I Can’t Find Brummagem | Folk from the Attic

In last week’s blog post (‘John Hobbs‘) I wrote a little about the life-and-death decisions that must be made around singing in your own regional accent. Any conclusions I came to leapt eagerly from the window with this week’s song: ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’. On the surface, it’s such a triffle that it’s hard not to ramp up the Brummie-ness, but as with many of these old songs, doing so feels a little like you’re taking from some of its undeniable dignity. Deliberations! Who’d be a folk singer?

Before anyone cries “cultural appropriation”, I ought to point out that I was born and raised in the West Midlands and that Birmingham was where my teenage friends and I came of age. It was our playground, so to speak, and from the age of 16 or 17 onwards we’d spend Friday nights roaming (roving, perhaps? this is a folk blog after all) the pubs around Aston and Digbeth, inevitably ending up at the legendary Snobs nightclub (situated back then on the corner of Paradise Street and Suffolk Street Queensway) where all young music fans of a certain sensibility would swarm once last orders were called.

Like many of those old friends, I left Birmingham for good when I was around 21 and only came back from time to time to see family. I moved abroad and ended up staying away from the city centre itself for a good 10 years or so, missing its regeneration entirely. When I recently took my children to visit their aunt in Moseley, we stepped off the train at New Street Station and I had almost no idea where I was. The vast changes left me completely disorientated, and for the first time in my life I could associate with that phrase we commonly here our parents and grandparents mutter: “I wouldn’t recognise the place now.”

It was on that same visit that I first heard a recording of ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (the Birmingham History Galleries are really superb), and I was caught immediately by the resonance between the first verse and my recent sense of dislocation:

Full twenty years and more are passed
Since I left Brummagem.
But I set out for home at last
To good old Brummagem.
But ev’ry place is altered so
Now there’s hardly a place I know
Which fills my heart with grief and woe
For I can’t find Brummagem.

It lingered in my head for a good couple of years afterwards, and, in recent months, really started nagging me to find out more. I became quite determined to discover as much as I could about Birmingham – or Brummagem – songs and see what else I might have missed.

I Can’t Find Brummagem: a little history

As with ‘John Hobbs‘, it wouldn’t really be accurate to call ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ [Roud V34542] a Birmingham folk song. It wasn’t a song that was learned aurally and passed down from generation to generation and, in fact, we even know who wrote it. James Dobbs (1781-1837) is the man in question – a popular music hall performer of the era – and we know that he first performed ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ at the Theatre Royal on New Street (roughly where Bella Italia currently stands) in 1828.

The song only appears in four entries on the Full English website, which would suggest that, while it was published on a popular broadside, it never quite became the hit that it deserved to be. It was recorded by Richard Hamilton on The Wide Midlands album (Topic Records, 1971), but seems to have been largely confined to its time a place. In some ways, that’s not much of a surprise: as well-observed, humorous and poignant as it is, the points of reference in the song are very much related to the streets of Birmingham and the local activities of the early 19th century. While anyone can relate to the sense of loss and nostalgia we feel when we return to a place we knew well only to find it unrecognisable, you’d have to be a proper Brummie to picture what James Dobbs saw on his return to Brummagem.

Indeed, there are street names, activities and even phrases that are alien to me. Over Christmas, I sat with my sister-in-law – brought up in a Birmingham-Irish family that used a lot more of the local vernacular than I ever knew – and asked her about various verses…

But amongst the changes we have got
In good old Brummagem
They’ve made a market on the moat
To sell the pigs in Brummagem.
But that has brought us more ill luck
For they’ve filled up Pudding Brook,
Where in the brook jack-bannils took
Near Good old Brummagem.

… and neither of us could figure out what jack-bannils were without the aid of Google (which, ironically, found an explanation in another blog post discussing this very song. For those wondering, a jack-bannil was a Brummie term for a stickleback).

What to keep? What to discard?

Image via David Rowan’s excellent website.

And so, I was left with another common ‘folk singer conundrum’: what do you do with a song that might easily resonate with today’s audience, but is so specific in location and time that it runs the risk of confusing people? Are you allowed to rewrite the words to these old songs? Should they be left alone, and if so, aren’t we running the risk of letting them drift away into the past?

