Friday, 2 September 2011
Folk, Theatre and Electronics
The Decca LP of the cast recording of the 1963 Theatre Workshop production Oh What A Lovely War came into the Exeter Oxfam music shop today, and has found its way online. I’ve written about Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop in in the context of the film Sparrows Can’t Sing. Oh What A Lovely War was one of the most celebrated productions which Littlewood and her partner Gerry Raffles put on at the Theatre Royal in Stratford in the East End of London. Obviously with the record you won’t get the ironic juxtaposition of the back projected photographs from the war and the rolling statistics underlining its terrible cost, but the mixture of music hall numbers, propagandistic crowd pleasers and satirical and political anti-war songs still offers a powerful mixture, and a good example of the workshops blending of performance styles. The record was released in 1969, presumably to coincide with the release of Dickie Attenborough’s film of the show, a pale shadow of the original. Many of the cast of Sparrows Can’t Sing here appear as the pierrot singers, Workshop stalwarts all: Avis Bunnage, Fanny Carby, Griffith Davies, Brian Murphy, George Sewell, Victor Spinetti and, of course, Murray Melvin. There are also guest appearances by a number of theatre worthies, who sing particular songs: Jean Pierre Cassel sings Belgium Put The Kaibosh On The Kaiser, Penny Allen We Don't Want To Lose You (Your King And Country Need You), Maggie Smith the terrifying I'll Make A Man Of You, Corin Redgrave and Joe Melia Good-Bye-Eee, Pia Colomba Adieu La Vie, Maurice Arthur When This Lousy War Is Over, Richard Howard Far, Far From Wipers, and Joanne Brown Keep The Home Fires Burning. Sadly, Barbara Windsor, the co-star of Sparrows Can’t Sing, and who featured in the Broadway run of the play, isn’t present. This is a great record of a truly momentous and groundbreaking theatrical event. I’m really excited to see that Murray Melvin, who is now the official archivist of the Theatre Workshop (all on his own time, mind) will be giving a talk at the Theatre Royal as part of the Open House London weekend at 3.00 on Sunday 18th September. I shall certainly try to get along and hear what he has to say about the history of the remarkable institution (if such it can be called, given its anti-establishment stance) in which he played such a central part.
Some more good folkie stuff has also gone online. On the 1974 Topic LP The Rose of Britain’s Isle accordion, concertina and melodeon player John Kirkpatrick is joined by his other half Sue Harris, who plays oboe and hammered dulcimer, for a series of traditional English folk songs and tunes. Staverton Bridge, whose eponymous 1975 LP was released on Saydisc Records, were a Devon folk band featuring Tish Stubbs, Paul Wilson and Sam Richards. They tended towards the more leftward leaning side of the traditional folk repertoire (including Ewan MacColl's We Don't Want to Live Like That), mixing guitar, lute, banjo and whistle with harmonium, group percussion and medieval vocal harmonies. Staverton is a small and picturesque village just outside Totnes, a town which has a very pronounced alternative culture (it's one of a number in the country which posseses its own local currency) from which the group presumably emerged. The Watersons’ For Pence and Spicy Ale is a 1975 Topic Records LP in which the first family of traditional English folk, Mike, Lal and Norma Waterson, are joined by Martin Carthy for their first record of the 70s, a collection of traditional songs (plus one by the late Mike Waterson) such as the Swinton May Song, the Apple-Tree Wassailing Song, Swarthfell Rocks, the Maplas Wassail Song and The Good Old Way. The sleeve notes on the back cover are written by A.L.Lloyd. The Albion Country Band’s 1976 Island Records LP Battle of the Field features a mid-70s incarnation of ex-Fairport Convention man Ashley Hutching's ever-changing folk rock group The Albion Band. Martin Carthy on guitar and vocals, Sue Harris on vocals, oboe and hammer dulcimer, and John Kirkpatrick on accordions, melodeon and concertina turn up again, along with fellow Fairporter Simon Nicol on guitars and dulcimer and Roger Swallow on drums. This group is enhanced by another Fairport member, Dave Mattacks, on drums on the second side, as well as a bunch of Sackbut players. We also have the 1970 LP Folk on Friday, offering (as you might guess) recordings from the BBC Folk on Friday radio series, presented by future Folk on Two main man Jim Lloyd. Robin and Barry Dransfield feature, as do Dave and Toni Arthur, the latter yet to enter her iconic role as a Play School and Playaway presenter. Dave and Toni remark, on the back cover sleeve notes, that 'when they are not performing they are deeply involved in research and have made a study of seasonal rituals, customs and folklore'. Hear the results of their, and other's esoteric investigations here. Dave and Toni sing The Death of the Earl of Essex and Two Pretty Boys, whilst the Dransfields, by way of contrast, offer Talcahuano Girls and an instrumental medley. There’s a great sleeve by BBC Records graphic designer Roy Curtis-Bramwell, too.
Tolkien has always been a folkie favourite, and we have a fascinating recording here of The Hobbit, a 4 LP boxed set on Argo Records from 1974. This is a 'dramatic reading' of the story which introduces the Middle Earth mythos, made by Nicol Williams. Williams played a very eccentric Merlin in John Boorman's 1979 film Excalibur - hear what he makes of Gandalf here. There is a sparing use of music for dramatic effect and during interludes. This largely derives from medieval sources and is produced by Professor Thurston Dart and Bob Stewart, who plays harp, brass, shawms, flutes and a hurdy-gurdy. The illustration on the cover of the box is by Tolkien himself. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the 1965 Turnabout LP, Electronic Music, which gathers together 3 classic pieces of electronic music from the 50s and 60s. Turkish-born composer IlhanMimaroglu's Agony, created in May 1965 at the famous Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, uses purely electronic sound sources in a manner suggesting musique concrete. It is subtitled Visual Study No.4 after Arshile Gorky, taking inspiration from the great Armenian artist's abstract paintings. John Cage's Fontana Mix is an early classic of electronic music, composed at the Studio de Fonologia of Italian Radio in Milan. Existing in several arrangements, this is the one for magnetic tape alone. Luciano Berio's Visage, also produced at the Studio di Fonologia in 1961, is a piece of musique concrete in which the composer manipulates the vocal sounds produced by his wife, the singer Cathy Berberian. All marvellous stuff, whether it be the sound of oscillating electronic tones, the shimmer of hammered dulcimer strings or the haunting echo of popular songs from a previous century with a secret purpose.