The first Magpie Lane album, The Oxford Ramble, was released just over 20 years ago, and we played our very first concert, in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, on 3rd May – May Bank Holiday Monday – 1993. We will be returning to the Holywell tomorrow for a 20th anniversary concert, where we will be joined by former members of the band, and a number of special guests. Twenty years ago this was the final song of the night, and it is giving away no secrets, I suspect, if I say that this song will also feature in our concert tomorrow.
I learned the song from Forty Long Miles: twenty-three English folk songs from the collection of Janet Heatley Blunt, edited by Tony Foxworthy and published by Galliard / EFDSS in 1976.
Swalcliffe (pronounced sway-cliff) is a village near Banbury in North Oxfordshire. The words of the carol were noted by Miss Annie Norris around 1840 from the singing of a group of children in the village. The words were passed onto the collector – and Adderbury resident – Janet Blunt in 1908, and she finally collected a tune for the song from Mrs Woolgrove of Swalcliffe, and Mrs Lynes of Sibford, at Sibford fete, July 1921 (this information, and much more about music-making in Adderbury, can be found in Michael Pickering’s book Village Song and Culture).
You can now find Miss Blunt’s notes on the Take Six archive – see below.
May Day Song from the Janet Heatley Blunt collection, via the EFDSS Take Six archive
Man is but a man, his life’s but a span
He is much like a flower
He’s here today and he’s gone tomorrow
So he’s all gone down in an hour
Twenty years ago when I sang those words they really struck home, as I knew that my Dad was dying of cancer. What I didn’t realise was that he would indeed be “gone tomorrow” – he died the very next day. He never got to see Magpie Lane, but he did hear The Oxford Ramble - on cassette – just before he died. Apparently he liked the second side best, because he said it had more of me on it. That comment is so typical of both my parents!
So here’s to my Dad, and all the friends and good times I’ve had these last twenty years with Magpie Lane.
The video below is neither hi-fi nor hi-res, but it’s what we’ve got. If you’re coming to see us tomorrow night, I hope you enjoy it as much as we intend to.
Swalcliffe May Day Carol
Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Ian Giles: vocal, big bass drum
Tom Bower: vocal, side drum
Jo Acty: vocal
Pete Acty: mandola
Mat Green: fiddle
Chris Leslie: fiddle
Isobel Dams: cello
Throughout my student days at Oxford I sang in various harmony groups with Caroline Jackson-Houlston. At one point we were a quartet with Jane Sinclair and Mike Eaton, but in my final year they had both left Oxford – Jane had graduated, and Mike was having a year abroad. Caroline and I carried on as a duo and, as I recall, it was only at this point that we adopted the name Flash Company. So this was our signature tune – and actually I think it was the only song in our repertoire that wasn’t unaccompanied.
At the time, if asked, I would probably have said that we sang Percy Webb’s version – the title track from the 1974 Topic LP Flash Company: Traditional Singers from Suffolk and Essex. But in fact I suspect that Caroline put the words together from various sources, and we were also almost certainly influenced by June Tabor and Martin Simpson’s recording, recently released at the time on their A Cut Above album.
When I left Oxford I found that the concertina accompaniment put it in a singable key for me, and as I’ve never had an enormous number of chorus songs in my repertoire, I’ve carried on doing it (occasionally) ever since.
This is quite the jolliest version of ‘Polly Vaughan’ that I’ve come across.
Dave Parry introduced me to the song, which he’d found in Sabine Baring-Gould’s Songs of the West (the 1905 edition, for which Cecil Sharp acted as musical editor). Baring-Gould collected the song on 12 July 1893 from Sam Fone of Mary Tavy in Devon. The words as printed in Songs of the West struck me at the time as having been rewritten and unnecessarily prettified by Baring-Gould, and now that we can see the original – thanks to Martin Graebe and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library – I think my suspicions are confirmed. In any case, I retained only the tune, first verse and chorus, with the remaining verses taken from what I’d probably consider the definitive version of this song, from the great Harry Cox.
