Dancing at Whitsun

(To fill a sad gap, I thought I’d revive this, which I originally published this time in 2010.  The blog was a rather different beast in those days …)

I realise that, with all the excitement of the start of the cricket season, I’ve almost allowed what are often thought of as two of the most poetical of months – April and May – to go by with hardly a poem or song.  So, as it’s Whit Sunday, here is a song which I think also works as a poem.  The lyrics to Dancing at Whitsun (or Whitsun Dance) were written by Austin John Marshall, the husband of Shirley Collins;  the tune is traditional.  The version I know best is by Silly Sisters (Maddy Prior and June Tabor), though there also recorded versions by Shirley Collins and Maddy Prior with Tim Hart.  I can’t find any of these on YouTube, so here is a version by “LiteGauge”, recorded as a tribute to Tim Hart.

The lyrics seem self-explanatory, but apparently had a slightly more specific context when they were written (the mid-1960s).  It seems that folk dancing had come to be seen as predominantly an activity for old ladies (and sometimes denigrated for that reason), and the song suggests one reason why this might have been so.

Dancing at Whitsun, by Austin John Marshall

It’s fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride
And still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green
As green as her memories of loving

The feet that were nimble tread carefully now
As gentle a measure as age do allow
Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn
Where once she was pledged to her true love

The fields they stand empty, the hedges grow free
No young men to tend them, nor pastures to see
They have gone where the forests of oaktrees before
Had gone to be wasted in battle

Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons
There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

There’s a row of straight houses in these latter days
Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze
There’s a field of red poppies and a wreath from the Queen
But the ladies remember at Whitsun
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

(Apologies for any copyright violation.  Will remove if requested).

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LP Cover Of The Week : “… This England”

The latest addition to my impressive collection of charity shop compilations of music from the Cowpat School (my usual accompaniment to my early morning journey to London).

This England

If the sleeve designers – “Studio B : the creative people” – had wanted to take the literal route they could have chosen a cuckoo, a Summer night on a river or St. Paul’s, but instead they’ve opted for … a cow.  Believed not to be the same cow that appeared on the cover of “Atom Heart Mother”, but then they probably couldn’t have afforded her rates.

Frederick Delius : Yorkshire Cricketer

“His eyes half-open, the wonderful dome like finely chiselled marble, the sinuous and gouged neck, the loose white open-necked shirt and loosely knitted tie, perfectly creased white cricket trousers and white canvas shoes, bare legs like triangular sticks of wood – it all seemed so terribly, overwhelmingly sad.” (Felix Aprahamian, describing a meeting with Delius in 1933).

Gerhardi_-_Frederick_Delius

The question of cricket and music, and whether the two should ever be mixed, divides opinion.  Some clearly find that hearing ‘Another one bites the dust’ over the Tannoy whenever a batsman is dismissed or ‘Tom Hark‘ when a boundary is hit enhances their enjoyment of the game.  I differ on this point, but feel that a brass band (of the kind that used to play at the Scarborough Festival) would be perfectly acceptable, as would a string quartet at – say – the late lamented Oakham Festival, or perhaps at Tunbridge Wells.

Thanks to modern technology, of course, we can now choose whatever soundtrack we like to accompany our cricket.  If I had to choose the work of a single composer my first thought would be Frederick Delius.  If, in the depths of Winter (today, for instance) I close my eyes, ‘On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring‘  will take me to the first day of some Platonic early season fixture. On a wild Winter’s night  ‘A Song of Summer‘, ‘The walk to the Paradise Garden’, ‘A Summer night on the river‘ can transport me to that Ideal day at the cricket in High Summer that rarely arrives in reality but, once experienced, lingers at the back of the mind, to be summoned by music or willpower however bleak one’s surroundings.

I’ve always suspected that this was a purely personal association, but a little research reveals that Delius was, indeed, a lover of cricket and a decent cricketer in his own right.  And not only that, but a Yorkshire cricketer.  The Delius family belonged to that type of Yorkshireman almost peculiar to Bradford, as described by another Bradfordian, J.B. Priestley:

‘There was this curious leaven of intelligent aliens, chiefly German-Jews and mostly affluent.  They were so much a part of the place when I was a boy that it never occurred to me to ask why they were there.  I saw their outlandish names on office doors, knew that they lived in pleasant suburbs, and obscurely felt that they had always been with us and would always remain.  That small colony of foreign or mixed Bradfordians produced some men of great distinction, including a famous composer [Delius], two renowned painters, and a well-known poet.’

