February 25, 2018

Week 272 – The Bitter Withy

I’m not sure why this song popped up in my head a few weeks back. I used to sing it occasionally a long time ago – mostly just around the house or in the car – having absorbed it from Mike Waterson’s irrepressibly individualistic recording on The Watersons’ LP  Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy. Having decided to resurrect the song, I thought I’d check out other versions. I wasn’t sure if it was one of those songs which is widely sung in the folk revival, but rarely if ever collected from tradition. Actually the VWML Archive Catalogue shows that it has been quite widely collected – but particularly in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.

The words – often a bit garbled (“up Lincull and down Lincull”) – were sung to a variety of good tunes, both major and minor. Unable to decide between them, I then had a listen to the version from gypsy singer Charlotte Smith on the Topic/Caedmon album Songs of Christmas/Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9) and immediately decided that was the one for me. It’s a very simple tune, with a span of less than an octave, but it really got its hooks into me. I don’t know how many verses Charlotte Smith sang to Peter Kennedy when he recorded her at Tarrington in Herefordshire in October 1952; only two appear on the Topic LP, and Kennedy’s recording doesn’t appear to be available on the British Library website. So I started to compile my own set of words, from the versions accessible via the Full English, and those printed in old FSS / EFDSS Journals. But I soon realised

  • the words I’d learned (perhaps misremembered) from Mike Waterson were very firmly lodged in my brain
  • I was unlikely to assemble a better set of lyrics

so it just made sense to carry on singing the same words I had always sung.

A.L.Loyd, from whom I imagine Mike Waterson learned this song, was very taken with the idea of the working class Christ teaching a lesson to the three snobbish young aristocrats who refuse to play ball with him (see Folk Song in England page 116-118, and Lloyd’s album notes reproduced at https://mainlynorfolk.info/lloyd/songs/thebitterwithy.html). And the picture painted here of a young Jesus who misbehaves, just like any other child, and gets a thrashing from his mother for his pains, is very much at odds with the portrayal of Jesus in Victorian Christmas carols, where “no crying he makes”, and “Christian children all should be, Mild, obedient, good as He”. As this is a carol I’ve always associated it with with Christmas, but of course there’s nothing remotely Christmassy about it. Indeed I feel very strongly that songs about Jesus drowning a bunch of stuck-up rich kids really are not just for Christmas…


The Bitter Withy

Mural from the monastery church on the summit of Bahar Dar, Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

Mural from the monastery church on the summit of Bahar Dar, Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

Max Ernst: The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926)

Max Ernst: The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926)

December 28, 2017

Week 271 – The Gloucestershire Wassail

Here is to Fillpail and to his left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year

I first came across this Wassail song in the Oxford Book of Carols in the 1970s – although, unlike the ‘Somerset Wassail’ it never actually became part of my repertoire. With a slightly different set of words the song was part of the Magpie Lane Christmas set from the very beginning, and we recorded it – with a different singer leading each verse – on our 1995 CD Wassail.

For this recording I’ve gone back to the version in the Oxford Book of Carols. The notes with the song tell us that the tune was collected by Vaughan Williams “from an old person in Gloucestershire”. Actually, it turns out that Vaughan Williams took it down in the inn at Pembridge in Herefordshire, in July or August 1909, from a singer whose name he did not record, but who presumably was a native of Gloucestershire.

The words printed in the book were collated from other versions collected by Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams in Gloucestershire – from William Bayliss of Buckland and Isaac Bennett of Little Sodbury – as well as nineteenth century printed sources. Magpie Lane’s words are closer to those originally collected by RVW at the inn in Pembridge.

You can find several other Wassail songs collected in Gloucestershire on Gwilym Davies’ GlosTrad site; and can read much more about this song, and the tradition which it accompanied, on the Gloucestershire Christmas website.

