Traditional folk music, dance and customs - Harrogate, North Yorkshire - Chas Marshall's Website
Singing for Blind Jack
(Dalesman July 2009)
Anyone in search of Yorkshire folk singing would do well to visit the Sheffield district just before Christmas time - the area's vibrant carolling tradition is nationally renowned. Yet in the rural north of the county a folk song heritage is not so evident, and many would doubt that the Dales had any discernable tradition of folk music.
Folk enthusiast Mark Ellison had no such doubts, however. Raised in Pateley Bridge in Nidderdale, his initial motivation for seeking out Yorkshire songs was fuelled by an interest in local history and a love of the landscape.
"I have an enduring memory of rambling up Great Whernside, looking around at the hills and valleys and thinking how lucky I was to live in such a beautiful part of the world," he told me. "I felt I'd like to get some sort of folk collection together that celebrated the region in song."
As he works at the Boston Spa branch of the British Library, Mark had access to a wealth of research material, and knew there was no shortage of songs associated with the Dales, the Vale of York and nearby.
Walking the fells is an ideal opportunity for 'blue-sky thinking' (or, more often, 'grey-sky thinking'), and Mark mused that a CD of Yorkshire folk songs might be an interesting means of raising funds for charity. He decided there are few worthier causes than Henshaws, who have a residential college in Harrogate and an Arts & Crafts Centre in Knaresborough. They're well known for their good work with visually-impaired people, helping students gain self-confidence and independence.
Finding a title for the project was the easy part: the name was chosen in honour of celebrated road builder, fiddler, carrier and horse trader John Metcalfe, otherwise known as 'Blind Jack of Knaresborough'. Metcalfe lost his sight due to smallpox when still a child, but he never let his disability restrict his life- his achievements were truly remarkable by anyone's standards. Henshaws' Arts & Crafts Centre is very close to his birthplace, and the College is in the Harrogate area where he is known to have played his fiddle at dances.
With a half-formed plan in mind Mark visited Nigel Hudleston, the respected Yorkshire folk song collector, who was quite amused by Mark's arrival at Cayton Hall in 2006 on a bicycle. Mr Hudleston was still a sharp raconteur aged ninety, and had plenty of lively anecdotes about his field collecting in the 1950s, when he and his late wife Mary gathered songs around the county (these were published in Songs of the Ridings in 2001).
Mr Hudleston's knowledge and encouragement was a great boost, not least because he wrote a cheque to help with the proposed recording venture. It was an unsolicited act of kindness and also a source of motivation: instead of idle thoughts about making a CD, Mark now felt obliged to set about the task in earnest. Sadly Mr Hudleston died later that year, and the recording was dedicated to his memory.
Mark, who describes himself as "a decidedly average singer and musician", set about enlisting some talented people and was fortunate enough to get offers of help from many friends in the local folk scene and some from further afield in Yorkshire like Dave Burland and Laura Hockenhull.
With fine singers such as these Mark wanted to do the best he could in terms of production, but felt that "people paying for a charity CD should expect all of their cash to go to the charity, not to paying off the manufacturing costs." With this in mind he spoke to his old friend, Chris Simpson of Magna Carta.
Chris agreed not only to contributing a track to the CD, but also to headlining a folk concert at Knaresborough's annual Festival of Entertainment and Visual Arts (FEVA). With folk dance from a Pateley team and the Knaresborough Mummers performing the local 'Blue Stots' play, they presented an evening of Yorkshire folk entertainment which attracted a full house. All the participants kindly gave their services free of charge, so now there was a prospect of releasing a CD which could be sold at 100% profit.
However, there was still a need to add instrumentation to some of the songs and to include some local folk dance tunes. "We were lucky enough to persuade the talented Huddersfield-based musicians Nick and Mary Barber to assist with the accompaniments and to arrange tunes found in manuscripts from South Stainley and Helperby" says Mark.
Nick and Mary also put their Nidderdale cottage at Stean at the disposal of the team for a weekend when a large part of the recording was done with the help of one of Mark's friends Nick Adams and his mobile studio. The sessions went well despite the noisy gale force winds that battered the cottage throughout.
The result was a set consisting largely of traditional songs. These included The Dallowgill Hunt, a ballad in praise of a fox who leads the huntsmen and hounds on an epic chase across the Nidderdale and Craven area (and ultimately evades his pursuers), and King John and the Barker, in which the King seeks directions to Spofforth Castle and is roundly insulted by a local yokel who has no idea who he's talking to.
There were also much loved contemporary songs like Jake Thackray's Old Molly Metcalfe and tunes including the Borobridge Hornpipe, Wetherby Grange and Skipton Lasses. Along with dialect verse, there's a children's wassailing song from Ripon; from Kirkby Malzeard there's a plough lads' longsword song. There's a king losing his way in the Forest of Knaresborough and a drunk losing his trousers in Settle.
The result is a CD, which features the sort
of music that would have been familiar to John Metcalfe and in aid of
a charity of which he would have approved.
Although this article appeared in my name, it was really a joint effort between Mark and me. We just thought it would sound better if it appeared to be written by someone other than the main architect behind the Blind Jack Project!