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GUEST,Pseudonymous Review: Walter Pardon; Research (498* d) Review: Walter Pardon; Research 05 Nov 19

A basis for discussion.

Walter Pardon: Fact, Fiction, and Ideology.

Walter Pardon (1914 – 1996) was a carpenter, singer and melodeon player (largely self-taught) from Knapton, Norfolk.

Let us try to sort out a few facts about Pardon upon which everybody might agree. This is more difficult than one might think. As soon as one starts to compare different sources it seems that material presented as ‘fact’ by one source is contradicted by another, and is, after all, not so much a fact as an inference. Therefore, what follows is intended as a first draft, to be corrected in the light of any further evidence.

The Facts?

There seems to be general agreement that Pardon was discovered as a singer in the 1970s, during a 20th century folk “revival”. According to Wikipedia (accessed 3rd Nov 2019), this discovery happened when Pardon’s younger relative, Roger Dixon, to whom Pardon had sung songs when he was a boy, persuaded him to record a number of songs on tape.

Another useful source is the MUSTRAD web site has a section on Pardon, incorporating sleeve notes from a 2000 issue of a selection of his work (Article MT052). Mike Yates and Rod Stradling provided this resource. I refer to it as ‘MUSTRAD’ throughout. However, as will become clear, the Mustrad material includes contradictory information and the material in it needs evaluating carefully to distinguish fact from opinion.

Pardon’s parents were called Thomas and Emily (nee Gee), and he was their only child. It seems to be common ground that Pardon came from a musical family. He grew up and lived in a farmhouse previously occupied by his maternal grandfather, Thomas Cook Gee. The 1861 census gives Thomas’s address as ‘Hall Street, Knapton.’ The Hall in question would be Knapton Old Hall, a late 16th century farmhouse which is now a listed building. Pardon’s farmhouse was called Parr’s Farm Cottage.

Thomas Cook Gee is said to have played clarinet in a church band. Pardon has been cited as stating that Thomas could read music. Thomas and his wife Ruth had 12 children (source, at least five of whom in their turn made music or sang: Pardon’s mother, Thomas, Walter (a melodeon player, see the full MUSTRAD piece which is below), Alice and Billy. Some of the male members of the family had in the past been involved in singing in the public house. It would appear that Pardon himself did not, the tradition having died out by the time he came to a suitable age. Walter was literate, education being compulsory in England when he was born. He knew some history, citing the date of Forster’s Education Act in an early interview. In the 1930s, during a time of economic depression, Pardon spent a lot of time with his uncle, Billy (1863/4 ? - 1942), who is believed to have taught Pardon a number of songs. During World War Two, Pardon served in the British Army, again as a carpenter. He never married, and he lived for most of his life in the house where he had grown up.   From 1957, when his father died, Pardon lived there alone. There was a long period, possibly stretching to 20 years, when Pardon did not sing, but played tunes to himself on a melodeon.

Pardon had access to much of the standard technology of his time: he had a collection of 78rpm records and a radio.

Pardon’s route on to the folk scene seems uncontroversial. As has already been explained, Pardon was ‘discovered’ by a second cousin (sometime incorrectly described as a nephew), Roger Dixon, who became a teacher of history and then later the Rev Roger Dixon <> (accessed 4th November 2019). Dixon had taken an interest in Pardon’s singing while a boy. Eventually, Dixon persuaded his uncle to record himself singing, and the question of whether Dixon lent Pardon a reel-to-reel tape recorder or whether Pardon has its own has different answers in the material. Dixon passed the recordings on to a ‘revival singer’ called Peter Bellamy, a former pupil of his. Bellamy contacted Bill Leader, who was among other things a sound recordist, who issued two albums of Pardon’s work and retained the copyright of at least some of it.

After his discovery, Pardon sang in public for eight or nine years, mostly, it would appear, in The Orchard Gardens public house quite club close to home. A number of records of his work were issued. He was interviewed a number of times and was the subject of two films.      
According to Jim Carroll, writing on the Mudcat discussion forum <23rd March 2009 >, it was not always possible for Pardon’s booking agent, Carroll’s partner Pat Mackenzie, to obtain gigs for Pardon: ‘Oh, we don't book singers like that; we only cater for the modern stuff.’
Pardon’s public singing career came to an end in 1989, when he felt that his voice was no longer up to the job. His singing, and some of his spoken words, may be heard free online using ‘Spotify’.

