Folklore and Folksongs of the West Midlands
with Richard Churchley
Members of the Vale of Evesham Historical Society braved a very cold frosty evening on Thursday 30 November to hear Richard Churchley present a talk about the folklore and folksongs of the West Midlands (with rousing performances of some of the latter).
Richard began his talk in the character of the doctor who appears in the Mummers’ plays that are performed all over the country during the Christmas period. Speaking the words of the Worcestershire version of the play, he explained that the doctor brings St George and his opponent, the Turkish or Saracen Knight, back to life after they have killed one another in combat. This would seem to date the origins of the play to the time of the Crusades, but experts think that the ideas of death and rebirth over the winter period go back to,pagan times, and are a common theme in folklore. He explained the origins of the name “Mummers” (in the north of England the players are known as “Guisers”, the disguised ones), and that the plays were performed by labourers, whose work was seasonal and ceased during the winter, to augment their income.
Richard then went on to perform a variety of folk songs, explaining where and when they were collected (chiefly by Cecil Sharp). A talented performer, he accompanied himself on the piano accordion and also on the cittern. Of particular interest was the Bitter Withy Carol. In parts of Worcestershire the willow is accounted unlucky. In the notes and queries section of a Bromsgrove newspaper of the early 1900s it was explained to a questioner that, as recounted in the carol, according to legend the child Jesus was beaten by his mother with withy (willow) wands for some childish (and rather malevolent) misbehaviour. Apparently it was believed in the area that if a withy wand was used to drive cattle, the cows would die, or become barren, or cease to produce milk.
Some of the tunes are used as marching tunes for various regiments. “My boy Willy”, for example, which is the Worcestershire variant of the song “Where have you been all the day, Billy boy, Billy boy?” is used by the Worcestershire and Wiltshire Regiment (and also, as emerged during the discussion, by the Tank Regiment).
Richard ended with a selection of Morris tunes from the West Midlands. In this part of the world we have what is known as Border Morris, and we were treated to tunes from Pershore, Redditch and Ilmington, together with a tune for the Upton-on-Severn Stick Dance. Apparently an old gentleman of Upton could recall the steps of the dance, but not the tune; the tune was chosen to fit the steps and actually comes from Newfoundland.
This was a really entertaining performance on Richard’s part, reflected in the many appreciative comments from members of the audience.