Incidentally, I’ve always thought that the “I shot my true love because I thought she was a swan” argument a rather dodgy line of defence. Wasn’t killing one of the Queen’s swans a crime which was subject to fairly severe penalties?
On an even more trivial note, although – I assure you – I have never been an avid watcher of Neighbours, I vaguely recall that in the late 1980s there was a plot where a young man did indeed shoot his girlfriend in a freak hunting accident. Although this may not have been a swan-related shooting. And I’m not saying for sure that the scriptwriters were familiar with the Polly Vaughan / Molly Bawn / Shooting of his dear family of ballads…
The Setting of the Sun, from Baring-Gould’s notebook. Image copyright the Wren Music Trust, via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
Bringing in the Boar’s Head at The Queen’s College, Oxford, from the “Illustrated London News,” 24 December 1846.
Here’s a Christmas cornucopia, featuring three songs which I have known and loved for a very long time indeed.
I learned ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ from the Oxford Book of Carols, prompted I think by my friend and singing companion Mike Eaton. I couldn’t swear to it, but I think this was already part of our “wassailing” repertoire before we heard the Steeleye Span recording (it was their Christmas single in 1977). And I reckon I’ve sung it every Christmas since. It’s been in the Magpie Lane repertoire since the very beginning, and is included in our Christmas set pretty much every year; the recording posted here is another from our recent Woking concert.
The carol was apparently first published in 1521 by Wynken de Worde in Christmasse. It has been sung annually at a feast in the Queens College, Oxford – originally on Christmas Day itself, more recently on a Saturday in the weeks preceding Christmas. The following description, fromWilliam Henry Husk’s Songs of the Nativity (1868), is reproduced from http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/boars_head_carol.htm
This is a modernized version of the preceding carol [#4: The Boar's Head In Hand Bring I], and owes its chief interest to the circumstance of its being still annually sung on Christmas Day at Queen’s College, Oxford, where the custom of bringing the boar’s head to table on that day has been uninterruptedly maintained.
The new version was in all probability made and introduced into use about the commencement of the last century, as it is palpably referred to by Hearne in a note on the older carol, which he printed amongst the “Notæ et Spicilegium,” appended to his edition of William of Newbury’s Chronicle of 1719 stating that “it will be perceived how much the same carol is altered as it is sung in some places even now from what it was at first.”
The ceremony now attending the bringing in the boar’s head at Queen’s College is as follows: — The head (the finest and largest that can be procured) is decorated with garlands, bays, and rosemary, and is borne into the Hall on the shoulders of two of the chief servants of the college, and followed by members of the college, and by the college choir. The carol is sung by a member (usually a fellow) of the college, and the chorus by the choir as the procession advances to the high table, on reaching which, the boar’s head is placed before the Provost, who sends slices of it to those who are with him at the high table; and the head is then sent round to the other tables in the hall and partaken of by the occupants.
…and the solo singer gets to keep the orange out of the boar’s mouth, apparently.
You can find details on the historical background to the tradition of Boar’s Head feasts in general, and at the Queen’s College in particular, in the New Oxford Book of Carols. The following, from Husk, is reproduced here solely to amuse; not because it is likely to have any basis in historical fact!
There was an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar’s head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar’s throat, crying, “Græcum est,”and fairly choked the savage with the sage.
It is perhaps slightly odd that a carol associated solely with an archaic tradition in a single Oxford College – and half of which is in Latin – should have become so well known on the folk scene, and I’m not sure when or how this happened. I suppose some might say that this is evidence of just how divorced the folk revival is from the genuine music of the people. But you could also argue that all it really shows is that folk club singers love a good chorus song, and if it’s singable they don’t care where it comes from.
Cover of Babes in the Wood illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), from the Project Gutenberg EBook of The Babes in the Wood.
