The Living Tradition
Celebration of Peter Bellamy
by Karl Dallas Issue 34 September/October '99
".. and there was this lad with lank blond hair, whom Bruce Dunnet brought over to me and suggested I might provide him with a place to sleep. The young man was an art student, called Peter Bellamy. And Dunnet's club was called "The Young Tradition".
It was 1964 or thereabouts, give or take the odd bad trip or two. I was hanging out in the downstairs bar at the Scots Hoose pub in Soho's Cambridge Circus, waiting to see what sort of talent would be attracted to the new singers' night - you could scarcely call it a club - that Bruce Dunnet was organising as complement to his regular club in the upstairs room.
Dunnet, a veteran Communist and street agitator who'd signed up literally hundreds of new comrades from public soapboxes in London's Stamford Hill, had been running clubs around London for some time, without conspicuous success. As notorious, in his way, as the Decca A&R man who turned down the Beatles - he had refused an offer to manage the Rolling Stones because they ought to be singing English music - he also, equally notoriously, refused to book Paul Simon for a fee of £5. He did start such folk luminaries as Pentangle and Julie Felix on their careers though, and he had tried to attract patrons to an Irish pub in Finsbury Park to witness representatives of what he called "The Grand Tradition", headed by the great Gaeltacht singer, Joe Heaney, the traveller banjo-player and street ballad singer, Margaret Barry, and her fiddle-playing partner, the equally great Michael Gorman. The enterprise failed, largely because he found the Irish clientele were unwilling to pay to listen, despite having the folk equivalent of Miles Davis or Robert Johnson or Enrico Caruso literally delivered to their door.
So Dunnet had moved the entire enterprise down to the Scots Hoose pub, just opposite the theatre where Jesus Christ Superstar was doing SRO business every night, though it has to be confessed that the only regular who shifted ground with him was Luke Kelly, then more concerned in developing his solo talents than his eventual long-term residency with the Dubliners. Since Soho at that time was awash with the sort of performers whose "commercialism" didn't appeal to him (hence his refusal to book rhymin' Simon), he decided in a moment of inspiration to start up an evening devoted to those whose interests were more in the direction of traditional song.
The trad/contemporary dichotomy had no more relevance then than today: one of the pack of young traddies he managed to attract was the wonderful Val Berry, whose voice raised the hairs on the back of my head long before Annie Briggs did the same thing for me (and for Christopher Logue and Arnold Wesker) a few years later. Also there was a young man, with an earth-shaking bass harmony, called Royston Wood, and a slightly school-marmish lass with vivid red pre-Raphaelite hair, Heather Wood, both of whom I described collectively at the time in Melody Maker as Heather and Royston Wood, as if they were brother and sister. (A mistake that was to pursue them throughout their careers until Royston's death: hence their later duo album, "No Relation").
Heather recalls with typical precision that "I first walked into the Scots Hoose on April 18, 1965", and that that was the first time she had heard either Peter or Royston. And there was this lad with lank blond hair, whom Bruce brought over to me and suggested I might provide him with a place to sleep. (He was always doing this, since I had a 5-room mansion pad off Tottenham Court Road.) The young man was an art student, called Peter Bellamy. And Dunnet's club was called "The Young Tradition". Actually, that's my recollection. When going over those early days with him at his home in Keighley a few months before his death, Bellamy remembered instead that it was in Cecil Sharp House that we first met, and that it was Annie Briggs who introduced us.
Either way, our acquaintance began much the same way, and Bellamy brought his sleeping bag, his black guitar, and his long hair down to my Bloomsbury mansion flat, and we talked the night away. I don't recall hearing him sing that night, and when we got home together we talked about art rather than music, notably his teacher and mentor, Peter Blake (later to achieve fame for his sleeve design for the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album, famously parodied by Frank Zappa's We're Only In it for the Money). He was the first person to turn me on to pop art, since I was not able at that time to see much point in Andy Warhol's soup cans.
