Category Archives: folk song

Seeds of grief

A new song (to an old tune)

I sowed the seed of grief
My mother gave to me
For I well knew that in time my seed
Would grow into a tree

I sowed my seed in spring
I watched while it grew strong
I tended it through summer’s heat
And winter’s nights so long

The tree of grief grew tall
And its branches spread wide above
As I stood within its black and bitter shade
I fed my tree with love

In spring the tree grew leaf
In summer flowers so small
And as the skies of autumn grew cold
I watched the dry leaves fall

My tree had grown one fruit
On a branch so slender and fine
I reached up and I plucked it off
And then that fruit was mine

So bitter was its skin
Bitter juices did it bleed
I freely ate its bitter, bitter flesh
But I did not eat the seed

I sowed the seeds of grief
I sowed them all around
And now its branches are high overhead
The roots deep in the ground

The thorns of grief are sharp
Sweet are the flowers that grow
And I still taste its bitter, bitter fruit
And down the salt tears flow

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Filed under all my own unaided, folk song, not a folk song

Fakesong (Dave Harker, 1985)

Hallo again (if you’ve been here before). I’m reviving this blog as a place for occasional thoughts about folk – and, to begin with, a book review.

I’m not a true believer in ‘folk’; I don’t believe there’s an identifiable thing called ‘traditional song’, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything inherently radical about traditional songs. When I was Culture Editor for Red Pepper, one of my proudest achievements was running an article by Steve Higginson challenging the myth (as he saw it) of radical folk. Higginson pointed out that a lot of radical folk songs had only been discovered because members of the Communist Party had gone looking for them, motivated by opposition to US cultural imperialism more than by commitment to Britain’s heritage. On the other side of the Atlantic, the radical credentials of country music were very thin – much thinner than those of, say, the young Frank Sinatra, whose music was also considerably more popular among actual working people, in Britain as well as the US. Higginson’s conclusion was that we were welcome to write radical songs if we wanted, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we were connecting with the history of working class struggle, let alone with the present. I particularly liked that part, as contemporary radical folk songs were a bit of a bugbear of mine. (Still are, in fact; I’ve never believed that cartoonish simplifications help radical causes, or that trying to be Flanders and Swann with street cred has much to do with folk.)

Anyway, I agreed with most of the points Higginson was making – although truth to tell it was a slightly disjointed article, with a bit of lashing out in all directions – and thought that it represented an interesting viewpoint, which ought to be heard. Not everyone agreed. In all the time I was Culture Editor I never got a bigger Letters Page response – all of it negative. The partisans of radical folk were not pleased, and they made their feelings known in numbers. Happy days, eh?

So the idea of a book, written from a left-wing perspective, debunking illusions about English folk song wasn’t anathema to me when I picked up Dave Harker’s 1985 book Fakesong: The manufacture of British ‘folksong’, 1700 to the present day. Admittedly, by the time I read it I’d already read a couple of detailed and hostile reviews (by C. J. Bearman and David Gregory), which identified inaccuracies and unexplained omissions in several areas. But I wasn’t inclined to take everything Gregory and Bearman said as gospel; in particular, I thought (and think) that Bearman’s argument that Harker’s views on Cecil Sharp were necessarily untrustworthy, given his “Trotskyite” politics, was ridiculous. (I’m a Marxist myself, as it goes. Carlus amicus sed major amicus Veritas; Rosa is my aunt but Truth is my sister.) All in all, I think I went in with a reasonably open mind.

Reading the book wasn’t a particularly happy experience. Getting through it has taken me about six months; I didn’t find it un-put-down-able, to put it mildly. One chapter (on Francis J. Child) I disliked so much that I put the book down after reading it and left it untouched for several weeks. (My enjoyment of the book picked up after that, happily.) All in all it was a difficult book to get through, and I can’t really say I’m glad to have read it – except in the sense of being glad no longer to be in the position of not having read it yet. (I remember feeling something similar when I finished The Faerie Queene.)

