& TOM LEWIS - Poles Part Too
At the end of 2005, the editor of that fine German online website Folkworld, asked me to name my 5 favourite albums of the year. It was difficult to decide on four of the five. But I had one CD in my mind that was pre-eminent. It was in gambling terms an absolute “banker”.
I had reviewed Tom Lewis's 2004 album 360° – All Points of the Compass in that year following its release (actually, in TLT #62). And had been blown away.
I have spent the past seven years recommending this album to all-and-sundry. And waiting for more from Tom Lewis to come my way. And finally it has. And the obvious question is whether it has been worth the wait.
Before I come up with my answer, let me tell you a bit about this new album.
This new CD is Tom's second album with a 5 member group of Polish shantymen, who now go under the all-too-forgettable name of QFTRY. Some ten years after his first collaboration, they join together again in a more eclectic repertoire than most lovers of “songs of the sea” might appreciate. That said, even songs like Proud Mary (from the pen of John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater fame), are NAUTICAL in that the mighty Mississippi DOES reach the sea! And it is fair to say that the best cut on the whole album - Jesse Fuller's immortal San Francisco By Blues – is of course set in Oakland on the shores of that great bay.
But all that said, most of the material would delight any regular attendee at maritime festivals. Cyril Tawney's signature song Grey Funnel Line (the unofficial anthem of British submariners), kicks the album off, in a most imaginative arrangement, with the countertenor really hitting the ground running, and with the magnificent bass singer banging in the guy ropes to stop the former soaring off into the stratosphere.
We follow with Passage to Grimsby (aka Dogger Bank), which was, as they say in the liner notes, “stolen from Johnny Collins' early repertoire”. As I am someone living in the town,I always listen hard to the last line of the chorus and make sure they sing GREAT Grimsby, and not the “grey Grimsby” I unfortunately heard a well known band sing a few years ago! Needless to say, Tom and his mates are too streetwise to make that basic error.
Other standout tracks are their magnificent rendition of Mick Ryan's classic The Song Goes On, and the Kipling/Bellamy gem, Anchor Song. And not forgetting Tom's famous song Last Shanty, which is delivered with immense brio, and has the added charm of a short section sung in Polish.
But, strangely perhaps, it was, as I said, the aforementioned San Francisco Bay Blues that made the CD catch fire. I promise you that even “Lone Cat” Jesse would have freed himself from his one-man-band contraption and got up and DANCED. It is exhilarating: not least for the dazzling guitar break halfway through from Dariusz Kabacinski (the recording engineer: not a group member).
So the verdict? Clearly, a definite success. But I have one slight reservation.There are no new songs from Tom's pen here. Now with many songwriters, that is no great loss. But with such a seriously good writer as Tom Lewis, that is something we must regret. Doubtless he is storing up ideas and will again - with his next CD - unleash his song writing talent on the hungry-to-devour in the Folk world.
WORTH THE SINGIN’
The Tom Lewis Songbook
Many fans have been waiting for years for a songbook by renowned singer/songwriter, Tom Lewis. Tom’s songs are unique and special. Created from his 24 years in the Royal Navy and the same number of years in folk clubs and festivals, Tom’s songs and stories delight and move audiences like no other musician I know. Countless musicians do covers of many of his songs (I think I do covers of at least four songs, myself). For all of those who spent many enjoyable hours listening to Tom’s recordings, gleaning the words and music from the CDs, hoping we got it right. At last the long awaited songbook has arrived.
Spiral bound, the songbook is well designed to help the musician, would be musician and fan alike. It’s large enough for easy reading by aging fans and sits well on the music stand or the lap. And the songs are in alphabetical order! If you’ve ever tried to look up a song in a book that isn’t in alphabetical order, you know how frustrating it can be. It can be so frustrating; you might even be tempted use the index. Gentlemen; let us be thankful for such foresight.
Tom encourages the reader to experiment with the tunes, but only after they’ve taken the time learn the song first. I whole heartedly agree. To wit, I’ve already corrected some of the covers I do of Tom’s songs, using the songbook. Tom writes, “Well-consider change is (to me) quite acceptable Change due to ignorance; or worse, lack of caring, I can barely tolerate.” That’s strongest motivation for a songwriter to create a songbook that I can think of. There’s something of Tom in each of his songs. The same can be said of all song writers and composers. They’re asking us to understand more of themselves before moving on. Always treat the creative mind with respect. We so desperately need them.
