various artists,
Many a Good Horseman
(Veteran, 2009)

Subtitled "Traditional Music Making from Mid-Suffolk, Recorded 1958-1993," Many a Good Horseman is two CDs, each 75 minutes long, documenting singers and players from that largely rural county on England's east coast. Overwhelmingly, these were not music professionals but ordinary people drawn to singing and playing, in their spare time, songs and tunes they loved growing up. The performances took place at home or in local venues, usually pubs.

The material draws on both authentic rural traditions and (once-)popular styles, though everything is performed pretty much as if it were an antique folk song. While every cut is interesting on one level or other (Suffolk seems to be unusually receptive to its native musicians), the older, folk-derived material is more likely to engage the average Rambles reader. The first of the two discs opens with the revival favorite "Dark-Eyed Sailor," a broken-token ballad sung unaccompanied by Gordon Syrett. Other familiar titles -- if in sometimes unfamiliar variants -- include "The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime" (Stan Steggles), "Banks of the Sweet Dundee" (Steggles and Charlie Carver independently), "Sailor's Hornpipe" (Carver and Reg Pyett in separate versions), "The Jealous Lover" (Emily Sparkes) and "Ball of Yarn" (Hubert Smith).

In the odd ways that songs are transmitted and changed, sometimes fairly rapidly, in differing cultural contexts, "21 Years on Dartmoor" (done by Gypsy Charlie and Lubidy Rice on discs No. 1 and 2 respectively) began as the early American hillbilly song "21 Years," written in the late 1920s by prolific songsmith Bob Miller. In America, by the early 1960s Flatt & Scruggs had transformed it into "99 Years Is Almost for Life." It's a prison ballad, the American versions (the first of them recorded by Mac & Bob in 1930) set in a Nashville jail, the subsequent British ones in Dartmoor prison. A splendid modern reading of the latter appears on Waterson:Carthy's Fishes & Fine Yellow Sand (Topic, 2004). Other American-born vernacular songs appearing here are "Yellow Rose of Texas," harking back to the 1840s and the Mexican War, and Henry Clay Work's "The Ship That Never Returned," whose melody was adapted to the early twentieth-century railroad ballad "Wreck of the Old 97."

John Howson collected most of this material as recently as the mid-1980s. Even the oldest recordings sound good, not just as music but as basic sound, thanks to advances in recording technology. An excellent 32-page booklet accompanies the set, providing deeply informed material on the backgrounds to singers and songs.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 July 2011

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