Recorded onto a phonograph cylinder by Australian musician, composer and (briefly) folk song collector Percy Grainger in 1908, this fragment of a song has continued to fascinate singers, arrangers and composers alike. It was first sung to Grainger by George Gouldthorpe at Brigg in July 1906 – see his transcription below from the EFDSS’s magnificent Full English archive. I learned the song from the (also magnificent) Leader LP Unto Brigg Fair: Joseph Taylor and Other Traditional Lincolnshire Singers Recorded in 1908 by Percy Grainger.
Mr Gouldthorpe was born around 1840 – he told Grainger he had “a vast of years” – and had lived most of his life in the place of his birth, Barrow-upon-Humber. He had worked as a lime-burner and, by 1908, after a spell in Brigg workhouse, had moved in with his sister at Goxhill. Regarding this move, Mr Gouldthorpe said “I was easier in my mind”. Which, as Bob Thomson comments in his notes to Unto Brigg Fair, ”one suspects is a grim understatement of the circumstances”.
You can read about the background to the song itself on Reinhard Zierke’s Mainly Norfolk site and on this page on the Lincolnshire County Council website, part of a series of articles headed Legacy of Lincolnshire Songs. In short, nothing is known of the old miser “Steeleye” Span, or his foreman John Bowling, still less of this exchange of fisticuffs between them. Although the song has all the hallmarks of a local composition, it would seem that George Gouldthorpe may have got the names confused. With the expansion of local newspapers, court reports and other archival material on the web, it’s entirely possible that details will eventually emerge. Part of me hopes that they do. But another part of me feels that, maybe, it’s best if some mysteries just remain as mysteries,
‘Horkstow Grange’, from Percy Grainger’s MSS, via the EFDSS Full English archive.
Postwar folk song commentators and activists such as A.L. Lloyd seized on industrial folk song – ‘Blackleg Miner’, ‘Four Loom Weaver’, ‘Coal Owner and the Pitman’s Wife’ and the like – as the product of a proletariat engaged in class struggle. Their Marxist beliefs would, I suppose, have predisposed them against expecting to find similar material coming out of the rural working class, and this was probably just as well – I can think of very few examples of traditional country songs raging against the social order. (Even in poaching songs, while there are often complaints about the “hard-hearted judges”, it is the gamekeepers – the agents of the landowning classes, rather than the landowners themselves - who are usually perceived as the enemy).
This song, judging by the number of times it has been collected in England and beyond, seems to have been hugely popular. Not only does it not challenge the status quo, but invites us to join in blessing the noble gentleman who – most improbably – bestows “fifty five good acres” on the hardworking labouring man. Although actually traditional singers do seem to have toned down somewhat the obsequious nature of the song as found in printed broadsides, such as Good Lord Fauconbridge’s generous gift, printed by J. Pitts of London, between 1819 and 1844, of which this is the final verse.
No tongue was able in full to express
In depth of their joy and true thankfulness
Then many a courtsey and bow to the ground
Such noblemen there are few to be found
This particular version was collected by Cecil Sharp at Hamstreet in Kent, in September 1908. Not being an authority on Sharp’s handwriting, I’d be hard-pressed to say if he meant to record the singer’s name as Clarke Lankhurst or Lonkhurst (or even Larkhurst). In fact it was almost certainly Clarke Lonkhurst, who the local Kelly’s Directory lists as landlord of the Duke’s Head at Hamstreet. George Frampton, who has researched all of the singers Sharp encountered on this collecting trip, has established that Mr Lonkhurst also worked as a carrier, and was a keen sportsman – playing football and cricket, and a member of the Mid-Kent Stag Hunt. He has also found – just to add even more confusion to the matter of his surname – that in the 1901 Census he is listed as Clarke Longhurst, age 37, born at Dunkirk near Faversham. There are Longhursts from Romney Marsh in my family tree, on my mother’s side, so it’s just possible that this singer is a distant relation of mine.
