You can get a pretty good idea of the importance of The Young Tradition from a look at the track list of newly released Oberlin 1968 CD (Fledg’ling – 30 Sept 2013). Many of the song names are instantly recognisable from the running orders of CDs that you will own by the current crop of young folksters. Even if the titles don’t instantly spring to mind, given slight variations in nomenclature, then certainly a play through will put you into some familiar territory. It’s not simply the set list, however, but there’s also something in the way that these traditional songs are delivered. There’s a brio that suggests an ownership, a wholehearted embrace – this is for your entertainment and above all enjoyment.
When they first appeared The Young Tradition gained as many notices for their Carnaby Street inspired attire as for their performance. That’s probably revealing of the average folk club mindset of the day (and possibly even today), although it would be wrong to over generalise and revive any clichés. But hey! We are talking about the second half of the swinging 60s. Still, the very fact that the dandyish velvets, ruffled shirts, homemade William Morris print trousers and alternating mediaeval style maxi and miniskirts made the review copy displays a certain incredulity, ultimately and appropriately displaced by the actual performances that The Young Tradition delivered time and time again.
This recording comes from Oberlin College in Ohio and is a measure of the esteem that the trio were held in. Not only were they touring America – and this was their third of four such forays – but the record company had been persuaded to fund their adventures. The tours had seemed a logical extension of fraternising with artists coming the other way to play in London, where the trio’s Kilburn pad became a welcome refuge and suitably appointed hang out.
According to the recollections of Heather Wood, The Young Tradition first came to be when she saw, Peter Bellamy and Royston Wood (no relation) singing in a London pub called the Scots Hoose. The sleeve notes, however, drop the enticing prospect that she’d started to follow the duos performances and join in with gusto from front rows of the audience, before the Peter and Royston, recognising a kindred spirit and fine singing voice, co-opted her to their ranks.
Peter and Royston apparently met while sharing floor space at a mutual friend’s flat, happenstance for two singers who had individually started to explore different branches of the tradition, Peter through the Norfolk source singer Harry Cox, with Royston delving into chanteys while hitching and tramp trucking around with another buddy, Frank Smythe. It was the singing of the Copper Family, which suggested a way of combining their talents and two very distinct voices started to work towards a common purpose.
Whatever the timelines and regardless of the eye-popping attire they became firm favourites on the London folk club circuit, including Ewan MacColl’s Singer’s Club and Bruce Dunnet’s Grand Tradition. It was the latter’s name change to The Young Tradition that gave them their name. The Young Tradition’s success soon spread from the London scene across the UK and Transatlantic Records came a courting.
The record label were obviously pleased enough with their new charges to fund that first trip to the States in ’67. There they made their mark, notably at Newport Folk Festival, Club 47 in Cambridge Massachusetts and In Greenwich Village. So much so in fact, that on returning a year later, The Young Tradition found themselves breaking new ground and festival rules by being promoted to the main stage of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, due in large part to audience pressure. They were also offered a not inconsiderable sum in the day of $400 to play Oberlin College, the Ohio city’s prestigious and sophisticated musical conservatoire.
Unbeknownst to The Young Tradition, the gig was recorded and that fact has also remained hidden from the wider world for 45 years. The resultant 25 song set is, however, the evidence not just of their powers as a live singing unit, but of the expectation, excitement and rapturous reception for The Young Tradition had become common place.
Oddly the recording seems to have missed the start of the set as Heather Wood’s track by track summary remarks, they would almost always start with Chicken On A Raft and at least one more song together before starting to alternate individual leads. The recording actually starts The Prentice Boy half way through, so there was possibly a fumble or some damage to the original ¼ inch tape. The other things to note is that the inter-song banter has been lost, which is perhaps more of a shame. The trio were well regarded for properly entertaining their audience and those in the know have praised their humour, stories, asides, jibes and general banter as well as their singing.
As voices go, there is no mistaking the high nasal tremor of Peter Belamy and someone, possibly Peter himself, came up with the wry sobriquet Emmer P. Bleaty as a neat anagram. There’s also no mistaking the relish with which he tackles The Prentice Boy, thus cementing the lineage back to Harry Cox and also justifying the inclusion of the incomplete recording here. But it’s when all three voices are joined and the harmonies and counterpoints take flight that you really get the power at the disposal of The Young Tradition. There’s nothing staid or worthy as the songs become visceral, vehicles for a full, complex emotional range.
To hear the gusto with which they take their standard medley of chanteys that invariably closed of their first set leaves you in no doubt of the almost rock band dynamics and energy that the trio had. Especially the raucous attack of Haul ‘Em Away, which Bellowhead purloined to such effect – “little Sally Racket,” indeed. But it’s also there in The Foxhunt, The Bold Fisherman and John Barleycorn, with the trio in unison from the first note to the last.
Royston and Peter have great fun sparring through The Husbandman And The Servingman and the formers robust delivery of The Two Magicians also injects a little extra something. But individually they all shine and although Heather is restricted to two leads, she still manages to add a suitable sauciness to both My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him and the Oyster Girl. There is no room for doubt as to the passions stirred. If you find Peter’s voice an oddity it is one worth acquiring a taste for and Claudy Banks is rightly regarded as one of his tour de force moments. A complex character who ruffled a few feathers in his day, his influence is certainly the widest and most directly felt today.
The Young Tradition burned brightly for just four years, as three diverse and disparate characters drawn together in the hubub of swinging London by a shared passion for singing folk songs, recording just four albums. What they did came naturally to them and Heather Wood as the only survivor recalls there was little rehearsal involved. It’s perhaps that element of spontaneity that comes through and gives the trio its energy.
After 45 years this still sounds fresh and vital and you suspect would still put the wind up a significant sector of the folk fraternity if the show rolled into town today. Yet you can also bet that they’d be selling out venues wherever they went and the much expanded festival circuit in the UK would lap them up.
Lovingly presented by Feldg’ling this is one of the most exciting releases of the year for anyone with a love of folk music. We can thank one Steven Mayer for having the foresight and wits to commit this to tape, as it stands as one of the most important documents of a talented trio at the top of their game and in their element. This is the tradition however you choose to prefix that – young, old, ancient even, or grand – but most importantly alive.
Review by: Simon Holland