Last Christmas I was taken to task for failing to mention, when I wrote about ‘This is the truth sent from above’, the version collected, and subsequently arranged for choir, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. That version, noted from a Mr Jenkins at King’s Pyon in Herefordshire, has, I have to admit, a rather wonderful melody. But actually variants of the same melody seem to have been used elsewhere in the Welsh border counties for other carol texts. I have a four-part arrangement which I hope to post some time of a version of ‘On Christmas Night All Christians Sing’, collected in Shropshire by Cecil Sharp, and which is clearly a variant of Mr Jenkins’ tune. And here’s another variant, once again from Herefordshire, recorded in 1909 by Vaughan Williams and E.M. Leather from Mr W. Hancock (or Hancocks) at Weobley.
The tune and first verse of the carol were printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol 4 No 14 (1910), alongside numerous other really fine carols collected by Vaughan Williams. The notes for this piece say “Noted by R. Vaughan Williams, from a Phonograph Record”. I have completed the words with a further five verses (out of an available twelve) from A Good Christmas Box, a collection printed at Dudley in the West Midlands in 1847. It would seem that the song was not infrequently classed as a Christmas carol, as can be seen from these examples from the Bodleian and Full English collections, but it’s clearly a Passiontide piece. Referring back to the Journal article, I was glad to see that Ella Leather concurs: she notes
It is a great favourite with Herefordshire singers, and was formerly sung at Christmas, although the subject is clearly the Crucifixion and not the Nativity.
The Fountain Of Christ’s Blood, from the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.
Having learned and recorded ‘Jack Williams’ a couple of months ago, this was to have been my second new song of 2014. So far, however, all attempts to din the words into my head have proved fruitless. I have occasionally, when recording songs for this blog, had the words in front of me as a safety net; this is the first time they’ve been an essential prop. I wanted to put the song online now though, as it’s appropriate for Easter, and I’m not sure that I have enough songs to keep this blog going till Easter next year!
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
My mate Bob, a man of many and varied musical enthusiasms, recently contacted me with the following:
I was knocked sideways by the unexpected sound of Shirley Collins’ voice on a recent Freak Zone, Stuart Maconie’s late night celebration of the exotic, esoteric and the little heard end of the popular music spectrum. And yes, much of it is little heard for very good reason.
She was singing a Methodist hymn called Idumea on an album called Black Ships Ate the Sky by an experimental music group called Current 93, the creative vehicle of a man called David Tibet since the 80’s.
Black Ships Ate the Sky features several versions of Idumea, each with a different vocalist but Collins’ version is the pick… It is clearly not the voice of a young woman but she holds the tune effortlessly and, more importantly, delivers a huge emotional hit. In this regard, I was reminded of the first time I heard the aged Johnny Cash singing Hurt.
I’ve had a listen to most of the album on Spotify, and I have to confess that Bob was spot on when he predicted that much of it would not be to my taste. But I can well understand how David Tibet (or indeed anyone) would be very taken with this powerful hymn.
I have a facsimile of an 1860 printing of The Sacred Harp where the source of the words is given as the Methodist Hymn Book p231. More modern editions of The Sacred Harp credit the author of the words, the great English non-conformist poet and hymn-writer Charles Wesley. You will find the full words as printed in The Sacred Harp at http://fasola.org/indexes/1991/?p=47b but Wesley wrote more than four verses – you can see a further two four-line verses under Hymn LIX in Wesley’s Hymns for Children, 1763 (Hymns for Children! with an opening line “And am I born to die” – they didn’t pussyfoot around with children in those days!) while the version printed in the Wesleyan Hymn Book of 1779 has six eight-line stanzas.
And Am I Born to Die? Hymn 41 in the Wesleyan Hymn Book. From the Internet Archive.