So what was the problem? There were a number of things…

The title should perhaps have warned me: it’s no part of Harker’s brief to celebrate folksong as we know it. Rather, Harker’s argument is that folksong is a myth – an ideological fiction – and always has been. This is a story of two and a half centuries of ‘mediators’, all of whom (Harker argues) share similar assumptions about their material and its authors. With rare and partial exceptions, this is the story of people who

  • ‘mediated’ working-class culture to an aristocratic or bourgeois audience, often for personal gain of some sort
  • believed that ‘folk’ song was the authentic product of pre-industrial vernacular English and Scottish culture; but
  • believed that ‘folk’ song had ceased to exist in the wild, or at best had ceased to flourish, when they came along to celebrate and preserve it; and consequently
  • believed that a line could (and should) be drawn between good and bad products of contemporary working-class culture, the former being ‘folk’ or its relics; and
  • believed that they were capable of drawing that line, without generally being able to describe how they did it

Harker is opposed to working-class culture being mediated by anyone to anyone (point 1), and does not believe in ‘folk’ song as an identifiable thing (point 2 and by extension points 3-5); his presentation of the ‘mediators’ and their world-view effectively sets them up as enemies. The book, as he acknowledges in the Conclusion, is more or less a ground-clearing exercise: a study of concepts that would be better abandoned.

This kind of destructive critique isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but if I was going to do that, I wouldn’t write this book. It’s not organised conceptually but chronologically: as a study of (at a quick count) 36 ‘mediators’, from D’Urfey to Bert Lloyd. Four – Child, Sharp, Alfred Williams and Lloyd – get a chapter to themselves; the rest are dealt with more or less briefly, in chronologically-arranged groupings. The problem with this is twofold. On one hand, the mediators’ approach (or approaches) to folk song never really comes into focus; we are left in little doubt that Thomas Percy got it wrong, Peter Buchan got it wrong and Frank Kidson got it wrong as well, but the chronological sweep of the book never gives Harker much time to stop and discuss who got what wrong in what way. On the other hand, Harker’s more or less biographical approach, combined with his hostility to what the mediators did, tends to result in hostility towards the mediators themselves. A debased version of materialism runs through a lot of the life stories, highlighting a profit turned on a collection or a donation from an aristocratic friend as if these details were damning in and of themselves. (We make our own history but not in circumstances of our own choosing – and that goes for bourgeois mediators in search of a patron as well as working people in search of a job.) The spirit of the narrative is more one of debunking than of critique, and – since it’s the mediators rather than their work which is being discredited – Harker often seems to use any ammunition available: anything that looks like class condescension is highlighted, along with anything that looks like nationalism, anything that looks like sexism, anything that looks like prudery. A fuller sub-title would have been The manufacture of British ‘folksong’, 1700 to the present day, seen through the lives of the ignorant bourgeois reactionaries who manufactured it.

What stopped me in my tracks when I read the chapter on Child was Harker’s handling of the issue of definition. The early collectors did not theorise what they were collecting; when Child was writing, the definition of terms like ‘folk song’ and ‘ballad’  was still a live issue. Child’s monumental collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads could be seen as a case study in grounded theorising, developing theoretical constructs from the properties of the material being studied rather than imposing them on it. And if Child himself did not theorise the ‘ballad’ even to this extent, the collection itself gives us all the materials to do so: to go by Child, is a ‘ballad’ metrically regular? does it rhyme? is it narrative in content? is it typically found in multiple variations? And so on. Harker does none of this; instead, he derides Child’s failure to formulate any precise definition of how he was proceeding, and accuses him of taking his theoretical apparatus wholesale from the Danish scholar Grundtvig. Harker’s mockery of Child as a person and his scant attention to the actual content of TESPB represent a huge missed opportunity, suggesting that Harker’s hostility to the ‘mediators’ was strong enough to outweigh any real engagement with their material.

The question of definition recurs much later, when Lloyd is criticised for endorsing the famous (or notorious) ‘1954 Definition’ of folk music:

Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity which links the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (iii) selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.

The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community.

The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the re-fashioning and re-creation of the music by the community that gives it its folk-character.

