Cecilia Costello ‘Our People’s Voice’
Brian Dakin ( Billy Spake Mon) and Dr Esther Asprey
Cecilia is girl with pigtails
For some people fate moves the pieces of life’s jigsaw to make certain situations arise and experiences happen. Even if I had been sceptical before, after the discovery of Cecilia Costello I was convinced that the people with this conviction were right. The first time I came across Cecilia’s name was when I carried out an interview in my capacity as a Research Associate on the West Midlands English: Speech and Society project headed by Dr Urszula Clark at Aston University. I was carrying out an interview with Pam Bishop, a folk stalwart of the Ewan McColl era, discussing her involvement in the Charles Parker Collection held at Birmingham archives. Pam mentioned a Brummie lady called Cecilia Costello and a very rare recording made by the BBC of this local singer. She said I should investigate Cecilia’s music for the project. Cecilia had passed away some years before so although I made a note it wasn’t a priority due to the work load already undertaken.
The second part of the jigsaw came to me in my capacity as lyricist for Lozz Hipkiss in the Black Country folk duo of Billy and Lozz. Lozz owns Rooster Studios in Rowley Regis and is also the partner in RoosterSpake, our Black Country arts performance collaboration. We are always getting stories given to us and requests to see if we know of some event from the past.
One such request came from a man Lozz and I had known for years, as he helps run the Bromsgrove Folk club where we often play our own original songs and narratives. So I was even more surprised that the request came completely out of the blue and so soon after Pam Bishop’s interview.
The email was from Pat Costello (up to that point I only knew him as Pat) asking me for help in obtaining ‘hard copies’ of recordings the British Library had of his grandmother in conversation, one Cecilia Costello. See what I mean about jigsaw pieces!
Apparently copies can only be given easily to educational establishments such as Aston University, where I work. Pat had heard of my work there and knew me and Lozz well, so felt comfortable in asking for my help. At first I didn’t connect the two names until I read the rest of the email, at which point I twigged the connection. Pat also wrote that he had the copy of the original BBC recording of his grandmother on LP and also tapes of an interview he had done with Carl Chinn and his father talking about his life both in Birmingham and the influence of his Irish background. I quickly clicked the link to the British Library recordings, now certain the Cecilia Costello was one and the same lady that Pam Bishop had told me about.
What follows is a brief outline of Cecilia’s life and the impact that has been made on my life in becoming acquainted with this wonderful lady and her music. I truly believe she is the voice of our people and I am humbled to be embraced by the vibrant beauty and eloquence of her Brummie accent and the power of her delivery when enthralling with her wonderful narratives held in each song.
Never having met Cecilia I decided while writing this piece to have her music playing in the background. I was immediately caught by the purity of her voice. It made me think of the writer and poet Tom Paulin who in his Writings For the Moment spoke of the ‘eloquence of dialect’, and the raw power and energy evoked when a speaker (for Cecilia is heard speaking on occasions) or singer of dialect delivers a line.
Through the frailty of this lady’s voice (she was in her 60’s when first recorded) was an immense power and presence that caught me as a listener and prevented me from continuing with a train of thought until I had listened several times. Dialect singers of this quality have a great humanness and honesty about their love of each word, of each intonation. Sometimes it is stark, sometimes warm but always human.
If the reader has never tried to sing unaccompanied then they may not understand that taken away from any kind of accompaniment the voice becomes the messenger. Every emotion has to be conveyed by the singer. There is no place drama can be added or tenderness be conveyed by the deft use of an instrument. Here the voice is the instrument, the orchestra the truth in all its glory, and believe me, Cecilia Costello sings in all her glory. The listener is there with her on her ‘settee’ in Birmingham with all the technicians and visitors who had heard of this famous lady. To Cecilia no one was there and yet the world was in her living room listening to this ‘ordinary’ lady sing with such majestic purity.
It must have been the third time I listened to the recording that I felt I knew Cecilia well enough to continue writing. Born on 24th of October 1884 in the White Lion Yard 8 Dean Place behind the Bull Ring in Birmingham. She was the youngest of 10 children, 5 boys and 5 girls. Her mother Margaret Kelly nee Higgins lived in Galway and her father Edward lived in Roscommon coming across , as did many on the ‘boat trains’ to escape the starvation that ravaged their home land. Cecilia worked at the age of 12 as a trainee screw maker at Hawkins screw factory in Cheapside, This position was initially unpaid but eventually she was paid about 6 shillings a week depending on size and how many gross were made,. working long hours , 8 in the morning till 7 at night . She was recorded in the 1901 census at 17 years of age single and sleeping at Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary. Her occupation at this time was listed as a Brass Polisher.
