Category Archives: O my name is

Lessongs

I started going to Chorlton Folk Club in February 2003, a few months after it had opened. On my second venture there I got up and sang a song (Sally Free and Easy, very much after Bert Jansch); it went down OK, and that was it – from that day forward I was A Folkie.

I don’t know if Les Jones was there that night, but I suspect he was; he was a regular from very early on. He used to stand in occasionally for Jozeph, the MC, and take advantage of his position by opening each half with a tune or two on his beloved mandola. I remember Jozeph encouraging him to give us a song on more than one occasion, but to no avail. I also remember Les – as MC – responding to one of my more far-flung song choices, after I’d come off, by announcing to the room “I know an excellent song by Joni Mitchell. [Pause] Which I do not intend to sing.” (He always had a way with a pause.)

It probably wasn’t very long – a couple of months? – before Les did start singing at Chorlton. At this point a typical night would involve seven or eight performers, who’d get two songs in the first half and one in the second half – luxury, eh? Only a couple of the regulars sang unaccompanied, though. I like to think that my example gave Les a bit of a nudge – I’d showed that it was possible for a complete unknown to stand up and deliver a song unaccompanied, with minimal musical or social skills, and get applause for it. What was to stop someone like him, who had actually done this stuff for real? In any case, he soon became a regular singer, sneaking in a song (rather than a tune) when he was MCing and joining the roster of performers when he wasn’t. He was defiantly un-stagey, though – literally so: the room where Chorlton FC meets had a low stage at that time, and Les invariably performed standing in front of it, not wanting to elevate himself above the crowd even by six inches.

I think it’s fair to say that tunes loomed larger in Les’s folk universe than they do in mine. Put it this way: I remember the first time I heard the Grand and Sportsman’s Hornpipes (courtesy of Steve Saxton); I also remember the first time I heard Sue van Gaalen sing Wild roving no more. One of them made me think “that’s really nice, I should probably learn that”; the other made me think “my God, where has that been all my life?”.  For a tunes person it would probably be the other way round. Back in the early 00s, anyway, Les was quietly trying to build up a tune-playing circle, and within a couple of years I’d become part of it. I forget how this happened, but I suspect that it involved persistent questioning on Les’s part and vague expressions of interest on mine (“Excellent. How are you fixed for next Tuesday?”). I spent hours with a music stand in the kitchen, in the winter of 2005, learning tunes from Les’s stock of “tunes in pairs” (printed in colour-coded collections with a map of the Fallowfield Loop on the cover). We even played ‘out’, in a variety of combinations and locations.

Then, in December 2007, Les started the Beech singaround, an overwhelming experience of traditional song which quite literally changed my life; if I’d known I was a folkie before, now I knew why. The Beech tunes session got going a year or so later; I rapidly felt outclassed by the intimidating levels of sheer, unadulterated musical competence that everyone else seemed to have, dropped out, then changed instruments, spent another few years working through the Beech tune book, then another year working through the revised Beech tune book… and, to cut a long story short, haven’t yet dropped back in. (One of these days, though. It will happen.) In recent years I’d even drifted away from the Dulcimer singaround – seduced by the rival traddie attractions of the Gas Lamp, the Belvedere and the rival Tuesday evening attraction of copland’s pub quiz – although I’m aiming to rectify that now. Bit late, but there it is.

In any case, I heard Les sing – at Chorlton FC, at the Beech, at the Dulcimer and in various other places – many, many times, from mid-2003 to late 2016. What he invariably referred to as “daft songs” predominated, especially at first. There was his own parody of The Wild Rover (no nay never, no more… will I sing ‘The Wild Rover’…). I hope somebody recorded this while we had the chance; it had some brilliant lines.

So I pulled from my repertoire a song brand spanking new –
No religion or politics, it wasn’t even blue –

It was only a folk song in heavy disguise

Once, after a South American holiday during which he’d sung at a trova, he adapted the Wild Rover to be a song about – well, singing at a trova. (According to Les at the time a trova was a bar where they had song sessions. The dictionary says it means ‘ballad’, but who knows.)

