Although they have both been singing professionally for over 40 years, this married couple has only just released a first album together that covers their performing career and beyond.
Although they have both been singing professionally for over 40 years, this married couple has only just released a first album together that covers their performing career and beyond. Readers of The Living Tradition might recognise Alan’s name from the many reviews he’s written for the magazine over the years. Nigel Schofield decided to find out why it’s taken them so long to get around to their much-anticipated debut release.
“What was it John Lennon said about life being what happens when you’re making other plans?” Alan says. “Alan’s right,” agrees Lynda. “We’ve always sung together, but since the seventies we’ve been involved in other groups and projects that meant singing together professionally couldn’t be our main focus. It’s no good making an album unless you’re out there, singing the songs.”
Can any other duo claim that their recording debut (40 years before their duo debut release!) was on a concept album that has since become known as a lost iconic classic.
“We were in Mountain Ash mark 1,” says Alan, “which was myself, Lynda, Colin Cripps and Geoff Bowen. We played together for quite a while around 1974. The Hermit and the Mountain Ash Band came out of that four-piece acoustic group. Martin Carter and Graham Jones joined us for that: Kevin Slingsby on drums; Sean Mansley narrated it. It was a more electric sound and quite a big band too. The Hermit itself was a concept work based on the life of a real person, Joe Senior. The original album has achieved cult status and become quite collectible. We’ve still got an original copy at home. I gather we could sell it and fund our retirement!”
Lynda continues: “It has achieved cult status, not least because of it rarity – there was a limited edition reissue on CD, they’ve become collectible themselves. The whole thing was done in 48 hours, working on a very limited budget. Geoff Bowen funded it. That’s not to say it’s not a good album. It was certainly an ambitious place to start.”
“It was during the making of The Hermit that Lynda and I moved to Keighley,” Alan explains. “The folk club there - Bacca Pipes - became our home club and that’s when we really started singing as a duo. Geoff had found his true musical love, which was playing for dancing. He’s an astonishing dance fiddler. We were much more into singing. So, there was no great fall out; we just headed in different directions. We carried on with the name, and we became an a cappella vocal trio - the two of us and Jim Ellison.”
However, the career of Mountain Ash faded and, around the same time, Lynda became part of the trio which would be the main focus of her career for the next dozen years.
“Helen Hockenhull and I started singing together,” says Lynda. “Again, it was just for our own amusement or perhaps for performances at the club, though we did a gig at Keighley Festival where we supported Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. Then Steve Tilston and Maggie Boyle moved up to Keighley, and she began to sing with us; that’s how Grace Notes came about. I’m telescoping events somewhat, and I’d be hard pressed to put precise dates on any of this because there was a lot going on and these things just kind of happened. The first time we sang together as Grace Notes was at a theme night at the club – the theme was Cowboys or The Wild West or something like that, and we did Kirsty MacColl’s Don’t Come The Cowboy.”
In parallel with that, Alan and Lynda sang with Sharon And The Students, which was a large a cappella group that did a lot of Sacred Harp repertoire, plus some English traditional songs, things from Eastern Europe and even the odd Drifters song. “Peter Bellamy moved to Keighley and he became part of Sharon,” Lynda explains. “He was quite purist and made it very clear if we did material he didn’t really approve of! Sharon sang on one of his albums – his setting of Kipling’s Recessional.” Alan continues. “After Peter’s death, Sharon evolved into BaccaPella, who really only perform at Christmas. Our repertoire draws on various carol traditions, particularly The Sheffield Carols.”
After Grace Notes formed, Alan started to do more and more solo stuff - a practical decision really. “It was obvious to me right from the start that Grace Notes were going places,” he says. “They were just so good, but that involved a lot of rehearsing, touring, and recording from time to time. If I wanted to play and sing – which I of course did – I had to do it by myself. Mike Hockenhull and I started The Sensible Shoe String Band with Janet Kerr and Jo Corrick. Our wives were busy with Grace Notes and it gave us something to do (Maggie Boyle was married to Steve Tilston at the time but he had other things to occupy him than playing 1920s Americana). We used to go over to Janet Kerr’s every week to get together and play old time music. It was just for the love of playing; the name existed in case anybody decided to book us at some point.”