Tetbury Wassailers in about 1930. Photo by James Madison Carpenter, copyright the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. From http://www.gloschristmas.com

Tetbury Wassailers in about 1930. Photo by James Madison Carpenter, copyright the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. From http://www.gloschristmas.com


Waes Hael!


The Gloucestershire Wassail

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina


December 21, 2017

Week 270 – As I sat on a sunny bank

Last night we had a really joyous carols and tunes session at the Bell Inn, Adderbury, North Oxfordshire. It’s a fantastic pub at any time (disclosure: I play in a band with Sandy, the landlady – but I challenge anyone to visit the pub and fail to be impressed). Last night, with about two thirds of the Christminster Singers, plus various friends and friends of friends, we really raised the roof with a selection of rousing carols from Dorset, Yorkshire – and Oxfordshire. It was particularly pleasing to be able to sing a few of the carols collected in Adderbury around a hundred years ago by Janet Blunt – ‘Adderbury Church’, ‘High let us swell’ and ‘Newton’s Double’ (which featured here four Christmasses ago). But here’s one we didn’t sing…

Janet Blunt collected several versions of ‘As I sat on a sunny bank’ / ‘I saw three ships’ in Adderbury. All used some variation on the well-known tune – apart from Sam Newman (a native of Wiltshire) who sang it to the tune of ‘Buffalo Girls’. This one was noted down from Clara Gillam, the parlour maid at Blunt’s home Halle Place, aka Adderbury Manor, and I learned it from the Blunt MSS via the Full English website.

The earliest known appearance of the carol in print was in 1666. According to the New Oxford Book of Carols the story is based  on

the Mediterranean journeyings of the supposed relics of the magi, the ‘Three Kings of Cologne’, the splendour of whose final voyage has remained vivid in European folk memory. The Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and discoverer of the True Cross, carried them to Constantinople in the fourth century, from where they were later taken by St Eusthathius to Milan. In 1162 the skulls were gifted to Cologne Cathedral by Friedrich Barbarossa, and Bishop Renaldus brought them there, to rest in the jewelled caskets in which they remain to this day.

The notes in the book also refer to this version of the carol in Baring-Gould’s manuscript collection, which was noted from a boatman on the River Humber by the artist Lewis Davis, and preserves the link with Cologne:

I axed ’em what they’d got on board
They said they’d got three crawns [skulls]
I axed ’em where they was taken to
They said they was ganging to Coln upon Rhine
I axed ’em where they came frae
They said they came frae Bethlehem

As I Sat On A Sunny Bank, from the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.

As I Sat On A Sunny Bank, from the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.

I follow the song with ‘Christmas Day In The Mornin’’ a tune from Bruce & Stokoe’s Northumbrian Minstrelsy of 1882, where it is associated with the words

Dame get up and bake your pies,
Bake your pies, bake your pies;
Dame get up and bake your pies,
On Christmas Day in the morning.


As I sat on a sunny bank / Christmas Day in the Mornin’

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina, one-row melodeon in C

September 17, 2017

Week 269 – Kitty from Ballinamore

Like ‘As I roved out from the County Cavan’, I learned this from the LP Triona, by Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill. Like a lot of other songs in her repertoire, I believe she had this one from her aunt, Neillí Ní Dhomhnaill. It’s a song which doesn’t seem to have been recorded frequently. You can hear Seamus Ennis singing a version on the Musical Traditions CD of late sixties recordings from the King’s Head Folk Club. And there are two recordings from Northern Irish singers – both as ‘Kate from/of Ballinamore’ – on Topic’s ever-expanding Voice of the People series: Geordie Hanna on Volume 6 Tonight I’ll Make You My Bride and Paddy Doran on The Flax in Bloom. Finally, there’s a rather charming 78 rpm recording by Joseph Maguire available to listen to via the ITMA Digital Library (that’s the Irish Traditional Music Archive, and nothing to do with Tommy Handley).


