Thursday, 25 January 2018


On Friday night we saw the touring production of Peter Bellamy's "folk opera" The Transports, or rather, the show which has been made out the raw material of Bellamy's 1977 album of songs on the theme of transportation of prisoners to Australia, best described in the programme notes:

Inspired by the true story of two petty criminals transported unjustly from Norfolk to Australia in 1787, Peter Bellamy created a cycle of folk ballads called The Transports. He released this in 1977 as an album, featuring arrangements by Dolly Collins and a glittering roster of folk musicians and singers including Dave Swarbrick, Nic Jones, June Tabor, AL Lloyd, Cyril Tawney, Vic Legg, Mike & Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. This album became legendary in English folk music. 

In 2016 producer Michael Hughes of The Young’uns, and musical director Paul Sartin brought in storyteller Matthew Crampton to re-work the piece. Captivated by the original story, Matthew wrote a narration to tell the tale more fully, give historical context, and set up each song and character. New elements include Sean Cooney's somg Dark Water and local migrant stories from the Parallel Lives project. Paul arranged the songs afresh, drawing on the company's strengths and broadening the ballads with extensive harmony singing.

I've written about Peter Bellamy before (Borrowing Ballads) and, despite my declared intention finally to listen to The Transports never did get around to it. Folk had already stopped being my thing by 1977, and has never really regained its former place in my affections. Whole generations of performers and fashions in singing-style and instrumentation have been and gone since I last followed the scene: tellingly, I know all the names in the first paragraph of those programme notes, none in the second. When I was working in Bristol in the late 70s I must admit I was fairly dismissive of one of my colleagues who was an avid folkie and – worse – a morris dancer: at that exciting time for popular music, it seemed even more complacent and reactionary than a taste for heavy metal or disco. Similarly, I have written before about the suspicious political currents to be detected behind "roots" music (You (don't really) Need Roots). and have had no real reason to change my mind.

But The Transports, especially as adapted by Matthew Crampton, is different. It's not anti-modern yearning for a non-existent bucolic past, nor is it a gateway into some ethnic or nationalistic cul-de-sac, but is an exploration of the conditions of the poor in the late 18th century, using the musical styles of the time, which follows the remarkable true story of one couple on the very first convict transport fleet to Australia.

Matthew Crampton's narrative does what it says on the programme: it explains what it was like to be poor in East Anglia around 1780, and how easy it was for a decent person under pressure of poverty to end up on the gallows or languishing in the squalor of Norwich gaol for the pettiest of crimes. It also goes further, and links their story of enforced transportation to those of later migrants – Huguenots and Jews and Africans – including those of our own times. In a nice touch, these stories are sourced locally for each night's audience; in our case, Southampton, there was a particularly rich vein of stories to mine.

However, in this last regard, worthy as it is as a topic, I think the show is flawed. The parallel between the transportation of convicts and the migration of refugees is a little strained, and does feel as if the adapters have bolted it on to Bellamy's original work. The second half of the show is also rather brisker, narratively, than the first, and – given we're dealing with what is, in effect, the founding family of (white) Australia – peters out rather quickly once Botany Bay is finally reached. There appear to be no post-voyage songs, and you have to wonder whether this is due to the "20 minutes a side" constraint of the LP format. Also (and I realise I'm in danger here of sounding like the sort of pedant who counts the buttons on guardsmen's uniforms) as an East Anglian myself I was slightly disappointed that most of the performers appeared to be singing in the accents of the north-east of England [1].

Those reservations aside, it was a brilliant and rousing evening, culminating in a mighty, ten-voice rendering of Bellamy's sea-shanty "Roll Down", which really tingled the spine, especially if you were sitting as near the front as we were. If you can't get to see a performance, I recommend buying a copy of the Transports CD, just released, which includes much of the narration as well as all the sung material. Put the volume up to 11 and listen to "The Green Fields of England" and then "Roll Down". If your spine isn't tingled, then you may be in need of a spell in Norwich gaol.
So farewell to all judges so kind and forgiving,
Farewell to your prisons and cells,
For though we must leave all that makes life worth living,
We are leaving you bastards as well!

Here's adieu, here's adieu,
To the green fields of England,
Now we're parting from you.

1. This may be one of those folk-fashions that I've missed. Obviously, most folk-singers are not ex-trawlermen or sons and daughters of toil, and there has always been an element of what I call the "dressing-up box" in folk. It used to be the fashion to adopt a braying Mummerset voice (see: Peter Bellamy), and maybe the fashion has now swung north and east (for some reason, Richard Thompson himself has long adopted a NE accent when singing). Or, of course, that may be where they mainly come from.

1 comment:

Martyn Cornell said...

Look up the Unthanks and Kathryn Tickell on Youtube and that may give you a clue as to why Geordie is the new Mummerset. Mind, the Watersons were all from Hull ...