Category Archives: Yellow

The eighteenth day of June (26F 10-12)

Now the eighteenth day of June it has ended the battle… True enough; however, the last battle in the Battle of Waterloo took place the next morning, the 19th of June (Napoleon wasn’t involved). So today is in fact the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, sort of.

And what better time to revisit some songs about Napoleon? Here (for week 12) is the Grand Conversation on Napoleon, closely followed by the (very similar) tune The Cuckoo’s Nest:

And here’s the Bonny Bunch of Roses. For a long time this was my ‘calling card’ song, the one I’d always do the first time I was in front of a new audience. (These days it’s more likely to be The Trees They Do Grow High.) I’m still very fond of this one, though.

At the time I was recording these, I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to revisit the recordings; although these were both assembled from three different tracks, I only kept a final mixed-down WAV file. Although I thought the vocal (and flute) performances were strong enough to keep, I would have liked to do something about the Bontempi drone – which sounded pretty good when it was the only drone I was capable of producing, but sounds rather whiny now. I’ve done what I could in terms of equalisation, but I’m afraid you can still hear it!

I have re-recorded this, however: Boney’s Lamentation, a small masterpiece of folk history and mondegreenery (We marched them forth in inveterate streams…)

Saving the best till, well, fourth… I’ve also re-recorded this:

A song you could spend years with. I must have sung it a hundred times, and it’s still different every time.

Going back a fortnight, Plains of Waterloo and the Bonny Bunch of Roses are unusual among folk songs in mentioning the month of June. The previous month is far more widely referenced. It’s May she comes and May she goes (poor girl)….

Another pre-concertina recording, with Tony Rose’s arrangement shadowed on melodica and flute. I actually think it works rather well. Remixed – or at least re-equalised – for this outing.

Where you’ve got the Bonny Hind, you’ve got to have Sheath and Knife. This is another new recording, using a vocal drone that I recorded ages ago (I think it was for Master Kilby). The thing with Sheath and Knife is to maintain a contrast between the verse and the blankly repeating refrain, and to keep the song sounding at once sweetly pretty and grimly ominous (“The broom blooms bonny”… how nice). And, of course, to avoid singing “the bloom brooms bonny” or “the boom bloons brommy”.

And who else roved out one May morning, when may was all in bloom? George Collins, come on down:

Another re-recording from scratch, and one I’m rather pleased with. I got the tune from Shirley & Dolly Collins (no relations) and worked out the accompaniment on paper; both the concertina chords and the recorder parts are actually scored.

Moving back to fortnight 10, we go back to the very last day of May, and a re-recording of the first song I recorded with concertina: The Valiant Sailor. This time round I’m playing it a bit more briskly, and (more importantly) I’m actually playing the accompaniment while I sing:

And, finally for this round-up, another re-recording. Searching for Lambs: one of the great English folk songs. Compared to the original recording, I’ve lost the zither and the melodica drone – and the slightly unearthly atmosphere they created – but gained concertina chords and recorder; I think it’s a pretty good swap.

Searching for Lambs (the embedded Bandcamp player is refusing to link to this one for some reason)

The Valiant Sailor is from the 52 Folk Songs – Yellow album.
Searching for Lambs is from 52 Folk Songs – Green.
The Bonny Hind, Sheath and Knife and George Collins are from 52 Folk Songs – Blue.
The Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Grand Conversation on Napoleon, Boney’s Lamentation and Plains of Waterloo are from 52 Folk Songs – Indigo.

All new recordings and remixes are free to download, should you so wish.

Leave a comment

Filed under 26 Fortnights, Blue, folk song, Green, Indigo, the deeds of great Napoleon, traditional, Yellow

Twenty-Six Fortnights – 4

Two unaccompanied numbers for the fourth fortnight of the year.

When I heard The Lowlands of Holland for the first time… I can’t have been listening very closely. But when I heard it for the second time, I was spellbound; I played it three or four times in a row (and I was listening to an LP, so that took dedication – not to mention a fair degree of dexterity) and started learning it on the spot.

I recorded it for the Yellow album. I liked the way it came out; the delivery is plain and unassertive without being meek or mumbly. That’s what I think, anyway – see what you make of it.

The Lowlands of Holland is from the 52 Folk Songs – Yellow album.

Banks of Yarrow, a.k.a. The Banks of Green Willow, is a song I’ve always found fascinating and frustrating in equal measure – frustrating because the story is so bafflingly fragmented and because the usual tune is so inappropriately jolly. I decided to learn it myself when I came across Debra Cowan‘s recording, which is terrific – she’d used a fuller text than usual (pieced together from different variants) and set it to an appropriately downbeat tune. This is my main source here, although I’ve gone back to the texts and fleshed the song out a bit more.

