Norfolk musician Peter Bellamy’s The Transports revived by leading folk stars
PUBLISHED: 17:19 12 January 2018
Flamboyant Norfolk folk singer and musician Peter Bellamy’s groundbreaking ballad opera The Transports is heading to the region featuring leading British folk musicians in revival that puts its into the context of modern migration.
Norfolk singer and musician Peter Bellamy’s ground-breaking The Transports holds a revered and unique place in British folk music history.
This ground-breaking ballad opera was originally released on Free Reed Records in 1977 featuring some of the biggest names from the 1970s folk revival – The Watersons, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, A.L Lloyd, June Tabor, Cyril Tawney and Dave Swarbrick.
It was first performed live at Norwich Castle in 1978 and has enjoyed several revivals since then including one marking its 25th anniversary.
Now a 40th anniversary revival is heading to the region featuring some of today’s leading British folk musicians, including BBC Award Winners The Young’uns, Faustus, Nancy Kerr, Rachael McShane and Greg Russell together on one stage.
Bellamy, a unique singer, musician and composer, tragically took his own life in 1991 at the age of just 47, but left a treasure trove of work of which The Transports is seen as his greatest triumph.
And rarely can Bellamy’s famed folk opera - a tale of 18th century exile - have been more pertinent, set against the current tide of migration.
Written after Bellamy read a story in the Eastern Daily Press about the first transport ship to Australia, it is based on the remarkable true tale of convicts Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes.
Imprisoned for theft at Norwich Gaol prior to being transported the pair fall in love and have a son but are refused permission to marry. Susannah (along with all the women) is to be sent alone to Australia. But when Susannah’s son is refused passage at quayside a guard takes pity and travels with the infant to London to appeal to the home secretary, Lord Sydney. He orders that Cabell and Holmes should be reunited, married on English soil, and transported together with their son.
For this latest production this famed and emotive story of 18th century exile is given a fresh narration by storyteller Matthew Crampton, while new musical arrangements from Paul Sartin, of Bellowhead and Faustus, see the famous songs by Bellamy re-emerge within a modern context of mass migration.
Matthew, who previously has toured a show based on his latest book Human Cargo: Stories and Songs of Emigration, Slavery and Transportation, said: “Mass migration is a defining dilemma of today. There’s seldom been a more vital moment to revisit The Transports - it’s not just a great musical experience but a sharp reminder of folk music’s power in portraying the way the world works.
“There is an incredible true story behind The Transports and I wanted the opportunity to bring out that story fully. The best way to do that was to provide some storytelling and narrative structure running between the songs. The songs are still in tact and are still beautiful. But this way we can set up the songs with me telling stories and also providing some historical context.”
Musical director Paul Sartin, who also plays the ‘The Father’, added: “I’m particular excited by this production because of the way we are reinventing it for a modern audience. It ties in and resonates with contemporary concerns about migration.
“I’ve been working with The Transports on and off for about four years and one of the things that has always struck me is that the production is open to reinterpretation. It can be added to without detracting from the original. So for this production we’ve added narration, spoken rather than sung, which has enabled Matthew to flesh out the story to put it in both a contemporary context.”
Born in 1944, Bellamy grew up in Warham, north Norfolk, the son of a farm manager and was first captivated by American folk songs, skiffle and black music. He attended Norwich Art School and was introduced to Norfolk traditional song by city folkie Cliff Godbold.
While at college he recorded his first EP of folksongs with fellow student Neil “Fingerbuster” Innes – later of Bonzo Dog Band and The Rutles fame.
Gravitating to the early 1960s London folk scene he spread the songs of traditional Norfolk singers Harry Cox of Catfield and Sam Larner of Winterton – paying full credit to them.
For many Bellamy fans though his crowning triumph was The Transports. The 20-track album topped all polls as Folk Album of the Year in 1977, and it soon became a theatre production staged worldwide. In recent years it has been included in Mojo magazine’s Top 100 recordings of the 20th Century and the BBC’s Best Folk Albums of the 20th Century.
Paul Sartin said: “It is perhaps Peter Bellamy’s greatest legacy - an immensely powerful, beautiful and haunting collection of songs and texts crafted in a traditional English idiom. Unique in its conception, it is unified by a narrative which speaks with immediacy and passion and demands both musical and human responses.”
Former Folk Singer of the Year Nancy Kerr, who plays ‘The Mother’ in this latest production, said: “I think for Bellamy to have used the expressive language of traditional music and song to tell and carry these pieces of working class history, these stories, is tremendously significant. I think it is one of the reasons that it has lasted so long. It really tells us something about ourselves. It marks our British footprint through history and tells us where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
“These are stories of realm working class people and to have set them to beautifully expressive, democratic language that is traditional song and music, that is why it has the staying power. That is why this ballad opera has survived.”
• The Transports is at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds on January 16, 7.30pm, £20, 01284 758000, theapex.co.uk
• It will also be at Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, on January 24, 7.30pm, £20, 01603 620917, maddermarket.co.uk