Cyril Phillips was a man with a moderately good singing voice, amazing memory and a gift to entertain. For a time, we don't know how long he lived in Cuckfield. He was in much demand in the 50s - 60s at local village events and pubs. Someone said of him - if there wasn’t a function to sing at - he would find a local pub and soon have the customers laughing, singing choruses and responding to everything he said.
Cyril was born on 5 November 1911 in Dorset. While he was still a small boy his father moved their entire farm by train to Firle, near Lewes in East Sussex. At the age of 14 he left school to help his dad on the farm.
When he was 16 he had his first car and was already driving. As he visited the villages and farms in Sussex in the course of his work he built up a huge repertoire of Sussex and other folk songs. Between the wars and after, his voice would be echo from the walls in village smoking concerts, harvest suppers and village locals.
As folk historian recalled ‘he wasn’t a great singer or musician, but he did gave much pleasure to his audience with his unbridled zeal’. Cyril was best known for his singing and entertaining but he also played a guitar and a melodeon. He became known for his set piece ‘Farmer Giles’ which involved wearing a smock and bringing along a prop of a portable folding five-bar gate.
Reg Hall, folk sing musician and historian, found that if one musician was invited to a local event it made sense to get a gang of them together. Someone would say: ‘There’s a harvest supper at so-and-so, do you fancy coming along?’ This was reciprocated by the others - so if George (Belton) or Cyril would get asked to do things they’d include me. This was when Cyril was living at Cuckfield.
Singing was much more a part of life back in the 50s than it is today - television was virtually non-existant and radio was mostly pompous, it was dance music or classical and not to everyone's taste. But singing had been long accepted as a form of entertainment dating back to Victorian and Edwardian times and the music halls. In an interview Bob Lewis recalled:
We mostly made our own entertainment. The idea that we spent the winter evenings sitting around singing isn’t true. But singing was as natural to me in our house as breathing. The idea that there were such things as folk songs never really occurred to me. We just didn’t relate to the term ‘folk songs’ - words that were cast in tablets of stone. My only association with that idea at all was when we were at school; we had a headmaster keen on a more formal approach. Music lessons involved singing Cecil Sharp folk songs. So to us ‘Folk songs’ were something you did at school.
As the photographs bear out, in later life Cyril was a portly man and, on one occasion, before his 'turn’ he pretended to forage around in a large empty corn sack. This seemed to catch the audience's attention. And when he stood up he extracted a pair of long johns from the sack, and as Bob Lewis recalled:
‘Well, if I tell you this pair would have fitted The Long Man of Wilmington! And then the spiel came - in a heavy Sussex / Dorset accent, ‘A chap left these on my doorstep - the other day - with a note saying that he thought they might do me a turn!’ The audience was in stitches and then he launched into his act …
On another occasion, Lewis related: I was wearing a farmer's smock and Cyril had his on and we were sat at this table high up in Highbrook Village Hall [near Ardingly]. I thought, ‘You cunning old sod!’
We were eating supper, and it was a good old spread, with about 23 different varieties of home-made wine on offer. I think Cyril had a go at all of them!
He sat there and he’d got these old cords on tied up around the knees with ‘yorks’ and he’d got these old hobnail boots on with bright red socks, but one of these boots had the toe exposed, the soles and uppers had parted company.
He was sitting up there with his legs crossed and this red toe poking out and wriggling about (I knew exactly what he was up to!), he’d got the room mesmerised watching the toe poking out of his boot. He was a past master at this sort of thing.
But Cyril had a troubling issue - he suffered from a form of mood disorder - swinging from a performance high to depressive low. Not an uncommon thing with performers - and is perhaps better recognised today. You will know the names of these bipolar performers: Maria Carey, Stephen Fry, Spike Milligan, Bill Oddie and Catherine Zeta-Jones. In those days they referred to Cyril as being 'highly strung'.
He was popular at folk revivals and visited many clubs and festivals. He often chauffeured other singers to events. Fellow musicians Scan Tester, George Spicer and George Belton all told hair-raising stories of his style of driving.
Cyril retired from his farm at Firle and for a while, we don't know how long, lived in Cuckfield, and this is certainly would have been by the late 50s. After his wife's death he roamed the world, principally Australia, the US and Canada, sending back hilarious letters of his latest escapades. The younger Jack Norris relates that he was able to work his passage to Australia on board ship by singing to the other passengers, and then get paid again by entertaining people on trips adventuring into the outback.
On a reader's feedback posting on the Music Traditions website we learn that Bob Rummery was Cyril's host 'down under'. 'Cyril stayed with my family on several of his trips to Australia and on his last trip I cannibalised a Höhner 2 row to get his melodeon working again.'
He was a great storyteller too - with traditional tales mixed with personal reminiscences which he had gathered at home and abroad during his life and travels.
In later life, Clive Bennett recalls in a biography, 'he suffered from increasing deafness, which could result in playing one key whilst singing in another, and was also handicapped in his playing by arthritis in his hands…' He died in 1990, remembered not just for his songs but also for his friendship and generosity - and, of course, his driving.
Here is one of Cyril's comedy routines with a word caution do not download if you are likely to be offended by bawdy pub humour. This is not PC, but not X rated either - snowflakes please avoid altogether: Going up to London from the Keith Summers English Folk Music Collection.
A monologue 'The Legend of the Long Man [of Wilmington]' Spring 1975, this is a pdf.
Just a few songs from his extensive repertoire:
A Farmer's Boy
Click go the Shears
Down on my Farm
Joe the Carrier Lad
Miner's Dream of Home
She's Proud and She's Beautiful
The Blue Tailed Fly
The Dying Stockman
The Rest of the Day is your Own
Further Cyril Phillips recordings Cyril Phillips recordings Sussex Traditions
Plenty more about Cyril on the Sussex Traditions website about Cyril.
Cyril Phillip's obituary by Vic Smith on SussexTraditions' website.
'Just another Saturday Night' about a CD of traditional songs made by local artists in 1960 on mustrad.org.uk - 'The online magazine for traditional music throughout the world'
Bob Lewis interview by Vic Lewis in 2003 on the Music Traditions' website.
Biography of Cyril by Clive Bennett.
Cyril Phillips' publicity photograph Vic Smith (top) from 'Just another Saturday Night'
Cyril Phillips and Bob at the South of England Show at Ardingly, 1979 from the Music Traditions' website.
Group shot: (l to r) Bob Blake, George Belton, Cyril Phillips, George Spicer and Bob Copper - (Photo taken by Vic Smith and colourised by the author). Location unknown, taken c1960. from 'Just another Saturday Night'
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.