Obituary: Walter Pardon

Walter Pardon was one of the best singers of traditional folk- songs in England, yet, outside his family, no one knew of his singing until he was 59 years old.

Born in Knapton, near North Walsham in Norfolk, in a cottage where he lived for the rest of his life, Pardon came to national prominence in the folk-song world in the early 1970s through a relative of his, Roger Dixon. Dixon heard Pardon sing the classic folk-song "The Dark-Eyed Sailor" at a family party, and persuaded him to record 20 songs on tape. The cassette was passed to Peter Bellamy, a Norfolk folk revival singer, who immediately recognised that Pardon was a singer of immense ability.

Within a couple of years, Pardon had been recorded for Bill Leader's record label - A Proper Sort, released in 1975, was followed by Our Side of the Baulk in 1977 - and he was invited by the distinguished folksong scholar A.L. Lloyd to join a group of English folk singers at the American Bicentennial Celebrations in Washington. Appearances at folk festivals and clubs followed, including at the National Folk Music Festival in 1977, held in Loughborough. Pardon also sang at a festival to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the opening of Cecil Sharp House, the London headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, in 1980.

Much of Pardon's repertoire came from his uncle, Billy Gee, who in turn had learnt songs from his father - a repertoire stretching back to the early part of the 19th century. Although he left school at 14 to become an apprentice carpenter, Pardon was very well-read, and had a remarkable memory for songs - in all about 150 songs were recorded. His songs included classic ballads such as "Lord Lovel", the broadside ballad "Balaclava", and the music-hall song "Old Brown's Daughter". He also knew several rare songs from the early days of the Agricultural Workers Union.

Unlike his uncle, Pardon was never a pub singer, which is perhaps why he was unknown as a live singer outside his immediate family. The context for this singing was the family party, especially when his uncles and parents were still alive. In more recent years, Pardon sang just for his own amusement. He also played the melodeon and fiddle.

In view of his lack of public performance, before the folk-song revival "discovered" him in the 1970s, it is not surprising that Walter Pardon was overlooked during the major folksong recording scheme undertaken by the BBC in the early 1950s. Pardon did not write in to the BBC about his songs as other singers did at the time. It was as if he was waiting to be "discovered". Even earlier, in the 1930s, the composer E.J. Moeran had recorded Harry Cox and other Norfolk singers in Catfield, just a few miles away from North Walsham, but he missed Walter Pardon.

In total, five albums of Walter Pardon's songs were released, and his full repertoire was recorded by the folksong researchers Mike Yates, Jim Carroll and Pat MacKenzie. One of the albums, Bright Golden Store, was released to coincide with the award to Pardon of the Gold Badge of the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1983. The other albums were A Country Life (1982) on the prestigious Topic label, and Up to the Rigs, a live recording at a folk club in Torquay issued on Sam Richards's People's Stages label in 1987. Pardon was also filmed by the American film-maker John Cohen in 1983, in a documentary called The Ballad and the Source.

Walter Pardon's style of singing reflected his personality - he was a sensitive, private man, whose impersonal singing let the song speak for itself. A.L. Lloyd wrote that he "had a fine feeling for the sense of the words and deep musicality", and described Pardon as "the pick of the bunch".

Walter Pardon, folk singer: born Knapton, Norfolk 4 March 1914; died 9 June 1996.

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