"I have been using your Embrocation for Capped Elbew with great benefit. — Clarke Lonkhurst, Duke's Head Hotel, Hamstreet, Ashford, Kent, July 29th, 1908." ]
Clarke Lonkhurst only sang four verses of this song; I followed my usual practice of completing the words by borrowing verses from the Copper Family version. Had I held on a little, I would have come across a pretty complete set of words collected in 1942 by Francis Collinson from Harry Barling of South Willesborough, Ashford, Kent. This Mr Barling was most likely the same Harry Barling who is listed in the 1901 Census as a Carrier General, living at Aldington, born at Ruckinge; and in the 1881 Census as living at the “Good Intent”, Aldington Frith – i.e. from very much the same part of the world, and a similar age, as Clarke Lonkhurst. The singers’ tunes are almost identical except that Harry Barling’s is in 4/4 and Clarke Lonkhurst’s in 6/8.
Including a song collected by Cecil Sharp gives me the opportunity to mention the EFDSS’s Full English archive, launched a couple of weeks ago. I’ve not, unfortunately, had very much time to explore the site as yet, but it is without doubt an incredible resource – both for researchers, and for those on the look-out for new versions of old songs.
It builds on the Take Six archive, which presented digital images of the collections of Collinson, Butterworth, Blunt, Hammond, Gardiner and Gilchrist. Now we also have access to the work of relatively little-known collectors such as Harry Albino and Frank Sidgwick through to the big names: Lucy Broadwood, Ralph Vaughan Williams and, of course, Cecil James Sharp. The whole thing has been thoroughly and professionally catalogued and indexed, and even looks quite cool – whatever has happened to the DEAFASS we used to love to malign in the past!
As you’ll see, each record has a permament URL, to make it easy to refer others to a specific record. And there are some nice little features, like the ability to refer to a simple URL to point to all the versions of a particular Roud number e.g. this song would be www.vwml.org/roudnumber/19 - just substitute the Roud number of your choice.
‘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.
You can’t be a folk singer from Kent and not know at least a few verses of this song.
I first encountered it sung by Shirley Collins on the Albion Dance Band LP The Prospect Before Us. When I first heard that I was still a folk music novice, and almost every song I heard was new to me. Given how well-known the song has become, it’s funny to think that, when that album was released back in 1977 Hopping down in Kent was in fact new to most people on the folk scene.
Mike Yates recorded a couple of versions in the early seventies, from Louie (Louise) Fuller of Lingfield, Surrey, and the gipsy singer Mary Ann Haynes, who had settled in Brighton. Both versions were included in the Folk Music Journal, in an issue dedicated to travellers’ songs, in 1975. I’d guess that the Albions’ recording was prompted by this (House in the country, which they recorded later on Rise up like the sun, was in the same issue) - although Shirley may well have known Louie and/or Mary Ann, and heard them singing the song.
Mary Ann Haynes – photo by Mike Yates (?) from Musical Traditions
In the booklet to that CD, Mike Yates wrote this about his first encounter with Mary Ann Haynes:
One of the first Gypsy singers that I met was Mary Ann Haynes. I had been told that her son, Ted, was a singer and I drove down to Sussex one Sunday afternoon, looking for his trailer. Eventually, I found Ted and his trailer in a field. He was busy and directed me to his mother, who ‘knew all the old songs’. Mary lived in High Street, Brighton, where, according to Ted, she was known to ‘everybody’. High Street turned out to be a narrow street off the sea-front and was full of large tower blocks. I started knocking on doors, only to be told that nobody knew a Mrs Haynes. I found that when I mentioned that she was a Gypsy doors were closed very quickly in my face. I began to wonder if I would ever find Mary, and was about to give up, when a lady said that there were no Gypsies in the area, only ‘an Italian looking lady’. This was, of course, Mary. When I arrived she was sleeping off a lunchtime session in the pub, but, once roused, she set about making a cup of tea and, having said that I knew her son (sort of), she began to sing as soon as I mentioned songs. Mary had been born in 1905, in a Faversham waggon parked behind The Coach and Horses in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Her father, Richard Milest, was a horse-dealer whose family would accompany him across England during the summer as he made his way from fair to fair. “We used to go to the Vinegar & Pepper Fair at Bristol, then to Chichester, Lewes, Canterbury and Oxford, then up to Appleby and back down to Yalding.” Mary’s husband died suddenly, leaving her with a large family, and, having settled in Brighton, she worked as a flower-seller, earning enough to support her family. Mary died in 1977.
