Following the twentieth anniversary of the death of Peter Bellamy, journalist Colin Irwin takes a look back at the life and work of the folk singer extraordinaire.
Oh, the bitter ironies of life…
It’s summer, 2011 – a warm August evening by the seaside at Sidmouth in Devon. The annual folk week is roaring and the queues stretch right round the Ham Marquee in anticipation of the centrepiece of the week’s events – the first performance for well over a decade of the fabled ballad opera, The Transports.
Back stage, the elite corps among the stampede of younger musicians who’ve been regenerating the British folk scene so impressively in recent times, gathers to assume the roles originally taken by some of its heroes. There’s Jim Moray as Henry Cabell, around whom the emotive story is set – a young man forced into petty crime by the hardship of life in late 18th century Norfolk and sentenced in the first fleet of convicts transported to Australia.
His sister Jackie Oates plays Susannah Holmes, the young girl he falls in love with while in prison, fathering a child with her, eventually being reunited with them both on the boat to New South Wales after the intervention of a kindly turnkey and a sympathetic Home Secretary.
The only member of the original 1977 recording of The Transports performing tonight is Martin Carthy, while his daughter Eliza Carthy joins Damien Barber, Lester Simpson, Gavin Davenport, James Fagan, Jez Lowe and the Young ‘Uns among a vibrant cast assembled under the direction of Jude Kelly to bring the heart-rending story to life again in what emerges as an unqualified triumph. Arranged by Jim Moray, Sam Sweeney and Paul Sartin, the music offers a powerful evocation of a different time, place and emotional territory that restores The Transports into the upper echelons of the British folk revival’s finest moments.
There is, however, one important person conspicuous by his absence tonight – the man who wrote it all and originally took the role of narrator/street singer now being assumed by his good friend Martin Carthy, Mr Peter Franklyn Bellamy.
Occasionally irascible, always opinionated, sometimes haughty, seemingly arrogant, determinedly individual, unequivocally forthright, loud, single-minded, wilful, contrary, argumentative, infuriatingly contradictory, unshakeably uncompromising, fabulously flamboyant and deeply, deeply misunderstood, you fondly imagine that tonight of all nights Bellamy is somehow observing all this from somewhere in the ether with a wry smile and a comforting grain of self-satisfaction.
It is 20 years since Bellamy left his house in Keighley, Yorkshire, took a long walk along the canal to a spot where he could look across the valley to his house and, armed with a half bottle of whisky and a deadly dose of anti-depressants, took his own life.
It’s a tragedy that has haunted the folk music world ever since. Bellamy was such a singular, unpredictable talent he never quite fitted – anywhere. A blues connoisseur, avid jazz lover, Rolling Stones fanatic, serious Dylanologist, walking rock ’n’ roll encyclopedia, collector of Elvis memorabilia, gifted painter of rock star images, insatiable music historian and voracious wordsmith… yet you’d have gleaned little of this either from his stage performances or most of his recordings, which largely focused on his love of traditional song.
He was a wonderfully expressive, idiosyncratic, passionate singer with a voice that rose and contorted in such an eccentric fashion, those hearing him for the first time were left open-mouthed. He wasn’t an ‘easy’ singer and there were/are plenty of detractors ready to decry his perceived stylisation and flamboyance; but when Bellamy sang a ballad, it stayed sung… almost to the point that he rendered alternative versions by other performers completely pointless.
He was an extreme individual who, like a lot of life’s outsiders, habitually unnerved those around him, even – or perhaps especially – in the supposedly open-minded, free-thinking, adventurous environment of the post-sixties British folk revival.
He certainly didn’t conform to the regulation idyll at the time of the folk revival as a working class expression driven by the socialist/communist values of the revival’s two main architects, Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd. A left-wing political stance was almost de rigeur for anyone with ambitions to embrace folk music then, but Bellamy was raised in a scarily hard-line right wing household in Norfolk (his father Richard Reynell Bellamy, a prominent supporter of British fascist leader Oswald Moseley, and Blackshirt leader, was imprisoned under a special parliamentary security act during World War II) and, while Peter rigorously avoided addressing politics in either his personal or musical life, he couldn’t resist taking odd pot shots at the radical stance held so dear by the leftist wing of the folk scene.
