The tenor, Wilfred Brown, will, for many listeners, have a still unassailable position as an interpreter of Gerald Finzi’s songs, in particular Dies Natalis. Many consider his recording of this work, in 1963 under the direction of the composer’s son Christopher, to be the finest. By that stage Wilfred Brown had already come to be revered by many singers and conductors as more than an outstanding Evangelist in the Passions of J.S. Bach; he was indeed considered by many specialists as ‘non pareil’ in this role. A talented linguist before he became a professional musician, Wilfred was a singer who believed it essential to articulate text with the clarity of full understanding. He was a man of spirituality, a quality which suffused his performances and recordings of oratorio especially.

What many may not know is that Wilfred also wrote several witty, and beautifully crafted contemporary or topical folksongs and ballads, with which he would often end his recitals. This side to his performing personality would have been a surprise even to many of his close colleagues who had never heard his recitals. Soprano April Cantelo, with whom Wilfred sang and recorded in The Deller Consort from 1953 until 1961, confirmed that he was not one who engaged in the usual banter between singers on tour, although he was always lovely to talk to. He was the one to whom all knew they could turn if there was anything significant or serious to discuss. While never aloof, this reserve, which other singers such as Dame Janet Baker also noted in him, derived not from a lack of humour but in essence from the fact that Wilfred was a perfectionist. The detachment which marked his approach to an engagement was part of his focus towards the creation of the perfect performance, a preoccupation which his wife Mollie knew obsessed him.

If to members of the Deller Consort there was so often an air of detachment in Wilfred’s demeanour, this was utterly understandable in the context of touring, since he was, together with Maurice Bevan, an honorary travel agent of the Deller Consort. In this capacity, it was Wilfred’s task to ensure that the ensemble reached their venue at the right time. This distinct responsibility must have kept him engaged in thinking ahead, wondering if connections would be made, and whether the accommodation would indeed be satisfactory and available as booked. He must have spent much time worrying whether he had remembered to complete the myriad tasks needed in arranging travel and accommodation in an era, the 1950s, when the frequency and the abundance of air travel was much less extensive, even if available.

Others, such as Robert Wardell, who with his friend John Carol Case accompanied Wilfrid to many engagements in England, enjoyed many fascinating discussions during such journeys. He explains Wilfred’s detachment as follows: “He seemed perpetually serious, and even his smiles were “serious smiles” if that makes sense. I suppose if you rationalise it most jokes have a victim, and Bill could never be unkind in thought or deed.” The seriousness to which Robert Wardell refers flowed in large part from Wilfred’s respect for his fellows, which in essence vitiated any cheap humour that would find its mark at the expense of others; this was a concept completely alien to him.

If Wilfred’s way of looking at the world was based upon a regard for the validity and worth of others which simply did not admit such unkindness, it did not at all impede his fascination with the absurdities of circumstance which the world at large presented. Indeed his sense of humour was suffused with delight in the ridiculous and the bizarre. The love of the surreal had perhaps developed in him especially during the exigency of war-time, Blitz-torn London. This was a time when many, not just professional comics such as Spike Milligan, must have found humour a natural antidote. Wilfred was no exception, as the Reverend W.D. Kennedy Bell, later Director of Religious Programming for The World Service confirmed in a tribute to Wilfred on Radio Three in 1972. He talked of Wilfred’s humour in the following terms: “His self-confessed ‘overdeveloped sense of the ridiculous’ was quick to seize on the fantastic or absurd story in the newspaper and turn it into a highly amusing ballad.” As an example of his love of the ridiculous, there is a delightful story of a colleague and Wilfred, both young Friends’ Relief Service workers, picking over a bombed house for items to salvage. They came across a badly damaged piano on the first floor. Having tried unsuccessfully to play it they pushed it out of the first-floor window “to see if it sounded better when it hit the ground”!

