A kind of Everest interview, in the sense that I dropped Heather Wood an email because she was there. I wanted to see if she might like to chat to me about The Young Tradition (1965-1969), a folk group that she was in with Royston Wood (d.1990) and Peter Bellamy (d. 1991). Happily, she did.
The Young Tradition mainly made records of traditional songs and one, called Galleries, which is more in the Medieval music vein. There is also an EP of shanties, including “Chicken On A Raft”, which is a song about egg on toast.
At one time, they lived in a flat at 30 Somali Road in Camden, downstairs from Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. “The place was complete mayhem,” Bert told me about five years ago. “They made more noise, drunk more, and smoked more dope than anybody else.”
As it turns out, it’s almost exactly 50 years since the trio first met and started singing together. So here, by entirely planned complete coincidence, Heather undertakes an ersatz golden anniversary interview. Thanks, Heather.
How did you meet the other guys?
Basically Pete and Royston were singing together and both were camping on the floor of a mutual friend. Pete was heavily into traditional music and the Copper family – Royston knew the Copper family and said, “I can do that”. So the two of them were singing together for some time before I came along – harmony singing is something I’ve always done. I just wouldn’t go away. Basically I fell madly in love with Royston. It didn’t do me any good, but it was a lot of fun. We were all living in London.
Why London? Because it was a centre of folk revival activity?
It was a place to go. I had just left the army where I was an officer cadet for all of 97 days. I’d taken the army selection board a couple of years before because my mother wanted me to go up the social ladder and being an army officer would do that.
I dropped out of college, lived on the road in London for half a year, bred dogs in Devon – then drifted back to London. At one point when I was living in the parks and so on, and busking in Trafalgar Square – I discovered that you could get into the folk clubs for free if you sang a song or two from the floor. I rapidly learned a couple of songs and got in for free.
How influential were the Copper family?
Enormously – their basic harmony style, which is thirds and fifths, that tended to be what Royston sang. Pete sang the melody – he was not a harmony singer, and I just fitted in wherever there seemed to be room. I’d never heard of them til I met Pete and Royston. I guess we got together in April ’65 and were singing together a month or so later. Towards the end of 65 we went down to Peacehaven and met Bob and Ron and John Copper – in their social club, which John is still running.
What was the story with the other guys?
Pete was an art school dropout. Royston had been an advertising copyrighter for a medical firm, married with two kids. Blew up on that and became a long-distance lorry driver, based in Evesham. Start with a load, take it where it’s supposed to go hang around, pick up another load and carry on until they eventually end up home. Pete always wanted to be a singer of traditional folk songs.
How did you establish a repertoire?
We reheasrsed by someone bringing a song along and saying “Let’s try this one”. Pete would sing the melody many, many times – this was in the days before cheap recording equipment, so it really was Pete singing the song 30-40 times. Then we would know the words and Royston would think of his harmony and I would think of mine while we milled around. We all brought songs. I had learned some from school. Royston had learned some from another truck driving friend. We also dug around in Cecil Sharp House.
We had a really eclectic record collection which ranged from the blues which was Peter’s thing, classical which was Royston’s thing, and rock ‘n’ roll which was my thing. A lot of different cultures: Russian music, Georgian music, Indian ragas.
Did that all influence the group’s sound?
I suppose so. Once you’ve listened to seconds and fourths and things they do tend to drift into the repertoire. None of us had any formal musical training except I had sung in a bunch of choirs at school and church. They tried to teach me the piano when I was eight but it didn’t take.
You learned folk songs at School? Where were you at school?
I went to school at Parkstone in Dorset, and Balfour Primary in Brighton. Prior to that, my mother left my father when I was four. I was born in Sheffield, moved to Angmering on Sea to a place that was a hotel for army and diplomatic kids while they were off giving away the empire in 1949. I was there for three years and had one schoolteacher for all that time and she was fabulous. When I got to Brighton there was Singing Together with William Appleby on the radio which was I think a weekly programme of nicely-cleaned-up folk songs.
How did the folk scene like in your experience?
The way clubs worked back then was…the guest artist would do two half hour sets, one in each half. Then there would be the resident singers and the floor singers who would do one or two songs. Folk Clubs all over the country. This was the time when people put on large folk shows so we played RFH, Albert Hall, Liverpool Cathedral, Birmingham Town Hall. We played the Troubadour, the Cousins, the all-nighter several times. All over the country and in Scotland.
Did you think of yourselves as involved in a folk revival?
Other performers, audiences and organisers were our friends – you could literally go to a folk club every night and we did, and we’d maybe sing from the floor even if we weren’t together.
How did you arrive on Transatlantic?
Peter was working for Transatlantic as a stock boy in the basement and we would go down there and sing with him. Nat Joseph who was the owner of Transatlantic heard us and said, “Oh. Would you like a recording contract?” The first one he offered us, he said he would give us something like nine hours of recording time, he would give us £27 between us and he would own all the rights including the publishing. We thought about this for about two seconds, and then said, “No thanks, we’ll wait til we’re a little more famous.” And then at about the end of 65 we got a pretty decent contract out of him, from which I’m still getting, you know, a couple of pounds a year in royalties.
