Surely we sing of no little thing
Phil recently posted a piece on Pete Bellamy, who died just over nineteen years ago. I first saw Pete when my brother Martin took me to see The Young Tradition (they were one of the supports for somebody like Tom Rush ). I thought they were great: Martin and I had already had our "Why hasn't this guy got a guitar?" introduction to unaccompanied solo singing when we saw Cyril Tawney at the Manchester Folk Festival a year or two earlier. In an afternoon concert, I might add, featuring the Ian Campbell Folk Group (including Dave Swarbrick), Dominic Behan, Phil Ochs on a rare if not unique British appearance, and Doc Watson. They don't make them like that any more. The YoT kicked off as ever with Cyril Tawney's "Chicken on a Raft", as good a mock sea-shanty as you'll hear anywhere.
And they looked exactly as in that picture, in full Edwardian rig.
As far as I remember I only saw Pete solo on one occasion, which must have been when I was a student in the mid-seventies. He did a programme which was mainly if not entirely Kipling settings: I think Pete saw the rehabilitation of Kipling for our generation, who largely viewed him as a jingoistic old fogey rather than a Nobel Prize-winning poet, as a necessary righting of an unbalanced view as well as an aesthetic project. Certainly it would be hard to overstate the impact of his first Kipling settings. My personal favourite has always been Oak, Ash and Thorn, for the recording of which the Young Tradition reformed. Sadly I have been unable to find a clip either of Bellamy doing it or even a decent cover. It's hard to say now whether the impact of Pete's Kipling songs was more because of the sense of recovery (or at least re-evaluation) of neglected treasures or simply because his settings - literally - made the poems sing. Here is one of them:
(I've just realised Phil used the same clip. But there are, sadly, so few of Pete available.)
Quite a lot of what Phil has to say about Pete was familiar to me. I hadn't known who his father was, but I knew of his right-wing politics from an infamous duel with Leon Rosselson in the letters pages of Folk Review: the spat was over the validity or otherwise of the singer-songwriter as against the singer of traditional songs rather than anything expressly political, but from some of his criticisms of Rosselson it became clear where Pete stood. I remember the affair because it inspired me to write my first ever letter to a publication, which was duly printed (and was on Rosselson's side, though it was Steve Ashley I cited). Bellamy was clearly playing devil's advocate to an extent: while nobody picked him up on it, his greatest hit (at the time) was the above-mentioned Cyril Tawney song, a perfect example of new creation within an existing tradition. In due course Pete would create The Transports, straddling the two worlds of "traditional" and "contemporary" folk, and making the polarisation between them (which was a serious matter to some folk) seem irrelevant. (I remember an article by Peggy Seeger berating university folk clubs in the early seventies as being "full of these dreadful singer-songwriters" - a bit rich from the wife of Ivor Novello award-winning singer-songwriter Ewan McColl. Perhaps she had come to think of Dirty Old Town and First Time Ever Saw Your Face as traditional. That in turn reminds me of a spoof poll in Melody Maker listing best recording of a traditional song as Peter Paul & Mary's Blowing In The Wind, and best recording of a contemporary song as Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair. Enough said.)
Phil mentions Pete's ability to get on with the most unlikely people, and for me this was shown best by his wonderful review of Al Stewart's Past, Present and Future. He talks about Al's drift into writing highly subjective songs which had earned him a large following of devoted teenage girls before writing a glowing review of the album ending with the words "You may disagree with me (especially if you're a teenage girl) but I think he should have made this record years ago." What made the review especially interesting was Pete's revelation that some years earlier he and Al had shared a residency at a London folk club, whose customers were thus exposed to (in Pete's words) a mixture of "Ewan McColl with flu and Bob Dylan on benzedrine". It's hard to imagine two more disparate approaches to "folk singing". Though some of us began to suspect that Pete wasn't quite the purist his usual persona made out when the YoT brough out their last album Galleries, including Pete doing Robert Johnson's Stones In My Passway with very competent bottleneck guitar (and fake 78 hiss).
A true giant of the folk revival who transfigured everything he touched.