Category Archives: 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

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