What are your recollections of Bert and John?
I loved them both – they were friends, we hung out a lot, shared our last shilling for the gas meter. We were all broke. I remember Bert and John boiling their strings to make them last a bit longer. I loved their music. I think John had a lot more technique than Bert. Bert had the songwriting chops and was totally charismatic. He’d stumble on stage, drunk as a skunk, mumble his way through some songs, and he was wonderful. It was magic. They really worked well together.
Let’s talk a bit about the records. Your first was the eponymous album, recorded by Bill Leader…
They were pretty much the only songs we knew at the time. When they first put us into the studio they put us into the state of the art PYE 16 track rock ‘n’ roll studio – as we were moving in, Stevie Winwood was moving out. It was totally dead, we couldn’t hear each other. I burst into tears, couldn’t manage much singing after that. After that they found us a converted church which was much more conducive to the way we were and the way we sounded.
We never really discussed the sound with Bill Leader we just worked on the songs til they felt right. Usually not too many takes. For the first record, we’d been singing out nearly every night for some months so we had the repertoire pretty much down. It is my belief that you shouldn’t record anything that you haven’t been singing out for at least six months. You may start out one way and you find as you sing in different venues – they might turn into something completely different. And once you’ve recorded it, don’t listen to it for two weeks. You can’t judge it when you’ve just recorded it.
Did the process change for So Cheerfully Round?
Process change? Not really – we ambled round the living room singing and as things started to come together we’d move towards the middle of the room, face each other and get on with it. When we were living at Somali road rehearsals happened as they happened. When we finally moved out of there to different places, we would have to formally arrange to get together so we would take an hour before we drove off to a gig to run through stuff. We had sympathetic neighbours, but Bert is a foot-stomper so we would on occasion amble upstairs to put a cushion under his foot.
How did the EP come about?
That was after the second one. We were on the road so much we hadn’t had time to gather more repertoire and Transatlantic were nagging us for another album. We had recorded everything we had apart from solos so we said how about an EP of shanties, and Nat said “fine”.
It’s about egg on toast?
Yes, it’s written by Cyril Tawney (d.2005) who was a submariner and who has written a lot of great songs. Cyril was a friend, and we loved his song, and so we sang it. In fact, we opened every show with it for pretty much the whole of our career.
Galleries is pretty different…Did your influences change when you weren’t all living together?
I don’t think that was the cause. We had all come with different influences originally. Shirley Collins had introduced us to the early music people through her sister Dolly and it seemed like a great idea at the time.
What broke up the YT?
Economics. The two lads got married. It used to be that we’d go up north, do four or five gigs and come back. Once the lads got married it was go out come back, go out come back. We weren’t making enough money to support three households. It wasn’t musical differences because we never really expressed our musical ideologies. We just sang what we wanted to. The nice thing about a trio is that you can have a democracy – if you really didn’t like a song, you didn’t have to get involved, they would do it as a solo. That tended to be how we picked our repertoire. You had to all want to do it enough.
No-one suggested anything too outlandish?
No. But there were a couple of songs we couldn’t get to work. “Byker Hill”, we were singing in a club in Manchester and it was an old coal cellar, with these chutes in the ceiling where the coal would be poured in. We were singing in the hole and it was hard and Pete pitched something a little higher than usual – we never really used a pitch pipe. We occasionally pitched something off the whistle, in the “key of three” – which meant three fingers off the whistle. He pitched it, I discovered a bit of range I didn’t know I had and the next time we tried “Byker Hill”, it worked. But in general we beat songs into our shape pretty consistently. We didn’t sing American songs generally. Not because we followed the Ewan MacColl, “it has to be from your back doorstep” rule but because we felt more comfortable with English songs.
Pete Bellamy played totally solo after the band quit? Was the a capella too?
He played the concertina. He had this amazing East Anglian agricultutal banjo which he found in a junk shop somewhere. Its rim was a riddle which you used to get stones out of the earth. A skin nailed on with chair nails, the neck was a chair leg I think, it didn’t have any frets, it was kind of a strumming thing. I think back then people were more attuned to unaccompanied singing. It was prevalent in some circles then, but the circles were quite small.
He became very disheartened with the way things were going…
Here’s the thing – you can look at an audience, and say this lot know everything even the most obscure ballads, or you can look and say they are not folkies – let’s give them the jolly stuff. It’s not censoring your material, it’s tailoring it, and I don’t think he was prepared to do that.
A thing we discussed in the group a few times was it is much worse to do a shitty gig and have them all cheering than it is to do a great gig and have them just sit there with their thumbs up their arses. If you’re with a group you can discuss it. If you’re on your own, you can think, “Am I shit?” I think a combination of all these things drove Peter to suicide. They don’t want what I sing so they don’t want me – and, I’m broke. It’s difficult.