There was an intention to provide an introduction to this Bless The Day series, but somehow there is a reluctance to reveal too much just now. Why not, instead of reading a preamble, enjoy a bonus chapter? So, let’s consider ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ as sung by Jean Hart. It is just Jean and her voice, the singer unaccompanied, and it’s enchanting, without the folk form’s familiar quiver and instead with a warm torch ballad Chris Connor-style huskiness which is incredibly appealing.
It is a very familiar song, an Irish folk song which has ricocheted back and forth across the Atlantic, but of all the versions out there this is the one that really casts a magic spell and sends shivers down the spine, leaving this listener desperately holding his breath for fear of intruding upon an incredibly intimate performance and breaking the spell.
This is a recording that can be found on the Transatlantic Folk Box Set, an excellent 3CD collection of tracks from the label’s long and distinguished history. Originally it appeared on the LP My Name is Jean Hart and I Sing, an early Transatlantic release from 1963, though it is a record rarely seen or heard, and certainly doesn’t seem to be in general circulation in any form, which is very odd. But there is a particular attraction in something being so unobtainable in an age of instant access, and being so elusive the album becomes incredibly desirable. It sets the imagination racing, and you play with ideas of what it sounds like.
We are, at least, able to read the original sleeve notes by squinting at Discogs or 45world and can admire Brian Shuel’s fantastic cover photo of Jean, arms folded alluringly in a black leather jacket with maybe more than a touch of Honor Blackman in The Avengers. And then there’s those eyes. Ah. While it is seemingly impossible to hear the whole of the LP the liner notes give a glimpse of what was a remarkable life, even at that stage. Reading them we are plunged into the world of coffee bar revolutionaries and proto-beatniks, but how much do we know about this remarkable free spirit?
It would be great to read a book about Jean’s colourful life. The trouble is, in saying that, you’ll get some smart arse piping up and saying: “Go on, write it then!” But that’s rather missing the point, and confuses the pleasures of reading and writing. Luckily, we can learn a fair amount about Jean through her first husband Malcolm Hart, the writer and film producer (Vanishing Point, What Happened to Kerouac? and so on). He’s the guitar playing art student mentioned on the back of the LP. Anyway, Malcolm recorded a riveting interview with Jean in 2004, which can be seen on YouTube, and his autobiography A Life of Unintended Consequences gives some wonderful glimpses of what Jean got up to before recording her LP for Transatlantic. And at the start of the film you can hear a tantalising segment of Jean singing ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’, presumably from the record.
Looking at the song selections for Jean’s album, the choice of material consists of old folk ballads and blues, jazz numbers, spirituals, some standards, some left-field, generally leaning more towards Odetta and Nina than the English folk song canon of Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins. It, for example, may be just coincidence Odetta sang ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ on her great 1963 Vanguard LP A Grain of Sand. And seeing as the LP features ‘He’s A Friend of Mine’ it is tempting to consider the record a sort of British equivalent of Judy Roderick’s contemporaneous classic Aint Nothin’ But The Blues, the record she made with Bobby Scott. Who else as a singer over here was working in the interstices of folk, blues, jazz and beyond? But then Jean’s background was very different to most of the finger-in-the-ear purists on the circuit.
For she was a city girl, a native Cockney, one of the Blitz kids shaped by air raids, evacuation, and the return to a derelict London, a generation with incredible fortitude who had seen too much by the time they were in their teens. Some of the brighter ones were lucky, like Jean, and got a good education and escaped. Jean became part of the East End working class radical tradition, with the Young Communist League as surrogate family and a way of discovering new internationalist horizons.
Transatlantic as a label back when the Jean Hart LP came out was one that had yet to find its niche and was arguably far more intriguing as a consequence. Among the albums it put out around that time was Putting Out The Dustbin by Sydney Carter, with Sheila Hancock, a lovely collection of his topical, satirical, funny, wise, and tender songs from just before he let ‘Lord of the Dance’ loose on the world, a set somewhere between folk songs and music hall numbers, including ‘My Father Was A Cupid’, a celebration of the Cockney tradition of miscegenation. Then there was Cy Grant’s Folk Songs and Cool Songs, the title of which speaks for itself, and Cy certainly was one of the cooler characters of the time active on the music scene, with his blend of calypso and jazz and just about everything else.
There was also Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated’s Red Hot from Alex, another sharp Brian Shuel cover, with Herbie Goins on vocals and a young Danny Thompson on bass. Apparently, it was Danny’s first recording session, but he excels, especially on the album finale, a pop distillation of Charlie Mingus’ ‘Haitian Fight Song, which is just about the perfect mod jazz dance treat. Did that ever happen? Were young mods dancing to this track at The Scene or wherever? Guy Stevens in full flow, or maybe another of the club’s DJs, Sandra, who remains a mysterious figure which is odd because a pioneering female DJ at the hippest club in the West End should surely be quite a story. That’s another book this boy would love to read.
