Derek and Dorothy Elliott – Forgotten Favourites #11

I thought they were better known. Derek was a weekly fixture at Barnsley Folk Club in the mid 1970s, instantly recognisable: egg-bald head, flamboyant beard and whiskers. Yet when I was thinking about writing this, looking for background info, there was little trace. Three tracks on YouTube, scanty entries on sites like Mainly Norfolk — usually so helpful — nothing on streaming services. They’ve almost vanished, like many others from pre-internet days. 

Which is a pity, because in its understated way this is a gem of a record.

It’s their first album, recorded for Bill Leader’s Trailer label in 1972, not long after they turned professional. And it’s worth a few bob, if the second-hand prices on Amazon are to be trusted.

At first it’s underwhelming on the turntable. It sounds quiet, muffled — which I guess is to do with the mastering, not the recording or production. Try it again, and this time turn the volume well up . . .

. . . and we’re off to an uplifting start with May Dew; ‘Come pretty fair maids a secret to hear / broom, parsley, rosemary and thyme,’ Dorothy’s striding harmonies catching the joy of summer’s return. It’s a deceptive beginning, though: only three of the twelve tracks have instrumental backing — guitar from Dave Burland, fiddle from Nic Jones. Really, this is an album of unaccompanied traditional songs and singing.

The song selection is terrific, several drawn from Frank Kidson’s collecting. A stark John Barleycorn, a cheery Wassail song collected near Doncaster, Keith Marsden’s Bring us a barrel (the only non-traditional piece here), Derek’s cheeky Cornstalk (a version of Eggs in her basket), a fine Lady Maisry.

The harmony singing is a model of its kind. Derek’s a light baritone, perhaps a bit nasal, while Dorothy’s a throaty alto; their ranges overlap while the timbres contrast. He generally takes the tune when they sing together, while she adds harmony, often in a lower register. But they feel like twin leads, not first and second parts.

The most powerful moments are when Dorothy sings alone. Side One closes with her forlorn transportation song Adieu to judges and juries, and there’s an eerie Robber Bridegroom. She sings with an unhurried honesty that carries weight because of its simplicity. My absolute favourite is the broadside ballad Maria Martin, murder in the red barn, collected from Joseph Taylor but much patched and extended, with Jones and Burland bouncing it along to a grisly end.

They’d record three more albums over the years, calling themselves Yorkshire Relish with the addition of daughter Nadine, Chris Parkinson, and a more varied instrumental backing. The family eventually moved to Whitby and a business career took precedence over music; they ran a successful enamel workshop for many years. Derek died late last year, much mourned and missed.

Here’s adieu — but the melody lingers on.