Kitty from Ballinamore

September 9, 2017

Week 268 – Treat my daughter kindly

Farmyard scene from my parents' postcard collection

Farmyard scene from my parents’ postcard collection

When I heard the Watersons’ LP For pence and spicy ale in about 1977 ‘Chickens in the Garden’ was one of the songs I learned from it. Along with ‘Country Life’, ‘The Good Old Way’, ‘Bellman’, ‘Swarthfell Rocks’ and the two Wassail songs. In other words, about half the songs on the album. At the time, and for many years afterwards, it seemed so very Yorkshire, I almost couldn’t imagine it having been sung in any other part of the country – a local composition, perhaps. These myths were dispelled when I heard the Veteran cassette Old songs and folk songs from Essex featuring Fred Hamer’s 1967 recordings of a ninety-three year old Harry Green, from Tilty in Essex. Here it was – evidently the same song – but with no mention of Yorkshire whatever.

Harry Green, photo from the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust

Harry Green, photo from the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust

The same recording of Harry Green was later included on the Veteran CD The Fox & the Hare. And from John Howson’s notes to that CD I learn that

This song, originally entitled The Farmer’s Daughter, or, The Little Chickens in the Garden, was written by American songwriter James Allan Bland (1854-1919) who also wrote Golden Slippers. Sheet music was published by Oliver Ditson & Co in 1883 and the cover states that it was the “Greatest success of the season with 10,000 copies sold in the first week!” Its popularity meant that it easily slipped into the tradition, particularly in America and Canada. It also found its way to these shores and it was published by the Poet’s Box in Dundee and turns up in Jimmy McBride’s collection from Donegal and Neil Lanham’s recordings from Suffolk and Essex. It was also a favourite of Norfolk singer Walter Pardon.

The Farmer's daughter; or, The Little chickens in the garden. From the Library of Congress sheet music collection.

The Farmer’s daughter; or, The Little chickens in the garden. From the Library of Congress sheet music collection.

Harry Green’s version seems to be much closer to James Bland’s original than the North country ‘Chickens in the Garden’. The words of further versions are provided on this Mudcat thread. These include sets of lyrics similar to Harry’s from North Carolina and Arkansas but, intriguingly, the version recorded from Lena Bourne Fish of New Hampshire starts “While traveling down in Yorkshire”, and also has the phrase “so blooming shy” which was such a memorable feature of Mike Waterson’s rendition.


Treat my daughter kindly

September 2, 2017

Death in the Ice

As noted in an earlier post, I first heard the song ‘Lord Franklin’ in the late seventies, and was immediately taken with it – and all the more so when I learned the story behind the song. I was therefore pleased to learn that the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich were to stage Death in the ice, a major exhibition about Franklin’s fateful final expedition. I visited the exhibition last week, and am happy to say that my expectations were fully met.

It’s a very well presented exhibition which does a good job of presenting the background to Franklin’s expedition, details of his two ships and their crew, and details – insofar as they can be ascertained – of what befell them. Right at the start of the exhibition two massive video walls show projections of the Arctic landscape – to give you an idea of the environment Franklin and his men encountered (although inside, on a warm August day, the landscape looks beautiful – rather different if you were stuck in it in an Arctic winter, with insufficient food, and clothing which was not up to the job of keeping out the cold). Then we learn that the quest to discover the North West passage was a peculiarly British obsession, but also – thanks to successive expeditions approaching the route both from the Atlantic and from the Pacific in the East – that by 1845 when Franklin set sail, only 900 miles remained to be charted. I was particularly taken with a table-top projection which literally draws the map of North America and Canada, in accordance with the state of Europeans’ knowledge of the region as it developed over time, from John Cabot in 1497, through Frobisher, Cartier, Hudson, Cook (who charted practically the entire East coast), Ross, and many others.

I was rather surprised to find – given the early date of the Franklin expedition – that there exist photographic images of Franklin himself, and several of his crew.

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) - daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) – daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.


