Category Archives: Shirley Collins

AS40: Gilderoy

Gilderoy is a song that mutated when it crossed the Scottish border. Gilderoy (or his historical original) was a raider and an outlaw, but this fact isn’t greatly emphasised in the original – perhaps because it was common knowledge. Once the song gets into the English oral tradition, ‘Gilderoy’ becomes no more than a name and his criminal propensities get lost altogether. This makes for a rather puzzling song; in most of the English texts our man appears to have been hanged for having sex with his fiancee, which seems something of an over-reaction even by eighteenth-century standards.

If we go back to the Scottish song, the livestock thefts by which Gilderoy made his living do make an appearance, but the song remains a bit of a puzzle. In its original form it’s essentially an elegy for a particularly well-dressed gangster – one who was so handsome they even hanged him higher than the rest. One explanation I’ve seen is that it was written as a parody of Geordie; this would make a rather dry kind of sense if you mentally cross out ‘Gilderoy’ and substitute ‘Al Capone’ (or the contemporary gangster of your choice).

I learned it from Shirley and Dolly Collins’s recording, but here I’m singing a slightly different version, which goes heavy on the looks and charm but does at least mention the thieving. In this version of the song I think the mood is the main thing: thief or no thief, he was my one true heart’s delight… and now he’s dead.

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Extras: The crow on the cradle, Whitsun Dance

52 Folk Songs: Yellow has just been made available for download; more of that later.

For now, here are the two album-only bonus tracks. The songs on the Yellow album were distinctive by their focus on violence – nobody died for the entire length of the Green album, and something had to give. Most of the Yellow songs are about conscription and war, and these two extras are no exception.

The crow on the cradle is the second song by Sydney Carter I’ve featured here. He was a passionate writer, and this song is particularly full-on. It’s an attack on the eternal spirit of negativity and destruction that fuels war – and, I think, on something else as well; you can’t listen to this song all the way through and feel comfortable that you’re one of the good guys. In the immortal words of John and Yoko, “War is over if you want it” – I think Carter would have agreed with both halves of that statement.

The melody is mine; I saw this song in printed form when I was about 11, and as I couldn’t read music I made up this tune. It’s in E minor, with a bit of E Dorian; the nagging concertina figure that seems to evoke the crow is an Em7 arpeggio.

Whitsun Dance probably requires no introduction – it’s the contemporary song with which Shirley Collins closed the Anthems in Eden suite, words written by her then partner Austin John Marshall to the tune of the False Bride.

I think there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye. The mood of the song shifts as it goes through, becoming quite brutally dark in verses 3 and 4, with only an equivocal resolution in the last verse: peace has returned but the young men have been killed, the world’s moved on and everyone’s forgotten. A more sentimental writer would have spelt this out and given the audience a bit of release – I don’t know, you could write something like

And year after year their numbers grow fewer
Some Whitsun no one will dance there at all

(Scansion needs work.) Instead Marshall went straight ahead to a superficially positive conclusion, which by this stage sounds very bittersweet: “And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun”. Then, before we’ve had the chance to draw breath or dab a tear, we’re off into the compulsory jollification of Staines Morris.

It’s a dark, bitter song, all the more so for its sunny surface. I’ve recorded it with different combinations of instruments – recorder/zither, zither/drums, drums/concertina – over a flute drone, and I think I’ve unlocked some of the anger that’s lurking in there.

You can listen to the songs here, or download them as part of the Yellow album.

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Filed under folk song, not a folk song, Shirley Collins, Sydney Carter, traditional, Yellow

AS30: Lowlands

This is only the second song here (after Searching for lambs) that I learned from Shirley Collins’s wonderful Anthems in Eden. The arrangement – voice and not much else – follows Shirley Collins’s, although the harmonies are my own.

Perhaps not the saddest song I know, but certainly the saddest song about a haircut.

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AS20: Come all you little streamers

Someone on Mudcat remarked once that they liked some of Shirley Collins’s stuff, but they couldn’t stand the sound of her singing backed by Dolly on piano – it sounded like a primary-school teacher accompanying herself on the school piano.

Personally I love Shirley and Dolly’s recordings, especially those ones – and for precisely that reason. This is a song which I learned from just such a recording; my zither part is a faint, distant, inept echo of Dolly Collins’s piano part. I love this song dearly and no, I don’t know what it’s about.