The composer of the tune is given as Ananias Davisson, 1816 (Although it’s possible he just harmonised a traditional tune – and it’s worth pointing out that in the nineteenth hymn books the arrangement of this song, as with many others, has only three harmony parts: the alto was added in the twentieth century). The index of composers at http://fasola.org/indexes/1991/?v=composer suggests that this is the only Ananias Davisson composition in The Sacred Harp, although there are others, no doubt, in the Kentucky Harmony, which he compiled.
Idumea, from The Sacred Harp.
I think I first heard Idumea on the Watersons’ LP Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, then a little later on the Young Tradition’s Galleries Revisited. Unlike the Watersons, the YT sing the proper harmonies (i.e. those in the book), but they don’t get the rhythm quite right. These days, of course, you can find countless versions of Idumea on the web. Here it is in its natural habitat, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1982 at Holly Springs, Georgia.
Note how many of the participants are clearly suffering somewhat in the sweltering Georgia heat, but the man in the suit and tie in the front row seems impervious to everything but the singing.
Elsewhere on YouTube, there’s a less impressive vocal performance, but with the added benefit of Lego:
(Thanks to Adrian Russell for alerting me to that one)
Clearly there are many ways this song can be interpreted. Here’s Cordelia’s Dad, live at Sidmouth in 2010:
That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Some might even think it sacrilegious, or disrespectful, or gimmicky. But that would be a mistake: lead vocalist Tim Eriksen and bassist Cath Oss are vastly knowledgeable about this music, and have been immersed in Shape Note singing for years. If you have the Cold Mountain soundtrack, you’ll have heard Tim singing Idumea solo, to his own fiddle accompaniment. And if you’ve seen the film (and frankly, if not, why not?) you will surely remember the way Idumea is used early in the film as a wonderfully effective musical backdrop to the scenes of post-battle devastation at Petersburg. Tim Eriksen coordinated the Sacred Harp singing on that film, and insisted that the recording should be made at a real Sacred Harp singing, at the Liberty Baptist Church in Alabama.
I believe it is the recording from Cold Mountain that has been used once again to provide a moving accompaniment to images of Native Americans on this final YouTube video:
Did I say final YouTube video? Let’s have one more performance full of emotion before you get to hear me sing Idumea.
Learned from the singing of Walter Pardon, via his debut LP, A Proper Sort. And it’s a particularly fine performance by Walter as well – you can hear the same recording, made in 1974 by Bill Leader and Peter Bellamy, on Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land (The Voice of the People Volume 4).
Van Diemen’s Land, in case anyone is unaware, was the former name for Tasmania. I retain Walter Pardon’s pronunciation of “Die-man” rather than the more usual “Dee-man”. There are actually two related, but distinct, songs which share the title Van Diemen’s Land. Roy Palmer believes that this one – Roud 221, originally Young Henry the Poacher - may have been a sequel to the original Van Diemen’s Land, Roud 519. Writing in the Folk Music Journal in 1976, Roy argued that both songs were prompted by two major trials of poachers in Warwickshire, in 1829. This followed the enactment of a new law in 1828 which stated that “if three men were found in a wood, and one of them carried a gun or bludgeon, all were liable to be transported for fourteen years” (FMJ Vol 3 No 2, p161). This ballad in particular, Roy says, appears to have been influenced by the events in Warwickshire.
Young Henry the poacher – ballad sheet printed by H Such between 1863 and 1885; from the Bodleian collection via Ballads Online.
I have a very distinct memory of singing this song at “One for Ron”, an event held to celebrate the life of Sussex singer Ron Spicer, a year or so after his death. There was a massive singaround in the afternoon – it must have gone on for around 3 hours, but there were so many singers present that hardly anyone got the chance to sing more than one song. When I got to the chorus of this one, I started to sing it in my normal way
Young men, all now beware
Lest you are drawn into a snare
But I quickly realised that a stronger force was at work in the room. In the far corner sat the mighty Gordon Hall – a big man, with a big voice. Gordon never liked to rush a song, and his way of singing the chorus was more like
Young men, a—-ll now bewa——re [pause]
Lest you are drawn int–o a sna——-re
There was nothing to do but go with the flow, and sing it at Gordon’s pace. Which was, clearly, the right way to sing it!