When Eric Fenby (the composer’s amanuensis in his later years of French exile, when he was blind and compelled to use a wheelchair) was first introduced to Delius, they ‘bonded’ (as we would now say, perhaps) over cricket:

“We talked about Scarborough, which he had known very well as a boy. Did I go to the Cricket Festivals as he had done? Did I know Filey ? What glorious times he had had there when his family used to take a house in the Crescent for the summer holidays ! How he loved playing cricket in the neighbouring villages of Gristhorpe and Hunmanby, and what fine fellows the farm-hands were!”

and later in Fenby’s ‘Delius as I Knew Him‘ we learn how talk of cricket seemed to release the invalid from his confinement and lighten his mood:

“That summer, Delius was particularly interested in the cricket test matches between England and Australia. Every morning, when I came down to lunch, I read to him the scores and the full account of each day’s play. The progress of each match was watched with as much keenness as that of two spectators on the ground, and Mrs. Delius used to say that she had never heard so much talk about cricket as when her ‘two Yorkshire lads’ got together. And the old ‘un used to brag how, in his prime, he had never let a loose ball go by without punishing it unmercifully, and never dropped a catch in the slips, and the young ‘un used to believe him and tell how he had once skittled a team of yokels with his googlies for seven runs.”

So well-known is this image of Delius as tetchy and imprisoned by illness that we forget the younger man.  His sister Clare, though, in her memoir ‘Memories of my brother’ relates:

“At cricket, however, both he and his brother were notable successes. It was his passion for cricket, indeed, which oddly enough helped him forward on his musical career. Coming from the playing fields one day, the boys were playing about with the wickets which they had just drawn, using them as spears. One of these missiles, thrown with great force, stuck in Fred’s head, causing a very serious wound. The illness was a lengthy one, involving a long period of convalescence. During those days of enforced idleness, Fred spent the whole of his time at the piano in one or other of the music rooms. Sir Fred Moore has told me how my brother used to waylay him in the passage, and drag him into the music room and make him sing for him. ” It didn’t matter whether I had the music or not. If I knew the words and tune, that was enough. Fred would make up the most wonderful accompaniments, full of the marvellous harmonies for which years later he was to become so celebrated.”

The precise details of Delius’s playing career are harder to track down, though, in an article in the ‘Delius Society Journal’ from Spring 2004 entitled ‘Delius, the Cricketer‘,  T. Ian Roberts has found the details of a match between Giggleswick School and Mr. W.A. Dawson’s XI (a touring side from Bradford) from May 1882 when one F. Delius scored 11 and 4 and took 1-22 off 40 balls.  In another issue of the Journal Fenby informed its readers that the portrait by Ida Gerhardi that appears at the top of this piece was probably painted when Delius was ‘playing cricket for Paris‘, so clearly he managed to carry on getting the odd game after he left England for France in 1897.

Exile and blindness were the conditions by which Delius was constrained, and perhaps it would be missing the point to load my MP3 player with music by Delius when actually watching – say – Leicestershire take on Nottinghamshire on the 3rd of April in a pre-season friendly.  If  Delius was thinking of his youthful days at Scarborough when writing some of his Summer-summoning pieces from his French retreat (and I think he may have been), he was attempting to reclaim and preserve those perfect moments, the essence of the thing; it would be unwise and unfair to expose the phenomenal reality in front of one’s eyes to such comparisons.

The perfect person to write about Delius the cricketer would have been Neville Cardus.  They did meet once, in 1929, though they do not seem to have talked cricket.  Cardus remarked on Delius’s Yorkshire accent and wrote:

“There was nothing pitiable in him, nothing inviting sympathy in this wreck of a physique. He was wrapped in a monk-like gown, and his face was strong and disdainful, every line on it graven by intrepid living.”

Cardus wrote the obituary for Delius in ‘The Manchester Guardian’. I think this passage gets to the heart of the matter:

“Nearly all of Delius’s music recollects emotion in tranquillity. The sudden climaxes of passion – and we get one of the most beautiful in all music in the “Summer Garden” – are not climaxes caused by excitement of blood or nerve. They are the climaxes of a mind moved by the poetry that comes of beauty remembered. Delius is always reminding us that beauty is what is left for us when the show of life has passed on. Experiences have all sorts of values and significances. Other composers are more human than Delius, because their music contains the dynamics of life and action felt immediately – now!

Delius seems almost always to be aloof from the life active – life which, because it is active, is transitory.

