Category Archives: Child ballad

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

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

FS46: The holland handkerchief

This is Child 272, although if you go off to Child to check the versions you’ll be sadly disappointed; Francis Child could only find one version of this one, and it’s a narrative poem in rhyming couplets. It survived in the oral tradition in Ireland; this version was sung by Packie Byrne and later by Norma Waterson.

I love this song. The setup is simple and familiar – the urban legend of the Vanishing Hitch-hiker is very similar. But there are mysteries here, not least the fact that (like the children in The lady gay) the ghostly lover is solid and physically present. And why did the young man die in the first place? According to Child’s version he died of heartbreak, but you’ve got to wonder if the girl’s father was more directly involved. Is the headache a clue to how he died, or is it just a sign that he’s making his body do something it can’t do any more? Mysteries, mysteries.

There are two concertina tracks, although you probably won’t be able to make one of them out for most of the song. I’m quite pleased with the chord sequence, which I arrived at through two distinct methods. One involves a lot of muttering and counting on my fingers (“one, four, five… “G, Goes Down And Ends E minor”…); the other involves picking a chord, then swapping some notes around and seeing what happens. I’m not sure what all the chords are called (although there’s definitely a Dsus4 in there). I like the way they sound, though.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song

AS36: The lady gay

Child 79, more generally known as The Wife of Usher’s Well; this is an American version, as sung by Buell Kazee. This particular text is after Peter Blegvad; I think the last verse, with its echo of Antony and Cleopatra, is his own work.

I worked out a ukulele (!) accompaniment for this, only to realise too late that I’d written it in G and I was singing the song in Eb; not sure what happened there. You can hear the ghost of the chord sequence I worked out at the start and end of the song. If you listen carefully you can also hear me stamping on the floor to keep time. Sung in one take, although with some edits where I messed up a verse & then repeated it.

Haven’t said anything about the song, have I? I love it as a song, but the story doesn’t move me as much as it probably should do. The basic situation is stark and awful, but there’s also something a bit eerie about the lady sending her children to learn ‘gramarye’ and then demanding that they come back from the dead – and why does she call on the ‘King in Heaven [who] wears a golden crown’ instead of naming God directly? You feel that the entire song takes place at the dead of night; the sun is rising as it ends, but even then the lady herself is barred from seeing what her children can see. A dark and chilly song.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, Peter Blegvad

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

FS40: Queen Jane

Child 170, more or less in the version sung by Martin Graebe. It’s a remarkably powerful and moving piece of folk history (Jane Seymour didn’t actually die as the result of a Caesarean, although giving birth to Edward VI clearly didn’t do her any good). Traditional songs don’t often look very far back in history – and when they do the result is usually a bit garbled – so this is an interesting specimen; the events it describes must have been a couple of centuries in the past by the time it was written.

It’s accompanied here on flute and recorder; the drone is flute.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, Martin Graebe

FS36: Two pretty boys

Back to Bellamy for a remarkable setting of Child 49 (“Twa Brothers”), derived from the singing of Lucy Stewart.

When I hear a really strong and distinctive singer, my style still tends to get warped by their influence – and there are few stronger or more distinctive than Peter Bellamy. This song is sung very much the way Bellamy sang it; I can’t imagine a better way of doing it.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, Peter Bellamy

AS32: Son Davie

Child 13. Also – and more commonly – known as ‘Edward’, although the only source in which it has that (distinctly un-Scottish) name is a thoroughly literary version, rewritten in fake medieval Scots (Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid) by an unknown hand.

The tune and most of the words are after Nic Jones, although I went back to Child & made some modifications myself. I first learned the song from a recording by James Yorkston; he and Kieran Hebden (no less) slowed it down and gave it an eerie, sepulchral production, the better to get the point across that someone has been murdered!!1!! I don’t know; it seems to me now that this (i.e. Nic Jones’s) arrangement, with its jaunty tune and cheerily un-emotive delivery, frames the song just as well if not better. There’s a certain bluntness about a lot of traditional songs: they don’t ease you in or give you many signposts. You won’t necessarily know what you’re getting just from the tune or even from the first couple of lines – so you’d better be prepared for what you might get if you keep listening.

Accompaniment: D whistle, drums, concertina.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, James Yorkston, Nic Jones

FS34: The lofty tall ship

Child 250, or similar; from the singing of Sam Larner, filtered through Martin Carthy.

The phrase ‘lofty tall ship’ crops up in the Dolphin; at one time I imagine most ships in song were both lofty and tall. As far as I know this is the only one that makes it into the title of a ballad, though. This is one of the shorter folk-processed versions of the ballad of Henry Martin, which is itself a pruned and folk-processed version of an enormously long ballad about the sixteenth-century pirate Andrew Barton; Peter Bellamy sang a version of Andrew Barton as part of his Maritime England Suite.

Concertina update: I still can’t play it (the instrumental break towards the end is played on melodica). But it does produce a very nice drone (Bb and Eb on this occasion).

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, traditional

FS26: Mary Hamilton

The lead song for this week is Mary Hamilton, also known (in fragmentary form) as The Four Maries.

I only came across this song relatively recently, on John Kelly’s excellent second album For Honour and Promotion, but I was immediately taken with it. Like a number of my favourite folksongs, it ends with several verses of defiant gallows rhetoric, but in this case it’s wrapped up with an hauntingly childlike little rhyme:

Yest’reen the Queen had four Maries
Tonight she’ll have but three.
There was Mary Seaton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Carmichael and me.

The real Mary Hamilton evades identification, along with the real Patrick Spens and the real Hughie the Graeme. Mary Queen of Scots did in fact have four maids named Marie, two of whom were Marie Seaton and Marie Beaton; the names obviously lodged in people’s minds. (The other two were Marie Fleming and Marie Livingston.)

Singing this unaccompanied, I had trouble getting John’s tune to work; I ended up using the tune that’s generally used for Willie o’ Winsbury (see how all this fits together?), only in 4/4 rather than 6/8. Properly speaking, this is the tune to False Foodrage rather than Willie o’ Winsbury; one of these days I’ll dig out the original tune to Wo’W and set False Foodrage to it.


Filed under Child ballad, folk song, John Kelly, O my name is, traditional