
the way of all flesh. Those elements of British Culture that have
not been listed or preserved by English Heritage or the National
Trust. I think of the language of The Book of Common Prayer, English
puddings and Mild Ale.
Seriously, I believe that we are in danger of
losing our key societal markers: those things which define the
British as a nation. I read in the paper the other day that most
children do not know who won the battle of Trafalgar. Few know
who Joseph or Moses were. As for Cronos and Charon and Bottom!
Well, there seems to be no hope.
So it is with some pleasure that I find a modern
composer setting words that have echoed down the ages in Britain.
Words that were compiled in many 'Community Songbooks’ (a thing
of the past surely). It would have been so easy to tackle a more
'contemporary or meaningful' poet.
These songs are well wrought with interesting
guitar accompaniment. They are perhaps a little adventurous harmonically
for my taste in places, but certainly Stoker cannot be accused
of writing 'strum along' support for the singer. The arrangement
of the key signatures makes for variety, so the songs do not seem
to pall on the ear. The only problem, it seems to me is that some
of them are a trifle long. The Keys of Canterbury runs
to ten verses! So, a lot of light and shade will be needed by
I must confess that I hope the composer knocks
up a piano score for these tunes, as the guitar is not my favourite
instrument (unless played by Page, Hendrix or Zappa)
But it is very nice to have these eight songs.
They ought to be played as a set and not excerpted.
John France June 2003