James Reid, Ice Master - daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

James Reid, Ice Master – daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.


Lieutenant Graham Gore, Commander - daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Lieutenant Graham Gore, Commander – daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

I suppose Franklin’s status as a national hero, and the importance which the British government attached to his expedition, might account for these officers being photographed before setting off to the Arctic. (Franklin himself was already well-known to the British public as an intrepid explorer. He had earned the nickname “The man who ate his boots” when he ran into difficulties on an earlier expedition to the Arctic in 1819-1822. On that occasion some of his men died of starvation, while others were forced to eat lichen, and even tried to get sustenance by eating their own leather boots). It was the same factors, plus the indefatigable efforts of his widow Lady Jane Franklin, which ensured that several expeditions were sent out from 1848 onwards to try to discover the fate of her husband and crew.

Mind you, when Sir John Rae brought back evidence he had gathered from Inuit in the area – that they had encountered some 40 starving and desperate white men, and then, the following spring that they had found around 30 corpses, some showing clear signs of cannibalism – this testimony was deemed unreliable. The mid-nineteenth century British public simply could not bring itself to admit that gallant British seamen would ever come so low as to resort to cannibalism. Indeed Charles Dickens went into print to say as much:

DR. RAE may be considered to have established, by the mute but solemn testimony of the relics he has brought home, that SIR JOHN FRANKLIN and his party are no more. But, there is one passage in his melancholy report, some examination into the probabilities and improbabilities of which, we hope will tend to the consolation of those who take the nearest and dearest interest in the fate of that unfortunate expedition, by leading to the conclusion that there is no reason whatever to believe, that any of its members prolonged their existence by the dreadful expedient of eating the bodies of their dead companions. Quite apart from the very loose and unreliable nature of the Esquimaux representations (on which it would be necessary to receive with great caution, even the commonest and most natural occurrence), we believe we shall show, that close analogy and the mass of experience are decidedly against the reception of any such statement, and that it is in highest degree improbable that such men as the officers and crews of the two lost ships would or could, in any extremity of hunger, alleviate the pains of starvation by this horrible means.

Charles Dickens, The Lost Arctic Voyagers (1854)

If you’re interested, here’s Rae’s own account: The melancholy fate of Sir John Franklin and his party, as disclosed in Dr. Rae”s report; together with the despatches and letters of Captain M’Clure, and other officers employed in the Arctic expeditions (1854).


My wife commented that the museum had made a good exhibition despite not having very much to display. A little harsh, but it’s true there’s not that many artefacts actually from the fateful last journey of the Erebus and Terror. And few of those artefacts can be identified as belonging to a specific member of the crew. However amazingly, rather touchingly, Lieutenant Graham Gore’s battered personal copy of a hymnal – Christian Melodies published in 1836 by Thomas Ward and Co. – does survive, and is on display.

Graham Gore's copy of Christian Melodies. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Graham Gore’s copy of Christian Melodies. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

That hymnal had in fact been discovered in May 1859 by the McClintock Search Expedition – one of the expeditions sent out to discover “the fate of Franklin”. But what makes this exhibition special is the fact that Franklin’s ship Erebus was only discovered in September 2014 – exactly three years ago today – so many of the objects on display here have never been seen in the UK before. I assume it was the discovery and examination of Erebus that prompted the current exhibition. And presumably the exhibition was in a fairly advanced stage of planning when Franklin’s second ship, Terror, was discovered just one year ago, on 3rd September 2016. No doubt as historians and archaeologists explore the evidence provided by this second wreck, we can look forward in future years to seeing more artefacts, and to reading new theories of what might have happened on that dreadful last journey.

