Cerys Matthew's big book of song
The former Catatonia singer's new book is a collection of songs for people who just like to sing
Until the advent of the radio and the record player, if you wanted to listen to music in your own home, you had to make it yourself. For centuries, singing was seen as something anyone could and did do, a habitual part of daily life. Instrumental accompaniment was a bonus but not an essential. And of course, songs were passed around, both orally and, from the 16th century, in printed “broadside” form and then modern sheet music.
These days, however, singing is increasingly seen as the province of those with outstanding voices (or at least those who can bellow out a song like a foghorn on a reality show). But Cerys Matthews wants to change all that. Matthews, who rose to fame in the 1990s as the frontwoman of Catatonia, and who now presents a wonderful Sunday morning radio show on BBC 6Music, has collected a wide variety of songs in her delightful new book, Hook, Line and Singer: A Sing-a-long Book (Particular Books, £20).
It’s aimed not just at seasoned singers but at anyone who wants to sing for fun with their friends or their families, and includes lyrics and music for songs both familiar and obscure, both traditional and 20th century, from Over the Rainbow to An Poc Ar Buile. For anyone who grew up in a musical family, as I did, it is gloriously nostalgic. I encountered many old favourites, from the first World War song Pack up Your Troubles (beloved by my great-aunts) to The Quartermaster’s Store, which my family often sang on long car journeys.
But even if you don’t want to sing out loud, a book of songs can entertain and inform. In the introduction to Hook, Line and Singer, Matthews points out that while official history has long focused “on the ruling classes, the religious and the male . . . in songs you are shoulder-to-shoulder with the mother, the orphan, the downtrodden, the maimed, the soldier, the butcher, the blacksmith . . . through songs, history becomes very much alive.”
In fact, it can be almost as much fun to read songs as sing them. In 1959 The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs was published, collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A L Lloyd, a book which reads like beautiful folk poetry. Last year, Penguin published Steve Roud and Julia Bishop’s equally appealing The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (Penguin, £25), which collects words and music of more than 100 traditional songs, as well as fascinating, detailed accounts of their origins.
Some modern musicians are encouraging fans to make music their own through the written word. Beck’s last album was released not by a record label but a publisher; Song Reader was published by Faber (£22) as a beautifully produced folder of sheet music. There are no original recordings of its 20 tracks – the music belongs to whoever picks up the volume, pages through it, works out the tune and the chords and starts to sing. All together now . . .