July 18, 2014

Week 152 – Nora Daly

It was down near Miltown Malbay,
Not a thousand miles from Galway,
When I was young and merry
In the breezy hills of Clare,
That I spied a colleen comely,
With winsome ways and homely
And she driving in a donkey-cart
And she going to the fair.

One of the treasures I borrowed in my youth from my local record library was the Topic LP The Russell Family of Doolin, County Clare. This featured recordings made by Neil Wayne and John Tams of the three brothers Micho (flute, whistle and vocals), Pakie (anglo-concertina) and Gussie (whistle). Their playing was delightful, but what stole the show was undoubtedly Micho’s singing of ‘St. Kevin of Glendalough‘, ‘The Poor Little Fisher Boy‘, ‘When Musheen Went to Bunnan’, the bizarre ‘The Roscrea Cows‘, and this little gem.

The following information is quoted from the online version of Micho’s Dozen: Traditional Songs from the Repertoire of Micho Russell, Doolin, Co. Clare

Micho picked up this song from the singing of his father, Austin. This is, without a doubt, one of the most popular songs sung in Clare today. It was written by the poet, schoolteacher, and Gaelic scholar, Tomás Ó hAodha (1866 – 1935) of Miltown Malbay. It first appeared in a collection of his poems entitled ‘The Hills of Clare’, published circa 1922. In common with many singers Micho has compressed the original twelve verses into a more singable seven.

The tune is ‘The Stack of Barley’.

Micho Russell. Copyright: RTÉ Stills Library

Micho Russell. Copyright: RTÉ Stills Library

My friend Nick came across a two-verse parody of this song where “the crossest man in Clare” had become “the coarsest man in Clare” – and his daughter had, to judge by the lyrics, inherited his rough tongue.

Nora Daly


July 14, 2014

Week 151 – Fathom the Bowl

I learned this from The Watersons’  1966 LP The Watersons. A.L.Lloyd’s sleevenotes to the album mention “the collection of English songs made by William Alexander Barrett and published in 1891″ without specifically saying that’s where the Watersons got their version from. But actually, thanks to the Internet Archive, we can see that what they sing is very close to what Barrett printed in his English Folk Songs.

The versions collected from oral tradition all seem to come from Southern England, with examples from Sussex, Hampshire, Devon, Wiltshire, Somerset and Oxfordshire. Unsurprisingly, numerous printed versions can be found via the Full English or Ballads Online.

The punch ladle - late nineteenth century broadside from the Bodleian collection.

The punch ladle – late nineteenth century broadside from the Bodleian collection.

I have heard Jackie Oates sing one of the versions in Sabine Baring-Gould’s collection, which seemed to be less bumptious and rather more reflective. I couldn’t be sure if those qualities were inherent in the song itself, or just the way she sang it; either way, it was very pleasant to hear.

Fathom the Bowl

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July 6, 2014

Week 150 – Young girl cut down in her prime

It’s Week 150, and here to celebrate is the song which is number 2 in Steve Roud’s index (bizarrely I don’t currently sing a version of Roud number 1). There are 219 examples listed, but no doubt the number could be much higher. Starting life in the late eighteenth century as a “homilectic street ballad… concerning the death and ceremonial funeral of a soldier “disordered” by a woman” (A.L.Lloyd’s notes, Penguin Book of English Folk Songs) the song has spread all over the English-speaking world, and the expiring principal character has metamorphosed from an Unfortunate Rake or Unfortunate Lad to an Unfortunate Lass, a Sailor Cut Down in his Prime, Dying Airman, Dying Stockman, Cowboy, Gambler… while the location might range from St James’ Hospital, to St James’ Infirmary, down by the Royal Albion, the Banks of the Clyde, Cork City, the Streets of Laredo…

The unfortunate lad, broadside printed by Such between 1863 and 1885, from the Bodleian collection.

The Unfortunate Lad, broadside printed by Such between 1863 and 1885, from the Bodleian collection.

The very first version I heard would have been ‘When I was on Horseback’, on the Steeleye Span album Ten Man Mop. That version, recorded in the 1950s from Irish tinker Mary Doran, is rather minimalist: if you don’t already know the story it’s hard to work out exactly what’s going on (incidentally you can hear Mary Doran’s stunning version on the recently-released Topic CD set The Flax in Bloom). A bit later I came across ‘St James’ Infirmary’ in the Penguin Book of American Folk Songs edited by Alan Lomax. It’s a song I’ve always meant to learn, but never have (although I can play the chords on the ukulele). Then I heard another version, in the shape of ‘The Bad Girl’ on Fiddler’s Dram’s eponymous post-’Bangor’ LP (it’s actually one of several pretty good tracks on the album).

I don’t suppose I connected these songs at the time; that realisation came later (and, later still, the history and evolution of the song was covered in some depth by David Atkinson in the first of the EFDSS’s short-lived Root & Branch series).

