Category Archives: Tony Rose

FS44: The trees they do grow high

This is one of my very favourite songs, in this version (learned from Tony Rose) above all. (I know two other versions with completely different tunes; they’re nowhere near as good, though.) I always get absorbed in this when I sing it; however carefully and deliberately I’ve begun the song, by the time I get to the last verse I’m always lost in it, conscious of nothing but the words and the notes. I think it’s something to do with the tune – that and the heart-wrenching story, and the starkness of the last two verses in particular.

The last verse of this version, in particular, is a bit of an oddity; it adds nothing at all to the story, contains bits of the previous two verses in more or less garbled form, and generally sounds as if it was made up on the spot by someone who was convinced there was another verse but couldn’t remember what it was. And it’s wonderful. It reminds me of the story about the last verse of “Hey Jude” (“So let it out and let it in…”). Supposedly Paul McCartney, when he first played the song to John Lennon, apologised for the thinness of that verse and for the fourth line in particular: “the movement you need is on your shoulder”, a blatant placeholder. Lennon, the story goes, told him it was a brilliant line and he mustn’t change it. Bizarrely, he was right – it is a great verse and a great line. Something similar’s going on with the last verse of this song. Sometimes a placeholder is not just a placeholder.

Recorded in the open air, in one take (with editing).

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FS41: Earl Richard

Child 68. This one took me slightly by surprise. “Sir Richard” came first this week; having decided on that one, I looked around for a folk song with some sort of thematic or titular connection, and mostly drew a blank. I settled on “Bold Sir Rylas”, before deciding that I really wanted something slightly less tasteless. But what? I looked for “Sir _____” songs (and “Lord _____” songs and even “Lady _____” songs) in the usual places, but didn’t find anything.

Then I had the bright idea of looking for “Richard” songs, and what should come up but… Young Hunting. “Earl Richard” is, it turns out, one of the alternative titles of Child 68, or Young Hunting as it’s generally known. This is a song I’ve been very fond of ever since hearing it on Tony Rose’s eponymous album. I’ve never sung it live, and only ever heard it sung out once (courtesy of the redoubtable Alan Grace); the length makes it a bit daunting. So I was glad to have a chance of doing it here. It’s one of those “boy meets girl, everybody dies” plots, but with some really bizarre elements; for birds to talk isn’t unknown in traditional songs, but it’s rather unusual for them to convey essential plot information. The plot’s thoroughly pervaded with supernatural elements – witness the methods used to discover the body and then to identify the murderer.

Textually this is, basically, the version of Young Hunting recorded by Tony Rose, who credited it to Pete Nalder. When I looked at Child I discovered that Nalder (of whom I know nothing) had done an extraordinary job on the song – there are nine variants of Child 68, all covering slightly different portions of the story and emphasising different aspects of it, and Nalder’s Young Hunting takes something from almost all of them. (And, in my defence, four of the nine call the main character “Earl Richard”, as against only two “Young Hunting”s.)

I tweaked the text a bit more, with Child open in front of me (virtually). The main change I made was to drop the nine-month delay in the story, which only features in version E. This meant losing the “heavy smell” which prompted the lady to dispose of the body, but it turns out that that wasn’t in Child at all – in 68E “word began to spread”, rather less bathetically. Nalder also has “ladies” (in general) making the suggestion that the body’s in the river, rather than the (guilty) “lady” as in the original. In some versions she points the search party towards the river after swearing that she’s innocent by the sun and the moon; I liked that, so it went back in. Another detail that got a bit lost in Nalder’s version was the fact that the young man was (or had been) the lady’s lover; again, I put it back in. Here’s a blog post tracing where my text came from, verse by verse.

Anyway, by the time I’d finished I’d cut one verse from Nalder’s version and added three, taking the song from 31 verses to 33. (You weren’t going anywhere, were you?) Despite this added length, my version is actually a full minute shorter than Tony Rose’s, representing an increase in the average verse delivery rate from 4.3 per minute to 5.4. You don’t get efficiency like that everywhere.

Apart from a bit of recorder, the accompaniment is some drones that I had lying around; there’s melodica and flute, and there may be a bit of the old Bontempi reed organ in there too. I was thinking of adding some concertina, but in the end the sound palette seemed quite full enough as it was.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, O my name is, Pete Nalder, Tony Rose

FS39: The dark-eyed sailor

We close the third quarter of the year – and the Yellow album – with a “broken token” ballad. It’s quite a literary piece of work (William and Phoebe?), although perhaps less so than this week’s other song. As always, you do wonder quite how much difference the years had made to the true love’s appearance, which in this case seems to have been particularly distinctive. Still, willing suspension of disbelief and all that.

Musically speaking, my approach to this song started with Tony Rose’s version, although as ever the metre is a bit more regular here; it makes quite an interesting 3/4 tune. The accompaniment is one of my more ‘knitted’ efforts, with a single melody line but a lot of textural variation.

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AS35: Sweet Jenny of the moor

This is another “broken token” ballad. Stylistically it’s very much a written piece of work (“one morn for recreation”, indeed); the repeated rhymes on “moor” seem particularly literary. (Where was this ‘moor’, anyway? Jenny of the Beach would have been more accurate; rhymes might have been a problem, though.) The briskness with which the writer gets through the key points of the plot is also striking – the audience could obviously be assumed to know what was going on.

Accompanied on English concertina, with a quick burst of C whistle towards the end. I learned it from Tony Rose’s version, which is well worth tracking down – he could really play that box.

