(1963) The Barrow Poets – The Barrow Collection
The Barrow Poets – The Barrow Collection – An entertainment of Poetry and Music
William Bealby-Wright – voice
Gerard Benson – voice
Heather Black – voice
John Boulton Smith – voice
William Gardener – voice
Alison Milne – voice
John Naylor – voice
Christine Shotton – voice
Susan Baker – violin
Lorna Gregson – oboe
Ploughing on Sunday (Wallace Stevens)
(music) Pigtown Reel (American traditional)
Oh see how thick the Goldcup flowers (A.E.Housman)
Tru to Poll (Sir Francis Bernand)
Ach, I dunno (Percy French)
Kind are her Answers (Thomas Campion)
Slice of Wedding Cake (Robert Graves)
Nora Criona (James Stephens)
(music) Irish jig (traditional)
Off the Ground (Walter de la Mare)
(music) Evening Prayer (traditional)
Helen of Kirkconnell (Anon)
John Kinsella’s Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore (W. B. Yeats)
Po’ Boy (Anon)
(music) Spinning song (traditional)
Request (J. Hughes)
How they Brought the Good News from Aix to Ghent (Sellars & Yeatman)
Wha’ Lies Here? (Anon)
104th Chorus (Jack Kerouac)
The Frog (Anon – French Canadian)
(music) Ländler (Mozart)
Blow Me Eyes! (Wallace Irwin)
Lines from “Betsy Lee” (T.E.Brown)
When I Was One and Twenty (A. E. Housman)
Linden Lea (Barnes)
(music) Fair are the flowers in the valley (traditional)
Extract from the Song of Solomon (Authorized Version)
Day of these Days (Laurie Lee)
Dirge of Cymbeline (Shakespeare)
(music) Air (Purcell)
Lessons of War, Part II: Judging Distances (Henry Reed)
Kissed Yestreen (Anon)
Extract from ‘Don Juan’ (Byron)
(music) Allegro (Mozart)
I Do, I Will, I Have (Ogden Nash)
Northumbrian Duet (Wilfred Gibson)
The Barrow Poets started out selling poems from barrows in the late 1950s, then moved into performing in pubs.
This, their first record, was recorded at the home of Manx poet William Bealby-Wright and violinist Susan Baker.
“We (they) fixed up mikes and egg-boxes and recorded a number of poems and pieces of music,” Gerard Benson recalls. “Harley (Usill of Argo records) had told us that if the result was of professional standard it might be released on Argo. It was.”
“At the time we were doing pub performances under Plays and Poetry in Pubs, a brewers’ funded outfit which I think had some connection with the Arts Council. We advertised and performed in saloon bars.”
Sales of The Barrow Poets’ records were never high, says Benson. “We sold them at gigs and they were in some shops. But the records got us lots of work elsewhere. We were at our best as a live performing group.”
“Round about this time we got too popular and started to mount performances separate from the saloon bar drinkers, particularly at The Printer’s Devil in Fetter Lane. They were very popular. We filled a large room sometimes to overflowing, with people standing on the stairs.”
The pleasure of the general public
Entertainment is the intention of this record, say the liner notes.
“The intention is obviously a splendid one,” said a rather snooty contemporary review of the album by Charles Fox in the Gramophone, “and presumably experience has shown that the kind of material included here appeals to the drinking public. Whether it stands up to listening in the comparative solitariness of the home is quite another matter.”
A reader of the magazine wrote in to complain of the reviewer’s “condescending views”.
“With all due respect for C.F. this is a lot of rubbish. It’s about time poetry records were designed for the pleasure of the general public. That’s where poetry belongs – not to ‘mystic’ groups and classrooms. Lets have some of the works of Wordsworth and Browning with musical intermissions.”
Here, for the pleasure of the general public, is some fine poetry – a bit of everything, old and new, some Shakespeare, some Kerouac, some Byron, some Laurie Lee, plus Walter de la Mare’s farmers going “Withy, Wellover, Wassop, Wo. Like an old clock their heels did go.”
But is it a folk record?
No. But it’s an example of what performers were doing with folk music at the time – in this case using traditional folk tunes to break up some of the segments of spoken word. Later, after composer and instrumentalist Jim Parker joined the Barrows, “the music got more complicated and interesting,” says Gerard Benson. And folkier.
“The folk content was just a part of it,” says Benson. “We mostly did composed poetry and music. Part of the motivation for the (later) folk record was copyright. We all liked some of the folk stuff, but none of us was particularly a buff.”
“Go into a pub and hear a poet. Go into a pub and hear the music of the Cacofiddle and the Muscle-in, grotesque home-made contraptions that might have been designed for an angel by Hieronymous Bosch. Go into a pub and hear a new, zany approach to a poetry session. The Barrow Poets, a roving group of poetry lovers as offbeat as the Beatles were when they first started life in a Liverpool cellar, are Britain’s increasingly popular fun entertainers.”
I haven’t found a review of The Barrow Poets at the time this album came out, but the paragraph above is how the London Evening Independent described them in November 1968, a month before the ‘zany’ Liverpool poets and performance artists The Scaffold went to number One in the Charts with Lily The Pink.
The Barrow Poets’ second record was an EP, issued on their own label as Barrow Records 1. “There wasn’t a Barrow Records 2,” says Benson. From there they went to other labels – “we signed up where we could and where we were wanted” – before returning to Argo for two more albums in the 70s), more of which anon.
Poems on the Underground
In the 1980s, Barrow poets Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert (she joined later) and US academic Judith Chernaik dreamed up the idea of displaying poetry in the unsold ad spaces on the London Tube. They, and Poems on the Underground, are still with us.
Where are they now?
The Barrow Poets’ last live performance was in 2001 or 2002 – 40 years of performing in pubs, arts festivals, pop concerts (indoors and out), village halls, mansions, cathedrals, hospitals, inner city schools and universities. William and Susan Bealby-Wright (Baker) are still active musically, organising concerts in Somerset. Gerard Benson continues to publish his poetry (including some lovely books for children). More of the other Barrow Poets in later posts.
Many thanks to Gerard Benson for his help, and to the Erin Arts Centre, Isle of Man, for the photo of the Bealby-Wrights.
Argo & Poetry
In the ‘fifties and ‘sixties the Argo label led the way in the UK with spoken word LPs, including poetry. That was largely down to the personal enthusiasm of label founder Harvey Usill. Their biggest early success was the 1954 BBC recording of Under Milk Wood, starring Richard Burton, which over the years is said to have sold over two million copies in one format or another since its initial release.
Other albums released that year
Louis Killen, Bob Davenport, Anne Briggs, A.L. Lloyd, Ray Fisher et al – The Iron Muse
The Beatles – Please Please Me
Bob Dylan – Freewheelin’
Phil Spector – A Christmas Gift For You
Solomon Burke – If You Need Me
Davy Graham – The Guitar Player
Del Shannon – Little Town Flirt
The Watson Family – The Watson Family