February 2018


2018-02-22 13.49.09

A small parcel of books arrived on Thursday lunchtime!  It’s quite exciting to see it in print, as it seems to have had the gestation time of an elephant (even though in fact it was relatively quick).

Singing the News Flyer

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I’ve spent a lot of time since the beginning of the year recording ballads for this website, to accompany my new book.  This is the second of a short series of posts about what I’ve been up to.

Moving the ballads from scores to sound recordings has been an enlightening experience.  In some cases, there are things that I would  do differently if I had my time over.   One of them is A Merry New Ballad of a Country Wench and a Clown.  I made several abortive attempts to record this song.  The first verse was okay, but the second was tricky.  The words just didn’t fit as well.  It wasn’t that they didn’t fit – they just didn’t really scan quite right.  So I recorded the single verse given in the book, then went back to the drawing board.

When I sat down to look at them again, I realised that my mistake had been not to sing it right through when I was originally setting the words.  The second verse fitted much better with different repeats to the ones which appear in the book, and indeed, when I tried it that way, so did the first verse.  So now on the website there are two different versions of A Country Wench and a Clown – the first is the academic version (the musical example from the book), and the second is a more practical, hands-on version which, with hindsight, I think works much better.  To my mind, it just goes to show that these are songs to be sung, not words and music on a page.  It highlights the importance of practical experience.

On the other hand, I’ve had some of my beliefs reinforced.  One of them was that the Cromwell ballads, which form the case study for my 6th chapter, were not written by professional balladeers.  Of all the ballads we recorded, these were the hardest to fit to the tunes.  First off, I should point out that there is no evidence that they were actually sung to the tune I chose to set them to (‘Half Hannikin’).  It’s a conjectural setting, in that we know it was a tune that was around at the time and, generally speaking, the words fit.  Secondly, I remain absolutely confident that they could be and were sung.  The difference between these songs and those by many of the other balladeers, though, is that the scansion of the lines can be radically different between verses.  It makes it harder to fit the words in.  Not impossible, but more difficult.  And it suggests to me that the people who wrote these verses were more concerned with the message that they were trying to get across than they were with the niceties of writing lyrics.

I’ve spent a lot of time since the beginning of the year recording ballads for this website to accompany my new book. This is first in a short series of posts about what I’ve been up to.

First, I must thank Stephen Kelly for prompting me to begin this project.   While I was working at Hope before Christmas, Stephen came to speak for the Historical Association in Bolton, so I gave him a lift across from Liverpool after work.  We were chatting about all sorts of things, the book among them, and Stephen asked if there would be recordings to go with the book.  When I replied in the negative, he remarked that it was a shame, as it would be good to hear examples as well as see them. I’d always wanted to have recordings of the songs in the book, but I’d written that idea off when that aspect of it wasn’t picked up by the publishers.  Stephen pointed out that in this day and age, it wasn’t really necessary to have a CD, as I could just put them on the internet.  So I went away and started mulling it over.

The first step was to talk to my husband. He’s a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music and, like me, a former music teacher (although he did it for a lot longer than I did).  If he could help me by sorting out the musical arrangements for guitar or piano, it would save me a lot of time – in fact, without his help I simply wouldn’t have had time to get it finished, what with the travelling and teaching I was doing too.  He also agreed to accompany the songs, and sing some of the male parts for me.

The next one was to ask Father Christmas for a more advanced digital recorder.  I already had a pocket sized one, which was pretty good, but some of the pieces in the book have four parts, so in order to record them with just the two of us, we needed to multitrack them.  Enter the Tascam DR-40.  It took us a little while to get to know it, which became considerably easier when we found its instruction book on the internet.  And Tascam, if you’re listening, something to indicate that more comprehensive instructions are available than those which come in the box wouldn’t go amiss!

Once I’d finished proofreading the book text and writing the index, my next priority was to get stuck into the recordings. We thought we started well, until we tried to put them on the computer. Then we realised that the reason playback was so quiet on the recorder was because the recording was quiet, not because the recorder couldn’t play it back any louder.  A rookie mistake, and one that cost us a couple of days’ work.  Once we’d got that sorted out, things progressed much better, although it was a bit demoralising to have to re-record several of songs we’d already done.

Another mistake was not to disconnect the phone.  We’d got more than ten minutes into one of the songs, only about 4 verses from the end, when my fiend rang.  Normally, he rings my mobile, which was on silent in another room, but that day he chose to ring the landline.  A lesson soon learned.

The recordings aren’t all perfect, but we think they give a flavour of how the songs might have sounded.  And they certainly fulfil my main aim, which was to help people to understand how they could have sounded – that’s so much easier with a recording than it is on paper.

Earlier this week, I had an email from the publisher of my book to say that it has gone to the printer.  According to their website, it is due for publication on 22 February, so it’s not long now.  It’s an exciting, if somewhat scary, prospect.

I decided that it was about time I created my author profile on the Routledge website.   It took me most of a day, but I’m quite pleased with the result.  The other thing that I wanted to get finished before the book actually came out was the supporting recordings of the musical examples from the book. We finished the recordings on Tuesday, and I started uploading them to Soundcloud, which allows me to embed links into a new page on this site.  The only slight hitch with this process was that Soundcloud allows you to upload 3 hours of music – but some of the ballads take about 15 minutes to perform, and many of them are more than 10 minutes long.  Three hours doesn’t go far under those circumstances!  Anyway, I finished the process this morning, so everything is ready for the book to come out.