Whatever else can be said of this formulation, it is a definition; it fairly clearly rules some songs in (Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, The London Waterman, Swing Low Sweet Chariot) and others out (Angels, Streets of London, the Grand Conversation on Napoleon). On that basis Harker might have been expected to welcome it. Actually he rejects it, first for being too narrow (“this is not an analysis but a prescription“) and then for being so broad as to be meaningless (“Why do not continuity, variation and selection represent the conditioning factors for all artistic production, amateur or professional?”). The weakness of Harker’s argument here is striking. The first criticism is meaningless – to say that a definition is ‘prescriptive’ is simply to say that not everything in the world is defined by it. The second is irrelevant; the definition refers specifically to a musical tradition evolved through oral transmission, within which those ‘conditioning factors’ operate. The two are inconsistent with each other – a definition that applied to ‘all artistic production’ could hardly be called narrow (or prescriptive). More importantly, they’re also hard to square with Harker’s earlier criticism of Child (and others) for not having a definition. Harker attempts to connects the two – “As with Child, we are told what is not folksong, not what is” – but this is a very strained reading of a formulation which was designed precisely to define folk music in positive, inclusive terms.

What’s at work here, I think, is Harker’s underlying conviction that anyone writing about ‘folksong’ is writing about something which does not exist as a topic in its own right: there are societies, there are class relations and class conflict, there are cultural forms including songs and tunes, but nowhere can anything identifiable as folk song be found. If we start from this assumption, Harker’s approach makes sense: after all, it would be quite reasonable to mock one writer for imagining he could detect the healing effects of crystals without being able to define how they worked, then mock another for imagining that he could define how they worked. Describing the Emperor’s new clothes in detail is just as absurd as saying they’re ineffably gorgeous. The trouble with this underlying conviction is that, although it runs through the entire book – and although Harker periodically scores points in its favour – it’s never argued properly. It’s certainly never confronted with any evidence that might challenge it – such as, perhaps, the existence of a body of songs, collected in multiple forms and from multiple locations, and suggesting the workings of continuity, variation and selection within a process of oral transmission.

This brings me to my other main criticism of the book, which is that it doesn’t tell me very much about folk songs. As it happens, I’m really interested in the question of where traditional songs come from. Were some of them created in oral culture as well as being preserved and modified that way? Or are they all almost all of them ultimately broadside balladsderived from some form of commercial publishing, as Steve Gardham has argued? (Thanks for the clarification, Steve.) In the early 19th century Robert Chambers identified Young Waters and (horrors) Sir Patrick Spens as entirely spurious ‘folksongs’, composed (in about 1725) in what was then believed to be the style of a ‘ballad’: was he right? How many other ‘traditional’ ‘ballads’ could be disqualified – or rather, re-qualified – in the same way? Or take a song like The Grand Conversation on Napoleon – if a folksong originates in a broadside and has never been collected in a form differing from the broadside text, is it still ‘traditional’? How about songs with known authors, like Sally Wheatley or the Trimdon Grange Explosion?

I think this would be an interesting discussion. It’s not one that Harker’s interested in having, though. In the earlier chapters of the book, describing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collectors, there are several references to collectors drawing on printed sources, as well as passing references to individual songs either being contemporary compositions or having been rewritten by their collectors. The impression is that some (many? most?) purported folk songs were not in fact taken from oral tradition, but an impression is all it is. This approach would in any case hit difficulties in the twentieth century; whatever else we can say of Sharp and those who came after him, nobody has ever suggested that they didn’t collect songs. (Harker does allege rewriting by Sharp in some cases, but several of these have been disputed.)

The underlying problem is, I think, that Harker is committed to erasing the line that song collectors have always drawn between ‘folk’ and ‘not folk’, and hence to denying the relevance of any criteria that make it possible to draw that line. Oral transmission – qualified by continuity, selection and variation – offers a metric by which one group of songs can fairly reliably be distinguished from all others. (Not everything that people call ‘folk’ would fall on the ‘right’ side of the line, admittedly, but that’s an inevitable side-effect of applying a definition to a term that’s used less formally.) Harker cannot reasonably deny that some songs came down to the twentieth century through oral transmission, so he takes a more oblique approach: as well as identifying songs with printed and/or contemporary roots, he suggests that ‘oral transmission’ is indefinable or meaningless (a discovery which would make the entire discipline of folklore studies redundant) or else that it is irrelevant.

At this, final, point the closed loop of Harker’s argument comes into focus. For oral transmission is irrelevant to the study of working-class culture in a given time and setting; it’s only important if you’re studying folklore, including folk song. But Harker starts from the assumption that ‘folk’ song cannot be distinguished from non-folk forms, making it a non-subject. If you don’t share this starting-point, however – if you’re positively interested in studying folklore and folk song – then there are ways and means of defining it, the role of oral transmission among them; from that starting-point, broadening the focus to the whole of contemporary working-class culture would be the distraction.

