Sunday, 29 January 2017

Number 6
Maureen Craik records "A U Me Hinny Bird"

In 1860, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded himself singing "Au Clair de la lune". After that point, all music could be recorded and played back. What did music sound like before it could be recorded? In 1665, a young girl sings a song about the things and places she knows. 300 years later it gets released.

Why no-one listens to folk music

Fair Isle sweaters, finger in ear singing, beards, real ale, hey nonny, fol de rol, The Spinners, morris men, this...
Folk fans
Alexei Sayle used to do a folk song parody beginning "I'm a computer programmer". It's another world and you have to accept some stylistic peculiarities, a bit like reading a 19th century novel or Elizabethan poetry.   

For a music which is supposedly the voice of the people, very few of the people want to listen to it or to sing it themselves. The folk revival created a larger audience for this music. For a brief period in the '60s and '70s it became trendy to sing about being an old plowhand or washer woman or whatever. The Spinners got their own BBC TV show as did Julie Felix. Its decline matched the arrival on the scene of comedy folk artists such as Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and Jasper Carrott and gradually the comedy took over from the songs.

At the same time as becoming all round entertainers, folk singers began writing their own material and turning into singer-songwriters. The line blurs between material that is traditional and that which is composed. "Flower of Scotland" is not a traditional song but was written by Roy Williamson of The Corries in 1967. "Lord of the Dance" was written by Sydney Carter in 1963. It is a truism, of course, that all songs get composed at some point. What makes songs traditional is that there is no identified composer.

A U Me Hinny Bird

Sandgate yesterday
"A U Me Hinny Bird" was first published as a tune in 1812 with the words written down later. It uses Newcastle dialect to describe defining characteristics of certain areas in and around Newcastle. So we learn that Sandgate is the place for old rags and Gallowgate is where you can get your trolly bags (which means intestines, either in the form of tripe or black pudding). South Shields, meanwhile, is the place for soot. The song has no deeper meaning. There is a slight journey down the river Tyne in the list of places described. The song starts in the west of the city in Benwell before going through the Quayside, Castle Garth and Sandgate. It then travels out to the coast via the descriptive names, rather than place names, of the north shore and the Gateshead hills and arriving at Cullercoats, Tynemouth and North Shields on the north side of the river and then Westoe and South Shields to the south. It then travels back north up to Holywell, Seaton Delaval and Hartley Pans, which is an old name for Seaton Sluice. Unfortunately, this smooth flow is interrupted by diversions to the west and north to Denton, Kenton and Longbenton before ending up in Bedlington. This assumes that these names refer to places in their present situation, of course.

To complicate things further, the above is the route as set out in the verses contained in Conrad Bladey's "A Beuk o' Newcassel Sangs" published in 1888. But Maureen Craik transposes the third and fourth verses to make Sandgate come after Tynemouth etc which cannot be right.

Benwell lasses
Although it starts off with a description of the canny lass of Benwell, it does not go anywhere with this. Possibly this is a result of its composition by the addition of verses by unknown singers actively adding to its creation. Perhaps natives of each of the places described added their own tribute to their local area. It is a song for singing rather than taking apart, sung perhaps as the accompaniment to work activities. The Benwell lass herself sounds like an ideal woman in combining physical appeal with nurturing qualities, being both long-legged and mother-like. Perhaps this is a song she could have sung while raking up the dyke (meaning a hedge).

The title of the song is a mystery. Possibly the singer is singing to an actual bird, one that could fly over the areas described on its journey to the sea. Or maybe hinny bird is the singer's pet name for a lover. Or maybe it is a lullaby sung to a sleeping bairn like "Dance to Your Daddy".
The People
Maureen Craik

As far as I can tell, Maureen Craik only recorded six songs at the age of around 20 or 21. She sounds timeless and artless. Her recordings were made when the Beatles and the Stones were all the rage but she could be a 17th century girl singing to herself. Singing to yourself - surely that is the very definition of folk music.      

Westoe lies iv a neuk here

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