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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Extras: Hob-y-derri-dando, The little pot stove

Happy New Year!

The end of the old year saw the completion of the final – Red – album in the 52 Folk Songs series, of which more anon. The album includes two extra tracks, which you can hear (but not download) here.

Hob-y-Derri-Dando is that rare thing, a Welsh-language shanty. Language barriers tend to inhibit crossovers within a single genre; it’s much more usual for a language community to develop its own genres and its own traditions (forms like englyn and pennillion in the case of Welsh). Work songs like shanties may be an exception – it’s easy to imagine a Welsh crew wanting something in their own language to sing; I’m reluctant to speculate too much on the basis of one song, though. (And it is one song. There are two Welsh-language shanties known to exist; the other one is a different version of this one.) Here it is, anyway – the original of the English Hob-y-derri-dando, and by extension of all those songs about Cosher Bailey and his engine.

The Little Pot Stove probably doesn’t need much introduction. In its original form (as The Wee Dark Engine Room) it was a song by the Australian singer Harry Robertson about a life he’d known personally. This, reworded and retitled, version goes back to Nic Jones’s last pre-crash album Penguin Eggs, to which it gave its title. This is a song I’ve wanted to sing live ever since I first heard it, so it was particularly pleasing when I’d learnt the concertina well enough to accompany myself. The concertina here is live, although not the recorder.

Coming soon: 52 Folk Songs: Red.

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52 Folk Songs: Orange

Just in time for Christmas, the entirely non-festive Orange album is now complete and available for download. Here’s the link, and here’s what you get.

1 Puck’s song (Kipling / Bellamy) (2:38)
2 Sir Richard’s song (Kipling / Bellamy) (5:13)
3 Frankie’s Trade (Kipling / Bellamy) (2:51)
4 Anchor song (Kipling / Bellamy) (1:59)
5 Follow me ’ome (Kipling / Bellamy) (4:42)
6 Ford o’ Kabul River (Kipling / Bellamy) (5:59)
7 Poor honest men (Kipling / Bellamy) (3:09)
8 Big steamers (Kipling / Bellamy) (1:48)
9 Roll down to Rio (Kipling / Bellamy) (2:14)
10 Jusqu’à la ceinture (Seeger / Allwright) (album-only download) (3:59)
11 Queen Jane (Child 170) (3:26)
12 Earl Richard (Child 68) (6:07)
13 Rounding the Horn (3:13)
14 Roll down (Peter Bellamy) (3:38)
15 Dogger Bank (2:11)
16 Come down you bunch of roses (2:45)
17 The trees they do grow high (3:16)
18 Four Angels (Kipling / Simpson) (album-only download) (4:19)

All songs traditional except where stated (which is to say, mostly not traditional at all). Accompanied on English concertina, flute, recorder, C whistle, zither, drums, improvised percussion and miscellaneous drones.

This is the album where I gave free rein to my interest in the Kipling / Bellamy oeuvre; it’s not traditional (apart from some of the tunes) but it’s good stuff.

Puck’s song is Kipling’s hymn to deep history; deep English history specifically. Features C whistle, English concertina and bees.
Sir Richard’s song tells the story of a Norman nobleman falling in love with an English woman and hence with England. Zither and flute.
Frankie’s Trade is an unaccompanied belter. Guaranteed to arouse strong feelings on the subject of Francis Drake.
Anchor song, also unaccompanied, is two minutes of rapid-fire nautical arcana.
Follow me ’ome and Ford o’ Kabul River are two songs about a man losing another man in wartime; a friendship “passing the love of women”, as one of them quotes. Accompanied with concertina and with splashy trudges.
Poor honest men is an exercise in pushing irony until it snaps, accompanied on concertina.
Big steamers both is and isn’t a children’s song (listen to the last verse).
Roll down to Rio, the last of this album’s Kipling / Bellamys, definitely is a children’s song, but it’s rather lovely with it. Concertina again.
Jusqu’à la ceinture (an album-only extra) is Graeme Allwright’s translation (and adaptation) of a song by Pete Seeger, accompanied on concertina and drums. There’s a thematic connection with Ford o’ Kabul River.
Queen Jane (Child 170) is a very old and very sad song, accompanied on flute and recorder.
Earl Richard (Child 68) is one of my favourite songs, pieced together from multiple versions and accompanied sporadically. More information here.
Rounding the Horn, also known as the Gallant Frigate Amphitrite, is a fairly uneventful maritime song. Sung here in an ‘ensemble’ arrangement (featuring concertina and drums), after Jo Freya.
Roll down, by Peter Bellamy, is a shanty but not a traditional shanty.
Dogger Bank isn’t a shanty, just a lot of nautical nonsense.
Come down you bunch of roses is a traditional shanty, although it’s not the shanty most of us think it is (involving blood-red roses). More on this here.
The trees they do grow high is one of my favourite songs in the world; I hope I did it justice.
Four Angels, another album-only track, is a Kipling poem set to music by Martin Simpson. Sung here with live concertina accompaniment – my first song recorded like this.

