There once was an Englishman named Richard Reynell Bellamy who became a Fascist. He raised his children to love the sort of things a British Fascist loves—the people of England and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.
Richard’s son Peter was born in 1944. Peter loved the English people too, but he fell most in love with their music. He devoted himself to the airs of Norfolk—country songs and sea songs—and relished the bawdy ones most of all. He sang like a Norfolk countryman too—direct, expressive, but with a cutting, nasal voice. Bellamy called himself a “boring, bleating old traddy,” with good-humored self-mockery. He knew how to bleat, though—to sing each word so you could understand it, to convey the emotion of each line, to make a coherent story of each song. He sang like a master fencer with a clubfoot.
Bellamy did a fine job as a singer of traditional material, and wonderful work setting dozens of Kipling’s poems as folk songs. But his masterpiece was his ballad-opera, The Transports (1977). The Transports tells the true story of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes—a couple of Norfolk-bred felons, poor people jailed for the usual trifling thefts, who met in Norwich Gaol in the 1780s and became a common-law husband and wife. Then Susannah was sent off with their baby, to be transported on the First Fleet to Australia—and when she arrived in Plymouth, the infant was taken from her, for the transportation papers mentioned no child. Pity wrenched the heart of the Norfolk turnkey: He took the baby to London, to the Home Secretary Lord Sydney, and begged him to be merciful to the infant and its parents. Lord Sydney was, and he ordered the family to be reunited—on the prison ship. Together they left for Australia, to prosper in exile.
The subject-matter was uniquely Bellamy’s. Men of the Left couldn’t have created The Transports: All they can do is rail against injustice, and that isn’t the whole life of the poor. Although no Thatcherite, Peter was one of the few folk singers in England who ever had a kind word for the Tories. His folkie peers thought he was reactionary. But The Transports wasn’t the work of a captain of industry—it has too much sympathy for desperate thieves. It was the work of a Tory folk singer.
And though Peter himself was no Fascist, it was the work of Richard Bellamy’s son. There was the sojourn to Australia. (Richard had wandered off course early in life, working jobs in Australia and the South Pacific, before returning to Norfolk in 1931.) There was the love of the people of England, especially in their poverty. (The miseries of the English people during the Great Depression had roused Richard to revolutionary fervor and a career working for Oswald Mosley.) There was the hardship of imprisonment. (The British government had put Richard in prison during World War II.) And there was the bittersweet ending, making a life for yourself after prison. (After the war, Richard became the bailiff on a Norfolk farm.)
There wouldn’t be a happy ending for Peter, though. The Transports led to fame, but not to a steady income. Bellamy still bleated, he loved Kipling while British folkies didn’t, and he was a sometimes self-defeating perfectionist. The gigs were few and became fewer. In 1991, he killed himself.
But death was not the end. The songs were too good to be forgotten. Friends listened to his records, rescued obscure cassettes, and brought them out again as CDs—Wake the Vaulted Echoes is the best overview of his work. He acquired new champions—most notably Jon Boden, whose voice is as expressive as Bellamy’s, but beautiful rather than bleating. Boden sings Bellamy’s work himself, and in Oak Ash Thorn he collaborated with other folk-singers to cover Bellamy’s songs. Bellamy’s work endures, with ever-growing influence.
You can hear it best on YouTube: Enter “Peter Bellamy” as a search term, and the songs pile up. Here Jon Boden sings Bellamy’s setting of The Land as the epic it was always meant to be; Blackbeards Tea Party’s version of Ford o’ Kabul River has a punk growl. Olivia Chaney’s The Brookland Road is the lightest and saddest of love songs, while Tim Eriksen’s Poor Honest Men rises out of American folk and ends in industrial noise. The Wilsons sing Big Steamers with raw power, David Webber’s rendition of Recessional brings to life Bellamy’s rendition of Kipling’s somber prayer as a shape-note hymn, and the Crude Apache Theatre Company of Norwich performs all of The Transports. Bellamy lives, and all the England he sang.
Peter Bellamy embraced Norfolk convicts of the eighteenth century, the arch-imperialist poet of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century folk music movement. Something of England that turned dark echoes in his music too—the elder Bellamy, whose love of England led him to the black shirt. Peter Bellamy’s music bequeathes all that history to us—convicts and imperialists, folk-singers and Fascists. And what was dark in that England, Peter Bellamy redeems.
David Randall is director of communications at the National Association of Scholars.