Category Archives: not a folk song

Fifty-Two Folk Songs: The Horse Series

As well as 52 folk songs (numbered FS01-52), 42 “also folk” songs (numbered AS01-42) and 34 “not folk” songs (numbered NS01-34), I’ve published 14 album-only extras; these tracks are only available if you download the albums they are on. They are (as of this moment) numbered HS01-14, ‘HS’ standing for ‘hors série‘. And they are:

From the Indigo album:
The House of the Rising Sun Two versions of this traditional song. One, influenced by Dave Van Ronk, is heavy on melodica and drums; the other, influenced by John Otway, consists mainly of computer programming.

From the white album:
On Ilkley Moor baht ‘at Many harmonies.
The moving on song By Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl; with melodica and drums.

From the Blue album:

La belle dame sans merci By John Keats, arranged by copland smith; a continuation of the True Thomas theme.

From the Green album:
Rosemary Lane With concertina, melodica, zither and drums.
As I was a-wandering By Robert Burns.
Box 25/4 Lid Not exactly a folk song, or indeed a song. Zither, whistle, melodica.

From the Yellow album:
The crow on the cradle By Sydney Carter, with a tune I came up with myself. Concertina and drums.
Whitsun dance By Austin John Marshall. Arranged to bring out the changing moods of the song; flute, recorder, drums, zither, concertina.

From the Orange album:
Four angels Kipling / Martin Simpson, with concertina.
Jusqu’à la ceinture Pete Seeger / Graeme Allwright, with concertina and drums; in French.

From the Red album:
Hob-y-derri-dando Unaccompanied, in Welsh.
The little pot stove By Harry Robertson, modified by Nic Jones; with concertina and recorder.

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NS34: Ballad of accounting

Amazingly, it’s only now – right at the end of the project – that I’m singing anything by Ewan MacColl. Or perhaps it’s not so amazing: for a long time MacColl stood for a lot of what I disliked about the folk revival (and I disliked a lot of things about the folk revival). Even after I got back into traditional songs, I was wary of MacColl as a writer – I saw him as a sentimental Stalinist with a reductive view of folk as the music of the working class, and an even more reductive view of what contemporary folkies ought to sing about and sound like. (And I never did like The Manchester Rambler.)

Then a friend did me the great discourtesy of lending me a copy of Songs of Ewan MacColl, sung (individually and collectively) by Tony Capstick, Dick Gaughan and Dave Burland. I still have some reservations about MacColl, particularly where politics is concerned (I can’t ignore his sympathies for the People’s Front of Judea), and not all of his songs were good by any means. (I still don’t like The Manchester Rambler.) But as a songwriter, when he was good he was very, very good. Apart from Peter Bellamy and Bob Dylan, I don’t know anyone who could write “in the tradition” as well as MacColl; he wrote lines and phrases that will stick in my mind forever, and seem to have been there forever:

Now you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman
You can swear and show a manly bearing
Take your turn on watch with the other fellows
While you’re following the shoals of herring

You can swear and show a manly bearing – obviously it’s written for the rhyme, but despite that (or because of it?) it’s a marvellous line. When he was on form, MacColl was a marvellous writer. (Although I’ve never liked the Manchester Rambler.)

This, on the other hand, isn’t a song in a traditional style; if it’s in any style it’s in the style of a Brechtian theatre piece. It has a directness and a confrontational quality which was perhaps not best served by the overt aggression of MacColl’s own style. My delivery is modelled on Capstick’s delivery on the Songs of album, although after some effort I have managed to lose the Yorkshire accent; there’s aggression there, but it’s a dry, fatalistic aggression, apparently aimed as much at the singer himself as the beaten-down older generation whom the song seems to address. (MacColl was 49 when he wrote the song.) We all have to account, sooner or later.

What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?

