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 cyberhymnal.org
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.
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