Category Archives: white

Twenty-Six Fortnights – 5

I heard some bad news this week; Bob van Gaalen – Northumberland piper extraordinaire, stalwart of the Beech sessions and a really nice man – has died after a heart attack. My thoughts are with Sue and his family.

It was from Bob that I first heard what’s now one of my favourite tunes, Sir John Fenwick’s. He used to make it sound beautifully ornate and impossibly fluid at the same time. It’s not really a very difficult tune, but I felt enormously proud when I first learned to play it – and again when I got the hang of it on the concertina.

When I came to record “I live not where I love” – inspired by Dave Bishop’s rendition of it at the Beech – it occurred to me that it might go quite well with Sir John Fenwick’s. Here’s what I came up with:

For the second song of this fortnight, here’s something completely different: an unaccompanied song which I learned from Bob’s wife Sue (which also gave me a sense of achievement). I love this song and hope you like it, but you really ought to hear Sue’s version.

When a man’s in love and I live not where I love are from 52 Folk Songs – Green.

And here’s another song/tune pairing, “Poor old horse” with “The man in the moon”.

Poor old horse is from 52 Folk Songs – white.

(All old recordings this time round; I’ll see about some re-recordings for next time.)

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Twenty-Six Fortnights – 2

Three tracks this fortnight, two of which are new recordings.

In the month of January was collected from the singing of Sarah Makem. My original recording of this one baulked at the poly-modal weirdness of the tune and backed it with a simple drone. This time round I’ve fitted concertina chords to it, although the singing was recorded separately.

In the month of January is from 52 Folk Songs – white

The second song this week is True Thomas, a Child ballad which I recorded last February. Not all my experiments with drones came off, but this one I still think works rather well – the contrast between the drone and the drumming is particularly strong.

True Thomas is from 52 Folk Songs – Blue

Lastly, this week I’ve re-recorded another song. The Lady Gay wasn’t one of the core 52 folk songs, but another of the traditional songs I put up along the way. This one does have live concertina accompaniment of a rather loud and insistent kind, plus some overdubbed recorder.

The Lady Gay is from 52 Folk Songs – Red

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O and A and A and O

I might be making this up but I think a stuffed boar’s head might be linked to the pagan feast of Michaelmas.
– a Mudcat contributor

The idea that traditional songs encode ‘pagan’ meanings crops up from time to time – was Polly Vaughan a shape-shifter? was Brown Adam another name for Wayland, the smith of the gods? As far as I’m concerned these are questions expecting the answer No; in fact, I think speculations like these only become plausible or interesting if you turn on your mental dry ice machine, pump up the mists of Avalon and repeat after me: ooh, songs from the old days, the strange mysterious old days… But if people want to punt these ideas around it’s no skin off my nose – it could get people thinking about where the songs actually do come from, and they might happen on something interesting.

What does bother me, though, is when people take this wifty-wafty ooh maybe it’s pagan approach to traditional carols. Two carols which have been particularly encumbered with speculative paganism are the Boar’s Head Carol and the Holly and the Ivy.

The Boar’s Head Carol derives from an attestably pre-modern (medieval) ceremony involving the ceremonial entrance of a boar’s head, borne in to an Oxford college feast and followed (presumably) by the more edible parts of the animal (The boar’s head in hand bear I, bedecked in bay and rosemary…). Now, it seems to me that if you’ve got a song which is partly written in Latin, and which goes back (with some variations) to before the Tudors, you’ve got something pretty wonderful – certainly wonderful enough not to need embroidery. But then the mists of Avalon roll in, and we get statements like this (per Wikipedia)

initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval times….[In ancient Norse tradition] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr to show favor to the new year. The boar’s head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels.

Sadly, I haven’t got access to Folklore 85(3) (Autumn 1974), so I can’t judge how accurately this heavily-edited quotation represents the intention of the author (American folklorist John Spears – not to be confused with English medievalist John Speirs, or for that matter John Spiers). But it certainly sounds as if Spears was claiming to describe the presentation of the boar’s head as a Norse ceremony. To which suggestion (implicit or otherwise) I reply with this, from the 1958 work Christmas and its Customs by Christina Hole:

[The boar’s head] was eaten during the Scandinavian Yule in honor of the Sun-Boar. The heroes of Valhalla were believed to feast continually on boar’s flesh, and the animal itself was sacred to Celt and Norseman alike. At the great medieval Christmas banquets the head was garlanded with rosemary and bay, and an orange or an apple was thrust between its teeth. It was brought in with ceremony to the sound of trumpets, slowly borne in upon a gold or silver dish by the chief cook, and accompanied by a procession of minstrels and servants.

