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Brenda - the Cornishwoman who dearly loved to sing...

My mother, Brenda Wootton, dearly loved to sing. In particular, she dearly loved to sing about Cornwall and all things Cornish - the history, the legends, the countryside, the traditions, and the people. In her middle years, when most mums would be thinking about settling down and baking pasties (which she did also do, to perfection!), she began a professional singing career that spanned nearly 30 years, and produced around 30 albums, singles and EPs. Her remarkable voice and her passion for her country took her around the globe - she even reached number 1 in the charts in Japan with her maxi single ‘Everybody Knows’, a song she penned herself  (an interview with the BBC Spotlight early evening news programme, which Brenda did on the release of that single is shown on the Video page - sign up for site membership to view).

Brenda was born in 1928 - and before anyone cries foul, yes, it was in west London, where her Cornish parents happened to be for just a few months looking for work - but from a baby she grew up in Newlyn, and lived in Cornwall all her life - despite travelling the world with her singing. She died in 1994 - as did her husband John, my much-loved dad, affectionately known to all in the folk world as Mr Woottie. But if you valued your life, you would never have referred to Brenda to her face as a folksinger... she was a singer, a musician - and her voice was her instrument. She sang anything and everything - but loved blues, jazz, popular music from the 30s and 40s on, musicals, as well as ‘folk’ - even some pop and rock, and famously recorded the House of the Rising Sun and the Rolling Stones ‘Honky Tonk Women’.

But Brenda did have a life apart from music, and there are intimations of this in the Pantomime Stew book I created shortly after she died - a book of the doggerel and short, mostly humorous odes she had written over the years, and had always intended to publish... sadly I did not complete it in time for her to see it, but Mr Wootie was thrilled with it (it's available in the shop).. This is part of my introduction to that book: 

"I had a mother who sang like an angel; I had a mother who painted pictures, who baked pasties and cooked like a dream, who sewed and made all her own dresses, who could charm the birds from the trees and talk the hind leg off a donkey. This in itself was hard enough. But in my younger years I also had a mother who collected the jokes, researched the stories, wrote the scripts, designed and painted the stage sets, made the costumes, painted the faces, made the props, acted in, stage managed and produced, the pantomimes."

Brenda with John the Fish in the early days at the Count House in Botallack - the Piper can be seen on the wall behind. At right, John the Fish, Brenda, John Wootton and Mike Sagar-Fenton, on the opening day of Pipers at Botallack.

A brief history...

 

Brenda had a phenomenal voice and an amazing stage presence, and during her life became a fervent and very vocal exponent of all things Cornish, making her a much-loved Ambassador and “Voice of Cornwall” for the Cornish diaspora and others around the globe. Her astonishing voice, once heard only in family 'party pieces' in the parlour on Sunday nights, and in Church and Chapel Choirs as a young girl, first came to the attention of a wider audience one night in 1964. 

As her daughter, I am partly responsible for that - a new 'folk club' had opened in the unlikely setting of an old Tin Mine Counting House at Botallack on the cliffs near St Just, and it was decided that mother, my father John and I would pay a visit to see if it was a suitable venue for a 14-year-old girl. We all enjoyed the experience, and returned regularly, Brenda, of course, joining in the choruses in her inimitable style from the audience. It wasn't long before her talents were recognised, and she was asked on to the stage to sing – and there she stayed, on stages around the world - developing that amazing vocal range, extending her repertoire and gaining a huge following of fans - for the rest of her life. 

Within a short while, John the Fish, the resident singer at the Count House, was regularly playing guitar for Brenda, and the duo were then invited, by friend and fellow musician, Alex Atterson, on their first up-country tour. This tour was the first of many, and it was while touring in the summer of 1966, that Brenda and John heard of the imminent closure of the Count House Club. Brenda went into overdrive, and with just 3 weeks’ notice, managed to launch Pipers Folk Club in St Buryan Village Hall the very next week, with Ralph McTell joining Fish on the regular artists list at £3 per night. 

