Reviving history with Norfolk folk-opera
PUBLISHED: 09:03 01 March 2013 | UPDATED: 09:03 01 March 2013
Flamboyant Norfolk singer and musician Peter Bellamy is an unsung hero of the English folk scene. Now, 22 years after his suicide, his 'folk opera' The Transports is set to be revived in Norwich. Long-term fan BRIAN GAUDET tells his story.
In January 1991 – eight months before his suicide – Norfolk folk singer Peter Bellamy recorded an emotive version of Bob Dylan’s song Death Is Not The End.
It was to prove tragically prophetic for in the intervening 22 years Bellamy’s reputation has grown, with younger artists paying tribute to his talent and influence.
And next week his ground-breaking ballad opera The Transports, originally released in 1977 featuring such folk royalty as Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, Norma Waterson and June Tabor, is being revived at Norwich’s Dragon Hall by innovative local theatre company Crude Apache. It will be the first time that the piece has been performed in Norwich since 1985.
Always a flamboyant, outspoken and controversial figure, Bellamy was a “love him or hate him” performer whose singing style earned him the anagram nickname Elmer P Bleaty.
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.
After Fakenham Grammar School he attended Norwich Art School and was introduced to Norfolk traditional song by city folkie Cliff Godbold.
While at the art college Bellamy recorded his first EP of folksongs with fellow student Neil “Fingerbuster” Innes – later of Bonzo Dog Band and The Rutles fame.
Moving to Maidstone Art School, Bellamy’s talents developed with pop-art guru Peter Blake as his tutor. His love of singing grew too and Bellamy gravitated, with guitar, to the early 1960s London folk scene.
Joining singers Royston Wood and Heather Wood (no relation) in 1965, he enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic in the unaccompanied trio The Young Tradition.
After three LPs including a controversial foray into medieval music, the trio broke up and Bellamy went solo in 1968.
With concertina replacing guitar Bellamy spread the songs of traditional Norfolk singers Harry Cox of Catfield and Sam Larner of Winterton – paying full credit to them.
A life-long love of the works of Rudyard Kipling led to him setting about 100 of his poems to traditional or original tunes — bringing out five albums inspired by the Puck of Pook’s Hill stories, the Barrack Room Ballads and more.
Despite his passion for traditional folk, Bellamy had a wide musical taste. He loved American R&B – especially Ray Charles – wrote authoritatively on Bob Dylan, sold bootleg Rolling Stones cassettes at folk gigs and performed cowboy songs.
Sam Larner (1878-1965) and Harry Cox (1885-1971) had both died early in Bellamy’s singing career but in the mid-1970s he was to play a major role in the discovery of yet another great Norfolk traditional singer.
Roger Dixon, who had taught the young Peter history at Fakenham, sent him a tape of his uncle, Walter Pardon (1914-1996) of Knapton - a fine singer with an extensive repertoire of traditional folk and music hall songs.
Bellamy became Walter’s mentor – getting renowned folk producer Bill Leader to release Walter’s first two LPs, introducing Walter to the folk scene and taking him to America to mark the US Bicentennial in 1976.
Sadly, Walter was among the many folk fans shocked and stricken with grief by Bellamy’s suicide in September 1991.
Despite his many years of artistic success, and popularity in America and Australia, Bellamy’s folk club and festival bookings in Britain had grown thin.
By this time Bellamy had left Norfolk for West Yorkshire and it was there that he took his own life.
Today his reputation stands high with John Spiers and Jon Boden, leaders of Bellowhead, Norfolk’s own Damien Barber and others citing Bellamy as a major influence.
Despite his death most of Bellamy’s albums have now been reissued on CD and the Norfolk songs he did so much to popularise can still be heard in folk sessions around the world.
For many Bellamy fans his crowning triumph was The Transports. First released on record in 1977, featuring a cast of top English folkies and arranged by the brilliant musician Dolly Collins, the 20-track album topped all polls as Folk Album of the Year, 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.
The Transports tells the true story of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes who fell in love while incarcerated as convicts in Norwich Castle. Henry’s death penalty was transmuted to Transportation to Australia, a sentence already bestowed on Susannah.
They were to be split up but after a representation had been made to the Home Secretary they were allowed to travel together, on the first fleet of convicts to be transported to the new world.
Henry became the first convict in history to sue the British authorities, run a mail service and own a ship. He went on to become the Colony’s first Chief Constable and make a fortune from sealing and whaling. His dynasty survives today.
The first live version was by Norwich Folk Club performers in Norwich Castle – once the jail featured in the story.
The latest version, being performed in the round with a cast of 12 singers and a band of eight musicians, is being produced by Norwich-based Crude Apache, following their sell-out productions of Under Milk Wood and Arnold Wesker’s Roots.
Director Jo Edye said: “Our experience of producing Under Milk Woo’ showed us what we could add to a piece that was originally intended to be only heard, and The Transports offers us the same challenges - to find a visual and theatrical element to a fantastic folk ‘concept’ album.”
t The Transports, Dragon Hall, King Street, Norwich, February 28-March 2 and March 5-9, £8 (£5 cons), 01603 663922, www.dragonhall.org