Category Archives: John Kelly

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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FS33: The valiant sailor

I’ve bought a concertina! (English system, secondhand; it’s a Lachenal tutor (for those who know about these things), 100+ years old, thoroughly refurbed 20-30 years ago & checked over the other day). It’s a beautiful instrument – the best purchase I’ve made in years.

The only problem is that I can’t play it yet. I have managed to get a few chords out of it, though, as you can hear on this song. (Four, to be precise: G, D, C and A minor.)

This song has a double debt to John Kelly, who I’ve namedropped a couple of times recently. I learned it from him in the first place – it’s the opening track, and one of the standouts, on his first album Come all you wild young men. This arrangement, slowing it right down to bring out the sadness of the story, is a departure from John’s – but it’s based on what he did to Greenland Whale Fisheries on his second album. I’ve got a weakness for really sad songs, and GWF has always been just a bit hearty for me (“There’s a whale! There’s a whale! There’s a whale-fish! he cried”); John’s arrangement is a revelation. I don’t think anyone’s ever criticised this song for being too cheerful, but I think this slow, still arrangement is quite effective all the same. See what you think.

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FS28: The streams of lovely Nancy

I’m on a mission this week: I’m hoping to disentangle this song from Come all you little streamers for once and for all. It hasn’t been easy – the temptation to go into “So come all you little streamers” at the end of this one was intense, but I resisted.

This song is clearly a relic of some earlier and more coherent song, but what that one was is a mystery. It shares one verse with CAYLS and nowadays is usually padded out with two more, but that seems to be a post-Revival practice; I’ve looked at several broadside versions and not seen any sign of the ship from the Indies, etc. But the broadsides weren’t much more use in terms of getting back to the original song, as they padded it out with verses from the Manchester Angel insead. At most there only seem to be three verses definitely associated with this song, plus one shared with CAYLS. So I’ve sung them, and tweaked the wording of the shared verse (following a broadside copy) to make it as different as possible.

The tune is the one used by John Kelly on For honour and promotion; it’s a belter. He doesn’t play drums, but then I don’t play harmonium.


Filed under folk song, John Kelly, lovely Nancy, 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.


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

AS04: Sam Hall

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.)

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AS02: Spencer the Rover

Being a parent has its advantages:

And my children came around me with their prittle-prattling stories,
With their prittle-prattling stories to drive care away

While I’ve never walked out on my family and gone rambling around Rotherham, I love this song and feel a definite identification with Spencer; I’m glad it works out for him.

The definitive version of this song has to be John Kelly’s, most of which you can hear here. John started gigging in 1968(!), but for a variety of reasons has only recently started recording. His second album came out recently; if it’s anything like his first album, “Come all you wild young men“, it’ll be an essential purchase. (Like the old K-Tel albums, it’s not available in any shops, unfortunately – to get your hands on it you’ll need to contact John, or better still see him live.)

Like the Waterman, this is also an example of fitting a tune to a song: two tunes in this case, Three Rusty Swords and the Dusty Miller. There are a bunch of these tunes; they’re relatively simple to play, until you try playing them one after another at blazing speed. For reasons that escape me, they’re (a) known as hornpipes, despite being (b) in 3/2; and although they’re in 3/2, they’re (c) invariably played at the aforesaid blazing speed. Not easy, then, but fun – particularly when you’re in a large enough group that nobody can hear your bum notes!

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Filed under folk song, John Kelly, traditional