An inconsequential but charming piece of pastoral romance – in which the shepherd, as usual, gets his girl – from the repertoire of the Copper Family. Surprisingly, the Copper Family seem to be the only source for this song, apart from one other version, collected along the Sussex coast at Arundel in 1911 (from an apparently unnamed singer), by the archaeologist Cecil Curwen.
Now if you’ll listen for a while, a story I will tell you,
And if you don’t attention pay, I’m sure I can’t compel you
Another poaching song from the great George ‘Pop’ Maynard of Copthorne in Sussex. The song was apparently written by his friend Fred Holman, of Tatsfield in Surrey, who would write out the words for the price of a pint. It tells of a true incident which occurred on estates owned by the Goschen family near New Addington in Surrey. In time-honoured fashion, Fred used an older tune for his composition: ”The Barking Barber” or “Bow Wow Wow” was popular in the 1780s, published by Chappell in 1858, and sufficiently well-known to be parodied in Alice in Wonderland (thanks to Musical Traditions and www.folklorist.org/ for this information).
Pop Maynard was no stranger to poaching. As an old man he told Ken Stubbs
I should go out again if I had my time over again, before I should let my family go short of anything… I came home and I had my tea… and there was Arthur and Nellie wanted a pair of shoes bad, so I said to my wife, I said, “After I’ve had my tea, Polly, I’ll go out and see if I can catch a few rabbits, to see if I can earn they youngsters a pair of shoes”… So I went across the common into the field aside of the woods, and I pitched up my net twice and I catched six rabbits each time: that makes a dozen; and I took them home and I said, “There you are, Polly, now you can take they rabbits to old (the butcher) in the morning and you can get ten bob for them.” Tenpence each, then, good rabbits. And I said, “With ten shillings you can buy them both a pair of shoes” – so you could at that time.
(Journal of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, December 1963)
I dedicate this one to my great friend Adrian, an incorrigible smoker, who always refers to the song as “Baccy all the while”.
If pressed to define “folk song” my definition would be pretty much the same as for “traditional song”. It would certainly exclude songs such as this. But it’s irrelevant which pigeon-hole this song belongs in; it’s probably the finest anti-war song, in any genre, that I’ve ever heard.
Written, of course, by Eric Bogle, I first heard ‘No Man’s Land’ on June Tabor’s LP Ashes and Diamonds, and that remains for me the definitive version – I’m tempted to say, the only version worth hearing.
The Willie McBride to whom the song is addressed “joined the glorious fallen” in 1916. So it’s quite likely that he died during the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from July to November that year. He may well have died on 1st July, the very first day of the battle, when there were around 58 000 British casualties, of whom 19 240 were killed. The British attack had been preceded by eight days of heavy artillery shelling which, the front line troops were assured, would practically obliterate the German defences. In the event, it did no such thing: neither the German barbed wire nor their strong concrete bunkers were destroyed, nor were the German troops forced to abandon their positions. Consequently, as the British troops walked across No Man’s Land (they were expressly ordered to walk slowly forward, not run) they were simply mown down by German machine gun fire. At the end of just one day’s fighting, 20% of the entire British fighting force had been killed. And yet Haig, the bastard, was able to write in his diary the next day “…the total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.” So that’s all right then.
Over the course of the next four and a half months British and British Empire casualties soared to almost 420 000, of whom almost 100 000 were dead. And to that figure must be added the more than 50 000 French and 164 000 German soldiers who died.
Of course we’re all familiar with the dreadful statistics and horrific stories of life and death in the trenches. And all of this happened a long time ago – almost one hundred years ago, in an age which now seems like a very distant historical past. But despite the familiarity and the passage of time, I find that those shocking statistics can still shock, that I can still feel rage at the incompetence and/or callousness of the commanders, at the wanton, useless, senseless loss of life. Maybe it’s because most people of my generation knew men who had fought in the Great War – my granddad, for instance, was in it pretty much from the start and somehow managed to survive (clearly he survived, or I wouldn’t be here now). Maybe that personal link is what stops the First World War from being just something from the history books. Or maybe it’s because rarely can so many have given their lives for so little purpose.
Earlier this year I read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. OK, that’s fiction, but I suspect that his depiction of the hellish conditions of men at the front were no exaggeration of the truth. I found sections of the book intensely moving. And this song is one of a small select group of songs which can move me to tears. Invariably, it will be these lines that set me off
And the countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation that was butchered and damned
Then you’ve just about regained your composure and along comes
For the sorrow, the suffering, the glory the shame
The killing, the dying, they were all done in vain
For Willie McBride it’s all happened again
And again, and again and again and again
Sadly, it’s all too true.
No Man’s Land
Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, Sandham Memorial Chapel, Berkshire
When my friend Mike and I started plundering A Song for Every Season “Spencer the Rover” grabbed our attention very early, and remained a firm favourite. It never occurred to me that I might want to learn another version; to be honest, it never really occurred to me that there might be any other versions. But then I came across this gloriously crooked tune, collected by Vaughan Williams in Kent. I knew (from Roy Palmer’s Folk Songs collected by Vaughan Williams) that the composer had noted at least one song from a Mr and Mrs Truell of Gravesend in December 1904. And on a visit to the library at Cecil Sharp House I looked through Vaughan Williams’ manuscripts (then, as now, held on gloriously user-unfriendly microfilm) to see if the couple had given him any other songs. Indeed they had and with some interesting tunes among them. But none so interesting as this one. At first I think I viewed it as a curiosity which I was unlikely to want to sing. But then I tried it on the concertina, and found that it cried out for some pretty interesting chords – which actually seemed to make the song more singable.
All too often, Vaughan Williams wrote down the words of a single verse, or even no words at all. For once, with this song, that suited me – it meant I didn’t have to try to learn a new set of words, but could stick with the Copper Family verses we all know and love.
This recording was made in 2005 for possible inclusion on the Anglo International CD set, but not used; with November 5th approaching, it seemed a shame to waste it.
Spencer the Rover
Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
recorded by Dave Eynstone at The Den, Abingdon, 2005