PICA Volume 1, 2004 – Review: Wake the Vaulted Echoes

Recording reviews

Wake the Vaulted Echoes: A Celebration of Peter Bellamy.
Peter Bellamy. Free Reed, FRT CD 14 (1999).

Reviewed by ROGER DIGBY

Wake the Vaulted Echoes: A Celebration of Peter Bellamy

Peter Bellamy was the most flamboyant personality in the Folk World. About that there is no argument, though arguments and Peter went hand in hand. He held firm, clear views which he argued with passion, intelligence, and eloquence; and when he was not present, people argued about him: whether his singing style, based, as he claimed, on a close study of traditional singers, was in fact affected bleating, whether his confidence on stage was in fact arrogant pomposity, whether his style of dress was eccentricity or ostentation. Poor Peter.

I’ll admit I liked him enormously from my first teenage exposure to the vocal fireworks of the Young Tradition through the years of what became a valued friendship. Most singers enjoy singing, but Peter’s enjoyment was instantly infectious, and although he was acutely aware of the intrinsic beauty of much of the traditional repertoire which he sang, he never lost sight of the fact that traditional music, in its true context, was entertainment. Peter had very high standards but he always sought to entertain. He would often indicate with a small flourish or additional emphasis that a line or word particularly pleased him. He was an excellent singer and interpreter of traditional songs, accompanied and unaccompanied, solo or with others. He wrote songs thoughtfully and suitably in the traditional style, most famously his ‘ballad opera’, The Transports. His affection for Rudyard Kipling, acquired as a young boy, led him to set many of Kipling’s poems to music based knowledgeably on the styles and sort of tunes that were very likely in Kipling’s mind as well.

This three-CD set, which also includes a CDRom section, is the definitive retrospective, covering all aspects of the music and containing a detailed booklet of seventy-two pages, the excellent content of which deserves to have received better proof reading.

Peter was one of a small number of performers who accompanied themselves on the Anglo concertina. There is no traditional precedent for this; it is a blank sheet of paper, to use the current phrase. Of the fifty-seven songs on the CDs, twenty-seven are accompanied in this way, and although Peter would have been the first to admit he was not a great Anglo player and sometimes abandoned attempts to work out Anglo accompaniments because of his limitations, I think that, paradoxically, it was in his Anglo playing that he got closest to the traditional approach. Traditional musicians are often not great technicians; their quality lies in the fine-tuning of their music within the parameters of their technical ability, with a result that can be quite rudimentary, but polished to perfection. Peter’s song accompaniments fall within this definition.

Peter’s approach was to play chords, often in both hands, and to carry the tune—or snatches of it—over the top, with the occasional embellishment (e.g., ‘Way Down Town’). One of his concertinas had two small levers on the left hand that could be brought across the thumb button and the far left button of the top row so that these notes permanently sounded. Another adaptation was a layer of baffling immediately below the fretwork to soften the sound. (The lady’s garter round the end served no practical purpose!).

It is a feature of the Anglo that in the main keys a simple change of bellows direction is often all that it takes to provide the next note or chord. Beginners are always warned against such laziness, as it deprives the Anglo of the crispness that is its birthright. Peter, however, chose to do this, and like everything he did this was quite deliberate; it is the most distinctive feature of his concertina style and one which makes his playing instantly recognisable. His big, smooth chords laid a sure yet soft foundation for the razor edge of his voice and often the additional brightness of a fiddle, and he could supply the full range of expression, from the soft and wistful (‘Trees they do Grow High’) through the bouncy and rhythmic (‘Back to the Army Again’), with every shade in between.

Over this versatile and thoughtful accompaniment there is the eccentric but controlled voice which repays listening over and over again. Peter walked the tightrope between the mask of the traditional singer and the necessity of working the song for a contemporary audience, and he walked it with surety and finesse.

This CD set, then, stands as a superb tribute and celebration of a musician and a scholar. Like his hero, Kipling, Peter was a man of great compassion and humanity, and like Kipling he was too readily misunderstood.

Peter’s natural venue was the Folk Club. In England, this odd creation of the second half of the twentieth century was the joint product of the reviving interest in traditional song and the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) movement with its singer-songwriters and ‘protest songs’. This musical combination, which was so seamless in America in the persons of Guthrie, Seeger, and Dylan, produced an odd amalgam in England, and an evening in such a club can now provide a bizarre diet of anything from the most obscure traditional item to a song from Cole Porter. While in many clubs ‘if it’s acoustic, it’s OK’ holds sway, others apply much more rigid rules. Peter Bellamy was once offered a club booking on condition he didn’t sing any Kipling! There is also a much more defined sense of performance, of artist, and of audience, than exists in the Traditional setting.

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