Category Archives: O my name is

AS16: John from the Isle of Man

This is a variant of Willie o’ Winsbury, and one which departs from the usual storyline further than most. In this one the daughter isn’t pregnant and the father objects to “young John” on the general principle of protecting his daughter from excessive male attention. (There’s also the unusual detail of the boyfriend being called John and coming from the Isle of Man.) When they meet, of course, the King is so impressed by young John’s good looks that he drops his objections.

Both the tune and the phrasing are from a recording made by Robert Cinnamond (1884-1968), who had a large repertoire of songs learned from his father and grandmother. His delivery of this song – particularly the heavily dotted 4/4 rhythm and the emphatic swoops on unstressed syllables – was too distinctive not to imitate; I expect it’ll seep into the way I sing other songs.

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AS17: Tom the Barber

This is another Willie o’ Winsbury variant, with the same essential structure as most: King returns from abroad to find his daughter pregnant, he asks who the father is with a view to having him expelled or executed, but on meeting him is so impressed with his good looks that he immediately offers his daughter’s hand in marriage and a share of the kingdom. The consistent final twist is that the daughter’s lover is not only a bit of all right but also loaded, and has no interest in the kingdom part of the deal. It’s a father’s wish-fulfilment fantasy in some ways, although the passage where the King effectively says he quite fancies young Willie himself seems a bit excessive. A ‘Barber’ in this case is probably a Berber, or at least someone hailing from Barbary in North Africa. It’s hard to believe that his skin would have been ‘white as milk’ in the circumstances – but then, it’s not as if your disbelief hadn’t been suspended already.

This version was collected by Cecil Sharp, who seems to have excised the crucial verse; it was a bit racy by his standards. (I’ve put it back in.) I learned it from Tony Rose’s recording(s), although I couldn’t get on with his tune. The tune I use here is essentially the tune to which John Kelly sings Mary Hamilton, although – as with that song – I found it easier to sing it in 4/4 rather than 6/8.

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FS25: George Collins

An odd and rather creepy song: George Collins kisses a ‘pretty maid’; George Collins dies; his girlfriend dies, and so do five other women. The end.

Bert Lloyd argued, I think correctly, that Child 42 (Clerk Colvill) and 85 (Lady Alice) are fuller versions of the first and second halves of this song, which in turn implies that this song once existed in a much longer and more detailed form. What we can draw from Clerk Colvill is that the ‘pretty maid’ was no such thing, but a malevolent mermaid or other supernatural being, who first enchanted and then poisoned the central character. Incidentally, I don’t think the text gives much support to the feminist reading mentioned on this Mudcat thread, according to which Clerk Colvill was cheating on both his wife and the mermaid, who was only taking a justified, if slightly excessive, revenge. There’s not a lot of sisterly solidarity in the old ballads, and where it does exist it doesn’t tend to include mermaids. Why everyone around Clerk Colvill or George Collins promptly drops dead is less clear; this may have been a later addition, in the general spirit of having people die for love. (Or, as Jack suggested on that thread, there may have been a subtext involving syphilis.)

I learned this from Tony Rose’s recording on Bare Bones. Given the subject matter, I wasn’t very happy with the lilting, dreamy melody Tony Rose used – it works well for him, but I found the contrast between what I was singing and how I was singing it too uncomfortable. I used the melody in Classic English Folk Songs (formerly the EBPFS), but changed the time signature from 4/4 to 6/8, added a repeat and put in a mixolydian flattened seventh to make it slightly darker (it’s the first syllable of ‘pretty’ in ‘fair pretty maid’). There’s something a bit nagging and uncomfortable about all the instrumental tracks I’ve used here – melodica, drone and an old Generation high-G whistle; again, this felt right for the song. (This is folk song, lad – nobody ever said it would be fun.)

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AS15: Jamie Douglas

Child 204.

