This article, by Doug Fraser, was one of two on Phil Tanner which appeared in the February/March 2000 edition of Taplas, the Voice of Folk in Wales. To access the other, by Roy Harris, and the 1949 Picture Post article by John Ormond Thomas, go to the end of this page.
FEBRUARY 19, 2000, saw the 50th anniversary of the death of Phil Tanner, an outstanding character widely regarded as the finest of all British traditional singers. He was recorded in 1937 and again in 1949, a year before he died. These recordings have been reissued in various forms over the years and some are available in modern collections. We need not fear that the inimitable style and sheer exuberance of his singing will be forgotten.
Phil Tanner, youngest of the seven children of Isaac and Jennet Tanner, was born in Llangennith in West Gower, Glamorgan, in February 1862. The family were already well-known locally for their singing and dancing. His father was a weaver, who had a woollen "factory" at Hillend, a mile from the village.
When Phil was eight, the family moved to Whitemoor, about a mile upstream. As a youth, he must have worked at the factory, where the complete process of weaving was performed, from fleece to finished blanket or shawl. Unlike three of his brothers, he did not become a weaver but worked as a farm labourer. His main occupation was "laking" in the low-lying fields near the sea - cutting and clearing the ditches marking the boundary of his employer's land.
He was about 24 when he married Ruth Nicholas, a widow and landlady of the Welcome To Town Inn in the village. She was 26 years older and had a daughter by her previous husband. Phil moved into the inn and they lived there for some 12 years before moving to Lower Mill, a gristmill near his birthplace. Ruth died in 1921 and Phil later moved to Barreston, where he lived alone until he was admitted to the Glan-y-Mor Eventide Home at Penmaen in 1941. He died in his sleep on February 19, 1950.
To those unfamiliar with Gower, the traditional English singing style of Phil Tanner, a native of South Wales, must seem somewhat enigmatic. It has a historical explanation. Some 800 years ago, when the Normans conquered Gower, they repopulated villages with people from Somerset. These immigrants became so well established that the larger south western part of the peninsula became known as English Gower while the smaller north eastern area and the eastern mainland area remained as Welsh Gower. A 14th century map depicting Wales and the Borders clearly shows the split as Gower Wallica/Gower Anglicana.
More convincing, perhaps, is the question asked by Celtic scholar Edward Lhuyd in 1696: "Wherein doth the English of the Vulgar in Pembrokeshire and Gowerland differ from the Western Counties of England?" Until the latter part of the 19th century, the link with the West of England was maintained by the limestone trade with North Devon, the limestone being quarried in Gower and shipped to Ilfracombe and Bideford.
It has been suggested that Gower people are descended from Flemish immigrants, but this theory seems to have been largely discredited ('More Wessex than Walloon', runs the well-known epigram). Interestingly, though, Tanner asserted that his family were originally Flemish weavers who settled in South Wales in the mid 18th century, when there existed an elaborate code of laws against the import of made cloth.
Because of its topography, English Gower remained rural. It lacked the mineral wealth characterising the mainland. Also, there were few safe anchorages along its coastline - notorious for its record of shipwrecks. This fascinating region, with its "industries" of farming, quarrying, weaving, milling and oyster fishing, contrasted vividly with the mainland and its tinplate and smelting in Swansea, the great coal-exporting port.
In the mid 19th century, Llangennith was the most quintessential of West Gower villages. There were eight working mills in the parish; mostly woollen mills, with some grist mills as well. It was regarded as a wild place, with four pubs, whose inhabitants held scant respect for the law. It was known as "the Tipperary of Gower". By the end of the century, though, all the mills had closed, their products unable to compete with the mass-produced articles of the great industrial factories. And, to quote W I Tanner: "The reforming influence was at work in Gower, influencing people to think of the pursuit of singing, dancing and drinking as nothing but folly."
Llangennith was famous throughout Gower for its Mabsant (saints' day festival) on July 5. St Cennydd's Day was a great occasion for dancing, drinking and merrymaking but, like the Mari Lwyd ceremony and the Christmas Sport mummers' play, it had ceased to be performed - though bidding weddings still continued into the early years of the 20th century.
Tanner was the authority on what remained of local customs and rituals and is particularly remembered as the last of the bidders at the bidding weddings. The bidder went from house to house, perhaps mounted on a white horse, but always carrying a staff decked with white ribbons, repeating the bidding rhyme at each house. The rhyme was not only a wedding invitation but also served as a splendid panegyric on the fare and entertainment available to the guests.
These social events, and others such as the Court Leet or Harvest Home suppers, were occasions when the Gower Reel was often danced, originally to a fiddle but latterly to Phil's mouth music accompaniment. He was an expert on the progress of the dance. He also enjoyed the mystery attached to the making of the wassail, prior to taking it around the houses at Christmas (F A Bracey went with him once and noted that several families still knew the traditional verses and responses to The Wassail Song). Notwithstanding Phil's traditional singing style, his mouth music, or lilting, is Celtic in origin.
