Clive Bell on the recent furore over Sam Callow's accompaniments to traditional British folk singers.
In January 2014 I was sent a collection of songs by Sam Callow, an Englishman living in France. Titled Under The Hills And Nearby (Celebration Tapes), it was an hour-long set of traditional British singers – Norfolk’s Harry Cox singing “Firelock Stile”, John Doughty on the Sussex coast performing “Herrings Heads” – around which Callow had woven accompaniment on a melancholy clawhammer banjo, fiddle, accordion and dulcimer. The originals were songs that had been performed unaccompanied for centuries, but Callow’s additions were delicate and respectful. No fiercely strummed folk guitars here – the whole album radiated a dreamy charm. I was captivated and wrote a glowing review (The Wire 361).
Callow’s project was explicitly an homage to the old traditional singers and songs, drawing on recordings issued by fine labels like Topic and Rounder. In 1998 Topic unleashed a landmark collection: a 20 CD box set titled The Voice Of The People, compiled by the mighty Reg Hall (one of the presenters on Resonance FM’s The Traditional Music Hour). There’s an important distinction drawn in this world between folk music (professional revivalists with instruments) and the traditional singer, often a working class man or woman with a job, performing unaccompanied songs learnt in their family or community. Obviously TVOTP presented the latter, an almost vanished world.
Callow is a passionate devotee of such records, and an example of Topic successfully reaching a new generation. In a 1999 interview Tony Engle of Topic had hoped for exactly this: “What I'd like it to be is an inspiration for absolutely anybody to do whatever they like with it, and I don't care what they do with it. I may not like what they do with it, but I don't care. It's there, it's been put out to, I hope, have that inspirational feel… I would like musicians in any field to be able to take some aspect, in the way that Percy Grainger used some tradition[al] melodies for his compositions… The world's a richer place because he used them, and the same thing could apply here. If we could perhaps have commercial pop groups who could find aspects of this to stick in their music, great – contemporary composers – great.”
Although Under The Hills And Nearby was an extremely modest release – a handful of cassettes and a Bandcamp page – I worried that Callow might ruffle folk feathers for using recordings without permission. And so it proved. He wrote to Topic to open discussions, and the curt response was a bill for hundreds of pounds plus VAT. The Alan Lomax archive took a similarly dim view and saw it all in financial terms. Then came a threat of litigation from Mike Yates, a song collector who had made some of the original recordings. Yates let off steam in a rant on the Musical Traditions website – “my feeling of disgust…underhand manner…Callow’s horrible work (he can’t even keep in time with the singing!)”.
Cue a furious row on The Mudcat Café site – a thread titled “Breach Of Copyright – And Integrity”. Here the gloves came off. Contributors hoped that Callow’s French residence didn’t excuse him from copyright law, and one writer thought “a bunch of fives” would be appropriate retribution. The thread tried to throw light on the murky history of copyrighting traditional songs, but degenerated into hysterical abuse in which contributors threatened to physically assault each other, displaying all the charm we’ve grown used to in online tirades. The voice of the people? Let’s hope not.
By this time Callow was so shocked he could hardly bear to read what was being written about him, these saliva-flecked folk fatwas issuing from the Ayatollahs of trad. Dismantling everything, he apologised profusely. He wrote to Mudcat: “This 'project' only came about by my own love of the songs and the recordings made by people such as Mr Yates, and many others. I have been a keen listener and purchaser of many collections over the years, and have been greatly informed and inspired by The Traditional Music Hour amongst many musicians… If any money has been gained from this tell me where I can send it… If ever I bring myself to play traditional songs again I will sing it myself (not a pretty prospect!) and everyone in France can go back to their Mumford & Sons albums, blissfully unaware that there is such a thing as traditional singing.”
So what have we learned? Clearly Callow’s chief sin, as he admits, is naivety. He should have approached Topic et al first, proposing a collaboration. In fact, he could have drawn on the example of labels like Blue Note and Deutsche Grammophon, who for years have been inviting musicians to creatively mix their back catalogues. Matthew Herbert tampering with Mahler’s tenth symphony, Max Richter abusing Vivaldi – my personal favourite is Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald messing with Maurice Ravel and Modest Mussorgsky. Topic has its Marxist roots in the Workers Music Association. If Topic’s Tony Engle meant what he said in my quote above, it’s high time he brought in a red remixer to run amok in his archive.
Although there’s one more layer of complication: the recordists have sometimes promised the singers they won't let anyone add accompaniment to their unaccompanied vocal recordings. Song collector Jim Carroll, who is outraged both aesthetically and ethically by Callow’s work, talks of the bond of trust between source singer – often deceased – and recordist. A background factor here is unscrupulous behaviour in the 1960s by pioneer recordist and BBC broadcaster Peter Kennedy – he intimidated singers with fake contracts and reissued recordings with added instruments. The sour effects of that seem to echo down the decades.
A younger generation clearly loves this music. Folk of all shades is booming again, and the unaccompanied traditional song has found new life in the hands of artists like Sam Lee. Beside touring internationally, in 2012 Lee launched the Song Collectors Collective: “Proving that the spirit of Alan Lomax or Cecil Sharp is not dead, the SCC is pleased to announce the launch of a brand new online archive of over 250 never before heard traditional songs and stories collected from living ‘Tradition Bearers’.” So even song collecting is alive and well.
Finally, if you want to raid an archive, it helps to be a famous member of the establishment – surprise! In 1906 composer Percy Grainger recorded Joseph Taylor singing “Brigg Fair” onto a wax cylinder. Delius made this the basis for his orchestral piece Brigg Fair. In 2014 folk supergroup The Full English slapped Grainger’s (Taylor’s? Topic’s?) recording on their version of the song. Maybe Topic even asked them to use it. Far from causing outrage, The Full English won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for Best Album and Best Group, and fans of crowd-pleasing smarminess can view their slick, MOR rendition on YouTube.