Fifty-Two Folk Songs: Yellow

The Yellow album was completed and made available for download a little while ago. Here’s the link, and here’s what you get.

1 The crow on the cradle (Sydney Carter) (3:34)
2 Son Davie (3:19)
3 Two pretty boys (2:09)
4 The valiant sailor (5:38)
5 The Dolphin (2:58)
6 The lofty tall ship (4:21)
7 The ghost song (3:00)
8 William Taylor (3:56)
9 Lowlands (4:06)
10 The lowlands of Holland (3:25)
11 Shirt and comb (Peter Blegvad) (2:23)
12 High Germanie (2:20)
13 The weary cutters (1:54)
14 I would that the wars were all done (2:42)
15 The dark-eyed sailor (4:12)
16 Sweet Jenny of the moor (3:50)
17 Whitsun Dance (Austin John Marshall) (2:51)

Seventeen songs of death and destruction, mostly (but not exclusively) with a wartime setting, and mostly (14 out of 17) traditional. Some unaccompanied, some with vocal harmonies, some accompanied – mostly on English concertina and drums, with various other instruments (melodica, zither, recorder, whistles (D and C) and a bit of flute).

The crow on the cradle, an album-only extra, is probably the most powerful anti-war song ever written – up there with 10,000 Maniacs’ “My Mother the War”. War is over, if you want it. (Quite pleased with the drumming on this one.)
Son Davie, a.k.a. Edward, is a Child ballad on the theme of guilt and remorse. Some of the most powerful ballads seem to centre on the sense of actions being irrevocable – tragic and horrible actions especially. I like the sound of the C whistle on this.
Two pretty boys isn’t – or wasn’t – connected to the previous ballad, although you could say that it tells an earlier part of the same story. Sung unaccompanied and strongly influenced by Peter Bellamy, who learnt it from Lucy Stewart. (Is there any other way of being influenced by Peter Bellamy?)
The valiant sailor was the first song for which I worked out concertina chords. There’s a doleful, chapel-harmonium thing going on there, partly as a result of my novice status on the instrument; I rather like it. My interpretation was inspired by John Kelly; it’s not a patch on his version, of course.
“This song is called The Dolphin, which is the name of the ship what the pirates were in. It’s also the name of a pub in Wakefield that used to have right rough strippers on.” Thus (and much further in the same vein) Tony Capstick, before nailing the song to the back wall (on the sadly unavailable Does a Turn). Sung to melodica drone, drums added later (which is why they scramble a bit in a few places).
The lofty tall ship features concertina drones; after hearing this back I more or less abandoned the melodica. The timbre you get from the concertina reeds is extraordinary.
The ghost song, also known as The cruel ship’s carpenter, is an English murder ballad (a relatively uncommon theme). In terms of interpretation, this is another one taken straight and heavily influenced by Bellamy, who in this case was following Sam Larner.
William Taylor is another song of enlistment, desertion and death, although not in the usual combination. Accompanied on drums and zither, giving a rather nice quiet, spare effect.
Lowlands away, my John…” Another quiet arrangement – after Shirley Collins – with vocal harmonies and minimal percussion.
The lowlands of Holland is a strange, dreamlike song; nothing about it, from the initial bedroom encounter to the paradisiacal description of Holland, quite makes sense. Beautiful, though. Here it’s taken straight, unaccompanied.
Shirt and comb is a song by the great Peter Blegvad (although I’ve mangled the tune slightly). It essentially takes the basic situation of the previous song and looks at it from the inside: how did it feel to be enlisted and forced to march away from your loved ones? Accompanied with drums, concertina chords and the under-used C whistle.
High Germanie continues the twin themes of enlistment and approximate European geography. Drums, concertina drones and a slightly peculiar-sounding D whistle.
“O the Weary Cutters have taken my laddie from me…” Quiet, sad, with vocal harmonies. Not much like Maddy Prior’s version with Steeleye Span, although that is where I learned it.
I would that the wars were all done is another quiet, sad one. It’s accompanied with spare concertina I/V chords and a bit of recorder, and was partly recorded in the open air.
The dark-eyed sailor and Sweet Jenny of the moor are both ‘broken token’ songs, and were both clearly intended for an audience which knew the set-up; they both get through the big reveal very briskly. “Sailor” is accompanied throughout on concertina drones, C whistle, drums and zither; “Jenny” is mostly unaccompanied, with a bit of melodic reinforcement from concertina and C whistle.
The album’s second download-only extra, Whitsun Dance, probably needs no introduction. It’s always struck me as 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, which I think brings out some of the changing moods of the song. You can hear both it and The crow on the cradle here – although if you want to download either of them you’ll have to go here.

Like the other downloads in the series, the Yellow album comes with a PDF file containing full lyrics, notes and artwork. And, like the other downloads, it has a minimum price set at a symbolic 52p – although you’re welcome to pay more!

Download 52 Folk Songs – Yellow.

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