Archive for April, 2012

April 30, 2012

Week 36 – Northill May Song

Learned many years ago from Fred Hamer’s lovely little book, Garners Gay. Fred collected it from “Chris Marsom and others” – Mr Marsom had by that time emigrated to Canada, but Fred met him on a visit to his native Northill, Bedfordshire. Fred’s notes say

The Day Song is much too long for inclusion here and the Night Song has the same tune. It was used by Vaughan Williams as the tune for No. 638 of the English Hymnal, but he gave it the name of “Southill” because it was sent to him by a Southill man. Chris Marsom who sang this to me had many tales to tell of the reception the Mayers had from some of the ladies who were strangers to the village and became apprehensive at the approach of a body of men to their cottage after midnight on May Eve.

You can hear Vaughan Williams’ setting of the tune (one of many traditional tunes which he slipped in to the English Hymnal) at

text: ‘Jerusalem My Happy Home’
tune: ‘Southill’, tra­di­tion­al arranged Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Eng­lish Hymn­al (Lon­don: Ox­ford Un­i­ver­si­ty Press, 1906), num­ber 638 (MI­DIscore)

There’s more information on May Day customs in and around Northill – and some nice old photos – on the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service website.

Young men going maying including the bride and Moggers and Moggies

Young men going maying including the bride and Moggers and Moggies.
From “Old Village Customs in Northill” page at

On 1st May several customs were observed. Children would go garlanding, a garland being, typically, a wooden hoop over which a white cloth was stretched. A looser piece of cloth was fastened at the top which was used to cover the finished garland. Two dolls were fastened in the middle, one large and one small. Ribbons were sewn around the front edge and the rest of the space was filled with flowers. The dolls were supposed to represent the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. The children would stop at each house and ask for money to view the garland.

Another custom, prevalent throughout the county if not the country, was maying. It was done regularly until the outbreak of the First World War and, sporadically, afterwards. Young men would go around at night with may bushes singing May carols. In the morning a may bush was attached to the school flag pole, another would decorate the inn sign at the Crown and others rested against doors, designed to fall in when they were opened. Those maying included a Lord and a Lady, the latter the smallest of the young men with a veil and bonnet. The party also included Moggers or Moggies, a man and a woman with black faces, ragged clothes and carrying besom brushes.

And finally – before we get to the song itself (which is very short) here’s a link to a recently posted May Day video from Pete Castle. Pete lived in Bedfordshire in the seventies and eighties, and he met and recorded Mrs Marjorie “Mum” Johnstone who had sung a couple of May songs for Fred Hamer some 20 years earlier. The video has “Mum” singing the two songs, and talking about her involvement in May Day customs as a young girl.

Northill May Song

April 21, 2012

Week 35 – The Lark in the Morning

The Lark in the Morning - from the Bodleian Library collection

Here’s the opening track from the new Magpie Lane CD, The Robber Bird. I learned this from Roy Palmer’s excellent book Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (now republished as Bushes and Briars). Vaughan Williams noted down the tune and first verse on the 24th April 1904, from Mrs Harriet Verrall, of Monk’s Gate, Horsham in Sussex; Roy added further verses from a printed broadside. The song itself is a celebration of ploughboys’ sexual prowess – it is taken as read that they worked hard, but here it is made clear that they also knew how to have a good time, and were fecund to boot. We top and tail our arrangement with ‘The Muffin Man’, a dance tune from the manuscript tune book of William Mittell, dated 1799, from New Romney in Kent. I learned this from the ABC notation file transcribed by George Frampton, and made available by the Village Music Project.

The Robber Bird is not currently available even in the very best record shops. But you can order it online from

Or of course you could buy a copy at one of our gigs. We will be celebrating the 108th anniversary of the collection of this song in Reading on Tuesday, at the Museum of English Rural Life, with the wonderful Hilary James and Simon Mayor.

Magpie Lane

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Mat Green: fiddle, vocal
Sophie Thurman: cello, vocal
Jon Fletcher: bouzouki, vocal
Ian Giles: drum, vocal

April 14, 2012

Week 34 – The Banks of Sweet Mossen

Collected by Bob Copper in the 1950s, from Jim Swain of Angmering in Sussex. The words and music can be found in Bob’s book Songs and Southern Breezes, and you can hear Jim Swain singing the song on The Voice of the People Volume 10. I first heard the song on Shirley Collins’ 1974 LP Adieu to Old England.

I was surprised to find that this song shares the same Roud number as ‘As Broad as I was Walking‘. There’s little to link them on the surface, and a Roud number search of the Take Six Archive suggests that collected versions are either like ‘As Broad…’ or like ‘Banks…’  but not both. So while Mrs Webb’s ‘The Modest Maid’ is obviously a version of ‘Abroad as I was walking’, other songs such as Moses Blake’s ‘Nancy’ or Moses Mills’ ‘Twas Down in the Valley’ are clearly related to ‘Banks of the Mossen’.