Yet Peter had huge admiration for perhaps the most rigidly left wing performers and thinkers of the era, such as Ewan MacColl – a seminal influence on him – and recognised no contradiction in holding a steadfastly apolitical stance (his widow Jenny says that during her time with him he voted for the Green Party), while maintaining a firm conviction that traditional folk song really is a voice of the people, documenting a true social history of the working class that was in direct conflict with the rarefied histories painted by academics and an establishment pursuing its own agenda.
Certainly he sang plenty of songs that reflected the hard times of ordinary people, not to mention his fulsome adaptations of Rudyard Kipling poems which had plenty to say about social attitudes of the day; and then, of course, there’s The Transports, as emotive, evocative and telling tale of the class divide, moral dilemmas and human hardship as you could imagine. And while it may be a love story, a social history and a historical documentary, The Transports could easily also be construed as a political piece.
Us Poor Fellows – probably Bellamy’s most famous song for The Transports as originally sung by Nic Jones and going on to become a regular part of sets by Tony Rose and many other singers – might certainly be considered an 18th century protest song… except, of course, that it was written in the 1970s at a point when the Sex Pistols, The Clash et al. were firing the first shots in the great punk wars.
The Transports certainly has resonances today – as proven by the excited crowds packed around the Ham Marquee at Sidmouth to see the show – while the profile of Bellamy himself seems to grow by the day as a new generation, oblivious to the baggage that sometimes prejudiced the old, discovers his colourful and enriching body of work for the first time.
His most prominent disciples include Damien Barber and Jon Boden, who have both not only drawn on his material, but taken substantial influence and inspiration from his eccentric vocal mannerisms. Barber, a fellow Norfolk lad exiled to Yorkshire, was even mentored to some degree by him and it was Bellamy who christened him The Demon Barber, a name he has subsequently used with great success for the band he now fronts.
Boden, too, has made no secret of his admiration for Bellamy, whose influence is very evident in some of his more extreme vocal mannerisms. In material and in style he has very consciously brought Bellamy back into vogue, borrowing his material as well as his style, both in duo partnership with John Spiers (Captain Ward, Courting Too Slow, etc) and with the big band Bellowhead (Fakenham Fair, Cholera Camp) while rarely missing an opportunity to big up his work.
At the 2010 Sidmouth Festival, Boden even presented his own Bellamy tribute concert, discussing and performing his work, helping to ignite the Bellamy revival which has unexpectedly propelled his name back into the forefront of the modern revival, via various reissues and this year’s excellent multi-artist tribute, Oak Ash Thorn (Folk Police) featuring a strong sprinkling of the new folk wave (including Emily Portman, Owl Service, Olivia Chaney, Lisa Knapp, Fay Hield, Sam Lee and Jon Boden himself [with a magnificently inventive arrangement of Frankie’s Trade]) performing Bellamy’s early settings of Kipling’s Puck Of Pook Hill series.
He probably wouldn’t admit it and would doubtless take issue with some of the arrangements they use on the album, but you’d like to think Bellamy would be thrilled to discover his profile so unexpectedly being raised in this way, predominantly by a section of younger musicians, most of whom he never knew and some of whom weren’t even alive when he was toting his black accordion around the clubs back in the day.
He may even have reflected on that God-awful night when he took that last walk along the Leeds-Liverpool canal in September, 1991 and, at the age of 47, decided he couldn’t cope any more. Peter, you want to scream at him now, why didn’t you just hang on. If only, if only… if only you’d waited just a few more years to be vindicated by the old generation and honoured by a new one so that you could have basked in and milked your status as a genuine legend.
For this is the ultimate irony. There were many contributing factors to Bellamy’s suicide – and plenty of additional theories on top of that – his recurring struggles with depression and alcohol prominent among them. Yet one overriding element to it all was undoubtedly his lack of gigs and the sense of failure attached to it. In the last year of his life he earned just £9,000 from gigs – before travel and other costs – and had to endure the indignity of clubs suggesting he played unpaid floor spots for them, after which they might offer him a paid guest appearance.
