Skiffle not only encouraged thousands of kids to pick up guitars and progress into the electrified world of rock ‘n’ roll, it was also a catalyst for many to stay within the realms of acoustic music and further explore the roots of British folk and American country blues. To accommodate the growing hordes of guitar pickers, hundreds of smoke-filled clubs sprung up around the country to showcase the emerging talents of nascent folkies such as Martin Carthy, Ralph McTell, Ashley Hutchings, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn who usurped the finger in the ear woolly jumper stereotypes and captivated a new radical audience of CND supporters, beatniks and students. During the early sixties the music diversified, becoming a melting pot of styles incorporating folk, Celtic jigs and reels, American blues, country and bluegrass and even esoteric African and Indian influences as embraced by Davy Graham and Steve Benbow. Original song writing also crept into repertoires spearheaded by the man of the moment, Bob Dylan. As the differing strands amalgamated into a progressive whole that birthed Donovan, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, the Incredible String Band, Al Stewart and John Martyn, one man clung steadfastly to the past, Peter Bellamy. A contradictory figure who loved rock ‘n’ roll, blues and jazz while mounting a one-man crusade to promote the traditional songs of Norfolk and the verse of Rudyard Kipling. Peter Bellamy’s birth is his only link to the Bournemouth area much like Don Partridge, John Hawken and Darrell Sweet as the family moved away when he was a young child but, however tenuous the link, this is his story.
Peter Franklyn Bellamy was born the fourth of five children on 8th September 1944 in Aston Grays Maternity Home at 21-25 Knole Road in Boscombe, Bournemouth, a stone’s throw from St. Clement’s church. Shortly after his birth the family moved to the tiny Norfolk village of Wells-Next-The-Sea where his father, Richard, was employed as a farm foreman. During the thirties Richard had become a staunch supporter of Oswald Mosley and joined the British Union of Fascists. When war broke out he was imprisoned, along with Mosley, under the 1939 ‘Emergency Powers Act’ for his activities. It appears his father’s political leanings had no influence on his son, but his belligerence did, as Peter wasn’t averse to goading the mainly communist sympathisers on the folk scene just to provoke a reaction.
During his time at Fakenham Grammar School he fell under the spell of Bill Hayley and rock ‘n’ roll and learnt to play the guitar, firstly mimicking the old blues players such as Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy and then the American folk singers Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. At the age of seventeen he attended Norwich School of Art, where he discovered English folk music and later studied at the Maidstone College of Art under the tutelage of Peter Blake, the notable artist best known for designing the sleeve for The Beatles Sgt. Peppers album. As Peter experimented with differing musical styles, it dawned on him that his voice was best suited to English folk song, so he diverted all his time and energy into learning the songs of the traditionalist’s Ewan McColl, A. L. Lloyd and Harry Cox.
In November 1964 Bellamy tired of academia and with much encouragement from the influential folk singer Anne Briggs, he dropped out of college and concentrated his efforts on becoming a professional musician. He formed the Young Tradition the following spring with Royston Wood, who he met while dossing on the floor of a mutual friend’s flat and the unrelated Heather Wood, who was born in Sheffield but went to school in Parkstone, a suburb of Poole. She came across the pair while they were performing as a duo at the Scots Hoose pub in Soho. The group’s sartorial elegance typified by the Wood’s flamboyant hippy gear purchased from Carnaby Street, or in Bellamy’s case, self-made William Morris print trousers and fancy jackets fashioned from brocade fabrics, looked bang up to date, although their music harked back to a simpler time from the turn of the century. A lot of their inspiration was drawn from the unaccompanied harmony style of the Copper Family, a group of related singers from Rottingdean near Brighton.
The trio became popular on the London folk circuit, regularly appearing at Le Cousins, the Singer’s Club, Bunjies, the Troubadour and the Young Tradition Club from whence the group took their name. For a time Peter worked as a stock boy at Transatlantic Records where the owner, Nat Joseph, overheard the trio rehearsing in the company’s basement and offered them a record deal. Their first two albums, The Young Tradition and So Cheerfully Round plus the EP Chicken on a Raft, drew from a deep well of rustic collier, hunting and farming songs, street cries, sea shanties and ballads, mostly performed unaccompanied, apart from the odd trill ornamentation from a penny whistle. By the time of their third and final effort, 1968’s Galleries, the musical palette had expanded to include seventeenth century hymns, rural American blues and mediaeval ballads with appropriate accompaniment from the Early Music Consort, the fiddle and piano of Fairport Convention’s Dave Swarbrick and Sandy Denny respectively and Dolly Collins on portative organ.
