(1966) The Critics Group – A Merry Progress to London
Directed by: Ewan MacColl
Music direction: Peggy Seeger
Singers and musicians
1 Street cries/Painter’s Song
2 Roome for Companie (at Bartolomew Faire)
3 A merry progress to London – Jim O’Connor (vocal)
4 The Maid Of Tottenham – Sandra Kerr (vocal) with banjo and chorus
5 Newry town – Ted Culver (vocal)(unaccompanied)
6 The Ploughboy and the Cockney – Jim O’Connor (vocal) with concertina and guitar
7 The Bold Lieutenant – John Faulkner (vocal)
8 London’s Ordinary – John Faulkner (vocal) with dulcimer and tin-whistle
1 London Mourning In Ashes – Terry Yarnell (vocal) with autoharp
2 The Lass of Islington – John Faulkner (vocal)
3 Through Moorfields – Sandra Kerr (vocal)
4 Jarvis The Coachman – Terry Yarnell (vocal) with guitar, concertina, and tin-whistle
5 The Blind beggar of Bethnal Green – Jim O’Connor (vocal)
6 There’s Nothing To Be Had Without Money – Ted Culver (vocal) with guitar
7 Georgie Barnell – Sandra Kerr (vocal)
8 The lawyer’s lament for Charing Cross –
The Critics Group (also known as the London Critics Group) started out as a study group for singers in 1963, meeting at Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s home in Beckenham. The Group, with no permanent membership, performed for each other and criticised each other, with a shared aim of improving the singing and performance of traditional folk song.
Apart from those appearing here, over the years the group included: Frankie Armstrong, Bob Blair, Brian Byrne, Bobby Campbell, Helen Campbell, Jim Carroll, Alasdair Clayre, Phil Colclough, Aldwyn Cooper, Ron Elliott, Richard Humm, Allen Ives, Luke Kelly, Enoch Kent, Paul Lenihan, Pat Mackenzie, Dónal Maguire, Gordon McCulloch, Maggie O’Murphy, Brian Pearson, Michael Rosen, Buff Rosenthal, Dick Snell, Susanna Steele, Denis Turner, Jack Warshaw.
Songs “true to themselves”
The Critics Group got set up after MacColl had been approached by a number of singers on the folk scene to give them singing lessons. He refused but said he would organise a self-help group and work with them…The actual name of the group was apparently coined by Charles Parker off the cuff.
Peggy Seeger says the Group was formed at the behest of several singers who “found that they were losing their way in singing traditional songs”.
“We began to attract singers who wanted to study folksinging. You know, there is no set discipline for folksinging – it’s an ‘anything goes’ area even though real dyed-in-the-wool field singers are very specific about how they sing and what they sing.
“The purpose of the Critics Group was to make it possible for the singers who had not been brought up in the ‘folk’ tradition to sing the songs in a way that would not abrogate the original intention of the makers. It was an attempt to keep the folksongs folksongs, not turn them into classical pieces or pop songs or anything-goes songs.
“We analysed accompanimental and vocal styles, tried to expand our abilities to sing in different styles so that we could tackle different kinds of songs (within the languages and dialects that we spoke) and still keep the songs true to themselves. Once again, we were not initially telling other singers how to sing – just deciding how WE were going to sing. If we became evangelical and sounded dictatorial, well – that’s the way things go. The intentions were honourable.”
Invited to join the group on a visit from Leeds to the MacColl/Seeger household in Beckenham, Bob Pegg (of Bob and Carole Pegg, Mr Fox) passed: “All the blokes, apart from me and another guy, had these little Ewan MacColl beards,” he’s quoted as saying in the book Electric Eden.
For another version of what the Critics Group got up to at their sessions, have a look at this thread on the traditional folk music web forum Mudcat. If you’re of a sensitive disposition, best to rush down towards the bottom of the page (where Jim Carroll shares his memories of the group’s sessions) and avoid the senior folk persons ritually abusing each other and the memory of Ewan MacColl.
More on the individual members, many of whom are still performing, as and when.
Reviewing this record, the Gramophone magazine said that “on the whole the words are more interesting than the tunes” and picked out John Faulkner’s version of The Lass of Islington and Ted Culver’s unaccompanied version of Newry Town as being particularly enjoyable.
Many thanks to Roel van Dijk, who supplied the photo of the cover and, most importantly, a copy of the record for me to hear.
A Merry Progress is one of two ‘London’ song collections released on Argo by the Critics Group in 1966. Unlike the companion LP, Sweet Thames Flow Softly, this LP only contains traditional songs gathered by members of the Group from archives. Sweet Thames includes contemporary songs, including several written by the Group’s members.