Category Archives: Sydney Carter

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

NS13: Come, love, carolling

The subject matter of this track will appeal to some more than others; if you’re a militant atheist, you should probably look away now.

Sydney Carter’s songs were written out of an intense but idiosyncratic Christian faith. His Lord of the Dance has become such a cliche that we may forget how odd, even heretical, the idea of Christ dancing was at the time (any resemblance to the figure of the dancing Shiva was entirely intentional). This song is less heterodox but just as forthright: the verses state in typically plain language what Christian doctrine implies – that for nine months, the last of which we now call Advent, Mary was pregnant with God. (Christian doctrine makes some very large claims in places, and Carter was never shy of spelling them out.) The chorus (“All the while, wherever I may be, I carry the maker of the world in me”) is another matter: Carter stressed that this is not specific to Mary (“the chorus can apply to anybody”). The Quaker George Fox, a hero of Carter’s, held that there was “that of God in every one”.

The arrangement is one of the more complex ones I’ve recorded; by the last chorus there are melodica, recorder, a rather squeaky G whistle and drums all going at once (and all recorded separately). If I did it again I might use a simpler drum pattern, or else work to a click track. See what you think, anyway.

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Filed under not a folk song, Sydney Carter