(1970) Peter Bellamy – Oak, Ash & Thorn
Argo release number: ZFB 11
Recorded at: Decca Studios, London
Producer: Frederick Woods
Engineer: Adrian Martins
Sleeve notes and drawing: Peter Bellamy
Sleeve design: Anthea Bellamy
A booklet with the same title (containing the words, music and notes to the songs and illustrated by Peter and Anthea Bellamy) was published in Autumn 1971 by Robbins Music Corporation. You can see some of the illustrations here.
Re-released as part of private issue cassette of ‘Puck’s Songs’ by Peter Bellamy in 1974; deleted by Argo in 1978; different versions of some of the songs re-appear on the 2001 Fellside compilation CD Mr Bellamy, Mr Kipling & The Tradition. Two of the tracks (asterisked) appear on CD1 of the 1999 Free Reed 3-CD Peter Bellamy compilation Wake the Vaulted Echoes. But don’t get too excited. The 3-CD retrospective had to be withdrawn…because of licensing issues.
Frustrated in their attempts to get the Bellamy Argo Kipling albums re-issued, the good people at Folk Police Recordings have put together an album of contemporary re-workings of the songs by people like The Unthanks, Jon Boden and Elle Osborne.
Musicians and singers
Peter Bellamy – vocals, guitar, Anglo concertina
Royston Wood, Heather Wood – chorus vocals and harmonies
Robin Dransfield – chorus vocals
Barry Dransfield – fiddle
1 Frankie’s Trade – PB lead vocal, chorus vocals by Robin Dransfield, Royston Wood and Heather Wood
2 Poor Honest Men (trad) – PB vocal, Barry Dransfield fiddle
3 Cold Iron – PB unaccompanied
4 Sir Richard’s Song – PB vocals, guitar
5 The Looking Glass – PB unaccompanied
6 Oak, Ash & Thorn (A Tree Song)* – PB lead vocal, Royston Wood, Heather Wood chorus
1 King Henry VII and the Shipwrights (trad) – PB vocal, Barry Dransfield fiddle
2 The Brookland Road – PB unaccompanied
3 A Three Part Song* – PB lead vocal, Royston Wood, Heather Wood harmonies
4 The Ballad of Minepit Shaw – PB vocals and guitar
5 Our Fathers of Old – PB unaccompanied
6 Philadelphia – PB vocal and Anglo concertina
A companion album of Bellamy settings of Kipling poems, Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye, was issued two years later on Argo.
Peter Bellamy was brought up on Kipling. “Always loved it,” he told Karl Dallas in an interview in 1990, describing how he came late to realise that some of the poems of Puck of Pook’s Hill weren’t poems at all, but “folk song without a tune”.
“And the moment that realisation dawned, what I did was to try to fit them to traditional tunes. It had never occurred to me in my life to write a tune. Then I came to one poem that I couldn’t find a traditional tune for, The Brookland Road, I think, and a tune that sounded jolly like a traditional English tune but was mine came out, and I found I had a facility for that. That’s never been a difficult job for me.”
Some of the tunes he came up with were “knowingly pastiche”, others “unknowingly pastiche”, he admitted. “But the rest of it isn’t.”
How can you be doing Kipling?
What made Bellamy stand out from the crowd, Karl Dallas says, was his “gritty, almost defiant integrity and determination to plough whatever lonely furrow he might choose, regardless of fashion; his determinedly non-left-wing views at a time when so many Communists dominated the (folk) scene and…his determination to sing whatever he liked, whenever and wherever he liked.”
Bellamy’s adventure with Kipling, still a deeply unfashionable writer in some circles in the 60s and 70s, was a case in point.
“I started running into people saying, Kipling? My God, how can you be doing Kipling?” he told Dallas. “So I would enquire just what they were talking about, and how much they’d read, and of course what they were talking about was third-hand opinion on something they’d never read at all, so who cares?”
Bellamy paid a price for his independence, his obituary in the Kipling Journal said.
“His very integrity and artistic independence led latterly to increasing alienation from others in his field,” it said. “He deplored the politicisation of traditional folk music, hijacked and spoilt, he felt, by trendy left-wingers: they for their part regarded him with envious spite, almost as an outcast – which personally wounded him and professionally frustrated him.”
As Dallas said of Peter Bellamy: “Listen to him and weep, all you aspiring folkies. It doesn’t get any better than this.” Bellamy’s vast recorded output would be an inspiration to all who followed after, he said at the time of the singer’s death.
If it were available, I’m sure it would. But it’s not.
Kipling on Topic?
This was the first of three albums that Peter Bellamy recorded with Argo (Won’t you go my way? and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye were released in 1972), and the first of what would be six albums of Rudyard Kipling’s poems that he set to music.
I don’t know why Bellamy moved to Argo. All his recordings with The Young Tradition and his first two solo albums had been on Transatlantic. A third solo album was released on Topic in 1969, the year The Young Tradition gave their farewell gig at Cecil Sharp House.
But on the face of it, Argo, with its history of recorded literary classics, educational poetry and song, and its scholarly approach to traditional folk song, may have been the only place that Bellamy could find to pursue his passion for Kipling. Kipling on Topic? Not likely.
The approval of Mrs Bambridge
Although Bellamy had problems later getting permission from the Kipling family to issue his settings of the Barrack Room Ballads (they were only released in 1976 after the death of Kipling’s daughter Elsie Kipling Bambridge), there’s no hint of any copyright difficulties with the release of this album.
In a very enthusiastic review of Oak, Ash & Thorn, the Kipling Society’s magazine, The Kipling Journal, made a point of noting that “the programme has the approval of Mrs Bambridge”.
The record, the reviewer said, was “a delightful surprise…and it is most pleasing that the whole idea seems to have emanated from these gifted members of the younger generation.”
Bellamy went on to join the Society in late 1972 and was a very active vice-president from 1981 till his death 10 years later.
Thanks to Karl Dallas for permission to use his quotes.
If you want to find out more about Bellamy and Kipling, there’s a very readable and comprehensive post by Raymond Greenoaken here on the Folk Police blog.