In the meantime if, like me, you’re fascinated by the story of Franklin and his gallant men (and women? here’s an interesting development) then Death in the ice is highly recommended. It runs till January. The only thing missing is a rendition of this song:

Lord Franklin


If you’re planning on visiting Greenwich, there’s plenty more of interest. Among the museum’s permanent exhibitions is one on the Britain and the Atlantic, particularly Britain’s role in the slave trade (a subject on which I don’t seem to have any songs in my repertoire. Time to learn ‘The Flying Cloud’ perhaps?), and another on the East India Company (cue thoughts of ‘The East Indiaman’). And you can’t go to Greenwich without seeing the Old Royal Naval College, formerly the Royal Hospital for Seamen – where of course the hero of ‘On Board a Ninety-Eight’ spent his final days. A good day out.

August 25, 2017

Magpie Lane – Three Quarter Time now available

I’m delighted to be able to announce that Three Quarter Time, the long-awaited new Magpie Lane CD, is now released, and available to buy from the band’s website.


  1. The Dancing
  2. Push about the Jorum / The Ploughman / Salt of the Earth
  3. Belfast Mountains
  4. Sovay (a different version from that featured as Week 87 of this blog)
  5. Cheltenham Waltz / Rout of the Blues
  6. Nobody’s Jig / Kentish Cricketers
  7. New Garden Fields (a solo version of this appeared here in Week 208 of the blog)
  8. Dance around the Gallows Tree
  9. Blow ye Winds
  10. The Captain and his Whiskers
  11. Lovely Elwina / Waterloo (a solo version of which appeared here as Week 199)
  12. Lord Bateman (a different version from that which appeared here in Week 26)
  13. One More Dance and Then / Not a Natural Dancer / Spirit of the Dance

The CD features a number of special guests including Jackie Oates, John Spiers, Paul Sartin & Colin Fletcher.

See http://magpielane.co.uk/ml_3quartertime.htm for further details.

And here are three sample tracks to try out before you buy.


Initial reaction to the album has been universally positive:

Order your copy now from http://magpielane.co.uk/ml_shop.htm

(and if you’re at Towersey this weekend, yes there will be copies on sale at the Festival record stall)

April 30, 2017

Welcome the May! Part 2

Ah, the merry month of May. This is another of those “here’s some I prepared earlier” blog posts, with songs celebrating the coming of May, or just where the action takes place in May.

I’ll be singing some of these at an event in Canterbury on 13th May. This is part of TRYST, an exhibition organised by my artist friend Cathy Ward (I featured some of her fantastic hairscapes in Week 264 – Dowie Dens of Yarrow). It takes place at Conquest House, one of the oldest buildings in Canterbury. Cathy and I have known each other literally all our lives and, having gone in very different directions in our teens, when we met again 15 or 20 years ago, found that we still had an awful lot in common – and that we both shared a love for English traditions.

You’ll have seen corn dollies made by Cathy if you’ve watched Nick Abrahams’ video for Shirley Collins recent re-recording of ‘Death and the Lady’. Nick will also be taking part in the TRYST exhibition.

I’ll be singing, playing some tunes, and also showcasing some of the images from my parents’ collection of old postcards of morris dancers, maypoles, musicians, hop-picking and more – scanning the whole collection could take me years, but you can see several hundred already scanned at http://bit.ly/turnerpostcards.

Tryst poster


So, to get to the music. Let’s start with a couple of dance tunes to get us in the mood.

Month of May / Spirit of the Dance (from my Squeezed Out blog)


Whitstable May Day 1984 - Robin Hood and Maid Marian dance in front of the Jack-in-the-Green

Whitstable May Day 1984 – Robin Hood and Maid Marian dance in front of the Jack-in-the-Green


Now some songs to welcome in the May. Here are a couple collected in Bedfordshire by Fred Hamer, and one from North Oxfordshire:

Northill May Song

Week 36 – Northill May Song


Good morning lords and ladies 


Swalcliffe May Day Carol

Week 88 – Swalcliffe May Day Carol


Great Chart May Day, Kent, early 1900s.

Great Chart May Day, Kent, early 1900s.