For such a proud man with an all-consuming faith and conviction in his music, this must have been insufferable; and the outbreak of grief surrounding the news of his death was mixed with a shared guilt that the folk community had been unable to do more to alleviate his mental torture and financial hardship. In his sleeve notes for the 3-CD compilation Wake The Vaulted Echoes (Free Reed), the esteemed journalist Karl Dallas voices his own guilt about a critical piece he’d penned for fRoots magazine which had upset Peter and which he feels may have contributed to his mental torment.
“I never saw anybody work so hard on his songs,” says Jenny Bellamy. “He’d spend three months working on a song before he’d sing it in public. He’d start with the tradition and listen to the source singer until he had the words and the core of the tune and then he’d put that aside and sing it every day. At the end of each day he’d record it on a tape, get up next morning, listen to it and work on it again and then record it again at night. He’d do this for three months and when he finally felt he’d made it his own and it was ready, he’d sing it at the local folk club and say ‘What do you think?’ If he was happy with it then – and only then – it would go into his repertoire.”
And then she adds – tellingly – “he felt totally unappreciated for who he was…”
The insecure, social misfit she portrays of a man who couldn’t remember anyone’s name and found small talk so painfully intolerable he’d secrete himself away in the corner of a pub in a conscious effort to avoid it, is a far cry from the Bellamy of popular legend. The Bellamy who so gloried in his alter ego of Elmer P. Bleaty – an anagram that played on his extraordinary ‘bleating’ vocal mannerism – that he obtained Lawrence Heath’s original Borfolk cartoon published in Southern Rag magazine and had it on display at his home.
It’s a far cry, too, from the Bellamy I first encountered at a student folk club shortly after he’d split with the trio Young Tradition. Even by the space cadet standards of the early 1970s, he was a startling revelation, puffing out his chest wearing a spectacular T-shirt and bright, multicoloured loon pants which clashed violently with the long blond hair that cascaded frantically almost to his waist, the strange Amish hat perched on his head – and most incongruously of all – the eye-patch he wore for, you could only assume, dramatic effect.
It worked too, as a hall full of students who thought they had the monopoly on barking wardrobes, gawped at the strange creature glaring at them from the stage. And when he burst into song, it felt like an earthquake had struck. It may have been Butter and Cheese And All or The German Musicianer or Yarmouth Town or Cyril Tawney’s Monday Morning or some such, I don’t remember, but Bellamy’s voice soared… and soared… and soared, decapitating the first 18 rows as it exploded off the launch pad on its way to blowing the roof off.
He talked the hind legs off several donkeys, giving chapter and verse on the backdrop to every song and describing where he got the songs, their social context and the background of the characters who populated them – from social bracket to inside leg measurements – with such vigour and passion you were hanging on to every nuance of the lyric before he began to sing. Demonic, unpredictable, dynamic, occasionally tender and always utterly riveting, Bellamy was… well, brilliant.
I went out next day and bought an LP called Won’t You Go My Way? (Argo), a live album recorded on Peter’s home turf in Norwich, including a rip-roaring medley of shanties duetting with Louis Killen, a photo on the cover showing the artist in white suit, droopy moustache, looking moody and earnest, while a forlorn maiden and Norwich Cathedral stood to attention behind him.
I loved the album. Still do. It’s hopelessly scratchy and pretty much unplayable and, as far as I know has never been issued on CD, yet to me it still represents an introduction to one of the most gloriously exciting and original talents who ever bestrode this thing we tend to call folk music.
Bellamy was a rigorous researcher into the material he performed, going to extreme lengths to glean every molecule of information he could on a song and was meticulous about making sure his listeners were informed about it too. He clearly adored the whole folk song tradition – yet tackled it with the free-thinking expressionism of the bohemian art student he once was (at one time under the tutelage of Peter Blake) before dropping out to sing professionally with Young Tradition.
Take away the contentious political beliefs of his father and it was obvious why he had such an empathy with traditional folk song. Raised in Wells-Next-The-Sea on the last horse-driven farm in North Norfolk (where his father was a farm foreman) in a setting that he’d describe as idyllic, he enjoyed the freedom to roam the countryside and feel at one with nature and the country rituals dear to the farming community. The surroundings contrasted sharply with the regimental strictness of the parents he seldom mentioned in the evolution of a natural maverick seeking his destiny in art.
