Monday, 6 July 2009

Someone in Somerset

George Withers 1924-2009

My Uncle George, who died last week, had been singing all his life. But it was only in the mid-1980s when he retired from farming that he was able to give full rein to his hobby.

From singing at socials and harvest suppers, George went on to appear at folk clubs and festivals all over the country and abroad.

As a tribute to my uncle, I am reproducing an article I wrote for The Marshwood Vale Magazine in February this year.

With a song in his heart

My Uncle George is something of a legend in our family.

When our large farming tribe got together at his smallholding next to the River Isle at Isle Abbotts, four miles north of Ilminster, we could always rely on him to come out with an old folk song or two. When I was young, it was always the funny ones I liked best. And he would always oblige. Singing Susanna's a Funniful Man, complete with whistles, grunts and snorting, until he was blue in the face. My little cousin Roger was almost sick with laughter.

Ours was a family rich in song. But I was primary school age then, back in the 1960s. At the time, I didn't appreciate George's more serious songs. I didn't realise it is people like my uncle who keep old traditions alive. But now, verses come into my head out of nowhere and I find myself singing choruses along with my busker sister. The comic song, Someone in Somerset, is as dear to me as anything. George learned it from his mother, Madeleine, my granny. There appears to be no record of it anywhere else.

George is now retired and lives at Horton, near Ilminster. He has been singing all his life but since leaving farming, the songs have taken him to folk festivals in the area and further afield, including Ireland and Canada. His singing days are behind him now, but only just, because of poor health. Luckily for the family, which includes his wife Avril, three children and grandchildren, George's rich and mellow voice has been recorded for posterity on a number of CDs and tapes, including Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all (Veteran, 2004), a collection of folk songs sung in the West Country, and The Land Remains (Frequency Studios, 2004).

George was born in Somerset in 1924, the same year that renowned collector of folk songs Cecil Sharp died. Sharp's songs, taught in schools throughout Somerset, are a staple part of George's musical heritage. Brimbledown Fair was one of George's father's songs. The family lived next door to James Bishop, whose version Sharp published. George first learned the song The Seeds of Love at school. This was the first song that Cecil Sharp collected.

The Withers family came from Wells where they farmed the same land for 400 years. George was the fifth child and only son of six children. My mother, like me with my four siblings, was the youngest.

George and the girls: From top, identical twins Marjorie and Joan, Edith, Muriel, George and my mother, Pamela.

George's love of singing began from an early age. His mother and father were both musical. His mother used to sing old music hall songs to the children and his father, Percy, sang regularly in choirs and village concerts.

In Bob and Jacqueline Patten's book, Somerset Scrapbook (1987), George recalls: "Father was a dairy farmer and there were six of us children and no milking machines in those days.

"We used to milk a few cows in the morning before we went to school and again in the afternoon when we came home. I've been milking cows, on and off, since I was about four years old.

"Well, we'd be there in the cow stall, milking, and Father'd be singing out of one side of his mouth, so as not to get the cow hairs in there, and always sang while he was milking.

"And I always sang while I was milking, even when I had a milking machine. He sang the songs that he enjoyed singing, that lasted a good long time, about twenty five verses. That would last out three cows, sort of thing. And I suppose I had a memory for things like that and they just stuck. That's all there is to it, that's how I came to sing these older songs."

The family moved to Donyatt in 1927 to one of the Somerset County Council smallholdings created for servicemen returning from the First World War. George's father had served in the North Somerset Yeomanry and fought at the Somme. The council bought all the land in Donyatt in 1918 for £100,000 from the estate of R T Coombe. Somerset led the way in this initiative and Donyatt was something of a model village, with the school, post office, pub, baker and provision dealer's ship, smithy, the businesses of wheelwright, cobbler, ropemakers, potteries, grist mills and quarry all included in the purchase.

A practical farmer and good Christian, Percy was a sensitive soul and wrote poetry that ranged from his horrific war experiences to countryside subjects and local people. George has inherited his father's love of words and the countryside. His CD, The Land Remains, features a poem with the same title about the changing face of country life, and Milking on the Moor.

"I wrote the verses to the memory of those hardy farmers who started their careers by hand milking their cows out in the fields, largely on the Somerset Moors," George says. "My dad was one of them. It was a tough life but the lovely surroundings were some compensation."

George can be heard reading some of his father's poems on Farm Radio - - the internet site for small family farms and all those interested in the countryside.

First published by The Marshwood Vale Magazine February 2009



To sing is a wonderful thing. And countryside songs used to be such a fundamental part of rural life and the telling of tales, like the bards of the past. He will be sorely missed I know.

Lovely that you have been able to celebrate his life with this.

Pondside said...

Storytelling and singing are two of my favorite pastimes as I also grew up in a family that sang easily and entertained itself with its own stories. Your uncle sounds like he was a treasure - and I enjoyed the glimpse into that farm childhood that you gave in the article.
You'll miss him, for sure, but what a wonderful legacy you have.

ChrisH said...

Condolences on your loss, but what a wonderful tribute to your uncle. (Actually it struck an immediate chord with me as my Auntie Joanie, who died recently, used to sing 'Susannah' with all the grunts and whistles too!).

Anonymous said...

With your uncle's passing, a piece of living history went as well. I was engrossed reading this blog article. You are lucky to know as much about your family as you do. I wish I'd had the sense to ask a lot of questions of my grandparents and other relatives when I was younger, as the very small piece of knowledge I do have on their histories is fascinating and gives me a sense of heritage. I hope your family's history does for you.

Maddie Grigg said...

Pondy and Her on the Hill - I am so very lucky to have had such a constant, solid upbringing in the countryside I love.
We were all just so proud of Uncle George when he became quite a name in folk singing circles. To us he was just our uncle who would entertain us at the drop of a hat. Such a lovely, interesting man. He will be missed but you're right, he'll be celebrated too.
My sister has been passing on some of his songs at a folk singing workshop at Glastonbury Festival.
Chris H - I am smiling just thinking of the Susannah song now. How he didn't choke doing it, I don't know.
D P&M - My mother has been telling me family stories from the year dot. She's also researched the family history so we have a great record of our forebears. I go all goosebumpy when I think about the family links with the past. You're right, it does give you a sense of heritage, especially when you're as far away from home as you are.

seashell cosmos said...

Oh, it worked after a few tries, I listened. Bless Uncle George, gosh that made me smile hearing it. Very sorry for your loss, Maddie.

Reasons to be Cheerful 1,2,3 said...

So sorry to hear of your loss whilst you were away. How sad. Lovely memories though.

Maddie Grigg said...

SC, well done for finding it. I've just posted a link now that has been sent to me by a kind relative.
123, thanks for your comments as always. Glad you're back and I will start getting back into your blog and others now I'm home. x