Monday 30th January 2017, 19.30
- Henry Cabell: SEAN COONEY (The Young’uns)
- Susannah Holmes: RACHAEL MCSHANE (Bellowhead)
- The Father: PAUL SARTIN (Faustus/Belshazzars Feast/Bellowhead)
- The Mother: NANCY KERR
- The Narrator: MATTHEW CRAMPTON
- The Turnkey: GREG RUSSELL
- Abe Carman: DAVID EAGLE (The Young’uns)
- The Shantyman: SAUL ROSE (Faustus/Waterson:Carthy/Whapweasel)
- The Jailer: BENJI KIRKPATRICK (Faustus/Bellowhead)
- The Coachman: MICHAEL HUGHES (The Young’uns)
Benji Kirkpatrick – guitar, bouzouki
Rachael McShane – cello
Paul Sartin – reeds, violin
Nancy Kerr – violin
Saul Rose – button accordion.
I wasn’t making notes at all, but I’m sure that Peter Bellamy’s “Street Singer” role in The “Ballads of Henry & Susannah 1 -5” was replaced by straight narration. The order was changed at the end, and the three instrumental pieces (Overture, Convicts Wedding 1 and 2) were dropped.
- Us Poor Fellows (Paul Sartin)
- The Robber’s Song (David Eagle)
- The Leaves In The Woodland (Nancy Kerr)
- I Once Lived In Service (Rachael McShane)
- The Ballad Of Norwich Gaol (Benji Kirkpatrick)
- Sweet Loving Friendship (Sean Cooney & Rachael McShane)
- The Black And Bitter Night (Sean Cooney)
- Dark Water Carry Me (NEW SONG )
- The Humane Turnkey – 1 (Greg Russell)
- The Plymouth Mail (Michael Hughes)
- The Humane Turnkey – 2 (Greg Russell)
- The Green Fields Of England (company)
- The Still & Silent Ocean (Sean Cooney & Rachael McShane)
- Roll Down (Saul Rose)
The original 1977 album
The original 1977 album of The Transports by Peter Bellamy & Friends featured the cream of English folk artists: The Watersons, Martin Carthy, June Tabor, Dave Swarbrick, Cyril Tawney, Nic Jones, and A.L. Lloyd. Peter Bellamy was the “Street Singer” or narrator. The sublime arrangements were by Dolly Collins. Mojo magazine chose it as one of the Top 100 Recordings of the 20th Century.
The whole of the ballad-opera was revived and re-recorded for a 25th anniversary edition in 2004, with a new line-up. The CD box set includes the 1977 recording, alongside the re-recording featuring The Witches of Elswick (with Fay Hield and Bryony Griffith), Damian Barber, Fairport Convention, Simon Nicol, John Kirkpatrick.
Now we have a further set of well-known English folk musicians for this tour,
I got into Peter Bellamy after onstage mentions by Jon Boden, Fay Hield and The Unthanks in short order. Though he lived in Norfolk, Bellamy was, like me, born in Bournemouth. As I started finding his albums, I realized he had been in The Young Tradition in the 60s. I saw them twice, once in London and once in Hull. I found an old diary from Hull which states “Young Tradition again. Really boring.” Oh, dear. That was nearly fifty years ago, or that’s my excuse. I recall seeing them in London more clearly and remember actively disliking their “no instruments” strict discipline approach. Anyway, early on in my searches for Peter Bellamy albums, I found a vinyl copy of The Transports.
Mojo was quite right in its assessment. I would rate it as the epitome and pinnacle of original English folk compositions in a traditional style. The melodies are all memorable, and it is to me on a defining line between specifically English traditions, rather than British traditions, which encompass the strong Celtic influences of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The stage set for the concert
As a “ballad opera” the musicians have cast roles. The question in a performance is whether it’s an aural experience only, or whether visual elements are added (costume, make up, wigs, stage sets, props). It has been done as a full theatrical piece, but ballads tell a story in their own right, so I’m not convinced that it would work theatrically as a full musical play. However, they did use theatrical elements (just enough) with packing cases as gallows, stagecoach and so on. The Turnkey got a black coat and hat as well as a baby, and the Plymouth Mail coachman had a hat too.
My photo: Sign, Ye Olde George Inn, Christchurch, Dorset. I never realised Poole (where I live) was a port for transportation. The barred window was at the top of a cellar dungeon.
It is the tale of a couple, Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, transported to Australia in 1787. They were real people, convicts on the “first fleet” of eleven ships which set sail from Plymouth to Botany Bay.