There are forty-five songs and one poem contained between the front and back covers. Forty-six glimpses, stories, tunes reaching back to Recall (1977), a song that says so much to all the chantey singers out there. Most of the words and music are Tom’s alone, but he’s made some great collaborations with authors who are quite dead. Robert Louis Stevenson shows up in Christmas at Sea and the Hunter Home from the Hill and poet C. Fox~Srnith in Mother Carey and 150 Days out from Vancouver. A.C. Swinburne gets credit in Somewhere Safe at Sea. Those folks familiar with these authors, can understand the pull of their words and the strong desire to fit them to a tune. Many people attempt to put music to the works of C. Fox-Smith, but few are as successful as Tom.
Included with every song, is a commentary from Tom about what prompted him to write the song or what he intended with it, sometimes a bit of history and perhaps a bit a blarney, too. His prose is every bit as interesting and entertaining as his songs. His humor is as dry as his wit. Constantly self effacing, Tom gives a lot of credit to folk artists Johnny Collins and Cyril Tawny for their influence and advice through the years. The reader will learn a little more about this enigmatic sailor who lives so far from the sea. Tom would probably be surprised or at least disparage the notion that he has had a similar influence on a younger crowd.
To prove his intention that the songs are to be song by all, Tom includes a CD with song clips. This is a great help to non musicians and musicians alike. Although I can read music, myself, I learn better by listening. Hear! Hear!
Get this song book. It belongs in your library. It belongs on your music stand, because it’s more than a collection of songs by an itinerant musician. It’s the tale of a minstrel, a bard, who brings us the stories and news of other places beyond our ken; stories worth the telling and songs worth the singin’. For more information go to www.tomlewis.net.
Worth The Singin’ – the Tom Lewis
Published by Self-Propelled Music
In these days when we have so many ways of enjoying music it might be thought somewhat anachronistic to publish a songbook. If you are part of what we call the ‘folk scene’ you will know Tom’s songs from live or recorded performances. They crop up regularly in singarounds the world over and Tom is one of the small cadre of writers whose material is sometimes mistakenly thought of as ‘traditional’. Yet these songs are from the pen of a man with forthright social and political views who will fearlessly take on contemporary issues. A case in point may be ‘Princes in the Line’, a new song dealing with the failure of American politicians to send their children to war. To the best of my knowledge this song is only available as a download from Tom’s web site.
Worth the Singin’ is not really a book at all in my opinion. It is a resource and a tool that has been a long time in the planning and preparation and the forethought and attention to detail is prodigious. Forty-one songs, some very well-known indeed, freely given with Tom’s sanction to “…feel free to experiment”. The book is intended as a means of learning the songs for performance. In his introduction Tom says “…by committing a song to memory you make it a piece of your very being; enabling your singing of it to become a way of expressing part of you.” I couldn’t have put it better myself, Tom.
The format of the book reflects its intended use. Housed in a beer and coffee-proof laminated cover it is big enough to cope with fonts of age-friendly clarity and size. The book has a wire bound spine and comfortably lays flat on a table with no tendency for pages to spring together and disrupt the learning process. Clear single line standard notation is provided with chord symbols. In most cases the notation is on a left hand page with lyrics on the facing page with a brief note from Tom on the origin of the song. No need to turn pages. And affixed to the inside back cover a CD containing sound clips of a verse and chorus from each song for the benefit of those who do not read music. By George, I think he’s got it!
Tom acknowledges the help of his wife Lyn and fellow ex-submariner Ed Wilson in putting it all together, and so he should. They have all taken time and trouble beyond the call of duty. If you sing for pleasure you will want a copy of this book. A limited number of copies are available in the UK and you will need to register your interest through www.tomlewis.net to get one. I’m not lending mine to anyone.
Tom signs off the book with these words and I think they say it all:
“Love the songs you sing and they will become
Sing the songs you love and they’ll become our songs.”
Worth The Singin’ – the Tom Lewis Songbook
Published by Self-Propelled Music
I first became aware of my fondness for sea songs when I heard “The Ellen Vannin Tragedy” by Hughie Jones of The Spinners. That love for all songs maritime has extended throughout my career until the present day where about fifty percent of my performance now includes songs of a nautical nature. Having only recently discovered song-writer and ex-sailor Tom Lewis, his book proves a handsome A4 spiral-bound tome and is the culmination of thirty years writing - not bad, as Tom points out for someone with no formal music training. His lyrics and music are very much in the vein of a Jez Lowe at sea (that’s meant as a compliment – honest!) and throughout the book he accompanies each song with useful and insightful thoughts on the structure of the written word. I was particularly interested to note that he had to change a lyric in “Sirensong” when he made the observation that the term Rover’s Return might impinge on a British audience’s association with Coronation Street! Admittedly I have always considered myself something of a Philistine when it comes to nautical terms…I couldn’t tell my stem from my stern even though I regularly play onboard HMS Warrior in Portsmouth…but the romantic notion of a sea based life is never far from my thoughts as I am sure it is with most romantics but if singing these songs is the nearest I’m ever going to get then I’ll still be happy. With so many good songs to choose from (my personal favourites being “The Last Shanty” and “Marching Inland”) this collection of over forty songs should be a required purchase for shanty singers and purveyors of fine music everywhere.