When I discovered the Boys of the Lough in the late seventies, one of the things I liked most about the band was the pure, clear, high tenor singing of Cathal McConnell. A year or two later at the Sidmouth Festival – I’m guessing 1979 or 1980 – I came across a singer with a similar style, but who I would rate even higher. That singer was Kevin Mitchell, born in Derry, but for a long time a resident of Glasgow. I had no hesitation in buying his Topic LP Free and Easy when I subsequently came across it in Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford and, as I recall, I didn’t waste much time in learning this song from it.
The LP sleeve notes say
Known better as The Airy Bachelor or The Black Horse (O Lochlainn, ”lrish Street Ballads”, no. 17) this has been widely distributed on ballad sheets and is common, especially in Donegal, whence this version obtained from John McCracken of Innishowen. The “Songs of the People” contains a song called The Hungry Army. The title is, intended or not, a pun; the army composed of underpaid, badly treated, hungry men, or the army hungry for recruits to replace those who fell in battle, deserted, died under the lash or from disease. Sergeant Acheson is just such a recruiting officer as contrived by dint of cajolery, chicanery or sometimes criminality to feed it. The Black Horse is, according to Sam Henry (“Songs of the PeopIe”, no. 586), a by-name for the 7th Dragoon Guards – The Princess Royals.
Several printed versions can be found at Ballads Online, with titles such as A new song called the Black Horse or A Much-admired Song Called the Black Horse. All the versions collected from the oral tradition are, unsurprisingly, Irish, with the exception of the rather confused fragment, You Lads of Learning, recorded in Ludlow from May Bradley.
An admired song called the Black Horse – nineteenth century ballad sheet printed by Haly, Cork; from Ballads Online.
Kevin Mitchell is, as far as I know, still singing like an angel, although it’s unfortunately some years since I last saw him. I have a very distinct memory of a singing session at the National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington in the early 1990s, when the Sussex singer Gordon Hall 0 a big, bluff man, but a real softy on the inside – was moved almost to tears by the beauty of Kevin’s singing.
I learned this from Roy Palmer’s book, Songs of the Midlands where the notes say
Sung by Mr. George Dunn, Quarry Bank, Staffs.; collected by Charles Parker, 24th March, 1971. This song is better known in Scots versions, though Hammond collected an English version. It is now extremely rare.
A search of the Full English archive shows that it was actually Gardiner, rather than Hammond, who collected a version in Hampshire, while Cecil Sharp also had a couple of versions in Somerset, but let’s not nitpick…
Roy Palmer’s own recording of George Dunn singing The Miller’s Song is the first track on the Musical Traditions CD Chainmaker, and there are in fact three separate recordings of the song from the Roy Palmer collection (two made by Roy, and one by Charles Parker) available for all to listen to on the British Library website.
The notes to the Musical Traditions CD say that George Dunn “greatly relished singing this marvellously life-affirming piece” and so do I: it’s a real joy to sing. The last verse in particular is a wonderful example of how sometimes in a song the melody, the rhythm, the words and the meaning behind the words can all just.. er.. come together.
George Dunn. Photo from the Musical Traditions website.
Putting the recent pea-soupers to one side, there have been some very spring-like mornings this week, so in a spirit of optimism I thought I’d post this song. It’s another one from the great Pop Maynard, learned from the Topic LP Ye Subjects of England. It’s a song which I think of as being quintessentially Southern English. That impression is partly based on only having come across the song from George Maynard and the Copper Family – but in fact having looked up Roud 356 on the Full English site I see that it has been exclusively collected in Southern England, with most of the sightings coming from Sussex.
I should perhaps confess that, while I love this song, I can’t relate to it fully having, as far as I’m aware, never actually heard a nightingale.