Like the other downloads in the series, the Orange album comes with a PDF file containing full lyrics, notes and artwork. And, like the other downloads, it has a minimum price set at a symbolic 52p – although you’re very welcome to pay more!

Download 52 Folk Songs – Orange.

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O and A and A and O

I might be making this up but I think a stuffed boar’s head might be linked to the pagan feast of Michaelmas.
– a Mudcat contributor

The idea that traditional songs encode ‘pagan’ meanings crops up from time to time – was Polly Vaughan a shape-shifter? was Brown Adam another name for Wayland, the smith of the gods? As far as I’m concerned these are questions expecting the answer No; in fact, I think speculations like these only become plausible or interesting if you turn on your mental dry ice machine, pump up the mists of Avalon and repeat after me: ooh, songs from the old days, the strange mysterious old days… But if people want to punt these ideas around it’s no skin off my nose – it could get people thinking about where the songs actually do come from, and they might happen on something interesting.

What does bother me, though, is when people take this wifty-wafty ooh maybe it’s pagan approach to traditional carols. Two carols which have been particularly encumbered with speculative paganism are the Boar’s Head Carol and the Holly and the Ivy.

The Boar’s Head Carol derives from an attestably pre-modern (medieval) ceremony involving the ceremonial entrance of a boar’s head, borne in to an Oxford college feast and followed (presumably) by the more edible parts of the animal (The boar’s head in hand bear I, bedecked in bay and rosemary…). Now, it seems to me that if you’ve got a song which is partly written in Latin, and which goes back (with some variations) to before the Tudors, you’ve got something pretty wonderful – certainly wonderful enough not to need embroidery. But then the mists of Avalon roll in, and we get statements like this (per Wikipedia)

initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval times….[In ancient Norse tradition] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr to show favor to the new year. The boar’s head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels.

Sadly, I haven’t got access to Folklore 85(3) (Autumn 1974), so I can’t judge how accurately this heavily-edited quotation represents the intention of the author (American folklorist John Spears – not to be confused with English medievalist John Speirs, or for that matter John Spiers). But it certainly sounds as if Spears was claiming to describe the presentation of the boar’s head as a Norse ceremony. To which suggestion (implicit or otherwise) I reply with this, from the 1958 work Christmas and its Customs by Christina Hole:

[The boar’s head] was eaten during the Scandinavian Yule in honor of the Sun-Boar. The heroes of Valhalla were believed to feast continually on boar’s flesh, and the animal itself was sacred to Celt and Norseman alike. At the great medieval Christmas banquets the head was garlanded with rosemary and bay, and an orange or an apple was thrust between its teeth. It was brought in with ceremony to the sound of trumpets, slowly borne in upon a gold or silver dish by the chief cook, and accompanied by a procession of minstrels and servants.

Emphasis added. If – as the textual correspondence suggests – Spears was basing his statement on the evidence of Christina Hole, the evidence wasn’t there. Spears, like Hole before him, took the evidence of a medieval – Christian – ritual and simply speculated that it was based on a pagan forerunner, despite the obvious difficulty this theory faces in terms of dates. Christianity came to Britain in the 6th century AD – if the boar’s head ritual had derived from Anglo-Saxon religion, it would need to have survived for the best part of a thousand years before the first record we now have of it. As I commented at A Folk Song A Day, “it seems far more likely that the point of processing with a boar’s head is to demonstrate that (a) you’ve killed a large meaty animal and (b) you’re about to eat it”. And, I would add, (c) you want to honour this significant feast with an only partly jokey ritual setting – that is, a Christian ritual setting.

