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Book of folk ballads centering around crime unfolds into scintillating read

Readers don’t need to care for folk to get the most out of "Who Killed Cock Robin?"

Who Killed Cock Robin? British Folk Songs of Crime and Punishment

By Stephen Sedley & Martin Carthy

(Reaktion Books / English Folk Dance & Song Society)

General interest collections of old ballads don’t get published much these days, and certainly not as frequently as they used to be. Whether this is due to a lack of enthusiasm for folk music, or simply timidity on the part of modern publishers is hard to say.

But Who Killed Cock Robin? is a title surely destined for more bookshelves than most, not only on account of its subject matter (because who doesn’t enjoy a good murder/pirate/kidnapping or libel?), but through its parentage, too.

Martin Carthy, after all, is… well, he’s Martin Carthy, possibly the single most influential and important (the two qualities are not necessarily complementary) musician on the folk scene of the past 60 years. And Stephen SedleySir Stephen Sedley… possesses one of the most respected legal minds of a similar span, a former barrister and judge, and the author of a veritable shelf full of legal books.

However, he was also a ballad collector during his youth, and the compiler, too, of The Seeds of Love, a 1967 anthology that played a major part in germinating the British folk rock scene. Who Killed Cock Robin?, however, doesn’t only mark his return to the balladic fray. It also marks the sixtieth anniversary of he and Carthy becoming friends.

Carthy recalls, “It was at The Troubadour in Earl’s Court,” a basement folk club that hosted some of the key performers of the age. Sedley, apparently, “arrived with a small but very excited train of people who had just finished recording an album in the vicinity. The subject of the album was bawdy songs and I don’t remember who the singers were apart from you and the actor Tony Britton.”

Credited to Britton and Isla Cameron, Songs of Love, Lust and Loose Living was an early release on the Transatlantic label — “with a correspondingly silly sleeve,” recalls Sedley. “The material itself, partly from Isla's repertoire and partly from my research, was good, and Isla's singing was lovely, but the design and presentation killed it commercially.”

As for the Troubadour invasion, label head Nat Joseph “wanted to trail it to the folk world while he still had the performers together. Carthy was the headlining act that night, and “we probably still owe you an apology for barging in,” Sedley concedes.

The Seeds of Love was a direct descendant of the research that went into that album; and Sedley reflected upon his working methods as he discussed compiling this latest book.

“Doing my initial research, I noted each song about love, and all its traceable sources, on a card index. (In recent times this procedure has been made obsolete by Steve Roud’s online index.) That was the working basis of The Seeds of Love.

I also kept two side-indexes: one was of songs I encountered about soldiers and sailors; the other, songs about crime and punishment. When I retired from the bench in 2011 I began thinking about returning to the latter. I wrote to Martin, with whom I had stayed in contact over the intervening years, and he readily agreed to collaborate on what became Cock Robin. (The original working title was Farewell to all Judges and Juries.)”

They began working together on the book in 2016, whenever touring deposited Carthy in Sedley’s neighborhood, “and we would spend a day or two selecting and editing material from my index and/or his repertoire. Since neither of us could handle music-writing programs such as Sibelius, we hired a friend’s son to do the scores.

“When we ran into difficulties with the computer program, I also enlisted the skills of Dick Wolff of the Three Pressed Men, with whom I had been working on WWI trench songs. It took us three or four years in all, but Reaktion Books were helpful and tolerant, and hopefully it was worthwhile.”

It was. Some 60 ballads appear with words and music, including a clutch that will be familiar, if not from Carthy’s catalog, then a wealth of others — “Matty Groves” (under its “proper” title of “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard”), “Sheath and Knife,” “The Two Magicians,” “The Gypsy Laddie,” “All Around My Hat, “Geordie” and, of course, the title piece.

Equally intriguingly, a number of these were taken from Sedley’s own collection, largely gathered when he was first starting out in law. “One of my first acquisitions, when I began earning, was a Uher reel-to-reel tape-recorder, probably the best investment I ever made.”

His earliest excursions were to the Lake District in 1965-66 where, among his discoveries, was a retired quarryman named Frank Birkett — the version of “Dido Bendigo” that Sedley taped him singing that day was later recorded by the Watersons, who also cut a song sung by Birkett’s wife Margaret, “Sweet William.”

“In about 1967 a kindly and decent Sevenoaks solicitor, Peter Kingshill, who had come here in his teens as a refugee from Nazi Germany, started briefing me on legal aid to take on what seemed hopeless defenses for local travellers. By pure good luck, I started by winning a group of 32 appeals in one go on the ground that the police had not proved that my clients were gypsies within the ambit of the 1959 Highways Act. After that, a welcome was assured in every caravan in Kent.”

Sedley’s first sources were Joe and Lena Cooper, whose son Abraham had been one of his clients. Soon after, he encountered Joe Saunders, an old-time bird breeder, and a veritable fount of song. Seven of the songs Saunders sang to Sedley are included in Who Killed Cock Robin, among them the darkly moving transportation ballad “Van Dieman’s Land,” and the contrarily humorous celebration of poaching, “Shooting Goschen’s Cocks Up.”

And that’s the book all over, pushing the reader (or singer, for they are songs, after all) to the edge of despair with one ballad, and then laughing their head off with another. And sometimes, both at once. Try reading the printed version of “The Cruel Mother” while listening to the Clancy Brothers’ live recording of the same song, “Wella Wallia,” and you’ll understand.

As for the rest of the book — yes, your average folk fiends will find a few favorites that didn’t make it into these pages, but they’ll come across a few that are new to them, as well. But really, you don’t need to care a hoot for folk to get the most out of Who Killed Cock Robin? The crime shelves on your bookcase have just been given a new cellmate.


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