Saturday night fun . . . before X Factor

Was life much more colourful 50-odd years ago? It seems that way, with characters like Doddy Thorndyke and Lubidy Rice, and songs such as The Dark-Eyed Sailor and I'll Take the Legs From Some Old Table.

Steven Russell

Was life much more colourful 50-odd years ago? It seems that way, with characters like Doddy Thorndyke and Lubidy Rice, and songs such as The Dark-Eyed Sailor and I'll Take the Legs From Some Old Table. Steven Russell listens to two CDs keeping the past alive

SATURDAY-night entertainment these days seems to centre on karaoke and - for those of more couch potato leanings - X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. All very different decades ago, before our homes turned into technological palaces and we could summon the world to our living rooms with the push of a button. Fifty years ago, many rural pubs had a weekend knees-up: the old songs would be sung and tunes played on melodeons, accordions and mouth-organs - often for stepdancing on the brick floors. It's a tradition that's virtually disappeared. But, happily, it won't be allowed to die - thanks to the determined efforts of champions of folk song such as John Howson.

Through his label, Veteran, he's brought out two 39-track CDs of traditional music-making from Mid Suffolk, recorded between 1958 and 1993. The collection, called Many a Good Horseman, runs to two-and-a-half hours and features what John reckons are some of the finest singers and musicians from that era. The groups that entertained in village halls are also honoured: included is a track of probably the best known band in the area - Jimmy Gladwell's Dance Band of Stowmarket.

“After moving to Suffolk from Liverpool in 1978 I realised that although the coastal area of the county had been heavily researched, little folk song and music collecting had been carried out in the middle of the county,” explains John. Mid Suffolk was almost virgin territory, in fact. “What I found, and what you hear on these CDs, is a rich and varied selection of traditional music-making, all recorded within twelve square miles in Mid Suffolk.”

He tells the EADT: “In many ways these old songs were the newspapers of the day. They told stories about local happenings and warned of the hazards of life, whether it be of courtship or the perils of working on the land or at sea. They also provided a continuing history lesson, telling of earlier times with lords, milkmaids and highwaymen.

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“Overwhelmingly, though, they were entertainment to be sung at family gatherings or in the local pub. It was there the musicians had an important role, playing for stepdancing or couple dances. Saturday nights, in a pre-television age, was when everyone went out to their village local. These songs and tunes are living social history which continues to give us an insight into another age: an age often lived at a much slower pace.

“The most important reason to preserve this material is to enable a new generation to continue to enjoy and hopefully even to perform the songs and play the tunes.”

The double-album was originally released as two cassettes, produced in 1993 to complement his 1985 book Many a Good Horseman: A survey of traditional music making in Mid Suffolk. The book traced, village by village, the old characters who played, sang and danced in pubs in and around Stowmarket, from Walsham-le-Willows to Bildeston and from Thorpe Morieux to Wetheringsett.

The tracks feature John's own mid-1980s survey of traditional music in the Stowmarket area and archival recordings made by a handful of other collectors who ventured into villages where music was still very much alive.

“Of particular interest are the recordings made in Rattlesden in 1958 and 1959 of Emily Sparkes and Stan Steggles, who both had remarkable repertoires of songs that had been handed down through their families - the sort of old folk songs that are rarely heard today. As did Charlie Carver, who was recorded at a lively night in Tostock Gardeners' Arms in 1960,” says John, a musician, singer, researcher and designer who in 2000 co-founded The East Anglian Traditional Music Trust.

Those original recordings are now preserved in the National Sound Archive at the British Library in London. They have also been digitally edited and enhanced, using modern technology, which has produced a much clearer sound quality.

Happily, though, technology hasn't pushed out the atmosphere.

“These are field recordings made over many years and at numerous quiet and not so quiet locations,” he explains of that original material. “The sounds of ticking clocks, meowing cats and passing farm wagons are all part of the process; and although noisy, inattentive pub audiences and low-flying aeroplanes are irritating, they are unavoidable.”

Forced to choose only a handful of singers and musicians for a special mention, who would he pick out?

Gordon Syrett (Mendlesham Green): “Large and interesting repertoire of songs, as well as memories of what went on in the area; probably the first singer I met in Mid Suffolk, and one of the finest.”

Gordon's family had moved to Mendlesham in 1665 and he was born in 1887. The Green Man pub, just a few doors from Gordon's cottage, had been a hotbed of singing but had closed by the time John met him.

Emily Sparkes (Rattlesden): “Rare for a woman to be recorded, as they tended only to sing at home and not go to the pub. Her recordings are some of the oldest, having been made in the 1950s by Des and Shelagh Herring.”

Emily, who died at the end of the 1960s, was one of those women who sang only at home. She had a repertoire of old and unusual songs that she'd probably learned from her grandfather and father. Dad James Poole, known as Old Sootpole, was a well-known pub singer who played concertina and danced on the tables.