Emphasis added. If – as the textual correspondence suggests – Spears was basing his statement on the evidence of Christina Hole, the evidence wasn’t there. Spears, like Hole before him, took the evidence of a medieval – Christian – ritual and simply speculated that it was based on a pagan forerunner, despite the obvious difficulty this theory faces in terms of dates. Christianity came to Britain in the 6th century AD – if the boar’s head ritual had derived from Anglo-Saxon religion, it would need to have survived for the best part of a thousand years before the first record we now have of it. As I commented at A Folk Song A Day, “it seems far more likely that the point of processing with a boar’s head is to demonstrate that (a) you’ve killed a large meaty animal and (b) you’re about to eat it”. And, I would add, (c) you want to honour this significant feast with an only partly jokey ritual setting – that is, a Christian ritual setting.

On the ‘pagan’ reading of the Holly and the Ivy, I can’t do better than quote AFSAD:

There are several different things happening here at once, involving both ancient pagan symbols and Roman festivities being consumed by Christmas. Holly and ivy are two evergreen plants symbolic to ancient winter ritual. Holly with its red berries was also associated with Saturn and more importantly the feast of Saturnalia that Christmas eventually usurped across the Roman Empire. Even so, Holly and ivy wreaths (and mistletoe) remained part of the decorative fabric of Christmas, and still do, despite resistance from the church. The song then uses the holly motif to make allusions through the verses to the purity, blood and crown of thorns of Christ. It’s also curious, however, that apart from appearing in the title, none of ivy’s attributes are described in the same way as the holly. This adds a further strand with the association of the prickly holly with the masculine and the softer ivy with the feminine. It’s the inevitable battle of the sexes and refers back to much older songs.

Let’s let some light in. The Holly and the Ivy was first documented in 1861, with an editorial note saying that it had first been printed “a century and a half since”; even if we believe this (and there’s no particular reason why we should), it only gets us back to the England of the early 18th century, before Dr Johnson but after Dryden. Why we should suppose that the words of an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century song had something to do with the feast of Saturnalia, I can’t imagine. It’s certainly true that the holly and ivy motif was used in “much older songs”, specifically “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly“, which goes right back to the sixteenth century. But the sixteenth century is still an awful long time after anyone had stopped celebrating Saturnalia.

What is going on in the song is a methodical, almost catechistic exposition of aspects of Christian faith: the white blossom reminds us of salvation; the red blood, of Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice; the bitter bark, of Jesus’s suffering on the Cross; the sharp thorn, of Mary’s pain in childbirth, and the joy of Jesus’s birth on Christmas day in the morn. These things would have been immediately, vitally interesting to an eighteenth-century congregation – who wouldn’t have given a second thought to the masculinity of the holly or its one-time association with Saturnalia.

It seems to me that the ooh, pagan approach to traditional carols does violence to the tradition, operating a double disinheritance. Firstly, the religious content – the Christian religious content – of the old carols passes us by; even present-day believers aren’t believers in the same sense as they would have been in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, when our entire social world would have operated on the assumption of membership of the Christian church. Hearing the Holly and the Ivy and finding significance in the holly is almost exactly like seeing a finger pointing at the moon and looking at the finger. And secondly, if we find religion where it isn’t (and ignore it when it is there), we also find symbolism where it isn’t – and for very similar reasons. Why would anyone write about holly and ivy, or about a boar’s head? For people like me – writing on a full stomach, in a warm and well-lit room – the answer isn’t immediately obvious. But it should be: these were Christmas carols, and as such they were winter songs. And winter was a time of darkness, a time of cold, a time when nothing grew – except a few strange survivors like the holly and the ivy – and a time when food was short.

The old carols are amazing songs: they’re songs of celebration, in the teeth of immense hardship, borne up by fellowship and firelight but also by the certainties of a shared and unquestioned Christian faith. It’s not easy for us to identify with that world and its people now – dreaming of New Age pagans is much easier. But it’s that world and those people who gave us the songs; I think we owe it to them to give it a try.

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52 Folk Songs: the Christmas Album

Well, sort of.

52 Folk Songs: white is an album of seasonal songs, recorded between the start of Advent and the end of Epiphany last year. Some are religious, some are songs for cold nights and the turning of the year, and some are both. Unfortunately the album wasn’t available for download until February, by which time the moment for Gaudete and the Boar’s Head Carol had passed. But its time has come round again, so here it is.