There are countless folk songs where a young man man walks / rides / roves / roams out on a May morning. Almost inevitably a romantic / sexual encounter ensues. Sometimes both parties are happy with the arrangement, and all ends well. As, for example, in these:

Queen of the May 

Week 37 – Queen of the May


The Spotted Cow


But often things do not turn out so happily. Sometimes the young man has his wicked way with her, then leaves her in the lurch. As in:

The little ball of yarn


The Nightingales Sing


Sometimes, the woman refuses to have anything to do with him, and leaves the young man lamenting:

The Woodman’s Daughter

Week 89 – The Woodman’s Daughter


Or is far too clever for him:

Stroll Away the Morning Dew

Week 39 – Stroll Away the Morning Dew


Sometimes, it’s not entirely clear from the song exactly what’s gone on, but it is clear that things have not ended well:

As I roamed out


In other songs, the action is set in the “merry month of May” but any thoughts of merriment are soon dispelled by the dark story line. The classic example has to be

Barbara Ellen

Week 93 – Barbara Ellen

but see also

George Collins

Week 38 – George Collins


Polly on the Shore


Bridal, from Gathering in the May by Catheryne Ward and Eric Wright.

Bridal, from Gathering in the May by Catheryne Ward and Eric Wright.

And, finally, a song which starts so promisingly

As I walked out one morn in May
The birds sing and the lambs did play

But, in the starkest tale of all, a wealthy young woman meets with Death himself. And as Terry Pratchett fans will be very much aware THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY THIS CAN END.


Death and the Lady

Week 92 – Death and the Lady

April 23, 2017

Week 267 – The Grey Funnel Line

I have two Cyril Tawney songs in my repertoire. I posted ‘Sally Free and Easy’ almost a year ago; now here’s the other one.

Written in 1959, it was the last song Cyril Tawney wrote before leaving the Royal Navy. You’ll find his own account of its composition at https://mainlynorfolk.info/cyril.tawney/songs/thegreyfunnelline.html.

I learned it from the Silly Sisters LP, which I must have got not long after it came out. Actually I say I learned it – it’s one of those songs where at any given time in the last 40 years I could probably have sung about 95% of the song, but never properly nailed it until now. And I have to say it was worth making the effort to learn it properly – it’s a really good song.

On this recording, the accompaniment is provided (unwittingly) by Ian Kearey playing an epinette de Vosges with two pencils (HB, as I recall). I sampled this from an old Oyster Band LP, looped it, pitch-shifted it slightly, and played around with it a bit more in Audacity, Nero Wave Editor and Magix Audio Cleaning Lab. And hey presto! here it is.

The Grey Funnel Line

April 23, 2017

Welcome the May! Part 1

Magpie Lane will be playing a May Eve concert in Oxford next Sunday afternoon:

Sunday 30th April – Holywell May Eve concert

Holywell Music Room, Holywell Street, Oxford OX1 3BN

2.30 – 4.30

Promoted in association with www.maymorning.co.uk

Tickets from https://www.ticketsoxford.com/whats-on/all-shows/welcome-the-may/4734
or ring Tim Healey on 01865 249194

Welcome the May poster

There’ll be a lot of Magpie Lane Maytime favourites, including Dave Webber’s May Song, the Swalcliffe May Day Carol, Martin Graebe’s Jack-in-the-Green, and tunes such as The First of MayJack’s Alive and Round about the Maypole.  When the band first started we always used to do concerts at Maytime, and are very pleased that Tim Healey has given us the opportunity to revive the tradition.


In other news, we’re about to send off a series of 0s and 1s, and in return, in a few weeks’ time, we’ll be receiving 40 boxes of shiny silver discs – yes, the long-awaited new album, Three Quarter Time is very nearly here.

You can sample some tracks from the new record at https://soundcloud.com/magpielane/sets/three-quarter-time – I hope you like them.

I will of course let you know as soon as we have copies of the CD, and how you can get hold of one. Or, indeed, several.