Emily's daughter said her mother also played the mouth-organ, and sang and told stories to amuse the children. She might have sung, too, at the Women's Institute when it was formed in the village.

Charlie Carver (Tostock): “Unusual to have a recording actually made in a pub, particularly from 1960 - again thanks to the Herrings. Charlie had an amazing collection of rare old ballads - the type of folk songs you rarely hear today.”

John doesn't know much about Charlie, part from the fact he worked on the land. He'd go to the Gardeners' Arms in the village, which was a lively hostelry on Friday and Saturday nights.

Tom Williams (Stowupland): “A great mouth-organ player who was known all over Mid Suffolk. He would often turn up with a bag of mouth-organs and encourage everyone in the pub to play.”

Tom played right up to his death in 1983. His father stepdanced and was known for dancing “amongst the pint pots”.

Reg Pyett (Mendlesham): “He was a very old man when I met him (81) and his repertoire of melodeon tunes, which he learned from other great players in the area, came from a generation before him.”

Born in 1899, Reg was one of the best players around. He told John he'd started at the age of eight. He even picked up tunes from steam gallopers at fairgrounds.

Reg worked on the railway and one of the perks of the job involved tickets - which came in useful when he started courting a girl at Notting Hill in 1925! “On one occasion the landlady where he staying there arranged for him to play at the London Hippodrome.”

Ernie Nunn (Wetheringsett): “He came from a large family of melodeon players, stepdancers and singers, and he was still a very good player when I met him in a very remote corner of Mid Suffolk.”

The Nunns were a famous musical family. Ernie, born in 1908, played in local pubs such as the White Horse and the Trowel and Hammer, along with brothers George (known as Ninny) and Walter (nicknamed Hood). His cousins stepdanced.

John Howson's Top 10 of traditional songs and tunes (in no real order)

1. Heel & Toe Polka - one of the most popular tunes in Suffolk and Norfolk, which was used for the dance of the same name.

2. 21 Years on Dartmoor - Although it originated in America, usually set in Nashville, Tennessee, it was a popular song with the Gypsy community. It is sung by two singers on the CDs: one just known as “Gypsy” Charlie in Tostock Gardeners' Arms and other who had traveller connections - “Lubidy” Rice of Gislingham /Finningham.

3. The Yarmouth Hornpipe - Any musician worth his salt would need to know this one. Often known as The Pigeon on the Gate, it is the favourite tune for stepdancing.

4. Died for Love - a classic rare folk song. Emily Sparkes sings a complete version of it, “with a first verse setting the scene for a story of betrayal which finally ends in suicide”. Has appeared with various titles, including Bold/Brisk Young Farmer/Sailor/Lover; The Alehouse/Tavern in the Town, or I Wish My Baby It Was Born.

5. Charlie Griggs Tune Melody - He played melodeon in just about every pub in Stowmarket, particularly the Unicorn. Here he plays a selection of dance and song tunes, including In and Out the Windows and I'll Take the Legs From Some Old Table.

6. Banks of Sweet Dundee - Two versions of a 19th Century ballad which was popular in the pubs of Mid Suffolk. Roy Palmer's A Book of British Ballads described it thus: “Villainy and virtue, blood and tears, innocence triumphant: here are the ingredients for a 19th Century melodrama.”

7. Quickstep - a wonderful live recording of the 1950s dance band led by Jimmy Gladwell. “We tried to identify this tune with a phone-in on Radio Suffolk but the conclusion we came to was that it probably had its roots in the 1920s song That's My Weakness Now, and the band had turned it into a quickstep.”

8. The Faithful Sailor - A Victorian tear-jerker popular with both singers and audiences. Sung here by Charlie Carver in Tostock Gardeners' Arms and by Stan Steggles in Rattlesden.

9. Suffolk March/Jig - Part of the Suffolk regimental march Speed the Plough, followed by a lively jig played by mouth-organ player Bill Smith of Walsham-le-Willows.

10. All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough - Gordon Syrett with a classic rural song with a sting in its tale.

The CD . . .

Many a Good Horseman comes with a 32-page booklet that includes biographies and photographs of each of the performers, as well as extensive notes about the songs and tunes. It is available at �16.99, including postage, from Veteran Mail Order, PO Box 193, Stowmarket, IP14 3NX or on line at

And the title . . .

In the days of horse-ploughing, great pride was always taken in producing a straight furrow. However, a good horseman could always hit a stone and have to turn around and re-cut the furrow to keep up his reputation. In Felsham Six Bells, one local said that during the annual Jolly Boys Club pay-out, there would always be music, stepdancing and singing, while the old men would sit around the edge of the room, leaning on their sticks. If a singer forgot his words, one old boy would always say, “Never mind boy! Many a good horseman has turned round in a field.”