Monday, 28 March 2011

Cecil Sharpe: Photographer!

I've just come across the on-line image gallery of the photographs taken by Cecil Sharpe of the singers and musicians from who he collected his music. These are an absolute revelation. Despite the massive expansion of photography in the later 19th and early 20th century it is incredibly rare to see portraits (and this is what they are) of the working-class, particularly rural workers. The only parallels I can think of are the 19th century 'mugshots' of criminals taken from police records.

Two things impress me particularly about Sharpe's images. First is the gaze of the subjects- straight on at the camera confronting the photographer and the viewer. Many are very relaxed and not at all nervous about having their photographs taken. Also, many of these individuals are elderly, they aren't wearing late Victorian or Edwardian clothes, instead they are dressed in the costume of mid-19th century labourers. With their chin-strap beards and wide-brimmed felt hats they belong to the world of the Tolpuddle Martyrs not Lark Rise...

Saturday, 26 March 2011

‘People who don’t like to hear an old song, I don’t know what they do want to hear'

Cecil Sharpe is one of the founding figures in the English folk revival. He was in the forefront of collecting traditional songs and tunes in both England and the Appalachians in the early 20th century. Like most such pivotal individuals he has been the subject of much revisionism, and there is a tension between celebrating him as a valuable collector of a vanishing tradition and condemning him for exploiting those who provided his songs and bowdlerising and editing his material to provide an orthodox canon of ‘authentic’ material. However, I think it’s easy to forget the incredibly important work done by collectors from the 1930s onwards, by which time recording equipment was more transportable allowing a fantastic corpus of songs to be recorded as performances, not simply transcribed straight to paper. It gives us a great chance to hear the performers and singers themselves without an intermediary. I’ve been recently exploring some of this material through the Voice of the People series issued by Topic Records (available on Spotify). One of the revelations for me has been that some of this field recording was Alan Lomax, who is best known for his recordings for the Library of Congress in the US. I must confess I never knew he strayed this side of the pond.

Current favourites include the singing of Fred Jordan [Spotify link to We Shepherds are the Best of Men],
Harry Cox (pictured and from who the title quote was taken) [Spotify link to Just as the Tide was flowing] and
Walter Pardon [Spotify link to an unusual version of Raggle Taggle Gypsies]

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Disappeared noises

An item on PM on Radio 4 about the power of sounds to evoke emotions got me thinking. The article discussed the impact of the sound of the Merlin engine [] of a Spitfire. Much as I hate to admit it, I am no longer in the first flush of my youth, and I’ve noticed that certain sounds that were part of my childhood no longer exist.

Telephone bells; you get ringtones, trimphones, bleeps and tunes, but analogue phones bells have gone (as have phones with dials – in a brief informal survey of my students none of them had ever used a dial phone)

Foghorns- I remember lying in bed at my great-aunts house in Deal listening to the foghorns. I think they’ve all been taken out of service now (as have the lightships on the Goodwin Sands we could see when we were night swimming).

The Broadmoor siren – this is a slight cheat as its still operational, I’ve simply moved away. I grew up close the high security hospital at Broadmoor (home of Peter Sutcliffe and others of that ilk). Because of the high risks posed if a prisoner escaped, the surrounding area was provided with a network of sirens to warn the population. Every Monday morning at 10 o’clock, it was tested, first with the wail of the alert then the monotone of the ‘all clear’. I must have heard this nearly everyday for the first ten years of my life. Looking back it’s a strange thing to have grown up with, but at the time it seemed utterly normal. I can also remember wanting people to escape as it meant we got kept off school!