Later, Wilfred proved to be a writer of compelling and often trenchant short talks for the Religious Affairs department at the BBC. At the same time, the brilliant wit which in part derived from his linguistic background found expression in his recitals. Wilfred had been highly regarded as a Classicist at school, but had studied German and French at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1949. The wonderful ease of Wilfred’s way with words provided a formidable tool with which to inform his presentation of many ludicrous snippets of news with glorious hilarity in his recital programmes of the 1950s and 60s. Many of these songs have survived in long-hand drafts, several with origin and date, from which Wilfred would have sung. Each would form a concluding recital item, invariably as an un-programmed encore. All were set to the rhythms of well-known folk-tunes or ballads, the originals of which Wilfred might even have performed earlier. Anonymous folk-songs were all composed by someone, Wilfred once told a student, but in performance he could deliberately omit that these examples were actually by him! There are many one could adduce here. They cover a vast collection of subjects, frequently intensely topical, such as the progress of a current cricket Test match series. Some are timeless re-workings of moments of hubris in the never-ending vastness of human fallibility.

This calypso-like example describes the tension of the current Test series in June 1963 and shares the nation’s adulation of fast-bowler Freddy Trueman:

Freddy’s Revenge

Come all you sporting fellows that love the bat and ball,
And listen to the story I tell to one and all
Concerning of those famous games in nineteen-sixty-three:
West Indies versus Eng-er-land . – Ah Fred’s the man for me.

At Lord’s the second test-match had every sort of thrill:
You never saw a finer game, no more you never will.
But weep for Cowdrey’s forearm, consigned with many a tear
To a place in British history next door to Jenkin’s Ear.

Ted Dexter – he’s our captain – he put Fred on to bowl.
Hunte faced him from the Nursery End. But horrors, bless my soul!
He smote Fred for a boundary; not one, nor two, but three…
Thirteen off that first over…..Is Fred the boy for me?

Those runs made all the difference, but, dusky foes, be warned
That hell it hath no fury quite like a Trueman scorned.
He took a load of wickets, and we drew the game. But see
He’s still to get his own back. – Yes, Fred’s the boy for me.

Fair stood the wind for Edgbaston, and time to start again.
We watched a little cricket and bucketfulls of rain.
The soggy midland wicket robbed many of their luck,
For no-one scored a century and three men made a duck.

The BBC excelled itself: alert, precise and fair,
And streams of Arlott’s rhetoric came rolling through the air.
For Butcher’s strokes were wristy, Ted drove imperiously,
And Wesley Hall danced every ball. – But Fred’s the boy for me.

On the fifth day at 12.40 our good Lord Ted declared.
Now Frank (says he) ‘tis your turn. Fred’s bowling. Don’t be scared.
Just score a run a minute, stay in till after tea.
But Fred’s all set, I’m warning you. – ‘Tis Fred’s the boy for me.

Two early wickets tumbled and panic seized the chaps.
By 3 p.m. Fred organised a Caribbean collapse.
His afternoon’s analysis read seven for forty-four.
Hip, hip, hooray! And Happy day! Could England ask for more?

God bless you Freddy Trueman; your honour’s satisfied,
You’ve proved you’re indispensable to any English side.
We’re level in the series and bound for Headingley.
So take the ball and bowl ‘em all. And on to victory!

[Alternative last half line: You ARE the boy for me!]

Alongside this paean of praise for a heroic sportsman can be found the delectable account of the hubris faced by judges handing out a sentence to a burglar, while something amiss was happening in their vestibule:

The Ones That Got Away

Mr Justice Milmo, Mr Justice Blain
Being High Court judges, this I should explain –
Enter gaily The Old Bailey on Ascension Day
To the Queen’s Division wend their solemn way.

But while they’re dispensing dire judicial doom
There’s a prowler prowling round their robing room
Oh so cheeky, oh so sneaky, sniffing out the loot
Bold intruding robber frisks each classy suit.

Mr Justice Milmo, Mr Justice Blain
Now you’ve lost your wallets, cash and watch and chain
Mr Milmo soon you will go for your Horsham train
“Lost your season ticket? You must pay again!”

Naughty mister robber this you’ll do no more
New locks have been fitted to the judges’ door.
God helps those that help themselves, so when your case falls due,
If you land Blain or Milmo, then (brother) God help you!

Wilfred’s facility with words makes a tantalising ambiguity out of the proverb ‘God helps those that help themselves.’ Delightfully understated, the moment of irony is delicious, as is his mock seriousness at the robbers’ future fate should they come before the same judges again.

