How many ways are there to learn the guitar nowadays? Lots – ranging from online videos and virtual tuition, through CDs and sheet music, to actual teachers or learning from your peers. It seems odd now that 50 years ago, BBC2 ran two series of guitar lessons, broadcast on Saturday evenings. Unfortunately, it appears that none of the episodes survive.

The host / tutor on both occasions was John Pearse , a well-known guitarist and singer on the British folk scene. The first series was ‘Hold Down a Chord’ (broadcast 1965); the next, ‘Fingerpicking’. The book I’m going to look at was issued to complement the second series.

Pearse  Saturday Night – twenty tablature folksongs for guitar (publ. 1969)

Pearse: Saturday night
The front cover showing John Pearse

This small, oblong volume is introduced by Victor Poole , a long-serving BBC producer. Here’s a taste:

John took the guitar to pieces and explained how it all worked. He showed me how to string it, tune it and keep it tune. … Here was an ideal teacher, terrifically enthusiastic, but who never forgot what it was like to be a beginner. … He regularly numbers his television class in hundreds of thousands and many who learned wrote in to ask for more.

It puzzles me how anyone could learn from a TV show when there was no pause, no re-wind, and no stream-on-demand. And it was in black and white. Yes, there was an LP and a book as well, but anyone who learnt to play from peering at a small TV screen must have been determined.

John Pearse spends his own introduction talking about collecting folk songs. He was part of British post-war folk revival with its emphasis on collecting the grittier elements of life depicted through songs of the people. Here’s part of it:

My favourite place for song hunting is the village pub. Usually on a Saturday night somebody will start a singsong and then it’s up to you to get permission to record anything that interests you. …

Many of the songs in this book I have collected versions of, while others I have remembered from other Revival folksingers or culled from old song garlands and broadsheets in libraries.

High Barbary

High Barbary (illustration by Bernard Blatch)
High Barbary (illustration by Bernard Blatch)

Each song is presented together with an illustration by Bernard Blatch, an artist associated with the BBC before he moved to Norway in the 1970s. I came across a video about him, so I’m including a link.

Mr Blatch from Minimercials on Vimeo.

This song, written by Charles Dibdin , originated in the late eighteenth century. Its naval subject is clear from picture. The ‘Barbary coast’ refers to the coastal areas of North Africa inhabited by the Berber people. Here’s one of the verses:

‘A-loft there, a-loft!’ our jolly boatswain cried, Blow high, blow low, and so sailed we, Look ahead, look astern, look a-weather, look a-lee, Cruising down the coast of High Barbary.

To my classically trained eye, the way Pearse notates the music looks strange:

High Barbary
A section of High Barbary in tablature and fingerpicking notation

And I’m pretty sure what’s notated is the accompaniment only. Yes, the words are present, but there’s nothing to show the melody. Presumably he expected the tune to be so well known, he didn’t need to give it.

If like me, you not familiar with it, here’s a folk rendition which is pretty close to the style Pearse was aiming for, although it doesn’t use guitar:

Blue

Blue (illustration by Bernard Blatch)
Blue (illustration by Bernard Blatch)

John Pearse spent time in both the United States and Germany. This folk song comes from Appalachia , the area of the Eastern US stretching from New York State down, following the line of the Appalachian mountains. He introduces each song with a paragraph or two. Here’s what he writes about Blue – it made me smile:

In the Appalachians, a good working dog is a very highly respected member of the community. A friend who was conducting a census in South Carolina about six years ago, asked an old farmer how many people were in his family. ‘Seven’, he was told, ‘me and my wife, two boys, two dogs and a girl.’

The song is very different to the Dibdin with its short, direct lines telling a homely tale of an American pioneer:

I had an old dog, and his name was Blue. Betcha five dollars He’s a good one too. Hey, Blue, You good dog, you.

Blue treed a ‘possum In a ‘simmon tree. ‘Possum look at Blue, Blue looked at me. Go get him, Blue, You good dog, you.

Again it’s not a song known to me, but it’s recorded by The Byrds, amongst others. Their style matches the one Pearse was encouraging his students to learn.

 

Although it’s still possible to buy second-hand copies of the book for ‘Hold Down a Chord’, it’s a shame none of the broadcast material survives. I would be fascinated to watch Pearse in action, teaching his legion of students who all tuned in at the same time on a Saturday night.