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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
GUEST,Derek Schofield John Brune FolkSong collector (62* d) RE: John Brune FolkSong collector 18 Nov 18


Steve Roud has asked me to post the following:

I have been reading the ‘John Brune Folk Song Collector’ thread from 2007 and 2015. Without wishing to poke any sleeping hornets’ nest, I have some information which might clear up some of the points which were left unresolved then.

Brune’s publication The Roving Songster is always causing bibliographic confusion. As Malcolm Douglas pointed out, Brune published two completely different books under that title - both with the same drawing on the front.

The first, dated 1959, is one of those homemade looking affairs of the period, probably compiled on a typewriter and reproduced on a duplicator or something like offset litho. It has 62 pages, and there is a copy in the VWML. The contents are also very much of their time, ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’, ‘Hallelujah I’m a Bum’, ‘Swing low Sweet Chariot’, and so on, plus a few shanties and some well-known traditional British material. Sources are not given

The second, a much better-produced card-covered book, of 55 pages, published by Gillian Cook, London, in 1965, is completely different. Of the 31 songs, 15 are written by Brune, 3 by Belle Stewart, 1 by Sydney Carter, and the rest apparently traditional but only a few assigned to specific sources. There is an added level of confusion as it clearly states that it is Vol. 1.

I never met John, but I wrote to him about The Roving Songster in 1997, asking whether there was a volume two. He phoned me and we had a chat (I took no notes, so I am relying on fallible memory here). There was no volume 2 because Hamish Henderson dismissed it (in a review, I presume) as of no interest because it was mainly inferior modern stuff. John was disgusted and never bothered with another.

Sometime after he died, his widow contacted Reg Hall and me to ask if we wanted his ‘folk’ materials, and we went to see her. There were a few books and LPs, which I bought, and a shoebox with six C90 cassettes. I asked her about his original tapes, but she knew nothing of them, and there was no written documentation, photographs, etc.

The cassettes turn out to be copies of his originals, as is shown by a voice (not John’s) which declares things like ‘here is the end of spool 3’. So unless the original tapes turn up somewhere, these cassettes seem to constitute what remains of the ‘John Brune collection’. They will eventually be donated to a public repository.

As with many ‘collectors’ of his generation, these tapes are not a well-organised sequential record of recording sessions, but seemingly random bits and pieces, often dubbed from other tapes, starting and stopping abruptly. There’s John’s father singing in Yiddish(?). a family child singing nursery rhymes, various tracks of revival singers (not, I think, dubbed from records), but amongst it all is a fair amount of traditional singing and talking - mainly from Scots Travellers, but some English as well.

As I say, there is no documentation beyond a few scraps of paper slipped into the tape boxes, but a fair amount comes from Davy Stewart and other members of the Stewart Family. They are clearly at ease with him, and are friendly and co-operative. Indeed, there is a song sung by one of the Stewart women which mentions him coming to record them, as well as Ewan and Peggy. There is also the well-known interview with Jasper Smith from which Reg used some tracks for Voice of the People (another copy of which is in the Ken Stubbs collection).

On the question of the fake song with which Brune tricked Ewan MacColl in the run-up to The Travelling People, there is a track on one of the cassettes which might be the one, although I have no real evidence beyond the fact that it is clearly a man singing in falsetto, about life as a Traveller. It turns out to be ‘The Moving on Song’, printed on p.28 of the 1965 Roving Songster, where it is stated that words & music are by John Brune and giving the date as 1964. As the Radio Ballad first aired in April 1964, but the book published the following year, this would tie in well enough.

I have put the falsetto singing onto Google Drive for anyone interested in listening to it.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1CSvaNmjqib3mnyiz1hX2874GXSyJu_AR/view?usp=sharing

IF it is the right song, with the benefit of hindsight, I think it surprising that someone as knowledgeable as MacColl fell for the trick - because it’s patently a fake. The words, tune, style are completely out-of-keeping with what we know of Traveller song. None of it rings true, and one would need to want it to be authentic to believe it .

As with several others that I have met from his generation, John was quite bitter about what he saw as other people getting credit for his work. Much of our phone conversation was devoted to this topic. It was he, he claimed, who discovered the ‘Stewarts of Blair’ and told Maurice Fleming, Henderson, MacColl, etc. about them, but they froze him out. It was he who wrote the introduction to the chapter on ‘The Travelling People’ in Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, and so on.

On the fake song, he simply told me about it as a joke. But the trouble with all practical jokes is that what is funny to the perpetrator is not necessarily so to the victim.


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