Our Holiday Soundtrack–Ralph Vaughan Williams and Bob Dylan with Friends

Last night in my household we listened to music from several old LPs featuring folk songs, folk themes, and original music for chamber groups and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), the English composer whose work I’ve listened to since I was a student at Franconia College, when a professor there, Bill Congdon, turned me on to his music. Appropriate to the season, we heard RVW’s arrangements of “Wassail Song,” and similar songs. Not carols, exactly, but old folk songs of the season. I’m Jewish and so don’t observe Christmas, but I do love this music without reservations. RVW was part of a worldwide interest in folk idioms that also engaged many of his musical forebears and contemporaries in other countries–like Smetana and Dvorak in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; Sibelius in Finland; and Aaron Copland in the States. Like Alan Lomax in the U.S. in later decades, RVW took early recording equipment in to the field and had nonprofessional musicians sing and play songs for him, also making notes of what he was told. It should be said, that Vaughan Williams didn’t just take folk themes and rework them–he was also a bold, original composer with an edge, exhibited in such works as his modernist Fourth and Sixth symphonies.

Famously, RWV arranged and reworked “Greensleeves,” as a song, and as a suite for orchestra, and many lesser known songs with names like “The Captain’s Apprentice,” “The Lark in the Morning,” “Bushes and Briars, and “The Unquiet Grave.” His output was vast and in the years when vinyl was still the dominant music medium I bought a lot of it. When I visited London for the first time, in 1980, I bought secondhand albums, releases that were never even brought out in the U.S., such as EMI’s boxed set of his nine symphonies and other orchestral music, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The album covers still bear the name of the dealer where I found them, Harold Moores Records. The records I bought there all evidently came from a public or college library, because inside I found little index cards, which had noted each time a patron or student had checked out the item. On “English Folk Songs, Arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with the Purcell Singers conducted by Imogen Holst” a tiny, spidery hand had recorded each of the 13 times the album  was requested and played between 1963-78.  A scant 13 plays in 15 years? The album was in great shape when I brought it back home, and still is. Checking the Internet, I see that Harold Moores Records is still in business on Great Marlborough Street in London.

This afternoon, we made a change of pace and have been listening to a magnificent live album, “Bob Dylan–The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration,” the Madison Square tribute concert staged in 1992 to commemorate Dylan’s first recordings. This is a 3-LP six-sided banquet that features guest performances of 28 Dylan songs by–brace yourself, in order–John Mellencamp; Stevie Wonder; Eddie Vedder; Lou Reed; Tracy Chapman; Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash; Willie Nelson; Kris Kristofferson; Johnny Winter; Ron Wood; Richie Havens; the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem; Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, and Shawn Colvin; Neil Young; Chrissie Hynde; Eric Clapton; the O’Jays; The Band; George Harrison; Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers; and Roger McGuinn. The house band was Booker T & the MGs, while Al Kooper makes a key appearance on Mellencamp’s rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Toward the end, Dylan steps on stage at the Garden to play 4 songs, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Girl of the North Country,” and “My Back Pages and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” with McGuinn, Harrison, Clapton, Petty, and Neil. I bought my copy about 15 years ago, again secondhand, and it still sounds great, as day has slipped on toward night.

2 replies
  1. Jonathan Gibson says:

    Lovely to hear about that VW album. My cousin Rosamund, who died a few years ago and who was Benjamin Britten’s archivist, sings the beautiful, delicate solo on ‘The Lark in the Morning’. I stumbled across the recording for the first time by accident (and was delighted and amazed to see Rosamund was on it) when staying at a colleague’s house back in the 80s: I have only just now managed to track down a cd version to order for myself!

    • Philip Turner says:

      Dear Jonathan, so nice to know of your family connection to RVW, and Britten. On the back of “English Folk Songs, Arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams–The PUrcell Singers conducted by Imogen Holst,” the LP I wrote about in my holiday soundtrack post, is a liner note that reads in part, “Rosamund Strode is the leading soprano of the Purcell Singers, she used to join other musicians in the informal madrigal group conducted by RVW in his own house. She is now collecting the several hundred tunes in the manuscript books he used for collecting folk music.”
      This, perhaps, was your cousin?
      You may also enjoy this post about the pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a household name from the mid 1800s, too little remembered now. http://philipsturner.com/2012/10/15/beautiful-saturday-brooklyn/
      Delighted to hear from you and thank you for visiting my blog.


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