In this case, I allowed myself some poetic license. Slap my wrists if you must, but I took it upon myself to update and rearrange some of the verses, hopefully ending up with a song that someone in their late 30s/early 40s (i.e., my age), returning to Brummagem for the first time in a good long while, might be able to relate to. I’ve also updated some of the phrases – specifically the last line. ‘A cuppa milk with’ was, at least in the 1990s, Brummie slang for a cup of tea – an absolute must on waking up after a typical night out at The Ship Ashore (long since demolished, but a legendary pre-Snobs drinking hole that sat at the top end of Digbeth).

The fascinating thing about playing relay through history with a song like this one is that it’s likely to lose its meaning as each successive decade fades away. The places referenced in my rewritten version will mean very little to anyone 10 years younger than me, what with Digbeth now being comparatively wholesome, and memories of pre-Millenium Spiceal Street rapidly vanishing. It’d be amazing to see how the song could be developed over time, and how quickly each of the “changes that abound in good old Brummagem” are worn away through time.

‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ – two sets of lyrics

Below you’ll find two sets of lyrics to ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’. The first is what we understand to be James Dobbs’ original set, which you’ll find recorded by Richard Hamilton on The Wide Midlands, listed in the Spotify playlist above. The second is my rewrite, which you’ll find recorded on the Youtube video at the top of this post.

‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ (James Dobbs)

Full twenty years and more are passed
Since I left Brummagem.
But I set out for home at last
To good old Brummagem.
But ev’ry place is altered so
Now there’s hardly a place I know
Which fills my heart with grief and woe
For I can’t find Brummagem.

As I was walking down the street
As used to be in Brummagem,
I knowed nobody I did meet
For they’ve changed their face in Brummagem
Poor old Spiceal Street’s half gone,
And Old Church stands alone
And poor old I stands here to groan
For I can’t find Brummagem.

But amongst the changes we have got
In good old Brummagem
They’ve made a market on the moat
To sell the pigs in Brummagem.
But that has brought us more ill luck
For they’ve filled up Pudding Brook,
Where in the brook jack-bannils took
Near Good old Brummagem.

But what’s more melancholy still,
For poor old Brummagem,
They’ve taken away all Newhall-Hill
From poor old Brummagem,
At Easter time girls fair and brown,
Came rolly-polly down,
And showed their legs to half the town,
Oh! the good old sights in Brummagem.

Down Peck Lane I walked along,
To find out Brummagem,
There was the dungil down and gone
What? no rogues in Brummagem,
They’ve ta’en it to a street called Moor,
A sign that rogues ain’t fewer,
But rogues won’t like it there I’m sure,
While Peck Lane’s in Brummagem.

I remember one John Growse,
Who buckles made in Brummagem,
He built himself a country house,
To be out of the smoke of Brummagem
But though John’s country house stands still,
The town has walked up hill,
Now he lives besidea smoky mill,
In the middle of Brummagem.

Among the changes that abound
In good old Brummagem,
May trade and happiness be found
In good old Brummagem.
And tho’ no Newhall hil we’ve got
Nor Pudding Brook nor Moat,
May we always have enough
To boil the pot in Brummagem.

‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ (Jon Wilks rewrite)

Full twenty year and more have passed
Since I left Brummagem.
But I set out for home at last
To good old Brummagem.
But every place has altered so
There’s hardly a place that I would know
Which fills my heart with grief and woe…
I can’t find Brummagem.

As I was walking down our street
As used to be in Brummagem
I knowed nobody I did meet
There’s no one there in Brummagem.
Spiceal Street’s the great unknown
And so the old church stands alone
And poor old I stands here to groan…
I can’t find Brummagem.

On Fridays to the Ship Ashore
We’d set sail for Brummagem.
From the Ship to Snobs we’d go once more,
Oh the heady nights of Brummagem.
And though it all feels safer now
This cleanliness won’t do somehow.
This Digbeth here I wouldn’t know.
I miss the rogues of Brummagem.

Well, I remember one John Growse
Who buckles made in Brummagem.
He gived himself a country house
To be out the smokes of Brummagem.
And though John’s country house stands still
The town itself walked up the hill.
Now he lives beside a smokey mill
In the middle of the streets of Brummagem.

Among the changes that abound
In good old Brummagem
May trade and happiness be found
In good old Brummagem.
And though no Ship Ashore we’ve got,
And Spiceal Street’s a coffee shop,
May we always have enough
For a cuppa milk with in Brummagem.

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