As I so often pass Tolpuddle, where the martyrs were transported for forming a union, and as my family were Dorset rural poor no doubt partial to the odd bit of rabbit poaching (a transportation offence), the story rings all the bells for me. 1777, ten years before the story, is the important date. The American War of Independence closed the age old transportation route to America. The British had noted that those English, Irish and Scots who had been transported to the Americas in the past universally had taken up arms on the American side. What is most surprising is that the British government were surprised. They decided not to use Canada as a transportation destination, fearing the same thing might happen there, though a few were transported to Nova Scotia up to 1785 when the Governor refused more.
Australia was so much further away, a 15,000 mile eight month voyage, that in practical terms it was for life, rather than just the five or seven or (in this story) fourteen year term. It was set up differently, in that it was a Penal Colony, sufficient unto itself. In the Americas, the transported were placed into a period of indentured servitude. The first fleet had three of the eleven ships laden only with supplies for establishing a colony, and the cargo included “forty tents for women convicts.” The 2015 British TV series Banished by Jimmy McGovern takes the same story of the first colony.
Exile, banishment … the words conjure up the Middle Ages. Long sea voyages … or the last few years in the Mediterranean. The narrator, Matthew Crampton was excellent, and in Part Two they brought the story up to date, first with a tale of Syrian refugees trying to reach Turkey followed by a song, (Dark Water Carry Me), then he related the story to Exeter, with the story of the Polish airmen who escaped to Britain in 1940 … refugees … who ended up as the heroic Nightowls squadron, based in Exeter. They had done their research … one in ten of the convicts in the first fleet were from the Exeter area, and most importantly, one David Collins, was from an address in Gandy Street, Exeter, the very street the venue is in. He became a judge. I had a niggling thought “I bet they say that in every town” but I checked online. David Collins was on the first Fleet and became a judge.
Gandy Street in Exeter last night …
Walking back along Gandy Street (above) then on the cobbled street past Exeter Cathedral, we were so aware that these buildings were all here in 1787 when people were being dragged off to the transports.
I guess as the first fleet sailed from Plymouth, it was convenient to have as many local transportees from Devon as possible. As Matthew explained, the hardened criminals went to the gallows. Those transported were often “mildly errant” (a lovely phrase). They totalled 582 male convicts, 193 women convicts and 14 children of convicts … after two years in the hulks waiting to be transported, they had multiplied! As Matthew Cramptn told us, they were all off into the unknown based on a report from a boat that had visited Botany Bay seventeen years earlier. it was like a starship off to colonise space … they also took 15 officials, 323 sailors, 247 marines and 46 wives and children of marines. 1420 people in all. Remarkably eight months later, they landed 1373 people in Australia. Most of the deaths, thirty-nine, were male convicts, but there were twenty more children.
Back to the music. In spite of having such great instrumentalists, they skipped Dolly Collins Overture (as was done in 2004), but surprisingly also skipped the two tunes called The Convicts Wedding which end the previous versions. Probably Roll Down, sung by Saul Rose, with everyone singing unaccompanied was the better ender. A cheerful jig would have left the five non-playing singers somewhat spare.
The sound was impeccable. I’m sure Peter Bellamy would have been shocked at eleven radio head mics, but then the technology of 1977 could never have squeezed such sublime sound from them. The arrangements were all different from the previous two recorded versions. In particular, the two most memorable songs, I Once Lived In Service (sung by Rachael McShane) and The Black & Bitter Night (sung by Sean Cooney) started out as solo vocal, then towards the end of both, and softly, the whole company boosted the chorus. Both The Green Fields of England and Roll Down had all eleven across the stage in a line, singing unaccompanied.
One surprise was that Bellowhead had three under-utilised first rate lead vocalist in its ranks. Paul Sartin’s rich voice was significant for the Father, as was Benji Kirkpatrick as the gaoler (Bellamy’s 18th century preferred spelling) and Rachael McShane as Susannah, excelling in songs previously known by Norma Waterstone and Fay Hield. Ironically Bellowhead’s problem was said to be keeping thirteen musicians on the road … and here they are on the road with eleven. All The Young ‘Uns excelled. David Eagle was a raw and powerful Abe Carman, the robber. Sean Cooney was Henry, the lead part, stunningly good on The Black & Bitter Night. Michael Hughes was the coachman with the great song, The Plymouth Mail. Greg Russell added an excellent touch of humour, first as the surveyor reporting on Botany Bay to the Narrator (an addition) and as the heroic Humane Turnkey.
They got a long and total standing ovation. I haven’t seen a concert go down better, and it was well deserved. It’s a shame that the tour is comparatively so short, and especially that Plymouth and Norwich didn’t book it (both being central to the tale), as well as Poole (see the photo above), which was also a centre for transportation. No doubt Southampton was too. I hope they take it on the road again. Australia? Surely it would pack audiences in.
The common questions going out were “Is it recorded? Will it be recorded?” If they release a CD I’ll buy one for myself and more to cover this year’s birthday presents.