A Play with Music
The idea of using traditional songs and tunes in plays goes back a long way. In Shakespeare’s time, plays incorporated popular songs and dance tunes of the day to lend familiarity and mass appeal. Traditional mummers plays always had a good tune or two and maybe a bawdy song to get the audience’s attention. In more recent times, productions like The Transports, Lark Rise and Candleford, and War Horse, have taken this to the next level. These embed traditional music seamlessly, always sounding authentic and yet always moving on the narrative of the play. Rich as the traditional canon is, there’s no way this can be done using only traditional songs. So masters of the craft such as John Tams and Peter Bellamy perfected the art of writing custom “traditional” songs which fit the play – and which you often can’t distinguish from the real thing.
When Poppy asked me to work with her on Bells of Turvey, I leaped at the opportunity. It was a chance to do some more writing (my third show), and this time it was folky (bonus). I’d even get to perform in the show as the Songman. But there was one little nagging doubt. The play was about rural village life in early Victorian times. And John Tams’ iconic music for the National Theatre’s Lark Rise to Candleford (1978) had covered that rather well. When time passes in Lark Rise, the blessed Tams gives us Snow Falls, with lyrics like: “cruel winter cuts through like the reaper, the old year lies withered and slain; like Barleycorn who rose from the grave, the new year will rise up again”. He then repurposes the song for War Horse, this time using one of the traditional tunes to John Barleycorn. Both were perfect. How on earth could I follow that to move the seasons on in Bells? And what about the other similar occasions, where songs needed to mark harvest, Christmas and so on? John’s music for these was equally definitive – All of a Row and The Holly and the Ivy. What else could possibly work? This suddenly seemed rather more challenging than it first appeared.
So I set out to do two or three songs to see how it worked out. I knew I needed to pull off the new-for-old sleight of hand in some places, but maybe if I started at the end I could work up to that. And so The Story and the Song was the first song to be written - an epilogue about the theme of the play rather than events within it. The “home" theme was always there in the play, and after I picked this out as the closing message, Poppy developed this even further within the script. The Story and the Song is an original composition, inspired by songs like Only Remembered (Sankey/Tams - War Horse) and Rolling Home (Tams).
For the funeral scenes, Poppy already had her eye on an old hymn from the singing of Coope, Boyes and Simpson, and Jon Boden. A bit of research, and the purchase of an old hymn book from Ebay traced Sleep On, Beloved as being by Ira Sankey, the same composer as Only Remembered (yes, the same Only Remembered used by Tams in War Horse. One of us is clearly stalking the other). Some stronger harmonies were added, the original words were tweaked and some new verses were added for the scenes following Phoebe’s funeral. The tune was given a gentle brass band arrangement featuring the flugel horn, and the job was done.
Then it was back to my folk club roots for the start of the play, The Gleaning. Poppy had a pretty specific brief for this, to introduce the groups of characters in a company song with interspersed dialogue. The theme was to be how everyone was gleaning what they could, in all spheres of their lives. I wanted a traditional song as the basis for this, and settled on The Farmer’s Toast, which was a staple of sing-arounds in the 70s and 80s. After the first draft, I realised that the standard tune for this folk standard was in fact an example of the folk tradition at work – it was actually composed by Eric Winter in the '70s, and had rapidly become “traditional”. Some rework was needed anyway, so I took the opportunity to revert to the original tune, partly for copyright reasons, but mostly because Eric’s tune was too “beery” for the start of the show. The end result has a largely traditional tune, with old lyrics starting it off, and new lyrics taking over to lead into the play.
I wanted to use a single song to follow the story of Mary and Charlie, with verses dropped in as the plot thickens. There are plenty of folk songs warning pretty maids about fickle young men, but they all seemed too specific. In amongst the sailors and blacksmiths, the murders, suicides, shape shifting and other trickery, I managed to find The Cuckoo. This gave a framework for me to insert all of the lyrics which seemed so familiar, but which couldn’t actually be found in any single folk song.
