The Transports – The Transports
Hudson Records – 12 January 2018
The suicide of Peter Bellamy in 1991 was one of the saddest, hardest things the British folk music community has ever had to face up to. Bellamy was prolific and prodigious, a talented songwriter, an interpreter with a fine ear, and an engaging and powerful live performer. His popularity never quite matched the immense esteem in which he was held by critics and fellow musicians, but he left a large body of work with the Young Tradition (whom he joined in 1965), Shirley and Dolly Collins, and Louis Killen, as well as seventeen solo albums, a number of which featured adaptations of the ballads of Rudyard Kipling. But perhaps his greatest achievement was The Transports, an ambitious folk opera about the dehumanising effects of eighteenth-century England’s penal system, whose cast included various members of the Waterson-Carthy clan, Dave Swarbrick, Nic Jones, A.L. Lloyd and June Tabor.
The Transports was written in 1973 but not recorded until 1977. Since then it has been performed reasonably regularly, and the original recording was re-released on its twenty-fifth anniversary. Now forty years old, the production has been re-staged with an entirely new cast. The result is this lavish, beautifully performed live recording, produced by Andy Bell, that highlights just how relevant Bellamy’s masterpiece remains.
Like many great operas – folk or otherwise – it tackles important universal themes of politics and morality by focusing on the lives of individuals. The plot – based on historical fact – is relatively simple, charting the efforts of a young Norfolk family to stay together after being condemned to transportation to a New South Wales penal colony. But it is the quality of the songs and the brilliance of the performances that give the piece its power.
After a brief spoken word introduction from narrator Matthew Crampton, we are thrown head first into the world of hunger and poverty inhabited by protagonist Henry Kable’s father, performed by Paul Sartin of Bellowhead and Belshazzar’s Feast fame. Sartin’s rendition of Us Poor Fellows makes for a moving opening. The sadness and desperation embodied by the character of Kable’s father is offset by that of career criminal Abe Carman, whose part is taken by David Eagle of The Young’uns. His performance of The Robber’s Song is gleeful, expressive, funny and angry, a brilliant personification of the ambivalence of crime in a world where it is difficult to earn enough to live by legal means.
It is Abe Carman who leads both Henry Kable and his father into a very short life of crime. All three men are arrested, and Carman and the older Kable are hanged, while young Henry is sentenced to transportation. Nancy Kerr, as Henry’s bereaved mother, sings The Leaves In The Woodland, a bitterly beautiful lament, the first unaccompanied verse soon augmented by soft, sad fiddles.
The Transports isn’t merely a historical document. The anger of the convict in The Ballad Of Norwich Gaol (Bellowhead’s Benji Kirkpatrick) transcends the ages, and the song is a sharp critique not just of poorly-run, overcrowded prisons but also a warning about the dangers of privatisation and profit-driven social policies. So there is some irony in the fact that prison is the place where Kable gets his first taste of happiness. It is here that he meets petty thief Susannah Holmes. Rachael McShane, another former Bellowhead member, takes on the part of Holmes, whose song I Once Lived In Service is an understated highlight of the whole album. It is a great example of how Bellamy was able to construct a new song that could easily be mistaken for a traditional ballad. McShane’s version has a clear, liquid quality that recalls Anne Briggs (who, coincidentally, was a good friend of Bellamy).
At this point, we are finally introduced to Henry Kable (Sean Cooney, The Young’uns). His duet with Susannah Homes, Sweet Loving Friendship, represents a beacon of hope, albeit an innocent and perhaps misguided hope. Cooney’s voice is perfect for this role: there is a quiet determination tempered by resignation, and it sits wonderfully with the clarity of McShane’s singing. The hope of Sweet Loving Friendship is soon dashed on The Black And Bitter Night, the sorrowful centrepiece of the album on which Kable laments the loss of his lover and new child, who have been taken to the prison ships bound for Botany Bay.
