Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Kevin Pearce

16th December 2009

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

This year? Where did it go? There is a great Geoff Dyer quote about his ambition being to not work (as in being employed) and instead devote himself to reading and learning, arguing that in this way he was liable to ‘work’ harder. I know what he means. The quest for knowledge can become all consuming.
In the latter half of this year I became preoccupied with finding the lost songs about London. And while it’s fun sharing cherished favourites, it’s been more rewarding finding unexpected connections. Let me give you an example of how this can work. Recently, listening to my favourite radio show (BBC Radio 2, Sunday nights, not to be missed), Russell Davies played a recording of the late Ian Wallace singing Down Below, a great song about London’s sewers, written by Sydney Carter. Russell went on to mention that Carter, from Camden Town, is better known for writing Lord of The Dance. Now I wouldn’t like to think how many times we had to sing that at school, but I never gave a thought to who wrote it. I just kind of assumed it was an old folk number.
I got curious. And found that Lord of The Dance actually dated from the mid-‘60s. It even appeared on an EP for Elektra, featuring Martin Carthy and the Mike Sammes Singers, with Joe Boyd involved somewhere. What a fantastic combination. A little later I stumbled across an LP Sydney Carter made with Bob & Carole Pegg (better known in folk rock circles as Mr Fox) around the turn of the ‘70s, which is fantastic. Anything from around that time with the Peggs involved is special.
Anyway, I was becoming quietly intrigued by Carter, and while yes many of Carter’s songs were religious he at least had a knack of offending conservative Christians. He was also a key player in the UK folk revival of the 1960s. The Watersons and many others recorded his songs. I saw it mentioned somewhere that the best interpreter of Carter’s folk songs was Nadia Cattousse. That further piqued my curiosity. I recognised Nadia’s name from one of those wonderful, early compilations by The Numero Group, Belize City Boil Up. I did recall it mentioning Nadia moving to London and getting involved with the ‘60s folk scene, but I hadn’t really heard her records.
Thanks to the wonders of the web I was able to hear her rare 1970 LP, Earth Mother, which is a wonderful thing. Songwriting credits include Sydney Carter, Donald Swann and Nhat Hahn, Andy Roberts and Mike Evans (of The Action/Mighty Baby I assume), Bob Dylan, and Nadia herself. The highlight of the LP though is a song seemingly credited to Unknown, and called Bermondsey, bizarrely recorded at the Edinburgh Festival in 1969. It is quite exquisite, with a wonderful amount of local colour irresistible to someone obsessed with London songs. Ah sweet eternal mysteries. There is always something more to discover, figure out, piece together, which is what keeps us excavators busy I guess. In the meantime visit to hear Nadia, or perhaps an equally unlikely Bermondsey number where Sid James pines for the “’appy laughing razor-slashed faces of the people” he loves.