Fifty-Two Folk Songs: the Blue Album

Fifty-Two Folk Songs: the Blue Album is now available to download, and a bit of a beast it is too.

The album contains nineteen songs; fourteen of them are traditional, and almost all of those are Child ballads. Ten songs are sung unaccompanied and without overdubs; singers who inspired my interpretations of these songs include Peter Bellamy (Sir Patrick Spens), the Irish source singer Robert Cinnamond (John from the Isle of Man) and June Tabor (Jamie Douglas, The leaves in the woodland). Accompaniment on the others ranges from the discreet flute and melodica ‘sting’ of the Bonny Hind to the full band effect of Shady Grove, via the late-night zither of The outlandish knight and the drum-and-drone True Thomas. And there’s more, but you’ll have to listen to the album to find out.

Here’s the full track listing:

1 Sir Patrick Spens (version 1) (3:26)
2 The outlandish knight (version 1) (4:05)
3 True Thomas (3:53)
4 La belle dame sans merci (4:00)
5 The keys to the forest / When a man dies (7:18)
6 Little Musgrave (5:00)
7 Shady Grove (2:06)
8 The bonny hind (5:01)
9 George Collins (3:56)
10 Sir Patrick Spens (version 2) (3:06)
11 The outlandish knight (version 2) (5:03)
12 Sheath and knife (5:13)
13 Tom the Barber (2:59)
14 John from the Isle of Man (3:32)
15 Mary Hamilton (6:05)
16 Jamie Douglas (3:24)
17 The leaves in the woodland (3:54)
18 This is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (5:41)

Track 4 is a hidden track, which you won’t see listed on the album’s Web page. (If you’re really curious you can hear it on the Extras page.)

As for the credits, the first song in track 5 – track 5a? – is by Jackie Leven; track 17 is by Peter Bellamy; and track 18 is by me. Track 4 is a poem by John Keats, set to music by copland smith. Track 5b is also a poem set to music; the author is Anna Akhmatova, the arranger Jackie Leven. The rest are traditional.

As well as the hidden bonus track, the Blue album comes with full lyrics, notes on the songs and even the odd picture. A few brief comments on the songs:

Sir Patrick Spens (Child 58) is the celebrated song about an inexperienced sailor who is shipwrecked in the North Sea; it’s sung to the tune used by Nic Jones, briskly and without accompaniment.
The outlandish knight (Child 4) is also taken fairly briskly, to a mixolydian tune that I found online and modified a bit. No accompaniment, but I’ve dubbed on a few harmonies.
True Thomas (Child 37) was going to be unaccompanied, and then it wasn’t. Once I’d worked out a drum part the rest seemed to follow. I’m particularly pleased with the drones.
La belle dame sans merci is Keats’s poem – clearly indebted to the story of True Thomas – in an arrangement by the poet and performer copland smith. My performance gets a bit overwrought towards the end, albeit not intentionally (does that make it better or worse?). My thanks to copland for permission to record this one.
The keys to the forest is a song from 2000 by the late Jackie Leven; I’ve described it before as “‘La belle dame sans merci’ meets Trainspotting“.
When a man dies was recorded by Jackie Leven in 1979. I don’t think the theory holds up.
Little Musgrave (Child 81) is one of my favourite folksongs, and one of my favourite songs full stop. 25 verses or thereabouts.
Shady Grove is an American song, learned from the singing of Jean Ritchie. Probably the most ‘full band’-sounding arrangement I’ve done: drums, zither and melodica (featuring no less than three chords).
The bonny hind (Child 50) is one of my favourite traditional songs and also one of the saddest. The arrangement and performance are inspired by Tony Rose’s version on the album Bare Bones, although for ineptitude-related reasons I replaced his continuous concertina accompaniment with an austere drone.
George Collins I learned from Bare Bones, although I decided to use a different tune for it; mine is based on the one in Classic English Folk Songs. More love and death, but with much less explanation of what’s going on; a strange, creepy song. Related to Child 42 and 85, probably.
Sir Patrick Spens (version 2) is based on Bellamy’s version in The Maritime English Suite, which in turn was based on MacColl’s version, which may not have been entirely traditional (a detail which Bellamy discovered later and with some displeasure). The variant I sing here is significantly different from the first one; given another century or so the two could have developed into two totally separate songs, or even three (cf. George Collins). Damn that pianola!
The outlandish knight (version 2) uses more or less the same words as the first one, but sung to the tune Nic Jones used on his first album. I also attempt some of Nic Jones’s guitar fills on the zither. It’s a quiet instrument, the zither, and this is a quiet track.
Sheath and knife (Child 16) is related to the Bonny Hind, possibly as a precursor. An extraordinary song about unbearable misery and the indifference of the world. No instrumental accompaniment.
Tom the Barber (Child 100) is and isn’t Willie o’ Winsbury, and this version of it is and isn’t Tony Rose’s. The words are those he sang (on Bare Bones, again), but the tune is different; it’s actually a squared-up 4/4 version of the tune to which John Kelly sings Mary Hamilton (on his album For honour and promotion).
John from the Isle of Man (also Child 100) is a Willie o’ Winsbury variant that’s fallen a bit further from the tree. The basic plot is the same, but the daughter isn’t pregnant and the father wants to expel her boyfriend on general paternal principle. Words, tune and phrasing are after the Irish source singer Robert Cinnamond.
Mary Hamilton (Child 173) is one of the stand-out tracks on John Kelly’s excellent second album. I’d never heard the song before but fell in love with it on hearing John’s version. However, singing the song unaccompanied I found his tune didn’t work for me, even after I’d speeded it up by a third by recasting it in 4/4. My solution was to borrow the tune usually used for Willie o’ Winsbury, similarly cranked up to 4/4.
Jamie Douglas (Child 204), under the title of Waly Waly, is a highlight of June Tabor’s first solo album. (I wonder if she’s made any others?) The text is a heavily-edited selection from different variants of Child 204; with a couple of minor exceptions the editing is June Tabor’s too. (The voice is all mine, though.)
The leaves in the woodland is another achingly sad song, this time by Peter Bellamy, and another “after June Tabor” rendering. It’s a song from The Transports, in which it’s sung unaccompanied and sounding not entirely unlike this (in a ‘better’ kind of way).
This is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens is one of my own (a first for 52fs). I wrote it after sitting through an inordinately extended performance of one of the longer variants of the ballad, sung by a performer who was rather accomplished on the twelve-string guitar and wanted us all to know. That was the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens; this isn’t.

Nineteen songs for the price of a bag of crisps. Share and enjoy!

Meanwhile, the Green album is already underway: some love songs for early Spring. I thought it was time for some happy endings – time for a few more non-lethal endings, come to that. On the Green album, nobody dies!

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