Caroline Cleave, Choral Singing, Cornwall, Cornwall Today, Eden Project, Fisherman's Friends, Folk Music, Jon Cleave, Lost In Song, music, Poldark, Port Eliot Festival, Port Isaac, RNLI, Shout Kernow, Singing, St Austell Brewery, St Paul's Cathedral Melbourne, The Gullery
One of the great joys of living in the South West has been discovering the wonderful culture of singing that exists here. I sang at school and loved it, but it all ended with my last school speech night – and that was a long time ago.
Music was always a big part of family life as I was growing up. There was always music on in our house, whether on the radio, the car radio, a small transistor radio in the garden or for special occasions, Dad’s stereo in the “good room”. I grew up listening to my parents records – Elton John, Boz Scaggs, ELO, the Bee Gees and ABBA – and knew all the tracks by heart.
And at my grandparents house, it was the albums of 1950s and ’60s musical theatre – South Pacific, the King and I, Carousel, etc. I loved listening to these records with the ceremony that was involved – opening the cabinet, turning the buttons on, carefully removing the vinyl from the sleeve, delicately placing the record on the turntable, cleaning the disk with a velvet brush, then, with great precision, putting the needle down on the record. Incredibly, I have vivid memories of my grandmother holding me in her arms, dancing “cheek to cheek” to these wonderful songs, her singing to me as we swayed around the room. Her favourite song for me was “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” by Perry Como, and to this day I can’t hear it without being stopped in my tracks and mentally transported to the art deco lounge in my grandparents ocean liner style home in the suburbs of Melbourne in the 1970s.
When we weren’t listening to records, my grandmother would let me sit on her lap as she played the piano. She was an accomplished pianist, but couldn’t read music. Although she grew up in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, her family was Cornish, her parents had met singing in the choir of the South Melbourne Methodist Chapel, and she had been brought up singing and playing the organ at Chapel. Playing entirely by ear, she had an impressive repertoire of very beautiful music from the best of the twentieth century. Occasionally we’d hear my grandfather pause at the door for a moment, then continue, whistling as he walked by.
Years later I was to discover that he’d been head choir boy at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, and had even sang a duet with Dame Nellie Melba. At the Induction Service for my last year at school he told me that, incredibly, when I sang in the choir at St Paul’s that night, I had stood in “his” place in the choir stalls. What incredible synergy and a very precious moment. But my grandmother was the star musician in the house.
So when I moved to the UK, and stepped away from the massive work pressures that had dominated my life for years, I realised how much I not just wanted to sing, but needed to sing. A chance meeting at the Port Eliot Festival with the extraordinary polymath Emma Mansfield – television producer, event producer, and now choir mistress, author and yoga teacher – yielded an invitation to “come and have a sing” at the newly formed Eden Project staff choir. I was a ring-in – not a staff member, but I joyfully sang with the choir for the next three years. It was a very relaxed but respectful experience, we rehearsed every week with the hugely talented Vicky Abbot – choir mistress par excellence – who used to drive up to St Austell from Penzance every week to coach us out of our reticence and get us to the point where we could perform in public. We didn’t use music, just learned the words and the three-part harmonies from Vicky, who drilled us with a great sense of expectation and great humour at the same time. I sang through my pregnancy with Daisy, performing at the Eden Project for Christmas celebrations and the Eden Sessions, and loved every minute. Emma then created the Lostwithiel Community Choir, “Lost In Song“, and through these choirs I saw how singing can bring people together, give them a sense of purpose, confidence, community and connection.
Since then I’ve sung in live shows, with an Early Music choir (where I was pushed completely past my comfort zone but learned to absolutely love it), in pubs, in community events, in churches in spectacular parts of Devon and Cornwall; not forgetting the time I sang a full concert when eight months pregnant with twins.
Now I’m a member of the Plymouth University Choral Society, and love the feeling of expression that choral singing gives me. I also love that I can go along to rehearsal and look at a piece of music and think “I’m never going to be able to sing that!”. But after a few weeks of expert tuition from our dedicated Musical Director, Simon Ible, there we are, all singing something that really once seemed impossible. It’s a huge sense of achievement and can be a really moving experience too. Last Christmas I sang Handel’s Messiah with the Choir from a copy that had been given to my darling grandfather exactly 90 years before – it was the Music prize from the St Paul’s Choir School in 1924.
Then, earlier this year, I discovered a kind of singing that made me feel more connected to my heritage, the land I live in and my community than ever before.
Being an avid radio listener, I had followed with strong interest the journey of the Cornish “buoy” band, the Fisherman’s Friends, from discovery, to meteoric rise, to record deals and huge commercial success, then tragedy and subsequent resurrection. I remember hearing them on BBC Radio Two, being interviewed and also singing, and had felt vicariously proud of this bunch of seemingly everyday Cornish blokes, who were all mates and through having a sing at the pub of an evening, had made it to the big time.
But it wasn’t until earlier this year when we took our children to the Family Fun Day for the Fowey Festival at Trenython Manor in South East Cornwall that I had my first close encounter with one of the afore-mentioned Fisherman’s Friends.
Jon Cleave is a born entertainer. Larger-than-life, he fills up a room with his cheeky grin, sparkly eyes and iconic moustache. He loves to tell a story, and it’s this natural ability that’s seen him take on the position of captivating leader of this band of fishy brothers from North Cornwall’s Port Isaac. At Trenython Manor, he was in his guise of children’s author, and he charmed our children with stories of “Gully” the naughty seagull. Jon was there with his wife Caroline, a well-respected artist of stunning talent, who paints artworks drawing inspiration from the natural world in and around. Meeting Caroline was particularly handy for my husband, Matt, who instantly got several ideas for my impending birthday, and I am now the proud owner of several Caroline Cleave seasonal prints and a fantastic tray decorated with crabs, which is used in our home every day.
