This is a song – only the second I’ve done on 52fs – from Lal and Mike Waterson’s extraordinary album Bright Phoebus.
It’s an extraordinary song, which has been widely covered. My own interpretation was initially influenced strongly by Tony Capstick, who did the song unaccompanied and gave it a very strong rhythmic framework. The metre of the song is irregular, but in the original version the uneven lines are draped over a steady, unchanging backing; Capstick’s version brings that irregularity into the melody. This makes for a powerful and striking song – which I recorded, more or less as Capstick sang it, over here. But after a while I grew intrigued by the original version, which after all doesn’t lack for power: you have a gentle, lilting melody, Mike Waterson’s matter-of-fact delivery, and… this song. How did they do it? Perhaps simply by letting the song do the talking. That’s what I’ve tried to do here.
The first two verses were written by Lal Waterson, who got stuck at that point; the last verse, with its jolly dons and their fertility ritual, was added by Mike. What it all means is anybody’s guess. If her songs are anything to go by, the inside of Lal Waterson’s head was sometimes a bad place to be. I like to think this one’s about the folk song revival: as if to say, “you want old? you want pagan? is this what you want?”