Down in Yonder Valley - broadside from the Bodleian Collection

Down in Yonder Valley - broadside from the Bodleian Collection

The same seems to be true of ballads on the Bodleian site: Harding B 17(196a) – ‘Modest Maid’ is without doubt a precursor of  ‘Abroad as I was walking’ (in fact the words as sung by Mr Johnson seem to have changed very little from the broadside version); and Harding B 17(78b) – ‘Down in Yonder Valley’ seems to show how ‘Banks…’ started life.

But on a discussion on the Tradsong list Steve Gardham – quite an expert in these matters – suggested that both songs had a common ancestor, in the shape of

18th century broadsides which showed they were the same song called Beautiful Nancy… An Evans printing is in the Madden Collection, but you can view a Pitts version slightly later, called ‘Down in Yonder Valley’ on the Bodl site, Harding B17 (78).

The Madden Collection, unfortunately, has not been made available online (come on Cambridge!) so I’ll have to take Steve’s word for it.

Finally, this song has been referred to under a variety of titles: Banks of the Mossen, Mossem, Mossom, Mossing… but Mike Tristram, in the same Tradsong discussion, says

‘Mossen’ by the way in my understanding is a saxon plural ie ‘mosses’, rather than the name of a river, in other words it is ‘mossy banks’ good for lambs and love, rather [than] riverbanks.

The Banks of Sweet Mossen

April 6, 2012

Week 33 – The Leaves of Life

A suitably sombre song for Good Friday. I learned this many, many years ago from the singing of Norma Waterson on the Watersons’ seminal 1965 LP Frost and Fire. (A note for the uninitiated: it is a legal requirement that certain album titles be preceded by the word “seminal”, and Frost and Fire is certainly one of those).

The sleeve notes to the LP, written by A.L. Lloyd, say:

This spring-time ballad-carol tells a story based on the Apocryphal Gospels, concerning a trip made by Mary to see her son at Calvary, in the company of seven virgins. The opening recalls the handsome illuminations in the Arundel Psalter, showing the sombre tree of death with its dismal birds, and the dazzling tree of life with iridescent leaves. The parallel between the death and resurrection of Christ and the ritual slaying and renewal of the divine kings of pagan belief (echoed in the mumming plays) needs no stressing.

The carol is included in A Good Christmas Box, published in Dudley in 1847 (although clearly this is not actually a Christmas carol). Sharp and Vaughan Williams both collected a number of versions, all in Shropshire and Herefordshire. Vaughan Williams included the carol in Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire  and then in the Oxford Book of Carols. The notes to the latter say:

Melody and a version of the text from Mrs Whatton and Mrs Loveridge, The Homme, Dilwyn. From Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire (Leather and Vaughan Williams), Stainer & Bell. Cf Popular Carols, by F Sidwick (Sidwick and Jackson). This fine example of the way in which a mystical vision is created by the best folk-poetry appeared in the Staffordshire A Good Christmas Box. 1847, Sylvester (1861) printed a version of it from an ‘old Birmingham broadside’. Sir A Quiller-Couch included it in the Oxford Book of English Verse, and Walter de la Mare in Come Hither.

In really important news yesterday, the English Folk Dance & Song Society announced that they had been successful in applying for funding to proceed with the Full English project. This will digitise and make freely available the folk song collections of Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, Lucy Broadwood and a host of others. So in future, if we want for instance to check out all of the collected versions of this song, we will be able to do so at the click of a mouse. Excellent news.

One of the versions which Vaughan Williams collected came from the gypsy singer Mrs Esther Smith, mother of May Bradley, from whom Fred Hamer recorded the song some 50 years later. You can hear May Bradley sing the song on the Musical Traditions CD Sweet Swansea.

The Leaves of Life

Crucifixion, The Arundel Psalter f.52v (British Library)

Crucifixion, The Arundel Psalter f.52v (British Library)

April 1, 2012

Week 32 – The Rakish Young Fellow

During my time at Oxford, the Heritage Society, the University folk club, was supposedly run by students, but in fact it received a very significant helping hand from former student Caroline Jackson-Houlston – who is still active today in the running of the Friday night Oxford Folk Club. I sang with Caroline in various vocal harmony groups throughout my time as a student. In my last year we performed as a duo, under the name Flash Company, and this was one of our songs.

The song was collected by Cecil Sharp from William Nott, Meshaw, Devon in 1904, but I’m pretty sure that Caroline learned the song from Sam Richards and Tish Stubbs’ book The English Folksinger.

This Mudcat thread provides links to a number of more modern versions involving airmen, Lancers and stockmen as well as sailors – oh and a decidedly politically incorrect Australian parody which commences “Charlotte the harlot lay dying, A piss-pot supporting her head…”

I sang this last night at the Frittenden Old Fashioned Night Out
I chose it because it’s a song with a jolly chorus. Temporarily forgetting that actually it’s a song about a man planning his funeral. And that maybe this wasn’t the best choice given that a very close friend had died the previous night, after a long illness. But actually, as I got to the last verse it occurred to me that this was exactly the kind of rumbustious  funeral Dave might have planned for himself. Wherever you are Dave, RIP.

The Rakish Young Fellow - ballad sheet from the Bodleian Library collection

Ballad sheet from the Bodleian Library collection. Published J. Pitts, Seven Dials, between 1819 and 1844


The Rakish Young Fellow