I had planned for many years to learn Harry Upton’s ‘Royal Albion’ (or possibly Alf Wildman’s similar ‘The Banks of the Clyde’) but again never got round to it. Then I came across this version, and very soon realised it was a song I had to learn – especially when I found I could sing it in D minor, and it just fits like a dream on the C/G anglo.

The tune was collected by Cecil Sharp from Shadrack ‘Shepherd’ Haden, at Bampton in Oxfordshire. It is printed, along with two others, in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society number 17, in 1913. Sharp does not seem to have collected more than the first verse from Shepherd Haden; the five verses given in the Journal were noted by Francis Jekyll at East Meon in Hampshire (the singer’s name is not given). I put together a composite set of words from various sources, including the Hampshire version – which is also the version included in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

“Sailor Cut Down In His Prime” collected from Shepherd Haden 21 Aug 1909, from the EFDSS Full English archive.

Although I’ve been singing this for a few years now, I’ve not actually performed it in public that often, and the accompaniment is still quite fluid: I recorded it three times for this blog, and played the ending differently each time. Still not sure which one I prefer, so if you see me singing this at a gig, it might have changed again.

Young girl cut down in her prime

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

June 28, 2014

Week 149 – The Isle of France

‘The Isle of France’ was collected by H.E.D. Hammond from Joseph Elliott of Todber, Dorset. It concerns a transported convict who is on his way home at the end of his sentence, but is shipwrecked on the island of Mauritius. l’Île de France was the name given to Mauritius until it passed from French to British control in 1810.

I discovered the song while looking for something else in the Hammond MSS, which at the time were available only on microfilm at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, but which are now of course included in the Full English archive.

The Isle of France, from the Hammond Collection, via the EFDSS Full English Archive.

The Isle of France, from the Hammond Collection, via the EFDSS Full English Archive.

Joseph Elliott had a number of songs with not-the-usual tune, which it seems he picked up during his time in Canada:

In about 1850, when he was around 19 years old, he signed on as a fisherman in the Newfoundland cod fishing industry, sailing out from Dartmouth with about 60 other men (mainly men from Dorset).  He was out there for 3 or 4 years, and told the Hammond brothers that that was where he learned his songs.

(thanks to John Shaw via the Musical Traditions site for this information)


The song appeared frequently on ballad sheets – check out these versions at Ballads Online.

The Isle of France: broadside ballad printed by H. Such of London between 1863 and 1885. From the Bodleian collection.

The Isle of France: broadside ballad printed by H. Such of London between 1863 and 1885. From the Bodleian collection.

I recorded the song with Magpie Lane on our CD The Robber Bird. Below you will find a live recording of us performing it last year at the Red Lion Folk Club in Birmingham.


The Isle of France

Magpie Lane:

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Ian Giles – vocal
Jon Fletcher – guitar
Sophie Thurman – cello
Mat Green – fiddle

Recorded at the Red Lion Folk Club, Birmingham, 6th March 2013.

June 20, 2014

Week 148 – The Flower of Magherally

I learned this from the Boys of the Lough songbook (Music and Songs from the Boys of the Lough, Gilderoy Music, 1977). When I got the book I had heard several LPs by the band, and really admired Cathal McConnell’s singing. I had not, however, heard the album Recorded Live on which this song appears. I heard that LP just once, some years after having learned the song. My recollection is that I felt that, in having learned the song from the printed page, I had ended up singing it quite differently from the way it was performed by Cathal McConnell. But I’ve just listened online to Cathal singing the song – again on a live album, Live at Carnegie Hall - and actually it’s not that different.  Except that, much as I enjoy singing the song, I will never sing it as sweetly as he does. Do yourself a favour and give him a listen.

The Flower of Magherally

June 14, 2014

Week 147 – The Sheffield Apprentice

A bit of a classic this: really good story line (young man puts love before riches, is falsely accused, and faces a sticky end) and a fine modal tune. What’s not to like?

I had the tune from Joseph Leaning, via a 1908 cylinder recording made by Percy Grainger at Brigg in Lincolnshire, via the iconic 1970s Leader LP, Unto Brigg Fair.

It is not unusual for songs from the oral tradition to have incomplete or confused sets of words, and to then resort to printed sources to fill in the gaps. But the exact opposite was true in this case – Mr Leaning’s version seemed to me to be just too wordy (maybe he learned the song from a printed broadside, which have a tendency to be prolix). So I’ve used a more concise set of words from Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s Singing Island. Those words are credited to William Miller of Stirling, who I think I’m right in saying was Ewan MacColl’s Dad.


Sheffield 'prentice - broadside ballad printed by Harkness of Preston, from the Bodleian collection.

Sheffield ‘prentice – broadside ballad printed by Harkness of Preston, from the Bodleian collection.