Tanner first came to the attention of the general public when he appeared as a witness before the Royal Commission on Land in Wales and Monmouthshire in May 1893 to air his grievances against the Kilvrough Estate. The proceedings were lively and the situation described was reminiscent of a common folk song theme. In this case, though, the labouring man didn't win out over the squire, as can be seen from the report in The Western Mail of May 27, 1893:
"Philip Tanner, farm labourer, Llangennith, gave evidence of the hardships which he said he had suffered. He had married the widow of a man named Nicholas, who kept an inn and occupied 20 acres of land on Mr Penrice's estate. Nicholas willed his property in trust for his widow and daughter and after Tanner married the widow, the stock and implements were sold. Tanner and his wife received notice and were turned out, the land being added to a farm occupied by the agent of the Kilvrough Estate. Tanner said he suffered great loss through being evicted. He appealed to Mr Penrice, who simply replied that the land was to be taken up. No complaint was made as to Tanner's way of farming."
Those who knew Tanner during the inter-war years testify to his great love of singing and story-telling, his prodigious memory and his skill as a superb mimic. In the parish, he was renowned almost as much for his mimicry as for his singing; one memorable subject for the former talent being the parson, who used to visit the village church every harvest festival to deliver the same sermon on every occasion. Local opinion gave Phil's favourite song as The Parson and The Clerk. The many anecdotes concerning him invite the comparison of the clerk and his dissenting spirit and mocking wit with Phil, while the canting parson seems to symbolise officious parochial opinion - or, as Walter Tanner, Phil's nephew, put it in another song, the "pious hierarchy".
Phil became resident entertainer at the King's Head pub, described even in the 1890s as "an inn where a great many people come down in the summer", whereas his old haunt, the Welcome To Town, which had closed in 1905, was described as a "little old common house". Even a century ago, the familiar rural situation of a visitor's pub and a local's pub in the same village existed!
His singing came to the notice of people outside Gower in 1932, when he turned up at a holiday camp run locally for unemployed workers and their families from the South Wales valleys. F A Bracey was among the party of students running the camp and, during an evening sing-song, Tanner asked to sing and rapidly "took over". He was about 70 at the time and his tall distinguished appearance, with Gower tweed suit and cap, grey beard and bright blue eyes, impressed everybody. He began with sentimental Stephen Foster-type songs, moving on to "real" folksongs later. His repertoire contrasted markedly with the chapel hymns and rugby songs making up the usual valleys' repertoire.
In November 1937, Bracey arranged for Phil to visit London - his first excursion outside the Gower region. Maud Karpeles recorded him for the Folk Song Society and he appeared on the BBC radio programme In Town Tonight. While at Broadcasting House, he invited the programme producer to have a drink with him. The offer was declined, so Phil gave him sixpence, saying: "There you are, sir - you have a tanner from a Tanner." He insisted on taking his dog into the studio, pausing during his performance to admonish it. Later, when the party drove past Buckingham Palace, he insisted on getting out to sing God Save The King.
The same year, Tanner recorded The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses, Henry Martin, Gower Reel and Gower Wassail. These were issued as 78rpm discs by Columbia. In 1949, he re-recorded three of these songs plus The Oyster Girl, The Bonny Bunch Of Roses, The Parson and The Clerk, Barbara Ellen, Young Roger Esquire, Swansea Barracks, Fair Phoebe and The Dark Eyed Sailor, Four-Handed Reel and Over The Hills To Gowerie for the BBC.
These appeared in various forms. Several were included on the Caedmon Records USA collection, Folksongs Of Britain, in 1961 (subsequently reissued by Topic Records), as well as in the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, edited by Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy. The English Folk Dance and Song Society issued several 78rpm discs before finally releasing the complete recordings as an album in their Folk Classics series. In 1975, Folktracks Recordings issued the cassette The Great Man Of Gower, containing all the recordings, with a commentary by Bracey.
Bracey described Tanner's repertoire as a mixture of late 19th century music hall songs, regional industrial songs and traditional folk songs - in all, some 80 to 90 songs, learned from his grandfather, David, his father and uncles and brothers (all of whom could "crack a note") as well as from journeymen weavers and tailors, itinerant labourers, gypsies and travelling people.
Anecdotally, his named sources include William Taylor of Dollar Cot, Llangennith, 'Kitehole' John of Overton, 'Morriston' Tom Lloyd, Billy Gibbs of Porteynon, Sam Phillips of Llangennith and one Osborne, a Cornish millwright who visited Gower to dress stones. Other Gower singers claimed the "rights" to their particular songs. Phil outlived them all and memorised their songs. It's said he would often repeat the last few words or title when performing, as a charm to prevent anyone stealing it.
John Ormond Thomas's now celebrated article The Old Singer of Gower appeared in the popular magazine Picture Post in March 1949. The text was augmented by unforgettable photographs of Tanner and other residents of the Penmaen Eventide Home. The reporter displayed what would now be considered an enlightened view of Phil's straitened circumstances and paid him a moving tribute. This article brought the name of Phil Tanner to people nationwide and because of the time of publication (less than a year before his death) and the writer's obvious sincerity, we can regard the article as a fitting elegy to a great singer.
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