I meet Burton Bradstock, aka Jimmy Cannon, at a small café tucked away in the Highgate Woods, north London. It’s a suitable setting to discuss a project that seems to have one foot in the rural past and another in the urban future. Bucolic but buzzing.
So let’s deal with that “aka” thing. Jimmy Cannon has a singer/saxophonist reputation for belting out jazz classics, but in wanting to explore the traditional English folk songbook he’s decided to re-invent himself in the character of Burton Bradstock. The danger in “aka” is that you come off like an international Bond villain or a comic ghetto gangsta. But this is neither. If you remember one thing remember this, Burton is totally sincere.
Okay, so how did it all start?
BB: I wanted to do a new album. Something very different from what I’m known for. I thought a great idea would be to do the English songbook rather than the American songbook. That led to a couple of years of research, which is still ongoing and took me straight to traditional English folk songs.
Had you any direct contact or experience with this area before your research?
BB: Yes. I was born in Cornwall and grew up being aware of traditional songs, especially about the sea. Working it and fearing it. As a kid playing the cornet in St Austell some of the first things I did were ‘The Floral Dance’ and ‘In The Bleak Mid Winter’.
For the uninitiated, what kind of era are we talking about for the music you’re exploring?
BB: The mid to late 19th century. Many of theses songs originated from the workers. They were sung as people laboured in fields and on the sea.
What was the social purpose?
BB: They were a reflection of the community. They were a way of sustaining an identity. The rhythm of the song would assist in doing a particular job. A rhythm to work to, say women sewing and making specific movements of the cotton through the hands.
It’s like a white blues.
BB: Yes. There would be definite songs for each pattern and that would be passed down from lace maker to lace maker or taught to the apprentices.
It also controlled productivity.
BB: Yes, not only would they have to deliver, it would relieve the boredom and perhaps even the pain!
And there’s no Radio 1…
BB: Exactly. The same with sea shanties. Morale had to be kept up and it provided a sense of belonging. That’s worksong. There were others that told the news of the day. Stories about the latest robbery or hanging of a thief or women being unfaithful or having a child out of wedlock. Most of these people were illiterate, so they relied on this oral tradition passed from generation to generation. It was only later that these songs were written down and became popular amongst the middle class.
And once written down it could become commercial?
BB: Yes, that’s when people bought them and would play them to entertain their friends.
Was there a hit parade? Out of these thousands of songs did certain hits emerge?
BB: Yes and these songs were recorded as just text or with a simple melody. By the 1920s-30s collectors would write them down and harmonise them. People like Baring Gould, Cecil Sharp, Vaughn Williams and others would go round the country and Europe collecting songs. They’d walk into villages and find the “song man” or “song woman” the oral keeper of the songs. They would say “come in”, hopefully, perhaps after a bribe. Or sometimes ‘bugger off!’ But if it went well they’d sit down and sing three or four songs that he or she had known and the collectors would transcribe music and lyrics. It was all done by ear, trying to get it note for note. Later on they might trundle around an unwieldy early recording contraption and capture the authentic voice.
So the music is an aide memoir. The rhythm allows you to remember words. Then at some point it became pleasurable to sing for its own sake. Then you get melody, not just work rhythm.
BB: Yes, from memory to pleasure is a journey through the classes.
What are the big hits you’ve discovered?
BB: There’s a lot of ballads; ‘Salisbury Plain’, ‘Barbara Allen’, stories of lost loves, links to war and the sea like ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’ where husbands are dragged off by press gangs to work on ships. There are even stories of women dressed as men called “female tars” like ‘The Female Cabin Boy’.
So they tell actual beginning, middle and end stories?
BB: Yes, most of these songs have an elaborate story line, which meanders such as ‘The Merry Broomfield’ which has as many as 19 verses. So I’ve had to cut some.
Is there a theme or style that links them all? Before you started gilding or pimping them?
BB: I would have to disagree with you there! I am merely continuing the longevity of these songs, sprouting new roots, adding my meagre variation!
However, the theme or if you like what attracts me to a particular song, is the melody and the metre. Most are in modal harmony, basically a scale within a scale, Aolian or Dorian seem to be the preferred mode.
The singers weren’t bothered about that though, they just wanted to tell the story. In performance I try to allow the songs to breathe and create space for people to digest the story.
Are the tales governed by morality?
BB: Yes. A lot of them have the moral ending, often with a warning!
Okay, so in terms of pimping, what have you done and why have you done it?
BB: I’ve been strict with the melody, I’ve left it pure and unsoiled
What’s the oldest recording of a songyou’ve actually heard?
BB: I think possibly ‘Barbara Allen.’ A tale of a woman who spurns a man on his deathbed.
What like a wax cylinder from 1908 or something?
BB: Yes I was recently played some unaccompanied songs from a collection that Steve Roud had as part of his course at Cecil Sharp House. [The repository of the English Folk movement in Camden Town, London] Fascinating to listen to! People like Harry Cox, whose phrasing is arguably as refined as Frank Sinatra’s. The story has been preserved by others, but not so many people have bothered with the harmony. Most performers would use a simple chord sequence to accompany the melody, but I want to keep the authenticity but make it more contemporary.
What about your jazz influence?
That’s it. The American influence, those harmonies and rhythms.
So are you folking off the purists?
BB: No, not at all. I hope not. I would hope purists might be pleasantly surprised.
Yes, because folk music isn’t a museum piece, but an evolving, living music form
BB: Exactly, as soon as someone sang a song it would be developed, a new variation would be conceived.
How do you counter the overall naffness of the folk image?
