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 a song I found on one of my occasional forays through the copies of the Sharp MSS held in the Library at Cecil Sharp House. Often when just browsing, rather than looking for anything in particular, it will be an unusual or striking title which first jumps out and grabs my attention, and that was almost certainly the case with this one. Sharp noted it down on 27th December 1905 from Susan Williams (1832-1915), of Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset.
The song has a long history – see Steve Gardham’s “Dungbeetle” article, The Distressed Maid for Musical Traditions, from which it is clear that this version is derived (and only slightly condensed) from ‘The Dublin Tragedy’, first published on a broadside printed by Mayne of Belfast in the mid nineteenth century.
Susan Williams (1832-1915), Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset. Photograph by Cecil Sharp. copyright EFDSS.
“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.
Dedicated to my dear friend and musical colleague, Dave Parry, who suggested some twenty years ago that I should sing this song.
It was collected by H.E.D. Hammond in May 1906, from a Mrs Crawford of West Milton in Dorset. I learned the song from Frank Purslow’s book Marrowbones, but of course you can now find the song in the EFDSS Take Six archive.
The song has been widely collected in England, Scotland, Ireland and North America. There are American versions with the title ‘The Awful Wedding’. We’ve certainly played at a few of those…
When, in my late teens, I became fascinated with traditional song, I looked in my local public library to see what songbooks they had on the shelves. As I recall there were just three: a volume of songs collected by Sharp, Seeger and MacColl’s Singing Island, and Garners Gay by Fred Hamer (to be fair, they added Peter Kennedy’s monumental Folk Songs of Britainand Ireland a little while later). Of these three, Garners Gay was, and has remained, my favourite. It contains some lovely songs, and I liked the way that Fred Hamer’s notes talk as much about the singers as the songs.
This is one of the songs I learned from the book. It was collected from May Bradley, a gypsy singer settled in Ludlow. It was several years later that I actually got to hear a recording of Mrs Bradley’s singing: in 1988 the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library released the cassette The Leaves of Lifefeaturing previously unheard Fred Hamer recordings; and around the same time I came across the old EFDSS LP Garners Gay, which included May Bradley singing this song. On listening to these recordings it was immediately apparent that May Bradley was a very fine singer indeed, so I was delighted when, a couple of years ago, Rod Stradling’s Musical Traditions label put out Sweet Swansea, a whole CD of her songs. If you want to know just how good I thought this CD was, you can read my review; or you can just go straight ahead and buy it – if you’re a fan of traditional singing you really won’t regret it.
Incidentally, I’ve always called this ‘The Outlandish Knight’ because that’s what it’s called in Garners Gay. But May Bradley called it ‘The Dappledy Grey’, and actually she makes no mention of an outlandish knight – her version starts “Now it’s of a Turkey he came from the north land”. Fred Jordan, who was born in Ludlow and knew May Bradley well, had a very similar version of the song, which he called ‘Six Pretty Maids’. He had learned his version from members of another local gypsy family, the Lockes.
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.
Gosh – a Child Ballad! The first I’ve posted here, I think. I don’t set much store by Child Ballads – by which I mean that, just because a song was on the good professor’s list, I don’t regard it as in any way special, or more noble, or more important than other songs from the tradition.
This one is from George Maynard, learned from his Topic LP Ye Subjects of England. Mind you, I already knew the song, before I heard George sing it, from the Tim Hart & Maddy Prior LP Folk Songs of Old England Vol. 1; which – having originally been attracted to traditional music by Steeleye – was one of the very first folk albums I bought. Listened to it again recently, in fact, expecting it to sound rather dated. And was pleasantly surprised to find that I still found it a really good listen, with lots of great songs performed in simple but effective arrangements. Although I’m not able to enjoy Tim Hart’s singing as much as I used to, since I read a Folk Roots article where he confessed that he’d put on that ultra folky voice because he thought his natural (public school educated) voice wouldn’t suit the songs.