On the ‘pagan’ reading of the Holly and the Ivy, I can’t do better than quote AFSAD:

There are several different things happening here at once, involving both ancient pagan symbols and Roman festivities being consumed by Christmas. Holly and ivy are two evergreen plants symbolic to ancient winter ritual. Holly with its red berries was also associated with Saturn and more importantly the feast of Saturnalia that Christmas eventually usurped across the Roman Empire. Even so, Holly and ivy wreaths (and mistletoe) remained part of the decorative fabric of Christmas, and still do, despite resistance from the church. The song then uses the holly motif to make allusions through the verses to the purity, blood and crown of thorns of Christ. It’s also curious, however, that apart from appearing in the title, none of ivy’s attributes are described in the same way as the holly. This adds a further strand with the association of the prickly holly with the masculine and the softer ivy with the feminine. It’s the inevitable battle of the sexes and refers back to much older songs.

Let’s let some light in. The Holly and the Ivy was first documented in 1861, with an editorial note saying that it had first been printed “a century and a half since”; even if we believe this (and there’s no particular reason why we should), it only gets us back to the England of the early 18th century, before Dr Johnson but after Dryden. Why we should suppose that the words of an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century song had something to do with the feast of Saturnalia, I can’t imagine. It’s certainly true that the holly and ivy motif was used in “much older songs”, specifically “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly“, which goes right back to the sixteenth century. But the sixteenth century is still an awful long time after anyone had stopped celebrating Saturnalia.

What is going on in the song is a methodical, almost catechistic exposition of aspects of Christian faith: the white blossom reminds us of salvation; the red blood, of Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice; the bitter bark, of Jesus’s suffering on the Cross; the sharp thorn, of Mary’s pain in childbirth, and the joy of Jesus’s birth on Christmas day in the morn. These things would have been immediately, vitally interesting to an eighteenth-century congregation – who wouldn’t have given a second thought to the masculinity of the holly or its one-time association with Saturnalia.

It seems to me that the ooh, pagan approach to traditional carols does violence to the tradition, operating a double disinheritance. Firstly, the religious content – the Christian religious content – of the old carols passes us by; even present-day believers aren’t believers in the same sense as they would have been in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, when our entire social world would have operated on the assumption of membership of the Christian church. Hearing the Holly and the Ivy and finding significance in the holly is almost exactly like seeing a finger pointing at the moon and looking at the finger. And secondly, if we find religion where it isn’t (and ignore it when it is there), we also find symbolism where it isn’t – and for very similar reasons. Why would anyone write about holly and ivy, or about a boar’s head? For people like me – writing on a full stomach, in a warm and well-lit room – the answer isn’t immediately obvious. But it should be: these were Christmas carols, and as such they were winter songs. And winter was a time of darkness, a time of cold, a time when nothing grew – except a few strange survivors like the holly and the ivy – and a time when food was short.

The old carols are amazing songs: they’re songs of celebration, in the teeth of immense hardship, borne up by fellowship and firelight but also by the certainties of a shared and unquestioned Christian faith. It’s not easy for us to identify with that world and its people now – dreaming of New Age pagans is much easier. But it’s that world and those people who gave us the songs; I think we owe it to them to give it a try.

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Extras: Four Angels, Jusqu’a la ceinture

Here’s some new stuff for you.

New Kipling, set to music by Martin Simpson: “Four Angels” (sung with concertina, one take)

Like a lot of Kipling’s poems, this one was made for setting to music. Unlike most of them, Peter Bellamy didn’t get round to it; this setting is by Martin Simpson. This is the first thing I’ve recorded with ‘live’ concertina accompaniment. I like the way the concertina’s come out – very chapel-harmonium. My voice sounds a bit wobbly, though – I don’t know if I was coming down with a cold or if it was from the effort of having to think about playing at the same time as singing.

New Pete Seeger in French, translated by Graeme Allwright: “Jusqu’à la ceinture” (with concertina and drums, overdubbed)

My French teacher played us “Jusqu’a la ceinture” in class once, leading into a big discussion of the political meaning of the song – although we never actually touched on Vietnam, oddly enough! I’ve always liked it. If you can’t understand the French, just think “Waist deep in the Big Muddy” and you’ll be more or less there. I like to think that Graeme Allwright wondered about translating it, got as far as the second line (“We were on manoeuvres in Louisana”) and thought “Well, this is easy…”

Both of these will feature on a downloadable album before too long. (In case anyone’s wondering, I finished the last of the 52 folk songs back in September, but I’m still a couple of extras short. Hopefully I’ll get it tied up by the end of the year.)

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52 Folk Songs: the Christmas Album

Well, sort of.