Yet in London he was irresistibly drawn to the English folk songs increasingly aired in the network of clubs established by the 1950s/1960s folk revival, finding a connection with his own background, particularly through the Coppers, the rural Sussex family whose long unbroken song tradition had preserved endless riches during many barren years when the old folk songs threatened to be obliterated altogether by modernism and disinterest. The Coppers also mastered a unique and entirely natural harmony singing style, which provided the early template for Young Tradition, the trio Bellamy formed with Royston Wood and Heather Wood (no relation).
Taking the harmony style (and some of the material) of the Copper Family, Young Tradition exaggerated and accelerated it to a thunderous level that caused something of a sensation. Bellamy was the core voice, taking the lead melody line with a velocity that had scarcely been heard before in traditional song, while Royston and Heather Wood clung on for dear life, harmonising and decorating around him as best they could.
Bellamy was later to renounce the work of YT, claiming their bombastic approach represented style over substance and ultimately failed the traditional material they were singing – in his last interview with Eddie Upton at Whitby Festival just weeks before his death, he was surprisingly damning about their whole catalogue almost going as far as to suggest they’d betrayed the Copper Family tradition. Maybe he was just being perverse – it wouldn’t have been the first time and he loved a good argument, tossing the odd grenade around to stimulate one – for it’s not a viewpoint that’ll find much favour with those they effortlessly enthralled, making a largely alien song style wild and exciting, least of all members of the Copper Family themselves.
“Right place at the right time – London in the swinging sixties,” was Heather Wood’s summary of YT. “But instead of being into rock ’n’ roll we were into traditional English folk music… we made up our own harmonies… we were three very definite individuals but we came firmly together on one thing – we loved the music.”
Whatever Bellamy later thought about YT, there was no disputing the impact they made towards the end of the 1960s, both on other musicians around at the time (they once shared a house with Bert Jansch, Anne Briggs and John Renbourn) and the wider public. Bellamy’s elastic voice bounces off the walls at a fearsome, rafter-lifting level on big shanty choruses like Fire Maringo, Hanging Johnny and Cyril Tawney’s Chicken On A Raft.
This was seriously stirring stuff and, always the focal point, Bellamy evolved his gloriously eccentric technique, full of unexpected time changes, singing off the beat and throwing himself into the heart of the song with an intensity that would make any method actor proud. Even as early as 1968, when he recorded his first solo album Mainly Norfolk, his phrasing is confidently left field on tracks like Young Roger Esq; slipping in one of his favourite techniques of interspersing his raucous voice with muttered spoken word to emphasise the narrative on the comic, unaccompanied The German Musicianer.
The German Musicianer taken from Fair England’s Shore (Fellside), originally released on Mainly Norfolk (Transatlantic Records, 1968)
YT made three albums and one EP between 1965 and the end of the decade, when they unaccountably took a shine to medieval music, engaging the likes of Dolly Collins, David Munrow and the Early Music Consort to make the Galleries album, losing much of the raw power which made them so irresistible in the first place. Bellamy clearly tended to agree, having already resolved the direction that was to occupy him for the rest of his career… English traditional song.
It was a philosophy clearly laid out on that first Mainly Norfolk album, an unaccompanied selection of songs drawn to some degree from the singing of the great Norfolk traditional singer Harry Cox that resonated with the part of East Anglia that was so dear to his heart. Second album Fair England’s Shore was strong, staple stuff, too, with a fair smattering of what are now largely conceived as bread and butter folk classics, like The Dark-Eyed Sailor, All Around My Hat and one of the most divisive and emotive songs in the English folk canon, the paedophilia rape trial ballad, Fanny Blair. It’s a measure of Bellamy’s vision and individuality that, apart from the primitive production values, these all still sounded remarkably fresh, vital and compelling when Fair England’s Shore was reissued in tandem with Mainly Norfolk by Fellside in 2008.