Dave Harker set out to show that folk song did not exist. In the end, all he demonstrated was that he didn’t want to study it.


Filed under folk song, not a folk song

The eighteenth day of June (26F 10-12)

Now the eighteenth day of June it has ended the battle… True enough; however, the last battle in the Battle of Waterloo took place the next morning, the 19th of June (Napoleon wasn’t involved). So today is in fact the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, sort of.

And what better time to revisit some songs about Napoleon? Here (for week 12) is the Grand Conversation on Napoleon, closely followed by the (very similar) tune The Cuckoo’s Nest:

And here’s the Bonny Bunch of Roses. For a long time this was my ‘calling card’ song, the one I’d always do the first time I was in front of a new audience. (These days it’s more likely to be The Trees They Do Grow High.) I’m still very fond of this one, though.

At the time I was recording these, I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to revisit the recordings; although these were both assembled from three different tracks, I only kept a final mixed-down WAV file. Although I thought the vocal (and flute) performances were strong enough to keep, I would have liked to do something about the Bontempi drone – which sounded pretty good when it was the only drone I was capable of producing, but sounds rather whiny now. I’ve done what I could in terms of equalisation, but I’m afraid you can still hear it!

I have re-recorded this, however: Boney’s Lamentation, a small masterpiece of folk history and mondegreenery (We marched them forth in inveterate streams…)

Saving the best till, well, fourth… I’ve also re-recorded this:

A song you could spend years with. I must have sung it a hundred times, and it’s still different every time.

Going back a fortnight, Plains of Waterloo and the Bonny Bunch of Roses are unusual among folk songs in mentioning the month of June. The previous month is far more widely referenced. It’s May she comes and May she goes (poor girl)….

Another pre-concertina recording, with Tony Rose’s arrangement shadowed on melodica and flute. I actually think it works rather well. Remixed – or at least re-equalised – for this outing.

Where you’ve got the Bonny Hind, you’ve got to have Sheath and Knife. This is another new recording, using a vocal drone that I recorded ages ago (I think it was for Master Kilby). The thing with Sheath and Knife is to maintain a contrast between the verse and the blankly repeating refrain, and to keep the song sounding at once sweetly pretty and grimly ominous (“The broom blooms bonny”… how nice). And, of course, to avoid singing “the bloom brooms bonny” or “the boom bloons brommy”.

And who else roved out one May morning, when may was all in bloom? George Collins, come on down:

Another re-recording from scratch, and one I’m rather pleased with. I got the tune from Shirley & Dolly Collins (no relations) and worked out the accompaniment on paper; both the concertina chords and the recorder parts are actually scored.

Moving back to fortnight 10, we go back to the very last day of May, and a re-recording of the first song I recorded with concertina: The Valiant Sailor. This time round I’m playing it a bit more briskly, and (more importantly) I’m actually playing the accompaniment while I sing:

And, finally for this round-up, another re-recording. Searching for Lambs: one of the great English folk songs. Compared to the original recording, I’ve lost the zither and the melodica drone – and the slightly unearthly atmosphere they created – but gained concertina chords and recorder; I think it’s a pretty good swap.

Searching for Lambs (the embedded Bandcamp player is refusing to link to this one for some reason)

The Valiant Sailor is from the 52 Folk Songs – Yellow album.
Searching for Lambs is from 52 Folk Songs – Green.
The Bonny Hind, Sheath and Knife and George Collins are from 52 Folk Songs – Blue.
The Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Grand Conversation on Napoleon, Boney’s Lamentation and Plains of Waterloo are from 52 Folk Songs – Indigo.

All new recordings and remixes are free to download, should you so wish.

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Filed under 26 Fortnights, Blue, folk song, Green, Indigo, the deeds of great Napoleon, traditional, Yellow

Twenty-Six Fortnights – 8

Next fortnight we’ll be into May, otherwise known as the month when stuff happens in folk songs, and I’ll have some new/reinterpreted/re-recorded stuff for you. And since I’ve let fortnight #8 drag on for the best part of three weeks, there won’t be long to wait.

