There’s a brilliant rendition of this song by John Kirkpatrick, on the Umps and Dumps album The Moon’s in a Fit. My version differs not only in the absence of virtuoso vibraslap – I sing the first verse to a different tune from all the others. I have been back to check with Percy Ling’s version (for the first time in years, I must admit) and, although I don’t guarantee I sing exactly the same notes as Percy, I definitely got this feature from him.
My first Irish song – in fact the first song so far not to have been collected in Southern England. I learned this from Peter Kennedy’s massive tome Folksongs of Britain & Ireland, which at the end of the 1970s I had on almost permanent loan from my local library (I think I got it as soon as it was added to stock, and nobody else knew it was there!). Kennedy collected the song, with Sean O’Boyle, from a young Irish traveller, Winnie Ryan. Peter Kennedy describes it thus
A group of travellers from Southern Ireland, singing around a camp-fire in Belfast in July 1952, resulted in some remarkable recordings of their style from the pretty young tinker girls. By the early hours of the morning, the men were under the spell of the Guinness, leaving the younger girls, some breast-feeding as they sang, tightly grasping the microphone one-by-one, and competing with each other in their display of vocal decorations in the love-songs.
The three young women were Mary Doran (21), Winnie Ryan (19) and Lal Smith (23). Of these I’m afraid to say that Lal Smith is the only one who appears to feature in my record collection (a stunning ‘Bold English Navvy’ on Songs of Seduction). Pretty sure I have heard Mary Doran singing as well, but don’t think I’ve ever heard Winnie Ryan.
Kennedy notes in the Folksongs of Britain & Ireland that he’s completed the words from versions of the song from English singers Tom Willett and Charlie Wills.
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 This is a collection of previously unpublished songs from the George Butterworth collection.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.
Another song from the Willett Family LP The Roving Journeymen. This one was sung by Tom Willett on the album, and given the title ‘While the Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping’, although those words don’t actually appear anywhere in the song. Neither do ‘Hares in the old plantation’, or ‘Dogs and ferrets’, which are other common titles for the song, so I’ve just used the first few words as the title It was only when I came to record this that I realised I’d never really given any thought to what I called the song. I’d guess that quite possibly Tom Willett never did either.
The Roud Index currently has 53 entries for this song, nearly all from Southern England, and quite a few – like this version – collected from travelling singers.
This is a song from the Suffolk singer, Bob Hart. I learned it from Roy Palmer’s book, The Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs, although I subsequently heard it on the Topic LP Songs from Suffolk.
It is clearly a later rewrite of the song ‘Virginny’ which Martin Carthy recorded on his album Crown of Horn, but the change of destination lacks some historical accuracy. As Rod Stradling explains in his notes to the Musical Traditions CD, most transportation songs concern poaching rather than highway robbery; for the simple reason that in the eighteenth century highwaymen were transported to Virginia, while in the nineteenth century the punishment was hanging.