Let’s hear it for the bad guys – Decca UK’s folk output
Let’s hear it for the bad guys – the sinister commercial forces (the majors) who gave us opera sopranos doing Waly Waly with pianoforte accompaniment, Wally Whyton in a cardie doing Big Yellow Taxi, New Seekers sound-alikes-a-go-go and The Massed Pipes and Drums of the Edinburgh City Police doing Grannie’s Hielan Hame. (Booooo!)
Except that in retrospect it wasn’t that simple.
For a start there was all that great stuff that got us started (those of us, that is, whose family oral tradition was limited to Oklahoma, that one by that nice Catholic boy Michael Holliday and the odd fal-de-ree-fal-de-ra as we marched up a glen with our father).
How would we have found our way to Topic, Trailer, Elektra, Folkways and Vanguard without Burl Ives (Decca US), The Kingston Trio (Capitol), Peter, Paul and Mary (Warner), Donovan (Pye) and Dylan (CBS)?
And then there was all the other stuff that was just plain brilliant that the majors released.
Take Decca UK, ‘bloody Decca’ as Argo boss Harley Usill ended up calling it some while after it bought Argo in 1957. Below is the start of a sketchy chronology of some of the folk records they released. Only in it for the money? Judge for yourself from what they released en route to the loot.
The Carter Family record for Decca US, in those days still a subsidiary of Edward Lewis’s Decca UK. They’re one of the few groups to be paid royalties rather than flat fees per recording. Decca US and Decca UK would part company during the Second World War.
Here they are singing No depression in heaven, a song they first recorded at their first sessions with Decca in 1936.
Scotland’s most famous traditional musician recorded during his time with Beltona, a year after Decca took over the financially troubled Scottish popular music label.
There may have been less variety at Beltona under Decca than during the label’s heyday of the 20s and 30s – when Scottish patriotic, sentimental and comic songs, ballads, pipe and dance bands were the staple fare – but Decca kept the label kept going till 1982.
For a discography and appreciation of Jimmy Shand by Nigel Gatherer, click here.
Decca sets up its Decca West Africa subsidiary in Ghana, releasing over 20 records in local languages in the first year. By 1952 they had released over 100 78s and had Ghanaian artists like E.T. Mensah, the Black Beats, Onyina, the Builders Brigade, Broadway, the Red Spots and Gyasi’s guitar band on their roster, plus performers from Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
In the 50s Decca set up a recording studio in Accra and was sending engineers to Lagos regularly to record. By the early 1960s Decca West Africa was selling 250,000 records a year.
With the collapse in the Ghana economy in the 1970s, Decca moved its West Africa operations to oil-rich Nigeria, setting up a studio in Lagos and a sister label, Afrodisia, managed and part-owned by oil tycoon (and later presidential candidate) Chief Moshood Abiola. When Decca fell apart in 1979 and got taken over by Polygram, the rights to the West Africa catalogue were sold to Afrodisia.
Scroll down for an E.T. Mensah track issued on the Decca West Africa label in 1953.
Kathleen Ferrier – soprano, with piano accompaniment by Phyllis Spurr.
"She was a country lass and also a priestess," Bruno Walter wrote of Miss Ferrier after her death in 1953 at the age of 41. "When she sang an English folk-song – gay or sad – it had the natural, the authentic ring which revealed her as a child of the people; and just as convincing and authentic was her rendering of Bach’s St Matthew Passion or Handel’s The Messiah."
Miss Ferrier’s interpretation of folk song is probably the sort of thing that Pete Seeger had in mind when he said that in all the groups he was involved with “we consciously avoided the mistakes made in Britain”.
“Over there they had tended to arrange their folk music for the pianoforte, with all the protest, sex, colloquial expressions and bawdy humour removed. They told the schoolchildren ‘don’t change a note, this is our national heritage’ and taught them to sing very elegantly and nicely.”
Here’s Kathleen Ferrier singing the Keel Row from the album Folk Songs.
