Well, after a brief hiatus, here’s the first non-weekly instalment of A Folk Song A Week. I learned this from one of my absolute favourite singers, Kevin Mitchell, via his 1977 Topic LP Free and Easy. Kevin calls it ‘Two Strings on a Bow’, and he learned it from Anne Brolly of Dungiven, County Derry. The LP notes say
American singers call this song The Bird’s Courtship or The Leather Winged Bat
(indeed I was reminded of the song recently when listening to Elizabeth Laprelle’s solo album, The Birds’ Advice)
– it’s quite common there but only once has it been collected in the British Isles; Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle obtained it from Liam O’Connor of Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone…
Kevin has changed the tune of the chorus so that the air as a whole is that of the hornpipe The Cuckoo’s Nest – a not inappropriate combination of tune and words.
The version collected by Peter Kennedy from Liam O’Connor in 1953 was included in his mammoth book Folksongs of Britain and Ireland.
So, ladies and gentlemen, here is my two hundred and sixtieth consecutive weekly post. Which means that A Folk Song A Week is five years old.
When I started the blog, I guesstimated that I knew about 150 songs. Obviously that turned out to be a significant understatement – the last time I did a reckoning, I counted up about another fifty songs that I know, plus more that I don’t know yet, but really must get around to learning some time. Given time, I hope to post all of those here. However, after five years, I’m going to cut myself some slack. This is certainly not the end of the blog, but I will no longer be maintaining a strict weekly publishing schedule. That’s not to say there won’t be a post next week, or the week after – but don’t count on it. So, if you want to be sure of never missing a post, do subscribe using the tools on the right.
I have to say, starting up this blog was one of the best decisions I ever made. I started it at a time when I really wasn’t doing enough singing – this way, I thought, I’ll be forced to sing at least once a week. Also, a couple of years previously, I had had a medical problem with my throat, which prevented me from singing for the best part of a year. I was (am) afraid that the problem might return, and I wanted to document my repertoire while I could. Primarily for my own benefit, but also for my children, and for posterity – whether or not posterity was remotely interested.
Obviously, I can’t speak for posterity, but it has been exceedingly gratifying to receive many positive comments – here, on Facebook, and just bumping into people at gigs, sessions and elsewhere. So thank you, everyone who has had nice things to say. I started the blog for myself, but it’s still very satisfying to know that other people appreciate it.
And I’ve learned so much writing up the weekly blog entries. Even where I thought I knew quite a bit about the song already, a bit of digging around on my bookshelves and on the web has invariably produced further information. There’s such a wealth of information online now for anyone with an interest in these old songs, and the sources continue to multiply. When I began, we were still marvelling at the EFDSS Take Six resource. But that turned out just to be whetting our appetite for the riches which the Full English archive would offer. The Bodleian, too, has expanded and improved its Broadside Ballad site. And then there’s sites like Tobar an Dualchais, Gloucestershire Traditions and, one I found just recently, The music of Sally Sloane. My heartfelt thanks to all the people involved in building and updating these sites. And to everyone whose contributions to Mudcat I have plundered over the last five years, especially to the late Malcolm Douglas, who I never knew, but whose name I am always pleased to see cropping up on a thread about a song’s origins.
And a massive thank you to Reinhard Zierke, whose Mainly Norfolk site is normally my first port of call when researching a song (if only because it always provides me with a Roud number and a link to the Full English), and whose comments here have been unfailingly constructive and helpful. Reinhard – you’re a gent.
As for this song, for a long while I’ve had it stored up to use as The Last Song On The Blog. Well, this isn’t actually the Last Post, but it seemed like a suitable time to post it here. Bob Copper sings it on Turn o’ the Year, disc 4 of the Leader A Song for Every Season box set; although I learned it from my mate Adrian Russell, on one of the sing-songs we used to have driving between country pubs in Kent. Being polite, Bob Copper sings “give the old bounder some beer”. Adrian, I’m pretty sure, always used to sing “give the old bugger some beer”, which I imagine is closer to what Bob and his father’s Rottingdean companions actually sang between songs in the Black Horse.