‘Babes in the Wood’ is from the repertoire of the Copper Family. It tells of two infants who wander out in the woods, get lost, and die – what could be more festive? Of course the story forms the basis of a pantomime (although I have to admit it’s not one I’ve ever seen performed). But the reason this is considered a seasonal song is because of its place in the Copper Family’s Christmas eating and music-making schedule.
Here I was going to type up Bob Copper’s description of family Christmasses, from his book A Song for Every Season; but in the event I found the following largely similar account already online, apparently the sleevenotes to a Folk-Legacy LP, Bob and Ron Copper – English Shepherd and Farming Songs.
But of all times in the year, of course, Christmas was the season when all members of the family congregated at Grand-dad’s home at Rottingdean.
That little cottage would fairly bulge with aunties, uncles, and cousins that we only saw at Christmastime. On Christmas morning, Ron and I had to take the gigantic turkey and a great round of beef down to the village bake-house to be cooked. It was all far too large to be put into the cottage oven.
We used to carry it on a home-made wooden affair about six feet long which resembled a stretcher and, walking slowly down the High Street with our load draped in white linen sheets, we must have presented a somewhat gruesome and disconcerting sight. At dinner time, everyone seemed to be flocking round Grand-dad who, as hub of the family, was in a grand, benevolent and expansive mood, smoking a cigar in his favourite holder and sporting a fancy waistcoat — the one with the cat1s-eyes buttons. Everyone was talking, hardly anyone listening, and there was a rich smell of Christmas pudding, cigar smoke and wine, all of which added up to that warm, cheerful, friendly atmosphere I have always associated with the “spirit of Christmas”.
After dinner, the older folk would doze in front to the fire, but we used to go for a walk to try to work up an appetite for tea, It was important to have plenty of room for a good tea because every mince pie we ate was supposed to ensure a happy month in the coming year. But with the best will in the world after such a dinner, twelve would be beyond the capacity of even the most enthusiastic. I have managed seven or eight, which would take me through July or August, but by that time my trouser buttons would be so tight that, reluctantly, I had to leave the rest of the year to look after itself.
About seven in the evening, grouped in a wide circle round the fire, we would all settle down to start singing. Only carols and Christmas hymns were allowed up until midnight. After that — when it was officially Boxing Day — the rest of the extensive repertoire came into its own. Towards 1 A.M. the ladies started to lay the supper — and what a supper! There was a great round of cold underdone roast beef, a ham and a vast cold rabbit pie covered with golden crust, laced with a flank of bacon and the best part of a dozen hard-boiled eggs all set in a rich, thick jelly. During supper, we always sang “The Babes in the Wood” and, when everyone had a full plate set in front of them, Granddad would strike up, “Oh, don’t you remember…” and we would all join in, interspersing singing with eating and vice-versa, ingeniously maintaining a steady continuity of both. It was really a work of art and only came after years of practice, this singing in relays. I can see Grand-dad now, finishing a line of the song with a piece of rabbit pie poised on his fork, handing over the song to Uncle Tom and consuming the mouthful of pie before taking up the tune again, two lines later, and so on until the song and most of the supper was over. By this time some of us younger ones were practically crying into our supper plates from grief over the story. This custom went on for years and was continued long after the old man’s death.
In A Song for Every Season Bob comments at this point “One cannot help thinking that in the interests of everyone’s digestion it was a good thing song had only three verses”.
So there you have a song for the approach to Christmas, one to accompany your Christmas Day supper of cold rabbit pie, and finally ‘The King’, a song to accompany (or perhaps replace) your Boxing Day wren-hunting expedition.
1869 replica of an early nineteenth century Pembrokeshire wooden wren house, From the People’s Collection Wales.
Why people in various parts of Britain should have got into the habit of hunting a wren on St Stephen’s Day I really don’t know. There are numerous theories on the internet, and just because they’re all implausible doesn’t mean that one of them isn’t true.
I recently came across a good article which, in a few pages, gives an overview of the various forms which wren-hunting traditions took, and the songs which accompanied them. This is Hunting the Wren by Phyllis Kinney, in Welsh Music History Vol. 6 (2004) and it’s well worth a read.
