Category Archives: Child ballad

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

AS16: John from the Isle of Man

This is a variant of Willie o’ Winsbury, and one which departs from the usual storyline further than most. In this one the daughter isn’t pregnant and the father objects to “young John” on the general principle of protecting his daughter from excessive male attention. (There’s also the unusual detail of the boyfriend being called John and coming from the Isle of Man.) When they meet, of course, the King is so impressed by young John’s good looks that he drops his objections.

Both the tune and the phrasing are from a recording made by Robert Cinnamond (1884-1968), who had a large repertoire of songs learned from his father and grandmother. His delivery of this song – particularly the heavily dotted 4/4 rhythm and the emphatic swoops on unstressed syllables – was too distinctive not to imitate; I expect it’ll seep into the way I sing other songs.

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

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

AS15: Jamie Douglas

Child 204.

This version is based quite closely on June Tabor’s version (retitled “Waly Waly”) on the album Airs and Graces. She did quite a lot of work on Child’s original, piecing together a version that works well from four or five of Child’s variants. I’ve made a couple more changes, pulling in two “Farewell” verses and dropping one of the floating “heartbreak and regret” verses, but by and large this is June Tabor’s Jamie Douglas.

I’m eternally wary of claimed factual origins for ballads, but it does appear that there was a historical Jamie Douglas who did send his wife back to her father as damaged goods. Beyond that, who knows?

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, June Tabor, O my name is, traditional

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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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, Tony Rose, traditional