photo c. 1940 by George Garland of Petworth, from the Copper Family website
Bob Copper’s book Songs and Southern Breezes tells, in his usual easy, good-natured style, of his time in the 1950s running a pub in Hampshire, whilst working as a song collector for the BBC. Bob paints vivid pen-portraits of the rustic characters from whom he collected songs, and the book includes transcriptions of some of these songs. There’s one group of songs, however, which came via a slightly different route, the singer – John Johnson of Fittleworth – having died some years before Bob arrived in the area.
Fortunately Mr Johnson had written out the words of his songs in a book, and his daughter Mrs Gladys Stone, and son John were still able to remember the tunes. This one was recorded from John Johnson junior at Reigate in Surrey.
Only 1 modern song, all the rest have been traditional. And of those traditional songs, 2 were Irish, all the others English – and pretty much all Southern English, at that (in fact all of them, I think, from the Southern half of England).
Thanks to my wife Carol and son Joe for joining me on a few of the songs – must do some more of that.
I have to say that, if anything, I’m now even more in awe of Jon Boden for managing to keep up A Folk Song A Day all through last year. A quick search suggests that few of the songs I’ve sung so far appeared on Jon’s blog; only these:
Another fine song from the Willett Family repertoire. It’s the very first song on the Topic LP The Roving Journeymen, sung by the octogenarian Tom, and his performance is a real tour-de-force.
He gets very nearly to the end of the tale, too, by the simple expedient of missing out the first few verses! A number of traditional singers – Joseph Taylor for instance - make the fatal mistake of starting this song at the beginning: Lord Bateman sails to the East (to fight in the Crusades?), is imprisoned by a Turk, and tied to a tree. Then, just when the Turk’s daughter makes an appearance, the singer runs out of verses and the song grinds to a halt. Tom Willett dispenses with all the back story, and starts the tale at this point. And where the words might normally be
The Turk he had one only daughter
he does a brilliant bit of rationalisation and sings
Now the turnkey had but one only daughter
It doesn’t matter about his captor’s nationality – the important fact is that he’s a gaoler, and his daughter is going to set our hero free.
I used to finish the song at the same point as Tom Willett, with the verse where Lord Bateman realises the identity of the beautiful, richly attired visitor who is asking him for a slice of bread and a bottle of wine
Now Lord Bateman flew all in a passion
His sword he broke it all in pieces three
Saying I’ll seek no more for no other fortune
Oh it’s since Sofia now have crossed the sea
But I was singing this at home one time when my Dad was around. I finished, and he immediately said “Well, what happened then?” Now admittedly this was what he used to say at the conclusion of pretty much every episode of Play for Today. But this isn’t modern drama, it’s a traditional ballad, and it deserves a proper ending. So I added on three final verses as collected by Sharp, and printed in Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring.
The Rake's complaint in Limbo - ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection
I first heard this song performed by the Oyster Ceilidh Band in the late seventies. They subsequently recorded it on the LP Jack’s Alive. I learned the words from Frank Purslow’s book Marrowbones; where I also found that, although the Oysters played it in 6/8, it had originally been notated in 3/4.
The song has been found only rarely in oral tradition. The version in Marrowbones was collected in 1908 by George Gardiner, from James Brooman, of Upper Faringdon in Hampshire, and can now be seen via the EFDSS Take Six archive.
It is always stated that the title of the song comes from the nickname for a debtor’s prison, such as the Marshalsea Prison where Charles Dickens’ father was imprisoned. I thought I’d try to find some evidence for this usage, so I looked at the Online Slang Dictionary - which tells us only that “limbo” has been used to refer to marijuana. The OED, meanwhile, has various definitions for “limbo”:
A region supposed to exist on the border of Hell as the abode of the just who died before Christ’s coming, and of unbaptized infants
A South African name for a kind of coarse calico
A dance in which the dancer bends backwards and passes under a horizontal bar raised only a few inches off the ground.
Initially I thought all of these seemed irrelevant to the song; but actually, thinking about Dickens’ descriptions of debtors’ prison, it occurred to me that the first definition was probably the origin of our modern expression “in limbo”, and could easily have been used to refer to the interminable wait [for something to turn up] of those imprisoned for debt.
And then I came across this passage from Biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays by Naseeb Shaheen, via Google Books
“Limbo” is the religious term used to denote the underworld abode of just souls not entitled to go to heaven because of having died before Christ (limbus oatrum), or because they lacked baptism (limbus infantum). The teaching is based on Church tradition rather than on Scripture. The word is used in that sense in Titus Andronicus 3.1.149, and All’s Well That Ends Well 5.3.261. But in Shakespeare’s day, “limbo” was also the cant term for London’s debtors’ prisons. Used in the latter sense, to be in limbo would mean to be in prison. Limbo Patrum is used in that sense in Henry VIII 5.3.64.
Clearly this usage of the word continued for at least another two centuries after Shakespeare’s time – the ballad sheet shown here dates from the early nineteenth century, while our song was noted down in the early twentieth century. From Wikipedia I learn that “The Debtors’ Act of 1869 abolished imprisonment for debt, although debtors who had the means to pay their debt, but did not do so, could still be incarcerated for up to six weeks.”
With the current wintry conditions, it seems like an appropriate time to post this song from the Copper Family’s repertoire. My friend Mike and I learned it, circa 1977, from the single LP selection from A Song for Every Season. When, a few years later, I heard the full 4 LP set for the first time, I was initially rather taken aback by Bob’s spoken comments:
Old Uncle Tom, that’s my great uncle, and Grandfather’s brother, he used to sing this with a great deal of feeling. And it just shows you how things have changed, because when Dad used to sing it he couldn’t help putting in a little bit of, you know, funny, he used to laugh a little bit at it. And we have a job to keep a straight face. That’s the way things change.
It hadn’t occurred to me, I suppose, that late twentieth century traditional singers might find some of the songs in their repertoire a bit old fashioned. Of course the Coppers still sing the song, because it’s part of their family tradition. But what’s my excuse? you might ask. To be honest, I’m not sure – I just like singing the song, and actually have no problem singing it with a straight face. And melodramatic though it is, the subject matter – hard-hearted father turns away his daughter and illegitimate grandchild, to his subsequent regret – is a timeless theme.
From the number of records on Steve Roud’s index it would appear that at one time this song was widespread in print and in oral tradition, in both Britain and North America.