Category Archives: 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

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

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