The full track listing is:

1. A maiden that is matchless (2:07)
2. The holly and the ivy (1:49)
3. Shepherds arise (3:22)
4. A virgin most pure (4:08)
5. In Dessexshire as it befell (3:34)
6. Poor old horse (5:08)
7. On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At (4:43)
8. Come, love, carolling (Sydney Carter) (2:08)
9. The boar’s head carol (1:49)
10. Gaudete (2:49)
11. The King (1:26)
12. In the month of January (4:22)
13. The Moving On song (Seeger/MacColl) (2:44)
14. The January Man (Dave Goulder) (2:33)

Tracks 7 and 13 are ‘hidden’ tracks, as you’ll see (or rather won’t see) if you visit the album page; they can only be downloaded by downloading the whole album. However, you can play (but not download) them at the 52fs: Extras page. Tracks 2-4, 9 and 11 have been remixed this time round, to give a better balance between the different vocal tracks.

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

A maiden that is matchless is sung simultaneously in modern English and Middle English, with a flute part copied from Dolly Collins’s arrangement.
The holly and the ivy is not a pagan song. This was my first attempt at four-part harmony.
Shepherds arise More harmonies. Sing! Sing all earth!
A virgin most pure Another Dolly Collins arrangement (I think), this time on C whistle. Vocals in two-part harmony, partly my own.
In Dessexshire as it befell Yet more multi-part singing, plus a multi-part melodica break. I think the arrangement really works, and the song’s well worth hearing if you don’t know it. A strange and rather creepy piece of work, set on Christmas Day.
Poor old horse An old “house visiting” song, slowed down and given another massively overdubbed arrangement. Also features a quick burst of the old dance tune “Man in the moon”.
On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At Not actually strictly a seasonal song as such; scientists have established that it can get pretty parky on Ilkley Moor at any time of year. Four-part harmonies, sung as written with a few modifications for singability (I broke it up into five or six separate lines). Also features simultaneous translation for the hard-of-Yorkshire.
Come, love, carolling A contemporary religious song by the wonderful Sydney Carter. Drums, melodica and anything else that seemed appropriate; based on Bob and Carole Pegg’s version on the album And now it is so early.
The boar’s head carol is not a pagan song either. Second attempt at four-part harmony.
Gaudete This was more or less Folk Song #1 for me, thanks to Steeleye Span’s appearance singing it on Top of the Pops, so it’s always had a special place for me. More harmonies, of course.
The King Another multi-part song learned from Steeleye Span, although I wrote these harmonies myself.
In the month of January Just one vocal track on this one, taking on one of those really knobbly traditional melodies.
The Moving On song Not a massive arrangement – just drums, melodica and a couple of brief harmony vocal lines – but the texture of the (heavily-processed) melodica, the slightly over-fiddly drum pattern and the irregularity of the time signature make for an appropriately edgy, claustrophobic atmosphere. I like the way the melodica’s come out, but I’ll probably never be able to do it again – I was trying for something much simpler.
The January Man he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather… What a song.

Share and enjoy! Ho ho ho.

PS Here are those ‘extra’ tracks:

On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At

The moving on song

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Fifty-two Folk Songs: the white album

52 Folk Songs: the white album is now available to download.

This is an album of seasonal songs, mostly recorded between Advent Sunday and Twelfth Night. They’re not all religious, though: some are songs for the long nights and the turning of the year, and a couple are just there because they wanted to be.

The full track listing is:

1.   A maiden that is matchless (2:07)
2.  The holly and the ivy (1:49)
3.  Shepherds arise (3:22)
4.  A virgin most pure (4:08)
5.  In Dessexshire as it befell (3:34)
6.  Poor old horse (5:08)
7.  On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At (4:43)
8.  Come, love, carolling (2:08)
9.  The boar’s head carol (1:49)
10. Gaudete (2:49)
11. The King (1:26)
12. In the month of January (4:22)
13. The Moving On song (2:44)
14. The January Man (2:33)

Mostly traditional (the seasonal repertoire gave me a lot to work with) but not exclusively so; songs 8, 13 and 14 are modern (by Sydney Carter, Seeger/MacColl and Dave Goulder, respectively).

