My Pop Life 108 : Sumer Is Icumen In

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Sumer is Icumen in   (Summer Is A Coming In)  –  traditional

sumer is icumen in ludu sing cucu

bloweth sed and groweth med and springst the wood anew

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summer is a coming in, loudly sing ‘cuckoo’

Seeds blow, meadows grow, the trees are sprouting anew..

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Old old song.   It appears in one of the world’s most famous medieval music manuscripts, Harley 978.   Written in 13th-century England, (c1275), probably by the monks of Reading Abbey, the book in question also contains the fables of Marie de France and the poems of Walter Map, medical texts and recipes and a glossary of herbs.   

But the key text is this one :  the Featured imageMiddle English rota “Sumer Is Icumen In“, a composition for six voices to be sung in the round, written in square notation on a five-line red stave.

The manuscript is the oldest known musical round (rota) with English words.  Singers, however, can choose between the Middle English lyrics in black ink which celebrate the arrival of spring and the rising of the sap, or the lyrics in Latin (Perspice Christicola) written in red ink which are religious.  The tune remains the same.  This double version was not unusual in those days.  A straight holy song and an earthy secular song using the same tune.  Which came first ? We shall probably never know.

I first heard this song in a rehearsal room in Liverpool in 1986.   I’d finished Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Tricycle Theatre (written by Bob Carlton, started life at Liverpool Everyman)  in the spring of 1985, and then talked the director Glen Walford into casting me as the lead in Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman the following year.   I walked up the stairs to her Old Compton St flat in Soho and said I wanted to play the tragic Scottish king.    It was a fateful move.    Little did I know that the entire experience would put me off doing theatre forever.

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After Macbeth, which is one of the nightmare memories of my life as an actor, I did one more play at the RSC in London, then there is a gap of nearly 20 years before I decided to do Mike Packer‘s brilliant punk comedy The Dysfunkshonalz at The Bush Theatre in 2009.  And I don’t see myself treading the boards again anytime soon.  No, the very woman who had seen something in me to allow me to play the lead in Macbeth with no previous experience of playing Shakespeare, was the same woman who would drive me out of the theatre with her ugly working methods and foul personality.   She wouldn’t allow any of the actors to hold the script during rehearsal – she would read the lines out loud and we had to copy her.   Loudly.  It was murder.  When I asked her at what point do Lady Macbeth and her husband decide to kill King Duncan? she answered “Don’t keep bothering me with all that psychological bollocks“.    I felt isolated from the rest of the cast who were almost all acolytes of hers, although they bore me no ill-will, I moved out of my digs into the Adelphi Hotel and spent the entire rehearsal period trying to learn the lines in my hotel room, and making a scrapbook for Rita Wolf my girlfriend.   I did actually call my agent Michael Foster during rehearsal and said perhaps I should drop out of the production.  I was hating everything.   He advised me not to, so I just buckled down and got on with it.

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Once we’d opened I took back the performance line by line, night by night.  Walford would give us all notes in the afternoons, but I stopped listening and ploughed my own lonely furrow.  It was already a high enough peak to climb and somehow I’d doubled it by falling out with the director, and isolating myself from most of the cast.   Much joy was had when one of the weird sisters fell ill and couldn’t go on, so Glen the director had to appear in costume and make-up as a witch.   The fear in her eyes when she spoke to me onstage was like sweet nectar from heaven.

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Many Liverpool actors came to see the performance and hated it, and me.    Ken Sharrock, a scouser and one of my mates from Berkoff’s “West” also came and told me that he couldn’t see what I was doing.   Until I came to the front.  “She’s done you Ralph, she’s taken your confidence” he said.   I carried on improving.   My feelings for Liverpool were not affected – I love the city, my favourite in the UK.    And it didn’t affect my feelings for the play either – my favourite Shakespeare.   It just all should have been better.   My father came across from Huddersfield towards the end of the run when I’d pretty much reclaimed the role for myself in its entirety and he enjoyed my performance and was proud of me.   That’s all I needed to make it all feel worthwhile.   At the last-night party the director got drunk enough to tell me that “people come here to see my productions, not to watch some Joint Stock actor wanking about onstage“.    But strangely this particular post is a happy memory of that time, perhaps because it is a musical one.

