Monday 3 June 2013

Robert Story Song Project – DRAFT REPORT - June 3 2013

Robert Story Song Project – DRAFT REPORT
June 3 2013
Patrick O’Sullivan
With Stephanie Hladowski

In preparation for the Gargrave Autoharp Festival, May 31, June 1 and 2, 2013, I wrote a series of articles for the village magazine, and, in discussions with the village community, decided that we should see if we could develop something special for the festival, especially for Gargrave – an exploration of the work of Robert Story, 1795-1860, the self-taught poet and lyricist who is associated with Gargrave.  I collected much Robert Story research material on one of my web sites

In Gargrave Village Hall I set up a little exhibition, the Robert Story Story Board – so that some of the research material would be available to members of the community who, for one reason or another, might not be computer users.  I am happy to report that, at the end of the festival this exhibition material was seized by a local archivist – he plans that it become a village, community resource.

For more on the autoharp, the UK Autoharp Association, and the Gargrave Autoharp Festival see…

This is a quickly written draft report about the Robert Story Song Project, May-June 2013.  This report will be distributed to a number of interested individuals and groups, and it seems best to make it, at this stage, a standalone report.  It will necessarily repeat material available elsewhere.

Amongst the interested are music performers and singers, historians of music, musicologists, literature specialists interested in the writings of the ‘labouring classes’, and language specialists interested in the language and the writing of the ‘lower classes’.  And this report will be distributed to them.  I thank them all for helpful discussions.

One of my starting points, in discussion with John Goodridge of Nottingham Trent University and his ‘Labouring Class Writers Project’, is that these writers wrote songs.  We should not approach song lyrics as if they were simply not very good poems.  But I think that that discussion could be turned on its head – I am not sure that our culture has any more a good understanding of the uses of poetry.  Or indeed much use for poetry.  But we certainly know about song – and never before in the history of cultures has so much song been consumed and enjoyed.

Looking at the work of someone like Robert Story, we should at least pay him the courtesy of understanding what he was trying to do, and his milieu.  And there are certainly difficulties.  For example John James, Story’s friend and biographer, praises Story’s lyrics:  ‘attuned to the finest heart-strings of mankind…  but withal chastely.’  I am not surely that we would nowadays recommend a book to a friend saying:  You must read this – it is very chaste.

But, at the same time – I have said this elsewhere – tracking the work and the life of Robert Story proved to be surprisingly easy.  Practically all of his work is freely available somewhere on the web, and through my academic work I was able to track his life through the nineteenth century newspaper archives.  It all proved to be far more interesting than I had expected – especially making visible, within a small village in Yorkshire, the bitter faction fights around the coming of political reform to England in the 1830s.

In developing the Robert Story Song Project I was able to look for support to Stephanie Hladowski, Bradford based singer and music teacher.  Stephanie has an exquisite, accurate singing voice – I have heard BBC Radio 3 announcers drool about her voice.  Stephanie is a regular at Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.  Her most recent project, a cd collaboration with guitarist Chris Joynes (C. Joynes), is in effect a meditation on the archives of Cecil Sharp House.

So that Stephanie brings special strengths to this repertoire and to the songs of this period.  I am indeed fortunate that Stephanie agreed to help plan the Robert Story Song Project, and agreed to perform at our festival in Gargrave.  Stephanie and I agreed that this would be an ‘Action Research’ project – learn by doing.  Can we make these songs work?

We had the usual problems that bedevil these projects, entirely dependent as they are on good will.  Two musicians we were working with had to drop out, one because of a family health crisis, the other because of unexpected work demands.  I myself had to spend much of the week before the Gargrave Autoharp Festival in Utrecht, in the Netherlands – when, in another part of my working life, a Research Network that I advise rejigged its schedule.

But what people like me have to do in these circumstances is master and distill the research material and present straightforward performance choices.  Stephanie Hladowski and I decided that we would present 3 Robert Story songs, illustrating 3 different aspects of his song repertoire and his career.

We decided on a reverse chronology.  The reasons for the reverse chronology will quickly become clear…

My William

By this late stage in Robert Story’s career his mannerisms and verbal tics had settled down and he had a well maintained lyricist’s toolbox.  He is able to directly draw on technique to capture emotion.  For example, his decision to use a six line stanza form, rhyming abcbdb, tracks the thought.  The listener at first expects a standard simple 4 line stanza, and the extra 2 lines, and that extra third rhyme, are like extra effort and thought being forced out of the grieving parent.

At the performance I quickly outlined to the audience Robert Story’s life and career, stressing the flight from Gargrave, the job in London.  ‘And in London – one by one – his children died…’  This introduces the song about his dead son, William – and I briefly mention the verse in which Robert Story wishes that his son could be buried in Gargrave, ‘that distant, rural, green churchyard’, where he played as a child.