Tracks 7 and 13 are ‘hidden’ tracks, as you’ll see (or rather won’t see) if you visit the album page; they can only be downloaded by downloading the whole album (for the standard extortionate fee). However, I’ve decided I’d like to give the album-only tracks a bit more visibility, so you can play (but not download) them at the new 52fs: Extras page.

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

A maiden that is matchless is sung simultaneously in modern English and Middle English, with a flute part slavishly copied from Dolly Collins’s arrangement.
The holly and the ivy is not a pagan song. First attempt at four-part harmony. Took ages.
Shepherds arise More harmonies. Sing! Sing all earth!
A virgin most pure More Dolly, I think, this time on C whistle. Two-part harmony, partly my own.
In Dessexshire as it befell Yet more multi-part singing, plus a multi-part melodica break. A weird and nasty song set on Christmas Day(!), which ended up sounding seriously creepy.
Poor old horse Indebted to Rapunzel and Sedayne. Doesn’t sound much like them, but it doesn’t sound much like the John Kirkpatrick version that I learned it from either, and that’s largely thanks to R&S’s Old Grye.
On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At Not actually strictly a seasonal song as such; scientists have established that it can get pretty parky on Ilkley Moor at any time of year. Four-part harmonies, sung as written with a few modifications for singability (I broke it up into five or six separate lines). Also features simultaneous translation for the hard-of-Yorkshire.
Come, love, carolling A contemporary religious song by the wonderful Sydney Carter. Drums, melodica and anything else that seemed appropriate; based on Bob and Carole Pegg’s version on the album And now it is so early.
The boar’s head carol is not a pagan song either. Second attempt at four-part harmony. Took a bit less time.
Gaudete Would it make sense if I mentioned “Louie, Louie” at this point? As in, never mind Bellamy’s obscurities and Nic Jones’s rediscovered broadsides, this is where it starts – the simple, earthy, direct sound of a Latin carol from a medieval Finnish manuscript arranged in five-part harmony… no, it wouldn’t make much sense, would it? Anyway, the point is, this was more or less Folk Song #1 for me, thanks to Steeleye Span’s appearance singing it on Top of the Pops, so it’s always had a special place for me.
The King More Steeleye, sort of. I haven’t got the album and couldn’t work out the harmonies from the clip on the Amazon page, so I wrote my own. (Of course it’s on Youtube. Now they tell me.)
In the month of January After all of this part-singing it was a bit of a shock to the system to do a big unaccompanied number. This was fun, but harder than it looked – I’ll look forward to grappling with it again next year.
The Moving On song Not a massive arrangement – just drums, melodica and a couple of brief harmony vocal lines – but the texture of the (heavily-processed) melodica, the slightly over-fiddly drum pattern and the irregularity of the time signature make for an appropriately edgy, claustrophobic atmosphere. I like the way the melodica’s come out, but I’ll probably never be able to do it again – I was trying for something much simpler.
The January Man he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather… What a song. With a big, plain song like this, you just need to practise till you’ve got it – you’re in trouble if the January man wears a leather coat, for example, or if the February man brushes snow from off his hands – and then resist the urge to do anything more to it at all.

Next stop, the Blue album: allmostly big ballads, alllargely unaccompanied, nolimited amounts of messing.

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Week 19: In the month of January, the January man

Week 19, and we approach the end of the seasonal white album with two January songs.

In the month of January is a beautiful Irish song; I bracket it with “When a man’s in love”, though they may be totally unconnected. This is after the singing of Sarah Makem and others. A lot of my ornamentation is after June Tabor; Sarah Makem’s influence is probably most audible on the swoops on some unstressed syllables. (That’s for any singers reading this. For everyone else, I just hope you like the song.)

Dave Goulder’s song The January man is one of my personal exceptions to the rule that there are no modern folk songs. This may not be a folk song, but the words and music make it sound like one, and it’s sung by folk singers who learn it from other folk singers. It’s a fine song, anyway, and deserves to be sung this and every January.

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Week 18: The King, Poor old horse

We mark the end of the Christmas period – and approach the end of the white album of seasonal songs – with two house-visiting songs.

The King is a song from the old post-Christmas custom of shooting a wren and displaying its body for luck. (The past is a foreign country.) Sung here in four-part harmony.

Poor old horse is a house-visiting song from the north of England; the ‘old horse’ would collapse and die towards the end, then spring back to life (and go on to the next house, presumably). Sung here without any harmonising, but with quite a lot of multi-tracking. The tune at the beginning and end is Scan Tester’s The Man in the Moon.

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