Gef Lucena and Saydisc: Church Bells and African Drums, Woodland Poems and Aeolian Harps
by Glyn Pursglove
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?
(‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, W.B. Yeats)
The answer to Yeats’ (semi-)rhetorical question, as he doubtless knew very well, is that the “more” that there is to say or to write is poetry (I use the word here in a wide sense to include all acts of artistic making). Indeed, one of poetry’s primary functions, traditionally, has been to express love for that which is vanishing or has vanished. I remember that fine poet Anne Stevenson saying, in the discussion following a reading by her, “all poems are, in essence, elegies”. In an essay first published in 1920, ‘The Romance of Rhyme’ (The Living Age, March 13, 1920, pp. 656-664), G.K. Chesterton declared, with characteristic wit (and seriousness), that
All poems might be bound in one book under the title Paradise Lost. And the only object of writing Paradise Lost is to turn it, if only by a magic and momentary illusion, into Paradise Regained.
My experience of Gef Lucena’s work as a poet is largely restricted to the 2016 publication South Moon Riding: Poems of Wildwood and Wold, Earthy and Diverse Things (47pp and an accompanying CD of the poet reading his poems), published by Saydisc and distributed by Nimbus (available on Amazon UK). The poems in that book are centrally concerned with a world that is vanishing, or perhaps one might say more precisely, a world we are destroying, a situation evoked with admirable power by Michael McCarthy in his fine book of 2015, The Moth Snowstorm:
It is extraordinary: we are wrecking the earth, as burglars will sometimes wantonly wreck a house. It is a strange and terrible moment in history. We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above and the ocean below and the soil at the centre and everything it supports: grabbing it, ripping it, scattering it, tearing at it, torching it, slashing at it, shitting on it. Already more than half the rainforests are gone, pesticide use has decimated wild flowers and the insect populations of farmland and rivers, the beds of the sea are deeply degraded and most of the fish stocks are at danger levels, the acidity of the ocean is steadily rising, coral reefs are under multiple assault, 40 billion tonnes of climate-changing carbon are loading the atmosphere every year and currently one-fifth and rising of all vertebrates – mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians – are threatened with extinction. Many are on the brink, if not already gone.
To write poems now, in praise of English woodlands as Lucena does, for example, in ‘Green Cathedral’, is an act of imaginative resistance to man-made mutability and loss:
Go on – ask me and I will show you.
Enter quietly and see the sweet woodruff
and herb paris in the half shade.
Look closely in the deepest shade
and you may find the bird’s nest orchid looking brown and dead.
But come closer still and looking deep down things,
tiny florets of yellow.
way down the ride, the running of the deer.
A flash of white and brown and they are gone.
No stone structure here to fence in the spirit.
The tall trees our spires, the dead logs our pews.
The thrushes and blackcaps our celestial choir.
No written word to blur our vision.
No untenanted cross to disturb our thoughts.
This is indeed the storehouse.
This, the green cathedral.
The phrase “deep down things” in line 6 of this poem triggers an important resonance; it is a direct quotation from (or allusion to, if one prefers that term) a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘God’s Grandeur’. Amongst Victorian poets, Hopkins sensed more keenly than most the effect that human activity was having on the natural world and this poem of 1877 (at any rate it survives in two autograph copies, dated February and March of that year) is a particularly memorable expression of that awareness:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then not now reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the deepest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, and his response to the then developing ecological crisis (which he clearly sensed powerfully) is articulated from within his faith. Though man may have “seared … bleared …smeared” the world, God (the Holy Ghost) will renew that world, ensuring that “there lives the deepest freshness deep down things”. Lucena writes from outside such a faith; the phrase “untenanted cross” three lines from the end of the poem, is taken from R.S. Thomas, perhaps (Thomas uses the phrase more than once) from the poem ‘In Church’ (The Bread of Truth,1963), one of the poems in which Thomas explores his sense of being ‘forsaken by God’ (a sense not unknown to Hopkins as his so-called “terrible sonnets” demonstrate). The poem closes thus:
There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
For Thomas in such a poem, and for Lucena in this poem, any signs of renewal, any “tiny florets”, take a good deal of finding, or are seen only briefly:
way down the ride, the running of the deer.
A flash of white and brown and they are gone.
For Hopkins the beauty of nature is, in ‘God’s Grandeur’ evidence of God’s renewing creativity. For Lucena nature is itself the place and object of worship:
This is indeed the storehouse:
This, the green cathedral.