“But throughout this, as a couple, we still kept singing together and learning new songs,” says Lynda. “You know, we’d hear something and just know we had to sing it. We’re not talking about going out to do bookings as such; this was just for the love of it – or if someone asked us to do a floor spot or whatever. That’s why we ended up with so much to choose from when we made the album.”
Just as Lynda became part of a trio that grew out of friendships at the folk club, Alan would eventually, and in a typically less high-profile way, follow suit. “Yes,” he says. “INPO. That was a bit later, but I started singing with Mike Hockenhull and John Clough. We all sang solo down the club and we thought it would be interesting to sing together. Jenny Scott, who runs BaccaPipes, always introduced us with our individual names (because we weren’t a group and didn’t have a name) preceded by the words ‘In No Particular Order’, so we became INPO, and in its own small way that’s gone on for a good while now. But I think we all knew its time had come – the last few years we seemed to be doing three gigs a year to the same 20 people, which still involved a lot of rehearsing to make sure we didn’t do the same songs for them again, and sometimes John would have to travel up from London to rehearse.”
INPO called it a day at Whitby Festival in 2017. Grace Notes also came to an end. “After Maggie died, we decided to let that be the end of Grace Notes,” Lynda says. “Sian Levy did a great job standing in for Maggie whenever she felt too ill to sing, but Grace Notes was always me, Helen and Maggie, and without her we felt it was best to draw a line. It was a natural conclusion for all kinds of reasons. So there we were, me and him, both retired, with time on our hands and songs in our heads and we decided to give it a go at being a duo.”
Although the songs on their new album cover the 40-odd years they’ve been singing together (and some, of course, predate them as a duo by decades), it was never seen as a kind of retrospective – ‘the story so far’ as it were. “Not at all,” says Lynda. “These are the songs we’re doing now. If someone has come to see us over the past year, these are some of the songs they would have heard. That was part of our decision in choosing what to record.”
Deciding what to include on their debut CD must have been difficult; after all these years they have so much to choose from. “We do have a lot of songs,” Alan explains. “Things we’ve been singing for years and older songs that we wanted to go back to. We’re always discovering and learning new songs and obviously if you like something enough to go to the trouble of learning it, you want to share it with other people. The first thing we had to do was decide which songs we wanted to be on the CD from the theoretical list. We set ourselves some parameters which made the job easier. One of those was not to have any more than one song by any writer. We didn’t want two Bob Pegg or two Pete Morton songs. You have only so much space on a CD and that seemed a fair approach.”
Linda continues: “That meant, if there was a writer whose songs we really like, once we decided on the one that had to be on, we didn’t need to think about the rest. It made things a lot simpler. Once we knew it was going to be Steve Tilston’s Salty Dog, the others by him didn’t complicate the issue, so to speak. Of course, neither of us writes songs ourselves. If we did, that could have become an issue. Then there are – what should I call them? – ‘oldies’ I suppose. Songs we’ve been doing literally for years that people would expect to be on the album. Another factor was we wanted to include a couple of guest musicians – Frances Watt on flute, Sam Hudson on guitar and Shaun Hardcastle on bass. That tipped the balance for some songs.”
“Then Gerry McNeice played along with us at Whitby – just on the campsite – when we were singing How She Sang The Wildwood Flower. We loved what he did and asked him to play on the album. Shortly after that we discover Hunky Dory is one of his favourite LPs. We’ve always loved Kooks because it’s a song we can relate to. So we suggested he do that with us as well.”
“We don’t have any boundaries as to where songs might come from,” says Alan. “We do traditional songs because we love them, but if we hear a good song from somewhere else that suits us, we’ll give it a go. I think that was true of The Mountain Ash trio and certainly of Grace Notes. A song’s a song – and there are only two types of song – good ones and the rest. At least that’s the way I tend to think of it. Because we’re folk-singers we naturally sing songs in a folkie way, but looking down the album you’ll find that most of the songs aren’t traditional, even if they sound like they might be. I always bear in mind what Peter Bellamy used to say: ‘The folk tradition is safe in the hands of the audience’. If you get it wrong, they let you know! Apart from being singers, Lynda and I spend a lot of time as audience.”
