The title of this post comes from the song written by Mick Ryan on the passing of Cyril Tawney. In an interesting twist of serendipity, when I looked up Cyril I found that he had written the ‘Chicken on a Raft’ sea shanty, which I learnt from a local Irish folk singer here in Australia. Our songs certainly do go on, and travel broadly.
Last week Australia lost a pillar of the folk tradition with the passing of Danny Spooner. I never had the fortune to hear Danny sing in person, but I have spent the week going over YouTube recordings of his performances that are available. This version of When First I Came To Caledonia, performed by Danny at the Fleurieu Folk Festival in 2016, gives an insight into the sublime beauty that Danny was able to generate with just a voice and concertina.
I am doing my own recordings of the songs Danny was well known for and have gathered them in a playlist. If other folks from around the world have made recent recordings of their own I would love to add them to the list (contact me on YouTube).
I found one video of Danny singing an un-named song, also at Fleurieu in 2016. After much effort Google searching snippets of the lyrics, I found the ballad in the 1839 highwayman novel, Jack Sheppard, by William Harrison Ainsworth. It is interesting to note that while the novel was published in 1839, the exploits of Jack Sheppard occurred in 1723, and the Claude Duval mentioned in the song was around in the mid 1600s. So I guess highway robbery has a long and distinguished heritage.
It struck me, during this process, that when the folk community loses a singer of this talent and knowledge, we don’t just lose a performer. We lose a library of knowledge, about the origins of the songs they sing and the stories that accompany them. How did Danny come to be the only person singing this 1839 ballad? Where did the tune come from? Was the pairing his own creation or had he heard the song in a 1940 music hall?
In my previous efforts recording folk ballads, I have been confronted with the Broadsheet library of, literally, thirty thousand songs. Trawling through them made me realise that 70-80% of the content was tabloid rubbish and not worth bringing into the 21st century. What folklorists like Danny Spooner do for the audience and folk community, is spend those many hours pouring through the trash to find the gems and polish them into a thing of beauty.
While the electronic tune and song libraries are an excellent resource for the folk community, the capacity to pair a song with a tune, and perform it in a way that captures an audience is a special kind of magic.
Fortunately, some of the conversations held with Danny about his music have been recorded, like the one here by Verandah Music. However, it is easy to get the feeling that Danny probably had a few hundred hours more information in his head that was never recorded. The sparse recordings of house concerts and folk festivals where Danny takes a few minutes to talk about a song before singing it are so valuable to retaining the legacy of performers like this.
I recently watched the documentary Amy about the life and demise of Amy Winehouse (not something to watch if you want to be cheered up). In any case, it showed how people of this type end up with a digital record of almost everything they have said and done as soon as they become a ‘little’ famous. No such paparazzi for even the ‘popular’ folk singers.
At most sessions I have been to, people tend to frown on the 20-something holding up their iPhone recording the proceedings, I am starting to re-think that attitude.
In conclusion, I know the grief and loss being experienced by Danny’s close friends and family is no comparison to what I am discussing, after all, folk-people tend to be the kindest, most unpretentious and most valued human beings I have come across and are sorely missed when they pass. I do also mourn the loss to the tradition, and hope we can find ways to preserve what we have a little better.