TOM LEWIS - 360° - All Points of the Compass
Borealis Records BCD156
If reviewers like me are lucky, an album can arrive within the first couple of months of the year to set a benchmark for all those that follow it. I fancy that this is one such lucky year for me.
Northern Ireland born Tom Lewis, is an artist I have long rated. His 24 years in the same branch of the military as the great Cyril Tawney - the British Submarine Service - provides him with that vitally authentic stance with which to tackle nautical song. Thus it was that Tom was the inaugural winner of the first Stan Hugill International Shanty Trophy in 2000 in Douarnenez in France .
But somehow, although I always knew he was good, I was not quite prepared for HOW good. For the fact is that he has here come up with a CD that really delivers. Delivers from the first note.
He is joined by a stellar cast of session people, including Tanglefoot. He kicks off with a wondrous song that is surely destined to become a cornerstone of the singaround repertoire. 'Radio Times' is written by Tom, and in four and a half minutes he succeeds in giving us a brilliantly compressed potted history of the (largely UK) Folk Scene and its (largely American) Pop influences down the past half century. Heck of a chorus, and really clever verses.
'Nassau Bound' gives you the traditional song before the Beach Boys got hold of it and turned it into the 'Sloop John B'. But Steve Lalor, Barry Curtiss and Don Wilhelm's harmonies are every bit as inventive as anything thought up by Brian Wilson, without trying to emulate that great Beach Boys sound.
'St Patrick's Song' is another from Lewis's pen, and trust me that this too is destined to become part-and-parcel of the Folk singaround canon. One fine track follows another: some familiar like Shep Woolley's evergreen 'Down By The Dockyard Wall', and Lyle Lovett's 'If I Had A Boat'; some obscure like the arresting 'The Bos'n, The Gunner And Me' (a song he found in Gosport Public Library); and one, just brilliant…Peter Bellamy's majestic setting of Rudyard Kipling's glorious poem, 'The Land'.
Lewis performs this with immense authority and passion. Golly, it is now over 30 years since Peter had such problems with the Kipling Society just getting their permission to set the great man's words to music. One hopes that any of the Society's then committee still alive, are now red-faced at their attempts to stall Bellamy in his quest. (For if ever a Gilbert was found by his Sullivan, then this was such a case. Mr. Kipling made exceedingly good poems; and Peter Bellamy made those same poems even better with his setting of them to music.)
Tom Lewis says in his notes that he finds singing this song literally hair-raising. Absolutely! The verse near the end that starts "His dead are in the churchyard - thirty generations laid" would bring a lump to the throat of anyone with an even remote sense of British history. It is a tour-de-force, and should be followed by John Cage's '4.33'… just to help us reflect on such profundity.
At the end he throws in an unlisted bonus track, but it was like a Boxing Day bash after a Christmas Dinner to remember. Not necessary: we were well sated as it was!
Don't ask whether you should buy this album. Just decide on how many copies.
Net Rhythms - On-line magazine - Review
Sing Out! Magazine - Review Summer 2004
TOM LEWIS featuring TANGLEFOOT 360° All Points of the Compass Borealis 156
Tom Lewis gets around. He's a former British Royal Navy submariner who now calls western Canada homeport and he won a sea chanty-singing trophy in France. While sea chanties are suddenly popular with many artists recording CDs, Lewis sets sail on a different course with this cruise. The 17 songs on the album (including a quasi-hidden track) mostly involve water, ranging from traditional to original to Lyle Lovett to an epic Rudyard Kipling poem set to music by Peter Bellamy. Thus, in the well over an hour of music on this disc, you won't grow tired of hearing one heave away maties after another. Energetic accompaniment from Tanglefoot, among others, boosts the overall sound with fine musicianship and voices. Lewis' tenor aptly conveys more than just chanteys, at the same time sounding quite native with the sea songs. The CD opens with an original that spans land and sea and offers background to Lewis's infatuation with music. Called "Radio Times" it's a salute to radio from the 1950s until the present. I defy you to find another song praising Bill Haley and Bert Lloyd in the same song. Lewis's performance of this with Tanglefoot launches the CD with a brisk breeze. He heads "Nassau Bound" in an uncommon interpretation of "The Sloop John B." His "St. Patrick's Song" would make the saint grin. "The Tow-Rope Girls" is rollickingly performed with plenty of gusto. Kipling's eight-minute virtual history of England, "The Land", performed a cappella, is quite a tour de force. "One Big Ocean" performed with a large group of children is a blessedly simple song for peace and sharing. If you're looking for a seafaring CD that breaks from the same old, same old, set sail with Tom Lewis.
