Archive for June, 2012

June 30, 2012

Week 45 – Sheep Shearing Song

Cover of 'A Song for Every Season' single LP I learned this from the singing of Bob and John Copper on the single LP selection from A Song for Every Season. Bob gives the background to the song in his book of the same name:

Shearing the wool off the back and belly of a sheep in such a manner as to finish up with a fleece of the maximum weight in one piece and in the minimum time was by no means a simple task. It was a skill that was developed over a number of years and, even then, really good shearers were few and far between. For this reason when it ‘came in season the lambs and ewes to shear’ a crew of expert shearers was formed to travel round from farm to farm in a given area and shear all the sheep at each farm in turn by piece-work. The crew from the Rottingdean area called themselves the Brookside Shearers, because the area they covered included all the ‘brook farms’ up the western side of the Ouse Valley from Newhaven to Lewes in what was known as Brookside Country. A crew consisted of a captain, who wore two stars on his hat, a lieutenant, who wore one star, twelve to fourteen men, picked for their skill at shearing and willingness to work hard for long hours, a wool winder to roll and stack the shorn fleeces and a tar-boy whose job it was to go round as required and dab tar – or in later years, powdered lime – on any accidental cuts in the sheep’s hide to stop the bleeding and to prevent flies from entering.

Bob Copper, A Song for Every Season, Heinemann, 1970, p116

This was the practice when Bob’s father Jim started shearing around the turn of the twentieth century, and things appeared to have changed very little for decades.

In an interview given to Vic Smith in 1970 – and now transcribed on the Musical Traditions website – Bob talked more about White Ram Night, which preceded the shearing, and the rather more rumbustious Black Ram Night which came at the end of their work:

They used to start off in their first night to make arrangements of where they were going and what they were going to do and that was called ‘White Ram Night’.  They’d agree on a pub for headquarters.  Usually it was the Red, White & Blue in Lewes.  It’s no longer a pub.  It was until fairly recently.  I’ve had a drink there.  Is it Friars Walk?  Anyway, it’s a green tiled place.  It was a horrible pub.  The worst of Victoriana, but they liked it.  They must have liked the landlady or her daughter or something.  Well, that was their headquarters.  Well, they used to start off on the first night, before the shearing actually started, on the Saturday before they started on the Monday morning.  That was called ‘White Ram’.  That was more or less just business.  There was plenty of beer, there always was.  Then they used to arrange where they were going.  The captain would read out which farms they were going to.  How many in each flock, “Well, we’ll get through that in two days.” And so on and so on.

Then they had a list of fines.  They used to …  If you leave a patch of wool as big as a half-crown on a sheep, you were fined sixpence.  And if it were bigger, it would be a shilling.  If you let your sheep go in the barn, that would cost you sixpence.  If you called a man a fool, sixpence; if you called him anything worse, a shilling.  And they all agreed on this because this all went into the kitty for Black Ram which was the last … which was the Saturday after the completion.  They used to meet on the following Saturday, pay out the wages due and the fines used to go into the kitty over the counter against food, salt beef, they used to have a very good do, cooked beef and bacon and goodness knows what.  That was Black Ram.  That was a really good night, a real humdinger and, in fact, the strong beer they used to drink was called Black Ram very strong, stronger than Old, like a very strong barley wine.  That was called Black Ram and that was a real humdinger.  That was a pretty beefy affair.  So that was the second one, Black Ram.

Sheep Shearing Song

June 25, 2012

Week 44 – When Jones’ Ale was new

Here’s another song from the Copper Family repertoire. I think I must have learned it from the recording of Bob and Ron Copper on the LP Jack of All Trades,  Volume 3 in the Caedmon / Topic series The Folk Songs of Britain (where it is titled ‘The Jovial Tradesman’).

The words and tune are  printed in Bob’s book A Song for Every Season.

There was a thread on the fRoots forum a few weeks back in which board members suggested songs which, when you hear them being sung by a floor singer at a folk club, make your heart sink. I wrote at the time that, in most cases, the songs themselves were relatively blameless, but suffered from the rather lacklustre way in which they were often performed.

In any case, there were several songs on the fRoots blacklist which will appear here in due course, this being the first (I won’t count ‘The Wild Rover’ as the version I sing is so different from the normal one we all know and… er… )

I’ve set up a new tag in anticipation.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a joy to sing. And what might appear on the page as a somewhat lumpen 6/8 tune actually lends itself to all sorts of rhythmic and melodic subtlety.

Also, I do love singing the line “oh Lord, how his hammer and tongs did rattle”.

When Jones’ Ale was new

June 16, 2012

Week 43 – All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough

An Oxfordshire version of a well-known song – well-known in the folk revival, but also widely sung in oral tradition.

Although this was not included on the first Magpie Lane CD, it was certainly in our repertoire when we played our first concerts in May 1993, and was included on our second album, Speed the Plough. In those days we followed the song with the dance tune ‘Speed the Plough’, aka  “The National Anthem of English Country Dance Music”. But we’re a band that likes to move with the times, so in more recent years we’ve taken to playing – as on this this live recording – ‘New Speed the Plough’, from Vic Gammon’s A Sussex Tune Book (N.B. the word “New” in this context is relative – the tune comes from the Welch family MS, dated 1800).

