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.
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.)
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.
Songs about Napoleon – in particular, heroic songs about Napoleon – are one of the curiosities of the English traditional repertoire: he was, after all, somewhere between Osama bin Laden and Hitler in terms of the threat he seemed to pose to Britain. (This song has an odd gear-change in the final verse, where the anonymous author seems to have decided he needs to emphasise his patriotic credentials.) I don’t think this is about folk radicalism, with singers essentially backing Boney against the British ruling class; it’s a nice idea, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence in the songs. I suspect it was just the appeal of a good story – and Napoleon did have a really good story.
This song is a bit of an oddity in itself. It’s very “written” in style, taking quite an effort to learn and sing – I’ve seen several broadside copies, all pretty much identical, which suggests that it started as a broadside ballad and never went much further. On the other hand, the repeating final line of each verse makes no sense at all, and appears to be an oral-tradition mangling of the tag of an earlier song, The Grand Conversation Under The Rose. The tune is interesting, too; it seems to be related to the “Magpie’s Nest”/”Cuckoo’s Nest” family of dance tunes, and perhaps to the Liverpool Hornpipe. I’ve appended the tune of “The Bedmaking” – another “Cuckoo’s Nest” variant – to show how many similarities there are between two apparently very different tunes. This song also has the great merit of introducing the songs I’m going to be putting up over the next two weeks, in most cases by name!
My interpretation is after Tony Rose, although with the hornpipe-ish timing of the original dance tune brought more to the fore. I play the tune here on the flute; it’s not my favourite folk instrument, but it does have the great virtue of being chromatic – which is handy when you’ve got a tune that wavers between the keys of G and F. Drone by Bontempi, as always; no post-processing apart from edits and looping.
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.
I had a chance to experiment with dynamics on this one. I took my cue from Tony Rose’s version: in his reading, some passages are lightly-voiced, almost spoken, while others are sung with a deliberation and solemnity that’s almost (but not quite) over the top. The challenge was to cover that kind of expressive range while also holding the song together and keeping the tempo audible (something I always try to do with the songs I sing unaccompanied; I don’t like hearing singers go ‘off the clock’).
There’s a bit towards the end, in the repeat of the first verse, where I sound ‘bleary-eyed’ myself – not intentional! A ‘Method’ reading of the song would be interesting, but probably more for the singer than the audience.