It is, incidentally, far more than a coincidence that McCarthy’s book should carry an epigraph from Hopkins:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
(from Hopkins’ poem ‘Inversnaid’) or that in Lucena’s poem ‘Pointillism’, which enumerates and celebrates some of his favourite composers and poets, Hopkins should appear:
And you, Hopkins, how to reach you up there in the windhovering heights
And give you some sprung rhythm of colour.
Would it be celestial blue or beyond the mind’s imaginings
and the colour of everything.
Yes, you alone among the poets are white,
not a bland white
but the coalescence of everything within the mortal prism.
The poems in Lucena’s collection are permeated by the love of what vanishes, or has vanished. He writes, as in ‘Catbrain’, of the remains of lives now vanished:
There’s catbrain in our river.
Catbrain also on the stream’s bridge, ’til someone stole it.
Landscape marble some call it.
Others, Cotham marble or just catbrain.
The Victorians loved it sliced as a parlour curiosity
or in chunks for the garden rockery.
These woods are ancient by our standards,
but fifty million years separate our oaks and alders
from the giant horsetails, ferns and cycads
that followed on from a hot arid desert.
Then shallow tidal flats appeared
lapped by warm lagoons with bony fish and bivalves.
We see their remains in the stony river bed and banks.
But today the bullhead and the stone loach play around
The catbrain in our river.
For those of us less familiar than the poet with Cotham marble/Catbrain (a kind of limestone mostly found in south Wales and south-western England) there is a useful article, with references on Wikipedia (search ‘Cotham Marble’) and a striking photograph opposite the poem in South Moon Riding.
Other traces of what has vanished (or nearly so) are found in poems such as ‘Greenfield’, largely concerned with the traces left (or falsely asserted) in place names:
I long to see woodcocks down in Woodcock Lane…
…And I long to see the swans of Swanfield.
How graceful they will surely be.
And the avian swoops in Swallowcroft,
That would be a lovely sight to see.
The Brambles sounds the place to ramble…
What history lies at Bubblewell?
What muddy tales from Turnpike Gate?
Swans, woodcock, swallow, quail.
Places to ramble wild and free.
History incarnate in field and lane.
No, not one exists in reality.
The trajectory of the poem is to make one question what we mean by ‘reality’, as the final stanza of the poem reveals the origin of these names:
The marketing men who scratched their heads,
A rural idyll to infer from times long gone.
Houses for Bloor, Wimpey, Redrow, Lovell,
But stark red brick boxes everyone.
Elsewhere Lucena’s poetry confronts more straightforwardly the environmental crisis which confronts the contemporary world, on which I quoted Michael McCarthy earlier. One example is the poem ‘Going East’:
Blackbird, blackcap and skylark sing,
but no nightingale yet.
Not this year.
not last year
or maybe any year now.
The year that we heard twenty three
was unusual but not exceptional.
By day or night in thicket or scrub they sang.
Just eight weeks or so to sing and nest and mate and fledge
and run the gauntlet of the skies back to Africa.
But not this year – not here –
not in Margery Hay,
or Sturt Coppice
and not amongst the vibrant bluebells of the Lagger.
In the scrub of the nearby run-down farm
a couple of males sang
and we had hope –
But that was last year.
They say they are moving east
and no longer visit these time honoured places,
for us to be beauty stricken by their song.
Lucena’s subject matter here is essentially the same as McCarthy’s, but the tone is entirely different. McCarthy’s writing is impassioned polemic, Lucena’s poem is quieter, more reflective. The difference reminds me of another passage from Yeats: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (from Anima Hominus, 1918).
Of whatever kind of vanishing the poet writes, his or her purpose in writing, Chesterton tells us is to turn paradise lost into paradise regained, “if only by a magic and momentary illusion”. Lucena himself makes the point through different imagery in the closing stanza of a fine poem on ‘Rhossili Down’:
There will be storms here too on other days,
Rain lash and biting winds.
But, in the camera of the mind, today is forever.
A permanence of evanescent sights, sounds and smells.
If we agree with Anne Stevenson and Chesterton that ‘all’ poets are committed to creating a kind of ‘permanent statement of the ‘evanescent’ in their poems, it is far from surprising that we should find Gef Lucena doing that in his poetry. What is surprising is that this poet has attempted the same thing in a distinctively modern way, too.
The lines by Yeats with which I prefaced Part I of this short piece might, I think, be interestingly rephrased in a minor way:
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to do?
(the italics are mine.)
Gef Lucena is not simply a poet. He is, or has been, a folk singer, a musician and the founder and moving spirit of an important independent record label, Saydisc.
