‘When the mistrals were forbidden to journey from place to place, by the act of 1597, they settled down in country places, married, took to some trade, or became workers on the land, and supplemented their wages from what they could pick up at Whitsunales, May-games, Sheep-shearings, Harvest Homes, Christmas Feasts, Wakes, and Weddings. They handed their stock-in-trade of old ballads and songs to their sons, and thus it came about that certain families were professional village musicians from generation to generation.‘ (Baring Gould & Fleetwood Sheppard, 1892, p. xi).
Imagine a world today without TV, radio, the internet, IPods, MP3 players, live concerts etc., think of a pub without a jukebox, where would people find their entertainment? Then imagine life in the remote wastes of Dartmoor way back in the mists of time, how did they manage to find their musical entertainment? It was not a case of travelling to some venue such as the O2 arena, switching on the TV to watch the X Factor or hooking up on YouTube to see your favourite singer.
As noted above, music and song would have come first of all from the wandering minstrels and then later the local songsters. Back then almost every village and town had their own songster who were carrying on an age old tradition of song. These songsters would attend the various social gatherings and perform the ‘Top 20’ of the day or give impromptu performances at the local inn. Over the centuries the songsters gathered a wealth of traditional ballads and songs which were handed down to their successors. However, as time lapsed the popularity of such songs and music began to wane and as with many traditions became in danger of being lost forever. In 1883 Sabine Baring Gould (along with Mr. F. W. Bussell) decided to record for prosperity the numerous traditional songs of the West Country. Initially an appeal was placed in various local newspapers asking for traditional songs and airs. Following this the two men went around various contacts and soon began visiting some of the old songsters around the West County to hear and record their material.
On Dartmoor they visited South Brent where they found two old men, one a miller and the other a crippled road mender, from these they got around 50 songs. A visit to Belstone introduced them to an old man who provided them with more material. At Lydford they met with William Friend, Will and Roger Huggins, here again they gleaned more songs. A visit to the ‘Dartmoor Poet’, Jonas Coker and a local mine captain, Mr. J. Webb provided them with further additions. Once they had gained the trust of the songsters their collection grew and by the sound of it had a right, albeit at times gruelling, hooley doing it.
“We have driven and walked in storms of rain and wind over Dartmoor, and have sat with hands that shivered with cold on a moorstone taking down ballads from some old shepherd or an aged crone. But we have also gathered the hearty moor-men about a great fire, and after a good supper have spent with them very merry evenings.”, Baring Gould, 1892, p. xii.
The result of their efforts were published in their book of 1892 called, ‘Songs and Ballads of the West’ which contained one hundred and ten songs and airs along with the lyrics and music score. Having reaped the crop of West Country songs Baring Gould gave the following thoughts as to their origins: “We have given samples of all kinds. In some cases—but not many — the melodies may have been composed by the song-men themselves, or, what is more likely, they have taken known melodies and altered them according to their own provincial musical ideas.” Then very disparagingly he follows up with;
“I have said that I think that some of the melodies may have been composed by the song-men themselves, but, I contend, only some, an infinitesimally small number, and such are musically worthless, and I doubt if one of these is included in this collection. It must be borne in mind that folk-music is nowhere spontaneous and autochthonous. It is always a reminiscence, a heritage from a cultured past. The yokel is as incapable of creating a beautiful melody as he is of producing a piece of beautiful sculpture, or of composing a genuine poem.”, 1892, p. x
But what were these Dartmoor songsters like? By all accounts they were getting on in years but were real characters and proper men of the moor. Baring Gould tells the tale of James Parsons who belonged to a traditional songster family, his father was known as ‘The Singing Machine’ because his repertoire was said to be inexhaustible. Apparently, James was instructed by his master to go to Lydford to tend a new farm he had just bought. During his tour of duty he got into the habit of visiting a local inn on his payday. This inn was the frequent haunt for some of the Dartmoor miners who would buy him the odd pint or two in return for him singing a song. One night, after a very ‘entertaining’ session he decided enough was enough and it was time to go home. Just as he was leaving one local man taunted him with; “Got to the end o’ your zongs, old man?”. The inn went silent, the challenge had been given, but James at this point was not to be drawn. He simply replied that by no means had he exhausted his ‘play list’ but he was going home. The man then made him an offer he couldn’t refuse; for every new song the songster performed he would buy him a quart (2 pints) of ale. Sixteen songs and sixteen empty tankards (32 pints) later James decided it was definitely time to go to his bed. It seems that the old man still had fresh songs to sing but due to the effects of the ale he was that “fuddled” he couldn’t remember the words, Baring Gould, 1890, pp. 270 -271.
