Tuesday, 31 January 2017

90 Phil Tanner, Gower's folk singer

90 Phil Tanner, Gower's folk singer
In those pre-television days before the last war, no social function in peninsular Gower was complete
without the input of Phil Tanner, the traditional folk singer whom broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas
called “The Gower Nightingale”.he youngest of six sons and one daughter, Phil Tanner was born in 1862 to a family of weavers in Hillend.  At that time Llangennith (or Llangenny as it was known locally) had about 400 inhabitants, most engaged in weaving, spinning or agricultural work, for much of peninsular Gower was self-contained through the paucity of good roads.  Phil worked at various times as a weaver and as a farm labourer, but is best known as the folk singer of Gower, for with a prodigious memory he acquired a wide range of folk songs from travellers, gypsies and from oral tradition.  He became integral to celebrations of Harvest Home, the Mapsant (St Cennydd’s Day on 5th July), Wassailing at Christmas time, and the old custom of “bidding weddings”, where with a flower in his coat and a ribbon-decorated walking stick he would sing a formal invitation to those invited.  If there was no fiddler or musician at the celebrations, he would accompany the Gower Reel and other dances with his “mouth music”. 
One of Llangennith’s four public houses was the thatched Welcome to Town on the village green.  
In 1887, 25-year-old Phil married its 46-year-old widowed landlady Mrs Ruth Nicholas at Ebenezer chapel in Oldwalls.  Although twenty acres of arable land near Coety Green had been farmed by Ruth’s late husband, Thomas Penrice of Kilvrough Manor declined to transfer the yearly tenancy to Phil: he challenged that decision before the Royal Commission of Land in Wales and Monmouthshire.  At the hearing at the King Arthur in Reynoldston in 1893 Phil expressed his case eloquently, but in spite of sympathy for his aspiration to become a tenant farmer, his appeal was in vain.
Living at the Welcome to Town enabled him to accumulate more folk songs, though the licence passed
to his step-daughter in 1898, and the Welcome itself closed seven years later.  The Tanners moved to the grist mill at Lower Mill, and after Ruth’s death in 1921 Phil settled in Barraston, a mile south of Llangennith.
Between the wars he was a familiar sight seated on a bench outside the King’s Head, dressed in 
homespun tweed, with his dog at his side, singing from memory from a repertoire of over eighty folk songs and ballads.  For a pint of beer he was always happy to oblige with a request for a song.
In 1932 he turned up at a holiday camp run locally for unemployed workers and their families from
the South Wales valleys.  Folk musician F.A. Bracey was among the party of students running
 the camp and, after an evening sing-song Phil virtually took over the entertainment for each evening; this prompted Bracey to have Phil’s folk singing recorded. 
When Phil was over 70 he was taken to London in 1937 to be recorded for the Folk Song Society, and for 
the BBC’s Saturday evening Radio programme “In Town Tonight”.  As the taxi was driving past Buckingham Palace, Phil made it stop so that he could get out and sing the National Anthem before the gates!
In 1941 he moved from Barraston into Glan-y-Mor Nursing Home in Penmaen, but this did not curtail his singing.  Eight years later an article by John Ormond Thomas in “Picture Post” magazine entitled “The Old Singer of Gower” prompted the BBC to visit him to record the octogenarian folk singer - though Phil’s repertoire surpassed the number of blank discs they had brought down.                                                      
Phil Tanner regularly attended St Cennydd’s Church, without ever joining the choir, and after he died 
aged 88 in 1950 he was buried in the churchyard: but those recordings (available on DVD) mean that the voice of Gower’s folk singer lives on.  


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