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AS28: On board the ‘Kangaroo’

A silly, frivolous song of love and loss, which was originally a music-hall number by Harry Clifton (who also wrote The Calico Printer’s Clerk and Polly Perkins, among many others). Since escaping into the wild, it’s lost some of the class markers which originally made for broad comedy (e.g. cockneyisms and the use of trademarks); the effect is to give the character singing a degree of dignity which he can’t originally have had. The song is still pleasantly daft, though.

I got this from Tony Rose’s album Bare Bones and recorded it on a whim – it was a spur-of-the-moment decision this morning. Tony Rose gave this a jolly and rather beautiful accompaniment on concertina; this wasn’t an option for me, so I reached for the melodica, plus a whistle or two. The arrangement just sort of grew.

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FS29: One night as I lay on my bed

A night-visiting song, and one of the finest (and simplest).

An extraordinarily powerful and memorable tune, coupled with verses in which nothing much happens – except that the speaker’s girlfriend first shuts him out and then lets him in. Which for him, of course, is the most important thing in the world.

Like a couple of other songs I’ve put up recently, this song very effectively conveys a sense of being utterly consumed with love (and lust); unlike those songs, this one’s actually written that way (I was so oppressed I could take no rest…). It’s been described as having “the most discreet ending of any folk song”, but I’m not sure how much to make of that; I think it’s a good ending, but it doesn’t exactly leave the audience in suspense. Personally I prefer this to those old songs that actually do describe what happens next, if only because they don’t usually describe it anyway – you generally get a verse of formulaic nudges and winks (“and what we did I never shall declare” or words to that effect). Besides, once she’s let him into her bedroom the story is basically over – what they do next is up to them. We leave the speaker crossing the threshold, still entranced with lust.

This is another song recorded by Tony Rose on Bare Bones; my version is fairly close to his. I’ve listened to a few versions, but for me that recording is the simplest and best.

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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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AS17: Tom the Barber

This is another Willie o’ Winsbury variant, with the same essential structure as most: King returns from abroad to find his daughter pregnant, he asks who the father is with a view to having him expelled or executed, but on meeting him is so impressed with his good looks that he immediately offers his daughter’s hand in marriage and a share of the kingdom. The consistent final twist is that the daughter’s lover is not only a bit of all right but also loaded, and has no interest in the kingdom part of the deal. It’s a father’s wish-fulfilment fantasy in some ways, although the passage where the King effectively says he quite fancies young Willie himself seems a bit excessive. A ‘Barber’ in this case is probably a Berber, or at least someone hailing from Barbary in North Africa. It’s hard to believe that his skin would have been ‘white as milk’ in the circumstances – but then, it’s not as if your disbelief hadn’t been suspended already.

This version was collected by Cecil Sharp, who seems to have excised the crucial verse; it was a bit racy by his standards. (I’ve put it back in.) I learned it from Tony Rose’s recording(s), although I couldn’t get on with his tune. The tune I use here is essentially the tune to which John Kelly sings Mary Hamilton, although – as with that song – I found it easier to sing it in 4/4 rather than 6/8.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, O my name is, Tony Rose, traditional

FS25: George Collins

An odd and rather creepy song: George Collins kisses a ‘pretty maid’; George Collins dies; his girlfriend dies, and so do five other women. The end.

Bert Lloyd argued, I think correctly, that Child 42 (Clerk Colvill) and 85 (Lady Alice) are fuller versions of the first and second halves of this song, which in turn implies that this song once existed in a much longer and more detailed form. What we can draw from Clerk Colvill is that the ‘pretty maid’ was no such thing, but a malevolent mermaid or other supernatural being, who first enchanted and then poisoned the central character. Incidentally, I don’t think the text gives much support to the feminist reading mentioned on this Mudcat thread, according to which Clerk Colvill was cheating on both his wife and the mermaid, who was only taking a justified, if slightly excessive, revenge. There’s not a lot of sisterly solidarity in the old ballads, and where it does exist it doesn’t tend to include mermaids. Why everyone around Clerk Colvill or George Collins promptly drops dead is less clear; this may have been a later addition, in the general spirit of having people die for love. (Or, as Jack suggested on that thread, there may have been a subtext involving syphilis.)

I learned this from Tony Rose’s recording on Bare Bones. Given the subject matter, I wasn’t very happy with the lilting, dreamy melody Tony Rose used – it works well for him, but I found the contrast between what I was singing and how I was singing it too uncomfortable. I used the melody in Classic English Folk Songs (formerly the EBPFS), but changed the time signature from 4/4 to 6/8, added a repeat and put in a mixolydian flattened seventh to make it slightly darker (it’s the first syllable of ‘pretty’ in ‘fair pretty maid’). There’s something a bit nagging and uncomfortable about all the instrumental tracks I’ve used here – melodica, drone and an old Generation high-G whistle; again, this felt right for the song. (This is folk song, lad – nobody ever said it would be fun.)

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FS24: The bonny hind

Child 50. If there’s a sadder song in the world, I’m not sure I’ve heard it.

I learned this from Tony Rose’s version on On Banks of Green Willow. I’ve sharpened up the tempo slightly – there’s a dance tune lurking somewhere behind that melody – but otherwise it’s a fairly faithful copy. The intro is played on flute and melodica instead of concertina, and the song is accompanied by a drone.

I don’t think accidental brother-sister incest has ever been better written; you can sense the dawning realisation in the lines where they call each other liars. I think the opening is particularly effective; the brother’s lines have a relaxed, expansive jokeyness which is horribly at odds with what’s about to happen (I am no courtier, he said, save when I courted thee). And everything he knows and his father doesn’t – and the bafflement of the father, and his final suggestion (“Tell you what, go and see your sister, that’ll cheer you up”…) Beyond words.

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