Brian Shuel’s photography and design work also featured on Annie Ross’ Loguerhythms, a Transatlantic title where the great jazz singer, who was on the run from Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, recorded some of the new hip cabaret songs by Christopher Logue and Stanley Myers, with some great backing by the Tony Kinsey Quintet. The LP, now helpfully reissued on CD by él, was billed as being songs from The Establishment, the club which Frank Norman describes neatly in his book Why Fings Went West, a 1975 look back at the London theatre revolution which began with Look Back in Anger and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. He mentions how in 1961 Beyond The Fringe was the “smart set’s favourite form of masochism” and how on TV That Was The Week That Was became required viewing, all of which led to The Establishment club in Greek Street, Soho.
Frank wrote: “Peter Cook and a friend named Nick Luard were quick to realise the need of a place where like-minded people from all walks of life could eat, drink, argue and take in a satirical cabaret. Early in 1962 The Establishment threw open its doors to anyone who could afford the £10 membership. A princely sum in those days, but there was no shortage of takers and within a few weeks it looked as though everyone in London had filled in a banker’s order.”
When The Establishment opened Jean Hart was booked as the resident singer, and she would perform some of the Christopher Logue and Stanley Myers songs which formed the basis of the Annie Ross LP on Transatlantic. Although they were the same sort of age, in terms of experience Jean and Annie had moved in very different worlds. Annie was a seasoned jazz performer, used to big audiences, while Jean had mostly sung folk and blues informally, at parties, shebeens, and other impromptu social gatherings, which was how Peter Cook discovered her.
One person who apparently accompanied Jean at The Establishment from time to time was the composer Richard Rodney Bennett who also came up with the “modern jazz trio” arrangements for most of Jean’s LP. The other tracks on the album, intriguingly referred to as the “swinging pop styled” ones, were arranged by Syd Dale, a name many of us will instantly associate with ‘The Penthouse Suite’, a highlight of the much-loved Sound Gallery compilation and an early KPM classic. Syd went on to start the Amphonic library recording resource, and a CD collection of sounds from its archives Ready Steady Boogaloo! is a particular favourite here.
Richard Rodney Bennett is one of those characters in music whose names pop up in so many places (from Billy Liar to choral works) that you begin to wonder whether there are a number of people who just happen to have the same name. On one hand he was a serious and highly respected classical composer who as a young man studied with Pierre Boulez, while on the other he had an abiding passion for jazz which stretched as far as performing and recording as a singer and pianist, making records for the Audiophile label whose catalogue includes great titles by Jackie Paris, Mark Murphy (Richard wrote ‘This Must Be Earth’ with Fran Landesman, the title track of Mark’s 1969 LP), Jackie & Roy, Dick Haymes, Lucy Reed and Audrey Morris. Richard’s Audiophile LPs include one dedicated to the lyrics of John Latouche, which has a lovely slow version of ‘Lazy Afternoon’ on.
Among Richard’s early compositions is the excellent suite Jazz Calendar, a 1964 work dedicated to Jean Hart, which later became the score for a ballet and which seems firmly placed on the corner of Miles and Gil or maybe of George Russell and Bill Evans. Another of Richard’s works is the Concerto for Stan Getz, a composition that was written for the great saxophonist though sadly he died before having a chance to perform it. And back in 1963 when Richard and Jean made their LP together for Transatlantic Stan Getz was riding high on his bossa nova wave, even making the UK album charts with Charlie Byrd which was quite an achievement for jazz musicians.
In Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician, a book by Paul Harris and Anthony Meredith, there are a number of great anecdotes about when Richard and Jean were working together. Apparently, they were both very much taken with Sheila Jordan’s wonderful debut LP Portrait of Sheila, a rare Blue Note jazz vocal release (and doesn’t it make the heart sing when a personal favourite discovery turns out to be something loved by people you admire!), and is it possible this fed into the arrangements for Jean’s LP? Hopefully!
Anyway, they were so impressed by Sheila’s singing that they set off for New York to track down one of her performances in a small club. And, while they were over there, they went to see a variety of other singers, including Blossom Dearie, though there was a disruptive woman talking incessantly through her set until an incensed Jean marched across to yell that she had come all the way from London to hear Blossom sing so shut up!
Jean and Rodney appeared together as an act in various places, at the Edinburgh Festival, at The Establishment, and on TV. Indeed, Jean seems to have appeared on television and on the radio numerous times during the 1960s. There is a memory here of seeing a striking clip of Jean performing, posted on YouTube, which was quite dramatically fierce and raw, with Jean dressed simply in a skirt and jumper, very unadorned but incredibly commanding. It was a couple of songs, perhaps, standards almost certainly, but it was quite something. Sadly, it seems to have disappeared from the web which is the way these things go. It definitely wasn’t imagined as there is another memory of sharing it on social media, and it was one of those occasions when you post something and it disappears into the void. Actually, there was one like, by a former member of Orange Juice which seemed ironic as if it had been a clip of the OJs that was shared the likes would have soared in number, but there you go.