He did kids’ songs and counting songs – Old John Braddelum and Him and His Good Companions. I remember him investing Old John Braddelum with a defiant, almost aggressive meaninglessness:

Number four! Number four!
Some likes a gate but I likes a door!

Number eight! Number eight!
Some likes a door but I likes a gate!

I’ve known him start a session with a quick round of Whose pigs are these?, and liven up the back end of the evening with a never-ending round of Nelson’s Blood (A big mucky blonde wouldn’t do us any harm… Yes, that was Les.) I don’t think I’ll ever forget his updated All for me grog:

Where is me wife?
Me hobbin’ nobbin’ wife
[ALL GONE FOR BEER AND TOBACCO!]
For a feminist is she
And that’s all right by me
Or I’d be hanging out for better weather

He liked getting a good loud chorus going – I think he much preferred being at the centre of what was going on than being the centre of attention in his own right. Beer and drinking songs were a bit of a theme. He did Oh good ale – admitting once that he’d been singing it for years under the impression it was a celebration of beer – and a terrific The Old Dun Cow (“Macintyre!”). And he did Keith Marsden’s Bring us a barrel for years, although more recently Jack Parker’s made it his own.

But he didn’t just do daft songs. He did the Lincolnshire Poacher, slightly modified (A health to every poacher that lives in Man-ches-ter!); he did Oak, ash and thorn (which I think was the only Bellamy I ever heard him do). The Whitby Lad was a real fixture – I remember hearing him do that at Chorlton, early on. He did Thame Fair, which is a pretty daft song – at least, it was the way Les sang it – but also hellishly fiddly; he was more skilled as a singer than he liked to let on. He did The Manchester rambler, of course, and he did Graeme Miles’s Drift from the Land. His voice was strong but not very expressive, and the plainness of his delivery worked perfectly with that song, just as it did with the Whitby Lad. It was one of the most moving things I’ve heard in a singaround.

All the young fellows have gone to the city,
All the young fellows have gone to the town,
Soon they’ll be earning near double the money
Ever they earned at the harrow and plough.

I don’t remember him doing much in the way of shanties, although the tipping-point for me – the moment when traditional song really caught hold of me – was Les leading off Ranzo; I’m eternally grateful for that. I heard him do Hal an Tow (at the appropriate time of year) at least once, and Cob-a-coaling made regular appearances around Bonfire NeetNight. What else? Did I hear him do The Rawtenstall Annual Fair? Hanging Johnny? On a Monday Morning? John Ball? I know he knew all of the above, of course and they’ve all got good big joiny-in bits (to use the technical term), so they certainly would have appealed to Les. Whether I can actually remember him doing them, though – not sure.

So here’s my provisional list of Lessongs. Updates and additions welcome.

Parody (Les’s own)

The Wild Rover

Contemporary songs

Bring us a barrel
The Manchester rambler
Drift from the land
Oak, ash and thorn

Traditional songs (daft)

Old John Braddelum
Him and his good companions
Whose pigs are these?
Nelson’s Blood
All for me grog
The Old Dun Cow
Cob-a-coaling
Twankydillo [added 27/6/17]
Hullabaloo belay [added 16/11/17; Les loved the relentless daftness of this song, as well as its rather mixed back story]

Traditional songs (straight)

Oh good ale
The Lincolnshire Poacher
The Whitby Lad
Thame Fair
Ranzo
Hal an Tow

Update 27/6/17 Just remembered Twankydillo, another one for the ‘Traditional (daft)’ list. Les used to add the odd verse, notably

Here’s a health to the Secretary and also the Chair
And all party members, except Tony Blair!

