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.
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.