 

Pipers and the early years

Pipers, at St Buryan Village Hall (granite-built, whitewashed and wooden panelled) and later, the iconic Count House itself (lavishly draped in acres of fishnet, which held the plaster that often dropped from the high ceiling!), played host to a colourful and talented selection of musicians and performers from the sixties folk scene. As well as Ralph McTell - who together with Henry ‘the VIII’ Bartlett and Whispering Mick, had formed a good-time jug band - life-long friendships were formed with many other regular visitors. Michael Chapman was already established as a firm favourite, as was the Cockney character Derek Brimstone; the irrepressible Noel Murphy, with hippy bells attached to his laced flies, the immensely talented Mike Silver, and the hugely-loved Alex Atterson, who gave Brenda and Fish their first chance of touring... Jon Betmead, Allan Taylor, Steve Tilston, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Martin Carthy, Jasper Carrot, Billy Connolly Decameron and countless others, cut their teeth at Pipers. Pipers was to remain at St Buryan for only 2 summer seasons, when the chance to move back to the Count House came up, and Brenda grabbed it. Pipers, both at St Buryan and Botallack, became one of the most influential folk clubs in the region in those heyday years of the 'Sixties Folk Revival', and many nationally-known artists were eager for bookings. Pipers effectively 'twinned' with the Folk Cottage at Mitchell, near Newquay, making it easier to get visiting artists to make the long journey down to the far south-west. 

Turning professional - into Europe

 

In 1974, after 10 years of 'playing the clubs' around Britain, Brenda followed a long-held dream and turned professional as a singer, with guitarist Robert Bartlett, as the duo Crowdy Crawn. They started touring in Brittany and France, moving on to Belgium, Holland and Germany as time went on... but the partnership lasted only two years. Brenda now had agents in these countries, and continued and expanded her territory as a solo singer, touring with a number of talented guitarists, including Mike Silver, Al Fenn from Decameron, Dave Penhale, Pete Berryman and Chris Newman. She also sang often with Cornish brass and silver bands and male voice choirs, and throughout the seventies and eighties, produced a number of albums.

It was in Europe that her career really took off - France, Germany, Belgium  and Holland took her to their hearts, but it was in Brittany that she felt most at home. She was hugely loved over there, and spent months on lengthy tours, playing to massive and very appreciative audiences in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. In Paris, she had enormously successful concerts in the Palais des Glaces, Olympia, the Palais des Congrès and the Theatre de la Ville, as well as in Bobino, the little back street theatre in Montparnasse, which had been the associated with the African-American superstar, Josephine Baker, from the 1920s until her final performance there in 1975. Brenda, together with her musicians and Camborne Town Band, played the very last night of the theatre before it closed in 1984.

At home in Cornwall, she was seen on occasional TV spots, and her records sometimes played on local radio, but her voice didn't really come to a wider local audience until she started her weekly request programme on Radio Cornwall, Sunday Best, Even then, friends she met in the street when she was home, doing her favourite thing of strolling up the town, had little idea of her fame abroad - and despite what was seen as her large ego - she rarely mentioned it to them. In Paris, there were times when she couldn't walk down the streets without being mobbed by fans, and huge larger-than-lifesize posters covered the tall bollards there.

In the 1980s, she made three trips to the Kernewek Lowender in Australia to the ex-pat Cornish communities in the 'Cornish Triangle' towns of Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina, in the Yorke Peninsula west of Adelaide. Here she found a whole new devoted audience  of fans - and later, made a trip to Cornish and Native Indian communities in Canada, with guitarist Chris Newman.

 

Eventually her punishing lifestyle took its toll, and by the late 1980s, much to her distress, she was forced to give up performing in public and her big European tours... She had almost finished recording her last album, Seagull, in 1990, when she had a stroke and was forced to stop. She died in March 1994, and is always missed. This website is a tribute to her passion and her determination, and to her remarkable voice... Kenavo, Brenda.

Sue Ellery-Hill

Above, at the Plaça del Rei in Barcelona; at right, in Paris with guitarist Dave Penhale.

In the photo below, Brenda is singing with guitarist Mike Silver at a cellar club called La Poechenelle in Brussels in 1975, with former Prime Minister Edward Heath in the audience.