In Pembrokeshire, where this song comes from, the wren, once captured, formed the centrepiece of a house-visiting custom which dates back at least as far as the late seventeenth-century. Edward Lhuyd, scholar and antiquarian, wrote
They are accustomed in Pembrokeshire etc. to carry a wren in a bier on Twelfth Night; from a young man to his sweetheart, that is two or three bear it in a bier [covered] with ribbons, and sing carols. They also go to other houses where there are no sweethearts and there will be ale etc. And a bier from the country they call Cutty Wran.
Phyllis Kinney also quotes this description by Reverend John Jenkins (‘Ifor Ceri’, 1770-1829) of a similar custom in Cardiganshire:
In the Vicinity of Cardigan the following Singular Custom prevails and which is probably of Druidical origin: On the Night of the Fifth of January a Certain Number of Young Men, generally four, take a Wren which is considered a Sacred Bird, and confine him in a cage (which they call his Bier [Elor]) decked with all the Ribbons they can procure from the Girls of the Neighbourhood. With the Wren thus gaudily housed they visit the Families of the District, singing alternate Stanzas in his praise as King of the Birds and as procuring for them many Blessings during the ensuing Year, on account of his being made a Captive and a Victim.
‘The King’ was recorded from two retired schoolteachers, Dorothy and Elizabeth Phillips, from Hook in Pembrokeshire.
They also gave first-hand reminiscences of the custom, which they remembered from the 1920s. The wren-party would go to ‘any manor houses in the neighbourhood where they would have food and drink and sometimes money’, during the period between 6 and 12 January, which they called ‘Twelfth-Tide’. The wren-house was ‘a little wooden cottage and dressed with ribbons really crêpe paper and the wren was inside and when they entered the house of course they all looked in and wanted to see the king.
The date of this recording is given as 1981, but I’m assuming this was a return visit and that these were the same “two old ladies in Pembrokeshire” from whom Andy Nisbet collected the song in the 1960s.
Martin Carthy has recorded this song at least three times in different settings. I learned it, as I’m sure many others did also, from the Steeleye Span album Please to see the King. But Martin had already recorded it with Dave Swarbrick on Prince Heathen (1969). In fact Norma Waterson told me that, a few days after Martin had first heard ‘The King’ from Andy Nisbet, he happened to meet the Watersons at a festival – and immediately taught them this song! A decade or so later, of course, Martin was a a member of the Watersons, and they recorded ‘The King’ on Sound sound your instruments of joy.
I’d always thought of it as an unaccompanied harmony song, but in the mid-90s I found myself playing around with it on concertina, and found that it fitted a treat in F on the C/G anglo – which happened to be more or less the key that Ian Giles wanted to sing it in. So it became a Magpie Lane number, and we recorded it on our first Christmas CD, Wassail. Though I say so myself, I was rather pleased with the unexpected chord sequence and duetting clarinet parts at the end of that recording.
Although both ‘The King’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’ are Magpie Lane favourites, here I sing them solo, accompanied on my clacketty old wooden-ended baritone Bb/F box.
Happy Christmas, one and all.
The Boar’s Head Carol
Magpie Lane, recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.
Sophie Thurman, Ian Giles, Andy Turner, Jon Fletcher, Marguerite Hutchinson, Mat Green – vocals
Babes in the Wood
Andy Turner – vocals, baritone Bb/F anglo-concertina
Andy Turner – vocals, baritone Bb/F anglo-concertina
The truth sent from above, from the Bodleian collection: T. Bloomer, Printer, 53, Edgbaston-street, Birmingham, between 1821 and 1827.
I got this – and a number of other goodies – on a carol-collecting expedition to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library ten or so years ago. I had the song from Cecil Sharp’s Folk Tunes MS. He noted it down in October 1911 from seventy-one year old Samuel Bradley (not Bradley Wiggins, as I mistakenly announced at a recent concert) and seventy year old Seth Vandrell at Lilleshall in Shropshire. His notes in the MS say “Always sung to this tune. Learned many years ago”.
