Many of the singers recorded by Tony Wales were known to a wider public of traditional song enthusiasts in and around Sussex because they were ‘public singers’ in that they sung in old Sussex singing pubs, folk clubs, concerts and festivals – in some cases all of these. It has been relatively easy to gather information on these singers.
All that we could find out about this singer was what was written on Tony’s tape box – “MRS POWELL Late of Portslade, Sussex.” Yet amongst the singers that Tony recorded and whose singing was not widely known to enthusiasts, she was the one who was most interesting both in her singing style and repertoire.
A visit to Terry Potter and the acquisition of copies of the magazine “The Folk Bag” told us that she was Ethel M. Powell and that she had left Sussex to go and live in Ontario in Canada. It also led us to her article A Sussex Singing Family in that magazine which is reproduced here.
Any more information and/or photographs of this singer would be most welcome.
A SUSSEX SINGING FAMILY.
By Ethel M. Powell
(Mrs, Powell, who now lives in Canada, was born and brought up in Sussex)
One of the first songs I remember was a familiar lullaby, sung by my Mother, as I sat cuddled on her knee. She would pull the skirt of my little dress over my head, like a hood, and gently sway back and forth as she sang to me:
“Hush, my babe, lie still, and slumber,
Holy angels guard thy little bed.
Heavenly blessings, without number,
Gently falling on thy little head.”
I believe this was written by Isaac Watts, Then, at night, when I was on my way to bed, my Father would take me in his big, strong, gentle arms, and sing in his deep voice the old hymn. “Lo, He comes, with clouds descending,” or “Praise Him, Praise Him, Jesus our Blessed Redeemer.” My parents believed that our religion should be full of praise and joy.
Always the sound of singing, since I could remember anything! My Grandfather Pickard had a fine baritone voice, and a marvellous memory, which was a great asset, as he was almost totally blind for the great part of his life. But he would sing as he drove along the lovely Sussex country roads. Sometimes a lugubrious ballad about a forsaken sweetheart and her false lover, and then again a rollicking hunting song, or a song about a highwayman with which the country around abounded at one time.
“I am noble Captain Grant, as you all must understand.
I am the biggest robber, upon this cottage land.
With my two loaded pistols and my bright shining sword,
I will “Stand and deliver” and its all on the road.”
After supper, Grandfather would settle himself in his elbow chair, clasp his hands over his broad chest, lift up his chin with its white beard, and sing his heart out! He would end one song then say to me, “What shall us sing now, my little maid?” And I would say: “Let’s sing ‘Faithless Lover’,” Grandad, not knowing in this world what a faithless lover was!
We children learned all his songs by heart, and I can still remember most of them, even after fifty years. Songs like “The Spotted Cow,” Young Caroline”, “The Blind Beggar”, “The Forlorn Maiden”, “The Poor Sailor Lad”, “The Fair Maid” and “The Cutter of Broom.”
My great Uncle Tom, had a beautiful bass baritone voice, and led the church choir for years although he couldn’t read a word. He would just sing the tune to
any words that came into his head. “And him and her and she and he and—him—–and her,” and so on. As the church he attended was very large and lofty, and people didn’t pay much attention to acoustics in those days, the sound of his voice was heard and the words didn’t matter very much!
My Father had, of course, learned all the old songs too, and after our evening meal my Brother George and I would sit, one on each arm of his chair, and sing for maybe two or three hours. We needed no music, as we knew all the tunes and Dad had perfect pitch. Maybe a child would start off in the wrong key, and Dad would say; “Hold hard there Mate, that’s the wrong note.”
When we ran out of songs we would turn to hymns, and that is why I know most of the older hymns. My Mother’s favourite hymn was “Sun of my Soul, Thou Saviour Dear.” Dad’s was “He leadeth me.” We each had a special favourite. My Grandfather used to point his beard in the air and sing with great gusto, “Glory to thee, my God, this night.” I always thought this was a wonderful choice for him, as it goes on, “For all the blessings of the light,” and he could barely distinguish dark from light!
We had to walk most of the time in those days; no cars and very few buses. But as we went along someone would start a song going, and the long road seemed a great deal shorter, and our tired legs regained their vigour. We had an Aunt Eliza, and although we loved and respected her, as children were taught to do in those days, we did wish she would learn a few more cheerful songs! We had a lot of family gatherings, and everybody was supposed to help entertain. Aunt Eliza only knew one song; “Poor Old Jeff,” about a Negro slave mourning the loss of his sweetheart! It was not so much the song as the way our dear Aunt sang it, so sad and mournfully, that we children would stuff our handkerchiefs in our mouths to keep from laughing, till we caught a stern look from our Mother, and we had to pretend we were wiping away a tear.
I think I was about three when I went to a Sunday School nearby. It was undenominational, and was under the leadership of a Mr. Reeves. We were Anglican, but the Parish Church was too far for us to go for Sunday School. I can remember sitting on a very low bench with other small children, with my fat little hands folded, and singing: “We are but little children weak.” I soon learned all the words of this, and more of the hymns. Then, when we went to our own church, we had to learn new hymns! My Father liked to attend the Wesleyan Chapel on Sunday nights because he liked to sing the old evangelical hymns. So we learned all kinds. On Sunday, when Mother would call that dinner was ready, Dad would start singing; “Come for the feast is spread!” and the last thing we heard on Sunday night was my Mother singings “Sun of my Soul” as she tidied up and prepared for bed.
Would that modern parents would take time to sing with their children. My own children and I would have sing-songs around the fire on Winter nights, and my youngest daughter was our only contralto in our little church, from the time she was twelve years old! So it’s a family tradition!