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NS33: A hard rain’s a-gonna fall

A few years back, my local folk club had a Dylan Night that was extraordinarily popular; there must have been 120 people there, as against an average week’s turnout of 30-40. By the kick-off the list of people wanting to go on had expanded accordingly; the MC had even tried to keep tabs on who was going to do what (and what they’d do instead if someone else had already done it), resulting in a sheet of paper that looked rather like one of Pete Frame’s denser family trees. The MC didn’t actually blench when I offered to do this song, but he didn’t look overjoyed. “Three minutes flat,” I said. “Trust me.” And did… what you can hear here – although to get the full effect you’ll need to assemble a few dozen friends to come in at the end. Worked rather well, if I say so myself.

What’s it doing here? While the similarity between Hard Rain and “question and answer” songs like Lord Randall or Son Davey is fairly obvious, there may be another link here. On his notes for the nonsense song When I was a little boy – a close relative of When I set off for Turkey – Martin Carthy suggested that Hard Rain follows the structure of a “song of lies” – one exorbitant claim after another, culminating in outright impossibility (“I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking”). Many of Dylan’s songs are steeped in folk song – and not just the ones that sound ‘folky’; this is a fine example. Like a lot of his songs, it’s a song by a protest singer who didn’t want to be a protest singer. I don’t think that “voice of a generation” role was ever one Dylan was comfortable with, but the process of resisting, renegotiating and ultimately abandoning it was very productive.

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NS31: Now westlin winds

This isn’t a folk song; it’s got a known author (Robert Burns) and date of composition (1783), and it’s written in fluent eighteenth-century poetic-ese (“to muse upon my charmer”, indeed). The original title is “Song composed in August”; the first lines are

Now westlin winds and slaught’ring guns
Bring Autumn’s pleasant weather

I’m putting it up this week in time for the 12th.

I haven’t got much else to say about this, except that it’s one of the most beautiful poems in the language, and works beautifully with this (slightly metrically irregular) tune. I feel quite privileged to sing it. I could explain what’s so great about it as a poem, but I’d rather you just listened to it, read the words and listened to it again (there are lots of other versions around if you get tired of the sound of my voice).

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NS32: Old Molly Metcalfe

Jake Thackray was a writer, singer and guitarist. I’ll start that again – Jake Thackray was a remarkable writer, singer and guitarist; far more remarkable, I think, than most of his audience realised. Few people can write with the grace and wit he displayed, and hardly any of them are half the guitarist he was. Respect didn’t translate into financial security – does it ever? – and his career didn’t end well; he was declared bankrupt at the age of 61 and died two years later.

Most of his material was funny, but this isn’t; it’s a story about another woman herding of her ewes together, told from a very different perspective. (I got it from a recording by Tony Capstick, who knew a good song when he heard one.) The facility – and often the superficiality – of Jake Thackray’s work can lead him to be lumped together with the likes of Miles Kington and Richard Stilgoe, instead of more substantial writers like his hero Georges Brassens. Certainly there wasn’t any radicalism or anger in his songs – except when there was.

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Filed under Jake Thackray, not a folk song, O my name is, Tony Capstick

NS30: The scarecrow

This is a song – only the second I’ve done on 52fs – from Lal and Mike Waterson’s extraordinary album Bright Phoebus.

It’s an extraordinary song, which has been widely covered. My own interpretation was initially influenced strongly by Tony Capstick, who did the song unaccompanied and gave it a very strong rhythmic framework. The metre of the song is irregular, but in the original version the uneven lines are draped over a steady, unchanging backing; Capstick’s version brings that irregularity into the melody. This makes for a powerful and striking song – which I recorded, more or less as Capstick sang it, over here. But after a while I grew intrigued by the original version, which after all doesn’t lack for power: you have a gentle, lilting melody, Mike Waterson’s matter-of-fact delivery, and… this song. How did they do it? Perhaps simply by letting the song do the talking. That’s what I’ve tried to do here.

The first two verses were written by Lal Waterson, who got stuck at that point; the last verse, with its jolly dons and their fertility ritual, was added by Mike. What it all means is anybody’s guess. If her songs are anything to go by, the inside of Lal Waterson’s head was sometimes a bad place to be. I like to think this one’s about the folk song revival: as if to say, “you want old? you want pagan? is this what you want?”

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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