There were a number of things that made him stand out from the crowd, already noticeable that night in my Bloomsbury apartment: his gritty, almost defiant integrity and determination to plough whatever lonely furrow he might choose, regardless of fashion; his determinedly non-leftwing views, at a time when so many Communists (like Ewan MacColl, A.L. Lloyd, Dunnet, and me) dominated the scene and (as I found out later) his determination to sing whatever he liked, whenever and wherever he liked. Plus, as I also found out later, an approach to his material which turned him into the leading vocal stylist of his generation.
He did not spring fully-fledged, of course, on to the scene, without forbears or previous influences. He was very much a Norfolk boy, and at a time when the Singing Postman was the sole media representative of East Anglian culture, and most young singers were trying to sound like Leadbelly or MacColl (or, often, an unlikely cross between the two), he brought a whiff of the fens into our smoky dens and clubrooms. There was a trend among what one might almost call the avant garde of that time's traditionalists, to try to ape the accent and mannerisms of the great ballad singers of their day, like Pop Maynard and Charlie Wills, and of course Peter's great fellow-East Anglian, the monumental Harry Cox (usually learned from records, rather than at the feet of these still-living masters), but Peter eschewed what I had started calling in my reviews "phonography".
But Conservative though he may have been in politics (or, more probably, completely apolitical, if such a thing be possible), Bellamy was no conservative when it came to singing style. No fleshly phonograph, he worked and reworked the songs until they accorded with his musical vision, by Ewan MacColl out of Robert Johnson. I do not make the MacColl comparison idly, because it was Peter himself who made the link when once we were discussing his influences, which is interesting. For like Bellamy's reinvention of himself as the Nigel Kennedy of the traditionalist revival, Jimmy Miller, the Salford-educated son of a Scots iron moulder, graduate of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, had reinvented himself as the expressionist playwright and folk mannerist, Ewan MacColl. And, like MacColl, he became identified with the traditional wing of the revival in spite of having virtually created his style from whole cloth. The remarkable thing about Peter Bellamy was how mature was his invention of himself as early as those mid-Sixties years when he burst upon the Soho scene with all the force of a blazing Roman candle.
While the Young Tradition threesome seemed to gel immediately, their relationship with Dunnet was genuinely made in hell. There was the matter of an unlicensed van, which somehow went missing, a number of out of town gigs where the trio arrived to find mystified club organisers had booked someone else. And of course, their hedonistic lifestyle was guaranteed to offend every bone in Dunnet's puritanical Scots body. They were signed to Nathan Joseph's Transatlantic label, and Nat immediately tried hard to score them off against Topic's Watersons releases, though of course there was no sense of any rivalry between the two groups. They gave valuable support to Bellamy's Transports epic, and they sang with Heather and Royston on one track of his 'Both Sides Then' solo album. There were considerable differences in the way they sang their parts. At the time I tried to explain these by contrasting what I described as the Watersons' polyphony (contrasting horizontal melodic lines) with the Young Tradition's harmony (vertical chord sequences), but in fact the Watersons' approach also now seems to me to be harmonic.
The differences were more due, it now seems to me, to differences of temperament, and possibly regionally-based, between the Thames and the Humber, though God knows there was an equal wildness about both groups that made them truly performers of the electric age, as boundary-breaking and iconoclastic in their way as a Hendrix guitar solo. It did seem that this wildness marked them out from the polite cabaret style of post-Weavers groups like the wholly manufactured Peter, Paul and Mary, and British imitations, like the Settlers, and the Australian Seekers. We had seen the future of vocal harmony singing, and it was dressed as a mod. However, to everyone's surprise, the combination of poor economics and differences about the direction they should take, ended with a farewell concert at Cecil Sharp House (compered by yours truly) in October, 1969, and while they performed a "reunion concert" in Massachusetts in 1988, and worked together occasionally on record, Peter returned to his solo career.
His first three solo albums, the first two in 1968 and the third, for Topic, in 1969, began to define what a distinctive and individual stylist he was becoming. It was not merely a matter of his vocal identity, though that was remarkable, sometimes even to extremes, such as the fast tremor in high notes that he himself described as a "bleat". Later, Bellamy was to say to me that the most obvious influence "to an educated ear has got to be MacColl", but at a time when there were plenty of Ewan clones cluttering up the fringes of the folk movement, not to mention many who borrowed his histrionic attack, even if they avoided his Salford intellectual's articulation - one of the best of these was Lancashire's Harry Boardman, whose natural accent was at least close to Ewan's - his singing had never been obviously derivative.