George ‘Pop’ Maynard – photo from Musical Traditions
This is a proper traditional ballad where all the main characters end up unhappy and/or dead. Just for once, it features a young lady whose parents approve of her choice of life-partner but, needless to say, there’s a fly in the ointment. In this case it’s her brothers, who want her to marry a rich young lord. They promise to kill her unsuitable suitor, and are as good as their word, inviting him a to a fair, then doing him over with a couple of sticks (although in the interests of efficiency, and preserving the internal rhyme scheme, they might have done better to have used knives).
I learned this from an Irish traveller, Josie Connors, via the VWML cassette Early in the Month of Spring. This cassette presented recordings of Irish travellers made by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in various unromantic locations (e.g. an illegal camp underneath the Westway flyover in North Kensington) in and around London – Josie Connors, I think was recorded at Langley, near Slough. Most if not all of those recordings are now available on the Musical Traditions CD From Puck to Appleby.
The notes to that CD say
The plot of The Constant Farmer’s Son was used in the 14th century by Boccaccio in The Decameron and later made the subject of poems: by Nuremberg poet Hans Sachs in the 16th century and, in the early 19th century, by John Keats in his Isabella and the Pot of Basil.
Based on an older song, The Bramble Briar or Bruton Town, which has been described as ‘probably the song with the longest history in the English tradition’, it owes its continued popularity to its appearance on nineteenth century broadsides. A version from Hertfordshire in 1914 gives it as ‘Lord Burling’s (or Burlington’s) Sister or The Murdered Serving Man.
As well as being found widely in England, it is very popular in Ireland, though it has only appeared in print there a couple of times. It is included in the Sam Henry Collection which gives four sources and, more recently it was included in Fermanagh singer John Maguire’s autobiographical Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday. Josie learned it from her mother, a Dublin Traveller.
About twenty years ago I sang this song in a ballad session at Sidmouth. The collector Keith Summers was sitting near me. When I’d finished the song he just leaned across and said “You got it boy”. That’s one of those cryptic remarks which I may well have misinterpreted, but I’ve always taken it as a huge compliment from a man who had spent an enormous amount of time in the company of traditional singers.
The Merchant’s Daughter And Constant Farmer’s Son – ballad sheet from the Frank Kidson Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.
The first folk record of any description that I heard was Below the Salt by Steeleye Span. The next were probably All Around My Hat and Ten Man Mop by Steeleye Span, and Folk Songs of Olde England Volume 1 by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, who were of course members of – yes you’ve guessed it – Steeleye Span. I did then start to branch out a little, with LPs by the Watersons, Planxty, the Chieftains, and even, within twelve months of my conversion to full-blown folkiness, the Copper Family. But it would be hard to deny that Steeleye, and Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, had a massive influence on my developing musical tastes. As a seventeen year old I suspect my singing voice was a rather curious and unlovely amalgam of Mike Waterson (inimitable, and therefore definitely not someone a Kentish schoolboy should have tried to imitate), Tim Hart (who I later discovered had adopted a fake yokel singing style because he thought his own voice was too posh for folk songs) and Martin Carthy at his most mannered. I have, I hope, moved on.
This song is the first track on the aforementioned Folk Songs of Olde England Volume 1. There are several songs from that record which have entered my repertoire over the years – ‘A Wager’, ‘Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy’, ‘Babes in the Wood’ – but funnily enough I don’t think I ever learned any of them directly from the LP. According to Reinhard Zierke’s Mainly Norfolk site the sleeve notes say
This Cumberland sung is an amalgamation of three versions collected by Geoff Woods of Leeds between 1945-1967. It is believed to have been written by Willian Graham, “the Cumberland poacher”. The word “lish” is Cumberland dialect for active or brisk, and “buy-a-broom” is a tinker.
Clearly Reinhard has a different version of the record to me – my 1976 Mooncreast reissue has no notes about the songs at all.
I wrote out the words on an early visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. I wasn’t very scrupulous about noting my sources in those days, and looking at the Roud Index I can’t say for sure where I got the words from. The only likely contender there is Frank Warriner’s Cumberland collection, but in my memory it was from a more modern printed source. I guess Steve Roud hasn’t had time to index every book in the VWML…
I was pleased to find that there was an extra verse – the one which ends “She said: My gay young fellow you shall play my little drum”, which is the kind of line you wouldn’t want to leave out.