BB: English folk song isn’t naff. I’m giving it my own treatment based on my influences – where I’m coming from. So I am reharmonising lots of it. I can’t compete with the genius of Vaughn Williams. I know what you’re saying though.
I mean we’re more used to things like Eminem if we want to find people talking about their society now.
BB: True. People will use the style of the day and place to talk about the day and place. I’m interested in these songs because they talk about real people, events and feelings, just like any social commentary would. I don’t think it takes much to take these incredible stories and make them accessible to a wider audience. I think two things – folk goes in and out of fashion, and there will always be those who think folk is too beardy or embarrassing for them – Morris dancers are not generally part of what’s considered cool. It’s easy for people to dismiss this music which is our heritage. I think as a nation we lack a sense of English identity…
Without getting all National Front.
BB: Of course not. This isn’t about excluding people, but about sharing our heritage and culture. If you think about how these songs have travelled and are in some way part of so many people’s consciousness in different ways, that’s something to celebrate.
By adding something to these traditional songs, have you lost something of their essence?
BB: I could just sing these unaccompanied, which is the traditional method championed by singers such as Shirley Collins, but I feel that as an artist I need to be creative, so I take something I like and do something with it!
If you think about what’s happened to the American Songbook – many of these songs by Cole Porter, Rodger’s and Hammerstein et al. These were songs written for musicals and out of Tin Pan Alley offices. They have been through so many incarnations: Be-Bop in the 50s and 60s with players like Charlie Parker; hard Bop in the 70s with Coltrane; Keith Jarrett doing something which incorporates many previous incarnations and makes it into something different again. This is the story of Jazz. And it’s the story of folk music too. Jazz is folk music. All I’m dong is taking some songs and playing them. As long as you remain true to the original song I don’t think you can go so far wrong and you don’t have to be that purist about it.
Plus vocally, as a jazz singer, I’m always trying different and interesting ways to interpret the song, or a different approach to the phrasing, as I do on the song ‘She’s Like The Swallow’… (sings) ‘That flies so high’ … he’s lost her love… ‘She’s like the sunshine on the lee shore… she’s just a shadow‘. There’s another one ‘Twas out of these roses she made a bed, a stony pillow for her head’ … a gravestone. She’d dead. His love has died. Quite depressing.
Yes but only ten pounds on the door!
BB: Or even five!
It’s like Simon & Garfunkel or Beatles ‘Eleanor Rigby’ traditional songs remoulded, is that comparable?
Are you an interloper going into the folk arena?
BB: Possibly, I am concerned about that, although the more I listen to this repertoire, the more I understand it and feel a part of its history. All the people I’ve decided to work with have a humble, open minded outlook to music, they are predominantly jazz musicians, but they listen to all types of music. The harmony is mainly modal, whereas in jazz it’s largely chord based and sequential. It’s pros and cons. What’s hard is to make it sonorously interesting. So I bring in different instruments. I’m using piano, bass, drums, a jazz rhythm section and I use an acoustic guitar. It’s potentially much more interesting to the listener and for me as a composer. And with the band everyone’s teaching everyone. The pianist Dorian [Ford] and I meet and work through what we call the ‘Benjamin Britten songbook’. Britten has arranged many folk songs for piano/voice or piano/harp and I’ve taken a lot of influences from these.
Does the music drive the vocal or vice versa?
BB: The melody is the key thing. I’ll sit at the piano, in fact the Rhodes, and sing through the melody over and over and experiment with different structures. I keep the melody strict then I’ll just muck about with different notes underneath, the bass line, counter melodies, chords I think will work until something grabs me. Then I might bring in a computer, work with Logic, put down drums, as a palette for composition. It’s basically me singing with a piano trying to keep it spare, the way they would have been sung. I might feel a bass line, but not in an eighties way! Just simple notes.
Is it entertainment? Because these things tend to become bookish. A bit of history you’re learning rather than “rock n roll”.
BB: It depends what you mean by entertainment. It’s entertaining in that the guys in the band are fantastic musicians. And it’s performed with sincerity and musicality, and that’s communicated, so yeah, it’s entertainment.
It’s a 20 year old malt. It’s an acquired taste.
BB: Yes. But I’m hoping it will appeal to a lot of people.
Well the danger is “bargain bin curio”. It’s marginalised isn’t it? Speed metal, rap, garage; all have markets and defined routes.
BB: I believe you can’t pigeon hole this. It is folk, but there are so many other influences as well. And with the right people you produce something real that can crossover.
From the 50s onwards-popular music was also rebel music. Underground. You’re not embracing that?
In what way isn’t it rebel music? These are songs of the people – there are the rebel ones and the not so rebel ones, but they’re certainly not didactic songs from a higher power.
Well that’s another thing. Is this relevant? In terms of how different our attitudes are with regards to the position of women (slightly different to a 19th Century outlook), or attitudes to class, or race?
BB: These are historical documents, so they will convey the attitude of the songwriter(s) of that time. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be sung. Isn’t that quite interesting and poignant? So many of them are about injustices that I think transcend time and place.
Any male-female duets?
BB: Yup. Possibly. But the majority were one person or one gender singing in the pub. To be honest I don’t know everything as yet. It’s a journey of discovery. And I think a lot of people will be surprised by the intensity of the music and the intensity of the delivery, because I feel very strongly about the music and its tradition.
Are you calling the album ‘Going For A Burton’?
BB: That’s not bad. That’s one of the best suggestions so far.
Jimmy Cannon was talking to Graeme Holmes (journalist & filmmaker).