In 1950, the BBC began to record systematically the traditional music of the British Isles for their sound archives. One of the many gifted singers they tracked down in that period was Mrs. Cecilia Costello. In the course of two visits, in 1951 and 1954, Marie Slocombe, then head of the BBC Recorded Programmes Library, recorded 13 songs from her, and an LP was compiled from those recordings, together with extracts from interviews with Mrs Costello recorded by Charles Parker in 1967, and issued on the Leader label in 1975.
The tracks on the LP (Leader LEE 4054) were
The cruel Mother/I wish, I wish/There was a Squire in Edinboro' lived/The Wexford Murder/The handsome Cabin Boy/My Johnny/The Frog and the Mouse/Betsy of Ballantown Brae/The Jew's Garden/I am a Maid that is deep in Love/Wedding Song/Shule agra/The Lover's Ghost
Mrs. Costello was bom in 1883, the daughter of Irish parents living in England, and spent most of her life in Birmingham. She came to the notice of folk-song scholars in 1951 during the BBC programme of recording traditional music of the British Isles. Marie Slocombe and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw recorded her, later presenting transcriptions of seven of her songs, with a brief commentary, in the December 1953 number of the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Her repertory was there described, ambiguously, by Miss Slocombe as comprising "thirteen songs and fragments"; Later visits by Charles Parker, Pam Bishop, Jon Raven and not least Roy Palmer produced further material, amounting to a repertoire of seventeen songs.
However it was never the extent of the repertory so much as its content which excited attention: a number of fine modal melodies, some good, full texts, and four Child ballads (nos. 20, 155, 221, 248), three of them in good condition textually, the greatest find of all no. 248 The Lover's Ghost, otherwise The Grey Cock, to use the title by which it is best known since the publication of nine of its ten stanzas in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. This superb version of a rare ballad took the eye not only for Its artistic merits, but also because it seemed an unlikely song to turn up in, of all places, Birmingham.
Yet was this really so strange? As Tony Green commented at the time: 'Many Of Mrs. Costello's songs spring from that classic Anglo-Irish repertory which came into England first with the "July barbers", the itinerant harvest-workers who came over from Ireland especially from about 1825 onwards, and thereafter with the settled migrants of the mid-century, who gravitated to the cities because that was where the work was'. He analysed her repertoire: 'To listen to that warm Brummie voice in the excerpts from Charles Parker's interviews with which her songs have been intelligently supported here, you wouldn't dream that this old lady was only a generation away from rural Ireland. But when she begins to sing, the picture changes. Shule Agra, Betsy of Ballantown Brae and The Wexford Murder speak for themselves. Less obviously, My Johnny otherwise appears only in the Sam Henry collection; I am a Maid that's deep in Love has been recorded only in Belfast (not counting N. America); and There was a Squire in Edinboro' lived shows up in Co. Leitrim, and elsewhere only in Ontario and Newfoundland, both areas of concentrated Irish settlement. As for The Lover's Ghost, of five British sound-recordings, apart from Mrs. Costello's, four came from Ulster'.
Mrs Costello's singing style was not notably Irish. Like many singers, while the repertoire is Irish, she acquired the local musical dialect as well as the local linguistic dialect. As Edward Thompson has observed, what is surprising about the Irish migrations of the last century is not how much tension they created but how little. Parts of the immigrants' lrish culture - and especially gaelic culture - seem to have disappeared very quickly. All that remained were their religion (and it Is not insignificant, perhaps, that today the Catholic church in England still cannot staff its parishes with English-born priests, but must import the sons of rural Ireland, as It has done for more than a hundred years)., and their English-language ballads.
Two years after the record first appeared in 1975. Leader/Transatlantic decided to delete the LP from their catalogue, a strange decision given that records of this sort will only sell in relatively small quantities over a long period and any profit to be made will take time to materialise.
Cecilia Costello died in April 1976.