Sweeney Todd, The Barber

I learned this from a Folkways album of London pub and music hall songs recorded in 1962 by a young Englishman named Derek Lamb, but don’t recall performing it until I found myself playing in a mock English pub called the Horse Brass in Portland, Oregon. They had bangers and mash, lukewarm beer, and even a London telephone booth in one corner, so this seemed like the right piece of material. It turned out to be the perfect barroom sing-along, guaranteed to engage the noisiest room, and I made it a staple of my repertoire through the early 1980s, eventually recording it on my deservedly rare LP.

Recitations like this were once as popular as songs with both barroom amateurs and stage professionals — American counterparts would include comic gems like Bert Williams’s “Somebody Else, Not Me.” The Sweeney Todd story had already been fodder for plays, Victorian penny dreadfuls and  silent films before being immortalized in this manner by R.P. Weston and Bert Lee, who apparently composed some three thousand songs during their twenty-year career. (I’ve done the math and am dubious, but The British Music Hall: An Illustrated History reports that they had a strict daily writing routine, and I guess it’s possible.) Several of their creations were made famous by the wonderful Stanley Holloway, including “My Word, You Do Look Queer,” “Brahn Boots,” and “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm.” Holloway likewise premiered this one, performing it in a 1935 film called Play Up the Band and recording it in 1956 — though I know him best for recitations, he does “Sweeney Todd” as a song rather than a recitation, except for the extended third verse.

There are plenty of internet sites with information on the  Sweeney Todd legend and associated urban folklore, so I’ll just note here that in Martin Chuzzlewit Charles Dickens suggests both the ubiquity and the dubiousness of the story when he describes a lad adrift in London as fortunate that his evil genius “did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis; nor did it mark him out as the prey of ring-droppers, pea and thimble-riggers, duffers, touters, or any of those bloodless sharpers, who are, perhaps, a little better known to the Police…”

It may be worth mentioning what barbers mostly did in those days, since the word is now rarely used in its original sense. It comes from the French barbe, or beard, and the most frequent reason to see a barber used to be for one’s morning shave. When I was in New Delhi circa 1980 there were still men who set up in the park or would come around to the cheap hotels and shave customers for a small fee, using a straight razor stropped on a leather strap every few strokes, and barber shops served lines of gentlemen every morning, with the added luxury of hot towels to finish. I only indulged occasionally, but must say it was a pleasure — though I had to get used to the sensation of someone stroking my throat with a long, sharp blade. (For further mentions of straight razors, check out another bloodthirsty classic, the Bahamian “Jones, Oh Jones.”)

And finally, I must append this photo, done for a presentation of British ballads that I was roped into by a local professor, David Ingle, who came regularly to a semi-open-song-night I hosted at the Bookcellar Cafe in Porter Square, Cambridge, for a year or two in the 1990s, and thrilled me by bringing Derek Lamb, who lived just a few blocks away. A lovely man, Derek had gone on to a highly successful career as a director and producer of animated films and documentaries in Canada and the U.S. (winning an Oscar and producing cartoons for Sesame Street, among  other things) and he came down to the Bookcellar a few times, still sounding much as he had in the 1960s.