Saturday, 3 March 2012

Isaiah Sully and Ruth Tongue (part 1)

This is just an excerpt (or two) from the article in my 1965 copy of The Countryman, which I thought may be of interest. The man that Ruth Tongue was writing about, whom she calls Isaiah Sully, was an itinerant folk singer in Somerset. She mentioned that he had a French surname and was possibly descended from Huguenot refugees from the 17th C, but from what he said his roots may well have been descended from French travelling minstrels. He was an outstanding performer, but apparently wicked with it . . . "he was suspected, and rightly, of 'dark dealings' ". He was a leading mummer and Morris man, but his reputation was such that when he was in a village the menfolk carried salt in their pockets and woman crossed their thumbs when they caught sight of him. We are going back a fair way here as he was performing in the 1840s (when Thomas Hardy was born) and in great demand at every local fair across the south-west, and well known for his pure singing voice, his "quick wit and agile dancing" and his acting skills. Ruth Tongue knew him when she was a child (in Taunton, Somerset), when he would have been in his 80s, but still sprightly and able to throw a leap or two.

"I first met him as a bent crippled figure tucked into a fireside chair, in the spotless cottage where he was living under the thumb of a highly respected second wife. The village said she had collected and married him when he was in a drunken haze, as the only way of rescuing him from Satan; and for their forty years of married life she applied herself with grim determination to the task of saving his soul. He was no longer allowed to sing, act or dance. But he defied her in one respect: he never attended a religious service, either of her own very rigid sect or of any other.

I was often brought down to the cottage and left to amuse 'Dad' while the grown-ups were at the farm. 'The dear liddle soul she do talk so clear an' she do sing her liddle songs, an' it do cheer en up.' When Mrs Isaiah was out of the way I unburdened myself of all the hotch-potch of tunes and singing games I could remember. . . . Isaiah replied in kind with a spate of song fragments, dance steps and ballads; but he would never sing a song right through and became wilier as I grew older. His benevolence had an uncertain edge to it, as unexpected as his lightning changes from huddled cripple to Morris man and back. With the family away in the hayfield he would fling aside his wraps, caper round the kitchen table and be back in his chair like a mummy again, all in a moment.

Once only did I learn anything of real worth from him, and it proved very necessary later on. Whether he foresaw that time and was impelled to pass on a knowledge that would frustrate his own evil intent, I do not know, but one afternoon he interrupted 'Barbarous Helen' to say sharply: 'Liddle chime-child, bain't 'ee? Cassn' be overlooked nor ill-wished, not no-how. Gifted, bain't 'ee? Well, my maid, thur'll come a time when 'ee'd best call this to mind', and we spent a happy half-hour singing this very old 'Prayer of Protection':

First came Lord God
And then come Holy Ghost,
And then come Sweet Jesu
That di-ed and lov-ed men most.

Now bless-ed be Lord God,
And bless-ed Bright Trinity,
And bless us Sweet Jesu
Who guard us wherever we be.

Glory to Lord God,
Glory to Bright Trinity;
To little Sweet Jesu that sleep under star,
Singen all lustily.

This is to be sung only when in real danger; it must never be used lightly."

Ah, but there came a time when she DID need to sing it . . .

To be continued . . .


  1. a little weekend tantalization for us ...

  2. You've got it Lynda! A Welsh (or should that be Somerset in this case?) cliff-hanger . . .

  3. Aargh, I can hardly wait to hear the end of the story. You are a true story-teller, getting us to the edge of our seats. I sent you an e-mail about the books. Did it make it to you? Lynn

  4. Lynn - I'm a meany over the story aren't I?!

    Just e-mailed you back, so hopefully I can get the books on their way to you soon.

  5. Yes BB, you certainly left us on the edge of the cliff - next installment eagerly awaited.