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.