The story of Saydisc is told in some detail in Mark Jones’ invaluable book The Saydisc & Village Thing Discography (Bristol, The Record Press, 2010) and here I shall provide only a brief outline. In the early 1960s the young Gef Lucena worked in a series of record shops in Bristol, a job befitting (though also limiting, in some ways) someone with strong musical interests. He was, simultaneously, performing in folk clubs in the area. In 1963 he was one of a group who set up The Bristol Poetry and Folk Club. He was also involved in a regular programme for the Bristol Hospital Broadcasting Service. He became manager of the record department of Churchills and Son Limited of Park Street Bristol. Churchills was owned by a Bristol piano merchant, Mickleburghs. Roy Mickleburgh had put together an informal museum, to which he introduced Lucena. The collection included, as Lucena explained in an email to me of October 2016:
old musical boxes, pianolas, street pianos, phonograph cylinders, sheet music etc., etc., etc. I was fascinated by the music enshrined in these instruments and early recorded media and could see that these could very easily disappear unless recorded for posterity.
In Mark Jones’ book (pp.10-11), Lucena is quoted thus – “Here were sounds that were both beautiful to my ears but also in grave danger of decay and disappearance”. Like his poetry, Lucena’s musical enthusiasm expressed, as it were, a love of what vanishes. As such the next step was both natural and very brave. In May 1965 Saydisc Specialized Recordings Ltd was formed, with Lucena, his father and Roy Mickleburgh as directors. The earliest recordings were of folk music, by Fred Wedlock and other folk musicians Bristol and around; there soon followed “recordings of church bells, ragtime piano, more folk groups … mechanical instruments and early sound carriers, such as musical boxes, piano rolls wax cylinders and 78rpm records, from the Roy Mickleburgh collection” (Jones, The Saydisc & Village Thing Discography, p. 8).
Though there is clearly an underlying unity to the music that Lucena has documented on Saydisc – the original name was changed to Saydisc Records in 1971, when the company became a partnership between Lucena and his wife Genny (née Bultitude), the two having married in 1968 – in another sense the range of material is astonishing. This can be evidenced briefly by citing a small selection of album titles issued over the years since 1965: Cylinder Jazz, Mechanical Music: Music of the Streets, Blues Like Showers of Rain, Homage to Vaughan Williams, Gloucestershire Wildlife Tapestry, Railway Recording: Steam’s Final Hours, Launton Handbell Ringers: Modal Melodies, The Singing Bowls of Tibet, Music from Prinknash Abbey, The Bells of London, Romantic Guitar Quartets, Awake & Join the Cheerful Choir: Gallery Hymns and Carols from the 18th and 19th Centuries, The Secret Music of Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Vocal Traditions of Bulgaria, Beethoven Songs, Windsongs: The Sound of Aeolian Harps, John Playford’s Popular Tunes. The roster of performers to be found on the products of Saydisc is similarly diverse and impressive. They include Ian Partridge, Nigel North, The Broadside Band, Maddy Prior, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Richard Burnett, The Orlando Consort, Red Byrd, Robert Woolley, Alan Hacker, Maggie Cole, Fretwork, Howard Shelley, Hassan Eraji, Musica Secreta, Lucie Skeaping, James Reese Europe and Kathryn Tickell. Much of what Saydisc recorded was originally issued on LP (sadly, my Saydisc LPs and cassettes seem, like many others, to have vanished in successive house moves and the metamorphosis to CD), but catalogues of Saydisc CDs can be found at
the Saydisc website and also
Wyastone, the UK distriubtor's site. The second of these is interesting and useful for the ways in which the CDs are categorised, by the geographical area of the music’s origin (e.g. African, Arabic, Chinese, Cotswold, French, Indian, Irish, Japanese, Jewish, Norwegian, Pacific, Scottish, Tibetan, Welsh), by period (from ‘Mediaeval’ to ‘1920s’), by Instrument(s) (e.g. Brass Band, Carillon Bells, Guitar/Lute, Handbells, Historic Clarinet, Historic Keyboard, Mechanical, Music Boxes and Pianola) and by Style (e.g. Chamber music, chant/plainsong, Contemporary Folk, Jazz, Music Hall, Ragtime, Traditional Instrumental and Traditional Song). There really is ‘God’s Plenty’ here (to borrow a phrase John Dryden used of Chaucer).