At the end of a song, quite often the company in general would sing,
A jolly good song and jolly well sung,
Jolly good company, everyone;
If you can beat it you’re welcome to try,
But always remember the singer is dry.
Give the old bounder some beer —
He’s had some, he’s had some.
Then give the old bounder some more.
Half a pint of Burton won’t hurt’n, I’m certain,
O, half a pint of Burton won’t hurt’n, I’m sure.
Clearly, it was not only in Sussex that this refrain was used in such a way. On Mudcat, Robin Turner (no relation, as far as I know) recalls
As a lad in the late 1940s and early 50s, I was taken to many concerts of the Ullswater Pack, in pubs such as the White Lion Patterdale, and the Travellers rest at Glenridding…
Many of the tunes I still recall, and I particularly recall the enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience participation at these concerts. After each singer, the MC for the evening would lead everybody in a short chorus of appreciation of the singer, which went:
“Its a Jolly good song, and its jolly well sung, Jolly good company every-one, And he who can beat it is welcome to try, But always remember the Singer is Dry!” followed by a common roar “Sup, yer Bloodhounds, Sup!”
Old, old songs belonging to the early Victorian age were given by soldiers who had great emotion and broke down sometimes in the middle of a verse. There were funny men dressed in the Mother Twankey style or in burlesque uniforms who were greeted with veils of laughter by their comrades. An Australian giant played some clever card tricks, and another Australian recited Kipling’s “Gunga Din” with splendid fire. And between every “turn” the soldiers in the fiels roared out a chorus:—
“Jolly good song,
Jolly well sung,
If you can think of a better you’re welcome to try,
But don’t forget the singer is dry,
Give the poor beggar some beer!”
Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, where they pride themselves on plain speaking, this recording of the Holme Valley Beagles suggests that there’s no messing around with “bounder” or “beggar”. Here the refrain is
Sup, you bugger, sup!
And so say all of us.
Happy old man drinking glass of beer, 1937.
Oh, there’s one last thank you before I go: to Jon Boden, whose A Folk Song A Day provided the original inspiration for this blog, and several others besides. Look what you started, Jon…
I learned this song from the Watersons’ 1981 LP Green Fields and for pretty much all of the intervening 35 years it has been one of my default songs to fall back on, when I need a chorus song in a singaround or pub session.
Bert Lloyd – Topic’s go-to man for sleeve notes back in the seventies and early eighties – states in the notes for this song that it was
noted by Frank Kidson from Mrs Kate Thompson of Knaresborough.
The booklet notes for the Carthy Chronicles, which features a different Watersons recording of the song, expand on this:
Young Banker has words collected from a maidservant from the Isle of Axholme near Doncaster, set to a tune which Frank Kidson collected from Kate Thompson of Knaresborough
The Full English, of course, has the tune which Frank Kidson collected from Mrs Thompson in Knaresborough; while the words (with a slightly different tune), which were noted down by Alfred Atkinson from an unnamed singer in the Isle of Axholme – in North Lincolnshire, between Doncaster and Scunthorpe – in 1904, can be found in the 1905 Journal of the Folk-Song Society.
Other versions have been collected in Lincolnshire (by Percy Grainger), Gloucestershire (Alfred Williams and Cecil Sharp), Somerset (Sharp), and Herefordshire (Ella Leather).
I learned the song to sing with Caroline Jackson-Houlston, and it was she who typed out the words for me, almost certainly from the JFSS. Whereas the Watersons (following the collected version) have the last line of the chorus as “For my young banker I will go there”, Caroline changed this to “For my young banker I will go bare”. This seemed to make more sense in context and, she thought, was almost certainly how the line had originally been written. But in fact the broadside version (titled ‘A new song called The banking boy’) which you can see on the Bodleian’s Broadside site, also has that line as “For the young banker I will go there”.
A new song called The banking boy – 19th century ballad sheet from Broadside Ballads Online.
The young banker in this song, incidentally, is not a high-flying, cocaine-snorting, economy-destroying financial whizzkid, but “a man who made embankments, stone walls and such” (A.L.Lloyd), or perhaps “A labourer who makes or repairs the banks of waterways; spec. one who digs drains, ditches, or canals” (OED).
