Category Archives: 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

Extras: The crow on the cradle, Whitsun Dance

52 Folk Songs: Yellow has just been made available for download; more of that later.

For now, here are the two album-only bonus tracks. The songs on the Yellow album were distinctive by their focus on violence – nobody died for the entire length of the Green album, and something had to give. Most of the Yellow songs are about conscription and war, and these two extras are no exception.

The crow on the cradle is the second song by Sydney Carter I’ve featured here. He was a passionate writer, and this song is particularly full-on. It’s an attack on the eternal spirit of negativity and destruction that fuels war – and, I think, on something else as well; you can’t listen to this song all the way through and feel comfortable that you’re one of the good guys. In the immortal words of John and Yoko, “War is over if you want it” – I think Carter would have agreed with both halves of that statement.

The melody is mine; I saw this song in printed form when I was about 11, and as I couldn’t read music I made up this tune. It’s in E minor, with a bit of E Dorian; the nagging concertina figure that seems to evoke the crow is an Em7 arpeggio.

Whitsun Dance probably requires no introduction – it’s the contemporary song with which Shirley Collins closed the Anthems in Eden suite, words written by her then partner Austin John Marshall to the tune of the False Bride.

I think there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye. The mood of the song shifts as it goes through, becoming quite brutally dark in verses 3 and 4, with only an equivocal resolution in the last verse: peace has returned but the young men have been killed, the world’s moved on and everyone’s forgotten. A more sentimental writer would have spelt this out and given the audience a bit of release – I don’t know, you could write something like

And year after year their numbers grow fewer
Some Whitsun no one will dance there at all

(Scansion needs work.) Instead Marshall went straight ahead to a superficially positive conclusion, which by this stage sounds very bittersweet: “And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun”. Then, before we’ve had the chance to draw breath or dab a tear, we’re off into the compulsory jollification of Staines Morris.

It’s a dark, bitter song, all the more so for its sunny surface. I’ve recorded it with different combinations of instruments – recorder/zither, zither/drums, drums/concertina – over a flute drone, and I think I’ve unlocked some of the anger that’s lurking in there.

You can listen to the songs here, or download them as part of the Yellow album.

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Filed under folk song, not a folk song, Shirley Collins, Sydney Carter, traditional, Yellow

FS45: Dogger Bank

One criticism of a song like Anchor Song is that it tries too hard to imitate traditional songs and ends up with something much more elaborate and ‘written’ than the originals – all those words, all those exclamation marks! This song, which Peter Bellamy took from Sam Larner, is a partial disproof. Clearly not all sea songs sounded like Shallow Brown; some of them sounded more like a music-hall patter song. Which seems to be how this one started life – see Mudcat for details – although by the time Sam Larner sang it the original had had a lot of the edges rubbed off.

My text is more or less what Bellamy sang, but with a few phrases changed back to what was in the original, in the second verse in particular. I particularly like the third verse – simple pleasures! The last verse really has no artistic merits and doesn’t even seem to belong in the song, but I like the seaside-postcard quality of the last line.

Now, watch us, twig us… (You’ll be singing along by the last chorus. Bet you.)

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Filed under folk song, Peter Bellamy, traditional

FS44: The trees they do grow high

This is one of my very favourite songs, in this version (learned from Tony Rose) above all. (I know two other versions with completely different tunes; they’re nowhere near as good, though.) I always get absorbed in this when I sing it; however carefully and deliberately I’ve begun the song, by the time I get to the last verse I’m always lost in it, conscious of nothing but the words and the notes. I think it’s something to do with the tune – that and the heart-wrenching story, and the starkness of the last two verses in particular.

The last verse of this version, in particular, is a bit of an oddity; it adds nothing at all to the story, contains bits of the previous two verses in more or less garbled form, and generally sounds as if it was made up on the spot by someone who was convinced there was another verse but couldn’t remember what it was. And it’s wonderful. It reminds me of the story about the last verse of “Hey Jude” (“So let it out and let it in…”). Supposedly Paul McCartney, when he first played the song to John Lennon, apologised for the thinness of that verse and for the fourth line in particular: “the movement you need is on your shoulder”, a blatant placeholder. Lennon, the story goes, told him it was a brilliant line and he mustn’t change it. Bizarrely, he was right – it is a great verse and a great line. Something similar’s going on with the last verse of this song. Sometimes a placeholder is not just a placeholder.

Recorded in the open air, in one take (with editing).