Time to grasp the nettle and do the time passing song. It was going to be needed two or three times, as the play spans several years in Turvey. Tams’ Snow Falls loomed large. I remembered John mentioning the multiple links to John Barleycorn – the old year passing and being re-born as the new – and that actually gave me a starting point. I chose another version of John Barleycorn as my tune, with the time signature changed to be more like a steadily ticking clock, and wrote the lyrics to go with that. As a nod to John, there are some familiar chords used to link the verses together. The refrain also turned out to be the hook of the song, which couldn’t really be called anything other than Seasons Roll On. When reprised for Christmas, this goes into an arrangement of Hark The Herald Angels Sing, using the old West Gallery tune known as Newton’s or St. Pauls.
Next came the shoemakers, with Burdin’s Song. The “radical shoemakers” were radical in the political sense rather than in their shoemaking (making pairs of shoes with two left feet?). So finding a copy of The National Chartist Hymnbook, published in Rochdale in 1845, was a bit of a find. I originally wrote a number of verses on the Chartist theme, but this did labour the point (no pun intended) rather, and eventually this was cut down to two verses, one reflecting Burdin’s politics and one his deep non-conformist Christian beliefs. The tune I used as my template for the words – The Rose of Allendale – persisted as the final tune, having just the right feel for the song, with its strong, anthem-like chorus.
As soon as I realised there was a poacher in the story, I knew I just had to use something from The Rufford Park Poachers, from my native Lincolnshire. So the short Crawley’s Song appeared, with only a slight tweak in the words to hint at his future arrest and transportation.
The home straight was now in sight, with just the lacemakers and agricultural labourers to sort out. Poppy wanted the Tanders Day scene to include both singing and dancing. She’d also found some lace tells (work chants) in her research, which I wanted to use. The resulting Bobbins and Pins is an original song interspersed with a dance tune called Hunting The Hare, and modified lace tells. The candle dance at the end is set to a morris tune from Bledington, fittingly called Ladies’ Pleasure.
Two songs were needed for the agricultural labourers – one for the celebration immediately after the harvest, and one for sowing the corn. Grateful that the work song was at sowing time – and therefore not inviting plagiarism of Lark Rise’s All of a Row – Dibbling In the Corn follows a sea-shanty, call-and-response pattern, following in a long tradition of work songs. There’s a hint of Coope, Boyes and Simpson’s Bringing in the Sheaves there too. Largesse came out as a beery chorus song, which extended Poppy’s original brief with an extra verse for the men to extend their attentions to the Rector. Both of the labourers’ songs benefited from what had become a common device to refine the songs – singing them out loud whilst walking Jasper, my delinquent Labrador, over the fields. He never complained, so I assumed he liked them. There again, he may just not be a music critic.
The labourers also present the Plough Play, which is based on part of the current play performed by Bedford Morris Men, including their closing song. In Bells of Turvey, the Plough Play is introduced by the traditional calling-on song used in the North East for rapper sword dances.
Not Quite Done Yet...
Just as I thought I’d finished, it became apparent that we needed something more to finish Act I. Originally intended to end with just a dance, Poppy and I were concerned how the excitement and energy of the travelling fair could be portrayed, and we decided to try using a song to join up the action. The brief was that Joseph had just been given tuppence to spend at the fair, and the song needed to have instrumentals and underscores to fit in action and dialogue. I researched a number of songs, but there was nothing suitable – so it was going to be another original composition. I was, however, particularly taken with Bampton Fair, a clever, punchy song about the modern-day horse fair, written by Paul Wilson in the late 70s / early 80s, with the brilliant refrain “Get your beer down, Bob, we’re moving!” This was the inspiration behind the question-and-answer structure of what was to be the last song written for the play, Turvey Fair. This features a couple of reels - Spootiskerry and Miss McLeod’s. It’s reprised at the very end of Act I, when it leads into a company dance to the morris tune The Cuckoo’s Nest.
So that’s it – the story behind the songs behind the story. I hope you enjoy the play and music. I also hope the new-for-old sleight of hand does indeed come off, and in the words of Eric Morecambe, you can’t see the join.
Tim Brewster, July 2017