Among Jean’s TV appearances there is one listed for the regional ITV series Hullabaloo! which was a showcase for folk and blues acts around 1963/64. There is a reference online to Jean being accompanied by Davy Graham, and she is singing the South African kwela number ‘Hamba Lilli’. It seems that Network are planning to release a DVD compilation of performances from the show, so hopefully Jean will be featured. Ah, anticipation! There is another recording of Jean singing this, which appears on a 1964 Decca collection of performances from the previous year’s Edinburgh Folk Festival, although the impression given is that this was an impromptu affair happening informally on the fringes of that year’s Fringe Festival.
Kwela was the popular dance form in the South African townships, and it is music Jean fell in love with while living out there for a while in the 1950s. If you look up Jean and kwela you will no doubt find an old newspaper cutting showing Jean dancing the kwela in Sophiatown. There is another later photo from the Jet archives of a barefoot Jean back in London, dancing the ‘sensuous rhythmic dance’ with the émigré jazz musician Cameron Mokaleng, where in the wake of the surprise chart success of ‘Tom Hark’ there was a mini-craze for kwela as record companies floundered around looking for a successor to skiffle.
Jean had followed her husband Malcolm who moved out to Johannesburg so as not to heed the call-up for National Service here. It is a period he covers in-depth in his memoirs, and indeed the book opens in 1957 with the South African security forces questioning him about the whereabouts of Jean: “Where is my estranged wife living? In contravention of one of Afrikanerdom’s most sacred laws Jean is actually living with her lover Can Themba, the African deputy editor of Drum Magazine. Miscegenation is regarded throughout white South Africa as a crime as heinous as treason or even murder.”
In a 2014 Dan Rubin article on Can Themba he describes “Jean Hart, the married white woman from working-class Whitechapel, London, who can sing ‘Ngihamba Ngedwa Laph Egoli’ like she’d been born in Sof’town. Jean Hart, with whom Themba is in love. She isn’t a tourist, interested in the anthropological knowledge of how the other South Africans live. She just wants to be with him.” This is a reference to the wording in Can’s short story Crepescule which has as its theme the forbidden affair between him and Jean which so shocked white and black society.
Browse on the Internet and you will find a reference to Jean appearing at an event put on by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, "We Sing of Freedom", at St. Pancras Town Hall in July 1963, alongside Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Peter O'Toole. The accompanying blurb mentions Jean was “originally from London's East End. Taught art in Johannesburg and helped organise first All African Jazz Concerts. Now resettled in England. Has sung on TV, at the Establishment and CND concerts.” A dozen years later, Jean sang the theme song of The Wilby Conspiracy, composed by Stanley Myers and Jeremy Taylor, a film which starred Sidney Poitier as an anti-apartheid activist on the run with Michael Caine for company.
From the short film Malcolm Hart produced it seems Jean had more fun in the 1970s and early 1980s when she became heavily involved in the feminist theatre movement, as part of collectives like the Women’s Theatre Group, Belt & Braces, and the Sadista Sisters. This was a boom time for alternative, fringe or political theatre, as the listings pages of Time Out and City Limits in London would attest. There is a clip at the end of Malcolm’s film of Jean singing the Sadista Sisters song ‘Sister Amazonia’ which is taken from Mike Dibb’s 1980 TV showcase Fringe Benefits. Jean also appeared on TV in the Sadista Sisters’ Jude Alderson’s play Rachel and the Roarettes which starred a young Josie Lawrence in the title role.
Also, in the 1970s, Jean became involved with the Glasgow University Media Group who produced pioneering studies into television news in Britain, how it was put together and how it was broadcast. The results of this research were published initially in 1976 as Bad News, the first of a series of titles from the collective on this theme. This was how Jean’s name became known here. Back in the late 1980s this boy was doing a journalism course at the London College of Printing, in an Elephant & Castle tower, which was about the only one you could do on a grant unless you were a graduate, and God bless the day Jean memorably was the guest speaker at one of our classes.
Part of the course was a module in Media Studies, which was great fun, and this was taken by a charismatic Scotsman called Jim McGrane, whom one recalls as having a sort of Tom Selleck look and who was very definitely immersed in left-wing politics and union activity. What really sticks in the mind is him asking why pretty much any news bulletin on any TV channel or radio station in the UK will have almost exactly the same items in the same order, and it was always appealing that he didn’t pretend to know exactly why this was so. That, actually, is the sort of question the Glasgow University Media Group wanted to investigate, and why Jean was invited in to speak to us.