But while he often appeared rigidly stolid in his devotion to traditional English music throughout his career, Bellamy wasn’t averse to veering from this course to tackle contemporary song. From surprisingly early on he was also writing his own tunes to existing songs, liberally adapting others and co-writing with other people… well, one person really – Rudyard Kipling. During his childhood in Norfolk, Bellamy developed a close relationship with Kipling’s poems, notably his Puck Of Pook’s Hill books written in 1906.
Kipling’s poems, he figured, would fit perfectly into the clothing of traditional song – he always believed they scanned so easily, Kipling must have had folk songs in mind for them from the outset. “I suddenly realised that nearly every single poem in the two Puck books was modelled with great precision and great skill in one form or another of an English folk song,” he said.
He was right too. He made his first album of Kipling songs Oak, Ash & Thorn for the Argo label – a subsidiary of Decca Records – in 1970 (reissued on Talking Elephant in 2011 along with Merlin’s Isle Of Gramarye), apparently after staying up all night with a bottle of wine and a tape recorder matching tunes to poems, amazed to find they “fitted like a glove”. Some of them – Poor Honest Men, King Henry VII & The Shipwrights – slotted into well-known traditional tunes, but mostly Bellamy developed his own tunes for them. They were the first in a line of over 100 settings of different Kipling poems that Bellamy came to record over the next two decades, and his whole career is in part defined by his passion for Kipling.
Certainly those already suspicious of his background weren’t especially enamoured by his fascination with Kipling, an India-born writer whose work became so closely identified with British imperialism that he was often accused of being a reactionary and thus anathema to the left-wing dominated folk movement. This bothered Peter – who regarded winding up the folk world’s most popular and cherished precepts as something of a personal sport – not a jot.
Bellamy always contended that Kipling was not only familiar with folk songs, but had them specifically in mind when he wrote, such is the way they scan within the melodies he constructed around them. He even believed he knew from the rhythm of the words which songs Kipling may have had in his head when he wrote them, convinced, for example, that The Dutch In The Medway – a sarcastic piece castigating the government’s failure to properly finance its navy – was based on Cupid’s Garden, a popular song of the time associated with the Copper Family, who lived not far from Kipling in Sussex. He also thought Kipling had in mind the popular marching tune Lillibullero when he wrote about the travails of an ex-soldier cast aside on the poverty line in Shillin’ A Day (though he still used a different tune when he came to adapt that poem himself).
Despite some copyright problems with his estate, Kipling represents a substantial element of Bellamy’s life work. It provided him with some of his most enriching material while Bellamy’s patronage and inspirational interpretations may have had a beneficial effect on the public perception of Kipling too.
Indeed, the range of Kipling’s lyrics and subject matter is extraordinary, allowing Bellamy plenty of scope to indulge his peerless vocal gymnastics and his immense capacity for getting inside songs and the characters occupying them. Looking at the cross section of Kipling’s writing and you get a very different picture of the man than the empirical apologist of popular perception.
Bellamy’s Kipling interpretations, for example, include Our Fathers Of Old, a clever skit on herbal medicine, one of his most successful adaptations in part set to the tune of The Limerick Rake. There’s also The Looking Glass, an absorbing tale about the vanity of Queen Elizabeth I, given a higher profile recently after Fay Hield’s recording of it as the title track on her 2010 debut solo album. Kipling’s allusions to America are also embraced, notably on the superb Philadelphia.
Our Fathers Of Old taken from Oak, Ash & Thorn (Talking Elephant), originally released on Argo Records (1970)
Probably Bellamy’s most telling Kipling works, however, are contained within The Barrack Room Ballads (originally released in America on Green Linnet and Free Reed in the UK in 1976), giving a powerful and often heart-rending insight into the hardships and mindset habitually carried by the ordinary soldier. Bellamy responded brilliantly to the theme, flinging himself into the various pictures painted by Kipling of the humble squaddie and exacting full expressionism from the lyrics. None more so than Tommy, which became one of his most popular live songs with its emotive depiction of the hypocritically opposing attitudes accorded an army private in times of war and peace. There have been few more stirring choruses than Bellamy snarling ‘They send me to the gallery or round the music ‘alls / But when it comes to fighting, Lord they’ll shove me in the stalls / For it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that an’ Tommy wait outside / But it’s Special Train for Atkins when the trooper’s on the tide…’ Bellamy’s sarcastic delivery leaves you in no doubt of the squaddie’s anger.