52 Folk Songs: white is an album of seasonal songs, recorded between the start of Advent and the end of Epiphany last year. Some are religious, some are songs for cold nights and the turning of the year, and some are both. Unfortunately the album wasn’t available for download until February, by which time the moment for Gaudete and the Boar’s Head Carol had passed. But its time has come round again, so here it is.

The full track listing is:

1. A maiden that is matchless (2:07)
2. The holly and the ivy (1:49)
3. Shepherds arise (3:22)
4. A virgin most pure (4:08)
5. In Dessexshire as it befell (3:34)
6. Poor old horse (5:08)
7. On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At (4:43)
8. Come, love, carolling (Sydney Carter) (2:08)
9. The boar’s head carol (1:49)
10. Gaudete (2:49)
11. The King (1:26)
12. In the month of January (4:22)
13. The Moving On song (Seeger/MacColl) (2:44)
14. The January Man (Dave Goulder) (2:33)

Tracks 7 and 13 are ‘hidden’ tracks, as you’ll see (or rather won’t see) if you visit the album page; they can only be downloaded by downloading the whole album. However, you can play (but not download) them at the 52fs: Extras page. Tracks 2-4, 9 and 11 have been remixed this time round, to give a better balance between the different vocal tracks.

As well as hidden tracks, the white album comes with full lyrics, notes on the songs and even the odd picture. A few brief comments on the songs:

A maiden that is matchless is sung simultaneously in modern English and Middle English, with a flute part copied from Dolly Collins’s arrangement.
The holly and the ivy is not a pagan song. This was my first attempt at four-part harmony.
Shepherds arise More harmonies. Sing! Sing all earth!
A virgin most pure Another Dolly Collins arrangement (I think), this time on C whistle. Vocals in two-part harmony, partly my own.
In Dessexshire as it befell Yet more multi-part singing, plus a multi-part melodica break. I think the arrangement really works, and the song’s well worth hearing if you don’t know it. A strange and rather creepy piece of work, set on Christmas Day.
Poor old horse An old “house visiting” song, slowed down and given another massively overdubbed arrangement. Also features a quick burst of the old dance tune “Man in the moon”.
On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At Not actually strictly a seasonal song as such; scientists have established that it can get pretty parky on Ilkley Moor at any time of year. Four-part harmonies, sung as written with a few modifications for singability (I broke it up into five or six separate lines). Also features simultaneous translation for the hard-of-Yorkshire.
Come, love, carolling A contemporary religious song by the wonderful Sydney Carter. Drums, melodica and anything else that seemed appropriate; based on Bob and Carole Pegg’s version on the album And now it is so early.
The boar’s head carol is not a pagan song either. Second attempt at four-part harmony.
Gaudete This was more or less Folk Song #1 for me, thanks to Steeleye Span’s appearance singing it on Top of the Pops, so it’s always had a special place for me. More harmonies, of course.
The King Another multi-part song learned from Steeleye Span, although I wrote these harmonies myself.
In the month of January Just one vocal track on this one, taking on one of those really knobbly traditional melodies.
The Moving On song Not a massive arrangement – just drums, melodica and a couple of brief harmony vocal lines – but the texture of the (heavily-processed) melodica, the slightly over-fiddly drum pattern and the irregularity of the time signature make for an appropriately edgy, claustrophobic atmosphere. I like the way the melodica’s come out, but I’ll probably never be able to do it again – I was trying for something much simpler.
The January Man he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather… What a song.

Share and enjoy! Ho ho ho.

PS Here are those ‘extra’ tracks:

On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At

The moving on song

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Week 52: Banks of Yarrow, Ballad of accounting, Who’s the fool now?

Week 52! We’ve made it to the end of the year.

The 52nd and final (weekly) folk song is Banks of Yarrow; you probably know it as The Banks of Green Willow. Unaccompanied, after Debra Cowan.

Also this week: Ballad of accounting, a stark and rather Brechtian song by Ewan MacColl. Unaccompanied but for multi-tracking, after Tony Capstick.

And finally: Who’s the fool now? Thereby hangs a tale. Unaccompanied but for the massed ranks of the Beech singers.

Two last thoughts for anyone who’s made it this far. Firstly, don’t go away! There’s more to come, albeit probably not at the same workrate I’ve kept up for most of the last year. Secondly and more importantly, thankyou – many thanks for reading, listening and downloading.

Be seeing you!

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