It may be the memory playing tricks, but the lingering impression is that Jean was an incredibly mesmerising speaker. She had a certain something, and she very much had presence. There was clearly a friendship or bond between her and Jim. You could sense that. He stood at the back, like a proud parent, and she just sat at the front of our group, and chatted. It was all very informal. She didn’t talk about herself, and it would be many years before the penny dropped and the connections to Jean’s past activities came to light. At the very least it would have been great to interview her for the student magazine, Untitled, to which this boy contributed pieces on Shena Mackay and Nik Cohn, which may not surprise some of you. The publication was run by a couple of characters called Rankin and Jefferson Hack, apparently.
In its initial research the Glasgow University Media Group concentrated on how television news broadcasts reported on industrial disputes in the first half of 1975. And what sticks in the mind from Jean’s talk was her description of how news was presented in relation to unofficial industrial action by HGV drivers in Glasgow. This was widely reported as a strike by dustmen, and from early on in the dispute broadcasts used emotive images of rubbish piled up in the streets which projected a particularly negative perspective. Perhaps this would be irresistible to anyone preparing bulletins, but for the team studying news output this raised all sorts of concerns about so-called impartiality. The irony being that 30-odd years on from Jean’s visit pretty much any documentary touching on the 1970s, whether it be the advent of punk or the rise of Thatcher, those same images of accumulated garbage are inevitably used.
In the 1981 paperback edition of Bad News, which is on the pile here, Jean is listed as Jean Oddie, “a freelance writer and researcher known for her work in the feminist theatre movement.” When she came in to talk to us there was a passing reference to her having been married to Bill Oddie, but that barely registered as The Goodies were never favourites in this household. But Bill and Jean met at The Establishment and fell in love, and Jean drifted into that comedy circle, touring internationally as part of the Cambridge Circus review with Bill, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and John Cleese, and appearing on I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again. Actually, if you look for Jean on Spotify in the UK all you will find is a sketch by David Nobbs called ‘Internal Combustion’ which was recorded for a 1966 LP The Frost Report on Britain on which Jean is credited for her “dulcet female tones”.
The only other time that one can recall seeing the name Jean Oddie is among the credits on Mike Cooper’s 1971 LP Places I Know. She sings backing vocals as part of the Dawn Chorus (a pun on the record label’s name) along with Norma Winstone and Gerald T. Moore who was then part of Heron. Places I Know is an oddly addictive record. Mike Cooper’s roots are in country blues, which will never be this boy’s cup of tea, but on this LP he was heavily influenced by the country rock sound of the Burritos, Nashville Skyline, All Things Must Pass, and there are some gorgeous songs on it, especially the grand sweep of ‘Time To Time’. What helps to make it interesting are the arrangements by Mike Gibbs, which dovetail with what he did on the contemporaneous Bill Fay debut, a perennial favourite here, but maybe now more than ever. Mike Gibbs also worked on music for The Goodies around that time, largely because Bill Oddie was a big jazz fan, so presumably there is an implicit link to Jean there.
The jazz elements on Mike Cooper’s Places I Know were an extension of his 1970 recording Trout Steel which, as well as its Brautigan and Pharoah Sanders references, featured, among others, Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, John Taylor, Harry Miller and Ray Babbington. Backing vocals were provided by the brilliant Heron, and it is likely that both Bill Fay and Heron were first heard here via Andres Lokko’s wonderful Feber Folk collection. The unifying factor in all this was Peter Eden, who seems increasingly (like Denis Preston) to have been one of those special enablers who made so much great music happen. Perhaps he wasn’t a visionary in the Charles Stepney sense but he seems to have been a nice guy who had a special gift for introducing a to b and making it possible for something special to take place.
There is an excellent booklet by Colin Irwin which accompanies a lovely RPM 3CD box set of the releases on Peter’s short-lived Turtle label. Included within is a list of the LPs Peter produced between 1968 and 1972 which is incredibly impressive and includes Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs and Marching Songs. In a Colin Irwin Record Collector article on Peter there is a quote from Chris Spedding (whose wonderful Songs Without Words was produced by Eden), about working on music for The Goodies, where he says Bill Oddie’s “first wife Jean Hart sang and Nucleus backed her up, did a week with her at the Hampstead Theatre. Karl Jenkins wrote the arrangements.”
It is exactly that sort of almost throwaway comment that can send some of us into a kind of panic mode, with a frenzied desire to know more: “What did Jean sing? Who was in the audience? Was anything planned in the way of recording?” But then you come up against a brick wall, and are seemingly unable to find anything to illuminate the issue. So, you end up imagining what might have been, which is fun in a way, a welcome distraction, but then you come back to the issue of wanting to read a first-hand account and maybe coming across a long-lost recording or, even better, a piece of film. Who knows? Anything is possible. Maybe it’s all out there, hiding in plain sight. And if not, we will always have our dreams and distractions.