Fortunately, he was never invited to join MacColl's Critics' Group, though having attended some of their sessions, I was interested to find that some of the very techniques Ewan was teaching his young proteges - like the way Lloyd's tendency to smile as he sang emphasised the upper frequencies of his voice - appeared also in Bellamy's own auto-didactic technique. He was developing a brilliant narrative style, in which half-spoken words would beckon the listener into the tale, and lines would be run together across barlines to make his story-telling the more effective. He never forgets that these songs are mostly stories, and he never allowed his vocal excitement to get in the way of a good yarn.
Nor would any sense of false political correctness get in the way of a direction that his natural intuition might take him. I must confess that while I had read Rudyard Kipling's 'Jungle Book' and 'Just-So Stories' as a child with great enjoyment, I shared most of the left's antipathy for all things Edwardian, and especially the man whose lyrics seemed to be all about the White Man's Burden. This was 1970, remember, and Harold Macmillan's "wind of change" had been sweeping through Africa for ten years. India had obtained its independence in 1947 (though the vestiges of British "divide and rule" remained in the partition which is a source of conflict on the sub-continent to this day) and Kipling's world seemed a sad vestige of a bygone age when Peter's 'Oak Ash and Thorn' challenged all our comfortable preconceptions.
We missed the fact that MacColl's inspiration, Germany's maverick communist playwright, Bertholt Brecht, had been one of Kipling's greatest admirers. Indeed, a song like his savage Kanonenlied, could almost have been translated straight from Kipling's original verse. I must plead guilty, as one of the old lefties Peter was so critical of, to dismissing Kipling as little more to our age than a convenient trademark for mass-baked cakes. There's an elitist strain in much of the left - "we know what's good for the workers, much better than they know themselves" - and as well as Kipling's supposed imperialistic mind-set, it was the populism of his lyrics, which got into the heads of his squaddie and non-com subjects better than we ever could, which we found so offensive. But if the folk world was a bit bemused by what seemed like something of an obsession for Kiplingiana, Peter was meanwhile cracking a much tougher nut: the serried ranks of the Kipling establishment. To everyone's surprise, they were far more receptive to his settings of the works of their hero than we had been, and he received their jealously guarded imprimata for his renditions.
But Peter had more surprises in store. In 1975 he recorded the nearest thing to a "contemporary" album for Bill Leader's Trailer label, which in addition to songs from Alex Glasgow and Al Stewart included two Bellamy originals. Having just got used to the idea that he could compose great tunes in the traditional mould either for other people's words (Kipling) or songs he didn't like the tunes of (On Board a 98), here we had songs with tune trad/words PB and two songs for which he had composed both words and music. There were also two tracks which belied his own disparagement of the guitar as a folk accompanying instrument in general, and his own playing in particular; for sensitivity they would be hard to beat, in the way they leave his voice space to "breathe", and double the melody of Chris Birch's fiddle.
I remember about then, Peter telling me of a big new project he was working on. I was driving a car at the time, concentrating upon manoeuvring us all safely along a particularly difficult stretch of road, and later he complained that I hadn't seemed interested in his ideas, but in truth when the scope of what he had planned struck me, I was quite literally gobsmacked. In 1977, we'd not been short of big projects. Indeed, the rock "concept album" had rather devalued the currency as far as big, ambitious ventures were concerned. And it really seemed that the MacColl-Seeger-Parker Radio Ballads had just about exhausted the genre. But in its own way, 'The Transports' charted new territories. Well, not entirely new, perhaps. We'd had Fairport's 'Babbacombe Lee' six years earlier, but that had been a band experience, though something of a tour de force, it's true. The Transports was rivalled only by Mike and Lal Waterson's 'Bright Phoebus' (1972) in its attempt to create contemporary music with traditional relevance: but while Phoebus was unashamedly folk rock (possibly the only truly successful folk rock album ever), the "concept" was an underlying unity, rather than any over-all storyline.
