Landsdown Pub, Bristol
It's not even that good a song. I first encountered it as a nursery rhyme. It's repetitive. No-one could call it poetry. So why did I find it so very moving when Bob Fox started to sing – as natural as anything, as if no-one has ever sung it before –
Come here little Jackie now I've smoked me baccy
Let's have a cracky til the boat comes in
Dance to thy Daddy, sing to thy Mammy...
"Authenticity" is a risky word. It smacks of middle-class anthropology: I had a positively spiffing evening observing a strange species called 'Geordies' who apparently believe that everyone should "fettle reetly." But it's the best word I can think of. I mean that it's a live song, made out of live words that mean something. The singer says he's recently become a grandfather, and his affection for his grand-daughter comes through in his singing. (It's a dandling song, he says, one to sing while you bounce little children on your knee.) The words and the tune speak of a particular world, a particular place in time: a world of extended families, heavy manual labour and beer. Lots of beer. ("Yonder comes your Daddy / So drunk he canna stand.") It's not a world I ever experienced; not a world I would have felt comfortable in, as different as can be from the Olde Englande of, say, Martin Carthy. These aren't songs in which knights court ladies who sew silken seams: they're songs in which clumsy men trip over ladies' skirts and end up making small-talk with them. (" She mentioned confidentially that her uncle was a grocer / and her mother's father's cousin was a fiddler on the shore...") Not my world: it's hard for me to identify with the nostalgia of a song like Big River – which takes for granted that a river without industry is a dead river, or even Taking On Men in which workmen dream that the idle times are over and the shipbuilding industry is starting up again. ("Gone are the days they were taking on men / the quayside's a drunken man's playground". I get that bit: I've walked around the Bristol waterfront on a Friday night.) But a world which Bob Fox brings almost agonizingly to life. Can you feel homesick for a time and a place you never lived in?
Bob is a great humorist; almost a stand-up comic. He's well aware of the irony of the situation. He says he's the first generation of his family not to have been a miner: his father wanted him to stay at school and do something better with his life. "So here I am, singing about mining to people in Clifton." But the resentment about what was done to British industry in the 80s is still real and raw and current. He doesn't refer to Mrs Thatcher by name: he talks about what "she" did. He claims he once told an audience that she had a face like a sheep's arse, and two people walked out. "I ddn't realise there'd be any Conservatives in tonight". "We're not Conservatives; we're shepherds". Boom-boom.
No-one walks out tonight, which is just as well. It's a tiny audience, and it's clear that half of them are friends of the support act. (Which is an improvement on the last gig I saw in this venue, when half the audience was the support act.) Bob pushes on through two long sets and an encore telling jokes and anecdotes, teaching us the choruses, and reassuring us that if we don't want to sing the whole thing we can always join in on the last word -- but you feel he doesn't quite get the atmosphere going he'd have achieved with a fuller house. (What is it about Bristol folkies? Is the Landsdown to obscure a venue for them to venture into?)
It's hard to pick out a favourite song. Bob said afterwards that he aimed to alternate between serious and comic songs, and I had a sense of the whole evening building up a tapestry. I like the big Ewan McColl radio ballads, of course, oral histories set to music. But the song I'm still singing to myself two days later is the corny old music-hall waltz about the man who missed his chance to ask his sweetheart for a dance: "Now as often is the case / you'll find others in your place / if ye fail to shove ahead and fettle reetly..."
Authenticity. These songs are old, and in dialect, and emerging from a way of life I never knew and which hardly exists any more. But it's more than that. They're done without irony or preciousness; Bob Fox loves them and knows then and wants us to sing along and enjoy them and like them too. But there's no trick to them. No lying. No cleverness. It's the opposite of political language, newspaper language, bishop language. They're songs which use plain words to plainly say what they actually mean. These miners and railway men and long distance lorry drivers are under no illusion that the girl they met in the pub last night is the most beautiful in the world. She isn't. But still (all together) :
she's a big lass, she's a bonny lass, and she likes her beer
and they call her Cushy Butterfield and I wish she was here.