The tale of three intrepid camping girls was another piece of verse written in response to a small snippet of news. Having set off on a camping holiday from the concrete factory where they worked, the girls arrived at their first-night accommodation, relieved at last to divest themselves of the heavy load under which they been struggling all day;

Excess Baggage

(Tune: Kingsfold)

Come all ye bold hitch-hikers and listen if you please:
This is the tale of Sheila and Janet and Denise.
They work in a concrete factory in Widnes, Lancashire ,
They said: “It’s coming Easter; let’s go to Windermere”.

“We’ll go to work on Thursday; then, when we’ve done our shift,
We’ll set out from the factory and thumb the nearest lift.
Wi’ any luck, by nightfall we’ll reach the camping-site;
We’ll need our tents and bedrolls, so keep your luggage light.”

They went to work on Thursday complete with all their gear.
They stowed it in the office where none could interfere.
But someone knows the secret. A lowdown chance he sees
To make life hard for Sheila and Janet and Denise.

The whistle blew for freedom. They grabbed their bulky packs,
And off towards the motorway they made determined tracks.
But in between the hitches – for girls get lifts with ease –
There’s something worries Sheila and Janet and Denise.

“My back is nearly breaking”, says Sheila tearfully.
“I thought the same”, says Janet, “Me too”, adds little D.
They stagger into Windermere, worn out and on their knees,
Then straight to sleep fall Sheila and Janet and Denise.

So on Good Friday morning they waken bleary-eyed.
“Why are those packs so heavy? Let’s take a look inside.
And soon they solve the mystery. – Wrapped round with shirts and socks,
Each finds, to her astonishment, three six-pound concrete blocks.

The bloke who put them in there must mind his Qs and Ps,
“We’re out for blood”, says Sheila and Janet and Denise.
“For there’s no finer exercise for biceps, we dare say,
Than humping chunks of concrete along the Queen’s highway”.

Fittingly, although Wilfred leaves the story at the point of discovery, he sets up the most delectable prospect of the girls, now much stronger of muscle, planning how to get equal with their tormentor!

Then there was the hilarious story of the mis-spelt white line instruction! Local to his home in Petersfield, the protagonists would possibly have been known to members of the audience in his recitals there. It must have given Wilfred much delight to be able to describe the moment of hubris in this story of the irascible, domineering foreman. Wilfred abhorred pretension, airs and graces in all people, and especially among his fellow musicians and artists. Yet he ends his account of this event not with glee at the humiliation experienced by the wretched foreman, but with an expression of generosity. That was the mark of a man for whom slap-stick humour was too cheap. Wilfred was compassionate to a fault.

(Tune: The Garden Where the Praties Grow)

Ye citizens of Petersfield, I’ll ask you to give ear
You’ve noticed how from time to time new traffic signs appear.
But have you ever thought about the chaps that paint the signs
Or spend their lives a-painting all those white and yellow lines?

Then bow your heads in gratitude and thank the powers above
For all the selfless gentry who toil with skill and love –
The clerk and the Surveyor and the Treasurer and me
And all the other mooshes in the U.D.C…

There was me and Nosey Parker and Ged and Joe McGrew.
Old Nosey, as the foreman, told us what we had to do.
“Today we’ve got some lettering, we’re going to paint the SLOW
Where the small road joins the big one by the G.P.O.”

The staff was soon assembled, and we set off for The Square.
We set up boards with “Men at Work” and “No thoroughfare”,
And Nosey went on hands and knees in attitude devout,
And solemnly produced the chalk and said, “I’ll sketch it out”.

Now Nosey was no scholar, and though it sounds absurd,
He seemed uncertain how to spell this four-letter word!
And when he’d finished scrawling we observed with shame and woe,
He’s gone and spelt it S, then L , then W, then O.

We wondered, should we paint it out? But knew it wasn’t wise,
He used to lose his temper if we dared to criticize.
I winked at Ged, Ged winked at me and we both of us winked at Joe.
When Nosey ordered: “Paint her in”, we said “Right Ho”.

He went and got his hair cut while we did the whiting-in.
We really did a lovely job, and then ‘twas time for din.
Then all you worthy burghers came crowding all around.
And in the council offices the ‘phones began to sound.