I learned this from the singing of Jim Mageean. Jim was a guest at the Heritage Society in Oxford circa 1981, and he was pretty much a permanent fixture at Sidmouth around that time. I thought that this might have been one of the very few songs I’d simply absorbed from hearing it sung. But actually I find that, in my big lever arch folder of folk words and tunes, I have the words neatly typed out, almost certainly on Caroline Jackson-Houlston’s typewriter; so I suppose I must have asked Caroline to look out the words for me on one of her regular visits to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
The typed words, in common with pretty much every version I can see online, have the refrain as “And I’ve been all around this world”. I’m sure I’ve always sung “And I’ve been all over this world”. I think that’s how Jim Mageean sang it; if not, it’s how I thought he sang it.
I was out for a walk recently when, suddenly, a great flock of birds rose up from an adjoining field, circled for a bit, then flew away. Which immediately brought this song to mind.
It’s the last song in Bob Copper’s 1973 book Songs and Southern Breezes, which of course chronicles Bob’s time as a folk song collector, including some years spent away from his beloved Sussex, running a pub at Cheriton in Hampshire. I can’t recall if the song is mentioned in the text of the book as having been collected from a specific singer; maybe it was just universally known in those parts.
But funnily enough, in case you thought this was a quintessentially Hampshire song, the Full English has one other version – collected from Albert Bromley of Shotley in Suffolk, and entitled ‘I wish I were back home in Suffolk’. I suppose those pesky blackbirds get all over the country…
A saucy song, and no mistake, which I learned from the Topic LP Round Rye Bay for More: Traditional Songs from the Sussex Coast, featuring Mike Yates’ 1976 recordings of the irrepressible Sussex fisherman Johnny Doughty. Or, possibly, learned from my friend Adrian Russell, who had learned it from a Johnny Doughty recording.
I listened to Johnny singing this recently, and found that he only had a few verses. I then looked online for fuller versions, and couldn’t really find any. So I have made use of my knowledge of the female anatomy, imperfect though I’m sure this is, to expand the song.
Learned from the Silly Sisters LP, which I really liked in 1976, and which I still think is an excellent album – not dated at all – forty years on.
It seems that Anne Briggs was responsible for popularising this song – it was on the classic sixties album The Iron Muse, where A.L. Lloyd noted
It seems to have originated in the linen-mills of Northern Ireland but has since spread to textile workers elsewhere. The form easily allows for improvised words and many local verses are attached to the tune. A “doffer” is a worker who takes the full bobbins off the spinning machines.
Martin Carthy expands on this
“doffers” were the women who took the finished cloth from off the machines for the next stage in its production. It was work that was largely done bent double, which explains the line “she hangs her coat on the highest pin.” The Doffing Mistress was the supervisor, and, in consequence, never did the job itself. The upshot of this was that she could stand up straight, something which doffers, bent double as they were all their working lives, found difficult to do.
(Thanks to Reinhard Zierke’s Mainly Norfolk site for these quotations)
My recording of the song features a two-row melodeon accompaniment, which is not something you’ll get from me very often. Were he still around, Samuel Johnson might have compared it to a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”.
In the summer of my first year at Oxford I did some harmony singing with Caroline Jackson-Houlston and Tony Snell. I don’t think we ever got to perform in public, but we had a few rehearsals at Tony’s house on the Woodstock Road. I’m sure there must have been other songs we were looking at, the only ones I can recall were all sourced from an LP of Canadian folk songs which I think had recently come Caroline’s way: The Barley Grain For Me by Margaret Christl And Ian Robb With Grit Laskin. We had a go at the John Barleycorn-esque title track and ‘O no, not I’ – which I must get round to re-learning- and possibly ‘Hard Times’. I don’t think we ever tackled this one, but I learned it from the LP and, at the time, it seemed like a pretty obscure song. Then, within a couple of years, it seemed like you couldn’t go to a folk club or session without someone singing it, usually with a bodhran accompaniment. I’ve no idea who popularised it (it certainly wasn’t me!), but it seemed to get very popular very quickly.