Lish Young Buy-a-Broom – mid-nineteenth century broadside printed by Harkness of Preston, from the National Library of Scotland website.
George Attrill, from the Copper Family website (in the book Songs and Southern Breezes the photo from which this is taken is listed as “by courtesy of George Garland, Petworth”).
This song was collected by Bob Copper in the 1950s, and it was included in his book Songs and Southern Breezes. Bob had the song from George Attrill, road-mender of Fittleworth in Sussex.
George was a completely natural and unaffected singer. He stood there in his shirt-sleeves and braces, shoulders squared and head tilted slightly back, and sang out loud and bold. His words were clear and a strong West Sussex accent made all his songs a joy to hear.
You can hear Bob’s recording of George Attrill singing ‘Epsom Races’ (under the title of ‘The Broken-Down Gentleman’) on You Never Heard So Sweet, one of the more recent additions to Topic’s Voice of the People series. The song seems to have been widely collected in Southern England, but also further North – Frank Kidson had a version from his faithful correspondent Charles Lolley from Leeds, while Percy Grainger recorded a version (‘When I Was Young in My Youthful Ways’) in Lincolnshire, from the great Joseph Taylor. Surprisingly, there don’t seem to be any broadside versions listed under this Roud number - but I’m sure it must have appeared on a printed ballad sheet though; it seems to have very much the same sort of period feel as ‘Limbo’.
The tune at the end is one of my own, and the only one, as far as I recall, which I’ve consciously written as a morris tune. I wrote it in 1983 or 84 during my brief sojourn in Newcastle on Tyne. The title ‘Pigs and Whistles’, however, had been hanging around in the recesses of my mind for some while, having come across the phrase in my Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, with the definition “wrack and ruin”. The OED has two meanings: “fragments, pieces; odds and ends, trivial things”, with “to go to pigs and whistles” defined as “to fall into ruin or disrepair” (Now rare). The examples of the phrase in use are all Scottish, but range from 1794 to 2001. It’s a morris tune which noone has ever danced to. So if any sides out there are in need of a new tune for a corner dance with slows, please help yourself.
Here’s a little gem of a song for Valentine’s Day. I learned this from the singing of the incomparable Johnny Moynihan on the second De Danann LP, Selected Jigs Reels And Songs. Pretty sure he also sang it when I saw the band live at the University of Kent in Canterbury in 1978. Hopefully Nick Passmore, who was one of the support acts for that concert, will be able to confirm this.
Googling around in connection with this week’s post, I came across a film of the band in concert from 1976 on YouTube. This song doesn’t feature, but there’s a couple of others from Johnny Moynihan which never made it onto a De Danann record.
‘The Flower of Sweet Strabane’ did feature, however, on this Wednesday’s Radio 2 Folk Show, in a lovely unaccompanied performance from the Irish traveller Margaret Barry (the notes to Selected Jigs Reels And Songs say “The song was given to us by Margaret Barry or Eamonn O’Doherty or somebody like that”). And Margaret Barry featured memorably in a fantastic programme broadcast later the same night on Radio 2: David Attenborough and the Natural History of Folk. This recounted his association sixty years ago, as a young BBC television producer, with Alan Lomax, in putting together the six-part Song Hunter series. This was a series of live broadcasts and, as was common BBC practice until much later, was unfortunately never recorded. But the radio programme included some fine recordings from the same era, posthumous recollections from Peter Kennedy and Bob Copper on their song-collecting adventures, very-much-still-here contributions from Reg Hall (who as a young squaddie managed to get a pass into the corporals’ mess so he could watch the programmes, and was duly bowled over by them). And, holding it all together, David Attenborough himself, demonstrating what a very fine, warm, intelligent, and actually rather funny human being he is. If you haven’t heard the programme do make sure you catch it on the iPlayer – just a few days left.