An Irish song from the singing of Sarah Makem.
Learning this, I went to the length of notating the rolls, trills, swoops and other decorations applied to this song by different singers: Sarah Makem, of course, but also June Tabor and Jon Boden. On close listening, it turned out that Jon Boden hardly did anything to it, and Sarah Makem herself was quite restrained. What was even more interesting was that the words (and syllables) where Sarah Makem ornamented the tune were, as often as not, words that June Tabor left alone. I began by trying to copy June Tabor’s reading of the song, then tried to follow Sarah Makem, and finally gave up and did something that isn’t quite like either of them.
The other thing I was planning to emulate was Jon Boden’s strikingly plain & sparing concertina accompaniment. As it turned out, working out the chords wasn’t so simple (I suspect the playing isn’t as plain as it sounds), and I ended up with just voice and drone. Maybe another time.
As folk songs go, this is the real thing; a glorious song, up there with Lemady and Searching for lambs.
I’ve always loved this song, and I’m particularly pleased with the way this recording’s come out, so off you go and listen to it.
Perhaps it’s because I did Latin O Level – rephrase that, it’s definitely because I did Latin O Level – but I’ve always had a soft spot for macaronics, songs that dip in and out of other languages (usually Latin). Unto Us A Child Is Born is another seasonal example. In case your Latin’s getting a bit rusty, the chorus here translates as “I bring in the boar’s head, giving thanks to the Lord”; the single lines of Latin at the end of the each verse translate as “as many as are at the feast”, “[let us] serve it with a song” and “in the royal hall”. The last line of all means “it is served with mustard”(!).
For the arrangement, I had a copy of the sheet music with four vocal parts, but in the end I only used it for part of one line; the rest of the harmonies I either got from Jon Boden & friends’ AFSAD rendition or made up myself. Writing them out, and playing them against each other with Noteworthy, was essential; some combinations that look fine on the stave sound dreadful when played.
I feel as if I’ve known this song forever. I haven’t, by any means – I heard it for the first time about two years ago, and only learned it properly when Jon Boden featured it on AFSAD (although see NS06). Perhaps it’s more that I feel as if that this song has been there forever.
I love the sinuous, looping melody, and the way it combines a keening, yearning urgency (particularly strong in Jon Boden’s version) with a kind of bedazzled stillness; the overall effect is genuinely magical, almost incantatory. The folk-garbling of the lyrics has resulted in some lines that make no sense whatsoever, as it often does, but in this case it’s startlingly beautiful nonsense:
And she’s played it all over, all on her pipes of ivory
So early in the morning, at the break of day
This version is indebted to Jon Boden (as ever), but also to Jim Moray’s remarkable version; thanks also to Dave Bishop, one of my local folk heroes, whose rendition was the first I heard. But I couldn’t really find my way into it as a singer until I heard Tony Rose’s version on Bare Bones, which handles those ‘feminine’ line endings particularly well. I also thought it needed slowing down, without making the pace a funereal plod.
What all this added up to was singing it in 3/4. I don’t often change the time on songs I sing, but in this case I think it works. See what you think.
(Incidentally, I don’t credit Bellamy on this occasion because I haven’t actually heard his version. Yet!)
Update May 2013 On reflection I decided that the 3/4 time was a mistake, and if it was going to be a slow 4/4, it was going to be a slow 4/4 and that was all there was to it. Again, see what you think.
Child 20 (or similar). This is another song that exists in many variants, and another one which tells a heart-wrenching story without pointing a moral. Emily Portman’s comment quoted here
Rather than damning the protagonist as a cruel mother I think of her as a desperate woman caught in the trappings of a time when illegitimate pregnancy could result in being outcast from family and society.
seems valid but beside the point: the song doesn’t excuse the mother, but it doesn’t exactly damn her either. (She’s literally damned, but not for being an evil person.) As I read it, the song simply says that she dealt with an unwanted pregnancy by killing her babies, and that this was a dreadful thing – for her as well as for them. It’s probably a meaningless juxtaposition, but I do like the way the refrain runs on from the last verse in this version:
While you must drag out the fires of hell
Down by the greenwood side-i-o
At the end of the song, I think that’s exactly what she’s doing.
The tune here came from Jon Boden on AFSAD, and the words may have done too – certainly none of the sources I’ve looked at are an exact match to the words I sing. Folk process innit. (I couldn’t be doing with spending seven years ringing bells like a whale in the wood, or whatever it was.) I tried to keep the refrain as plain, unadorned and (above all) consistent as possible. I generally try to get the speaking voice into my delivery of folk songs, particularly the really old ones like this one, but refrains are an exception: I think they should work like a musical phrase that keeps coming round again, almost mechanically, to frame the story as it progresses.
Two cautionary tales this week.
This song is one of many, many variants – its cousins include Maid Struck Down In Her Prime, The Unfortunate Rake, Pills of White Mercury, Streets of Laredo, When I Was On Horseback and the St James Infirmary Blues. The plot, if that’s the word, is always the same: the song is the deathbed speech of someone who’s dying of VD. To modern ears the song seems curiously bald in the way the story is told: we hear that a young man (or woman) is suffering horribly and about to die, we hear what’s killing him or her, but all the obvious conclusions – how sad it is and what a dreadful warning – are left to us to draw. To my mind this lack of either sentiment or censoriousness is one of the key distinguishing factors of traditional songs: they may show us what to think, but they don’t tell. It can make for some incredibly powerful lines – in this song, think of the awful, casual bleakness of
Send for the doctor although it’s too late
In my experience, the contemporary songs that can stand comparison with traditional songs often have this quality, too – see today’s Richard Thompson number.
Although I’ve known When I Was On Horseback for years, I’d never heard this song until Jon Boden did it on A Folk Song A Day. As soon as I heard it I knew I was going to have to learn it. I may have slowed it down a bit, in an effort to give the 6/8 time some of the plodding grimness of the St James Infirmary Blues, but essentially this arrangement is after Jon’s.