The cider songs of the English West Country touch North America.
By Abram Goldman-Armstrong
Left photo by Mark Stock, right by Jack Barnes Photography
When asked what their favorite beer drinking song is, most people could list scores of Irish ballads or German bierfest classics. Finding true cider-drinking anthems, like real cider itself, often requires a trip to the West Country of England, where cider is not only a major industry but also a way of life. Cider orchards spread across the lush green rolling hills, and there are traditional cider sheds and pubs abound. “Scrumpy & Western” music grew out of these pubs and music halls in the 1960s.
In 1966, Adge Cutler and the Wurzels pioneered the genre—singing the praises of their native Somerset, farming and cider with their “sousaphone, accordion, banjo band” (as they sang in 1976’s “Somerset Born and Proud”). The Wurzels’ classic “Drink Up Thy Cider” made it into the music charts in 1967, and was dubbed the “National Anthem of North Somerset” by Cutler himself. He wasn’t far off the mark—Wurzels’ songs, built on banjo, accordion and a brass section, have become as deeply steeped in West Country culture as cider itself.
“Scrumpy & Western is really rooted in the community,” says Nicholas Smyth, singer for Vancouver, BC-based Celtic punk band The Dreadnoughts. He says he got hooked on Scrumpy & Western when the Dreadnoughts played in Bristol, United Kingdom in 2009. At the end of the Dreadnoughts’ set, Smyth says a group gathered on the stage to sing “Drunk Up Thy Cider” and that he was “down the rabbit hole at that point.” Already a cider fan, Smyth started buying Wurzels records, and the Dreadnoughts began to play their own cider-themed songs.
After Cutler tragically died in a car crash in 1974, the Wurzels’ sound leaned more toward pop with an agriculturally based lyrical core. The tradition of putting cider and farming-themed words to pop tunes has continued to be embraced by Scrumpy & Western bands today—along with the parody style that made it popular. For a founding example, a wurzel is a vegetable cousin of a turnip, but also slang for a simple country dweller—whom probably drinks plenty of cider.
Although the parody itself is considered to be the cornerstone of the music’s style, many S&W musicians, like Kev Smith of the Dorest, United Kingdom band The Skimmity Hitchers, believe that limiting the music to satire would be a disservice to the genre. “Cutler wrote some brilliant original material, which often gets overlooked,” Smith says. “It has become really important to The Skimmity Hitchers that our own [music] is equal to any of the parodies we play.”
In addition to the Wurzels, the 1970s also bore a number of Scrumpy & Western bands that charted hits. But later in the decade, Scrumpy & Western slowed and went underground, until punk rediscovered and revamped the genre, with 1980s bands like the United Kingdom’s Chaos UK and the Surfin’ Turnips.
“I always wanted to do some local punk music, as that’s what I think the ethos should be about,” says Jamie “Jamer” Ford of the Surfin’ Turnips. “Be local, resist corporate culture. [We] sang a song in Bristolian, just for the crack.” Soon the band was singing all their songs in West Country dialect, and an accordion was added to the lineup.
Today, the Surfin’ Turnips’ rough and ready tributes to cider drinking have made the band a legend in Bristol. Longtime Scrumpy & Western frontman Steve Wurzel (nicknamed for being a dead ringer for an original Wurzels band member) credits the Turnips for their authentic regional topics. They “sing about themes particularly dear to the heart of West Country folk,” Wurzel says. “They developed a following of scrumpy-seeking punkers.”
“It’s amazing to think that the Wurzels’ ‘Scrumpy & Western’ [record] is nearly 50-years-old and that new bands are still forming with it as their inspiration,” The Skimmity Hitchers’ Smith says. For Smith, the essential elements of S&W are simple. “Cider, West Country accents, parody songs, humor and onstage banter, and some more cider.”