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 folkinfo.org 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