Cyril Poacher

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One of the warm friendly, if somewhat weird voices on many Topic traditional song compilations, Cyril Poacher also recorded several entire albums on his own beginning in the '70s, at an age when many…
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One of the warm friendly, if somewhat weird voices on many Topic traditional song compilations, Cyril Poacher also recorded several entire albums on his own beginning in the '70s, at an age when many professions encourage retirement. Most likely singing didn't seem like work to Poacher, who like his father was a cowman almost all his life. He left school at 14 and went to work at a Blaxhall farm for the equivalent of about ten dollars week. Conditions were better at the farm up the road in Tunstall: 15 dollars a week. He was working as a county road man in 1940 when inducted into the British Army, but returned to farming in 1946, remaining at Bauxhall's Grove Farm, until he retired in 1975; coincidentally, the same year he recorded the Broomfield Wager album for Topic. As a child he had learned many songs from his grandfather, William "Cronie" Ling, as well as this man's brothers. Poacher didn't sing in public until he was at least 19, however. The location of this momentous event was The Ship Inn, a local pub in East Anglia. The motivation was the same ground spring of creative drive that seizes a hold of many great musicians: the desire for free beer. At this pub, a round was available in even exchange for either a recital or a song.

Poacher was a fellow who always sang for his beer, but in the traditional-village singing scene this isn't just a matter of standing up and belting whatever song comes to mind. Songs would be "owned" by certain individuals; they were the only people allowed to sing that particular song, although sometimes someone might have a go if the song's owner or his cronies weren't around. This was a kind of copyright system back in the days before television, before jukeboxes, before organizations collected broadcast royalties. Poacher and his generation grew up among old-timers who each owned his share of songs, but since these fellows continued coming into the tavern and singing until they were well into their 80s, the possibility of "inheriting" a song from a corpse that had owned it was even dim.

Poacher and his singing friends began looking for songs that came from outside the village area, finding them on the wireless, on gramophone records, and printed on popular and cheap broadside sheets. Thus, the repertoire of Poacher reflected a combination of the traditional manner of handing songs down within a village and the 20th century communication revolution that would result in younger generations of villagers who were more interested in the Beatles than the senile coots singing in the pub. From his barroom stage Poacher experienced the rise, fall, and rise of the British folk music scene. He was only in his late 50s when he supposedly got sick of singing in the pubs, the reason being that the public wasn't respectfully paying attention like they used to.

His recording activity all took place in the '60s and '70s, decades when his performance activity consisted of the occasional festival and even more sporadic singing in local bars. The village music scene seemed to retreat into itself in the '50s rather than continuing to reach outward as, for example, Irish music was doing. Some of this seems to be the fault of the area musicians overextending themselves for an early '50s film production that involved Alan Lomax. Poacher himself was said to have been forced to perform 19 takes of the extended ballad "The Nutting Girl." Lomax promised that the film would be screened in Blaxhall Ship itself since many of the villagers would never go to a larger city and be able to see it. He failed to follow up on this pledge, causing lots of ill feeling. Anyone familiar with Lomax and his dealings with song publishing would probably advise the locals that they were lucky he hadn't made off with their song copyrights.

Poacher's style of a cappella singing has been analyzed as critically, and with as much attention to technical detail, as any operatic aria. Of course the defined atmosphere of a local pub will sometimes intrude in these hallowed descriptions: "Cyril Poacher uses more grace notes than in his earlier songs," a liner note scribe writes, "possibly because of the amount he has drunk." Fellow singer Keith Summers says Poacher "...could be a cantankerous old bugger on occasion." The man's most famous moment on record might be spoken, not sung: an aside at the end of one of many Topic compilations, where he encourages his mates to "come on boys, you should keep this going."