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Celebrating 50 years of The Larks They Sang Melodious

50 years on from its release and 70 years on from the release that inspired it, a seminal field recording is set to be staged again...

1973 was quite the year for seminal albums. Dark Side of the Moon, Quadrophenia, Aladdin Sane, Innervisions… and the recording of The Larks They Sang Melodious. Most of these albums were recorded in big-budget studios and featured a roll call of internationally renowned rock stars and session musicians. The Larks… not so much.

On the evening of November 16th, 1973, a tight-knit rabble of singers and players gathered in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall. Earlier in the day, producer Karl Dallas and sound engineer Adam Skeaping pushed their way into the Suffolk pub and began rigging the room for a field recording of surprisingly advanced technique. “We used a 20-channel mixer,” Dallas recalled in the album’s sleeve notes, “microphones all over the public bar, taped out of the way to the low-beamed ceiling, a roving hand-mic to ensure that there was at least one microphone close to each performer, and a four-track TEAC machine recording at 15 i.p.s. on big reels of Ampex tape.”

Despite the inevitable intrusion, the locals duly turned up, drinks were served and the evening got underway relatively undisturbed. “The pub did normal business as we recorded. Although we shut off the fruit machine, some clicks as the fridge turned itself off and on got on to the tape. You can hear the thuds of the door to the outside toilet as the patrons made increasingly frequent visits as the evening went on. And during Fred List’s superb melodeon-playing at the end of side one, the crackling sound is his neighbour opening a bag of crisps right by the mic.” All the songs sung that evening were done in a single take so as not to break the flow, with the exception of the album’s title song – ‘The Larks They Sang Melodious’ [Roud 660] – which had to be sung again after the tape ran out.

The songs they sang, the tunes they played, and the steps they danced were the glue that bound them together – an expression of the community they were.

Why, then, and what for? What attracted Karl Dallas, Adam Skeaping and, ultimately, Transatlantic Records to make this album, and why has it become a sought-after collector’s piece among fans of traditional folk music? The simple answer is that it caught a snapshot in time. In the early 70s, it was still possible to witness folk traditions and songs alive amongst people who learned them through the oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation from the lip to the ear. In Suffolk pubs like the Oyster at Butley, the Bell in Crettingham, and the Blaxhall Ship, people gathered to drink and sing, not in a self-conscious, performer-on-stage manner, but simply by way of sharing one another’s company. The songs they sang, the tunes they played and the steps they danced were the glue that bound them together – an expression of the community they were. Theirs was not a commercial undertaking; as Karl Dallas wrote, “This is what it would be like at your local pub… if you brought the folk club down from the room over the pub into the actual public bar, where the real folk congregate.”

Cyril Poacher was home by 8pm most nights, having had his eight pints.

John Marshall-Potter

Some of the people who appear on the record have become names synonymous with traditional singing and performing – Cyril Poacher, Bob Hart, Bob Scarce, Percy Webb, Rosemary Bisset. Anyone who spends any time lingering in the archives will recognise them as important “source singers”, perhaps not realising that the Blaxhall Ship was the gushing spring. The pub – known for its singing sessions “for more than a hundred years” [Jack Saunders, licensee in 1973] – was their local watering hole and they would gather nightly. As John Marshall-Potter, FolkEast founder and Blaxhall Ship regular, explains, “A local lady, Joyce, who’s probably in her 80s now, remembers Cyril Poacher. She told me, ‘When we first moved to Blaxhall village, he used to walk past when we were doing our cottage up and go, ‘Make sure you get the paint the right way up, gal!” And then in the evening, he’d be on all fours trying to crawl home to the cottage.’ Every night of the week, all these guys would go into that pub and have eight or nine pints in quite a short sprint, and then crawl home. And it was a seven-days-a-week thing. It’s what they all did. Cyril Poacher was home by 8pm most nights, apparently, having had his eight pints.”

Cyril Poacher. Photo via the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust website

The songs and tunes they chose to sing and play meant a great deal to them, and could occasionally lead to jealous squabbles. “Poacher by name, poacher by nature,” laughs Marshall-Potter. “He was known locally as, ‘the Song Poacher’. Another local lad, Lenny Savage, had a particular song called ‘The Girl from Yarmouth Town’. He claimed he’d been passed that by his mother, Priscilla Savage, who was 130 or something [laughs]. And whenever somebody asked for that in the Ship, it was always Cyril Poacher who stood up and sang it! There was this 30-year feud, apparently, between Lenny and Cyril, about who had the right to sing this song.”

No such friction appears on the released album, on which Poacher sings two songs, ‘The Nutting Girl’ [Roud 509] and ‘Slap-Dab’ [sometimes known as ‘Whitewash’; Roud 1754], with no sign of the upstart Savage. In fact, the characterful refrain frequently heard between songs is that of the evening’s ‘chairman’, Clive Woolnough, calling the pub to, “lovely order”, at which point Karl Dallas recalls, “a singer rises to take his turn, the drinkers will stop their chat to listen only if the music commands that kind of respect.” The songs and tunes they usher forth are mainly what we refer to now as traditional music, “but they may also be the pop of yesterday and the day before – wartime tunes, music-hall melodies, and the like.”

Even in 1973, this was a time capsule revisited.

