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.