The version of this song popularised by The Dubliners, with it’s “Nay Nay Never” (clap – clap – clap) chorus, is probably the most widely known British folk song. Which was always reason enough for me not to feel any inclination to learn it. I was aware that there were other versions out there – Dave Townsend has a nice Hampshire version, while the Scottish singer Sylvia Barnes recorded a wonderful version with the band Kentigern (well it’s certainly wonderful when she sings it).
But I was only inspired to learn the song when I heard it sung by Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner, on the Topic CD reissue of the 1961 LP Now Is The Time For Fishing.
Sam’s tune is very closely related to that commonly used for ’The Blackbird’ and it seemed to me quite different from the usual version. However Brian Peters, on the TradSong forum, has presented a very credible argument that in fact, just as The Dubliners got ‘Black Velvet Band’ from Norfolk singer Harry Cox (via Ewan MacColl) Sam Larner’s version may well have been the source of their ‘Wild Rover’. The Dubliners are thought to have learned it from Louis Killen, and it seems likely that he got it from Ewan MacColl, who had recorded the song from Larner in the late 1950s. Brian writes
The MacColl / Dubliners melody sounds to me precisely the kind of thing you’d expect, if the Larner melody had been tweaked to turn it into something subtly different – I’ve done that kind of thing myself and know the tricks, and I understand that MaColl had form on that score. The changes (a slight narrowing of range, a more frequent resolution on the tonic, for instance) serve to make the tune simultaneously less interesting musically, and more accessible.
Whatever the truth, The Dubliners produced a popular classic, and I prefer the way Sam Larner sang it!
The title track from the 1963 Topic LP The Roving Journeymen featuring members of the Willett family. On the LP it is sung in slightly different versions by both 84 year old Tom, and his son Chris. Tom’s version was included on volume 20 of The Voice of the People where it is titled ‘The Roaming Journeyman’ – quite rightly, since that’s what both father and son actually sang. What I sing is a bit of an amalgam of the two versions – influenced very largely, I suspect, by the words printed in Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain & Ireland.
I’m always surprised that the Willetts’ songs are not more widely sung on the folk scene. But John Kirkpatrick has recorded this song, and ‘Riding Down to Portsmouth’; while there’s a striking arrangement of ‘The Roving Journeyman’ on the recent CD by the Woodbine & Ivy Band – sung with great gusto by James Raynard (at the time of writing, if you follow that last link, you can in fact listen to the track).
When my friend Mike and I started plundering A Song for Every Season “Spencer the Rover” grabbed our attention very early, and remained a firm favourite. It never occurred to me that I might want to learn another version; to be honest, it never really occurred to me that there might be any other versions. But then I came across this gloriously crooked tune, collected by Vaughan Williams in Kent. I knew (from Roy Palmer’s Folk Songs collected by Vaughan Williams) that the composer had noted at least one song from a Mr and Mrs Truell of Gravesend in December 1904. And on a visit to the library at Cecil Sharp House I looked through Vaughan Williams’ manuscripts (then, as now, held on gloriously user-unfriendly microfilm) to see if the couple had given him any other songs. Indeed they had and with some interesting tunes among them. But none so interesting as this one. At first I think I viewed it as a curiosity which I was unlikely to want to sing. But then I tried it on the concertina, and found that it cried out for some pretty interesting chords – which actually seemed to make the song more singable.
All too often, Vaughan Williams wrote down the words of a single verse, or even no words at all. For once, with this song, that suited me – it meant I didn’t have to try to learn a new set of words, but could stick with the Copper Family verses we all know and love.
This recording was made in 2005 for possible inclusion on the Anglo International CD set, but not used; with November 5th approaching, it seemed a shame to waste it.
Spencer the Rover
Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
recorded by Dave Eynstone at The Den, Abingdon, 2005