Thursday, 10 August 2017

Lloyd Personal view by Leslie Shepard

A.L. LLOYD—A PERSONAL VIEW – From Singer Song and Scholar 1986 pp. 126-132.
Leslie Shepard 

There must be many people who were closer to Bert Lloyd than I was, but I am happy to open this tribute because we were of roughly the same generation. I too had working-class roots and came from a poor family, with no special schooling. Bert Lloyd has always been one of my heroes, in company with such people as the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould, the Revd Joseph Ebsworth, and folksinger John Jacob Niles, also original and highly talented pioneer folklorists. I first came across the name A.L. Lloyd in 1937, with the publication of his splendid translation of Federico Garcia Lorca's Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter (London: Heinemann). About that time, I was reading James Joyce's Ulysses and was fascinated by the poetry of Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot.

Even allowing for the basic qualities of Lorca himself; there is no mistaking the passion and beauty of Lloyd's translation. Perhaps more than any other work, this translation demonstrated the extraordinary dichotomy of his character—the wild romantic feeling for folk poetry, and on the other hand the brilliant analytical scholarship with a left-wing interpretation. That political flavour has often worried those of his contemporaries who, like myself, did not share his position. It tended to be either something you ignored or tried to explain away. If we are to understand this extraordinarily talented man, we have to see this against the background of his time.

Those who grew up in the thirties and forties now find it difficult to convey the dead hand of mediocrity and authoritarianism of those days. Britain was a class-ridden society with rigid barriers and social problems that nobody seemed to care about. The mainstream of art,  notwithstanding Bert's expansion and development of The Singing Englishman into the 433 page Folk Song in England (London: Lawrence and Wishart) twenty-three years later.

The Singing Englishman was rapidly followed in 1945 by a 66 page booklet titled Corn on the Cob: Popular and Traditional Poetry of the USA at three shillings and sixpence. It was a fine selection with a perceptive introduction, lacking only the music for the songs.

You can imagine how honoured I was to meet Bert in person at the home of Jack and Gerda Chambers, and listen to his brilliant folklore anecdotes interspersed with unselfconscious folk singing. Even now I am still amazed by the vast erudition of that man and the range of his researches. I had come to English folk music via jazz, negro blues, hobo songs, Jimmie Rodgers the yodelling brakeman, broadside ballads, and the discovery that the English Folk Dance and Song Society had a genuine folk music recording of Harry Cox. Bert had been through the whole territory! He had even discovered folk singer Phil Tanner on the Gower peninsula.

At that time, the Mining Review film was fortunate in having as its Coal Board films officer Kurt Lewenhak, who was also interested in experimental theatre and knew Ewan MacColl and other folk singers. During the filming of Mining Review stories in the coalfields, I had come across evidence of industrial folklore, and I had the idea of doing a story in which Bert Lloyd would talk about the subject and ask miners to contribute folk songs. Jack Chambers and Kurt Lewenhak agreed, but first we thought it a good idea to do a sound test. So I borrowed the film unit's portable tape recorder and Jack arranged for Bert to give us another evening and record his singing.

In those days, tape recorders were something of a novelty, and this one was called portable simply because it had a handle. In fact, it weighed over fifty pounds. Moreover the tape of that period was a fragile paper tape coated with iron oxide. It is astonishing that those early tapes are still playable after more than thirty years.

I directed Bert's Mining Review appearance in 1951 in a tiny set at Carbon Hill Studios, Maida Vale (The Miner Sings', Mining Review, no. 9, Fourth Year, May 1951). It was my first sound dialogue item. We linked the item to a competition in the Coal Board's magazine Coal. It was on the basis of response to this short film item that Bert later developed his book Come All Ye Bold Miners: Ballads and Songs of the Coalfields published in 1952 (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

I can't claim that I became a close associate of Bert. There was a certain enigmatic reserve about him and I suspected a secret sorrow. Maybe it was just the strain of making ends meet. We kept in touch. We exchanged letters and information. I approached him when I planned a recording trip to Harry Cox. I read practically everything Bert wrote and went to his first appearance at a skiffle concert, a kind of halfway house between folk music and jazz which eased us into the Folk Song Revival.

