Category Archives: not a folk song

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

NS28: Poor honest men

This is one of the poems which convinced Peter Bellamy that Rudyard Kipling wrote with traditional songs in mind; it’s a perfect fit for the tune of Spanish Ladies, which is what you can hear in Bellamy’s arrangement.

The song itself is a lot of fun; it’s a vivid depiction of the hard life of a Georgian tobacco smuggler, liable to get shot by both sides in the Napoleonic Wars as well as by the authorities in both Britain and the United States. Kipling pushes the tag-line in the title further and further as the poem goes on. To begin with we can just about accept that people running American tobacco across the Atlantic might be trying to make an “honest” living buying and selling, even if their activities aren’t necessarily welcomed by the authorities. By the end of the story, though, our poor honest men seem to be guilty of a hatful of offences, up to and including murder. Which is when Kipling pulls the rug with the wonderful last verse:

To be drowned or be shot
Is our natural lot,
Why should we, moreover, be hanged in the end –
After all our great pains
For to dangle in chains
As though we were smugglers, not poor honest men?

This turns the entire poem on its head – suddenly the speaker isn’t complaining about all the hardships encountered in crossing the Atlantic (relative to which he could genuinely claim to be “honest”, or at least innocent), but about the sheer effrontery of being treated as, as… a smuggler! The irony’s black as night and ultimately rather nasty – having set the speaker up as a smuggler from the first line, the poem is implicitly stating that dangling in chains is about what he deserves. I think this song lies behind the similar but more sympathetic trick Bellamy worked in “Us poor fellows“: there we begin with “poor fellows” looking for work and end with a “poor fellow” going out on the rob, but without losing our imaginative identification with him.

Arrangement: almost identical to Bellamy’s on Oak, Ash and Thorn, where he was accompanied by Barry Dransfield on fiddle. The accompaniment here is drums and English concertina.

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NS29: Big steamers

This is Kipling in full jingoistic mode, beating the drum for British naval supremacy. The children who were this poem’s original audience were children of the Empire – an empire that included Hong Kong and Bombay as well as Hobart, Melbourne, Quebec and Vancouver – and Kipling wanted to make sure they knew it.

What’s interesting is the terms in which he gets the message across. British imperialism, and the military strength needed to support it, are justified on the most basic terms possible: we need the warships, because we need to be able to send the “big steamers” to India, Australia and Canada; and we need to do that because we need to eat. We need to rule the world because we’re so weak, in other words. It’s reminiscent of the patriotic mindset Anthony Barnett describes in this piece, in which Britain is at once a humble underdog (“It is a nasty world and, surrounded by it, we are but a modest, embattled island nation.”) and a world superpower (“Our goodness gives us an inner strength and integrity which, with our long experience, means we can suggest with all due modesty that the world needs our leadership”).

The poem gets noticeably darker as it goes on; the last verse, and the last line in particular, spells out what’s at stake in no uncertain terms. Interestingly, the last verse appears to be addressed to an audience of adults as well as children – at least, we assume that the people who carve joints of meat aren’t the same as the ones who suck sweets and nibble biscuits.

A hundred years on, of course, Britain’s still a net importer of food, but we manage to get by without imperial supremacy; we’ve got globalisation instead.

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NS26: Follow me ‘ome

Although it’s in a very different style, this poem shares its central situation with Ford o’ Kabul River: two men are in the army, one is killed and the other is… well, ‘heartbroken’ seems the only word. The loss of a beloved close friend is initially sketched in lightly, even flippantly, by a speaker who knows that other people aren’t grieving as much or at all. By the end of the poem, the same plain diction expresses an overwhelming loss:

’E was all that I ’ad in the way of a friend,
An’ I’ve ’ad to find one new;
But I’d give my pay an’ stripe for to get the beggar back,
Which it’s just too late to do.

Right at the end, there’s a kind of lexical focus-pull: the song shifts registers to speak from somewhere outside the speaker:

Oh, passin’ the love o’ women,

2 Samuel, chapter 1, verse 26: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” I remember my mother citing this to me in the course of a “some people are gay” conversation when I was quite young (she almost certainly didn’t use the word ‘gay’).

