Jackie Oates (voice, viola, violin, Indian harmonium), Belinda O’Hooley (piano, accordion, voice) and Chris Sergeant (guitar, Indian harmonium, voice): Lullabies.
Exeter Phoenix, 24th April, 2003.
When Jackie Oates came into the Phonic FM studio for my afternoon show Hot Pebbles, she told me that, during her performances over ten years, lullabies have proved quite popular with audiences and that she had felt stirred to begin what has become eighteen months of research into these songs, in libraries and by word of mouth, unearthing a large number of soothing songs from the British Isles and beyond.
The research continues with the aim of donating the archive of lullabies to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in London.
At the Exeter Phoenix, we were the beneficiaries of Jackie’s research. Along with fellow musicians and friends Belinda O’Hooley and Chris Sergeant, Jackie sang and played traditional and some more modern lullabies which worked their magical effect on the audience.
We were introduced to some fascinating characters, including Dream Angus from Scotland, a Celtic god who skips across the hills at night bestowing dreams and to Jackie’s old favourite from her and her brother’s childhood, Alexander Beetle who escaped from a matchbox only to be rediscovered in a beetle house in the garden.
The words of all the lullabies were superbly produced with Jackie’s crystal clear and soothing voice.
Jackie chose lullabies that captured her imagination and, with her informative introductions assisting, captured ours as well.
Sometimes fragments and lines were woven, seemingly effortlessly, into whole songs.
We heard evidence of the relationship between lullabies and old wives’ tales.
The night has gone and taken
Your darkest fears and left you here,
And the sun it shines so clear.
But my babe is weeping
For want of good keeping.
Oh, I fear my poor baby will die.
Jackie had travelled far and wide to collect lullabies, including a trip to Iceland where she met up with Bara Grimsdottir. On the album Lullabies, we hear Bara sing the songs in Icelandic and then Jackie comes in with an English translation. In concert Jackie used a mixture of Icelandic and English to great effect. The songs, which included Bi Bi Og Blaka and Sofou unga astin min, bore dark sentiments, recognition that these were not sanitised children’s songs we were hearing.
Hey ho, well a day
O’er the hills and far away.
That is where the children stray
To see the lambs a playing.
The words seemed innocent until we learnt of the Icelandic practice of forcing children to go over the hills in the night to search for lost lambs. Other lyrics and sentiments behind songs were even darker, about, for instance, babies being snatched from their mothers’ arms to be thrown into icy water.
Jackie had explained to me earlier that, whilst many lullabies were sung to babies to reassure and comfort them, we can learn a lot from lullabies about those who sang them as well. We get insights into what the singers were going through and their irritations and frustrations with the world.
Whilst the songs from the British Isles on the whole were not so stark as the Icelandic ones, there were some dire warnings contained in them. The Wexford Carol cautioned that parents would not always be around to protect children from danger. Little Fishes advised children to study to survive.
The fish go to fish school and learn from a book
How not to get caught on the fisherman’s hook.
Jackie lived for some time in Exeter and holds the West Country deep to her heart. This fishy song was collected from Hugh Nankivell from Torquay and Hugh joined the trio on stage for a stirring rendition.
The trio included a few non-lullabies. One of the departures gave Chris the chance to be lead singer on a lovely version of The Sheffield Grinder.
The arrangements by Jackie, Belinda and Chris of all the songs were delightful, sensitive and never intrusive. The combination of Jackie’s lovely fiddle playing with the other instruments was top class.
Jackie met Chris at a workshop one year ago and decided that his guitar style was just right for her songs and she proved right. Belinda O’Hooley’s piano and accordian playing was beautifully smooth and added many a flourish. There was some fine harmony singing too. And Belinda’s funny and even caustic comments were very welcome.
So, I did not fall asleep and I did not hear any snoring. I sensed that everyone was very pleasantly relaxed and moved by a superb performance by Jackie Oates and friends.
Many of the songs are available on the album Lullabies by Jackie Oates.