During their four-year existence, the group was never fully appreciated in their own country, despite high-profile gigs at the Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. It wasn’t until after the event that they were looked upon as an important link to past traditions and an influence on future generations of vocal groups. Conversely, they were highly regarded across the pond where appearances at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, New York, and the 1968 Newport Folk Festival boosted their reputation. A rare live recording of the group surfaced in 2013 taped surreptitiously by a fan at Oberlin College in Ohio, showcasing the trio in strident form on spirited renditions of “Byker Hill”, “The Two Magicians”, Randy Dany-O” and the sea shanty “Blow the Man Down” complete with rousing audience participation. As the decade drew to a close, the Young Tradition couldn’t sustain a decent standard of living as both Royston and Peter were now married, which brought down the curtain on their career with a final concert at Cecil Sharp House, (home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society) in October 1969. In later life Peter denounced the group as being too bombastic, believing that they put style over substance, a notion rejected by their fans. After the split, Royston and Heather Wood continued as a duo until Royston’s death in a car accident in 1990.
Bellamy struck out on his own releasing a slew of solo albums including, Mainly Norfolk, Songs and Ballads and Fair England’s Shore on which he cherry picked the repertoires of ardent traditionalists such as Norfolk’s Harry Cox and Sam Larner, singing unaccompanied in much the same manner as they were originally performed over fifty years before. On 1969’s The Fox Jumps Over the Parson’s Gate, he plundered the same rich vein of material, only with added help from Chris Birch on harmony vocals and accompaniment from Peter’s concertina and Barry Dransfield’s fiddle.
During his childhood Peter acquired a lifelong passion for the poems of Rudyard Kipling, particularly Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies. Over the course of his career he would return repeatedly to the source material and marry over one hundred of Kipling’s works to old folk tunes and original melodies, most notably on 1970’s Oak Ash and Thorn, 1972’s Merlin’s Island of Gramarye, 1976’s Peter Bellamy Sings the Barrack Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling, 1982’s Keep on Kipling and 1989’s Rudyard Kipling Made Exceedingly Good Songs, a pun on a TV advert of the day for a brand of cakes. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciated his championing of the Indian-born poet and author, as he ran into ongoing copyright difficulties, mainly from Kipling’s daughter. However, after her death, the Kipling Society came to appreciate his contribution to the poet’s legacy, so much so they made him a Fellow of the Society, becoming vice president in 1981. He also received a lot of flak from people he labelled “dyed-in-the-wool lefties”, as they viewed the Indian born Kipling in much the same way as the author George Orwell saw him, “as a prophet of British Imperialism”. Peter brushed their protestations aside as he revelled in the controversy, taking great delight in ruffling the feathers of the establishment.
In 1973 Peter wrote what was to become his greatest achievement, The Transports, a folk opera based on the true story of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, two deportees destined to a life of incarceration as they sailed to Australia on the first convict ships back in 1787. Reportedly written in one burst of inspired creativity over four days and nights, he set the narrative of twenty songs to archaic tunes plucked from the seventeenth century. To help realise his creation, he utilised the baroque, medieval instrumentation of the day with help from arranger Dolly Collins, orchestra director Roddy Skeaping and a cast of musicians drawn from the contemporary folk scene including Martin Carthy, Mike and Norma Waterson, June Tabor, Nic Jones, Cyril Tawney, A. L. Lloyd and Dave Swarbrick. When the album finally became available in 1977, it won the folk record of the year award in The Guardian newspaper. Another of Bellamy’s ambitious projects, The Maritime Suite, collected thirteen sea faring songs from Saxon times to the nineteenth century for a one-off BBC broadcast entitled, We Have Fed Our Sea. A live recording from Wensum Lodge in Norwich didn’t gain an official release until the Fellside label made it available on CD in 2018.
During the seventies Peter perfected his own style of song writing by marrying original lyrics to traditional tunes, most tellingly on the two albums he released in 1975, the self-titled Peter Bellamy, his first LP to be recorded and issued in the United States and Tell it Like it Was. For 1979’s Both Sides Then, considered by some to be one of his best, he blended English, Irish and American Appalachian traditions into a complete whole with support from his former Young Tradition cohorts Royston and Heather Wood, his then wife Anthea, the Watersons, Lisa Null, Bill Shute, Louis Killen and Dave Swarbrick.
As the eighties wore on, he found it increasingly difficult to secure gigs and would often brandish his empty diary in front of friends. However, the fame he garnered from his time with the Young Tradition opened doors for him to tour the USA and Australia, where he hosted a concert at the prestigious Sydney Opera House, but the inability to sustain a workable career in his own country weighed heavily on his mind.
