7 December 2021

CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND SONG

Stephen Sedley and Martin Carthy. Who Killed Cock Robin?: British Folk Songs of Crime and Punishment. Reaktion Books, 2021.

Music, especially popular music, can be held up as a mirror of the times from which it came. The lyrics can tell us about what society regarded as noteworthy, thus giving us valuable insights into our collective past. Although music seems to be mostly taken up with affairs of the heart there are other subjects that are included in the massive body of work that comprises human-produced music. The recent genre of Country and Western, for instance, is notorious for including subjects such as work, animals, places and even crime as much as love. The music from our past also has this grand sweep that covers many different activities in which humans participate.

Folk music, especially in Anglophone countries, is generally divided into two main categories: contemporary and traditional. The contemporary is probably best illustrated by musicians such as Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman and Linda Ronstadt. The traditional has music played by Steeleye Span, Stan Rogers, Bellowhead and, of course, Martin Carthy. There may be some crossover in the two styles between these artists as music can be as fluid an art-form as anything else. Naturally, as with many other musical genres, there are subsets such as folk rock, folk metal, folk punk and indie folk, to name but a very few. This of course only covers folk music from the United States and the United Kingdom. Every society under the sun has traditional music.

Who Killed Cock Robin is a book about the indigenous music of the British Isles. Even more specifically it concerns music pertaining to crime and punishment. One of the authors, Sir Stephen Sedley, is an expert in this field having been a barrister, a judge and a law professor. Thus his take on this subject is something well within his field of expertise. His interest in folk music goes back at least to the start of his legal career. This is his second book on the subject, the first being The Seeds of Love, being an anthology of folk songs.

The second author, Martin Carthy, is a venerable musician who is regarded as a stalwart of the British traditional folk music scene. His career has spanned in the region of sixty years and his work has influenced some of the world’s most famous musicians. He has played with some of the big names on the folk scene. Indeed, within folk music he is a big name himself. Again, his is an insight that is valuable indeed.

The layout of the book is simple enough. Each chapter covers a particular subject, usually a particular offence or punishment. The songs themselves are introduced to the reader by title and melody. The rest of the lyrics follow then there are a few paragraphs setting out the historical context and the history of the song itself, when it had been performed (including by contemporary artists), explanations of any unusual vocabulary and any place they may have in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads edited by Francis James Child (referred to as ‘Child’) and the Roud Folk Song Index compiled by Steve Roud (known here as ‘Roud’). The epilogue is an examination of the eponymous song in a similar fashion to the rest of the music covered in the book. There is a bibliography and a short list of broadside printers who published the music in the past.

Folk music is as much a part of a nation’s fabric as the heavy stone churches and castles. The songs are as much of our past as the inglenooked pub and the Gothic town halls. Seldom, however, do they receive the recognition due to them, especially now when the internet prevails and everything seems to have some sort of variation of Andy Warhol’s eerily prescient fifteen minutes of fame. Even folk music, as the craze around the (sea shanty) The Wellerman early in 2021 and Gaudete in 1973 showed us, can be subject to this.

This book touches on art, history and sociology, showing us the importance of popular music goes beyond entertainment per se. Whilst acknowledging that it has a niche appeal, it is something that hopefully should appeal to a broader market than the one it is ostensibly aimed at. In short, it is rather charming and deserves a wide audience.
  • Trevor Pyne

1 December 2021

SEPARATING BELIEF AND REALITY

Ralph Blumenthal. The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science and the Passion of John Mack. High Road Books (University of New Mexico Press) 2021.


My first thoughts on beginning this account of the life and works of psychologist, ufologist and abductionologist John Mack, was 'when did it all start to go wrong?' I would say round about Chapter 15, but I will go into that later. Mack was born into a wealthy, middle-class secular Jewish family with academic connections and involvement in liberal politics. An early disruption in Mack’s life was the death of his mother before his first birthday. 
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26 November 2021

SPOOKS AND SAUCERS

Jack Brewer. Wayward Sons. NICAP and the IC. Independently published. 2021.


Using information from the websites of intelligence agencies, material gained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) records, Brewer pieces together the formation, structure, management and eventual decline of the world’s largest UFO group. At its height under Donald Keyhoe it had 14,000 members.
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18 November 2021

DOUBT, MYSTERY AND VISION

Kristoffer Hegnsvad. Werner Herzog, Ecstatic Truth and Other Useless Conquests. Reaktion Books
2021.

Is Werner Herzog crazy or is it a mad world? If the world has now gone too crazy then has it superseded Werner Herzog – no question mark required. For me filmmaker Herzog is wildly and responsibly sane: an uncomfortable provocateur passionately driven to discover what’s possible in order to re-think the world: to achieve this he desires to present the viewer of his films with ‘a new grammar of images.’
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13 November 2021

WRAPPING IT ALL UP

Nasser Zakariya, A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings, The University of Chicago Press, 2017

A Final Story is a study of those sweeping scientific epics, presented in books such as Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes or television extravaganzas like Carl Sagan’s classic Cosmos, which confidently set out the entire story of the universe from Big-Bang beginning to middle (our time) and on to its possible ends, pulling all the great discoveries of science into a single narrative to give the big – the biggest – picture, and putting humanity in its place (in all senses). 
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9 November 2021

GAINED IN TRANSLATION

Recent years have seen the appearance of a number of book exchanges, many of them at the entrances to London Underground stations. Anyone can take a book for free, with the request that in return they leave any of their own unwanted volumes. The one in the concourse of Fulham Broadway tube, for instance, has a high turnover, though staff have to seal it off whenever Chelsea are playing at home.
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1 November 2021

ABSOLUTE SHOCKERS

Short Sharp Shocks 1 & 2. BFI Flipside. BluRay 2020/21.

Short films are now a rarity on our cinema screens. This was not the case once. From the early 1950’s the BFI funded shorts and Rank produced their Look at Life series. If you blinked you’d miss something weirdly experimental or suffer a boring documentary on the steel industry. These films were squeezed in before the local ads and the main feature until 1985 when the Eady Fund ceased its finance for the short film
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28 October 2021

DARKNESS AND ENLIGHTENMENT

Lizanne Henderson. Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment, Scotland, 1670-1740. Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic. Palgrave Macmillan. (Paperback) 2020.


George Orwell once wrote that history, as he was taught it as a small boy, seemed to consist of rigidly separated eras. 'For instance, in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages, with knights in plate armour riding at one another with long lances, and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance, and everyone wore ruffs and doublets and was busy robbing treasure ships on the Spanish Main.' 
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19 October 2021

THE TREE STILL SINGS

The Singing, Ringing Tree. Network Blu Ray 2021

I have to confess that my first viewing of The Singing, Ringing Tree wasn’t during my infancy when it was screened by the BBC. If you read through many of the responses to the film on IMDB then most viewers encountered, during their childhood, a disconcertingly scary film. From 1964 right through the 1980s it frightened new generations. 
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11 October 2021

HEAVEN-SENT FOR SATAN

Erik Butler, The Devil and his Advocates, Reaktion Books, 2021.


Let’s be honest, Satan has had a bad press. If he’s not luring confused people into his net to siphon off their immortal souls just to give two fingers up to the great Enemy, God, he’s shown as a truly monstrous character with goaty face and bat-like wings. Sometimes you wonder what the attraction is. In this book author Erik Butler takes on the usual assumptions about the Prince of Darkness and Despoiler of Souls, and places him in a much wider, more questioning and less hysterical context than perhaps one is used to. This is long overdue.
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