Ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection; printed by H. Such between 1863 and 1885
Next weekend I will be appearing – in what seems to have become a bit of a tradition – at the Frittenden Festival in Kent. The theme for the afternoon session this year is “Sea, ships and sailors”. Now I don’t sing many songs about life at sea; but I do seem to have a lot of songs about sailors on shore, making a nuisance of themselves with members of the opposite sex. Here’s an example which I’ve known for years, although I’m not sure that I’ve ever sung it in public – can’t think why though, and I certainly intend to rectify that next week.
I first heard the song back in the late seventies, sung by Tim Hart on the LP Folk Songs of Old England Vol. 1; then Cathy Lesurf sang a version on the Oyster Ceilidh Band album Jack’s Alive. And more recently, of course, it has been popularised once again by Spiers & Boden / Bellowhead with their stomping version. The way I sing it is based on the recording of Chris Willett on the old Topic LP The Roving Journeymen (now also available on We’ve Received Orders to Sail, Volume 12 of the Voice of the People set).
As well as the fine tune, I’m very taken with Young Johnson’s boast that he has “received commission from the King, to court all girls is handsome”. A likely story, but no doubt the dream job of many a tar.
If you’re after a less well-known version of the song, you could do much worse than investigate the way it was sung by the wonderful Australian singer and musician Sally Sloane – that’s on an excellent 2 CD set of Australian field recordings called Sharing the Harvest: highly recommended.
Dedicated to my dear friend and musical colleague, Dave Parry, who suggested some twenty years ago that I should sing this song.
It was collected by H.E.D. Hammond in May 1906, from a Mrs Crawford of West Milton in Dorset. I learned the song from Frank Purslow’s book Marrowbones, but of course you can now find the song in the EFDSS Take Six archive.
The song has been widely collected in England, Scotland, Ireland and North America. There are American versions with the title ‘The Awful Wedding’. We’ve certainly played at a few of those…
One of my favourite songs, and another from the wonderful May Bradley (see last week’s post). I learned this from the book Garners Gay, prompted by having heard the song on the LP Rose of Britain’s Isle by John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris. I adjusted the way I sing ‘Sweet Swansea’ a little bit after hearing May Bradley herself sing it on the Garners Gay LP. In particular I really liked the way she repeated the last verse, but changing the words ever so slightly. It was the lack of this feature on either of the versions included on the Musical Traditions CD Sweet Swansea which made me realise that some of the recordings from the 1971 EFDSS LP had not (initially) been included on this CD. It turned out that the National Sound Archive had provided Rod with all of the recordings they had of Mrs Bradley – which, sadly, suggests that one reel of tape must have gone missing at some point between 1971 and 2010; hopefully this will reappear at some point.
According to May Bradley the song was based on an actual incident, and had been written by her “double great grandfather”; and it’s certainly the case that only one other version is known to have been collected, by Cecil Sharp in 1907, from Caroline Passmore, Pitminster, Somerset.
When, in my late teens, I became fascinated with traditional song, I looked in my local public library to see what songbooks they had on the shelves. As I recall there were just three: a volume of songs collected by Sharp, Seeger and MacColl’s Singing Island, and Garners Gay by Fred Hamer (to be fair, they added Peter Kennedy’s monumental Folk Songs of Britainand Ireland a little while later). Of these three, Garners Gay was, and has remained, my favourite. It contains some lovely songs, and I liked the way that Fred Hamer’s notes talk as much about the singers as the songs.
This is one of the songs I learned from the book. It was collected from May Bradley, a gypsy singer settled in Ludlow. It was several years later that I actually got to hear a recording of Mrs Bradley’s singing: in 1988 the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library released the cassette The Leaves of Lifefeaturing previously unheard Fred Hamer recordings; and around the same time I came across the old EFDSS LP Garners Gay, which included May Bradley singing this song. On listening to these recordings it was immediately apparent that May Bradley was a very fine singer indeed, so I was delighted when, a couple of years ago, Rod Stradling’s Musical Traditions label put out Sweet Swansea, a whole CD of her songs. If you want to know just how good I thought this CD was, you can read my review; or you can just go straight ahead and buy it – if you’re a fan of traditional singing you really won’t regret it.
Incidentally, I’ve always called this ‘The Outlandish Knight’ because that’s what it’s called in Garners Gay. But May Bradley called it ‘The Dappledy Grey’, and actually she makes no mention of an outlandish knight – her version starts “Now it’s of a Turkey he came from the north land”. Fred Jordan, who was born in Ludlow and knew May Bradley well, had a very similar version of the song, which he called ‘Six Pretty Maids’. He had learned his version from members of another local gypsy family, the Lockes.