This is the good stuff. The song, I mean; the performance is as good as I could get it, but I’m not claiming any more than that. But the song… what a song.
Child 81, and it’s what we now think of as a typical Child ballad: it’s longish, it’s bloody, it comes in several variants and it’s got a couple of unforgettable images. (Apart from the confrontation between Musgrave and Lord Barnard – both of whom display a remarkable degree of sang froid in the circumstances – I’m particularly fond of the verse beginning “Is not your hawk”; as if to say, why would you want to leave now, when your life’s about as good as it’s ever going to be? (She was right about that, of course.))
This version is based on Nic Jones’s recorded version, which in turn is based mainly on variant 81G. I’ve doctored the text in a couple of places, mostly using material from other variants; I wanted it to be clear that Lord Barnard’s page rode as far as the wide water (version D), and I wanted to keep Lord Barnard’s closing fit of suicidal remorse (versions A and G). The other thing I didn’t much like about Nic Jones’s version was the use of two different tunes, both rather unvarying. I spent some time trying to work out a tune that was interesting enough to sustain the whole ballad; this one came to me one day when I was hanging out the washing, more or less complete (although later I made some modifications – see below).
One final change: Helen Jocys, who died last Christmas Day, used to sing Matty Groves occasionally at our local singaround. It’s quite a different song (and considerably shorter), and begins with a line that isn’t in any of the Child variants: “A holiday, a holiday, the first of all the year”. I used to follow Nic Jones’s use of “As it fell out upon a day, as many in the year”, but got a bit fed up with it – partly because it means the ballad’s starting with two lines that don’t actually say anything, and partly because of a parody I saw on Mudcat…
Then it fell out upon a day
As it often had before
But Matty tucked it in again
And hoped that no one saw
Ahem. Anyway, I was in the market for a new pair of first lines, and there (one night) were Helen and Matty.
So thankyou, Helen. She was a fine traditional singer and a remarkable accordionist, who always seemed to have the biggest repertoire in the room. She was also a really nice person and supportive of singers who were just getting started (e.g. me). She’ll be missed.