Readers of MusicWeb International who investigate the catalogue of Saydisc will, no doubt, have musical desires and preferences of their own, but perhaps I may be allowed to say a little about some of my own favourites from the catalogue, all of which I warmly recommend. A recording of which I am particularly fond is Awake & Join the Cheerful Choir: Gallery Hymns and Carols from the 18th and 19th Centuries (CDSDL 442) recorded in May of 1986 and February 1987 by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band and, on some tracks, by the Mellstock Band & Choir. The music is engrossing and moving, its unpretentiousness doing nothing to detract from its evident religious honesty and directness. Thomas Hardy’s life and fiction underlie the concept of this recorded collection, since his family were noted local musicians who played their parts in the church band of Puddletown in West Dorset, a church band including both string and wind instruments. The Mellstock Band takes its name from Hardy’s novel Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), which is centred on the lives of a group of church musicians in the fictional village of Mellstock. The instruments played by the Mellstock Band include a boxwood clarinet of 1835 and a three-keyed Serpent made around 1820, plus flutes, fiddles, cello, drum and tambourine. Like most Saydisc CDs, Awake and Join the Cheerful Choir comes with a useful booklet, one of the highlights in this case being the text of John Wesley’s ‘Directions for Singing in Worship’ from Select Hymns (1761). I reproduce four of his seven ‘Directions’:
Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength ...
Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony ...
Sing in Time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it ... and take care not to sing too slow...
Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself or any other creature.
The performances on this CD have both modesty and an eye to God, though they are certainly also sung “lustily”. I was pleased to see that Johann van Veen recently gave the disc a favourable review on this site. If I now jump to two thoroughly different discs which are equally enjoyable, I do so to emphasise the sheer variety of the repertoire to be heard on Saydisc. The first is Fleur du Jura: French Accordion Music (CDSDL 353) played by accordionist Danielle Paully with Felix-Bernart Struber and his Orchestra. The grandly-named Orchestra of Monsieur Struber actually sounds like a small café band, which is more suitable than a full orchestra would have been. The programme includes waltzes (e.g. ‘Rêve Gourmand’ and ‘Carte Postale’), Polkas (e.g. ‘Fleur du Jura’ and ‘Rapide Digitale’), a rag (‘Piccolo Rag’) and some Latin-flavoured numbers such as ‘Delice Catalan’ (a tango) and ‘Exotic Samba’ (where the accompaniment is rather too tame to deserve the epithet exotic), both of these composed by Monsieur Struber, as was the march ‘Matin Tonique’. The playing of Danielle Paully is thoroughly idiomatic, nicely varied in colour and phrasing, and the whole evokes the taking of wine in a café in provincial France or the eating of a crepe in a French town square on a summer afternoon. Another Saydisc recording I have found fascinating (and indeed instructive) is Windsongs: The Sound of Aeolian Harps (CDSDL 394). I can fix my long-standing interest in Aeolian Harps fairly precisely, to a first reading of Tobias Smollett’s novel "The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom" (1753) at around the time that Gef Lucena was starting Saydisc. In the novel, the music of an Aeolian Harp serves as a prelude to Fathom’s seduction of “the delicate Celinda”. The narrator tells us that
Some years ago, a twelve-stringed instrument was contrived by a very ingenious musician, by whom it was aptly called the harp of Æolus, because, being properly applied to a stream of air, it produces a wild irregular variety of harmonious sounds, that seem to be the effect of enchantment, and wonderfully dispose the mind for the most romantic situations.
We are then told that:
Fathom, who was really a virtuoso in music, had brought one of these new-fashioned guitars into the country, and as the effect of it was still unknown in the family, he that night converted it to the purposes of his amour, by fixing it in the casement of a window belonging to the gallery, exposed to the west wind, which then blew in a gentle breeze. The strings no sooner felt the impression of the balmy zephyr than they began to pour forth a stream of melody more ravishingly delightful than the song of Philomel, the warbling brook, and all the concert of the wood. The soft and tender notes of peace and love were swelled up, with the most delicate and insensible transition, into a loud hymn of triumph and exultation, joined by the deep-toned organ, and a full choir of voices which gradually decayed upon the air, until it died away in distant sound, as if a flight of angels had raised the song in their ascent to heaven …. His heart must be quite callous, and his ear lost to all distinction, who could hear such a harmony without emotion; how deeply then must it have affected the delicate Celinda …..
Reading this and passages in such poems as Coleridge’s ‘The Aeolian Harp’ and ‘Dejection: An Ode’ and Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ or ‘Ode to the West Wind’, started in me a desire to hear such instruments. Unfortunately, most of the examples I managed to hear, created by hippies in Totnes, for example, made noises somewhere between a draughty window and a tinkling mobile. Windsongs, on the other hand, presents to the listener sounds which do, indeed, to borrow phrases from Smollett, incorporate “the notes of peace and love”, “the deep-toned organ” and “a full choir of voices”. The instruments heard in these recordings were made by Roger Winfield. The booklet for Windsongs tells us that these recordings were made with an orchestra of eight Aeolian Harps:
Made from wood, Perspex, fibreglass and metal … Each instrument was designed to take a particular gauge of metal string; the largest instruments strung with bass strings, the smallest with thinner strings so creating a soprano effect. These were then fitted with … magnetic pick-ups to make them audible.