Awe blateth after lomb louth after calue cu

The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf

The musical director for ‘Macbeth‘ was Paddy Cunneen, a tall straggly bespectacled enthusiast who whipped our unruly gang of actors into musical shape.   His girlfriend Andrea Gibb (now a successful writer) was one of the weird sisters.   And one of the things Paddy did was teach us this song, using the Middle English as written above. We sang it every day.

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It’s a merry little tune and the words are faintly rude –  Sumer Is Icumen In is an important historical song but it is also famous for being the first written recorded example of the word fart in the English language.  In Olde Wessex English it is “averteth“.   Apparently  :

Bulluc sterteth buc averteth ludu sing cucu

Bullock prances, billy-goat farts, loudly sing cuckoo !

Actors love a dirty joke so once this had been translated we were all onside.   We sang it as a round every morning.  This is normal for companies in rehearsal – there are various warm-up techniques, bonding exercises and vocal flexes, and singing a round achieves all three at the same time.  Previous songs I’d sung in rehearsal room rounds were London’s Burning and Rose Rose Red.  Readers may remember Frére Jaques (one syllable per word in French but always pronounced Frerer Jaquer in English…) from primary school.

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I don’t actually have this song in my musical collection, but online trawling has given me a number of interpretations.  The Hilliard Ensemble sang it as a standard round and I’ll post it to illustrate the effect of singing it in the round, but it is very strangely sprightly, polite and bourgeouis.  I rather suspect ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson has much the better spirit when he sings it on his live LP 1000 Years Of Popular Music – track one, naturally.   A strange modern translation was provided by playwright Anton Shaffer in his screenplay for The Wicker Man (1973) and sung by the islanders as they burn Edward Woodward at the film’s pagan climax.  It’s a powerful cinematic moment.

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I find it rather fantastic that people are still singing a song which is probably 1000 years old.  It was a religious tune, a celebration of summer, and possibly a sexual innuendo (cuckoo being a multi-layered word in English).   It reflects a dark period in my life, but I take heart that even in these darkest hours, some light can shine.

The Hilliard Ensemble :

Richard Thompson :

The Wicker Man :

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My Pop Life #65 : Wake Up Alone – Amy Winehouse

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Wake Up Alone   –   Amy Winehouse

He’s fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts
He floods me with dread
Soaked in soul
He swims in my eyes by the bed
Pour myself over him
Moon spilling in
And I wake up alone

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This is an incredible song from a deeply talented songwriter and singer who sadly left us at way too young an age.   She has many imitators, but none who can match her artistry.   I was working on a film called Tower Block on the day she died – 23rd July 2011 – with an accomplished gang which included Russell Tovey, Jack O’Connell, Julie Graham, Nabil Elouahabi, Kano, Montserrat Lombard, Jill Baker and Sheridan Smith.  Towards the end of the shoot I was suddenly aware that Sheridan was in floods of tears so I went over and asked her what was wrong.  “Amy” she said, “she’s gone“.  It was a terrible moment, and without further explanation I knew that she was dead.  Sheridan was one of her friends.  What an utter and tragic waste, that we all saw enacted in front of our eyes.

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In 1984 I did a play at the Tricycle Theatre in north London called Return To The Forbidden Planet.  I played the saxophone.  The MD was Hereward Kaye.

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In 2012 I was playing saxophone in The Amy Winehouse Experience at a music festival, with Hereward Kaye’s sons Joe and Rory Kaye, and my wife’s childhood friend Pippa.   Wait.  I’ll explain.

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Rewind to north west London and two young girls : one with St Lucian parents, one jewish, doing dance routines for their own imaginary TV show.  My wife Jenny was the black girl, her best friend was Philippa Randall.  They danced together, sang into hairbrushes, choreographed steps and roped in siblings to ‘assist’.   As the years went by they stayed in touch, Jenny became an actor, Pippa a nail technician.  When Jenny got married, all of Pippa’s family came, when Pippa got married to Tony, Jenny and I went.   When Jenny and Pippy’s Nanny Flo died, we all went to the funeral.   Then Philippa’s wonderful parents Roy and Robbie decided to move to Spain for their retirement.  Pippa and her Prince-lookalike husband Tony joined them.  We missed Pippa when she was in Spain but she seemed to like it there and flourished.  Her marriage wasn’t working though, despite two beautiful girls Tia Bliss and Lucy Bear.   After the inevitable split with Tony, Phillippa came back to the UK with her parents and 2 girls and her new man Joe Kaye, whom she’d met in southern Spain, and whose own parents were also very special, Hereward and Pat.   Yes, the same Hereward who’d been my musical director at the Trike.   The extended family moved back from the Costa Brava to Linfield, (just outside Haywards Heath a few miles north of Brighton) and Herry & Pat opened a Rock School nearby with Joe, who is  a very good guitarist and musician in his own right.

