Archive for February, 2013

February 25, 2013

Week 79 – The Brisk Young Widow

In common with a good many other people, I imagine, I first heard this on the Young Tradition album Galleries, where it was sung by Royston Wood. Having heard that performance, I then learned the song from Maud Karpeles’ collection The Crystal Spring.

Cecil Sharp had the song from 76 year old George Radford, a shoemaker from East Brent in Somerset who, being a bachelor with no children to support him, had become a resident of the Bridgwater Union – the Workhouse. The notes at  quote Maud Karpeles as follows

The singer said that his father  had been a great singer, but that this was the only song he had managed to learn from him. It was the only modal tune in the singer’s repertory, most of which were ‘composed’ songs. Cecil Sharp had some doubts as to whether this was an authentic folk song.

I’m certainly glad that Sharp put his doubts to one side and noted the song down – because otherwise we would know of no other version from the English tradition. Indeed the Roud Index lists only one other version from any source, from Kentucky, printed in 1923 in Song Ballads & Other Songs of the Pine Mountain Settlement School (not, you may be surprised to learn, a publication with which I am familiar).

Jack Crawford, who recorded this song on his Pride of the Season CD, offers it as an example of just how much chance plays in determining which songs have been noted and recorded from the tradition. If Cecil Sharp hadn’t visited the Bridgwater Workhouse on 22nd August 1905… if he hadn’t been introduced to George Radford… if he had decided the song wasn’t worth collecting….

Within less than a year from Sharp’s visit, Mr Radford had died. Fortunately this song, the only one he had learned from his father Job Radford, did not die with him.

The Brisk Young Widow

February 19, 2013

Week 78 – Flash Company

Throughout my student days at Oxford I sang in various harmony groups with Caroline Jackson-Houlston. At one point we were a quartet with Jane Sinclair and Mike Eaton, but in my final year they had both left Oxford – Jane had graduated, and Mike was having a year abroad. Caroline and I carried on as a duo and, as I recall, it was only at this point that we adopted the name Flash Company. So this was our signature tune – and actually I think it was the only song in our repertoire that wasn’t unaccompanied.

At the time, if asked, I would probably have said that we sang Percy Webb’s version – the title track from the 1974 Topic LP Flash Company: Traditional Singers from Suffolk and Essex. But in fact I suspect that Caroline put the words together from various sources, and we were also almost certainly influenced by June Tabor and Martin Simpson’s recording, recently released at the time on their A Cut Above album.

When I left Oxford I found that the concertina accompaniment put it in a singable key for me, and as I’ve never had an enormous number of chorus songs in my repertoire, I’ve carried on doing it (occasionally) ever since.

Flash Company

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

February 10, 2013

Week 77 – Needlecases

I learned this from All Buttoned Up, the first LP on Topic Records by the Cock and Bull Band – apologies, the Hemlock Cock and Bull Band – where it was sung by drummer John Maxwell.

It seems to have been particularly popular (or at least, most frequently collected) in Oxfordshire: Peter Kennedy recorded a version from Arthur Smith of Swinbrook in 1952, Francis Collinson had the song from Bob Arnold (of Archers fame) at Burford in 1946, Mike Yates recorded it from Freda Palmer of Witney in 19767, and John Howson recorded the Bampton morris dancer Francis Shergold singing it  in 1987.

Francis’ version was included on the Veteran CD It was on a market day Volume 2, and his words can be found at I don’t have a copy of All Buttoned Up to hand, but I seem to remember that the sleevenotes referred to Alfred Williams as the source of the song. Be that as it may, looking at those lyrics, I think it highly likely that John Maxwell had learned the song from Francis Shergold.

Alfred Williams did collect a version from Eli Dawes of Southropp in Gloucestershire, and the song was recorded in the same village, some 40 years later, from a singer by the name of Jimmie Maunders in 1957. Apart from that the only other version listed in the Roud Index – and the only one not from the Cotswolds –  was printed in Kidson & Moffat’s English Peasant Songs (1929).

Having recently quoted Henry Mayhew on the subject of poor frozen-out gardeners I thought I would see what he had to say about sellers of needlecases. There are a number of references; the following unflattering description comes from London labour and the London poor : a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work (Volume 1) – Mayhew is here actually quoting the views of “an educated gentleman (who has been before alluded to in this work), and as he had been driven to live among the class he describes, and to support himself by street-selling, his remarks have of course all the weight due to personal experience, as well as to close observation”:

I come now to the third class of patterers, — those who, whatever their early pursuits and pleasures, have manifested a predilection for vagrancy, and neither can nor will settle to any ordinary calling. There is now on the streets a man scarcely thirty years old, conspicuous by the misfortune of a sabre-wound on the cheek. He is a native of the Isle of Man. His father was a captain in the Buff’s, and himself a commissioned officer at seventeen. He left the army, designing to marry and open a boarding- school. The young lady to whom he was betrothed died, and that event might affect his mind ; at any rate, he has had 38 situations in a dozen years, and will not keep one a week. He has a mortal antipathy to good clothes, and will not keep them one hour. He sells anything — chiefly needle-cases. He ‘patters’ very little in a main drag (public street);  but in the little private streets he preaches an outline of his life, and makes no secret of his wandering propensity. His aged mother, who still lives, pays his lodgings in Old Pye-street.



February 2, 2013

Week 76 – The Setting of the Sun

This is quite the jolliest version of ‘Polly Vaughan’ that I’ve come across.

Dave Parry introduced me to the song, which he’d found in Sabine Baring-Gould’s Songs of the West (the 1905 edition, for which Cecil Sharp acted as musical editor). Baring-Gould collected the song on 12 July 1893 from Sam Fone of Mary Tavy in Devon. The words as printed in Songs of the West struck me at the time as having been rewritten and unnecessarily prettified by Baring-Gould, and now that we can see the original – thanks to Martin Graebe and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library – I think my suspicions are confirmed. In any case, I retained only the tune, first verse and chorus, with the remaining verses taken from what I’d probably consider the definitive version of this song, from the great Harry Cox.

Incidentally, I’ve always thought that the “I shot my true love because I thought she was a swan” argument a rather dodgy line of defence. Wasn’t killing one of the Queen’s swans a crime which was subject to fairly severe penalties?

On an even more trivial note, although – I assure you – I have never been an avid watcher of Neighbours, I vaguely recall that in the late 1980s there was a plot where a young man did indeed shoot his girlfriend in a freak hunting accident. Although this may not have been a swan-related shooting. And I’m not saying for sure that the scriptwriters were familiar with the Polly Vaughan / Molly Bawn / Shooting of his dear family of ballads…

The Setting of the Sun, from Baring-Gould's notebook. Image copyright the Wren Music Trust, via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

The Setting of the Sun, from Baring-Gould’s notebook. Image copyright the Wren Music Trust, via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

The Setting of the Sun

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina