I learned this from Peter Bellamy’s 1969 solo LP The Fox Jumps Over the Parson’s Gate. Bellamy learned the song from the great Harry Cox of Catfield in Norfolk (you can hear him singing it on the Topic double-CD The Bonny Labouring Boy) while Walter Pardon, from nearby Knapton, had a very similar version. Obviously this is a song which ought really to be sung by a woman, but with such an impressive list of male precedents, I won’t let this worry me. In any case, it’s a joy to sing.
It must have been 1976 or 77 when I discovered a remarkable thing: folk dancing can be fun. It happened like this…
Before I was born, my parents used to go out dancing a lot: ballroom, old time, barn dances, square dances. Then in my teens, when I was old enough not to need a babysitter any more, they started dancing again, mainly at dinner dances organised by the school PTA. When my Mum tried to teach me to waltz, or do the foxtrot, I was completely uninterested. And although a bunch of my schoolfriends went to a PTA barn dance – and had fun, to be fair – I don’t think any of us considered it might be something we’d want to do on a regular basis. Similarly, when I discovered folk music at the end of 1975, I enjoyed the jigs and reels played by bands like Steeleye and the Chieftains, but thought of them only as music to listen to, not as music you might dance to. But when my Mum and Dad were invited to a barn dance in the village hall at Warehorne, a few miles from where we lived, at the last minute I tagged along. And it was a revelation.
What really made the difference was the band – the Oyster Ceilidh Band, whose music was not only extremely energetic and danceable, but also very listenable. I was hooked, and (along with quite a number of my teenage friends) became a regular at the dances organised by Ron and Jean Saunders at Warehorne. It was a tiny village hall, and the six or seven-piece band would crowd onto a stage created by placing boards on top of the snooker table (some years later I discovered that this had also been the practice in the 1930s, when Charlie Bridger – of whom more another week – used to play for village hops in the same hall).
At my 18th birthday party John Jones, Chris Taylor and Cathy Lesurf from the Oyster Ceilidh Band came along to play and call a few dances. And as a birthday present Cathy gave me a copy of Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring Volume 2. This is a collection of songs collected by Cecil Sharp, and over the years I’ve found it to be a really good source of songs. But I was particularly excited to find that one of the songs had been collected in Warehorne.
This was a song which, in The Crystal Spring, is given the title of ‘The Baffled Knight’, and which Sharp collected in Warehorne on 23 September 1908 from James Beale. Even at 18 I realised, I think, that ‘The Baffled Knight’ was a ballad scholar’s title, not what a traditional singer would have used (it doesn’t even mention a knight in Mr Beale’s song – it’s a shepherd’s son who is “baffled”). A few years later, when I looked at the copy of Sharp’s manuscripts in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, I found that in fact Mr Beale had also sung “Stroll away the morning dew”, rather than the more usual “Blow away the morning dew”. So that’s what I’ve sung ever since, and that’s how I refer to the song.
James Beale’s last verse was
So if you meet any pretty girl
And your father in the town
O never mind her squalling
Or the rumpling of her gown
But I prefer to stick with the “if you will not when you can / you shall not when you would” verse given by Maud Karpeles.
If – in a folk song at least – you ride /walk / roam / rove out on a May morning, you are guaranteed to meet a member of the opposite sex. That encounter may lead to a bit of rumpy-pumpy, maybe even true love; but it might have darker consequences.
Exactly what’s going on in this version isn’t clear: who is the woman that George Collins meets? how does she know he’s going to die? and what does he die of? But none of those things really matters – they just add to the song’s wonderfully mysterious air. And in any case, what is clear from the final verse is that George was a bit of a ladies’ man, a pin-up perhaps, news of whose death leads to six pretty maids dying of a broken heart.
Actually, ballad scholars do have a pretty good idea of how this story started out. In his notes to the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, A L Lloyd wrote:
The plot of George Collins has its secrets. From an examination of a number of variants, the full story becomes clearer. The girl by the stream is a water-fairy. The young man has been in the habit of visiting her. He is about to marry a mortal, and the fairy takes her revenge with a poisoned kiss. The song telling that story is among the great ballads of Europe. Its roots and branches are spread in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. An early literary form is the German poem of the Knight of Staufenberg (c. 1310). France alone has about ninety versions, mostly in the form of the familiar Le Roi Renaud, though here much of the dream-quality of the tale is missing, since the girl by the stream is lost sight of, and instead the hero is mortally wounded in battle. The first half of the George Collins story is told in the ballad called Clerk Colvill (Child 42), the second half in Lady Alice (Child 85). Either these are two separate songs which have been combined to form George Collins or (which seems more likely) they are two fragments of the completer ballad. George Collins has rarely been reported in England, though in the summer of 1906 Dr. G. B. Gardiner collected three separate versions in different Hampshire villages, two of them on the same day. (FSJ vol.III, pp.299-301)
N.B. I’ve copied that chunk of text from a post by Malcolm Douglas – who edited Classic English Folk Songs, the revised EFDSS reprint of the Penguin Book – on Mudcat. That discussion also contains some interesting American variants. One starts
‘Twas at a western water tank
One cold December day
And in an empty boxcar
A dying hobo lay
but then recognisably becomes a version of ’George Collins’ in the second verse
You see his girl in yonders hall
A-sewing her silk so fine
But when she heard poor George was dead
She laid her silks aside
Enos White and his wife, from the Copper Family website
The versions collected by Gardiner in Hampshire – the source of the composite version in the Penguin volume – can be found on the EFDSS Take Six website.
This was the first song I learned from a book of folk songs, rather than from a recording of Steeleye Span or the Watersons. This meant that I had to take my own decisions about how to sing it, without having someone else’s arrangement in my head (having said that, I don’t suppose I sang it in anything like my own voice but, as with everything else in those days, as a curious amalgam of wannabe Tim Hart, Mike Waterson and Martin Carthy at his most idiosyncratic).
I learned it, like last week’s song, from Fred Hamer’s book Garners Gay. Hamer recorded the song from Bedfordshire singer Harry Scott. Some recordings of Harry Scott have been made available, on the EFDSS cassette The Leaves of Life, but at present if you want to hear his ‘Queen of the May’ I think you’ll need to visit the British Library Sound Archive – which so far, I haven’t.
Looking out of the window on this May Bank Holiday, I think the young lady in the song might well have said “I’m not going with you, because you’ll get my dress horribly muddy”; or perhaps just stayed at home in the dry.