Like a lot of the songs on The Barley Grain For Me, ‘By the hush’ was included in The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, edited by Edith Fowke. And a selection of songs from that book were included on a Leader LP (grey gatefold sleeve, like Unto Brigg Fair and A People’s Carol) called Far Canadian Fields, Which I knew of, but had never seen, until a few months back when I was very pleased to find a copy in the Oxfam Music shop in Reading.
All of the songs on that LP were collected by Edith Fowke, four of them from Mr O.J. Abbott (source also of ‘The Plains of Waterloo’) about whom the collector writes:
O.J. Abbott was an exceptionally fine traditional singer with an extensive and unusual repertoire. Born in England in 1872, he came to Canada as a young boy. He learned his many songs from Irish families living on farms in the Ottawa valley and from men in the lumbercamps. I met him first when he was eighty-five, and in the closing years of his life he appeared at the Newport and Mariposa folk festivals and at the International Folk Music Council’s meeting in Quebec in 1961.
This song – recorded in 1957 – Mr Abbott learned from a Mrs O’Malley, “the wife of an Ottawa valley farmer, for whom he worked back in the 1880s”.
The Bodleian has a broadside ballad called ‘Pat in America’ with almost identical words. Except it doesn’t start “It’s by the hush, my boys” but “Arragh, bidenahust my boys”. That, it seems, is a corruption of the Gaelic phrase Bí i do thost, meaning be quiet. So “by the hush”, whilst not a phase I’ve ever encountered in any other context, seems a reasonable English translation.
For the historical background to the song, see the Traditional Ballad Index – there’s a lot more information than I’ve quoted below
There is much historical truth in this song. There were indeed new Irish immigrants in the northern armies in the Civil War: “According to one account, some of the 88th’s recruits [soldiers in the 88 NY Regiment, one of the regiments of the Irish Brigade] enlisted shortly after they had exited the immigrant landing point at Castle Garden, and spoke no English, only the Irish Gaelic of the landless Catholic tenant farmer” (Bilby, p. 27). And the unit they joined, the Irish Brigade of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced “Marr”), had a horrendous loss rate even by Civil War standards.
In the first two years of the war, the brigade — originally 63 NY, 69 NY, 88 NY; 28 Mass, another Irish unit, added before Fredericksburg (Bilby, p. 63) and the not-so-Irish 116 PA added in October 1862 (Bilby, p. 61) — had the highest casualty rate of any comparable unit in the Army of the Potomac. According to Bilby, p. ix, “In its four year history, the brigade lost over 4,000 men, more than were ever in it at any one time, killed and wounded. [p. 239 calculates that, in all, 7715 men served in the brigade.] The Irish Brigade’s loss of 961 soldiers killed or mortally wounded in action was exceeded by only two other brigades in the Union army.”
The unit suffered in many battles. In the Seven Days’ Battles, for instance, the 69 NY alone had 155 casualties (Bilby, p. 45), although other regiments of the brigade suffered less. At the end of the Peninsular Campaign, the 69th had only 295 men with the colors (Bilby, p. 49) — meaning that it had already suffered 60% casualties. Meagher did manage to drum up a few recruits that summer, but not enough to offset the brigade’s losses (Bilby, p. 50).
At the Battle of Antietam, the first division of the Second Corps, which contained the Irish Brigade, suffered 212 killed, 900 wounded, and 24 missing (Murfin, p. 375); the Irish Brigade alone is said to have lost 506 of 2944 men (Beller, p, 74). At the start that battle, the four regiments of the brigade were commanded by one colonel and three lieutenant colonels; at the end, they were commanded by two lieutenant colonels, one major, and one captain (Murfin, p. 347). Sears-Antietam, p. 243, says that the 63rd and 69th New York both suffered casualties on the order of 60%. Craughwell, p. 98, says that one company had every man killed or wounded, and on p. 105 says that the thousand-man-strong brigade suffered 540 casualties. Since the brigade started with roughly 3000 men, it had lost two-thirds of them prior to Antietam, and by the end of that battle, five out of six were killed, wounded, captured, victims of disease, or had deserted.
