Peter Bellamy
Wake The Vaulted Echoes
Free Reed (

Bellamy Peter Bellamy was the most exciting and distinctive performer the English folk scene has ever produced. A man of many paradoxes, he revered the tradition while constantly recasting it in an effort to capture the adrenaline rush of rock'n'roll. He studied source singers with devotion but came away sounding like none of them. He polarised audience opinion like few other performers. If the word "genius" was ever appropriate to a folkie, then Bellamy came closer than most, yet he never achieved the success his early career amidst the razor harmonies of the Young Tradition had presaged. In later years he blamed this on his unfashionable political, he would say, apolitical, stance and his championing of the non-PC works of Rudyard Kipling, but I always thought he was just too confrontational for the cosier backwaters of the English folk scene. Confrontational in every way, from his performing style to his dress-sense (the Rolling Stones T-shirt with flashing light bulbs is fondly remembered), to his apparent though deceptive arrogance, and his appetite for a verbal scrap. Thereís a plausible tale of him arriving at the house of an unsuspecting folk club organiser and, with hardly an introduction, marching over to the poor manís record collection and denouncing its mediocrity in the most colourful terms. I mention it because with Peter Bellamy, the performer was inextricably linked to the man. Those who knew him well, however, remember a warm, generous and surprisingly vulnerable man.

Wake the Vaulted Echoes is a lavish tribute. Three CDs that play for three-and-half-hours, with a CD-ROM section on disc 3, and a 70-page booklet containing encyclopaedic information on the 57 songs (including Bellamy's own remarks and concert introductions to them), a lengthy and excellent personal account by Karl Dallas, loads of photos, tributes from the great and good, the man's pronouncements on the folk scene and beyond, and general trivia. And Peter Bellamy trivia is a sight more interesting than most other folks' trivia.

"On Board a 98"
But what of the music itself? Well, someone who knows their stuff has put this lot together, drawing from Bellamy's extensive but largely deleted discography (he was selling bootleg copies of his own albums in his later career), privately-recorded tapes, unreleased material, and all sorts of fascinating oddments. It's not chronologically or thematically arranged, although the tracks at the beginning and end of the collection are obviously where they are for a reason. Amongst the rarities are a one-off recording made in a record shop booth in 1964, a Young Tradition track that got missed from the group's compilation
"Come Write Me Down"
w/ Shirley Collins
recordings, an in-concert duet with Shirley Collins, and a live folk club performance of the outrageously hilarious "A Chat With Your Mother". Peter's sense of humour was tremendous, though not always appreciated by those determined to see him a serious "traddy," and the way he hams up this song is a potent reminder of his powers as an entertainer. Generally, though, the material is either traditional. Sometimes, like his inevitable gig opener "On Board A Ninety-Eight" with a terrific original melody attached, or Kipling words set to Bellamy's traditional-inspired tunes. (It's worth pointing out that the Kipling material is undergoing reappraisal by some of its one-time denigrators; certainly the poetry is powerful and the sentiments less jingoistic than is sometimes believed.)

Bellamy's powers as a singer are amply demonstrated: the voice isn't pretty or mellow, but it has tremendous edge, can hit impossibly high notes to spine-tingling effect, and is bent and bullied into all sorts of inspirational twists and turns. The styles of traditional singers from his native Norfolk are to be heard, but so too are Appalachian balladeers and Southern Baptist gospel shouters. Sometimes he's austere, almost didactic, sometimes deeply emotional, other times he seems to throw his voice around for the sheer hell of it, like an improvising jazz musician. In the last chorus of "Santa Fe Trail" he loved to take an already impossibly high note and screw it up another notch so remorselessly that you could feel your testicles contract (well, if you were male, anyway).

"My BoyJack"
As a player of the Anglo-concertina I can appreciate more than most his unique approach to the instrument, breaking all the rules (he even had his box modified to facilitate the dissonant drones he favoured) and creating accompaniments that suited his preference for modal tunes admirably. Try "My Boy Jack" for size. His talents as a guitarist are less well-known, but he turns in some convincing bottleneck on a Barbecue Bob cover that might surprise those unaware of his love affair with the blues; he once bamboozled a folk music quiz panel by asking them to identify a recording of an obscure country blues 78, which proved to be a tape of himself embellished with fake hiss and crackles. And on Kipling's "Sir Richard's Song" he provides a lovely guitar backing that's reminiscent of Bert Jansch.

"A Pilgrim's Way"
Otherwise there's most of the classics you'd expect: "Tommy", "Black And Bitter Night", "Pilgrim's Way" (a fine live version), "Down The Moor", "A-Roving On A Winter's Night", "Nostradamus" and the rousing "Yarmouth Town" that finishes the set. I miss "The Liner She's A Lady" and "Big Steamers" and, if pressed to be critical, I'd question the inclusion of the badly-mixed, ragged and seemingly unrehearsed "Long Time Travelling"; the combination of Young Tradition and Watersons on "Both Sides Then" never lived up to expectations anyway, but this was surely the weakest of their songs together. On the whole, though, the occasionally low-fi quality is forgivable when you're getting valuable obscurities.

While there were those in the English folk world who couldn't handle Peter Bellamy at all, there were many more who loved him, and this is certainly a labour of love by those who compiled it. For Peter's many devoted fans, it's a must. And now that it's becoming hip to sing the old songs again, it's well worth hearing how a master and true original could bring them to vibrant, pulsating life in a way few other folk revivalists have ever done. - Brian Peters

Available from cdRoots

The Peter Bellamy online "Celebration"
Free Reed Records, the publisher of the recordings
More Audio Clips
Wake The Vaulted Echoes is available at cdRoots

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Text © 1999 RootsWorld
Audio and images © 1999 Free Reed Music, UK. Used by express permission of the publishers.