Les was a stalwart of the Labour Party, who (unlike me) had remained loyal – to the party – through the Blair years. He didn’t support the current leadership, but largely on pragmatic grounds; he often argued that radicalism needed to be accompanied by electability if the party was going to do anyone any good. I don’t know what he’d make of the current situation – with Corbyn’s party polling 45% and above – but I’d have loved to argue with him about it.

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Filed under Ewan MacColl, Les Jones, O my name is, Rudyard Kipling

NS32: Old Molly Metcalfe

Jake Thackray was a writer, singer and guitarist. I’ll start that again – Jake Thackray was a remarkable writer, singer and guitarist; far more remarkable, I think, than most of his audience realised. Few people can write with the grace and wit he displayed, and hardly any of them are half the guitarist he was. Respect didn’t translate into financial security – does it ever? – and his career didn’t end well; he was declared bankrupt at the age of 61 and died two years later.

Most of his material was funny, but this isn’t; it’s a story about another woman herding of her ewes together, told from a very different perspective. (I got it from a recording by Tony Capstick, who knew a good song when he heard one.) The facility – and often the superficiality – of Jake Thackray’s work can lead him to be lumped together with the likes of Miles Kington and Richard Stilgoe, instead of more substantial writers like his hero Georges Brassens. Certainly there wasn’t any radicalism or anger in his songs – except when there was.

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Filed under Jake Thackray, not a folk song, O my name is, Tony Capstick

AS37: General Wolfe

This is a song I already knew (courtesy of Dave Bishop), but fell in love all over again on hearing Jo Freya’s Traditional Songs of England.

I don’t know the history of this song, beyond the obvious point that it post-dates the Battle of Quebec. There are some oddities in the lyrics – particularly the time-shift in the first verse – which made me want to find an earlier version, but I didn’t have much luck; I managed to trace it back as far as the Watersons (which isn’t very far) but couldn’t find any broadside copies.

The accompaniment is mostly concertina – with a bit of recorder – although the chords eluded me, so I went for drones instead.

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Filed under Dave Bishop, folk song, Jo Freya, O my name is, traditional

FS41: Earl Richard

Child 68. This one took me slightly by surprise. “Sir Richard” came first this week; having decided on that one, I looked around for a folk song with some sort of thematic or titular connection, and mostly drew a blank. I settled on “Bold Sir Rylas”, before deciding that I really wanted something slightly less tasteless. But what? I looked for “Sir _____” songs (and “Lord _____” songs and even “Lady _____” songs) in the usual places, but didn’t find anything.

Then I had the bright idea of looking for “Richard” songs, and what should come up but… Young Hunting. “Earl Richard” is, it turns out, one of the alternative titles of Child 68, or Young Hunting as it’s generally known. This is a song I’ve been very fond of ever since hearing it on Tony Rose’s eponymous album. I’ve never sung it live, and only ever heard it sung out once (courtesy of the redoubtable Alan Grace); the length makes it a bit daunting. So I was glad to have a chance of doing it here. It’s one of those “boy meets girl, everybody dies” plots, but with some really bizarre elements; for birds to talk isn’t unknown in traditional songs, but it’s rather unusual for them to convey essential plot information. The plot’s thoroughly pervaded with supernatural elements – witness the methods used to discover the body and then to identify the murderer.

Textually this is, basically, the version of Young Hunting recorded by Tony Rose, who credited it to Pete Nalder. When I looked at Child I discovered that Nalder (of whom I know nothing) had done an extraordinary job on the song – there are nine variants of Child 68, all covering slightly different portions of the story and emphasising different aspects of it, and Nalder’s Young Hunting takes something from almost all of them. (And, in my defence, four of the nine call the main character “Earl Richard”, as against only two “Young Hunting”s.)