We learned the song from the Oxfordshire section of Lucy Broadwood’s English County Songs. There are four songs in that section, and the source for all of them is given as Mr R. Bennell. It’s not made clear whether Mr Bennell was simply responsible for communicating the songs to Miss Broadwood, or if she collected them directly from his singing . Fortunately Broadwood researcher Irene Shettle has provided the answer – Mr Bennell wrote out the words and tunes and sent them to the collector in a series of letters in November 1891.

Mr Bennell was a professional cornet player, then living in Richmond. The pieces he sent to Broadwood were songs which he remembered from his younger days, having been brought up at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. Of this song he wrote

I have written the tune of (It was early etc) as I have always heard it sung round about Nettlebed in Oxfordshire where I was brought up. I have herd strangers sing it to the air of Villikins and his Dinah, which melody you are no doubt acquainted with.


I have also written two more, one I may call the Nettlebed Cricket Song as I have never heard a word of the song or a bar of the melody sung in any of my travels. Neither of the songs I have dotted down have the peculiar quaintness and minor tendency of most of our most rural district songs but I could commit several to paper, but the words I could not easily obtain now I am away. I have written the two first and the two last verses of the Leathern Bottle. I can remember no more. There are various difficulties in the way as regards the words of songs; our ancestors in their simplicity were rather coarse even in their sentimental ditties. This for one thing gives rise to a difficulty where as regards the tune there would be none. In answer to your enquiry as to my profession I beg to state that I am a musician and play the cornet for a living in all lines of the business theatrical or otherwise. I object to publicity regarding myself unless consulted. Any remuneration for my little efforts would be thankfully received to cover postage etc. If these songs should give you any satisfaction or be of any help to you in your labours I will furnish you with another or two

In English County Songs Lucy Broadwood gives the Nettlebed tune for this song (under the title ‘Twas Early One Morning’), but prints a set of words “from a gardener’s boy in Berkshire”.

All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough / New Speed the Plough

Magpie Lane

Andy Turner: vocal, one-row melodeon
Ian Giles: vocal, percussion
Mat Green: fiddle
Sophie Thurman: cello
Jon Fletcher: guitar

recorded direct from the mixing desk, Banbury Folk Festival, 14th October 2007

June 9, 2012

Week 42 – Early in the month of Spring

In recent years Malcolm Taylor, the Librarian of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, has been awarded an OBE, the EFDSS Gold Badge, and a Radio 2 Folk Award; while the library itself has achieved MLA Designated status, recognising the library’s national and international importance. All of these awards are entirely deserved. Malcolm is a thoroughly good egg, and in his time at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library he has both raised its profile and dramatically extended the range of services it offers – and this is set to be taken even further with the Full English project now underway.

In the 1980s, when the Society as a whole was pretty moribund, and members only seemed to have energy for bitter internecine disputes over where the HQ should be based, Malcolm just quietly got on with things: doing his best to ensure the library’s resources were secure,  organising library lectures, and masterminding a series of excellent cassettes featuring field recordings which had never before been available to the world at large.

One of these cassettes was Early in the Month of Spring, which featured recordings made by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie of Irish Travellers in England – recordings which had often been made in the most unlikely places (well, for those who think of folk songs as existing only in an idyllic rustic setting) such as underneath a flyover on the Westway.

The cassette was full of great performances of great songs, sung by singers who were clearly great characters. Fortunately, since cassette tapes were never the most wonderful or long-lasting medium, the songs from Early in the Month of Spring have now been made available on a Musical Traditions CD From Puck to Appleby (MTCD325-6)

This one came from Mikeen McCarthy, originally from  Cahirciveen, Co Kerry, but who had lived in England for most of his life. Mikeen was introduced by Jim and Pat to the London folk club scene, and I was lucky enough to see him singing at at least one National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington. An obituary for Mikeen appeared in the 2006 Folk Music Journal, and this is available online.












Early in the month of Spring

June 5, 2012

Week 41 – The Wild Rover

The version of this song popularised by The Dubliners, with it’s “Nay Nay Never” (clap – clap – clap) chorus, is probably the most widely known British folk song.  Which was always reason enough for me not to feel any inclination to learn it. I was aware that there were other versions out there – Dave Townsend has a nice Hampshire version, while the Scottish singer Sylvia Barnes recorded a wonderful version with the band Kentigern (well it’s certainly wonderful when she sings it).

Sam Larner

Sam Larner (image from

But I was only inspired to learn the song when I heard it sung by Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner, on the Topic CD reissue of the 1961 LP Now Is The Time For Fishing.

Sam’s tune is very closely related to that commonly used for ‘The Blackbird’ and it seemed to me quite different from the usual version. However Brian Peters, on the TradSong forum, has presented a very credible argument that in fact, just as The Dubliners got ‘Black Velvet Band’ from Norfolk singer Harry Cox (via Ewan MacColl) Sam Larner’s version may well have been  the source of  their ‘Wild Rover’. The Dubliners are thought to have learned it from Louis Killen, and it seems likely that he got it from Ewan MacColl, who had recorded the song from Larner in the late 1950s. Brian writes

The MacColl / Dubliners melody sounds to me precisely the kind of thing you’d expect, if the Larner melody had been tweaked to turn it into something subtly different – I’ve done that kind of thing myself and know the tricks, and I understand that MaColl had form on that score. The changes (a slight narrowing of range, a more frequent resolution on the tonic, for instance) serve to make the tune simultaneously less interesting musically, and more accessible.

Whatever the truth, The Dubliners produced a popular classic, and I prefer the way Sam Larner sang it!

The Wild Rover