The Sources

I have already referred to the Mustrad information. This discussion of the background to the issuing of some CDs of his work, apparently dating from 2000, may be found on the MUSTRAD web site here (accessed 3rd Nov 2019). It is liner notes to a double CD release. This material, valuable in many ways, raises a number of important questions about the presentation and framing of Pardon and his work.
A number of people took recordings of Pardon’s singing, including himself (for Roger Dixon); Bill Leader; Mike Yates; Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie (some of whose recordings were proposed for a release that did not happen, various perspectives on this are expressed online); Sam Richards and Mike Yates.   Yates produced what was intended to be a recording of the whole repertoire, and wrote a series of pieces on this, for MUSTRAD.

Pardon was interviewed by a number of folklorists and journalists. Accounts of some of these interviews have been published, and recordings of at least one are available on line at (accessed 3rd Nov, 2019). Unfortunately, we do not always have dates for these recordings, though the BL one is dated. Transcriptions by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie of one (or more?) interviews with Pardon were posted onto a Mudcat discussion thread headed ‘Traditional Singers Talking’ by Jim Carroll in 2014. These are undated, unfortunately. However, they raise important and interesting questions about research techniques and interviewer bias which I shall discuss below. Moreover, the thread itself is a source of lively debate about a number of related issues.   

As already indicated, two films were made about Pardon: one, called ‘The Ballad and The Source’, was by a visiting American called John Cohen; the second, narrated by Brian Gaudet, was made by Edge TV long after Pardon’s death. This latter film may be viewed on YouTube. It shows Pardon’s home to be called Parr Farm Cottage or house, currently valued at over half a million pounds (Zoopla).

I have already mentioned the MUSTRAD site’s section on Pardon. Also available on that MUSTRAD site is a piece that Pardon himself wrote for publication, following discussion with active members of the folk revival at that time. This piece was a reminiscence of a local pipe and drum band in which some of Pardon’s own family had played. (accessed 3rd Nov 2019).

In addition, in 1981 Pardon was interviewed by Peta Webb for a BBC2 television programme called ‘The Other Music’. See <> accessed 4th November 2019.

Other material relating to Pardon available online includes a number of obituaries,

Problems With The Data

1 Where did Walter get his songs?

I’ll begin by noting that it is not always possible to establish precisely where Pardon learned a particular song. I don’t know if this is important, but it seems to be true, and worth stating on that basis. While some sources seem to suggest that he learned all of them from his uncle Billy, it has been stated (Mustrad) that he sometimes gave contradictory accounts of where he learned a particular song to different interviewers.   Peta Webb writes that Pardon told her he learned some from his mother and some from other uncles.   Mustrad cites Mike Yates as believing that Pardon got most of the words for one song in the CD compilation from a book called ‘The Wanton Seed’ by Frank Purslow.   Finally, Mike Yates asserts on Mustrad (Article MT054 - from Musical Traditions No 1, Mid 1983) that Billy owned a book entitled: “The National Agricultural Labourers' and Rural Workers' Union Song Book.” Some of Pardon’s material is in this book and may therefore have come from it via Billy. Mike also asserts that he does not think that Walter would link together the material in this essay, which is headed by a quotation from Marx, in the same way that he does.

And where did Grandfather Thomas get the songs he supposedly passed on to Billy? MUSTRAD demonstrates how many songs sung by Walter can be demonstrated to have 19th century origins: on one level they look like the popular music of Thomas’s time. Pardon seems to have asserted that his uncles Billy and Tom learned their songs from, their father, and that he got them from broadsides. He gives Billy as the source of this information. MUSTRAD provides us with further food for thought, and, for once, the information is presented as a conjecture rather than as fact: ”The late Al Sealey told me of an informally organised 'pub circuit' of music hall gigs which used to operate in East Anglia right up to the early 1930s, where second-string semi-pro performers would put on shows of their own songs together with the popular hits of the day. This might help to explain the huge number of good, though not widely known, music hall type songs still to be found in the area.”

2 Where did Pardon get his style?

Similar problems about obtaining precise knowledge extend to assertions about the origins of Pardon’s style. If memory serves me right, this is another area where Mustrad presents different theories, ranging from his style comes direct from Billy (implication being presumably it is authentic/tradition/folk, to assertions by Pardon that his style is his own, especially the downwards swoop he uses time after time at the end of a word.

