Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
I can’t actually remember much about the rest of the novel, but that opening sentence is totally unforgettable.
Which is completely unrelated to this week’s song, except that the narrator of the song very nearly faces a firing squad, and is saved from his fate – somewhat implausibly – at the last minute.
I came across this version in Cecil Sharp’s MSS at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Sharp had it in December 1908 from Jack Barnard at Bridgewater in Somerset.
Mr Barnard started the song with “the first time I deserted…”
That’s fair enough, but I thought I’d give the central character a bit of back-story, so I added an initial couple of verses (from an unnamed source) in the Alfred Williams collection.
Jack Barnard, photograph by Cecil Sharp; copyright EFDSS.
The Deserter, from the Bodleian Library collection.
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.
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.
Traditional singers often conclude a song by saying “and that’s a true story”. Well this one really is. The song tells of the murder in August 1856 of sisters Caroline and Maria Back (19 and 17 respectively), by Dedia Bedanies, a private in the British Swiss Legion based at Shorncliffe Barracks near Folkestone in Kent. Bedanies was tried for murder and hanged at Maidstone gaol, January 1857.
George Spicer - from the Musical Traditions website
I learned this from George Spicer who, although he spent most of his life in Sussex, was actually born at Little Chart in Kent – just a few miles from my home town. He learned this song from his father-in-law, Sydney Appleton, of Lydden, Kent. George’s son Ron – another fine singer and an absolutely lovely man – also sang this song, and recorded it on The Keys of Canterbury, an album of Kentish material with which I was also involved – see Pete Castle’s website for details.
In fact the song seems to have been well-known in Kent – perhaps as a warning to young girls. Charlie Bridger from Stone-in-Oxney had a full version, with very similar tune and words to George Spicer’s; Francis Collinson collected a couple of versions in Kent in the 1940s, but also found the song in Buckinghamshire and Dorset. Truncated versions have been recorded from a number of Southern English Traveller singers, for example Charlie Scamp.
I learned the song from George Spicer’s Topic LP Blackberry Fold which has not to date been released on CD or MP3. But you can hear George singing the song on the Musical Traditions CD Just Another Saturday Night: Sussex 1960.
Rod Stradling has described this song as “A horrible song, it seems to me, with few redeeming graces” but I’ve always had a soft spot for it. Not least because this was the song I sang when I won the first Sidmouth Singer competition, at the Sidmouth Festival back in 1984. This was a very proud moment for me – the competition was judged by Shirley and Dolly Collins, and the runners up Bill Prince and Barbara Berry were certainly no slouches as singers. Since Vic Smith has a history of re-posting this lovely picture of my knees, I’ll get in first: here’s me with Shirley, and the enormous slipware plate which was my prize.