I tweaked the text a bit more, with Child open in front of me (virtually). The main change I made was to drop the nine-month delay in the story, which only features in version E. This meant losing the “heavy smell” which prompted the lady to dispose of the body, but it turns out that that wasn’t in Child at all – in 68E “word began to spread”, rather less bathetically. Nalder also has “ladies” (in general) making the suggestion that the body’s in the river, rather than the (guilty) “lady” as in the original. In some versions she points the search party towards the river after swearing that she’s innocent by the sun and the moon; I liked that, so it went back in. Another detail that got a bit lost in Nalder’s version was the fact that the young man was (or had been) the lady’s lover; again, I put it back in. Here’s a blog post tracing where my text came from, verse by verse.

Anyway, by the time I’d finished I’d cut one verse from Nalder’s version and added three, taking the song from 31 verses to 33. (You weren’t going anywhere, were you?) Despite this added length, my version is actually a full minute shorter than Tony Rose’s, representing an increase in the average verse delivery rate from 4.3 per minute to 5.4. You don’t get efficiency like that everywhere.

Apart from a bit of recorder, the accompaniment is some drones that I had lying around; there’s melodica and flute, and there may be a bit of the old Bontempi reed organ in there too. I was thinking of adding some concertina, but in the end the sound palette seemed quite full enough as it was.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, O my name is, Pete Nalder, Tony Rose

AS35: Sweet Jenny of the moor

This is another “broken token” ballad. Stylistically it’s very much a written piece of work (“one morn for recreation”, indeed); the repeated rhymes on “moor” seem particularly literary. (Where was this ‘moor’, anyway? Jenny of the Beach would have been more accurate; rhymes might have been a problem, though.) The briskness with which the writer gets through the key points of the plot is also striking – the audience could obviously be assumed to know what was going on.

Accompanied on English concertina, with a quick burst of C whistle towards the end. I learned it from Tony Rose’s version, which is well worth tracking down – he could really play that box.

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Filed under folk song, O my name is, Tony Rose, traditional

FS35: William Taylor

This is a revenge ballad, and quite a satisfying one; you can’t help feeling William Taylor gets what’s coming to him, although it is a bit rough on the new girlfriend. The “woman cross-dressing to go on board ship” trope sits rather oddly in this song; apart from anything else, the captain doesn’t turn a hair when our heroine asks after her “true love”, so either he’s quite extraordinarily broad-minded for the period or she’s changed back into women‘s apparel by this point. We also have to presume that the ship hasn’t actually left port when all this is happening – and what is William doing out walking with his “lady gay” at the crack of dawn anyway? (Coming home from a club?) Perhaps it doesn’t bear too much analysis.

My source for this was John Kelly; this is the fourth 52fs song which also appears on John’s album For honour and promotion, and may well not be the last. I considered doing the (more usual?) brisker version of the tune, but decided to try taking it at John’s pace. Instrumentation: bongoes, double-tracked zither.

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Filed under folk song, John Kelly, O my name is, traditional

FS26: Mary Hamilton

The lead song for this week is Mary Hamilton, also known (in fragmentary form) as The Four Maries.

I only came across this song relatively recently, on John Kelly’s excellent second album For Honour and Promotion, but I was immediately taken with it. Like a number of my favourite folksongs, it ends with several verses of defiant gallows rhetoric, but in this case it’s wrapped up with an hauntingly childlike little rhyme:

Yest’reen the Queen had four Maries
Tonight she’ll have but three.
There was Mary Seaton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Carmichael and me.

The real Mary Hamilton evades identification, along with the real Patrick Spens and the real Hughie the Graeme. Mary Queen of Scots did in fact have four maids named Marie, two of whom were Marie Seaton and Marie Beaton; the names obviously lodged in people’s minds. (The other two were Marie Fleming and Marie Livingston.)

Singing this unaccompanied, I had trouble getting John’s tune to work; I ended up using the tune that’s generally used for Willie o’ Winsbury (see how all this fits together?), only in 4/4 rather than 6/8. Properly speaking, this is the tune to False Foodrage rather than Willie o’ Winsbury; one of these days I’ll dig out the original tune to Wo’W and set False Foodrage to it.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, John Kelly, O my name is, traditional