Week 80 – The Farmer in Leicester

A song which seems to have been widespread in the English tradition, under a variety of titles. The farmer can hail from Leicester, Chester, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Sheffield, Devonshire… although why the song is named after the farmer at all is a mystery, when it’s daughter who does all the work.

Betsy Renals, from the Veteran website; photo courtesy of Vic Legg.

Betsy Renals, from the Veteran website; photo courtesy of Vic Legg.

I learned this version from a recording of Vic Legg’s auntie, Betsy Renals, made by Pete Coe in 1978. Pete’s recordings of Betsy and her two sisters – all good singers – are  available on Catch me if you can on the Veteran label. I have the original cassette album, but actually there’s now an expanded CD release. The Veteran website has a good summary which I shan’t try to improve on:

Betsy Renals, Charlotte Renals and Sophie Legg were born into one of the best-known West Country travelling families, the Orchards. They were 78, 77 and 60 years old respectively in 1978 when these recordings were made.

Their early life was spent travelling the lanes of North Cornwall hawking haberdashery from their horse drawn wagon Their songs were passed down through their family or learnt at way-side meetings with other travelling families around the camp fire, which could also be the occasion for a step dance often just to mouth music, called ‘tuning’.

This fine collection includes well known folk songs, sentimental and comic songs as well as some rarely recorded narrative ballads.

I’ve not heard the CD, but three quarters of the tracks were on the original cassette, and both the songs and the singing are a treat.

Mike Yates’ notes say that this song dates back to the eighteenth century; and also include this interesting comment:

According to the folklorist Sam Richards, Betsy’s song was used by Gypsy singers to establish boundaries when they came into contact with non-Gypsies; the Travellers feeling that, like the heroine of the song, they too were equal to any potential threat that might develop.

This is one of very few traditional songs where I’ve felt the need to compose an extra verse. Somehow “She’s counted the money twice over / There were three thousand pounds if not more” didn’t seem a satisfactory ending, so I’ve added another, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, verse at the end.

The Farmer in Leicester

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