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AS21: The banks of the Mossom

A wonderful song which I know from Shirley Collins’s version. It’s another song where it’s not entirely clear whether it’s a woman that we’re singing about or a place (“down by some shady Nancy”?) The overall effect, as with Master Kilby, is of somebody so deeply in love that they can’t even think straight – everything reminds him of lovely Nancy, from the lark to the birds in the trees and even the trees themselves. Of course, it wasn’t written like that or with that effect in mind; as with Master Kilby, what we’re looking at is a song pieced together from half-forgotten memories, with frequent use of repetition in this case to fill the gaps. But at least it means we’ve got half (a quarter?) of the words of a song, and a terrific tune to go with it.

The original plan with this one was to sing it unaccompanied, recorded in the open air. I tried it once, with slightly disappointing results; although I heard quite a bit of bird song while I was singing, including the scolding of a pair of great tits who came to see what I was doing, nothing got picked up. Also, by the time I listened to it back I’d decided I would dub on a bit of accompaniment after all, and it turned out I’d spontaneously pitched it in the interesting key of Db. So I went back out in the garden and sang it in D. By this time there wasn’t a bird in sight, although in the first few seconds you can faintly hear the sound of my next door neighbour using an angle grinder. Hey ho.

Having learnt it from Shirley Collins I’ve automatically pitched this song high before, and decided to go to the other end of my range for this recording. As for the accompaniment, it just grew.

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FS27: Searching for lambs

One of the great English folk songs, with some lines that remain magical however often you hear them. Influenced by Tony Rose’s rendering and by Shirley Collins’s wonderful treatment of this song as part of the “Anthems in Eden” suite; no song lives up to that title better than this one.

Accompaniment: melodica, zither, D whistle. Generally I pitch tunes wherever they’re most comfortable, but when I tried that with this one it seemed to be in Bb minor (or possibly Db major), which would have been a swine to play on the keyboard and more or less impossible on whistle. So I braced myself and ratcheted it up a tone and a half to A minor (or C major), which is much more congenial. (There aren’t any Fs, for anyone who was wondering.)

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AS09: A virgin most pure

A two-part arrangement this time; the second vocal part is partly copied from Heather Wood’s line on the Young Tradition’s version and partly made up. The drone is melodica, looped; the double-tracked whistle is two separate recordings, one in each channel. I learned (and scored) this in G, only to discover that when I tried to sing it my voice was automatically adjusting it down to Gb by the end of the first refrain. This version is sung in F (and even then it gets a bit squeaky at times – must work on the top end).

I learned this from the version sung by Shirley Collins and Heather Wood on the Holly Bears the Crown. (This is why I only sing five of the seven verses – that, and the feeling that it was getting quite long enough.) The album is credited to the Young Tradition with Shirley and Dolly Collins, and the arrangement on this track is credited accordingly to Collins/Collins/Wood/Wood/Bellamy. However, the only musicians are Shirley Collins and Heather Wood (vocals) with Roddy Skeaping (bass viol); my guess would be that it’s either a Collins/Collins arrangement or Collins/Collins/Wood. It certainly has a kind of Dolly Collins ring to it – there’s a particular quality to her arrangements, a kind of rich plainness. Less, to a point, is definitely more.

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FS14: A maiden that is matchless

If Christmas is a time to celebrate a baby being born, Advent must be a time to celebrate a pregnant woman.

This is an anonymous medieval poem which subsequently entered the tradition; the arrangement here is after Dolly Collins. For a ten-line poem, the imagery here is surprisingly dense and complex. The first line alone refers to Mary as a “maiden” (i.e. virgin) who was “matchless” (without a mate), a tautology which works to draw attention to everything that was unusual about this particular maiden: she did have a partner (Joseph), but conceived as a virgin, making her both a mother without a mate and a unique – matchless – maiden. Packing that lot into five words is pretty good going. There is plenty more to comment on; I’ll just note the way that the central six lines enact a gradual approach to Mary asleep in her bed, parallelled with images of successive stages of growth. It’s clever stuff.

Not many people sing in Middle English these days, and even fewer can understand it. If you modernise a piece like this, on the other hand, I think you need to do it properly. Most renderings of this poem fall between two stools, partially modernising the language and leaving Mary as a maiden that is “makeless” – a word that means nothing to us. I’ve compromised by singing the modern English, while also singing the Middle English (using period pronunciation). As well as two voices and flute, there’s a reed organ drone on there and a bit of melodica.

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AS03: Lord Allenwater

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.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, O my name is, Shirley Collins, traditional