Category Archives: folk song

AS40: Gilderoy

Gilderoy is a song that mutated when it crossed the Scottish border. Gilderoy (or his historical original) was a raider and an outlaw, but this fact isn’t greatly emphasised in the original – perhaps because it was common knowledge. Once the song gets into the English oral tradition, ‘Gilderoy’ becomes no more than a name and his criminal propensities get lost altogether. This makes for a rather puzzling song; in most of the English texts our man appears to have been hanged for having sex with his fiancee, which seems something of an over-reaction even by eighteenth-century standards.

If we go back to the Scottish song, the livestock thefts by which Gilderoy made his living do make an appearance, but the song remains a bit of a puzzle. In its original form it’s essentially an elegy for a particularly well-dressed gangster – one who was so handsome they even hanged him higher than the rest. One explanation I’ve seen is that it was written as a parody of Geordie; this would make a rather dry kind of sense if you mentally cross out ‘Gilderoy’ and substitute ‘Al Capone’ (or the contemporary gangster of your choice).

I learned it from Shirley and Dolly Collins’s recording, but here I’m singing a slightly different version, which goes heavy on the looks and charm but does at least mention the thieving. In this version of the song I think the mood is the main thing: thief or no thief, he was my one true heart’s delight… and now he’s dead.

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Filed under folk song, Shirley Collins, traditional

AS41: Maid on the shore

Maid on the Shore is an oddity. It’s a “virtue defended” plot, like Lovely Joan (but also the Broomfield Wager and Martinmas Time), in a particularly exaggerated tall-story form; there’s no real jeopardy or tension in this telling of the story, just one daft scene after another.

It’s a lot of fun to sing – not least because of the tune, which goes beyond intricate into weird. It’s fiddly to sing, but playing it is something else. When I first moved on from English to Irish dance tunes I was baffled by the way they all seemed to go up one way and down another. This tune takes it further – it doesn’t even come down in the same key it went up in. (I learned the tune by ear (and by touch), so I haven’t seen it written out, but I think I’m right in saying that it starts in C, goes into F, then back into C, then into G and then finishes back in C.) My original plan was to accompany myself ‘live’ on the concertina; my original plan didn’t survive my first attempt to play the tune.

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Filed under folk song, Martin Carthy, traditional

FS50: The grey goose and gander

Thanks to Shelley Rainey of the Bailey Sisters for this one. It’s a nonsense song; Frank Kidson, who collected it in Leeds in the late nineteenth century, noted rather sniffily that “this delightful production would be sung only after a certain degree of conviviality had been reached”. You could also say that it’s part of a great tradition of nonsense poetry, or possibly more than one tradition.

Songs like this – cheerful songs with big, meaningless choruses – are one of the great joys of social singing. Here are some vocal harmonies to get you started.

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Filed under folk song, traditional

AS39: When I set off for Turkey

First, a quick apology: all the sources for this song file it under A, the first line being “As I set off for Turkey”. I don’t know where I got the ‘when’.

The song is another one from Jo Freya’s Traditional Songs of England; I’ve never heard it anywhere else. It’s a “song of lies”, with recognisable kinship to the Derby Ram – although instead of elaborating on a single conceit this song works by piling up unrelated absurdities.

My arrangement echoes the over-the-top, “one damn thing after another” quality of the song. Plus, ukulele! (Keep listening.)

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Filed under folk song, Jo Freya, traditional

FS49: Queen among the heather

This song is taken straight from June Tabor’s rendition on Airs and graces, which she learned from the singing of Belle Stewart.

Well, I say it’s straight from June Tabor. I learned the tune and the words from her version, but my version’s a lot plainer; I can’t match her decoration for decoration. Also, I’ve gone back to Belle Stewart’s words in a couple of places where I thought they were better.

Lovely song, anyway. It does give a slightly romanticised picture of the life of the shepherdess, but there’s a definite class dynamic in there.

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Filed under folk song, June Tabor, Singer, traditional

FS48: Brigg Fair

“It was on the fifth of August, the weather clear and mild…” What else?

This is an odd, fragmentary song, which for me inspires very mixed emotions. It’s pure English traditional – it’s one of those beautiful sets of words, with one of those beautiful tunes, making you feel for a moment as if it’s midsummer in the heart of England and time has just stopped. At the same time, the song itself is a bit of a fake – Joseph Taylor, from whom it was collected in 1905, could only remember the first two verses, so Percy Grainger added a couple more from Low Down in the Broom and a fifth from a song called A Merry King of Old England. Anyone singing Percy Grainger’s version now is singing something that never was sung as a folk song.

This recording – made on the fifth of August – expresses some of this ambivalence with a backing track which is thoroughly modern, and – as you’ll hear – thoroughly artificial. The singing and the playing are real, though.


Filed under folk song, traditional

AS37: General Wolfe

This is a song I already knew (courtesy of Dave Bishop), but fell in love all over again on hearing Jo Freya’s Traditional Songs of England.

I don’t know the history of this song, beyond the obvious point that it post-dates the Battle of Quebec. There are some oddities in the lyrics – particularly the time-shift in the first verse – which made me want to find an earlier version, but I didn’t have much luck; I managed to trace it back as far as the Watersons (which isn’t very far) but couldn’t find any broadside copies.

The accompaniment is mostly concertina – with a bit of recorder – although the chords eluded me, so I went for drones instead.

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Filed under Dave Bishop, folk song, Jo Freya, O my name is, traditional

AS38: The green cockade

The green cockade is a Cornish version of a song more widely known as The white cockade; in other versions it’s blue. I dare say it depends who was recruiting in the area at the time. The Cornish version says less than some about the actual recruiting, focusing mainly on the loss and heartbreak angle.

This is another song I’d vaguely known for a while, but which I never rated particularly highly until I heard Jo Freya’s beautifully realised version. There’s concertina here too, and this time I did work out the chords.

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Filed under folk song, Jo Freya, traditional

FS47: Poor murdered woman

As Reinhard documents, this song is based on a true story and can consequently be dated with unusual precision: the Saturday in question was the 11th of January 1834.

Beyond that I can’t tell you much about the song, except to say that it shows a very striking combination of impersonality and aching grief. (Singer-songwriters take note: sad things have happened to you, but something sadder has almost certainly happened to someone else. You’re alive, for one thing.) I first heard it on the Woodbine and Ivy Band’s CD (reviewed here); Olivia Chaney’s rendition is one of the highlights of the album. My accompaniment is one of the more fiddly concertina arrangements I’ve come up with so far, supplemented with a bit of double-tracked zither.

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Filed under folk song, traditional

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