This is Peter Bellamy’s setting of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “A St Helena lullaby”, recorded by Bellamy as “St Helena”. I’m using the longer title in case I want to record the trad “St Helena” further down the line (“Now Napoleon, he has done with his wars and his fighting…”).
These days Kipling is a hard writer to get to like; the problem isn’t so much his robust British imperialism (which doesn’t pervade everything he wrote, and in any case is often more ambiguous than it seems) as his style – all Initial Caps and Exhortations! One of these days someone will discover he was actually manic-depressive, and we’ll be able to detect a hectic anxiety behind all those Exclamation Marks! – that would do his reputation no end of good.
Anyway, this poem is very Kipling, for good and ill. It sums up the life of Napoleon using the conceit of looking in on key scenes in his life, asking each time “how far to St Helena…?” I particularly like the very last line, visualising the Emperor in his tomb as a troublesome child tucked up in bed – after all your traipsing, child, lie still! (Oops, spoilers.) There’s an odd sort of rhetorical double-bluff here – the image belittles Napoleon, but does it so exorbitantly that the effect is the reverse, drawing attention to just how great a figure he was.
The voices are all me, and there’s only one whistle (a cheapo Generation high G). There was going to be drumming, but my current system of recording everything separately and layering it together isn’t great for matching unaccompanied singing to a repeated drum pattern. Maybe a metronome should be the next investment!
I may pick up one of the other Napoleon songs later on (“St Helena”, “Dream of Napoleon”, the other tune for “Bonny Bunch of Roses”…), but this is the last one for now. Hope you’ve enjoyed them.
Into double figures with my favourite Napoleon song, and one of my favourite traditional songs on any subject.
I learned it from Nic Jones’s recording, although it took a while to work out what the time signature was supposed to be. I tend to be quite tight in terms of timekeeping, which isn’t always a good thing; the more free-floating approach Nic Jones took to this song showed me how effective it could be to mess with the rhythm a bit, as in the extra beat I throw in to the last line of the first verse (“Conversing with young Napoleon…”)
“Young Napoleon” was Napoleon II, although he was never really Napoleon II of anywhere; in theory he was the King of Rome, among other things, but I don’t think Rome knew much about it. He died of TB at the age of 21. You can see his portrait at the Bandcamp page for this song. There’s something childlike about the way the singer tells the terrible story of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, and promises to succeed where he failed “in spite of all the universe”. And then that awful last verse – there can’t be many situations more heartbreaking than a young man talking to his mother from his deathbed (she was only 40 when he died). I’m particularly fond of a line that was probably only put in for the sake of the rhyme:
Had I lived I might have been clever
I find this incredibly poignant – the idea that Napoleon II died thinking that he’d been a bit of an idiot, and if only he’d had a few more years he could have sorted himself out. Not everyone agrees; Tony Capstick changed the line to “I could have been brave”. It seems in character – I don’t get the feeling Capstick had much admiration for clever people. (His version is also very good, and uses a completely different tune. Maybe later in the year.)
Another one from Nic Jones’s second album, done pretty much as he did it but with more metrical regularity (stop me if you’ve heard this one before). I do like to be able to hear the tune, which in this case is the Princess Royal (also known as Nelson’s Praise, among other names).
If there was a broadside original to this, it’s been worn pretty smooth by the folk process: I don’t suppose the singer this was collected from had any idea who Bellew (Beaulieu?) and Wurmer were, or for that matter if it was Wurmer’s will that was subdued or Wurmer’s Hill where they were subdued. The history is correspondingly sketchy – the last verse alone ranges from Leipzig to Mount Mark (Montmartre?) without pausing for breath. It doesn’t matter – the images are amazing. The use of language reminds me of nothing so much as a reggae MC using as many polysyllables as possible and ending every line with “-ation”; words like “confiscated” and “capitulation” are thwacked down like a trump card. “We marched them forth in inveterate streams” – find me a better line than that.
I checked a couple of different versions when I learned this, and discovered that Nic Jones had (for whatever reason) used a slightly sanitised version, where Napoleon bids farewell to his “royal spouse”. An earlier text uses a different word, and it rhymes with “adore” in the next line. But that’s the only sign of the hostility you would have thought English writers would feel towards Napoleon and the French; in fact, the Emperor himself is presented as a heroic figure, whose lamentation we can sympathise with. Odd.
Songs about Napoleon – in particular, heroic songs about Napoleon – are one of the curiosities of the English traditional repertoire: he was, after all, somewhere between Osama bin Laden and Hitler in terms of the threat he seemed to pose to Britain. (This song has an odd gear-change in the final verse, where the anonymous author seems to have decided he needs to emphasise his patriotic credentials.) I don’t think this is about folk radicalism, with singers essentially backing Boney against the British ruling class; it’s a nice idea, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence in the songs. I suspect it was just the appeal of a good story – and Napoleon did have a really good story.
This song is a bit of an oddity in itself. It’s very “written” in style, taking quite an effort to learn and sing – I’ve seen several broadside copies, all pretty much identical, which suggests that it started as a broadside ballad and never went much further. On the other hand, the repeating final line of each verse makes no sense at all, and appears to be an oral-tradition mangling of the tag of an earlier song, The Grand Conversation Under The Rose. The tune is interesting, too; it seems to be related to the “Magpie’s Nest”/”Cuckoo’s Nest” family of dance tunes, and perhaps to the Liverpool Hornpipe. I’ve appended the tune of “The Bedmaking” – another “Cuckoo’s Nest” variant – to show how many similarities there are between two apparently very different tunes. This song also has the great merit of introducing the songs I’m going to be putting up over the next two weeks, in most cases by name!
My interpretation is after Tony Rose, although with the hornpipe-ish timing of the original dance tune brought more to the fore. I play the tune here on the flute; it’s not my favourite folk instrument, but it does have the great virtue of being chromatic – which is handy when you’ve got a tune that wavers between the keys of G and F. Drone by Bontempi, as always; no post-processing apart from edits and looping.
One of the many Napoleonic folksongs which are namechecked in the previous song!
Probably needs no introduction; anyone who’s heard June Tabor’s rendition on Airs and Graces will (a) love the song and (b) be able to tell where I got it from. Other interpretations are available (Shirley and Dolly Collins’s is quite something) – but I think June T. put a stamp on the song that’s pretty much indelible. This is certainly a post-Tabor interpretation, perhaps with the time signature laid down a bit more firmly.
Practising this, I came to the firm conclusion that Willie Smith’s handling of the reunion leaves a lot to be desired. If this weren’t such a great song it would be crying out for a joke ending -
And when she saw the token she fell into my arms, crying
“You utter bastard! What do you think you’re playing at? I thought you were dead!”
Maybe not. I do think the narrator’s a bit of a creep, though; I don’t know if this comes across!