Pat in America: broadside printed by Taylor, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London between 1859 and 1899. From the Bodleian collection.
Thank you Cameron, thank you Farage, thank you Johnson, thank you Murdoch. And while I’m at it, thank you Thatcher, who made it acceptable to put private gain above public good, who destroyed British manufacturing industry and treated its workers with contempt, and who pretended that there’s no such thing as society. Between you, you have produced a political, economic and social crisis from which, right now, I can’t see how we’re going to recover.
And, whether they meant to or not, the Brexiteers have stirred up a dangerous level of racial hatred. They kept saying “take back control” and now every racist halfwit in the country thinks it’s OK to hurl abuse at immigrants (of whatever skin colour) and people with darker skin (wherever they come from). Someone I know was racially abused in the center of Didcot the other day, and told to “go back home”. Such abuse is unacceptable in any situation, but it was ironic in this case, as the person being abused has lived all her life in the UK, and if she were to “go back where she came from” I seem to remember that wouldn’t actually take her any further than Luton.
I’m not much of an activist, but we must all do what we can to stand up against intolerance of every kind.
So take a good look at my face
You know my smile looks out of place
If you look closer it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears
I’ll be all smiles tonight, boys, I’ll be all smiles tonight
If my heart should break tomorrow I’ll be all smiles tonight
It has always seemed to me that this song was inspired by the same sorts of emotions as Smokey’s classic…
Mike Yates recorded the song in 1972 from George ‘Tom’ Newman of Clanfield, near Bampton, in Oxfordshire. I first heard it sung by Lal and Norma Waterson on the LP Green Fields and subsequently learned it from the transcription of Mike Yates’ recording in Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs, edited by Roy Palmer.
Only a few songs recorded from Tom Newman have been made available on record: ‘The Tree in the Wood’ appeared in the seventies on the Topic LP Green Grow the Laurels, and then again – along with ‘Sing Ovy, Sing Ivy’ – on the Musical Traditions CD Up in the North, Down in the South. Meanwhile Tom’s song ‘My Old Hat That I Got On’ (which Magpie Lane recorded on the CD Six for Gold) was included on Volume 13 of The Voice of the People.
This song, however, has unfortunately never been made available. Mike Yates’ recordings can be accessed at the British Library Sound Archive, but are not available to listen to remotely. One day I must make a trip there, and this will certainly be on my list of recordings to check out. In the meantime I have absolutely no idea if the way I sing ‘Fare thee well cold winter’ bears even the slightest resemblance to the way Tom Newman sang it.
George ‘Tom’ Newman was in his 90th year when I met him and, sadly, I only knew him for the last six months of his life. Originally from Faringdon, he was living in a small bungalow in the village of Clanfield, near Bampton. I was told that Tom used to occasionally turn up at the Bampton Whit Monday ceremonies with his one-man band and would proceed to accompany the traditional morris team around the village. John Baldwin, whose  Folk Music Journal article again introduced me to Tom, had described Tom thus: He is an old man now and tends to become very excited when singing; sitting in a chair and pumping the floor with his feet alternately, and similarly his knees with clenched fists.
It must be twenty years ago that I sang this song at a folk club and someone pointed out that the chorus crops up in a Carter Family song. Mike Yates has written that, when he collected ‘Fare thee well cold winter’ he assumed that Tom Newman had picked up the chorus from an old recording – by the Carter Family perhaps, or Kitty Wells. But in fact Cecil Sharp collected a version from Lucy White, of Hambridge in Somerset, which included a “We’ll be all be smiles tonight” chorus.
The chorus comes from an American song written by T. B. Ranson in 1879, which may well have gained popularity in Britain at the time. Lucy White’s version proves that Ranson’s chorus had been added to the older British song by 1903 at least, some decades before it was being recorded by various American performers (there were several recorded versions before the Carter Family recorded their ‘I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight’ – see the Traditional Tune Archive for details). I’m not aware of any connection between Lucy White and Tom Newman, so these two collected versions suggest that the song – with this chorus – must have had some kind of wider currency in Britain in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century.
Fare-thee-well cold winter. 19th century broadside ballad from the Bodleian collection.