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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Another Bellamy setting of a Kipling poem. The poem, which is said to be based on a true story, vividly brings out the horror of a public hanging – a contorted black shape, a whimpering cry, men shivering and fainting as they watch. But it’s not anti-hanging; it’s not even anti- this particular hanging, except in the sense of pitying what the poor man has been reduced to. The nearest thing to a narrative voice in the poem is the voice carrying the refrains (“For they’re hanging Danny Deever” and so on) – and that third voice makes it quite clear what we’re to think of Danny Deever:
They’re hanging Danny Deever – you must mark him to his place,
He shot a comrade sleeping, you must look him in the face
Nine hundred of his county and the regiment’s disgrace
They’re hanging Danny Deever in the morning.
(Gawd love yer, Rudyard, but I ain’t reproducin’ your bloomin’ vernacular punctuation for nuffink.)
Nine hundred of his county and the regiment’s disgrace – that line is at the heart of the poem, and really explains what it’s doing. To execute a man is a terrible thing; to turn out first thing in the morning, stand at attention and watch a man being executed is a terrible experience. But, in the world of the poem, it’s what the soldiers must do, when one of their number disgraces them; it’s another burden that they take on themselves. Which is a nasty theme, frankly – the self-pity of the strong, the thug’s troubled conscience – and would make for a nasty poem. I think what just about rescues this poem – making it both brutal and humane, instead of just brutally sentimental – is the vividness of Danny’s suffering and the fellow-feeling of his comrades. In this poem as in My boy Jack, Kipling’s compulsion to turn all the dials up to eleven results in something both moving and troubling.