Extras: The crow on the cradle, Whitsun Dance

52 Folk Songs: Yellow has just been made available for download; more of that later.

For now, here are the two album-only bonus tracks. The songs on the Yellow album were distinctive by their focus on violence – nobody died for the entire length of the Green album, and something had to give. Most of the Yellow songs are about conscription and war, and these two extras are no exception.

The crow on the cradle is the second song by Sydney Carter I’ve featured here. He was a passionate writer, and this song is particularly full-on. It’s an attack on the eternal spirit of negativity and destruction that fuels war – and, I think, on something else as well; you can’t listen to this song all the way through and feel comfortable that you’re one of the good guys. In the immortal words of John and Yoko, “War is over if you want it” – I think Carter would have agreed with both halves of that statement.

The melody is mine; I saw this song in printed form when I was about 11, and as I couldn’t read music I made up this tune. It’s in E minor, with a bit of E Dorian; the nagging concertina figure that seems to evoke the crow is an Em7 arpeggio.

Whitsun Dance probably requires no introduction – it’s the contemporary song with which Shirley Collins closed the Anthems in Eden suite, words written by her then partner Austin John Marshall to the tune of the False Bride.

I think there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye. The mood of the song shifts as it goes through, becoming quite brutally dark in verses 3 and 4, with only an equivocal resolution in the last verse: peace has returned but the young men have been killed, the world’s moved on and everyone’s forgotten. A more sentimental writer would have spelt this out and given the audience a bit of release – I don’t know, you could write something like

And year after year their numbers grow fewer
Some Whitsun no one will dance there at all

(Scansion needs work.) Instead Marshall went straight ahead to a superficially positive conclusion, which by this stage sounds very bittersweet: “And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun”. Then, before we’ve had the chance to draw breath or dab a tear, we’re off into the compulsory jollification of Staines Morris.

It’s a dark, bitter song, all the more so for its sunny surface. I’ve recorded it with different combinations of instruments – recorder/zither, zither/drums, drums/concertina – over a flute drone, and I think I’ve unlocked some of the anger that’s lurking in there.

You can listen to the songs here, or download them as part of the Yellow album.

1 Comment

Filed under folk song, not a folk song, Shirley Collins, Sydney Carter, traditional, Yellow

One response to “Extras: The crow on the cradle, Whitsun Dance

  1. Hello Phil! ‘Crow On The Cradle’ is an absolute favourite of mine as covered by Phil Beer, so delighted by your own-tune version. Pretty good going if you made it up at age 11! I always had an impression that this song was older than the words imply. Didn’t realise it was written by Sydney Carter, tho’ Wiki says based on an older song, but I can’t find any info about this from a quick net-search. I could see the crow on the cradle image associated with an English Civil War setting, but that’s only because every time I visit East Riddlesden Hall near me in (Dalesman’s Litany) Keighley, they have a wooden cradle from that era that I could so see a crow perched on it! Your version has other colourful images in it. My ears (or more like my imagination) detect some sort of continental sound and Afro-Australian with the rhythyms. But then the war/no war question is universal. Ref the Shirley Collins. I’ve just been listening to my first selection of songs by her and the Albion Country Band from ‘No Roses’ this week, so an appropriate coincidence. As you’ll probably know, it also has ‘Poor Murdered Woman’ on that so struck me recently by Jackie Oates on her ‘Saturnine’ CD. Everything really is connected to everything else in folk! So I keep returning to your comment, ‘It just works.’ Jane.

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