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Filed under folk song, Tony Rose, traditional

FS43: Come down you bunch of roses

This was originally going to be a recording of the well-known shanty “Blood red roses” (Go down, you blood-red roses!). Then I did some research – or rather, I found out about the research other people had been doing, notably the estimable Gibb Schreffler (“Gibb Sahib” on Mudcat). It seems that “Blood red roses” first appeared in the 1956 film Moby Dick, sung by a shantyman played by A. L. Lloyd (no less). There are a few older sources – not many; it’s an obscure song in any form – but none of them include “blood red roses” or the phrase “go down”. The endless speculation about the meaning and relevance of those blood-red roses – a poetic image for the blood fountaining from a stricken whale? a reference to the red coats of the eighteenth-century British Army? an oblique reference to the “bonny bunch of roses” of Napoleonic fame? – seems to have been founded on nothing more meaningful or traditional than a rewrite by Bert Lloyd.

As for “Come down you bunch of roses”, it seems to have been based on a West Indian children’s game (a singing game with the refrain “Come down with a bunch of roses” was recorded in 1962). Shanty writers worked with whatever was to hand – the not at all family-friendly “Little Sally Racket” also seems to have started life in the playground. Asking what the roses meant is a bit like asking for the meaning of the socks in “While shepherds washed their socks by night” – there was this song, and it got twisted to use as a shanty, and, er, that’s it. Having said that, perhaps the appeal of the phrase in this context has to do with the contrast between the flower imagery and the masculine job of hauling on a rope; a shantyman singing “Oh you pinks and posies!” is a bit like a sergeant major saying “Come on, you great fairies, put your backs into it!” (Perhaps we should sing it as “pinks and pansies”. Or perhaps not.)

As well as making the refrain more mysterious and exciting, Bert Lloyd seems to have detached it from its original verses, which – backing up the ‘singing game’ theory – were very largely about girls and food, and very little about whales and bad weather. In this respect I chickened out; my refrain has different words and a different tune from the standard revival version of “Blood red roses” (not bad for a single line of six words), but my verses are pretty much what you’d expect. Many thanks to Gibb Schreffler for the work he put into researching and recording this song.

As well as harmony vocals there’s a bit of musique concrète on here by way of percussion; I stamped on a wood floor, stuck my hand in a jug of water and rattled oven shelves, among other things. It keeps me off the streets.

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Filed under folk song, traditional

FS42: Rounding the Horn

Also known as “The gallant frigate Amphitrite”, although in most versions the ship has a far more prosaic name. An unusually uneventful sea song (apart from the two poor souls who end up feeding the sharks); the main message is that there are some nice girls in Chile, particularly if you’ve got money to spend.

There’s something curiously magical about the way place names crop up in traditional songs sometimes; just think of the London Waterman and

And he rowed her over to Farringdon Fair

What could be more idyllic? Similarly, the evocation of Valparaiso here really makes you want to roll down to Rio, and then carry on all round the Horn – so to speak.

I haven’t heard Bellamy’s version; if I had a recording in mind it was Jo Freya’s on her 1991 Traditional Songs album. The arrangement on that recording (by producer Gef Lucena) gets a surprising number of variations out of a concertina, some violins and a pizzicato cello. Here I did the layering thing with English concertina, recorder and drums; there was going to be a drone in there at one point but I ended up going for chords instead.

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Filed under folk song, Jo Freya, traditional

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

FS39: The dark-eyed sailor

We close the third quarter of the year – and the Yellow album – with a “broken token” ballad. It’s quite a literary piece of work (William and Phoebe?), although perhaps less so than this week’s other song. As always, you do wonder quite how much difference the years had made to the true love’s appearance, which in this case seems to have been particularly distinctive. Still, willing suspension of disbelief and all that.

Musically speaking, my approach to this song started with Tony Rose’s version, although as ever the metre is a bit more regular here; it makes quite an interesting 3/4 tune. The accompaniment is one of my more ‘knitted’ efforts, with a single melody line but a lot of textural variation.

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Filed under folk song, Tony Rose, traditional

AS35: Sweet Jenny of the moor

This is another “broken token” ballad. Stylistically it’s very much a written piece of work (“one morn for recreation”, indeed); the repeated rhymes on “moor” seem particularly literary. (Where was this ‘moor’, anyway? Jenny of the Beach would have been more accurate; rhymes might have been a problem, though.) The briskness with which the writer gets through the key points of the plot is also striking – the audience could obviously be assumed to know what was going on.

Accompanied on English concertina, with a quick burst of C whistle towards the end. I learned it from Tony Rose’s version, which is well worth tracking down – he could really play that box.

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Filed under folk song, O my name is, Tony Rose, traditional