Austin John Marshall – March 30, 1937-November 3, 2013
One of the great unsung pioneers of contemporary British folk song, Austin John Marshall, died in his sleep in New York on Sunday, November 3.
I first came across Austin John Marshall’s name when he designed the sleeve for one of Peter Kennedy’s compilations in the late 1950s. I sang The Arbroath Tragedy on it
When Shirley Collins returned from the States, where she’d been collecting with Alan Lomax, she married Austin John, who played a very significant role in her involvement with Davey Graham – which, incidentally, influenced Bob Dylan.
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It was perhaps appropriate that Austin John Marshall should have died just before the eve of Remembrance Sunday, for he composed perhaps the most wonderful peace song ever, The Whitsun Dance, which I published for the first time in my song collection, The Cruel Wars (1973).
- I sang Austin John’s song, ‘Dancing at Whitsun’, in the Castle pub, Bradford, on November 8, 2013.
He told the story of how the song came about:
“Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley [Collins] recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris:
Come you young men come along
With your music, dance and song
Bring your lasses in your hands
For ’tis that which love commands
Then to the Maypole haste away
For ’tis now a holiday.
Tim Hart and Maddy Prior recorded Dancing at Whitsun in 1971 for their third duo album, Summer Solstice, and June Tabor sang it, accompanied by Tim Hart on guitar, on a BBC Radio 1 John Peel Session recorded on March 4, 1975 and broadcast on March 10, 1975. I don’t know if this recording has ever been released on an album.
The Whitsun Dance
(Tune: The Week Before Easter)
It’s fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride,
But still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green,
As green as her memories of loving.
The feet that were nimble tread carefully now,
As gentle a measure as age do allow,
Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn,
Where once she was pledged to her true love.
The fields they are empty, the hedges grow free,
No young men to tend them, or pastures go see.
They’ve gone where the forests of oak trees before
Had gone to be wasted in battle.
Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.
There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.
There’s a row of straight houses in these latter days
Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze.
There’s a field of red poppies, a wreath from the Queen.
But the ladies remember at Whitsun,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.
Despite being published for the first time in 1973, the relationship between women and war had preoccupied him for some time. He wrote a song about women sewing insignia for regiments in a film he produced for the Ministry of Information (it surfaced in 1977 as Honour Bright, a duet between Shirley Collins and Steve Ashley, in John’s SmudgeI project – see below.)
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In my notes to The Electric Muse 4-LP boxed set, I told the story of how he put Shirley and Davey together, changing the whole face of English popular music for ever.
In July 1964, Austin John Marshall had the unobvious idea of teaming up his wife Shirley, with the guitarist Davey Graham. Shirley had been a mainstay of the British revival since the earliest Ballads and Blues days, and had worked with Ewan MacColl, Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax in the performance, collection and annotation of Anglo-American folksong.
The idea stemmed only partly from Marshall’s own eclectic tastes; partly also from the fact that the implosive effects of cheap travel and the instant access through electronic media were causing all the world’s cultures to cross-fertilise and become, not one, but an even wider variety of hybrids. The first result of the Collins-Graham collaboration was this raga arrangement of a tune Shirley had put to traditional American words. Shirley and Davey gave a concert at the Mercury Theatre and followed it with another one at Cecil Sharp House.
Shirley Collins recalled the collaboration with AJM when she was interviewed by John Kugelberg
A couple of the recordings I had made before I left [UK to go to USA with Alan Lomax] were going to be used on the HMV compilation albums A Pinch of Salt and A Jug Of Punch.
John, who was working at Vogue magazine at the time as an art assistant designed the covers and he was at Peter Kennedy’s house one day when I was there.
We got married within a couple of years.
I knew Davey from the folk clubs because he was playing at places like the Troubadour in London. But it hadn’t occurred to me to work with Davey because he was on this very exciting love affair with Middle Eastern and Indian music.
John was very keen on jazz, which as I’ve said before I don’t like.
I think it was after we heard Davey’s sort of raga version of She Moved Through The Fair, the Irish song, that John had a brainwave and thought that it might be intriguing for Davy and I to work together.
It didn’t detract from the English or American songs, it just added a further dimension to the tunes.
Davey just came out to our house at Black Heath and played in the front room and we sang and then we gigged.
Some of it is very good I’m a tad embarrassed by one or two tracks, but I think when it worked, it worked very well.
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Austin John Marshall was a true Renaissance man, with innumerable talents. Though originally a designer and graphic artist, he pushed the boundaries of whatever medium he worked in. For instance, when he put together the video of Jimi Hendrix viewable in the Youtube playlist above, he applied the audio technique of feedback to the video image, with results that have never been equalled.
And then John introduced Shirley to Joe Boyd:
I do remember, it was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and Dolly and I were on the same bill as the Incredible String Band. We all got on. They were all wacky and high all the time I didn’t even drink at that point and I certainly never did drugs That was part of the problem with Davey, that he did of course. I couldn’t hack it. It was just not my thing.
