In Concert

Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham – quirky, practical, historical, contemporary

‘Look here’ – songs by Leon Rosselson — August 20, 2020

‘Look here’ – songs by Leon Rosselson

For the first time in ages, I’ve had the chance to choose something from our shelves as the basis for a post. The Library of Birmingham is gradually coming back to life. While it’s been great exploring all kinds of other musical topics, what our stock has to offer remains the backbone of this blog. (Information about the current services Birmingham’s libraries offer may be found on the library catalogue page.)

As is often the case, what I’ve chosen comes from our Folk section. It’s also led me on another fascinating journey. Continue reading

‘The Colliers’ Rant’ and other miners’ ballads — November 9, 2019

‘The Colliers’ Rant’ and other miners’ ballads

The nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution in the UK was fuelled by coal; lots of it. The work was hard, dangerous, required very long hours, and prior to 1842, could involve the whole family.  Health and safety was far from the minds of those demanding the constant production of coal: no safety equipment, hardly any light, little ventilation or heat regulation, and the ever-present danger from the build-up of gases.

[Images courtesy of the National Coal Mining Museum. Clicking on the images will enlarge them.]

Continue reading

The Cottager’s Complaint: history in song — May 30, 2019

The Cottager’s Complaint: history in song

Single-sheet ballads (of the sort that rolled off presses all over the country) are fascinating. Over the centuries, people have written songs on all sorts of subjects – many commenting on the pressing issues of the time. They appear to be one way of getting a grievance out there, to solicit public support for a cause, or to celebrate something significant.

An earlier post, The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song  looked at some local offerings through the lens of Michael Raven. This time, Roy Palmer is my guide.

Palmer  A Ballad history of England (publ. 1979)

Palmer  A ballad history of England
A different way of looking at England’s history

Our song sheet collections comprise publications aimed at a middle-class clientele, particularly so for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They (mostly) have a composer’s name on them and usually also one of a reputable publisher. This contrasts with ballad production: the words come from the people, with no one person attributed. The tunes are those already around, and the ballad sheets were sold on the street.

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Is it that long? — April 4, 2019

Is it that long?

This blog is coming up to its second birthday! It doesn’t seem that long since I wrote our first anniversary post. While I’ve felt more relaxed about the topics featured, there have still been some distinct threads. Let’s have a look at some of the themes and popular posts over the past year.

Participation

all performers
All the performers (Jonathan Schoeps)

November saw a flurry of posts. Continue reading

Saturday Night: learning to play the guitar the BBC2 way — March 7, 2019

Saturday Night: learning to play the guitar the BBC2 way

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.

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A Journey beyond ‘The Planets’ — February 21, 2019

A Journey beyond ‘The Planets’

If you know anything of the composer, Gustav Holst, I imagine you’d immediately think of The Planets. Perhaps also Egdon Heath, or the ballet music from The Perfect Fool, but little beyond that. I can’t claim to be much further forward, though I have explored some of the lesser-known works. Wandering around our stacks in my usual search for inspiration, my eye was caught by a couple of works by Holst, about which I knew virtually nothing.

The scores don’t look attractive or have colourful front covers, but I think we’ll have an interesting time nevertheless.

Continue reading

‘Get Along Little Dogies’ – the music of Cisco Houston — January 24, 2019

‘Get Along Little Dogies’ – the music of Cisco Houston

Once again, our folk collection here is the source of this post. This unassuming volume, 900 Miles – the ballads, blues and folksongs of Cisco Houston, is yet another Oak Publication.

houston 900 miles
The front cover

These earlier posts taken from other Oak Publications: The ‘House of the rising sun’ blues …Hard-hit People: Songs of the American Great Depression, and A Time of Trial: More Songs from the American Great Depression took me on fascinating journeys, and I expect this volume to do the same. Interestingly enough, this is the only obvious library copy in the UK, despite it still being on sale.

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The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song — September 6, 2018

The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song

When thinking about English folk song, it is all too easy to think of classic English folk music as collected by Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, and others. Songs of an agrarian existence, sometimes idyllic, often times not, which harked back to the time when the majority of people made their living from the land. In fact, that was to be the subject of this blog post until I got distracted by a slim, home-made volume of much grittier, urban songs.

Michael Raven: The Jolly Machine (publ. 1974)

Jolly machine by Michael Raven
The front cover of the song book.

Already you get the sense of something completely different from the front cover. Here are no songs about farm labourers and pretty lasses, instead Michael Raven focusses on the ‘songs of industrial protest and social discontent’ from the area all around Birmingham. The photograph used is of four coal miners from Wednesbury, taken in the 1880s. The dirtied work clothes and the coal-blackened faces are testament to the men working in the area of the West Midlands known as the Black Country.

Continue reading

A Time of Trial: More Songs from the American Great Depression — August 23, 2018

A Time of Trial: More Songs from the American Great Depression

I’m returning to Hard-hitting Songs for Hard-hit People, a song collection about the American Great Depression. Last time , I looked at agricultural workers. This time, working, or more likely, unemployment.

‘You’re dead broke’ 

Destitute_man_vacant_store
Unemployed, destitute man in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Dorothea Lange. Public domain)

In his publisher’s forward, Irwin Silber, sets the picture of the early 1930s American Great Depression brilliantly:

The central fact was mass unemployment. Everything else – the soup kitchens, the home relief lines, the unmitigated misery of the old, the sick, the feeble who had no resources and no place to turn – all these stemmed from the fact that in some basic, incomprehensible way, the system had fallen apart at the seams. Factories, mills, and mines closed down and people were thrown out of work. This began a cycle of business failures, wage-cutting, lockouts, land evictions which … produced … the most massive economic collapse this country has ever known.   

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Hard-hit People: Songs of the American Great Depression — May 17, 2018

Hard-hit People: Songs of the American Great Depression

If like me, you’ve read any of the Depression era novels by John Steinbeck, you can’t but remember the poverty, the difficulty of obtaining employment, and the world which his characters inhabit. This was the time of the ‘dust bowl’ environmental disaster which affected the marginal Southern Plains area of the United States (parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle), and also the resulting mass migration of people to California in search of jobs.

What I’m going to be looking at this time, is a collection of songs from the era, collected by Alan Lomax and others.

Hard-hitting Songs for Hard-hit People ed. by Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (publ. 1967)

Hard-hitting songs for Hard-hit people
The front cover

It’s a substantial book, containing numerous songs, their context, and a selection of sobering photos. The bulk of its content was ready for publication in the 1940s, but it took twenty years for it to be published. In fact, John Steinbeck provided the foreword for this collection. Here’s a sample: Continue reading

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