For now, here are two songs I sang out recently, at the latest of Alice Bester’s “Folk Threads” events. On these recordings I’m accompanied by (a) assorted drones and (b) several other versions of me. On the night I was accompanied by (a) nothing and (b) a roomful of folkies giving it rice (the redoubtable Rapunzel and Sedayne not least); I’m afraid you’ll have to imagine that.

The first song is Earl Richard – Child 68, a.k.a. Young Hunting – and what a fine song this is. (There’s more information about my version and where I got it from here.) I had fun with this when I recorded it last summer, although listening to it back now the pacing sounds fairly deliberate – I tend to go at it a bit more aggressively when I sing it out. The drones – and the recorder that pops up a couple of times – work well, though.

Earl Richard is from 52 Folk Songs – Orange.

Phew. Shall we bring it down a bit?

The Two Sisters – Child 10 – is a song that’s been found in many different forms, some of them rather severely mangled or truncated. The full story – one sister’s jealous murder of the other, the body floating downstream, the fiddle being made from the body by an unknowing (if rather ghoulish) third party, the fiddle revealing the murder – doesn’t feature in all versions, and this version is no exception; the final verse is quite a nice jolt to the audience’s expectations.

This was recorded fairly early on in the 52 Folk Songs year – for the difficult second album – when I’d started wanting to jazz things up a bit but hadn’t yet got the hang of harmonising. So what you get here is me in octaves and unisons. Also, I hadn’t yet realised that my vocals come out best if I sing slap up against the microphone, in a Chet Baker-ish sort of way, so I was still getting an awful lot of boxy ‘room tone’ on recordings; plus I was still discarding my working files as I went along, out of some vague feeling that I shouldn’t waste disk space – which isn’t really a consideration when you’re working on a 250 GB hard drive, but old habits die hard. So I haven’t been able to tweak this recording as much as I would have liked. I’ve equalised the finished version, though, making it a bit less boxy and giving it a bit more oomph generally.

Two Sisters is from 52 Folk Songs – Indigo; the remixed version is free to download.

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Filed under Child ballad, Indigo, Orange

Fifty-Two Folk Songs

Here they are, in order of appearance: folk songs 1-52.

From the Violet album:
Lord Bateman Child 53L (mostly), sung unaccompanied; still my biggest hit in terms of plays.
The death of Bill Brown Unaccompanied, after Peter Bellamy
The unfortunate lass Unaccompanied, after Jon Boden; one of my favourite songs
The cruel mother Unaccompanied
Lemany Unaccompanied and in 3/4 (possibly a mistake); another of my favourites
The London waterman Unaccompanied, after Bellamy; followed by a whistle tune which I thought went well with it.

From the Indigo album:
Derwentwater’s Farewell With reed organ drone and D whistle
Hughie the Graeme Unaccompanied, after Tony Capstick
Grand conversation on Napoleon With reed organ drone and flute; dedicated to showing that this is the same tune as The Bedmaking
The bonny bunch of roses Another favourite song, with D whistle and reed organ (drone)
The death of Nelson Unaccompanied, after Bellamy
Two sisters A multiple-vocal overdub, using the short-ish version of the song sung by Jim Moray
Young Waters First use of melodica, bongoes and recorder, and my first ‘band’ arrangement. I was very pleased with this one at the time, and a year later I think it’s stood up OK.

From the white album:
A maid that is matchless With reed organ, melodica and flute, and simultaneous translation from the original Middle English.
The holly and the ivy A first venture into three-part harmony.
Shepherds arise More vocal harmonies, after the Coppers.
In Dessexshire as it befell Three-part harmonies, melodica drone, three-part melodica harmonies and more vocal tracks than is entirely comfortable.
The King Vocal harmonies: model’s own.
In the month of January Melodica drone and no harmonies. Fairly heavily ornamented by my standards, although it’s dialled down a bit from the originals (Sarah Makem and June Tabor)

From the Blue album:
Sir Patrick Spens After Nic Jones, unaccompanied.
True Thomas Drums, melodica and stuff. A nice, weird, insistent arrangement of one of the classics.
The outlandish knight A quiet, late-night Outlandish Knight, with zither.
Little Musgrave Straight through, no messing, no accompaniment.
The bonny hind At the time of recording I couldn’t hack Tony Rose’s concertina accompaniment, so I did my best with flute and melodica. I think it works.
George Collins A weird, supernatural song, with melodica and a rather squeaky G whistle.
Mary Hamilton A very sad song, unaccompanied (and with a tune more often used for Willie O Winsbury).

