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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 126 - Woodnotes wild in my bath while plying the loofah

I HAVE, people say, a splendid baritone voice. It’s a pity I spoil it, they add, by singing. But I often warble my native woodnotes wild in my bath while plying the loofah, at the car wheel, perhaps in a sunburst of joy at finding a parking space in Edinburgh and, sometimes, to add a crackling, catarrhal accompaniment to some oleaginous operatic tenor on radio or TV.

While I may not be able to hold a note longer than the Royal Bank of Scotland, I have had a lifetime of song. It included my primary school days when the class belted out, "Jesus loves me, yes I know", and heard the words, "so does Rag-time Cowboy Joe" added by a little, bullet-headed bruiser who was teacher-led by the neck scruff to the headmaster to hear his disapproving descant. At secondary school, the class’s barrage of 'Hey Johnnie Cope are ye waukin’ yet?' made window panes rattle, chalk dust dance and the music teacher bury her face in her hands and mutter something pious.

My repertoire was also enriched in Army days when we recruits sang while marching and at troop concerts. The songs were mainly of a brisk and manly nature, often crudely comical, certainly, in today’s terms, non-politically correct but as Kipling nearly observed: "Singing men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints."

My mother, a keen Scottish variety theatregoer, created a corpus of music hall choruses of a spirited, hilarious or sentimental nature that she passed on to me. My wife’s mother had a similar collection and revealed them to her daughter as something every young girl should know, especially in the Scottish domestic scene, like, 'Two Lovely Black Eyes', 'Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey?' and 'The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life'.

SUCH songs were on everybody’s lips and the errand boy’s whistle. Are there any message lads about and in these Walkman days, do they whistle 'Down at the old Bull and Bush' and 'On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep'? I suspect little is known about the zestful 'Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze', or the melodic majesty of 'Will Ye Stop Yer Ticklin’ Jock'? The fizzy gaiety of 'Champagne Charlie', that jaunty anthem of the jilted, 'There Was I Waiting At The Church', and countless other blithe-spirited gems have largely vanished from the national song psyche. The chief characteristic of most of these songs - apart from the saccharinely sentimental 'Bird in a Gilded Cage" variety - was an air of breezy, bouncy, Edwardian insouciance interwoven with irrepressible humour and unflagging patriotism, the last exampled by the blatantly chauvinistic, 'Sons of the Sea', "all British-born, sailing every ocean, laughing foes to scorn", often delivered on stage by someone with a Dr Crippen collar and spectacles and hair parted down the middle, and followed by something like, "Oh, Engerland is England still./ It always has and always will./ Though foreign foes may brag,/ we love our dear old flag./ And Engerland is England still." If he had dared to sing before stern and wild Caledonians, he would have been wise to have retreated before boos and - in rowdier Victorian times - a variety of vegetables were flung at him in telling trajectory.

BRITAIN then was in tune with growing prosperity and power, and atlases revealed much of the world coloured British imperial red. The Bible and battle fleet helped to maintain Pax Britannica, and even if the rich man was in his castle gunroom and the poor man slumped alcoholically at the gate, the country was, from the 1880s to the First World War, still the world’s workshop and the songs reflected our global dominance.

Our songs today, I submit, reflect national moral and morale dysfunction and are often barely singable. We are a country fearful of many things, from harmful hospital bacteria, food and terrorists to the prospect of being taxed into bankruptcy or poverty, and there is no modern morale-rousing equivalent of, "Are we downhearted? - No!"

All may not be lost for cheering choruses. Plans are being made to revive Britain’s long tradition of music hall by forming a National Theatre of Variety at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre. An Equity task-force planning the venture, to be launched next year, envisages a return to the classic form of variety with ventriloquists, tap-dancers, burlesque, magicians and, of course, vocalists with songs that will, I hope, tune-up a grateful nation.

Leeds’ City Varieties Music Hall, once the home of the BBC’s The Good Old Days, has long and expertly maintained the character and casting of such entertainment. If the Blackpool plan succeeds, perhaps modern music halls, rafters-ringing with popular songs, would appear across Britain, especially, in my essentially-biased hope, in Glasgow, regarded in Victorian days as the home of variety. I would splash out for a booking. In my bath, that’s something to sing about.

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