You can’t be a folk singer from Kent and not know at least a few verses of this song.
I first encountered it sung by Shirley Collins on the Albion Dance Band LP The Prospect Before Us. When I first heard that I was still a folk music novice, and almost every song I heard was new to me. Given how well-known the song has become, it’s funny to think that, when that album was released back in 1977 Hopping down in Kent was in fact new to most people on the folk scene.
Mike Yates recorded a couple of versions in the early seventies, from Louie (Louise) Fuller of Lingfield, Surrey, and the gipsy singer Mary Ann Haynes, who had settled in Brighton. Both versions were included in the Folk Music Journal, in an issue dedicated to travellers’ songs, in 1975. I’d guess that the Albions’ recording was prompted by this (House in the country, which they recorded later on Rise up like the sun, was in the same issue) – although Shirley may well have known Louie and/or Mary Ann, and heard them singing the song.
Louie Fuller’s version appeared on the 1976 Topic album Green Grow the Laurels: Country Singers from the South; Mary Ann Haynes’ version only became generally available on the excellent Travellers compilation (also on Topic) in 1985.
Both recordings have since been made available on CD, although the situation is confused by an error with the tracklisting for Topic’s The Voice of the People series. Despite what it says on the CD (and almost anywhere the CD contents are listed on the Internet), it is not Mary Ann Haynes who sings this song on Volume 5 Come All my Lads that Follow the Plough – it’s Louie Fuller. You can hear Mary Ann Haynes’ version on Here’s Luck to a Man: An Anthology of Gypsy Songs & Music from South-East England (Musical Traditions MTCD320).
In the booklet to that CD, Mike Yates wrote this about his first encounter with Mary Ann Haynes:
One of the first Gypsy singers that I met was Mary Ann Haynes. I had been told that her son, Ted, was a singer and I drove down to Sussex one Sunday afternoon, looking for his trailer. Eventually, I found Ted and his trailer in a field. He was busy and directed me to his mother, who ‘knew all the old songs’. Mary lived in High Street, Brighton, where, according to Ted, she was known to ‘everybody’. High Street turned out to be a narrow street off the sea-front and was full of large tower blocks. I started knocking on doors, only to be told that nobody knew a Mrs Haynes. I found that when I mentioned that she was a Gypsy doors were closed very quickly in my face. I began to wonder if I would ever find Mary, and was about to give up, when a lady said that there were no Gypsies in the area, only ‘an Italian looking lady’. This was, of course, Mary. When I arrived she was sleeping off a lunchtime session in the pub, but, once roused, she set about making a cup of tea and, having said that I knew her son (sort of), she began to sing as soon as I mentioned songs. Mary had been born in 1905, in a Faversham waggon parked behind The Coach and Horses in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Her father, Richard Milest, was a horse-dealer whose family would accompany him across England during the summer as he made his way from fair to fair. “We used to go to the Vinegar & Pepper Fair at Bristol, then to Chichester, Lewes, Canterbury and Oxford, then up to Appleby and back down to Yalding.” Mary’s husband died suddenly, leaving her with a large family, and, having settled in Brighton, she worked as a flower-seller, earning enough to support her family. Mary died in 1977.
The way I sing the song these days is very much based on Mike’s recording of Mary Ann Haynes, although I’ve also included some verses from Louie Fuller, and a couple from lovely Ron Spicer. The second and penultimate verses are Ron’s, and I’ve never come across them anywhere else. I was also tempted to add this verse from Shropshire singer Ray Driscoll
When we use the karsey, sitting on the pole,
You have to keep your balance or you fall back in the hole
Ray Driscoll and Louie Fuller were both brought up in London, and in the days before mechanisation the local workforce would be massively swelled at hop-picking time by families from the East End of London come down for a working holiday – and of course by a great many gipsies and travellers.
There are several British Pathé films in the archive about hop-picking. Here’s one from 1946.
Hopping down in Kent