So as our youngest, Clemmie, listened to Jon tell tall, salty tales of life according to a seagull, Caroline helped our other children, Daisy and Freddie decorate fish and paint a colourful lobster on a canvas that she’d pre-painted to show the children an outline of where to use the paint. Needless to say, we all fell under the “Cleave” spell, and decided to get to a Fisherman’s Friends performance whenever we next could.
Fortunately for us, as summer approaches the FF’s perform on the harbour at Port Isaac, known as the “Platt”, almost every Friday night, admirably always free of charge but making a collection for a local charity. So a couple of weeks later, we packed a picnic and drove from Plymouth to North Cornwall and settled in for what was to become a memorable night. The FF’s sang, under a marquee, with the tide lapping at their feet, to an appreciative, enthusiastic audience of all ages. It was a completely interactive performance, with Jon playing the role of master of ceremonies, and the rest of the boys falling into line around him. The musical roles are evenly shared, each of the men has the chance to sing their own solo with the others melodically wrapping around them in a seemingly effortless way. They seem to appreciate the audience participation, even when it meant on that occasion, lots of interpretive dance from our Daisy right next to where they were performing. We had such a fun evening, we all sang, laughed and smiled ’til our jaws hurt, and drove home tired and completely satisfied.
So much so that a couple of weeks later, we went again. This time the boys had learned from the previous experience and were stationed at the top of the harbour, but with an equally voluminous and appreciative audience, and lots more interaction from the audience. On this occasion, we picked up a copy of the new CD, “Proper Job”, which has been produced in association with St Austell Brewery and is appropriately named after one of their most popular beers.
We then went to see them at the outstanding Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival, where we met up with fellow groupie, and my Editor at Cornwall Today, Kirstie Newton. Kirstie, like me, wasn’t born in Cornwall but her love of the Duchy is unquestionable and – almost – matches mine. Her daughter was born two months after our twins and has been a massive FF’s fan for years. So now our children are the band’s biggest – and potentially youngest – supporters and it’s hilarious (if not a little inappropriate) to see them bond over bawdy songs about floggings and drunken behaviour. Our Freddie has taken to singing “Yo ho, heave ho” while waiting in the line to go into school most mornings, and Daisy is a great exponent of using a good “Phwoar” to punctuate the most delicate of songs. Thanks Jon!
Knowing how much I have come to enjoy and appreciate the FF’s (and yes, become a bit of a groupie), Kirstie arranged an invitation for me to go to the official launch of the CD at the iconic St Austell Brewery last week. It was a really hot late June evening and a cold pint (of cider, in my case), a pasty, a catch-up with a good friend and some great singing were just the ticket.
Jon spoke on behalf of the group and made a point of thanking everyone who’d supported them through good times and bad. He also made reference to the importance of singing and what it had meant to them, and the cultural tradition of the “Shout”. As far as I’m aware, a “shout” can mean two things in Cornwall – either an emergency at sea, or a social gathering. I know that from friends’ experience in the RNLI, when the emergency siren goes off it’s called a shout and all the volunteer RNLI members run to the station as quickly as they can to help whoever is in need. Similarly, a shout can be an opportunity to get together for a sing, a drink, a chat and a good time. Shout Kernow is an organisation that’s helping people get back to the spirit of Cornish community singing – primarily in pubs, hooray! I’m hoping to get along to one of their events very soon. In any case, both meanings of the word have the same sentiment – people from close communities coming together to support each other and connect in a meaningful way.
The boys delighted us with some of their best songs, old and new, and it was a very intimate gig. The new album has some saucy renditions of old favourites like Sugar In The Hold, and Donkey Riding, but our family favourite has to be The Coast of High Barbary with its gory lyrics and excellent ghoulish laugh from Jon at the end.
The stalwarts of the band have been bolstered by some new blood in the form of Padstow-based Toby Lobb, whom Jon Cleave refers to as the band’s very own Ross Poldark. Good-natured Toby even agreed to wear a tricorn hat at one of the performances, but that didn’t take away from the very solid role he performs in the band from both singing to playing the guitar and technical assistance. It doesn’t hurt that he actually does look a bit like Ross Poldark either.
The Fisherman’s Friends are giving new life to songs that may otherwise be consigned to the annals of history, and they’re doing it with great humour, style and harmony. Throughout all the different types of singing I’ve done since living in the South West, it’s this style of community singing that I feel most connected to. Being a Celtic spirit, I do feel very affected by both the experience of singing with other people, but also by the lyrics of songs. In particular, I am always amazed at the enthusiasm, fondness and passion shown by massive groups of people here in the UK joining in to sing “South Australia” – it wouldn’t happen in Australia! I also love “Cousin Jack”, which tells the story of the Cornish diaspora, those tens of thousands of Cornish people who left their homeland in search of a better life in Australia, the US, South Africa, Mexico and other places around the world. I am deeply connected to this story through my ancestry and my entire being, and I’m rarely able to listen to the song without finding a tear or two welling up. Not good when you’re at a lovely corporate gig like the “Proper Job” album release. Sorry boys!
I love that my children find this music so accessible and that it connects us all with the great seafaring history of this land and the people associated with it. We’re off to see them again tonight at Port Isaac and again at the Port Eliot Festival, and I think we can safely – and proudly – say that we’re FF groupies. And, if in thirty or forty years time, my children have the same responses to hearing their music as I do hearing the music of my childhood, I’ll be very satisfied.
The Fisherman’s Friends album, Proper Job is released today.
© Sally Bell 2015