The recordings were made in 1969 in Spain, initially high up in a deserted tower block in La Manga and then in the Sierra Nevada; a few supplementary recordings were later made in Bristol and the contents of the CD are the result of some editing by Winfield. I can’t say whether this music would serve the purposes of the would-be seducer, as his Aeolian Harp did for Ferdinand Count Fathom, but I can say that, if listened to in an undisturbed environment and with a receptive mind, they contain moments of great beauty and a certain power. Those with an open-mind (musically speaking) are encouraged to listen to Windsongs. Some unfinished lines by Shelley come to mind, lines published posthumously (in Garnett’s Relics of Shelley, 1862) as part of ‘Fragments Connected with Epipsychidion’:
There is a Power, a Love, a Joy, a God
Which makes in mortal hearts its brief abode,
A Pythian exhalation, which inspires
Love, only love – a wind which oe’r the wires
Of the soul’s giant harp
There is a mood which language faints beneath;
Listening to the Aeolian harps on Windsongs is, indeed to feel that in them and their music we have an externalisation of the ways in which the gusts, storms and breezes of life make the human heart resonate, ways not readily put into words.
I can’t resist adding recommendations of two more favourite CDs from the Saydisc catalogue: one (CDSDL440) is Worlds Away, which carries the lengthy subtitle ‘Chants, Songs, Rituals & Instrumentals from 33 Countries & Island Communities’. Very well filled, with a running time of 79:21, this anthology presents music from places and communities as different as the Kurds of Iran, the nomads of Mongolia, the Vlach Gypsies of Hungary and the Langas of Rajasthan. There is scarcely a dud amongst its 33 tracks and the CD can stand as one example of how Gef Lucena and Saydisc made important contributions to interest in traditional musics from around the world, often long before bigger record companies took any interest in such ‘world music’. A final Saydisc enthusiasm is Beethoven Songs (CDSAR15) sung by Ian Partridge, accompanied by Richard Burnett (playing a Viennese fortepiano by Michael Rosenberger of c.1800) and recorded by Gef Lucena and David Wilkins at Finchcocks in January 1984. I might as readily have chosen other recordings from Finchcocks – such as Burnett’s own Romantic Fortepiano (CDSAR7) or Howard Shelley’s Schubert Sonatas (CSAR13). My choice of the Beethoven recital is made partly because of the quality of both performance and recorded sound, and partly because the choice of repertoire ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ and 15 other songs, makes a lovely introduction to this area of Beethoven’s work.
When South Moon Riding came my way in 2016, the only associations that the name Gef Lucena had for me were rather dim and imprecise; I remembered it as a name I had seen in the little magazines of the 1960s and as the name of someone who had played a role in the revival of folk music at much the same time. When I realised that he was also the moving spirit behind Saydisc, I decided to write this extended piece, rather than just a review of South Moon Riding for MusicWeb International. I wouldn’t make excessive claims for Lucena’s achievements as a poet, though there is much in his view of things that I find very stimulating. After the 1960s he apparently had some years away from the writing of poetry, his time taken up both by running a business and writing songs until, in the last couple of years he felt the impulse to write verse again. Those years away from poetry do show; in South Moon Riding those poems which adopt the forms of song such as ‘The Worm’s Song’ are the most sure-footed in terms of rhythm and metre; some of the other poems reveal a relative weakness of technique in those areas of the art. But what is most striking is that Lucena should have retained a genuine poetic vision, while sustaining a business for over 40 years. It is perhaps as improbable that he should have done so as it is that Charles Ives should have written so much boldly individual music while working as an actuary in the insurance business or that the visionary poet Vernon Watkins should have written some of his best work while working as a blank clerk.
The modern world all too readily views artists as impractical people, inefficient or ineffective in the affairs of the world. A poet who has the business acumen to sustain an undertaking such as Saydisc for so many years, while complementing that acumen with a coherent and consistent artistic vision clearly proves, like Ives and Watkins, that such an assumption is excessively simplistic.
For all his efforts to delay the vanishing of what “man loves”, we owe a substantial debt to Gef Lucena, whether you are an inveterate reader of poetry or possessed of a lively curiosity about the variety of the world’s music. If, like me, you are both of these things, that debt is doubled.
See also the following reviews
The Saydisc & Village Thing Discography
South Moon Riding
Percussion Around the World
Christmas Music Through the Ages
Pleasures and Treasures