An earlier recording of me singing this song can be found on my 1990 cassette Love, Death and the Cossack.

The Sheffield Apprentice

June 7, 2014

Week 146 – The White Cockade

Here’s a song from the Copper Family repertoire which I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard sung by any member of the family. I learned it from Bob Copper’s book A Song for Every Season (it’s also in The Copper Family Song Book) but it’s not on the 4 LP set of the same name, or on any more recent Copper Family albums.

Looking at the Roud Index I see that there’s a 1955 BBC recording of Bob singing the song, while what I initially assumed to be  the same recording (or one by Peter Kennedy of a similar vintage) appeared on Folktrax cassette FTX-238 - Come all you Bold Britons. Looking at the Folktrax archive, however, I see that this recording – like several others on the cassette – is listed as “Bob with conc”. Bob only learned to play the concertina in the 1980s when caring for his wife during her long illness, and it would  appear that these recordings date from that period (the recordings on the Folktrax cassette are dated “1963-1983″). There’s more information in Peter Kennedy: an appraisal on the Musical Traditions site (this is point 20 on the long list of Negatives):

There are also a considerable number of recordings which are copies, given to him for interest’s sake, by other collectors.  He has also sold these illegally via Folktrax.  Bob Copper told Kennedy that he was learning the concertina.  Peter told him that he would like to hear what he sounded like.  Bob sent him a “pretty ropey” (Bob’s words) self-recorded practice tape.  This ended up being released on Folktrax.


The origins of the song itself, and what significance if any should be attached to the colour of the cockade (white? blue? green?) in different versions of the song, are addressed in his usual pithy and informative style, by the late Malcolm Douglas on Mudcat here and here.

White cockade - broadside ballad from the Bodleian collection.

White cockade – broadside ballad from the Bodleian collection.


I don’t think I’ve ever sung this in public, and may never do so. In a world where the version popularised by the Watersons is universally known, going to a folk club or session and singing a version with a slightly different set of words and refrain is asking for trouble.


The White Cockade



June 1, 2014

Week 145 – Husbandman and Servingman

The servingman the plowman would invite
To leave his calling and to take delight ;
But he to that by no means will agree,
Lest he thereby should come to beggary.
He makes it plain appear a country life
Doth far excel : and so they end the strife

Dixon & Bell, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England (1857)

Here’s another one from the Cantwell family of Standlake in Oxfordshire (see last week’s entry) which Peter Kennedy recorded from the brothers Fred and Ray in November 1956.

A different – part-sung, part-spoken – variant of the song is performed at the end of the Symondsbury Mummers’ play. Kennedy recorded that also in the 1950s; you can hear a more recent recording made by Bob Patten of both the play and the song on the British Library Sound Archive website. In fact a search of the Roud Index / Full English suggests that versions of this song were widespread in the South of England. Lucy Broadwood included it in both English County Songs and Sussex Songs.  Her version was reproduced from Davies Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols -see www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/servingman_and_the_husbandman.htm. The song appeared in The Loyal Garland (1686), and is in the Roxburghe Collection; Malcolm Douglas’ notes to the song quote Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad, as dating it to “1665 or earlier”.

A similar version to the Cantwells’ was performed by Janet Blunt’s indefatigable informant William Walton of Adderbury in North Oxfordshire, sometimes with the assistance of Samuel Newman – the song is, after all, clearly designed to be performed by two people.

When we were assembling material for inclusion on the Magpie Lane CD, The Oxford Ramble. I think I suggested this song, knowing of its Oxfordshire connections. In fact Ian Giles already knew the song, having learned it from the Young Tradition LP Galleries. I’d also heard it on that record (or rather on Galleries Revisited - I’m a bit younger than Ian!) but made a point of getting hold of the Cantwells’ version, on one of those dreadful, tatty old Folktrax cassettes. I was not particularly surprised to learn that Peter Bellamy and Royston Wood had in fact recorded a fairly faithful reproduction of the song as sung by Ray and Fred Cantwell.

Below you will find a video of Ian and me singing the song at the first ever Magpie Lane concert in 1993, and then again – having revived the song after a long lay-off – at a concert in Bampton Church last autumn.

The husbandman and servant man. Early 19th century broadside from the Bodleian collection.

The husbandman and servant man. Early 19th century broadside from the Bodleian collection.


Husbandman and Servingman

Magpie Lane: Ian Giles, Andy Turner, Sophie Thurman, Jon Fletcher, Mat Green – vocals
St Mary’s Church, Bampton, 21st September 2013.


Magpie Lane: Ian Giles and Andy Turner – vocals

followed by

Banbury Bill: Mat Green – fiddle
As I was going to Banbury: Ian Giles – vocal; Pete Acty – mandola; Jo Acty – vocal; Isobel Dams – cello; Tom Bower – side drum; Mat Green – fiddle; Andy Turner – C/G anglo-concertina.

Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 3rd May 1993.

May 24, 2014

Week 144 – The Nightingales Sing

It feels like I’ve known this song for ever, although in truth it can’t be more than about -  oh – 37 years…

I first heard it performed by Fred and Ray Cantwell on the Topic LP Songs of Seduction. Typically, the version included on that LP had lost more than half its verses; I must have got the missing verses from Peter Kennedy’s book Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. Kennedy had recorded the Cantwell family at Standlake in Oxfordshire in 1956. I’d always assumed that Fred and Ray were brothers, but looking at the entries for the Kennedy recordings in the British Library Sound Archive catalogue, it seems that there was a brother Ray (75 years old in 1956, and a couple of years older than Fred) and it was these brothers who sang the version of ‘Husbandman and Servingman’ later popularised by the Young Tradition. But the accordion-playing Ray on this song was a much younger man, Fred’s son. There’s a Mudcat thread with a contribution from Fred Cantwell’s granddaughter, where it’s stated that Fred had eight sons. From Mudcat I learn also that Greg Stephens has fond memories of hearing one of these sons, Aubrey, singing this song in a pub in Standlake in the 1960s, while the Roud Index reveals that Gwilym Davies recorded a few songs from John and Aubrey Cantwell in the late seventies. Gwilym tells me that he met John and Aubrey when they were living in Stonehouse in Gloucestershire in the seventies: “we had several lively pub sessions together.  I have some recordings from then, but they are fairly noisy pub sessions”. These recordings are deposited with the British Library but, like those made by Kennedy, not yet digitised and publicly available online.

I’ve always thought of this song as a bit of a hackneyed old number, and it may well have been in the sixties but, to be honest, I can’t recall ever having heard anyone else sing it. Maybe it’s just the tune which is hackneyed, thanks (or rather, no thanks) to the Yetties. In any case, I’ve always really enjoyed singing it. And, although I suppose it’s actually a song of seduction and betrayal, I like to sing it “so sweet and tenderly” as if it were an innocent pastoral love song.

I’m pleased to report that on the Rounder CD reissue of Songs of Seduction we are treated to four verses (the usual third verse being omitted). Annoyingly the sloppily-edited CD notes still show just two verses, with the other three italicised and labelled “Additional verses”. So did Fred only sing four verses, and Kennedy has restored the missing verse from elsewhere? Or did he normally sing five verses, but only four on this occasion? Or did he actually sing all five verses and, even with all the space available on a compact disc, Kennedy / Rounder still decided to edit one out for the record? I’m not the only one to be irritated by all of this. But, like Rod Stradling, I was really pleased when I got hold of this record on CD – especially as, when I first heard it back in the seventies,  it was, apart from the Copper Family, the first time I’d heard field recordings of traditional British singers; listening to the songs again 25 years later reminded me just what an influence hearing the old LP had had on me.

And being able to hear two more verses of this song, at least, was a treat: it’s a fine spirited performance from Mr Cantwell, where he is clearly enjoying himself – after singing the line “Now I’m going to India for seven long year” the singer calls out excitedly “I been there!” (as a soldier, too, one might assume, although that’s pure speculation). And we do also get to hear that he inserts a short whistled refrain between each verse. Indeed the notes contain this rather wonderful sentence

Fred Cantwell said emphatically, as he finished the recording, ‘It ain’t much now, but I used to be able to whistle just exactly like a nightingale when I had my teeth.’

I can’t whistle like a nightingale. But I’ve never been able to resist adding a little whistled coda at the end of the song. Well it worked for Otis Redding…

The Nightingales Sing

May 16, 2014

Week 143 – The Seeds of Love

Famously, the very first folk song that Cecil Sharp collected was from the almost suspiciously aptly named Somerset gardener, John England. This is not John England’s version however, it’s from the great Pop Maynard. The song was included on the Topic LP You Subjects of England.

When Radio 2 launched their Folk Hall of Fame earlier this year, with Cecil Sharp as the first inductee, I was very pleased to find that Magpie Lane’s recording of ‘The Seeds of Love’ (from our Jack-in-the-Green CD) was included on their Cecil Sharp Playlist.

I concocted that arrangement sitting at the piano (an instrument I’ve never actually been able to play) a few days after the birth of my daughter in July 1996. With a new-born baby in the house, I assume I must have had my foot even more firmly on the soft-pedal than usual.

Below you will find a recording of me singing the song solo, and a recording of Magpie Lane performing it in Bampton Church last September.

The Seeds of Love 

Andy Turner – vocal


Magpie Lane: Sophie Thurman, Ian Giles, Andy Turner, Jon Fletcher, Mat Green – vocals

Recorded in concert, Bampton Church, Oxfordshire, September 2013 (thanks to Jeff Dando for live sound mixing).


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