Sharp published this carol, and at least a couple of others noted on the same 1911 collecting trip, in his English Folk Carols – and he can’t have wasted any time preparing these songs for inclusion since the book was published late the same year.
The notes in the book say
This carol was sung to me by the two singers in unison, Mr. Vandrell refreshing his memory by referring to a small book of carols, printed locally, from which the words in the text have been transcribed. I have, however, omitted seven stanzas between the eighth and the last. “The Truth” is printed in A Good Christmas Box, and is included in Hone’s list [Christmas Carols now annually Printed].
I’ve omitted even more of the sixteen stanzas – I use only those printed in the Oxford Book of Carols. I don’t know if the carol words have a West Midlands origin, but that this might be the case is suggested by the opening couplet of one verse
Then after this, ‘twas God’s own choice
To place them both in Paradise
which would be a perfect rhyme if sung in a Brummie accent!
This song was included on the Magpie Lane CD Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell. I’ve posted up two versions (although basically the same arrangement): the first is just me and concertina, the second is the full band, recorded a couple of weeks back in the generously reverberant acoustic of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking.
This is the truth sent from above
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Magpie Lane, recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Jon Fletcher – bouzouki, vocal
Sophie Thurman – cello
Mat Green – fiddle
Marguerite Hutchinson – flute
‘Job, the patient man’ – ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection
Now that we’re into advent, I think I’m allowed to post a carol. Actually, although this is a carol, there’s nothing particularly Christmassy about it; like a lot of folk carols it focuses more on the importance of leading an upright, Christian life.
The carol is better known I think as ‘Come all you worthy Christian men’, while the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols gave it the title ‘Job’. This version is in the Francis Collinson collection, accessible via the EFDSS Take Six archive. It was “collected from Mrs Lurcock of Bredgar, Kent, and noted down by Miss Alice Travers of Bredgar”. George Frampton, who first brought Collinson’s Kentish MSS to my attention, has the singer as Frances Lurcock, and I’ve no doubt he has done the research to back this up. Bredgar is a village just South of Sittingbourne; or, these days, just South of the M2 motorway.
I have collated the words with the version in the Oxford Book of Carols, which Sharp collected from Mrs Eliza Woodberry, of Ash Priors, Somerset.
I recorded this with Magpie Lane on our CD Six for Gold, and it is in the setlist for our Christmas shows this year – over the next couple of weekends we are playing at Woking, Oxford and Reading; see www.magpielane.co.uk for details.
Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
‘Lazerus’ from the Collinson MSS, via the Take Six archive
“Bunch of green ribbons” from the Bodleian collection
The first song in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs is from Lower Beeding, Sussex. The next is from Moonee Ponds, Victoria, in Australia. The singer, the octagenarian Mrs. Ann Aston, had been living in Australia since 1855, but had been born in Coleford, Gloucestershire. She had learned the song from an uncle, who also hailed from Gloucestershire.
The notes to the book say “This song was sent to W. P. Merrick from Australia” – by whom, I’m afraid I know not – and “The text has been amplified from versions sung to H.E.D. Hammond in 1906 by two Dorset women, Mrs. Hann of Stoke Abbot and Mrs. Russell of Upwey. A version from Lew Down, Devon, appears in Songs of the West (Baring-Gould and others, 1905) under the title of A Maiden Sat A-Weeping.” Malcolm Douglas’ expanded notes to the reprint (Classic English Folk Songs) point out that the final verse appears to come from the Baring-Gould version.
In the folk revival, the most widely sung version is probably that based on the recording by Pentangle (“Once I had a sweetheart” from Cruel Sister), which seems to derive from a version collected by Sharp in Somerset. But I really like John Kirkpatrick’s arrangement of Baring-Gould’s “A Maiden Sat A-Weeping” on the Brass Monkey album Going and Staying.Steeleye Span were so taken with the “Sails of Silver” line that they based a whole song around it, the title track of their 1980 LP.
