25 February 2012 · 11:41 am
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?
11 February 2012 · 3:35 pm
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.
28 January 2012 · 5:00 pm
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.
20 January 2012 · 8:48 pm
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.
20 January 2012 · 8:30 pm
This is also the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.
I came to this one relatively recently, via a rediscovered recording of Peter Bellamy’s Maritime England Suite (I very nearly wrote “Sir Peter Bellamy” there, and God knows he would have deserved it). It’s one of the versions of the song where Sir Patrick & crew make it to Norway (or Norrowa’) but are wrecked on the way home. With that in mind, I particularly like the way it skips straight from the King’s broad letter to the trouble in the Norwegian court; you can imagine some audiences thinking Wait a minute, he got to Norway? The tune is apparently from Ewan MacColl, possibly from a traditional source and possibly not; according to a post on this Mudcat thread, Bellamy only discovered after recording it that the tune might have been MacColl’s own, and didn’t take it well.
The Maritime England version features Dolly Collins’s piano and Ursula Pank’s cello – and Bellamy’s voice, of course. That’s rather a lot for anyone to live up to. On the other hand, if I was overawed by the greats all the time I’d never get anything sung – and the worst thing you can do with these songs is not sing them. So here it is.
25 November 2011 · 10:41 pm
Child 94. One of the more laconic of the big ballads, and beautifully constructed. In the very first verse
The queen looked over the castle wall and beheld both dale and down
And then she saw Young Waters come riding into town
and from that moment everybody’s doomed, more or less. I particularly like the way that Young Waters’s marital status – a fairly crucial variable, in the circumstances – is withheld almost until the last line of the last verse: poor old Lady Waters only comes in when she’s being haled off to the heading hill.
This version is, of course, heavily indebted to June Tabor’s version on her first album, complete with the eldritch drone of the Rocksichord. I have no Rocksichord (does anyone?) but I managed quite a decent chordal accompaniment on the melodica (which was played straight through, without any looping). Plus drumming (a pair of bongoes bought in my teens and never played in public), and recorder – when you play the track, do hang on for the recorder. First percussion in 52fs; also the first use of harmony. There were six tracks in all, and it took bloody ages to fit them all together; I think it was worth it, though.
4 November 2011 · 4:13 pm
As I said in the notes to the Bonny Bunch of Roses, the idea of a young man on his deathbed saying goodbye to his mother is dreadfully poignant. This is a happier counterpart: an unborn baby talking (telepathically?) to his mother and looking forward to great things:
Spread the word: tomorrow morn
A future poet shall be born
(I want to quote the whole thing now.)
If you’ve had children, you’ll know that every baby is a tyrant; every baby is a megalomaniac, who wants the world and wants it now. And every baby is bound for glory; every baby is going to sweep the whole world along and prevail in spite of all the universe. This song captures some of that glorious sense of hope and purpose and power – and makes it true.
The picture at the Bandcamp page for this song, incidentally, isn’t Byron; it’s Napoleon II, Emperor of France and King of Rome, modelled as a baby.
21 October 2011 · 10:23 pm
Time for a tribute to one of my very favourite singers of traditional songs, and one who’s generally overlooked these days: Tony Capstick. He’s remembered, when he’s remembered at all, as a comedy-folkie from the Billy Connolly/Jasper Carrott/Mike Harding school, who (like them) eventually hung up the guitar and found stardom in comedy. This is half-true, but I think Capstick was a real loss to the folk scene – not least as an interpreter of traditional songs. This is a case in point; it appears as the last track on his second album Punch and Judy Man, in an arrangement that could pass for Horslips – all weird time signatures and electric guitar solos.
I haven’t emulated that arrangement – to put it another way, it’s taken me two years to stop emulating it – but what I have tried to take from Capstick’s singing is his timekeeping. Accompanying himself, he would let the guitar keep the beat and sing all around it, but unaccompanied he would nail every bar. There are worse ways to sing.
The song’s a terrific, defiant gallows speech, carrying on from Lord Allenwater last week. Again, I’ve skipped some of the more outlandish parts of the lyric – if you want Hughie the Graeme jumping fifteen feet from a standing start, I’m afraid you’ll have to sing it yourself. These lyrics are partly Child, partly Burns, partly MacColl and probably part Capstick. It doesn’t make much odds; there are lots of variants of this one, but they don’t fall very far from the tree.
Unaccompanied again – could have done with a drone, perhaps, or a bit of variation? Maybe next week.
21 October 2011 · 10:23 pm
More gallows defiance. While I’m giving credit where it’s due, this one (like Spencer) came to me from John Kelly’s excellent first album. The original of the song was a chimneysweep and petty thief called Jack Hall, who (the story goes) was hanged alongside a notorious highwayman; the highwayman drew a crowd, and Jack Hall took the opportunity to put in a few boasts of his own.
A lot of versions of this song are openly angry and defiant, with repetitions of the “Damn your eyes!” line. What I liked about John’s version (and tried to emulate here) was the way that it gently brings out the emptiness of “Sam”‘s claims to fame. The ‘cows’ line is typical; apparently ‘cow’ was thieves’ slang for a sixpence, meaning that Sam was boasting about having robbed a grand total of £1. (Some versions have ‘twenty pounds’, which loses this point.) You can almost hear the self-doubt and despair that were below the surface. (Perhaps. Maybe that’s just the way we like to tell the story nowadays.)
14 October 2011 · 3:44 pm
Child 208 (as Lord Derwentwater). This is a song about the execution of a Jacobite – the same Lord Derwentwater whose dying words are supposed to be recorded in the ‘Farewell’. I learned the song from Shirley and Dolly Collins’s marvellous version on the album For as many as will, although at first I found it hard to get to make it work in the absence of trumpets and a portative organ. I was heavily influenced by Patti Reid’s unaccompanied Lord Derwentwater (thanks, Martin); I also rummaged fairly freely in variants of Child 208 for a set of verses I was happy with. In the Collinses’ Lord Allenwater, for example, our man denies being a traitor and then proclaims his loyalty to King George, which is not only historically inaccurate but turns a noble gesture of defiance into something a bit feeble. There are versions where Lord D.’s severed head speaks, and others where his headless body stands up and walks, neither of which miracles would really have the desired effect on a modern audience; I was briefly tempted to include both of them, but ended up leaving them out. I did keep the business with the letter, despite it being an obvious lift from Sir Patrick Spens. Folk process innit.
This is one of my favourite songs; I hope I’ve done it justice.
Update 31/8/13 Now re-recorded; still no trumpets or portative organ, but there is flute and concertina. Otherwise my thoughts about the song are unchanged – and this time round I think I have done it justice.