The album then takes a distinct left turn: narrator Matthew Crampton transports us to the shores of Turkey in 2015, where Hesham Modamani, a Syrian refugee, has spent six hours in the sea, swimming to the comparative safety of Europe. We are then treated to a wonderful, restrained version Cooney’s Dark Water, a song based on Modamani’s story which was a highlight of the recent Young’uns album. If there appears to be any incongruity here, it is worth remembering that while the world’s problems may have changed since the 1780s, they certainly haven’t gone away, and using traditional music and old stories to attempt to right contemporary wrongs was one of Bellamy’s aims when he first conceived The Transports.
The temporal interlude marks a change in atmosphere: we are introduced to John Simpson, a jailor, who has been entrusted to convey Holmes and her baby to the ships waiting at Plymouth. Simpson’s song The Humane Turnkey, sung unaccompanied by Greg Russell, is little more than a minute long, but manages in that short time to move from apathy to cruelty to hope. The ability to move a story forward so deftly while introducing a whole new character was one part of Bellamy’s quiet genius. Then there is The Plymouth Mail, sung by Michael Hughes, another member of the Young’uns. It’s a rollicking road trip of a song that also serves as a potted biography of the mail coach driver (while, of course, playing an integral part in the narrative).
The Transports is an impeccably paced piece of work: as the story nears its conclusion, there is an increased sense of urgency embodied by the speedy Plymouth Mail, and the second John Simpson song, which trips along with alacrity and purpose. The album’s narrative and lyrical arc peaks on The Green Fields Of England, an ensemble a cappella piece which contains some simply stunning singing, and the story concludes with Henry and Susannah, reunited thanks to the actions of the jailor, disembarking in Botany Bay to begin a new life. The final song is a stirring shanty led by Saul Rose, and featuring the whole cast.
It is fair to say that there is nothing else quite like The Transports in the world of folk music, and this new version is if anything even more ambitious than the original. Although it speaks of another time, it is firmly rooted in the political climate of the present day, and this is something Peter Bellamy would no doubt have encouraged. He was always acutely aware of the need for music to change, to avoid stagnation and to reflect the injustice and the hope of the period in which it was created. The Transports achieves this superbly, a perfect combination of song and story that is a fitting tribute to its hugely talented and much-missed creator.
The Transports is out on 12 January via Hudson Records.
The Transports will take to the road in January 2018 on a 14-date tour opening at Cheltenham Town Hall on January 10 and aptly bringing the curtain down on January 24 in Norwich – the city from which the story originates.
The Transports Tour Dates
10 CHELTENHAM Town Hall 0844 576 2210
11 LONDON Union Chapel 0871 220 0260
12 YEOVIL Octagon 01935 422884
13 MANCHESTER Dancehouse 0844 888 9991
14 PRESTON Guild Hall 01772 804444
16 BURY ST EDMUNDS Apex 01284 758000
17 BROMSGROVE Artrix 01527 577330
18 GUILDFORD G Live 01483 369350
19 SOUTHAMPTON Turner Sims Concert Hall 02380 595151
20 CHESTERFIELD Winding Wheel 01773 853428
21 LEEDS City Varieties 0113 243 0808
22 DURHAM Gala Theatre 0300 026 6600
23 BERWICK Maltings 01289 330999
24 NORWICH Maddermarket Theatre 01602 620917
Henry Kable: SEAN COONEY (The Young’uns)
Susannah Holmes: RACHAEL MCSHANE (Bellowhead)
The Father: PAUL SARTIN (Faustus/Belshazzar’s Feast/Bellowhead)
The Mother: NANCY KERR
The Narrator: MATTHEW CRAMPTON
The Turnkey: GREG RUSSELL
Abe Carman: DAVID EAGLE (The Young’uns)
The Shantyman: SAUL ROSE (Faustus/Waterson: Carthy/Whapweasel)
The Convict: BENJI KIRKPATRICK (Faustus/Bellowhead)
The Coachman: MICHAEL HUGHES (The Young’uns)
For more details and ticket links visit: http://www.thetransportsproduction.co.uk