Although a Brummie her roots were firmly placed in Ireland as can be seen embedded in her singing style. Although she sang with a linguistically Brummie dialect she sang with a very definite Gaelic style. Edward Thompson, an expert on origins of folk songs and dialects, suggests that this may have been because immigrants would not have staffed Catholic parishes with English-born priests but with those of rural Ireland who brought with them the Gaelic style of singing which transferred to ballads of English origin. Cecilia therefore had a natural style born out of her Galway background, her husband Thomas was from the Roscommon area which makes writing this piece all the more prescient in my passion for this lady and her work, as my own family on the Murray side came from Roscommon. They moved around the city quite a lot and it would take a long narrative to trace every settlement or road they lived in. Here however we are dealing with Cecilia and her wonderful interpretations of rare and better known songs of the people.
Very often the phrase ‘of their time’ is used and Cecilia certainly was that. She sang all around the city and gained a reputation far beyond its boundaries. There were several people in the late 1960s who were extremely interested in songs ‘from the field’ as it were. Much like the Alan Lomax recordings of black slaves or voices of people in minority communities, Charles Parker and Roy Palmer, along with people from the BBC, had decided to travel the country and record singers that they had heard about.
Ewan McColl also raised the profile of British folk with a series of recordings called Radio Ballads at this time, where he and other folk singers travelled all over Britain recording conversations with various communities and writing songs about them. Cecilia was most certainly of that time and much sought out by those interested in preserving oral history in song and dialogue.
Initially, Marie Solcombe and Patrick Shuldham- Smith recorded thirteen songs for the BBC; visits by Charles Parker and Roy Palmer followed, as did visits from Pam Bishop and Jon Raven, stalwarts of the local folk scene.
Cecilia’s repertoire astounded all who visited this inspirational singer. It ranged from classic ballads to narrative texts and children’s ballads. For collectors probably the most exciting is a rendition of The Lover’s Ghost (or to use its other name the Grey Cock) as it was a most unlikely song to find in the Birmingham area. No reports of its still existing in England had previously been found, though it had been recorded in Newfoundland.
Tony Green who was involved at the time remarked that “many of Mrs Costello’s songs spring from that classic Anglo-Irish repertory which came to England first with the ‘July Barbers’; the itinerant harvest workers who came over from Ireland in particular from about 1852 onwards and thereafter with the settled migrants of the mid-nineteenth century who gravitated to the cities because that was where work was.”
He went on to remark how her voice, warm and rich with strong Brummie inflections, hid the fact that she was just one generation from rural Ireland.
Maybe that’s why Cecilia Costello is so unique: she bore the souls of two very different spirits - the wild feral free flying soul of the Gaelic traveller, and the strong, fiery passion of the industrial city that had given her a life. She created not only a tension in her songs but a delicate tenderness and again the two characters almost marry themselves as her voice evoked past histories with her experience of Birmingham.
This short piece has, as I said it would, concentrated on her singing and her songs. For reasons unknown, Leader/ Transatlantic deleted the album of songs after only two years; a complete travesty since it contained such wonderful renditions of immensely important songs.
Folk music has always been the people’s history. It writes history from a different perspective than do historians. It is of the people and for the people the songs left by those gifted enough to understand its position and deliver its narrative in such beautiful ways should be kept for every generation to understand how our people came together and lived through cultural, social and economic changes. Cecilia Costello was one of those rare people touched with a gift that few have; the gift of being able to take a word and make it say whatever she wanted it to, be it joy, pain, cruelty or tenderness.
I hope this article will spark an interest not only in Cecilia but in all the treasures that lie collecting dust in the vaults of our cities, and more hopefully, in the virtual vaults of our country’s archives and libraries. To the young I say, go out and find them, discover for yourself real history of our people. Discover for yourself Cecilia Costello and all the performers who were, as she most certainly was, a voice of the people.
Cecilia Costello passed away in 1976 aged 91
Visit the website created by Pat Costello www.freewebs.com/ceciliacostello
Thanks to Pat for all his help and for the wonderful inspirational songs I can now listen to of this lady. Also I acknowledge the help of my colleague at Aston Dr Esther Asprey for her guidance in writing this short account.
1 "Cecilia Costello"
Recordings from the sound Archives of the BBC, 1951 and 1954
Published on Leader LEE 4054 mono 1974