by Mike Yates
This article in our series of portraits of singers and musicians from East Anglia is contributed by the prolific song-collector and former editor of the Folk Music Journal, Mike Yates. Mike recorded many of the singers who were featured on the historic LPs issued on the Topic label during the 70s and 80s and in later years founded his own recording label, Kyloe, which is now part of the Veteran stable. Singer Phoebe Smith lived in Suffolk most of her life, although she was born in Kent.
Phoebe Smith and her husband Joe were two of the nicest people that I ever met, and Phoebe was one of the most magnificent singers that I have ever heard. She sang in a slow and dignified manner, dwelling on certain notes, letting each song’s story unfold without haste. I think that the only other female singer to rival her was the Scottish Traveller, Jeannie Robertson. Certainly, Phoebe was in a class of her own when it came to English singers.
Phoebe had been born in 1913 in Faversham, Kent, and was one of the daughters of Bill Scamp and his wife Ann Jones. She was raised in a large Gypsy family and spent much of her early life picking fruit in Kent. Having married Joe, a scrap
dealer, she moved around Kent and Essex before setting in Woodbridge, Suffolk. Phoebe learnt many of her songs as a young girl from her elder sisters. Her uncle, Oliver Scamp, a Kentish horse-dealer, was also an important source of songs. Joe Smith played the fiddle and Phoebe loved to step-dance to her husband’s music. Speaking about her songs, Phoebe once said, ‘You can imagineâ€¦I canâ€¦as well as
feeling for themâ€¦things that happenedâ€¦what they did. I can picture them, you know, in the sorrow parts as well as the happiness. They’re human.’ In the early 1950s the BBC recorded some songs from one of Phoebe’s brothers, Charlie Scamp. Charlie mentioned Phoebe’s name and that’s how she came to the attention of the ‘outside’ world.
My happiest memories of Phoebe and Joe were when we were recording some of the songs that had not been previously collected from them. At times we would have to stop, so that the noise of passing military aircraft could fade away. But, during pauses, Phoebe would be delving into her memory and would, inevitably, come up with some new gem or other. One such was the fragment of the song about a highwayman that was called Young Morgan, a song that several revival singers now include in their repertoires. Like many English Gypsies, she knew a number of Irish songs as well as some Music Hall songs that referred to the Gypsies in a rather romantic kind of way – I was Born in an Old Gypsy’s Wagon was one such piece.
Unlike some other singers, there were no ‘airs and graces’ with Phoebe. She loved to sing and would always make time to entertain visitors with a song or two. Her passing, in 2001, was one of the great blows to English traditional music. She left behind a large family of seven sons, thirty grandchildren, fifty-four great grandchildren and twenty great, great grand-children. I wonder if any of them continue to sing Phoebe’s songs?
Photo: Mike Yates