From the Green album:
Searching for lambs Another of my very favourite songs. Whistle, melodica, zither.
The streams of lovely Nancy Not to be confused with “Come all you little streamers”. Vocal and drums.
When a man’s in love A classic from Sam Henry’s collecting.
I live not where I love Another favourite, here spliced with “Sir John Fenwick’s” and some odd audio effects.
Once I had a sweetheart A ‘band’ arrangement with melodica, zither and drums.
Blackwaterside My first and so far only attempt to play a finger-picked chordal accompaniment on zither. Also features recorder.

From the Yellow album:
The valiant sailor Concertina, after John Kelly but slowed down.
The lofty tall ship With melodica, drums and concertina drone.
William Taylor Just drums and zither. I worked from a frustratingly incomplete text – I’d use a fuller version if I was doing it now.
Two pretty boys Unaccompanied, after Bellamy.
The lowlands of Holland Unaccompanied, after Martin Carthy.
I would that the wars were all done Recorder and concertina.
The dark-eyed sailor Concertina, C whistle, zither and drums.

From the Orange album:
Queen Jane Just flute and recorder; after Martin Graebe.
Earl Richard Mostly but not exclusively unaccompanied. After Tony Rose and Alan Grace, but with some modifications.
Rounding the Horn Another ‘band’ arrangement (recorder, concertina and drums), after Jo Freya.
Come down you bunch of roses Vocals and improvised percussion; after Gibb Schreffler.
The trees they do grow high Another of my very favourite songs, sung here in the open air (and with some recorder).
Dogger Bank A vigorous burst of unaccompanied nonsense, after Bellamy.

From the Red album:
The holland handkerchief Another Desert Island Folk Song, with concertina.
The poor murdered woman With concertina and zither.
Brigg Fair With recorder, concertina and mixed emotions.
Queen among the heather Unaccompanied, after June Tabor.
Grey goose and gander Harmonised nonsense.
Geordie Unaccompanied, and my most recent new acquisition.
Banks of Yarrow Unaccompanied, heavily modified, after Debra Cowan.

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Fifty-Two Folk Songs: Not Only But Also

As well as 52 folk songs (numbered FS01-FS52), I’ve published 42 “also folk” songs. Here they are:

From the Violet album:
Over the hills and far away A seventeenth-century recruiting song which almost certainly sounds more rueful now than it did at the time; sung unaccompanied.
Spencer the Rover Unaccompanied, after John Kelly; followed by a whistle tune which I thought went well with it.

From the Indigo album:
Lord Allenwater Unaccompanied, after Shirley Collins
Sam Hall Unaccompanied, after John Kelly
Plains of Waterloo Unaccompanied, after June Tabor
Boney’s lamentation Unaccompanied, after Nic Jones
The wind and the rain Accompanied on melodeon (a one-off); after Johnny Collins

From the white album:

The boar’s head carol Much harmony
A virgin most pure After the Young Tradition, which in this instance meant after Shirley and Dolly Collins.
Poor old horse Multi-tracked weirdness, with melodica and a burst of “The man in the moon”.

From the Blue album:
Sir Patrick Spens After Bellamy, unaccompanied.
The outlandish knight A tune of my own, with a harmonised chorus
Shady Grove Very distantly after Jean Ritchie, with zither, melodica and drums.
Sheath and knife Another of the saddest songs in the world; mostly unaccompanied.
Jamie Douglas Unaccompanied, after June Tabor.
John from the Isle of Man Unaccompanied, after Robert Cinnamond.
Tom the Barber Unaccompanied, after Tony Rose but using a different tune.

From the Green album:
Cupid’s Garden Unaccompanied, under the influence of Bellamy.
Master Kilby Distantly after Nic Jones, but with drones à go-go. First and so far only appearance of ‘vocal drone’.
Come all you little streamers Not to be confused with “The streams of lovely Nancy”. Flute, melodica and zither.
Banks of the Mossom A drowsy, fragmentary summer song, with flute, melodica, whistle and zither.
One night as I lay on my bed Unaccompanied; a song to stop you in your tracks.
Out of the window A precursor of “She moved through the fair”, sung here with zither.
My bonny boy A sad song with flute and melodica.
Let no man steal your thyme Sung unaccompanied, in the open air.
When I was in my prime With whistle and flute.
On board the ‘Kangaroo’ A welcome bit of light relief, with melodica and whistles.
The outlandish dream A rarity, sung unaccompanied.

