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Phil Tanner, 1862-1950

This article, by John Ormond Thomas, appeared in the March 19, 1949 edition of Picture Post. Spellings which were accepted at that time have been retained here for the sake of authenticity. For the articles by Doug Fraser and Roy Harris which appeared in the February/March 2000 edition of Taplas, the Voice of Folk in Wales, go to the bottom of this page.

phil tanner stickTHE OLD SINGER OF GOWER

PHIL Tanner, one of the finest of Britain's folk-singers, is spending his last days in obscurity in an Eventide Home in South Wales. Not enough of his songs are written down, or the music recorded.

Phil Tanner is 87. For well over half a century he has sung tradition songs and ballads learned fom his father and grandfather in his native Gower, the lovely peninsula that juts out between Swansea and Llanelly. He has made a few records for a famous company, but they are no longer listed in the catalogues; and he has broadcast a little. That was years ago. He still sings with most of the skill and feeling his years have taught him. A natural artist, he does so for the extreme pleasure he gets from it; singing has been his long life's love. He now lives in the Eventide Home at Penmaen, overlooking the Bristol Channel. Only the old are there to hear as he sings, and they, in their age, do not always listen. He has no children to whom he can pass on his songs. The rest of the jiving, be-boping, brass banded world goes by.

Tanner's family were weavers who owned and worked two mills in the village of Llangennith. Phi, the youngest of six sons, began work in them when he was still small enough to need a box to stand on before he could reach the looms. But when the time came for him to choose on the kind of job he wanted, he chose to be a farm labourer.

All his brothers were singers, but Phil rapidly gained the greatest reputation. In him were embodied, somehow, the abilities of the rest. Apart from the traditional songs, he easily committed to memory and more, to heart - the many verses of all the Victorian ballads as soon as they were heard anywhere in the locality. His name and fame in Gower grew with his repertoire, and for the next two generations no celebration within miles was complete without him cracking a song or six.

Llangennith was noted for its rough-and-ready inhabitants, who had the amenities of four public houses at hand where many of the hamlets about, even today, could not boast one. Its menfolk were willing to bet on practically anything quoits, cock-fighting, raindrops running down a window. Phil would 'sing down' all comers. He would give song for any opponent's song, and when he had won, as he invariably did, he would throw in five more, or ten, or a dozen more, depending on his mood, so that he drew right out in front. Then, with Robert Herrick, he could have said:

I sing of Brooks, of Blossoms, Birds and Bowers;
Of April, May, of June, and July Flowers.
I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes,
Of Bridegrooms, Brides, and of their Bridal Cakes.

Indeed, one of the occasions on which Phil was surer than usual to give singing all he knew was at the 'Bidding Wedding'. A Bidder would visit all the cottages about the place where the marriage was to be, and would repeat his Bidding Rhyme of invitation. The rhyme explains itself best and and shows the kind of opportunity it gave Phil Tanner to sing. Here is part of the version Phil himself used: "There will be a fiddle in attendance, for there'll be plenty of music there, and dancing if you'll come and dance. There'll be fiddlers, fifers, drummers and the devil don't know what beside. I don't know what. There'll be plenty of drinkables there, so they tell me, but that I haven't tasted. And if you'll come to the wedding I'll do all that lies in my power to get you a sweetheart apiece if I don't get drunk. But the brides is wishful you should come or send."

Phil learned many of his tunes from one of the old fiddlers, and, as that quick-fingered clan grew thinner, very often accompanied the dancing with his voice, the voice that danced itself and which even now has the same sure energy, the same spell-spinning, infectious quality.

He settles back in his chair, his stick between his knees. He raises his chin, fixes his eyes on some distant point, chooses his key carefully, half aloud, half to himself, bringing forward the first line of his song from the hundreds in his brain. Then suddenly, after this search, which has taken only seconds, he strikes at his first word. Though he is toothless, his articulation is perfect; the tune is the vehicle for the story to be told. Unself-conscious, confident, seemingly artless, with delicate transitions from sorrow to pity, to tenderness, to laughter, he moves through the tale with a guile that demands the attention of those around, his hands dramatising phrases, his foot tapping time. When he has younger listeners to whom he can sing, the few who visit him, members of the Gower Society or entertainers wSo come to give concerts at the Home, he will go on for an hour. But normally it is only the old who are there to hear him, and one cannot always make demands on the old. They are not always interested in The Banks Of The Sweet Dundee, Young Henry Martin, Fair Phoebe and the Dark-Eyed Sailor.

Phil Tanner is a piece of walking social history, a man who holds a culture that is rapidly disappearing from our life. Not out of patronage, but out of 'pure self love' or for our pleasure, he should be given a home of his own and a housekeeper. Tanner is mentally young, but in the Eventide Home, where he has already spent nearly eight years, neither the memory nor the man can last for ever. His records should be reissued, other songs of his taken down. The Gower Society should agitate to those ends, and bustle the newly-formed Society of the Friends of Wales to get to work. Phil Tanner, as I said, is 87.

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The Doug Fraser article on Phil Tanner

The Roy Harris article on Phil Tanner

Phil Tanner's known repertoire


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Page last updated 08 March 2010

Copyright 1999 Mari Arts