With some terrific Tony Hall melodeon playing thrown in for good measure on Mandalay and Gunga Din, the whole of the Barrack Room Ballads set is a remarkable tour de force – my favourite Bellamy album – with Danny Deever vividly portraying the chilling details of a hanging; Cells offering a more light-hearted view of a drunken insurgent who takes a swipe at his corporal; and Bill ‘awkins, an epic vocal performance, even by Bellamy’s electrifying standards. Nobody could accuse Kipling – or Bellamy, come to that – of being a right wing reactionary, listening to these power-house songs of ordinary soldiers performed in this way.
The Kipling obsession continued to occupy Bellamy for the rest of his life, and included many more great performances, including one barrack room ballad that didn’t make it on to the original 1976 album, the epic Cholera Camp, another sardonic and brutally vivid depiction of the realities of army life living in the rotting stench of death and disease, written by Kipling in 1896. It emerged relatively late in Bellamy’s career, featuring in a 1990 production of a Tony Perrin play Soldiers Three at the New Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent – with a modest initial release on one of the cassettes Bellamy recorded and sold privately on gigs to try and make a few extra bob. Yet its gruesome humour struck a special chord with audiences and the song has since gone on to gain even greater weight in the hands of Bellowhead as one of the standout tracks on their Matachin album in 2008.
But Peter also found plenty of other curve balls along the way too. During a brief tenure at Topic Records, he again went against the grain of the folk world in the late 1970s with Both Sides Then, a career high on which he indulged his passion for American gospel music supported by some big hitters – his old YT chums, The Watersons, Louis Killen, Dave Swarbrick, Bill Shute, Lisa Null and his then wife Anthea among them. Indeed, Both Sides Then is one of the few occasions on which we hear the two great unaccompanied folk revival groups – YT and The Watersons – singing together.
It includes some of his finest moments – a hollering Amazing Grace, an outrageously saucy Maid Of Australia, a spooky The Trees They Do Grow High, a stomping Barbaree, and two uproarious treatments of songs learned from the repertoire of Doc Watson’s family, House Carpenter and When I Die. “My singing style has always drawn heavily on many traditions, notably Irish and Appalachian, as well as English,” Bellamy wrote in his original sleeve notes for the album. “The mental barriers have finally been kicked down… no other recording project has given me so much enjoyment.”
Peter Bellamy with The Watersons, Royston Wood & Heather Wood – When I Die, from Both Sides Then (Topic), originally released on the label in 1979.
Other unexpected cover versions appeared along the way too, the most maverick perhaps being Nostradamus, Al Stewart’s memorable documentation of the prophesies of the 16th century French seer whose writings are claimed to have predicted, among other things, the Great Fire of London and the rise of Napoleon, Hitler and the Kennedys. It was one thing for Bellamy to even contemplate adapting this ambitious, unwieldy song to a yelping concertina accompaniment and quite another to make it so comprehensively his own.
The track originally appeared on the 1975 Trailer LP Tell It Like It Was, another album that confounds the image many held of him at the time as an arch-traditionalist, with a compelling cover of Alex Glasgow’s All In A Day, writing a ‘new’ tune that would elevate On Board A 98 into the realms of Bellamist classicism and two intriguing songs of his own, the tailor-made end of evening farewell number Goodbye and The Ballad Of Judas. The latter found Bellamy characteristically taking a contrary view of popular religious belief, painting Judas as a man of conscience disillusioned by Jesus rather than a money-grabbing traitor… ’They salved his feet with ointments that might buy a family bread / It seemed cheap adulation turned my prince’s head…’ Peter was never shy about upsetting the apple-cart.
Another source of immense pride to him was his discovery of, and ensuing friendship with, the great Norfolk traditional singer, Walter Pardon, a retired carpenter from Knapton, who went on to make several albums for Leader and Topic. They provided a veritable treasure chest of songs he’d kept in his head all his life, too shy to sing them in company and completely oblivious to the fact that there was a folk world out there gagging to hear them. Always quietly generous and freely giving, Bellamy proved to be a good friend and a sensitive champion of Pardon and a great publicist for him, too, while popularising several of Pardon’s songs himself – Old Brown’s Daughter, The Trees They Do Grow High and The Bush Of Australia among them.