Sing Out! Magazine - Article by Shelley Posen Summer 2002
TOM LEWIS 360° All Points of the Compass Borealis Recording Co. Ltd BC156
If there is a folk equivalent to "Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie", it is "Radio Times," by Tom Lewis. "Radio Times" neatly folds an upbeat message about handing one's music down to one's children (and not despising theirs), into an account, from an Englishman's perspective, of his generation's love affair first with American rock 'n' roll, then traditional folk song. Tom skillfully wields fragments of song lyrics ("The times were changing, freedom just meant nothing left to lose") to bring this experience to life.
But instead of the tumbling kaleidoscope proffered in "American Pie", he puts together an orderly mini-chronicle that lists the names of American pop stars, then luminaries of the English folk scene, with a phrase or two about their respective contributions ("Then Ewan sang the fishing and the traveling people's life / Bert gave us old ballads full of sorrow love and strife / Young Tradition and The Coppers sang us glories of our past / Old Stan recalled the shanties and his time before the mast"). Tom, like McLean, keeps some of his plot cards close to his vest - most of the folk performers he mentions are identified only by first names - and it's all part of the fun. In fact, it's a built-in test; if you recognize them, well, you're probably part of the generation he's singing to and about. Which includes me. On my first encounter with "Radio Times", I had a grand old time with those names, filling in the blanks and identifying the allusions. They drew me in, just as they're supposed to, and took me back 30 years to when I was discovering that music. Time travel. World travel. A song-within-a-song had worked its magic again.
Dirty Linen Magazine - Poles Apart Review Feb/Mar 2003
TOM LEWIS Poles Apart Self-Propelled Music ASM 105D (2001)
Poland isn't exactly known as a nation of deep-water sailors, but that doesn't mean that they can't sing traditional sea chanteys there. On this unique and invigorating CD, Canadian-based singer and onetime submariner Tom Lewis joins up with a crew of seven Polish chanteymen, whom he met while performing in Europe, to have fun with a set of rousing and often bilingual arrangements of nautical songs from British and North American sources.
Imagine a classic Stan Rogers song sung in Polish translation by a hearty male chorus. That's how this disc begins. The song is "Northwest Passage", the language switches to English after a couple of verses, and that sums up the concept and spirit of this disc. Most of the rest of the material is traditional, and while many of the songs will be familiar to fans of sea music, you probably haven't heard them like this before. Lewis sings the English lead vocals, the equally strong-voiced Grzegorz Majewski handles the Polish leads, and everybody of course joins in on the vigorous refrains. It's impossible not to sing along. A majority of the tracks are unaccompanied, like "Rio Grande" and "One More Day", with robust multipart harmonies and the driving rhythm that was essential to their purpose as work songs, while others are backed by guitar, accordion, or ukulele. Many of the songs are light-hearted, like the squeezebox-backed salute to the " Liverpool Judies" and an old music hall ditty "The Wreck of the Nancy Lee", and a few are serious, like "Leave Her Johnny", traditionally sung by weary sailors as they tied their ship to the dock. The arrangement of "Saltpetre Shanty" is particularly striking, with an unconventional but wonderfully stirring accompaniment on uilleann pipes that breaks in the middle into the Breton tune "Ansa". Lewis and company have made a great album of sea music. In the process, they also remind us of the cross-cultural appeal of a good song.
—Tom Nelligan (Waltham, MA)
Sing Out! Magazine - Poles Apart Review
POLES APART (Polish title - On, My, Ocean) Self-Propelled Music ASM 105
Tom Lewis, a retired British Navy sub-mariner now living in Canada, has been building a formidable body of recordings of mostly-seafaring songs. While all of his previous albums are very good, this one stands apart as something very different and unusual. The album begins with Stan Rogers's classic "Northwest Passage". While the melody is instantly recognizable, the words sound so strange in that first chorus. That's because the lyrics, so Canadian in their subject matter, are being sung in Polish by a crew of Polish chantey men. As that first chorus fades, the song shifts to the original English with Tom's lead vocals at the helm with the strong vocal support of his Polish collaborators. For 15 more songs, mostly in English with occasional passages in Polish, they carry on with unfamiliar, but quite wonderful sounding, takes on mostly-familiar material. Tom's collaboration with the Polish singers has developed over several summers of singing together at festivals in Poland, France and Finland and, despite the fact that Tom's parts were recorded in Canada while the harmonies, and some of the instrumental backing, was recorded in Poland, the whole production sounds seamless. And although most of these are actually work songs, they all sound like everyone is having fun singing these songs over beers in a pub. This album is highly infectious and as I listen to the voices blend on songs like "One More Day" and "Leave Her Johnny," I can't help but be caught up in the magic myself and add my own voice to the choruses.