3 How did Pardon conceive of the songs he sang?

In an early interview , Pardon is quite explicit that he and his family did not think they were singing folk songs. He states that he did learn some folk songs at school. This interview seems to me to be important because it could be argued to represent Pardon’s thinking at the start of a career in which he would be associating with many people with strong, often ideologically-based, views about what ‘folk music’ is/was/ought to be.

4 How Did Walter Remember So Many Songs?

While Pardon in one of his earliest interviews described writing down words of songs Billy sang, as Billy had missing fingers and could not write. Martin Carthy in the Edge TV film asserts that Pardon kept them alive by rehearsing them in his head. Somewhere else it is said that Pardon started writing songs down after Billy died. But if so, who is to say where he found the words he wrote down?


Again, I emphasise that this site is a valuable and interesting resource. If interested, search the site using ‘Walter Pardon’ as a search term. Many of the pieces seem to have been produced as part of commercial packages of Pardon’s music. But as soon as one begins to read it carefully, one realises that in places it offers contradictory information, and that much of the text represents inferences, generalisations and opinion, rather than facts. This is not necessarily a criticism; but it is, I believe, a fair observation. To be fair, in a piece on ‘The Socio-Political Songs of Walter Pardon’, Mike Yates writes: “It should be stressed at once that these songs have been placed together by myself: and not by Walter, who I suspect would not link them together in the manner that I do.” What is welcome here is Yates’ ability to recognise and acknowledge his own ideological framework. At several points material on the Mustrad pages acknowledges that contradictory information relating to Pardon is already in the public sphere.

Another interesting comment is one made by Roly Brown (accessed 5/11/2019) to the effect that nobody has considered the possible links between Pardon’s work and his collection of 78 rpm records. My thought here is that the last thing that the folklore establishment would be interested in doing is comparing the singing style on these 78 rms with Pardon’s own. Some of the songs are now digitally available, and there seems to me to be very strong similarities, in, for example, some of the trills Pardon uses from time to time.

This MUSTRAD site includes a list of songs in Pardon’s repertoire, together with comments on the authorship and dates of origin of some of these songs.   (NB This information may or may not represent the current state of knowledge and thinking on the songs.) The web site is ‘signed’ at the bottom by Rod Stradling and Mike Yates. Michael Yates certainly wrote four sections: ‘Walter’s Recorded Legacy’, ‘The Walter Pardon Discography’, ‘The Walter Pardon Repertoire’ and ‘The Listings of Walter Pardon’s 78 RPM Gramophone Records’.

This site is divided into sections, including one entitled ‘In his own words’. It refers to ‘several conversations and interviews (see Credits below)’ but the credits have proved impossible to locate, and on that basis, it is difficult to know when Pardon said what and to whom. Another section is headed ‘Personality’. This includes information about Pardon’s house. Because the author regarded Pardon as having ‘major status as a singer’ by this time, and says that the meeting giving rise to this section took place not long after a US visit, we can date the visit to sometime in or just after 1976. Pardon is described as an avid reader who liked to discuss what he had read.   As is to be expected, the pieces are something of a mixture of fact, opinion and anecdote. At one point, the writer mentions notes he took when he met Pardon, but the online text seems to have been produced decades later and it isn’t clear exactly what the notes were about.

While journalistically it makes sense to create word pictures of a person drawing on a range of interviews given over time to different people, what this makes it difficult or impossible to do is to trace how the subject of the piece changed over time.

A person who, early after his discovery, was denying singing folk songs cannot have spent so much time surrounded by the ideologues of the revival without picking up on their attitudes, without understanding, in a sense, what they want from him and the language in which they discuss song. The 'data' on Pardon as a traditional singer supposedly produced by so many interviews is hopeless polluted by all this, not to mention the leading questions that his interviewers appear to have been so fond of using.

I think this may be true especially of a man with a sense of history, demonstrated in the early interview where he cites the date of Forster’s Education Act. For me, claims about what Walter said or thought taken from interviews in which the most obviously leading of questions are asked, claims often designed to support a narrative in which Walter features as a ‘traditional’ or ‘folk’ or ‘source’ singer are hopelessly bogged down in a methodological and philosophical mess.

One can see that Pardon ticked a number of boxes for the enthusiasts of the 70s revival: he was elderly, he was rural, he sang old songs, he sang in tune, he was amenable to being recorded (in circumstances where he lost the copyright, I note) and he seems to have enjoyed performing in public.

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