On the face of it, Spring 1950 might have looked pretty good for black American folk/blues star Josh White: a tour of Europe in the company of Eleanor Roosevelt (appearing before a crowd of 50,000 in Stockholm), then on to the UK for more dates in June and recordings for Decca/London at the end of July.
But he won’t have been a happy man during the recording sessions. On a stop-over in Paris (where he did some recordings for Vogue) immediately prior to arriving in London, he got a call from his manager in New York telling him that his name (along with those of Pete Seeger and Burl Ives) was on a list of 151 media personalities labelled as ‘communist sympathisers’ by the ‘Red Scare’ rag Counterattack.
He won’t have been too surprised. The FBI had been on his case for three years already.
Going against the advice of trusted friends (including Paul Robeson), he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on 1st September. The appearance earned him entry onto the McCarthy blacklist…and the cold shoulder from colleagues on the entertainment left who suspected he may have grassed.
“I regret and suspect that many artists share the same regret with me that an effective exposure of Communistic activities in the theatrical and musical fields has not been made long before now,” White said during his testimony.
So here he was in London, four weeks before his ‘Committee’ appearance, recording for Decca under the supervision of rising independent producer and established boozer, Dennis Preston, with jazz pianist Steve Race and Trinidadian guitarist Fitzroy Coleman amongst the accompanying musicians.
A week after the HUAC appearance he was back in London (where else was he to go?), recording the first of two one-man shows for the BBC. He’d be a regular visitor over the next five years until his stalled career back home got sort of reignited – courtesy of young Jac Holzman of Elektra Records.
Here’s his version of the Foggy, Foggy Dew from the 1950 Decca sessionsin London. The hand of Dennis Preston, the man who thought Big Bill Broonzy should be backed by modern jazzers rather than skifflers, is apparent.
Some time in the early 1930s a young South African entrepreneur called Eric Gallo went to London and hung around the Decca offices for days waiting to be granted an audience with company head Edward Lewis. A gramophone and record retailer, he was moving into wholesale and wanted the Decca franchise in his country. He got it.
By the late 1940s his own record label – Gallotone – was flourishing and the company’s links with Decca remained tight. He was also financing the African field trips of a Brit who had emigrated to Rhodesia to farm tobacco and turned himself into an ethnomusicological hero – Hugh Tracey.
In 1950 Tracey was in Kenya, recording among the Kipsigis people at a place called Sotik. The people of Sotik had somehow come across some 78s of yodelling Jimmie Rogers. They didn’t believe such strange sounds could come from a human, so they attributed it to a half-man, half-antelope spirit they called Chemirocha.
This song, sung by local girl Chemutoi Ketienya accompanied by a wishbone lyre and some female friends, was released on Gallotone, and then on Decca and its US subsidiary London. It’s a hymn to Chemirocha. You couldn’t make it up.
Over 950 of the Decca West Africa recordings, covering shellac issues from 1948-58, are now available to listen to on the British Library’s sound archive web site. Click here.
On second thoughts, given the clunkiness of the BL sound archive site, click here first. It’s a guide written by Ray Templeton on the Music Traditions website, offering suggestions about where to start.
Given that there’s no E.T. Mensah among the British Library recordings (for copyright reasons), here he’s doing the track Congo from the Decca West Africa album ‘Tempos on the Beat’ (Decca WAL 1009, 1953)
Decca’s association with Calypso started in the mid 1930s when Atila, Lord Beginner and Tiger went to the States to record for the label. It continued with the pop cross-over seven-million seller ‘Rum and Coca Cola’ by The Andrews Sisters in the 1940s, long before the Calypso craze swept the pop world in the mid to late 1950s.
From March 1954 to February 1955, Decca UK brought out a series of Calypso records on its London subsidiary, featuring Monica Boyar, Ivan Browne and his Calypso Music, The Shaw Park Calypso Band and Jackie Browne’s Calypso Kings.
It may be a bit cod, but here’s the Marie Bryant song, cracked and scratchy and New Yorky, but worth a listen.
For some rambling thoughts on the Calypso craze, see the Edric Connor post here.
(more coming…Lonnie Donegan, Martin Carthy, Julie Felix and more)