As for my own arrangement, I can no longer recall if the D minor – Eb major chord progression was the result of musical inspiration, or just a happy accident. Probably the latter, to be honest.
British forces formed part of a military alliance which drove Napoleon’s French out of Egypt in 1801, and I imagine this song dates from that period. But in fact British soldiers fought many more campaigns in Egypt and Sudan over the next century and a half, so it’s a song which would not have lost its currency. And of course, on Remembrance Sunday, it is worth remarking that British troops continue to fight – and die – in a variety of “sandy desert places” to this day.
I first came across this song in the late seventies, in Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl’s book, The Singing Island, although it was several years before I learned it properly. It’s a version from Betsy Henry, of Auchterarder in Pethshire – actually, MacColl’s mother. I have anglicised it slightly, although that didn’t amount to much more than substituting “England” for “Scotland” in the last verse.
‘John Barleycorn’ was one of the first traditional songs I ever heard. That was the Steeleye version, which I soon discovered was pretty much the same as that printed in Fred Hamer’s Garners Gay. Like pretty much everything on Below the Salt, I learned that version at the time; and I’m pretty sure it was for a while in the repertoire of a group I sang with at University, The Paralytics aka Three Agnostics and a Christian.
In more recent times, I have recorded two different versions with Magpie Lane. First, on The Oxford Ramble Ian Giles and I sang the classic Shepherd Haden version. Then on A Taste of Ale I sang a version collected by Gwilym Davies in the 1970s. The Oxfordshire version should appear on this blog at some point, since it is, notionally at least, still in my repertoire. But the Devon version, like much of the material on A Taste of Ale, was worked up for the CD, then forgotten about (I can’t actually recall the tune right now).
If I was starting from scratch, and looking for a ‘John Barleycorn’ version to sing, I might well be tempted by the rather nice minor key version (another from Bampton-in-the-Bush) printed in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. But here’s a version which I recorded on a demo tape with Chris Wood, circa 1985. This came from Peter Kennedy’s Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. Kennedy collected the song from Bert Edwards of Little Stretton, Shropshire, and it’s similar to the way another Shropshire singer, Fred Jordan, used to sing the song.
The notes to this song in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs say
It was perhaps inevitable that this song would attract the ritual-origins theorists who claimed that it was all to do with corn spirits and resurrection, but it is now generally agreed that such notions were romantic wishful thinking and there is no evidence either for the theories themselves or for this song to be anything other than a clever allegory.
If we stick to what we do know…
Well if you want to know what we do know, you’ll have to buy the book. Even if you never learn any of the songs, it’s worth every penny for Steve Roud’s excellent well-informed and thoroughly commonsensical introduction.
The Lark in the Morning - from the Bodleian Library collection
Here’s the opening track from the new Magpie Lane CD, The Robber Bird. I learned this from Roy Palmer’s excellent book Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (now republished as Bushes and Briars). Vaughan Williams noted down the tune and first verse on the 24th April 1904, from Mrs Harriet Verrall, of Monk’s Gate, Horsham in Sussex; Roy added further verses from a printed broadside. The song itself is a celebration of ploughboys’ sexual prowess – it is taken as read that they worked hard, but here it is made clear that they also knew how to have a good time, and were fecund to boot. We top and tail our arrangement with ‘The Muffin Man’, a dance tune from the manuscript tune book of William Mittell, dated 1799, from New Romney in Kent. I learned this from the ABC notation file transcribed by George Frampton, and made available by the Village Music Project.
The Robber Bird is not currently available even in the very best record shops. But you can order it online from www.magpielane.co.uk
Or of course you could buy a copy at one of our gigs. We will be celebrating the 108th anniversary of the collection of this song in Reading on Tuesday, at the Museum of English Rural Life, with the wonderful Hilary James and Simon Mayor.
Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Mat Green: fiddle, vocal
Sophie Thurman: cello, vocal
Jon Fletcher: bouzouki, vocal
Ian Giles: drum, vocal