I’ve re-recorded the song for this project. Originally I recorded it for the final, Red album; in fact this was the 52nd of my 52 weekly folk songs. Listening to it back I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way I’d sung it; I hadn’t let myself trust the pace of the melody (in other words, I’d speeded it up as I went on). This is a fine tune, which can stand a bit of tugging about, but it doesn’t want to be brisk. The re-recording takes it a bit steadier; I think it works better. (As always, the price to download of the re-recorded version has been adjusted down to zero.)

Banks of Yarrow is from the 52 Folk Songs: Red album.

Leave a comment

Filed under 26 Fortnights, Red, Yellow

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Yellow

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

Week 39: The dark-eyed sailor, Sweet Jenny of the moor

For the final week of the Yellow album, here are two nineteenth-century “broken token” ballads.

The dark-eyed sailor: learnt from Tony Rose’s recording, recast in a fairly definite 3/4 and with instrumentation, frankly, out the wazoo.

Sweet Jenny of the Moor
: also learnt from Tony Rose’s recording, and played exactly as he played it, only without some of the good bits.

Leave a comment

Filed under Yellow

Week 38: I would that the wars were all done, High Germanie, The weary cutters

Week 38 eh? Where does the time go? (There’s a song there somewhere.)

Three conscription songs this week. The most sentimental & the most “written”-sounding is I would that the wars were all done; I’m not that keen on the verses, but the refrain makes up for it. Accompanied with two-note concertina chords; partly sung in mid-air.

High Germanie continues the recent sub-theme of sketchy European geography. (As I understand it “High” Germany was roughly what we now call Germany – Low Germany being the Netherlands – so the relative elevations are at least consistent. I don’t know which wars these were, though – or whether they were two separate conflicts or one that spread across the whole area.) I followed Pentangle in this version, perhaps too closely; I might try it again more slowly some time.

The weary cutters, lastly, is a short, sad song, sung by a mother whose son has been conscripted (“They’ve pressed him far away foreign”). Unlike most of these songs, I’ve known this one for, basically, ever; I’m fonder of it than I realised. Sung with (self-composed) harmonies.

Leave a comment

Filed under Yellow

Week 37: The lowlands of Holland, Shirt and comb

Conscription songs this week – in fact, two closely-related conscription songs.

The lowlands of Holland is a strange, almost dreamlike song – a great example of the way the folk process polishes away extraneous elements of a song (like the bits that make it all fit together) leaving only words and sound. After Martin Carthy; sung unaccompanied.

Shirt and comb, my first non-traditional song in a while, is a song by the great Peter Blegvad on a very similar theme; a kind of contemporary answer-song, in fact. Sung with drums, C whistle and I/V chords on English concertina.

Leave a comment

Filed under Yellow

Week 36: Two pretty boys, Son Davie

For week 36 I’m staying with violent death and going back to Child ballads.

Two pretty boys, generally known as Two brothers (Child 49), is a song about senseless violence. Almost everything in the story is left unexplained; it’s been suggested that it may go back to a sixteenth-century shooting. It’s sung unaccompanied (and after Bellamy).

Son Davie, more widely known as Edward (Child 13), is all about the aftermath of a killing; it’s a song on the general theme of “murder will out”. Some variants of Two brothers feature the distinctive “what’s that blood?” verses, creating the impression that these two might have originally been part of a single ballad telling the whole story of a murder, but this is misleading: older versions don’t have these extra verses, suggesting that they drifted in from this ballad at a later date. The tune used here is after Nic Jones; it’s sung with whistle, drums and (briefly) concertina.

Leave a comment

Filed under Yellow

Week 35: William Taylor, The ghost song

More songs with sea voyages (or at least trips to the coast) and deaths.

William Taylor dumps his fiancee to enlist for a sailor (although as far as we can tell he never actually makes it as far as the sea). She’s not pleased. The last verse appears to derive from a later, comic version of the song, but I liked it enough to keep it in. Learned from John Kelly’s recording; accompanied with drum and zither.

The ghost song (a.k.a. The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter) is a murder ballad of sorts: another William, also keen to go to sea, kills his (pregnant) fiancee. She’s not pleased either. A fairly chunky narrative with an extraordinary tune, learned from Peter Bellamy’s version, which itself derived from Sam Larner; sung unaccompanied.

Leave a comment

Filed under Yellow

Week 34: The lofty tall ship, Lowlands

We’re still at sea for week 34, and still suffering losses.

The lofty tall ship is a surprisingly laconic ballad about an episode in the life of a pirate; it’s one remnant of a much longer ballad, about a real (sixteenth-century) pirate, which ended with his execution. Featuring concertina (in drone mode).

Lowlands is about a haircut. A ghost, heartbreak, seaweed and a haircut. Based quite closely on Shirley Collins’s version, and featuring improvised harmonies.

Leave a comment

Filed under Yellow