But as the clock of time ticked on these old songsters retired to the local graveyard and newer forms of song and entertainment came along. Baring Gould reiterates this fact in light of the Music Hall phenomenon:
“The singers are nearly all old, illiterate,—their lives not worth five years’ purchase, and when they die the traditions will be lost, for the present generation will have nothing to say to these songs, especially such as are in minor keys, and supplant them with the vulgarest Music Hall performances.”, Baring Gould, 1892, p. vii.
Below are the lyrics to a traditional Dartmoor song which tell the tale of Childe the Hunter, the lyrics were written by Jonas Coaker and it is thought that the melody has been taken from a song called; ‘Cold Blows the Wind’. Baring Gould suggests that this was an early harp tune which dated back no later than the time of Henry VII which would put it to around the early 1500s. Having literally slated off Jonas Coaker in various publications it was heart warming to read that from the proceeds of various concerts of the songs he collected, Baring Gould donated some of them to Jonas Coaker. The purpose of this was to ease he last few days on this earth. 1892, p. xxiii.
|Childe the Hunter
Come, listen all, both great and small
To you a tale I’ll tell,
What on this bleak and barren moor,
In ancient days befell.
It so befell as I’ve heard tell,
Their came the hunter Childe,
All day he chased on heath and waste,
On Dart-a-moor so wild.
The winds did blow, then fell the snow,
He chased on Fox-tor mire;
He lost his way, and saw the day,
And winters sun expire.
Cold blew the blast, the snow fell fast,
And darker grew the night;
He wandered high, he wandered low,
And nowhere saw a light.
In darkness blind, he could not find
Where he escape might gain,
Long time he tried, no track espied,
His labours all in vain.
His knife he drew, his horse he slew,
As on the ground it lay;
He cut full deep, therein to creep,
And tarry till the day.
The winds did blow, fast fell the snow,
And darker grew the night,
Then well he wot, he hope might not
Again to see the light.
So with his finger tipp’d in blood,
He scribbled on the stones –
“This is my will, God it fulfil,
And buried be my bones.
“Whoe’er he be that findeth me
And brings to a grave,
The lands that now to me belong,
In Plymstock he shall have.”
There was a cross erected then,
In memory of his name;
And there it stands in wild waste lands,
To testify the same.
Should anyone wish to see the music sheet for this song it can be found – HERE
What goes round comes around and after the decline of the Dartmoor Songsters and their music there was a revival which was to become ‘Folk Music’ in the 1900s. On Dartmoor one of the leading lights of this resurgence was Bob Cann. He came from a musical family and at an early age was introduced to the folk tradition by his grandfather and three uncles, at the age of three and a half he learned to play the accordion. Seward. p.16. By the 1940s Bob was playing in his first band which around 1977 had morphed into the now famous ‘Dartmoor Pixie Band’ – see link opposite. In 1978 Bob Cann organised the first ‘Dartmoor Folk Festival’ which was held near South Tawton. In 1981 the festival was moved to South Zeal where it has become an established and well attended event, kind of ‘The Glastonbury of Dartmoor’ – see link opposite. This is a very potted history of Bob Cann whose work greatly benefitted the Dartmoor song and dance traditions, in all reality he would easily warrant a webpage of his own.
Today there are many fine folk bands and musicians who carry on the traditions of Dartmoor song, many who appear at the South Zeal festival. With very much a similar musical background to Bob Cann, Seth Lakeman has to be the most famous of modern-day ‘Songsters of the Moor’. Born and bred in Buckland Monochorum and along with his two brothers formed a band which played and toured in the band which was to become called Equation. In 2001 Seth Lakeman left the band and went on to become a solo artist which to date has culminated in him winning the singer of the year and best album awards at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Festival Awards in 2007. Much of his lyrical inspiration comes from the roots of Dartmoor’s legends and traditions. As noted earlier, “what goes round comes around” and to prove that point, in 2006 Seth Lakeman released what could be described as his ‘Cover Version’ of ‘Childe the Hunter’ some 100 years after Jonas Coaker’s.
This is a very, very brief background to the traditions of Dartmoor’s ‘Songsters of the Moor’ and their work, if it’s not already under way there is easily a book to be written on this topic.
Baring Gould, S. 1890. Old Country Life, London: Methuen and Co.
Baring Gould, S. & Fleetwood Sheppard, H. 1892. Songs and Ballads of the West, London: Methuen and Co.
Seward, C. 1992. Proper Job, Bob Cann in Profile – Dartmoor Magazine, No.27. Brixham: Quay Publications.