Occasionally at a folk festival I’ve come across slim volumes of folk song, usually published by the EFDSS, being sold off at bargain basement prices. Should you find yourself in a similar position, my advice is – buy them, I’ve picked up some really good stuff this way. Including the source of this song, The Ploughboy’s Glory, edited by Michael Dawney. This is a collection of previously unpublished songs from the George Butterworth collection. Of course you can find all of these today on the Take Six website, but there’s nothing quite like leafing through a book looking for new songs or tunes. Especially when you only have to go as far as page 6 to find a gem like this.
Butterworth collected the song in 1908 from a Mrs Whiting of Broseley in Shropshire; or possibly Newport in Monmouthshire – the MS as reproduced on the Take Six record is ambiguous on this.
Michael Dawney reports that
Miss [Margaret] Dean-Smith’s master title for this song is ‘The Banks of Sweet Primeroses’ (sic), of which Butterworth himself collected a version, ‘Sweet Primroses’, The actual flowers are not mentioned in ‘As I roamed out’, Butterworth wrote on his MS: ‘Several verses have been omitted’ which probably (since no complete copy exists) contained an explicit invitation to sexual intercourse, as in his ‘Sweet Primroses’:
For I will make you as happy as any lady,
If you will grant me one small relief.
I almost wish I hadn’t read that: I always thought of ‘Sweet Primroses’ as such an innocent song!
Anyway, as well as the confusion as to whether this was collected in England or Wales, other questions which arise include:
- where did Dawson find the words? I can only find the tune on Take Six.
- and is this part of Roud 586 (‘Banks of the Sweet Primroses’) or Roud 922 (‘The Lawyer’ aka ‘Mowing the Barley’)? It’s classified as both in Steve Roud’s Index
- and what was so shocking in the original? Neither Sweet Primroses or The Lawyer is usually outway rude. Was Butterworth particularly prudish? or did Mrs Whiting have an especially crude set of words?
Alas, we shall probably never know the answer to the last question. Which is a great pity. But in fact, the fragment we have left – though the result of a collector’s sensitivities rather than the refining work of the folk process – is to my mind rather beautiful. It creates a mood, without explicitly telling you what’s going on, and I don’t see that as a problem. After all, that approach to songwriting doesn’t seem to have done Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello any harm…
As I roamed out
Update 18th October
Have done some further investigating, and discovered quite a lot more information about this song.
- From http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/watersons/songs/maymorning.html I discovered that Eliza Carthy has recorded the song, on the Waterson: Carthy album A Dark Light. That’s a record I own, but I hadn’t listened to it for some while, and had definitely not registered this song. The CD notes say “Liza learned May Morning from the Cecil Sharp collection” – but I think she has misremembered, and must have had the song, as I did, from Ploughboy’s Glory.
- That page led me to this Mudcat Café thread from which I’ve learned a number of things, most importantly that the song has antecedents in a broadside ballad, probably dating from the early nineteenth century – have a look at the ballad sheets themselves by searching for “shady green tree ” at http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads/
You’ll see that it must have been (the remnants of) verses 3 and 4 that Butterworth felt couldn’t be repeated in polite society. The Roud Index has this song as number 2512.
- Also on that Mudcat thread, the last contributor links the song (very plausibly) to Roud 9785, with two versions:
Well that’s a satisfying day’s work. My feeling is that ‘As I roamed out’ is clearly derived from the ballad ‘Shady Green Tree’, and should be reclassified as either Roud 2512 or 9785 – it’s an entity in itself, and nothing to do with either ‘The Lawyer’ or ‘Sweet Primroses’.
I’ve supplied the above information to the ever-helpful Steve Roud. He’s busy with other things at the moment, but will no doubt sort all of this out in due course.