In his song lyrics Robert Story usually gives us a good hook – ‘hook’ however defined.  The opening line of ‘My William’ is

My William died in London
In this lyric there is no hiding place.  The last stanza begins…

O London!  Fatal London!
How proud to come was I…

Stephanie Hladowski decided to set this song of a parent’s grief like one of the nineteenth century laments that she knows so well.  I was particularly struck by the way she handled those ‘extra’ two lines of the six line stanza.

She sang this song unaccompanied.  It was bleak, moving and authentic – a strange combination of appreciative adjectives, I know.  When she had finished there was a grim pause, as the audience processed its collective experience.  (And there is the reason for the reverse chronology – you should not leave your audience in that condition.)   And then, applause.

The Isles are Awake

We decided that we had to do one of Robert Story’s political songs.  Story’s political songs are, in fact, secular hymns.  He writes them like hymns – that is part of their success.  He is clearly drawing on hymn tradition.  In fact one of his songs, ‘The Church of our Fathers’ is set (by composer Robert Guylott) and presented as a hymn in the sheet music of the time, and can – I guess – be performed as a hymn.  But it is, in fact, part of a political campaign – it is a defence of the established Church of England.

Stephanie Hladowski and I felt that there was no point in beating about the bush, and that we should attack the song that, briefly, made Robert Story a national figure, which nailed his colours to the Conservative mast, and which became part of the bitter faction fights within Gargrave.  That song was ‘The Isles are Awake’.  

Again a 6 line stanza, this time rhyming aabbcc, and each stanza ending with some version of the hook line…

The Isles are awake to the voice of the King!

It is a difficult lyric – and my respect for the Conservatives of the 1830s is increased if their massed ranks managed to sing this song.  Robert Story’s splendid word for the reformers and radicals is ‘Destructives’ – the Destructives are opposed by the loyal Conservative.

Again, at the performance in Gargrave, I spoke very briefly about the political background – William IV, the monarch just before Queen Victoria, in a speech to the bishops making public his opposition to any further reform.  Story’s song gives vent to ‘the heart shout of Loyalty, fervent and true…’

Stephanie Hladowski set this difficult lyric as a campaigning hymn.  We could have done with a massed choir of fervent Conservatives, but there were just two of us.  I silenced my inner Destructive, and imagined that massed choir standing, fervently, behind me.

I think that the way to do these nineteenth century campaigning songs is, maybe, with choirs – many of the Chartist songs of the period work in the same way.  A little aside here…  If you stop looking for ‘Robert Story’ and go to the National Archives web site and look for ‘The Isles are Awake’, you will find that the text of this song has entered a number of nineteenth century family archives – as a broadside ballad, I think.  The National Archives do not know that the song is by Robert Story.

The Star of Eve

This is, maybe, not one of Story’s best lyrics – its diction references a more eighteenth century tradition.  The lyric did not make the ‘final cut’, the collection that John James published in 1861, after his friend’s death.  (Mind you, John James’ book was published in order to collect funds for Story’s widow – and he might have, delicately, abandoned this lyric about an earlier Gargrave amour.)   But the lyric is in Story’s own 1857 selection, where he tells us that it is addressed to Miss H -- of Gargrave.  And he tells us what song he had in mind as he constructed the lyric.  This is very common in the writers of this period – and this section of this brief report can be expanded infinitely…  We know it is a song when they tell us where to find the tune.

Robert Story had within him a storehouse of the tunes of the Borders and the North Country.  Here he had in mind a song by Robert Burns, ‘O Bonie was yon rosy brier’.  Stephanie took one of the tunes that has been used for that Burns text, set it in a comfortable key, with a nice chord pattern for the autoharp.  It is a very pretty tune.

We can make this lyric work, and this pretty tune.  The Star of Eve is, of course, the evening star, the planet Venus – and we are free to imagine this young couple walking out in the evening, and that bright star making a memorable evening even more memorable.  We are not free, of course, to imagine this rural excursion leading to anything unchaste.

In Gargrave we were able to seize Mike Fenton, England’s autoharp guru – and he quickly created a lovely autoharp accompaniment for the song.  And we hijacked Bob Ebdon, another singer autoharper, to join us.  It is called Action Research for a reason.  Bob found a very nice harmony line for the chorus.  So, Stephanie Hladowski’s backing singers were two large bearded men, one with a black beard, one with a silver.

And the songs of Robert Story were heard in Gargrave for the first time in 150 years…

I hope that this report has made clear my gratitude to Stephanie Hladowski, and her talent, professionalism and easy going adaptability…

Patrick O’Sullivan

©Patrick O’Sullivan 2013

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