The way I sing the song these days is very much based on Mike’s recording of Mary Ann Haynes, although I’ve also included some verses from Louie Fuller, and a couple from lovely Ron Spicer. The second and penultimate verses are Ron’s, and I’ve never come across them anywhere else. I was also tempted to add this verse from Shropshire singer Ray Driscoll
When we use the karsey, sitting on the pole,
You have to keep your balance or you fall back in the hole
Ray Driscoll and Louie Fuller were both brought up in London, and in the days before mechanisation the local workforce would be massively swelled at hop-picking time by families from the East End of London come down for a working holiday – and of course by a great many gipsies and travellers.
In the Spring of 1980 my friends Ian and Jane put on an excellent series of folk concerts in Oxford: Nic Jones with support from Crows; June Tabor and Martin Simpson; Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick. The latter were in fact joined by trumpeter Howard Evans, and when I saw them the following year at the Lewes Folk Day, they were billed as Carthy, Kirkpatrick & Evans. I can’t remember if they sang this song in Oxford, but they certainly did in Lewes, and I was very taken with it. I learned the song shortly afterwards, when I found the words and music in Roy Palmer’s Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs. And not long after that I first heard the original source, Sam Larner, on the Topic LP A Garland for Sam.
A live recording of Martin and John singing the piece – unaccompanied, in unison – was included on the 4-CD box set, The Carthy Chronicles.
I had the pleasure of singing this yesterday during an all-too-brief visit to the lunchtime session at The Volunteer in Sidmouth.
I learned this from the singing of Bob and John Copper on the single LP selection from A Song for Every Season. Bob gives the background to the song in his book of the same name:
Shearing the wool off the back and belly of a sheep in such a manner as to finish up with a fleece of the maximum weight in one piece and in the minimum time was by no means a simple task. It was a skill that was developed over a number of years and, even then, really good shearers were few and far between. For this reason when it ‘came in season the lambs and ewes to shear’ a crew of expert shearers was formed to travel round from farm to farm in a given area and shear all the sheep at each farm in turn by piece-work. The crew from the Rottingdean area called themselves the Brookside Shearers, because the area they covered included all the ‘brook farms’ up the western side of the Ouse Valley from Newhaven to Lewes in what was known as Brookside Country. A crew consisted of a captain, who wore two stars on his hat, a lieutenant, who wore one star, twelve to fourteen men, picked for their skill at shearing and willingness to work hard for long hours, a wool winder to roll and stack the shorn fleeces and a tar-boy whose job it was to go round as required and dab tar – or in later years, powdered lime – on any accidental cuts in the sheep’s hide to stop the bleeding and to prevent flies from entering.
This was the practice when Bob’s father Jim started shearing around the turn of the twentieth century, and things appeared to have changed very little for decades.
In an interview given to Vic Smith in 1970 – and now transcribed on the Musical Traditions website – Bob talked more about White Ram Night, which preceded the shearing, and the rather more rumbustious Black Ram Night which came at the end of their work:
They used to start off in their first night to make arrangements of where they were going and what they were going to do and that was called ‘White Ram Night’. They’d agree on a pub for headquarters. Usually it was the Red, White & Blue in Lewes. It’s no longer a pub. It was until fairly recently. I’ve had a drink there. Is it Friars Walk? Anyway, it’s a green tiled place. It was a horrible pub. The worst of Victoriana, but they liked it. They must have liked the landlady or her daughter or something. Well, that was their headquarters. Well, they used to start off on the first night, before the shearing actually started, on the Saturday before they started on the Monday morning. That was called ‘White Ram’. That was more or less just business. There was plenty of beer, there always was. Then they used to arrange where they were going. The captain would read out which farms they were going to. How many in each flock, “Well, we’ll get through that in two days.” And so on and so on.
