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Folk Songs: Knife in the Window

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In 2019, Fran Foote (previously a member of Stick in the Wheel) and her mother, Belinda Kempster, released a gorgeous traditional English folk album titled On Clay Hill. Belinda began singing traditional songs in the 1960s, and she met her husband at a folk club. She said, “Our family has a history of farming and working on the land; these songs come from that way of life – at work and at play”. Fran grew up immersed in these folk songs, although she and her mother had only sung them privately before making the album.

Many of the Songs featured were collected from Essex and learned from Fran’s great uncle, Ernie Austin. He sang them as he worked as a Colchester farm labourer, and he was recorded, alongside Bob Hart and Percy Webb, for a Topic Records album released in 1974 called Flash Company which was recorded by Tony Engle in 1973.

When Ernie recorded the album, he was 83 years old. The liner notes state that he lived in a small village to the east of Colchester in Essex (Bentley). He left school at 12 to work as a kitchen boy in a farmhouse, earning 3/6d in return for a 60-hour week. For most of his early life, he worked on the land as a farm labourer until, with experience, he became an agricultural engineer, retiring at the age of 70.

Ernest Austin (Topic Records)

On Flash Company, Ernie sings “Hares on the Mountain/Knife in the Window”. It’s suggested that despite being sung together, Hares on the Moutain and Knife in the Window were collected as distinct songs. In The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs by Julia Bishop and Steve Roud it’s noted that Hares on the Moutain was “Regularly collected in England and Ireland, and quite widespread in North America, this song is often tangled up with ‘Sally, My Dear’ or ‘Knife in the Window’, which are usually sung to the same tune.”

The accompanying liner notes on the song in Flash Company start by referring to the Hindu scriptures:

The Hindu scriptures tell us of gods, in pursuit of one another, transforming themselves first into one thing, then into another. It’s an ancient belief which has spread into various parts of the world, including Europe, and one which has survived in Britain in the shape of a rare ballad, The Twa Magicians. Cecil Sharp found it once, sung in 1904 by a blacksmith in Minehead. He also found another song, Hares on the Mountain, sung in several parts of Somerset. As is the case with Ernest Austin’s version, some of Sharp’s texts are linked with another song Sally My Dear, which Sharp believed to be an integral part of the later song. Although now rare, other versions are occasionally met with, and I have recently recorded a set from an elderly singer in Berkshire.

Belinda and Fran sing Knife in the Window, which makes up the latter half of the song sung by Ernie…they said, “He [Ernie] combined it with Hares on the Mountain, but we wanted it to stand alone. The humour in this song appealed immediately as did the timelessness of this situation”.

The songs featured on the album On Clay Hill (named after an area of Basildon that Belinda and Fran have always lived near) are made up of those taught to Belinda by Ernie and from private family recordings. Also included are personal favourites from Belinda’s repertoire: “we want our family’s music to be documented – this is the tradition of our family and singing thesesongs together feels like coming home”.

The album was released on From Here Records (a label started by Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter of Stick in the Wheel) and is available to buy via Bandcamp here.

Flash Company is available on streaming services.

Visit Belinda and Fran’s website here:

If you like this, then read about Folklore and Hares in Folk Songs here.

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