Then I was singing in the scene, but I wasn’t really part of the scene. Anyway, I think having met Joe and the Incredible String Band at this concert, I think the idea probably would have been rooted by John again. I was just singing and he was having the ideas at that time. I guess he sort of sweet-talked Boyd into producing and getting an album with Polydor. It was all so difficult talking to record companies at the time. None of them knew who you were or what you were doing.
I remember I was fairly dismissive of Shirley’s 1967 LP for Polydor, The Power of the True Love Knot, resulting from her meeting Joe Boyd, describing it as presenting a false picture of life in the English countryside, “like Eden before the fall”.
Joe [Boyd] was involved with that as well. I think we just decided what songs we would use and what story we would vaguely tell, because it’s not an absolutely crystal clear path through those songs Its just taking certain songs from before the first World War.
I think the other thing that fascinates me in life are English churches. I love old churches and by an extension of those, I’ve always loved memorial stones.
They’ve always had some sort of hook on me. I think this feeling was coming through all the time, I knew in England that maples were no longer around on the village greens as they had once been.
My gran and grandad told us about them and how they were replaced of course It just started to gel somehow I was starting to sing things from the Napoleonic War, like All Things Are Quite Silent, or High Germany. It just fused really. It was all things that I loved and that fascinated me sort of burning away in my brain and coming out the more we would talk about it
Austin John responded to my criticism by sardonically titling her 1969 LP for EMI’s Harvest label, Anthems in Eden. (I don’t know if Shirley ever realised the inspiration for that title; she has never referred to its origins in the dialogues at the time between me and Austin John.)
More significant, perhaps, even than the choice of songs and Austin John’s LP cover artwork, was the way he put Shirley together with her sister Dolly, who played on True Love Knot, but by the time of Anthems, he had taken her along to meet Michael Morrow and David Munrow.
I always loved [early music]. Uncle Fred, Purcell was his favourite composer. He also played us some Monteverdi as well when we were teenagers which I loved.
It was the sound of that music that just completely spellbound me. I think my favorite music of all really is Italian Renaissance. I used to go along with John to rehearsals at Musica Reservata at the Early Music Centre.
Anyway, it was there that we first heard the flute organ, and as I said it was transforming.
There was David Munrow working with Michael Morrow.
It was a bit difficult because it was his Musica Reservata that we were going along to listen to rehearsals of. I’m pretty sure David Munrow was part of that ensemble then, but then David broke away to form his New London Consort.
I remember Michael being not very interested in what we were talking about, because we talked to him afterwards about the sort of music that I was doing and I think he wasn’t interested. I remember him as being a very somber man and not very approachable and I was quite nervous of him.
But David Munrow who had spent some time when he was 18 or so on one of the British Council overseas things, he had gone to Peru I think. He had just fallen in love with folk whistles and flutes and woodwind instruments That virtually started his life as a woodwind specialist, so he was inclined to like folk music. He just sort of fell in with the plans when it was finally put together
that we could record this suite of songs with early music instruments with David as musical director.
Austin John and Shirley were drifting apart, though he did produce her next album, Love Death and the Lady.
I was breaking up with John then and the music pretty much reflects everything I think about, it’s all part of life. I was choosing songs that reflected how unhappy I was and how rigid I felt about things.
One place Austin John could NOT take Shirley was into the jazz world. He floated a project for her to expand what she had done with Davey Graham into a collaboration with the New Jazz Orchestra, which had sprung out of sessions at the Green Man pub close to where he and Shirley lived in Blackheath.
But Shirley out her foot down. “I don’t like jazz,” she said. “Nasty, fidgety music.”
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But Austin John was moving on. He was involved in a number of record projects, with bands like the Wooden O, with Spirogyra, and most notably with Steve Ashley; he produced Steve’s first album, Stroll On, and kept closely in touch with his career right up to the day John died.
We worked more closely together. In addition to designing the covers for my Acoustic Music magazine, he also put me in touch with a source of finance for the mag. All the time he was working on his next, most major project, Smudge.
In Fire and Wine, his “armchair guide” to Steve Ashley, Dave Thompson quotes Austin John’s description of the birth of Smudge. It was planned, he says, as:
Blackbirds of Brittany, performed by Bert Jansch, one of only two “Smudge” songs ever to be released.
Though I believe there may have been a BBC broadcast of the 100-minute folk epic, the only definite broadcast I know of was on WBAI in New York, in 1981, rebroadcast in 1982 and 1984.
I have only scratched the surface of Austin John Marshall’s life and works. Dave Thompson has published a very well-researched obituary on the web: Austin John Marshall – remembering the Phil Spector of Folk Rock.
- Austin John Marshall’s story is one with the era in which he lived, loved, and worked. He is one of the giants with whom it has been my joy and privilege to walk along with.
- Perhaps someone will get the Smudge tapes over from New York, and release them. It would be a fitting memorial to great and generous friend.
- Alan Lomax (explorationofthenow.wordpress.com)
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