Category Archives: 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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FS38: I would that the wars were all done

I started going to folk clubs regularly a bit before the invasion of Iraq. At that stage I only had a handful of songs I was really confident of, one of which was Billy Bragg’s “Between the wars”. I never really liked it – a bit grandiose, a bit sententious, and what was that bit about moderation doing there? Then the War on Terror kicked off properly, and nobody could claim we were “between the wars” any more. Ill wind eh?

This, anyway, is a sweetly pretty song about love and conscription, full of stock imagery, overcooked descriptions and patriotic sentiments. It’s rescued by the refrain, which is raw and hard-edged in its simplicity:

I would that the wars were well over
I would that the wars were all done

And – now that we’re not between the wars – who doesn’t?

Partly recorded in the open air. Accompaniment: concertina and recorder.

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