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CECILIA COSTELLO - Old Fashioned Songs

CECILIA COSTELLO - Old Fashioned Songs
Musical Traditions MTCD363-4

To Cecilia Costello, everything she sang was an ‘old fashioned song’, but her repertoire was large and varied, encompassing classic ballads, children’s songs, street cries and her first love, the music hall. The recordings on this double album from the sainted Musical Traditions label are taken from the four visits made to Cecilia by collectors: Marie Slocombe and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw as well as Peter Kennedy in 1951, Charles Parker and Pam Bishop in 1967 and Roy Palmer in 1971. The 1951 recordings were released on LP by Leader in 1975 and it is these which make up the first disc, but nothing has been published since.

Born in Birmingham in 1884, the tenth child of Irish parents, Cecilia spent her life in England’s industrial Midlands. Her speaking and singing voice were pleasantly infused with a gentle Brummie accent, but as noted in the sleevenotes, the delivery of her songs displayed her Irish influences. She learned songs from her father, her beloved music hall and from her fellow workers in Hawkin’s Screw Factory, Digbeth.

The brittleness of her voice increases, as one would expect, with the older recordings, but the astonishing clarity with which Cecilia delivers the words, her relaxed pacing and natural gift of storytelling belie any vocal difficulties. Her evident enjoyment and humour, particularly in the short comic music hall snippets on the second CD, coupled with the hilarity she sometimes causes in the collectors, is infectious and a joy to hear. Ballads such as Cruel Mother and Jews Garden are present, as of course the haunting revenant song for which she is best known (and which inspired the folk club of the same name), The Grey Cock. Other songs of note here are Green Wedding, a rarity in England, and Bring Back My Johnny (a version of My Bonny) set to a handsome Aeolian tune. Cecilia’s spoken reminiscences of her life are interspersed throughout the music, adding depth, colour and evocative historical context.

While the recordings have not been ‘cleaned up’, there are no major issues of sound or clarity, although some of the songs are patched together from two different recording sessions, naturally with differences in pitch and speed. As is usual with Musical Traditions, there is an extensive booklet of biographical information, notes on the songs and a selection of photographs of this wonderfully spirited lady. ‘Old fashioned’ these songs may be, but in the mouth of Cecilia, their ability to delight is undiminished.

Clare Button

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This album was reviewed in Issue 101 of The Living Tradition magazine.