From the Yellow album:

The Dolphin With melodica and drums; after Tony Capstick.
Lowlands One of my best attempts at vocal harmonies.
The ghost song Unaccompanied, after Bellamy.
Son Davie With whistle, drums and concertina. Also known as ‘Edward’.
High Germanie With whistle, drums and concertina; after Pentangle.
The weary cutters Another sad song with vocal harmonies.
Sweet Jenny of the moor Concertina and C whistle.

From the Red album:
The lady gay With concertina, but mostly unaccompanied.
General Wolfe Recorder, concertina and vocal harmonies.
The green cockade With recorder and concertina; after Jo Freya.
When I set off to Turkey With flute, recorder, drums, whistles, zither, concertina and ukulele.
Gilderoy With recorder; after Shirley Collins.
Maid on the shore With concertina; after Carthy and Swarbrick.
Who’s the fool now? Unaccompanied, except by a cast of thousands at my local singaround.

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Fifty-Two Folk Songs: The Horse Series

As well as 52 folk songs (numbered FS01-52), 42 “also folk” songs (numbered AS01-42) and 34 “not folk” songs (numbered NS01-34), I’ve published 14 album-only extras; these tracks are only available if you download the albums they are on. They are (as of this moment) numbered HS01-14, ‘HS’ standing for ‘hors série‘. And they are:

From the Indigo album:
The House of the Rising Sun Two versions of this traditional song. One, influenced by Dave Van Ronk, is heavy on melodica and drums; the other, influenced by John Otway, consists mainly of computer programming.

From the white album:
On Ilkley Moor baht ‘at Many harmonies.
The moving on song By Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl; with melodica and drums.

From the Blue album:

La belle dame sans merci By John Keats, arranged by copland smith; a continuation of the True Thomas theme.

From the Green album:
Rosemary Lane With concertina, melodica, zither and drums.
As I was a-wandering By Robert Burns.
Box 25/4 Lid Not exactly a folk song, or indeed a song. Zither, whistle, melodica.

From the Yellow album:
The crow on the cradle By Sydney Carter, with a tune I came up with myself. Concertina and drums.
Whitsun dance By Austin John Marshall. Arranged to bring out the changing moods of the song; flute, recorder, drums, zither, concertina.

From the Orange album:
Four angels Kipling / Martin Simpson, with concertina.
Jusqu’à la ceinture Pete Seeger / Graeme Allwright, with concertina and drums; in French.

From the Red album:
Hob-y-derri-dando Unaccompanied, in Welsh.
The little pot stove By Harry Robertson, modified by Nic Jones; with concertina and recorder.

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Filed under folk song, not a folk song

FS52: Banks of Yarrow

Here we are then: week 52.

I’m finishing as I started, with an unaccompanied traditional song. This is a song lots of people have done, usually under the name of The Banks of Green Willow, and I’ve always found it frustratingly mystifying: if you listen to the versions by Tony Rose and Nic Jones, the story is so gappy that it’s genuinely hard to tell what’s gone on, except that it ends with a woman and her child being thrown overboard by general consent. To make matters worse, the usual tune is a jaunty upbeat number which seems weirdly inappropriate.

So I was pleased to come across Debra Cowan’s version, on which this is based: it has the enormous advantage of a tune that sounds appropriately sad. Debra Cowan also used a fuller text; I’ve patched it up further with a few verses from other sources, so that what you hear here is almost certainly a song nobody has actually sung before. (This is partly why I used the alternative (older?) ‘Yarrow’ title.) But at least you can tell what was (probably) going on.

There’s no special significance in finishing the year with this song. (There’s loads of significance in the choice of this week’s other two songs, though.) I chose this song for the same reason that I chose all the last few weeks’ songs: because it’s a traditional song that I like a lot and hadn’t got round to earlier in the year. It was chosen from a shortlist of about twelve. What I’ll do with the rest of the list, who knows?