Then they had a list of fines. They used to … If you leave a patch of wool as big as a half-crown on a sheep, you were fined sixpence. And if it were bigger, it would be a shilling. If you let your sheep go in the barn, that would cost you sixpence. If you called a man a fool, sixpence; if you called him anything worse, a shilling. And they all agreed on this because this all went into the kitty for Black Ram which was the last … which was the Saturday after the completion. They used to meet on the following Saturday, pay out the wages due and the fines used to go into the kitty over the counter against food, salt beef, they used to have a very good do, cooked beef and bacon and goodness knows what. That was Black Ram. That was a really good night, a real humdinger and, in fact, the strong beer they used to drink was called Black Ram very strong, stronger than Old, like a very strong barley wine. That was called Black Ram and that was a real humdinger. That was a pretty beefy affair. So that was the second one, Black Ram.
Here’s another song from the Copper Family repertoire. I think I must have learned it from the recording of Bob and Ron Copper on the LP Jack of All Trades, Volume 3 in the Caedmon / Topic series The Folk Songs of Britain (where it is titled ‘The Jovial Tradesman’).
The words and tune are printed in Bob’s book A Song for Every Season.
There was a thread on the fRoots forum a few weeks back in which board members suggested songs which, when you hear them being sung by a floor singer at a folk club, make your heart sink. I wrote at the time that, in most cases, the songs themselves were relatively blameless, but suffered from the rather lacklustre way in which they were often performed.
In any case, there were several songs on the fRoots blacklist which will appear here in due course, this being the first (I won’t count ‘The Wild Rover’ as the version I sing is so different from the normal one we all know and… er… )
An Oxfordshire version of a well-known song – well-known in the folk revival, but also widely sung in oral tradition.
Although this was not included on the first Magpie Lane CD, it was certainly in our repertoire when we played our first concerts in May 1993, and was included on our second album, Speed the Plough. In those days we followed the song with the dance tune ‘Speed the Plough’, aka ”The National Anthem of English Country Dance Music”. But we’re a band that likes to move with the times, so in more recent years we’ve taken to playing – as on this this live recording – ‘New Speed the Plough’, from Vic Gammon’s A Sussex Tune Book (N.B. the word “New” in this context is relative – the tune comes from the Welch family MS, dated 1800).
We learned the song from the Oxfordshire section of Lucy Broadwood’s English County Songs. There are four songs in that section, and the source for all of them is given as Mr R. Bennell. It’s not made clear whether Mr Bennell was simply responsible for communicating the songs to Miss Broadwood, or if she collected them directly from his singing . Fortunately Broadwood researcher Irene Shettle has provided the answer – Mr Bennell wrote out the words and tunes and sent them to the collector in a series of letters in November 1891.
Mr Bennell was a professional cornet player, then living in Richmond. The pieces he sent to Broadwood were songs which he remembered from his younger days, having been brought up at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. Of this song he wrote
I have written the tune of (It was early etc) as I have always heard it sung round about Nettlebed in Oxfordshire where I was brought up. I have herd strangers sing it to the air of Villikins and his Dinah, which melody you are no doubt acquainted with.
I have also written two more, one I may call the Nettlebed Cricket Song as I have never heard a word of the song or a bar of the melody sung in any of my travels. Neither of the songs I have dotted down have the peculiar quaintness and minor tendency of most of our most rural district songs but I could commit several to paper, but the words I could not easily obtain now I am away. I have written the two first and the two last verses of the Leathern Bottle. I can remember no more. There are various difficulties in the way as regards the words of songs; our ancestors in their simplicity were rather coarse even in their sentimental ditties. This for one thing gives rise to a difficulty where as regards the tune there would be none. In answer to your enquiry as to my profession I beg to state that I am a musician and play the cornet for a living in all lines of the business theatrical or otherwise. I object to publicity regarding myself unless consulted. Any remuneration for my little efforts would be thankfully received to cover postage etc. If these songs should give you any satisfaction or be of any help to you in your labours I will furnish you with another or two
In English County Songs Lucy Broadwood gives the Nettlebed tune for this song (under the title ‘Twas Early One Morning’), but prints a set of words “from a gardener’s boy in Berkshire”.
All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough / New Speed the Plough
Andy Turner: vocal, one-row melodeon
Ian Giles: vocal, percussion
Mat Green: fiddle
Sophie Thurman: cello
Jon Fletcher: guitar
recorded direct from the mixing desk, Banbury Folk Festival, 14th October 2007