To-day Delius’s music is loved, not merely liked, because in an age when most of the arts have little to do with beauty, but have apparently been overwhelmed by the complexity, the cynicism, and even the hastiness and noise of modern civilisation in this age, Delius has made for us a music which is serene and never unbeautiful.”

“We Cannot Always Stand Upright” (and George Winston’s January Stars)

Let us say farewell to the month of January with the collect for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany –

“O God, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright : Grant to us such strength and protection, as may support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

(And which of us, Brothers and Sisters, has not – at one time or another –  found ourselves unable to stand upright?  I know I have … etc.) 

and another piece of music.  You may not recognise the name, but you’ll probably know the music, as it often crops up on the soundtracks of TV documentaries and the like (often those featuring polar bears).  George Winston had the great misfortune (critically) to be signed to the Windham Hill label, which saw him consigned to the New Age bin alongside various crystal-gazing Pan Pipe merchants and was often dismissed as music for yuppies.  This was less of a misfortune commercially as his albums Autumn, December and Winter into Spring all went platinum in the U.S.A.

He prefers to describe his own music as “Rural folk piano”.  Try to banish from your mind any thought of a Californian in Gap chinos sipping a wheatgrass smoothie and aim more for a Walden vibe.  This is the first track (in old money) from Winter into Spring (1982) and is entitled January Stars.

(I’d got this far before discovering that the video couldn’t be embedded , but the link should take you there presently …)

January Stars

January Hymn : the Decemberists

A new and very welcome addition to the tiny canon of songs inspired by the month of January, from the Decemberists’ new album The King is Dead (out now in all good records shops, if any still exist).  It’s a lot better than Pilot’s effort anyway, and makes me a little nostalgic for the snow we had before Christmas.  Drizzle not the same thing at all, for poetic purposes. 

Spanish Bombs : Cecilia Bastida

To continue with the seasonal theme of the Spanish Civil War, here is a version of The Clash’s Spanish Bombs, performed by the Mexican singer Cecilia Bastida.  As she mentions in her introduction, she originally sang a more up tempo version of the song with the band Tijuana No.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a “sophisticated” dismissal of this song.  Naive … overly romantic about the Republicans … reduces complex situation to sloganeering … factual inaccuracies … tokenistic.  No doubt you could slip in the fact that Strummer was educated at a public school.  On the other hand, it was – and remains – hugely popular in Spain, as the comments attached in Spanish to the various other versions available on YouTube will attest.

It probably didn’t help that the version of the lyrics printed on the original sleeve reduced the section sung in Spanish to near-gibberish.  I believe this was because Ray Lowry had to try to reproduce what was being sung without the aid of a lyric sheet and – as he couldn’t speak Spanish – that was the best he could come up with.  Bastida restores the original sense (or some sense, anyway) (“infinito” as opposed to “y finito“, for instance).

Now I come to think of it, this is quite seasonal (unless my memory is playing tricks on me), in the sense that London Calling was released just before Christmas in 1979, and I spent most of my Christmas stay with my parents listening to it (it might even have been my Christmas present).  I remember feeling fairly pessimistic about the prospects for the coming decade, what with the trouble in Afghanistan – the Soviet “invasion” beginning on Christmas Eve (my 19th birthday) – the prospect of civil unrest following the recent election of a Conservative government and so on.  Perhaps I might give it another spin this Christmas – purely for reasons of nostalgia, you understand.

Cloud and Majesty and Awe : Advent Sunday with Sufjan Stevens

Advent Sunday : “O my God, in thee have I trusted, let me not be confounded ; neither let mine enemies triumph over me …”.  Amen to that.

The C of E doesn’t often do “cloud and majesty and awe“, but I think the humblest congregation can aspire to a sense of the numinous with a performance of this hymn, which no doubt we shall be singing this evening.  As a child it was potent enough for the solemnity to survive the unfortunate notoriety (at the time) of a film with a similar title.  Any giggling had usually subsided by the time the organ made its entrance.

Part of its power, I think, comes from the fact that it feels ancient (unlike most hymns which feel Victorian) and, indeed, it is ancient.  The verses derive from the O Antiphons (in which Christ is addressed by seven of His various titles).  The Antiphons date from at least the 8th century and were originally sung separately.  They seem to have been first sung together in about the 12th century and sung to the familiar tune by the 14th. 

This is a modern version by Sufjan Stevens (whom we have met before in his devotional guise (see here)).  I don’t know whether this is exactly awe-inspiring, but, in my view, it is like totally awesome …  

(Two versions here – the first a fragment, the second full-length) –