Anyway – if you have been, thanks for listening (in the immortal words of John Ebdon). And if you haven’t, it’s not too late to start.

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Filed under Debra Cowan, folk song, traditional

AS42: Who’s the fool now?

This is a very old (sixteenth-century?) example of the ‘drunk song’, a form closely related to the ‘exorbitant claim’ variety of nonsense song. Many more verses are recorded; it’s not hard to write more if you’re that way inclined. The title may be a very old mondegreen – what seems to be a forerunner of the song is called “Wha’s fu’ now?”, i.e. “who’s full”, in the sense of having had enough to drink.

The song’s history for me is more personal. It’s the first song I ever learned from another singer, rather than from a record or a score; also the last I learned that way for about 30 years (the next was probably Jones’s Ale). The year was 1976, the singer was this guy called Rob who was a mate of my friend Steve & ran an unaccompanied outfit with the truly awful name of Eyesteel Span; I remember I picked up the words and most of the tune OK but had terrible trouble getting the extra drop down to drun-ken, man. Then Steve turned up and we all forgot about it. A year later punk hit and I really forgot all about it.

After that I did a degree, did several jobs I didn’t much like (mostly in IT) and didn’t do very much singing, or not if anyone else could hear. After some time I started thinking that I’d never really sung anything to an audience, and that it wasn’t too late to give it a go. By this stage I was in my forties, married with two kids, working in journalism and finishing a part-time MA. I started going to a folk club that had recently started up locally and rapidly became a regular performer, singing whatever I felt like; I was particularly keen on Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Blegvad.

Five years after that folk club started up, a friend started a “mostly traditional” singaround as a kind of splinter-group. I went along; by this stage I’d completed a doctorate and written a book, I was working as an academic (which is where I should have been all along), and I was beginning to get seriously interested in traditional songs. When I got into that singaround I was greatly impressed, and greatly daunted. Everyone was doing old songs! Everyone was doing old songs that everyone else knew! Worst of all, everyone was doing old songs with choruses! I did When I was in my prime – which I’d done at the folk club previously – and pretty much got away with it, although the chorus singers didn’t have much patience with my intention of singing it in 3/4. About five minutes later, or so it seemed, the turn came back round to me, and I was lost. Dredging deep in my memory I came up with Who’s the fool now? and covered the panic I was feeling by challenging the room to keep up – I wasn’t going to announce the song, so they’d have to come straight in… The joke was on me – one line from me and a roomful of folkies walloped in, in harmony. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard – it was as if I’d stuck my head in a church organ. (And I’d started it!)

That night, I nearly screwed up the whole song at this point – I was so stunned by what had just happened that I just sat there listening to the echoes dying. Last Wednesday, on the other hand, I was ready, and I kept going. For this, another four and a half years on, is that same singaround: last Wednesday I sang Who’s the fool now? at the Beech, accompanied by… everyone. The sound quality isn’t great, particularly where my voice is concerned, but this (for once) isn’t about my voice: it’s about the first of the old songs I learned from another singer, and the singaround that made a traddie out of me.

This wasn’t the night that did it, mind you – that night I was mainly glad to get out in one piece. What really turned my head around was the night when I first heard Jones’s Ale – but that’s another story.

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Filed under folk song, traditional

FS51: Geordie

Child 209. This is a song I’ve only learnt recently; I first heard it in singarounds (within the last few years). My version is a fairly close imitation of Peter Bellamy’s rendition, which (as so often) seems unimprovable.

Like Gilderoy, this song changed when it went South, although less drastically in this case. The Scottish original of this song has the lady arriving in time to see Geordie in chains and have him freed by paying a fine (or ransom, depending how you look at it); it’s essentially Lord Allenwater with a happy ending. Geordie in its English form is a much more static song – Geordie’s already been condemned to death at the start of the song, and at the end he’s waiting to be hanged; nothing really happens. The central situation is brought out very vividly, though. There’s an odd mood to the last couple of verses, in particular – a kind of unspoken defiance, as if to say “you can hang him, but even on the gallows he’s worth ten of you”. Continuing week 50’s Dylan theme, learning this song I flashed back to Percy’s Song – the implacable judge whose face froze and looked funny is surely a distant relation of the judge who refused to revise Geordie’s sentence, looking so very hard-hearted.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, Peter Bellamy