The Larks They Sing Melodious is an album of field recordings made of old singers and a handful of revivalists who had been welcomed into the fold. But that’s not all it is. Even in 1973, this was a time capsule revisited. 20 years prior to its 1973 recording, Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy arrived at the Blaxhall Ship, dragging tape recorders behind them. On October 10th, 1953, Lomax set about taping the evening’s merriment and, sure enough, a young(er) Cyril Poacher (at this point 43 years old, having been born in 1910) and Bob Scarce make an appearance, singing their signature songs under the decidedly more strict chairmanship of Wicketts Richardson. Some of these recordings are available on Singing at the Ship Inn: Alan Lomax’s 1953 Blaxhall Recordings (Alan Lomax Archive, compiled 2013), and on The Barley Mow: Songs from the Village Inn (His Master’s Voice, 1960). Two years later, Kennedy and Lomax returned again, this time with cameras, to film a slightly stilted record of events over two nights in 1955. The resulting black-and-white footage is available from the BFI as part of the folk traditions film, Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow.

All of which begs the question: might it be worth revisiting and taking a snapshot for 2023? It most assuredly might, explains John Marshall-Potter. “50 years on, the pub has still got the Monday session, it’s still got a monthly folk session [on the third Wednesday of every month], it’s still got this reputation, and it’s still pretty much unchanged inside.” With his wife, Becky, Marshall-Potter has been beavering away in his famous local, setting up a recording that captures a sense of what the pub and its music is like today. “What we’re going to do is a basic field recording of one of these once-a-month sessions, but we’re going to implant a few people into it. Tony Hall, who sang on the original album, is coming down and he’s going to sing two songs and he’s going to play a tune. The only other person still alive from the 1973 recording is Vic Harrop, who is too frail now to sing, but he wants to be there and he also wants to say a few words.” The event will take place on November 15th, the nearest Wednesday session to the 50th anniversary of the recording of The Larks They Sang Melodious. The resulting document will be released at some point in 2024. If you’re interested, keep an eye on the FolkEast news page.

As for the pub itself, its vibrant history requires a whole separate article. Suffice it to say that it’s still going strong under the patronage of current owner, Terry Davey (and manager, Sean), and that the weekly and monthly folk sessions are welcome to all. Here’s a health to the Blaxhall Ship. Long may it continue.

The Larks They Sang Melodious tracklisting and sleevenotes

Sleevenotes: A sing-song in a Suffolk pub, recorded in The Ship, Blaxhall, on Friday, November 16th, 1973 with Rosemary Busset, Tony Hall, Vic Harrup, Bob Hart, Bill Horne, Geoffrey Ling, Percy Ling, Fred List, Steve Pallant, Cyril Poacher, Bob Scarce, Linda Walker, Percy Webb. Chairman: Clive Woolnough.

Side one

  1. ‘Donkey Riding’ [Roud 4540], Tony Hall
  2. ‘The Nutting Girl’ [Roud 509], Cyril Poacher
  3. ‘White Wings’ [Roud 1753], Bob Hart
  4. ‘The Bold Dragoon’ [Roud 321], Rosemary Bisset
  5. ‘The Larks They Sang Melodious’ [Roud 660], Bob Scarce
  6. ‘All For Me Grog’ [Roud 475], Bill Horne
  7. ‘Green Bushes’ [Roud 1040], Geoffrey Ling
  8. ‘The Master’s Servant’ [Roud 792], Percy Webb
  9. ‘Pigeon on the Gate, melodeon hornpipe, Fred List

Side two

  1. ‘The Foggy Dew’ [Roud 558], Steve Pallant (melodeon)
  2. ‘Slap-Dab’ [Roud 1754], Cyril Poacher
  3. ‘The Rigs of the Time’ [Roud 876], Vic Harrup
  4. ‘I’ll Come Back My Little Sweetheart’ [Roud 1755], Percy Ling
  5. ‘A Boy’s Best Friend is His Mother’ [Roud 1756], Bob Scarce
  6. ‘Sweet Primroses’ [Roud 586], Linda Walker
  7. ‘Bungay Roger’ [Roud 1735], Tony Hall
  8. ‘Maggie May’ [Roud 1757], Geoff Ling
  9. ‘Among My Souvenirs’ [Roud 1758], Geoff Ling

Singing at the Ship Inn tracklisting and sleevenotes

Sleevenotes: One Saturday evening in 1953, Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy, with tape-machine in tow, visited The Ship Inn, a pastoral public house situated in the village of Blaxhall, Suffolk, East Anglia. The Ship was by that time already well-known for its vigorous afternoon sessions of folk-singing and step-dancing, which had been going strong since at least the early days of the century.

Under the stern direction of chairman Wicketts Richardson – who calls the crowd to order and announces the singers – “the old boys” performed ballads (‘The Three Jolly Sportsmen’), topical pieces (‘The Bonny Bunch of Roses’), bawdy numbers (‘The Nutting Girl’), and step-danced to tunes pumped out on the melodeon, while the publicans, Mr. and Mrs. Hewitt, kept the pint glasses filled.

Singing at the Ship Inn: Alan Lomax’s 1953 Blaxhall Recordings is a lively, rollicking, and slightly boozy portrait of a treasured English singing tradition, still honored today at the Ship Inn.

  1. ‘The Bonny Bunch of Roses’ [Roud 664], Bob Scarce
  2. ‘The Nutting Girl’ [Roud 509], Cyril Poacher
  3. ‘Young Man from the Country’ [Roud 1510], Cyril Poacher
  4. ‘Three Jolly Sportsmen’ [Roud 17], Bob Scarce
  5. ‘The Poaching Song’ [Roud 2427], Bob Scarce
  6. ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’, Fred Pearce (melodeon)
  7. ‘Good Ship Dolphin’ [Roud 690], Joe Rowe
  8. ‘How Paddy Stole the Rope’ [Roud 2037], Bob Scarce
  9. ‘Good Luck to the Barley Mow’ [Roud 944], Jack French
  10. ‘The Blackbird’ [Roud 387], Joe Rowe
  11. ‘Manchester Hornpipe’, Fred Pearce (melodeon)