“You rotten lot”, says Nosey. “I think you might have said”.
But Nosey – you’re the foreman. We thought you might see red.
Then, everybody makes mistakes. But now you’ve seen the light,
We’ll go and turn the letters round and set the matter right.”

So bow your heads in gratitude and thank the powers above
For all the selfless gentry who toil with skill and love –
The clerk and the Surveyor and the Treasurer and me
And all the other mooshes in the U.D.C…

These moments of delight in the absurd, or in the triumph of just deserts, hardly carry with them a sense of ‘Schadenfreude’ or even the passing of judgement on his fellows. There was no sense in which Wilfred ever appears to have been ‘holier than thou’. Nor was he in any sense a prude, as is evinced by his delightful ‘Folksong’ lamenting the ban on mini-skirts imposed at a famous Oxford College. The reader notes with some amazement the aplomb with which Wilfred slips in the profoundly erudite synonym for calf, namely ‘gastrocnemius’; perfectly apposite of course to a topic exemplifying the collision of the world of modernity with the groves of high academia.

Save Our Skirts

[Tune: Traditional Scandinavian]

Miss Janet Vaughan, D.B.E.,
– the Head of Somerville is she –
Last summer passed the stern decree,
Ah me, alas, alack…..
That ladies sitting their exams
Should not wear clothes that showed their hams;
It might distract the men (poor lambs!)
To see a mini-skirt.

Parisian haut-couturiers
Now say the skirt has had its day,
Just when we thought ‘twas here to stay.
Ah me, alas, alack….
But I know some who will refuse
To countenance such dismal news;
Some men take quite decided views
Upon the mini-skirt

Now what young ladies choose to wear
-which bits to hide, which bits to bare –
Is strictly speaking their affair.
Ah me, alas, alack…..
A shapely gastrocnemius
On tube-train, bicycle or bus
Is really no concern of us.
-What is a mini-skirt?!

So if you care how girls are dressed,
It may be in your interest
To raise your voices and protest
Ah me, alas, alack….
Dear Mr Michael Stewart, please
Extend your wage-and-prices freeze
To fix the height of ladies’ knees
And save the mini-skirt.

Once again we have a gloriously farcical conclusion, typical of Wilfred’s delight in the absurd. He not only implores the then Secretary of State for Education, with mock seriousness, to resolve matters of fashion in universities, but, wonderfully and impossibly, to legislate even further. Wilfred well understood the issues, and the song takes evident delight in the beauty of the youthful female form, but his own way of looking at the world is perfectly shown: with great good sense he indicates that sartorial matters are of no importance, but issues of freedom and equality most certainly are.

One of the most poignant of these compositions is the ‘Folksong’ entitled When I was Young and in my Prime. It is undated, but was undoubtedly composed towards the end of Wilfred’s life when he knew his days were numbered. It concludes with a re-working of part of his will, which he recounts in a moment of bathos as a spoof moment of triumph; a perfect lightening of touch. The verse starts by recounting the moments of magic as a young man in the full flowering of love. Yet to continue this otherwise wonderful memory to its conclusion would have been mawkishly inappropriate for the conclusion of a recital, so the song changes tack, almost abruptly, to introduce a reference to a love-death, couched in delectable euphony, coupled to the thorny issue of what to do with the body, once dead!

When I was young and in my prime
With energy to spare
I’d bike a hundred miles a day
Provided she was there.

At night beneath her window
I’d whistle chunks of Brahms
Till she came tripping down the path
To land up in my arms.

Now I’m old and done for
My joints begin to creak
The girls are getting prettier
My hearing’s rather weak.

In days of song and legend
In one grave we’d have lain
So from the mouldering lap of love
A rose might spring again.

But burial’s outmoded
It clutters up the church
So I’ve signed away my torso
For medical research.

My eye I’ll give the eyebank
-I laughed to get the forms –
At least when I’m anatomised
I’ll cheat the wiggly worms!

Humour at the expense of self often shadowed his writing, but not in any falsely modest sense. Wilfred never over-stated his own significance, yet he understood well his own worth and what he could contribute.

Stephen Duncan Johnston

Cambridgeshire, January 2015