Bellamy's new project was more in the vein of the pre and immediately post-war radio programming, like MacColl's 'Johnny Miner' (which I doubt he'd ever heard). And it was a truly colossal undertaking. Not only did Peter write all the words and music of what was to be a double-LP vinyl, but he also recruited a veritable who's who of the contemporary folk scene: Martin Carthy, the Watersons (surprisingly, neither Heather Wood nor Royston, possibly because they had both moved to America), Nic Jones, June Tabor, A.L. Lloyd, Cyril Tawney, Martin Winsor, Vic Legg, plus an instrumental ensemble (including the inevitable Dave Swarbrick) arranged and conducted by Dolly Collins.
(A word here about the vision of Neil Wayne, who saw the project through commercially, and produced it as a handsome double-album, complete with the entire "libretto" - I suppose we must call it - of what was truly a folk opera. Record companies exist in a hard commercial world, and Neil has taken his knocks, but at a time when no major record company would take the risk with such a massive undertaking, he got it out, and spared no expense in the doing of it. And even if he is responsible for this latest compilation project also, I still say credit where due.)
It was recreated for radio, performed in folk clubs. For a while, this true story of a man transported to Australia became a staple of the folk scene, and songs like The Still and Silent Ocean and The Green Fields of England are in the repertoire of many a floor singer. It's hard, once you have conquered Everest, to know what other peaks there are to climb. Peter's Maritime Suite, which did at least achieve Folk on 2 performance, never saw the light of day on record. Before he died, Peter was murmuring about something new and big in the pipeline, and of course he continued to work on his Kiplings. We met for the last time on November 5, 1990. It is surprising to me, in retrospect, that though we had been close for a quarter-century, and we'd got drunk together on a notable occasion at the Newport Folk Festival when the Young Tradition was still a going concern, I'd never done what I could call a "proper" interview with the man I'd always regarded as the primus inter pares of the post-MacColl revival.
We settled down on a Monday afternoon for a trawl through all those 25 years, talking about influences, pursuing that endless and ultimately fruitless search for a definition of folksong. Playing back the tapes today, the man lives again in my head as I transcribe the over two hours of conversation, the chuckles and belly laughs, the way he could bat a question back at me like a Wimbledon champion going for game-set-and-match, the muscular integrity of the man.
He was bitter over some things, and I felt his bitterness was wrongheaded, telling him so. That difference spilled over into the interview as published in Folk Roots, and after it appeared he sent me an annotated copy of it, indicating where he felt I had got it wrong. I was hurt by his criticism (we critics aren't used to subjects who bite back) and for the first time I felt estranged from him. We never met again, and when he died I wondered (as I am sure must many of us) what part I might have played in his decision to take his own life. Of course, each of us has the right to end our story as we wish; to deny that right is to deny our very humanity, I do feel. But the guilt remains.
Looking back, as I re-play the tapes, I have to admit that the article I wrote was a great missed opportunity. By concentrating upon his strictures upon the folk scene (and some of its leading protagonists), I missed the greatness of the man, his enormous humanity, his wonderful contribution to the joy that this process we miscall a revival has given us all. At the funeral, I was still in shock, burdened by guilt. As I knelt in the chapel, I felt Peter's very presence. He seemed surrounded by light. And I distinctly heard his words, in that unmistakable blend of Norfolk vowels and English grammar-school education. "It's all right," he seemed to be saying. "It's really all right."
I'd like to end this rather personal end-piece to his story with some words I wrote about another shooting star of contemporary music, the Weather Report bassist, Jaco Pastorius, who died in similarly tragic circumstances in September 1987:
"Nothing ever dies, least of all music. How can you be dead when I've just wiped the tears from my face, hearing you play eleven years later? . . . See you soon."
Or, in the words of Bob Dylan, sung across the world at the last gigs of his life, Death is not the end. Telling Peter Bellamy's story has reminded me of the enormous love I had for this brilliant, infuriating, opinionated, intellectually challenging and uncategorisably great human being, and what a privilege it had been to know him, a privilege which all can continue to enjoy, thanks to the electric tradition of electronics. Thanks for letting me share it with you.
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