This version is based quite closely on June Tabor’s version (retitled “Waly Waly”) on the album Airs and Graces. She did quite a lot of work on Child’s original, piecing together a version that works well from four or five of Child’s variants. I’ve made a couple more changes, pulling in two “Farewell” verses and dropping one of the floating “heartbreak and regret” verses, but by and large this is June Tabor’s Jamie Douglas.

I’m eternally wary of claimed factual origins for ballads, but it does appear that there was a historical Jamie Douglas who did send his wife back to her father as damaged goods. Beyond that, who knows?

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FS23: Little Musgrave

This is the good stuff. The song, I mean; the performance is as good as I could get it, but I’m not claiming any more than that. But the song… what a song.

Child 81, and it’s what we now think of as a typical Child ballad: it’s longish, it’s bloody, it comes in several variants and it’s got a couple of unforgettable images. (Apart from the confrontation between Musgrave and Lord Barnard – both of whom display a remarkable degree of sang froid in the circumstances – I’m particularly fond of the verse beginning “Is not your hawk”; as if to say, why would you want to leave now, when your life’s about as good as it’s ever going to be? (She was right about that, of course.))

This version is based on Nic Jones’s recorded version, which in turn is based mainly on variant 81G. I’ve doctored the text in a couple of places, mostly using material from other variants; I wanted it to be clear that Lord Barnard’s page rode as far as the wide water (version D), and I wanted to keep Lord Barnard’s closing fit of suicidal remorse (versions A and G). The other thing I didn’t much like about Nic Jones’s version was the use of two different tunes, both rather unvarying. I spent some time trying to work out a tune that was interesting enough to sustain the whole ballad; this one came to me one day when I was hanging out the washing, more or less complete (although later I made some modifications – see below).

One final change: Helen Jocys, who died last Christmas Day, used to sing Matty Groves occasionally at our local singaround. It’s quite a different song (and considerably shorter), and begins with a line that isn’t in any of the Child variants: “A holiday, a holiday, the first of all the year”. I used to follow Nic Jones’s use of “As it fell out upon a day, as many in the year”, but got a bit fed up with it – partly because it means the ballad’s starting with two lines that don’t actually say anything, and partly because of a parody I saw on Mudcat…

Then it fell out upon a day
As it often had before
But Matty tucked it in again
And hoped that no one saw

Ahem. Anyway, I was in the market for a new pair of first lines, and there (one night) were Helen and Matty.

So thankyou, Helen. She was a fine traditional singer and a remarkable accordionist, who always seemed to have the biggest repertoire in the room. She was also a really nice person and supportive of singers who were just getting started (e.g. me). She’ll be missed.

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FS21: True Thomas

A.k.a. Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas Rymer; Child 37.

The text of this ballad is a bit frustrating; there’s a lot there, but there seems to be an awful lot missing. (What was it like for Thomas not to be able to speak while he was in Elfland – or not to be able to lie once he got back?)

The tune I’m using is based on Ewan MacColl’s recording; the text is Child, but anglicised and reordered a bit. The accompaniment… I wasn’t going to have accompaniment on these songs, was I? That’s New Year resolutions for you. The accompaniment is a bit more creative than I usually get; I was listening to Spiritualized in between recording it, which gave me a renewed appreciation of the uses of drones. For once the drumming’s come out quite well, too.

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FS20: Sir Patrick Spens

This is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.

…and as such, really needs no introduction. A Child ballad, and one of the most famous of them.

I learned this not from Nic Jones’s version (which it resembles) but James Yorkston’s, on the 2005 mini-album Hoopoe; when I first sang it in public I hadn’t yet got hold of any of Nic Jones’s recordings. (Nor when I wrote this; the last line was an educated guess.) Seems like a while ago now.

There are many other versions (here’s one); one of these days I’ll work up the one where they try to save the ship by tying it up with string. (If you don’t want to know the result, look away now.) For now, let me tell you about where the King was, what he was drinking and what happened next.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, James Yorkston, Nic Jones, O my name is, traditional