So, was there a gay subtext? It depends what you mean by ‘subtext’. Was Kipling writing, in a way he thought his readers would understand without having it spelt out, about two lovers? Certainly not – I think the idea would have horrified him, not to mention his audience. Was he writing about a loving friendship between two men, who were closer to each other than either of them was to a woman? Yes – it’s right there in front of you. And, for me at least (and I am writing as a straight man), whether or not we think of this particular loving friendship as sexual is much less important than the attention and tenderness with which the poem brings it to life. Growing up in a gender-segregated environment, young men like these could both have been straight and still never have had any emotional involvement with a woman to match the friendship they had. Lives are complicated, sex lives in particular.

I learned this from Peter Bellamy’s recording on Keep on Kipling, where it’s accompanied by Chris Birch’s violin as well as Bellamy’s anglo concertina. Adapting an anglo accompaniment for an English concertina isn’t always a good idea; the chordal accompaniment you can hear is mostly my own work.

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NS27: Ford o’ Kabul River

“Kabul town’s by Kabul river”, and they’re both an awful long way away from the England where Kipling’s audience lived. Plus ça change eh?

This song commemorates a real military disaster from 1879, in which a cavalry squadron lost its way while fording the Kabul river at night and got swept away; 46 men were lost, and only 19 bodies were found. Kipling’s poem takes a few liberties with the story, suggesting that it took place just outside Kabul and in the course of a campaign to take the city; in fact it happened near Jalalabad, seventy miles away, and the cavalry in question had been sent out to put on a show of strength and intimidate rebellious locals.

What’s particularly striking about Kipling’s poem, and gives it far more power than the rather grubby story it’s based on, is the personal framing: it’s spoken by a man who lost his best friend in the river and is now beside himself with grief. After a while, the refrain’s cheery repetitions –

Ford, ford, ford!
Ford o’ Kabul River,
Ford o’ Kabul River in the dark!

take on an oppressive, nightmarish quality: in his mind, you feel, the speaker is still at the ford of Kabul river in the dark, and perhaps always will be.

Peter Bellamy’s arrangement of this song (on Keep on Kipling) is brisk and tuneful, with an uncluttered fiddle accompaniment from Chris Birch; Bellamy’s uncompromising, caustic delivery works well, together with the Mixolydian mode of the tune, to stop things getting too jolly. For myself I didn’t want to take any chances, so I slowed it down a bit and added some percussive noise (which may be familiar from a recent shanty).

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NS24: Anchor song

This is another Bellamy arrangement of Kipling. The poem’s something of a tour de force in the sheer quantity of technical vocabulary that it manages to cram in, mostly but not exclusively in the odd-numbered verses; the ‘surface’ of the poem is at once off-putting and fascinating (“handsome to the cat-head now…”). The poet who this effect most puts me in mind of is W. H. Auden, of all people; I wonder if he ever acknowledged Kipling as an influence.

I haven’t been able to find any commentary on the poem. What seems to be going on is the launching of a small ship; the sail is unfurled in the first verse, after which attention switches to cables (I think) in the third, the eponymous anchor in the fifth and the wheel in the seventh. The terminology looks genuine, but I suspect it’s a bit overdone for effect; would anyone say “Up, well up the fluke of her!” when they could say “Raise the anchor”?

The tune is Bellamy’s; he took it at a similar pace. It’s an absolute sod to learn; even after I’d memorised it I had to sing it through several times before I was word-perfect. This recording was done in one take.

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NS25: Roll down

This is a modern song in the shanty style, from Peter Bellamy’s ballad opera The Transports; on the original recording the lead was taken by Cyril Tawney (no less).

Like a number of other songs in The Transports, this song hits two very different targets. It sounds like a traditional shanty, just as The Black and Bitter Night, Us Poor Fellows and the Leaves in the Woodland sound like real broadside ballads; it’s entered the revival shanty repertoire, being sung by groups like Kimber’s Men. Very few people have ever been as adept as Bellamy at writing “in the tradition”; he combined a profound immersion in the traditional repertoire with – perhaps surprisingly – very little songwriterly ego. At the same time, the song forms part of a narrative: it moves the story forward and gets characters from A to B, literally in this case. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.

My arrangement is modelled on the version in the 1977 recording of The Transports; I particularly liked Tawney’s understated, almost chatty delivery of the verse lines, and tried to emulate it.

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Filed under Cyril Tawney, not a folk song, Peter Bellamy