On 24th September 1991, Peter left his home in Keighley and took a walk along the Leeds and Liverpool canal to a spot overlooking his house across a valley. He then washed down a large dose of anti-depressants with a half bottle of whiskey. It was not the first time he had attempted suicide, over the years he had struggled with alcohol, depression and dips in his career, but this time he succeeded. He was forty-seven years old. His cremation took place in Shipley and his ashes scattered in the garden of Bateman’s in Burwash, Sussex, the home of Rudyard Kipling. He was succeeded by his ex-spouse Anthea and his current wife Jenny. A celebration of his life and work took place at the Conway Hall in London on the 2nd October 1992 with a day of concerts, including a complete performance of his masterwork, The Transports.
Although he was highly regarded by a hard core of admirers, he never really achieved the breakthrough his talents warranted. He blamed his lack of success on his championing of the much derided, “apologist for colonialism” Rudyard Kipling and his steadfast refusal to tow the leftish line common in folk circles. A confrontational man of many contradictions, he closely studied the singers of the past, while enjoying the music of Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. His flamboyant dress-sense, long flowing blond hair, antagonistic nature and arrogance, polarised the wider folk fraternity however, his close friends regarded him as a generous, warm man who had a wicked sense of humour. He demonstrated this by hanging a strip cartoon called Borfolk, from the folk magazine Southern Rag on his wall, which mocked his distinctive nasal vibrato by inventing a neat anagram of his name, Elmer P. Bleaty. Amongst his many talents he was an accomplished artist and painted numerous portraits of rock and blues singers, he also designed virtually all of his album sleeves. A definite marmite character, his strident delivery and distinctive voice could either draw the listener into a bygone day of sea shanties, ballads and street hollers or have one reaching for the off button. There was no middle ground with Peter Bellamy.
For an overview of his solo career try the three CD Wake the Vaunted Echoes: A Celebration of Peter Bellamy on Free Reed Records. For his first group dip into the two CD compilation The Young Tradition on Demon.
Peter Bellamy Discography
The Young Tradition EP
Chicken on a Raft: Transatlantic (EP TRA 166) 1967
The Young Tradition Albums
The Young Tradition: Transatlantic (TRA 142) 1966
So Cheerfully Round: Transatlantic (TRA 155) 1967
Galleries: Transatlantic (TRA 172) 1968
The Young Tradition Sampler: Transatlantic (TRASAM 13) 1969
Oberlin 1968: Fledg’ling Records (FLED 3094) 2013 Live CD
The Young Tradition: Demon (TRANDEM 5) 1989 A 2 CD compilation
Albums featuring the Young Tradition
Judy Collins In My Life: Elektra (EKS 7320) 1966
Shirley Collins The Sweet Primroses: Topic (12T170) 1967
Shirley and Dolly Collins The Holly Bears the Crown: Fledg’ling Records (FLED 3006) 1995 Recorded in 1969 but shelved due to the breakup of the Young Tradition
Tony Rose Young Hunting: Trailer (LER 2013) 1970
Peter Bellamy Albums
Mainly Norfolk, Songs and Ballads: Transatlantic (XTRA 1060) 1968
Fair England’s Shore: Transatlantic (XTRA 1075) 1969
The Fox Jumps Over the Parson’s Gate: Topic Records (12T200) 1970
Oak, Ash and Thorn: Argo (ZFB 11) 1970
Won’t You Go My Way: Argo (ZFB 37) 1972 Recorded live with Louis Killenin in Norwich
Merlin’s Island of Gramarye: Argo (ZFB 81) 1972
Peter Bellamy: Green Linnet (SIF 1001) 1975
Tell it Like it Was: Trailer (LER 2089) 1975
The Barrack Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling: Free Reed (FRR 014) 1976
The Transports: A Ballad Opera by Peter Bellamy: Free Reed Records (FRRD 021/022) 1977
Both Sides Then: Topic Records (12TS400) 1979
The Maritime England Suite: 1982 Self released cassette
Keep on Kipling: Fellside Recordings (FE 032) 1982
Fair Annie: 1983 Self released cassette
Second Wind: English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS002) 1985
Rudyard Kipling Made Exceedingly Good Songs: Dambuster (DAM 019) 1989
Soldiers Three: 1990 Self released cassette
Songs an’ Rummy Conjurin’ Tricks: Fellside (FSC 5) 1990 Live at the Cockermouth Folk Club
Wake the Vaunted Echoes: A Celebration of Peter Bellamy: Free Reed Records (FRTCD 14) 1999 A three disc retrospective
The Maritime Suite: Fellside (FECD284) 2018
Albums featuring Peter Bellamy
Various Artists The Tale of Ale: The Story of the Englishman and His Beer: Free Reed Records (FRRD 023/024) 1976
Royston Wood and Heather Wood No Relation: Transatlantic (TRA 342) 1977
Bill Shute and Lisa Null American Primitive: Green Linnet (SIF 1025) 1980
The Kipper Family The Crab Wars: Dambusters Records (DAM 017) 1986