Category Archives: folk song

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

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