Peter rarely played guitar at gigs, usually relying on just concertina or the unaccompanied voice, but could often be found at home indulging his love of the blues and would occasionally be prevailed on to play a blues as an encore at gigs (“It’s my own time now so I can play what I like,” he’d say). As evidenced by his version of Motherless Child – featured on the 1985 album Second Wind (EFDSS) and the triple compilation Wake The Vaulted Echoes – he was damn good at it too, playing a mean slide guitar.
His love of blues was shared with one of the singers he took most inspiration and influence from in those early days with YT, Bob Copper, and near the end of his life he began presenting Copper’s own poetry in a traditional music idiom. One of them, The Old Songs, even made it on to the live Songs & Rummy Conjurin’ Tricks (Fellside), effectively Bellamy’s last album recorded just nine months before his death and one that proved whatever was going on in his head at the time, his capacity to surprise, delight and stimulate hadn’t diminished in the slightest. His penchant for a good contemporary cover version is also proven yet again by the inclusion of Steve Tilston’s superb The Slip Jigs & Reels and one of Bob Dylan’s lesser known songs, Death Is Not The End, a track which grew in significance in light of the horrifying events that followed.
And that is one of the biggest tragedies for his followers. We are not talking of a washed-up has-been with nothing to say any more. Bellamy always had plenty to say and had many fresh projects on the go at the time he perished, including settings of more Bob Copper poems and an Australian themed work around the great Australian writer Henry Lawson. Indeed, he spent most of the last day of his life working up an arrangement of a song he’d heard by Jean Ritchie, Farewell To Hardburly. He maintained his love and passion for music – all music – right to the end, never happier than sharing musical enthusiasms with contemporaries and zealously compiling tapes and recommending records for the entertainment and benefit of aspiring young musicians.
For many The Transports was his crowning achievement. A localised Norfolk story that consumed him so much when he uncovered it, that he reputedly stayed up for four days and nights solid, writing the material for probably the most ambitious record the British folk world had ever seen. A fully orchestrated double album starring the cream of the 1970s folk world, including The Watersons, June Tabor, Nic Jones, Bert Lloyd and Cyril Tawney (Bellamy said he’d have liked Ewan MacColl on it too but didn’t ask him because he knew he’d refuse). It spawned many live productions and received various awards, yet Bellamy later bitterly claimed that he hadn’t earned a penny out of it.
In later years he could barely get a gig for love or money – and couldn’t understand why. One of the most galling moments of that otherwise surprisingly upbeat last interview with Eddie Upton at Whitby Festival shortly before his death is the shrug of resignation as he pessimistically reflects on the state of the 1991 folk scene and his inability to see anything brighter in the future for himself or folk music generally. He yearned, he said, for another major project to consume him just like The Transports had done, but had failed to find one.
So he was reduced to bootlegging his own albums and his last recordings were home-made cassettes, selling them on the few gigs he could get. He was still good, though. Bloody good and it was one of those cassettes that was heard by Jon Boden and which became the catalyst for the startling re-appraisal of Bellamy that has provoked his sudden pre-eminence. It’s a nice outcome but one tinged with the painful regret that Peter himself – who was 47 when he died – isn’t around to enjoy it.
“He’d be delighted that so many younger people now appreciate him,” says Jenny Bellamy. “I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear Jon Boden and Bellowhead. He’d be saying to them ‘Come to my house, listen to this song…’ Yet he never wanted to be in a band himself. He had offers and he’d have made more money doing that, but for him that would have compromised who he was – he’d never let his principles down. He was incapable of stepping off that path and in the end he killed himself rather than step off it. His attitude was ‘This is me and if that won’t do then I’m out of here…'”
Young Tradition – Bright Morning Star from Wake The Vaulted Echoes (Free Reed), originally released on The Folk Trailer (Leader/Trailer 1970)
Words: Colin Irwin
Photos: Ian Anderson, Derek Schofield and Brian Shuel
Thanks to Ian Anderson of fRoots magazine for help with sourcing photos.