“It’s interestingly really,” Lynda continues, “because it’s the young singers who are now the purists – when we were young we argued to be allowed to perform the things being written by contemporary singer songwriters, now they perform sets that are entirely traditional and so many of them are really, really good – they do it so well. We get to listen to a lot of music – live music particularly - and that’s the way we get to hear new and unusual material. It might be a floor singer with something you’ve never heard before – maybe even something they’ve written themselves. It could be a well-known act and suddenly one of their songs really strikes you and you know you have to sing it. It’s the same with traditional songs. You might hear something you’ve never heard before. Or it might be a great version of something you already know. I always make a point of asking if it’s OK for us to learn things, though.”
On the CD, the track representing the tradition is Sheepcrook And Black Dog. “I think the first time I heard that was when Steeleye did it,” says Lynda. “I was never entirely comfortable with their version, because it says ‘she wrote him a letter’. She wouldn’t be able to write! Then I discovered Norma Waterson’s version which says ‘a letter was wrote’. It’s a small detail, but it makes a huge difference; it makes it more believable. Hearing what someone has done with a song you think you know well and being surprised by it all over again: that’s a great feeling and it happens more often than you might think.”
“I really love arranging songs. I don’t mean writing an arrangement, but trying different ways of doing things as you learn them. It was one of the things I loved about Grace Notes. You’d find a song and then, working with Maggie and Helen, that’s when the voyage of discovery would start. It’s how Alan and I work too.”
Presumably that applies to medleys too – always a Grace Notes trademark – and there are a couple on Alan and Lynda’s new CD. “It’s good when you find things that work together,” Lynda says, “especially if putting them together adds something to both songs. It’s also a way of being able to perform things which perhaps would be too short to stand up on their own - which is how the first Grace Notes medley came about: Blue Jay and Migrating Bird; both too short to sing in their own right, tiny little things, but put them together – ‘the power of combining’ as someone referred to it.”
“Dave Burland has always done it. He’ll bring in a song inside another song – and that’s something we’ve done with Three Score And Ten when Alan sings a Mike Waterson song in the middle of it. That works well because it takes a song that everyone knows – and everyone likes to sing along with – and revives it by injecting something new; a modern viewpoint; a modern event that closely parallels the one in the past.”
One track on the album, where that process of reinventing the song through the arrangement really comes out, is Reunion Hill, where Alan and Lynda’s contrasting voices bring out a dialogue which is easily missed in a solo performance. Lynda finds it emotional, even after singing it scores of times, and that was something they really wanted to recreate on the CD.
With a wealth of material in their repertoire to choose from, in the end they had a CD-length set list of precisely the songs they wanted to record. “I’m glad in a way that we didn’t go down the route of recording lots of songs and then deciding which should go on the album,” explains Alan. “Partly because it meant we concentrated on a set of songs that we knew we were going to put out there. I suspect also, when you have to choose between recordings of songs, it can distort the reasons behind your decisions. Personally, I’d also find it frustrating to have a bunch of perfectly good recordings that were never going to see the light of day. I know some people – Dylan for example – have always been happy to work like that, but I hate waste.”
“There were things that we had down on our many lists,” Lynda continues, “sometimes things people would expect us to put on our first CD, but the list was just too long. It started to get crazy. So, decisions had to be made. One song we both wanted to do and, I still regret that we couldn’t fit it in, was In My Life. That’s such a perfect song.”
There are no Peter Bellamy songs either. “I have done a lot of Peter’s songs – particularly his Kipling settings – in solo sets,” says Alan, “but they didn’t seem to work in the context of us as a duo.” Lynda agrees: “We tried Oak Ash And Thorn but it didn’t work out in a way we were happy with. Now, we are working on The Land but it’s nowhere near ready to perform, let alone record.”
One medley takes us back to the thirties and one of Alan’s heroes, Charlie Poole. Grace Notes were already doing I Once Loved A Sailor. “We learned that from Jeff Warner,” recounts Lynda. “I heard him do it at the club and asked if I could have a copy. Before he left the next day he very kindly recorded it for us. If ever I hear a song I really like, I want to NOW. I want to start learning it as soon as possible and sing it as soon as I know it. If the singer has an album out with it on, that makes it simpler. But when they don’t, as was the case with Jeff, it’s a matter of finding a way around it.”
