by Chris Foster
This contribution to our series of portraits of singers and musicians from East Anglia comes from Chris Foster, who lived in Suffolk in the 1970s. The singer Jumbo Brightwell was a big influence on Chris’s own music; Jumbo’s version of The False-Hearted Knight is featured on his Chris’s recent CD, ‘Jewels’.
Jumbo Brightwell was born in 1900, one of the generation of singers who were still around when I lived in east Suffolk in the late ’70s. By the time I moved there I was already aware of Jumbo’s LP ‘Songs from the Eel’s Foot’, so I was delighted to discover that he lived just down the road from me in Leiston. I can’t remember how we met, but somehow we got to know each other and I spent many happy hours chatting and drinking cups of tea down at his place.
Jumbo told me all sorts of stories about his earlier singing days, playing quoits and his working life. Compared to some of the larger than life characters who were around at the time, he was a quiet and reserved man, but he had twinkle in his eye and a good, dry sense of humour.
By the time I knew him Jumbo didn’t really get about singing any more, but he came out a few times and he was still a good singer with an interesting repertoire. He had a direct, unfussy way of delivering the text of the song. The story was the thing.
My best memory is the evening when, following a do for the WI in Theberton, he was persuaded to come for an impromptu drink and tune up at the Eel’s Foot. Jumbo, his brother Bob and father Velvet had held court at the Eel’s Foot in Eastbridge on Saturday nights for many years through the ’30’s and 40’s. Anyhow, sometime around 1950 there was apparently some kind of falling out with the landlord and Jumbo hadn’t been back since.
It was clearly a big step for Jumbo to go back there and I remember that among other songs, he sang his version of Jack Barleycorn, which he told me he had picked up from a chap from Essex who had come over on holiday. It was the only time I heard him sing it.
Like other songs I expressed an interest in, the words, written in his best copperplate hand writing on an old birthday card, arrived through my letterbox a few days later. In the end I got quite a little collection which is now with the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust for safe keeping.