I think we are inclined to forget just how much the folk song revival of the fifties and sixties owed to the left-wing movement, although they sometimes bent tradition to breaking point and introduced a false note into folk song. I for one, could not stomach eulogistic ballads of Stalin, and I think that those who did have regretted it. But Bert Lloyd was never a doctrinaire propagandist. His political interpretations of history were his own, and arose from identification with the under-privileged of the world and a deep appreciation of their folklore an music, He did not allow his views to affect the precision of his scholarship, and anyone can read his books and form their own views. Remember, too, that at the other extreme, this was the era of McCarthyism and vicious political witch hunts, which all honest libertarians despised. It is easier today to see that political insight needs to be divorced from worn-out dogmas of right and left.

In 1959, there was something of a slump in documentary films and I left the industry. I went to India and spent a year living in an old temple on the banks of the River Ganges, in the foothills of the Himalayas, studying religious philosophy and Indian music. I hasten to add that this was years before the Beatles heard the sitar or the advent of mass media pop gurus.

Some time after I got back to England, I wrote my first book The Broadside Ballad (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1962). Bert was kind enough to read the typescript and make some useful suggestions. I particularly remember how tactful and generous he was to my inexperience and naiveté. He agreed to write a Foreword, which is a valuable little essay in itself. He obviously differed radically on the issue of my metaphysical approach to ballads, his own being that of social criticism, but his dissent was courteous and carefully worded, with a touch of good humour.

His own books are characterised by a clarity of expression and a forceful style, in which one can feel the scholar struggling with the romantic in his nature. For those who are interested in the bibliographical side of his work, let me give a few notes. With Igor Vinogradoff, he published Shadow of the Swastika; A Radio-Drama in Six Parts of the Story of the German National Socialist Party (London: John Lane, 1940). Together with his wife Charlotte, he translated Answer in the Sky by Dieter Meichsner (Funk and Wagnall, 1953, also issued by Putnam under the title Vain Glory). Some of you may remember the twelve issues of that splendid magazine Recorded Folk Music which Bert edited for Collet's from January 1958 to December 1959. In 1960, there was a slim volume of Dances of Argentina (published by Parrish). I have always regretted that I never bought a copy of his book The Golden City (London: Methuen, 1960) with illustrations by Pearl Binder. At the time it came out, I was a little disappointed to find that it was a children's book. In 1965, there was Folk Songs of the Americas, with I.A. de Rivera (London: Novello), and in 1967, of course, Folk Song in England (London: Lawrence and Wishart), followed by The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, with Ralph Vaughan Williams (Penguin: Harmondsworth) in 1968. There were also many articles and erudite record sleeve notes.

His literary output may not be extensive, but it is rich in original thought and research. Much of the unique quality of Bert's insight lay in his personal contacts with the folk clubs, and those marvellous collecting trips in Eastern Europe, mainly issued by Topic Records. With Ewan MacColl, he also sang many of the items and contributed data to that remarkable series of nine L.P. records of the Child Ballads (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads) edited by my old friend Dr Kenneth S. Goldstein for Riverside Records. Bert clearly has a permanent memorial in his many records both as singer and collector, and I hope that some time somebody will prepare a complete discography of his recorded work. I am very happy to say that through the courtesy of Francis Gysin, Films Officer of the National Coal Board, the copy of the Mining Review film of 1951, which contains that interview with Bert asking for coal-mining folk songs, has been presented to the archives of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. [The film was shown here.]

The thirty-three year old recordings of Bert at the house of my friend Jack Chambers in 1950 were made before Bert was performing widely in folk clubs. I think these songs somehow symbolise Bert's dual attitude of left-wing sympathy and love of traditional folklore. [Tape recordings of 'Nine Hundred Miles from my Home' and 'Which Side Are You On?' were played.]

I have always felt that it was precisely that left-wing label that prevented Bert from being honoured by any major academy for his unique contributions to folklore scholarship, although he did receive an honorary M.A. from the Open University in 1978. If anyone deserved the recognition of an honorary doctorate it was surely Bert Lloyd, although it might have embarrassed or even amused him.

I think he remains something of an enigma, expressing in himself the problem of folk music in a modern world geared to the lowest common denominator of pop culture. There was that light high speaking voice which changed magically to a strong baritone in singing, the desire for social change and the conservatism of tradition, a romantic at odds with a scholar. Perhaps I could add, as epitaph, a few lines from Bert's wonderful translation of the Lorca's Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter, which was my first introduction to his work:

But now he sleeps endlessly.
Now mosses and grass
are opening with sure fingers
the flowers of his skull.
And his blood goes singing now,
singing by marshes and meadows,
sliding on frozen horns,
wavering soulless through the mist
stumbling on its thousand hoofs
like a long dark sad tongue. ..

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