Alan continues: “We should say that Jeff has recorded it since, with a verse that we don’t sing, so people should check out his version. Then the Loudon Wainwright box-set of Charlie Poole songs came out, with the song, Man In The Moon, on it. It’s a song really about Charlie’s wife, Lou Emma; we just knew we had to put the two together. That era of American music has been important to me for a very long time – Charlie Poole, The Carters, Jimmy Rogers and so on. It was a journey of discovery – finding out Dylan got his influence from Woody Guthrie; then discovering where Woody got his stuff from.”
“While it’s not exactly a rule,” says Lynda, “we always tried to keep the Grace Notes repertoire separate from what we did as individuals or a duo. Turning those two songs into a medley seemed a good reason to make an exception.” And Alan thinks the same about Steve Tilston’s Salty Dog: “I’ve always thought that was one of his greatest songs. Grace Notes had sung it, but never recorded it. It was a song I really wanted to do.”
It was certainly a song that Lynda never wanted to let go of... “Not just because it’s a great song but also because I’ll always associate singing it with those final gigs with Maggie. So, it was great when Alan and I found a different way of doing it and made it ours as well. With Grace Notes, we used to put Some Old Salty before it; but Alan and I found that it fitted perfectly with Gillian Welch’s Dear Someone. As soon as we heard Dear Someone I knew I had to sing it, so that particular medley puts two of our favourite songs together.”
Having spent years when their main focus was on the groups they were part of, finally being able to devote their career to working together has made an obvious difference for Alan and Lynda.
“We’ve both spent years in groups,” Lynda says. “We know the hassles of arranging gigs and getting together to rehearse. Of course, we had great times, some of my best memories are times with Grace Notes, but it is a relief now. Alan and I live together, of course. We sing every day. We don’t have to check each other’s diaries when we arrange gigs. And we finally made an album, which feels a great thing to finally have achieved.”
“When we first discussed making the album with Kurt (who recorded it) we said we wanted it to be as live as you can make it in the studio; a proper reflection of what people will hear when they come to see us. OK, we have guest musicians and so on, but only in the way you might ask someone to join you on stage for a number at a gig. Kurt went with that and that’s the way the album was made.”
“I think it feels like a more honest approach,” Alan reflects. “I know there are loads of things technically that can be achieved in the studio, just by flicking a switch – not that I have any idea how it’s done – but that to me always feels like getting further and further away from actually making music. It wasn’t about ‘making an album’ so much as playing as we would on stage, but in the studio (except if it went wrong we could go back and do it again).”
There’s certainly a sense, listening to the album – and when seeing Alan and Lynda live – that a big part of the reason why they sing is to share things with people; the music they love that others might not have discovered themselves. Interesting, then, that they chose to include one very familiar folk standard, The January Man.
“I’ve been singing that at the annual New Year’s party for years,” says Alan, “and at the first folk club night after the Christmas break. But it isn’t really a seasonal song – it’s, if anything, a song for every season. I don’t think I’d have done it as a solo for a recording – there are already so many great versions on record (I learned it from Martin Carthy’s). Then Lynda came up with the harmony line which, to me, makes it really special, and I just knew we had to record it. It made me think of a song I’d known for years in a totally different way.”
Three tracks on the new album are recorded live at the Folk Club in Keighley. “Bacca Pipes is very much our home club and has been for over 40 years,” says Lynda. “It’s always been a club with great singers and musicians, a great harmony tradition, too. More than anything it shaped who we are musically. So we wanted the club, and particularly its ‘wall of sound’ to be represented on the album. So, we end with three live tracks that are almost like bonus tracks, though we don’t call them that.”
The Bob Pegg song on the album is Instructions To A Young Larkman, which is essentially a set of guidelines about how to nurture a lark until it is ready to perform in competition. It strikes me that can be applied to what Alan and Lynda have done with these songs. “I love that analogy,” Lynda says. “That’s what really happened. The time was right and everything came together for it.”
“Yes,” laughs Alan. “We were put in a box and encouraged to sing!”
by Nigel Schofield
Published in Issue 122 of The Living Tradition - February 2018