Category Archives: traditional

The eighteenth day of June (26F 10-12)

Now the eighteenth day of June it has ended the battle… True enough; however, the last battle in the Battle of Waterloo took place the next morning, the 19th of June (Napoleon wasn’t involved). So today is in fact the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, sort of.

And what better time to revisit some songs about Napoleon? Here (for week 12) is the Grand Conversation on Napoleon, closely followed by the (very similar) tune The Cuckoo’s Nest:

And here’s the Bonny Bunch of Roses. For a long time this was my ‘calling card’ song, the one I’d always do the first time I was in front of a new audience. (These days it’s more likely to be The Trees They Do Grow High.) I’m still very fond of this one, though.

At the time I was recording these, I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to revisit the recordings; although these were both assembled from three different tracks, I only kept a final mixed-down WAV file. Although I thought the vocal (and flute) performances were strong enough to keep, I would have liked to do something about the Bontempi drone – which sounded pretty good when it was the only drone I was capable of producing, but sounds rather whiny now. I’ve done what I could in terms of equalisation, but I’m afraid you can still hear it!

I have re-recorded this, however: Boney’s Lamentation, a small masterpiece of folk history and mondegreenery (We marched them forth in inveterate streams…)

Saving the best till, well, fourth… I’ve also re-recorded this:

A song you could spend years with. I must have sung it a hundred times, and it’s still different every time.

Going back a fortnight, Plains of Waterloo and the Bonny Bunch of Roses are unusual among folk songs in mentioning the month of June. The previous month is far more widely referenced. It’s May she comes and May she goes (poor girl)….

Another pre-concertina recording, with Tony Rose’s arrangement shadowed on melodica and flute. I actually think it works rather well. Remixed – or at least re-equalised – for this outing.

Where you’ve got the Bonny Hind, you’ve got to have Sheath and Knife. This is another new recording, using a vocal drone that I recorded ages ago (I think it was for Master Kilby). The thing with Sheath and Knife is to maintain a contrast between the verse and the blankly repeating refrain, and to keep the song sounding at once sweetly pretty and grimly ominous (“The broom blooms bonny”… how nice). And, of course, to avoid singing “the bloom brooms bonny” or “the boom bloons brommy”.

And who else roved out one May morning, when may was all in bloom? George Collins, come on down:

Another re-recording from scratch, and one I’m rather pleased with. I got the tune from Shirley & Dolly Collins (no relations) and worked out the accompaniment on paper; both the concertina chords and the recorder parts are actually scored.

Moving back to fortnight 10, we go back to the very last day of May, and a re-recording of the first song I recorded with concertina: The Valiant Sailor. This time round I’m playing it a bit more briskly, and (more importantly) I’m actually playing the accompaniment while I sing:

And, finally for this round-up, another re-recording. Searching for Lambs: one of the great English folk songs. Compared to the original recording, I’ve lost the zither and the melodica drone – and the slightly unearthly atmosphere they created – but gained concertina chords and recorder; I think it’s a pretty good swap.

Searching for Lambs (the embedded Bandcamp player is refusing to link to this one for some reason)

The Valiant Sailor is from the 52 Folk Songs – Yellow album.
Searching for Lambs is from 52 Folk Songs – Green.
The Bonny Hind, Sheath and Knife and George Collins are from 52 Folk Songs – Blue.
The Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Grand Conversation on Napoleon, Boney’s Lamentation and Plains of Waterloo are from 52 Folk Songs – Indigo.

All new recordings and remixes are free to download, should you so wish.

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Filed under 26 Fortnights, Blue, folk song, Green, Indigo, the deeds of great Napoleon, traditional, Yellow

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

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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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