Now : Philippa just happens to be a spitting image of Amy Winehouse, a terrific singer, and being a North London jewess I guess all the pieces were in place.  The whole family had come to see The Brighton Beach Boys one night playing our big concert – Sgt Pepper v Pet Sounds and absolutely loved it.  Herry’s other son Rory is also a guitarist and now has his own band playing rock.  Joe and Philippa asked me to step in on sax for some gigs.  I was a huge fan of Amy, so I agreed.

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Then I had to learn the songs!  I had both LPs, “Frank” was a breath of fresh air in 2003 with it’s jazzy vibe, but certainly didn’t prepare us for Back To Black in 2006 which is quite simply a modern masterpiece.  Produced by Mark Ronson, with the analogue old-school New York soul band The Dap-Kings providing almost all the session musicians, as well as being her touring band in 2006, it was a perfect confluence of elements.  Every track is special.  And having had to learn them all for the horn parts, I can tell you that they have very unusual and intriguing chord sequences.  Take “Wake Up Alone” which is the best song on the album for me :

verse :       A     A    G#    G#    C#m   C#m    C     C

Emaj7   Emaj7    C#m   C#m   C    C    F#m   F  

bridge :         Dsus4      D     G     E7b9   x3

chorus :          C     Bm    E7b9

See what I mean ?   I’m joking – that’s for the musos reading.    But take my word for it – that’s a wonderful series of chords.  The lyrics are even better…

…That silent sense of content that everyone gets

Just disappears as soon as the sun sets…

It is a song of deep longing, unfulfilled.  Plenty of water references – he swims in my eyes by the bed is an incredible line,  Pour myself over him….  This is soul music,  as good as it gets.   I never did see Amy live, and I wish I had.   I know many who saw the slurring, shaky performances of those last few years.  Terribly terribly sad.  I prefer to remember her with the swaggering yet vulnerable poise of that incredible show from 2006 in Ireland, at the St James’ Church in Dingle on Dec 3rd, or the Shepherd’s Bush concert from the same year.   But I got great pleasure in playing her songs with a lovely tight band based around my friends, old and new and my wife’s  friend Pippa, giving her own trembling chutzpah and antsy tottering to the Winehouse legend, tattoos carefully drawn on, beehive in place, that dark trembling voice just about intact.

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A remarkable circle of life – Herry and I had played Good Vibrations on stage every night at the Tricycle, the show there, written by Bob Carlton, being a rock’n’roll musical of the sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which itself is a re-imaging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.   The notable thing about the Tricycle’s production of this show, (which originated at Bubble Theatre and went on to grace the West End), was that it introduced the novel idea of having black actors in the cast – the inhabitants of the magical island – this being part of the theatre’s brief, and their local audience.   Ram John Holder played Prospero, and found me a place to live since I was once again homeless as that show ended its run.  In a further spiral to this circle, my wife Jenny was schooled at the Tricycle Youth Theatre during the 80s, and is now on the Board of that great venue.   Jenny has also performed Amy – at a special celebration fundraiser for Nicholas Kent, who was artistic director of the Tricycle for many years – singing Love Is A Losing Game with Graham Kearns accompanying.  I’d love to have seen that, but I saw Jenny rehearsing it many times !

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 I only played a handful of gigs with the Amy Winehouse Experience, but it was worth it for the opportunity to get inside these tremendous songs.    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, in various incarnations – Amy Winehouse.

track 8 from Back To Black :

incredible live performance at Shepherd’s Bush :

The Amy Winehouse Experience live, 2012 :

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Amy-Winehouse-Experience/390986427614883