This is the only song in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs to have been collected in Kent. And while most of the songs in that book had been collected at the start of the twentieth century, this one had been noted a mere 13 years before the book’s publication. Arranger, academic and radio presenter Francis Collinson had the song on 16th February 1946 from Mr Harry Baker of Maidstone.
The song was included in JEFDSS Vol 5 No 1 (1946), with the following note from Collinson:
Mr. Baker of Maidstone, who is in his seventies, has worked all his life as an engineer at Thomas Tillings’. He is a little uncertain in his singing, and I had to ask him to repeat the tune of “Death and the Lady” a number of times before I was certain of having it down correctly.
Mr Baker’s textually incomplete version was padded out with verses possibly taken from Alfred Williams’ Folk Songs of the Upper Thames (according to Malcolm Douglas’s notes in Classic English Folk Songs).
The song is of some antiquity: the earliest known printed version has been dated c.1685-1689. The ballad sheet shown here is from at least 100 years later: printed by J. Turner, High Street, Coventry, between 1797 and 1846.
“Death and the lady; or the Great messenger of mortality”. From the Bodleian Broadside collection.
The memory is a bit fuzzy at the edges, but I have a very clear recollection of the first time I heard ‘The Nutting Girl’. The occasion was the annual House Music competition at my school, and I reckon it would have been in the Spring of 1975. I was in Burra House, and no doubt would have played some part in the competition. Maybe this was the year I played ‘Stranger on the Shore’ on the trumpet. Whatever I did, I’m sure it was instantly forgettable – unless, of course, it was so bad that the audience found they couldn’t forget it, no matter how hard they tried.
Barrett were commonly reckoned the House to beat in the three cultural competitions: Drama, Debating and Music. They had at least three really good piano players: Dave Finch, who was in my year, and Terry Creissen and Barnaby Vafidis, who were a year or two older. On this occasion, Terry Creissen came on stage with Tim Bull (later a dancer with Mr Jorrocks Morris, and melodeon-player with the dance band Florida) and, if memory serves, Terry’s older brother Gary, and Matthew Vafidis, older brother of the aforementioned Barnaby. They had with them a big book of songs by Beethoven, but what they sang – unaccompanied – was ‘The Nutting Girl’.
Now I can’t claim that I had some sort of Damascene conversion (that came, if my chronology is right, some 8 or 9 months later, after seeing Steeleye Span on Top of the Pops). But the memory of having heard this song sung on the school stage has stayed with me.
I subsequently discovered that the boys were dancing with Headcorn Morris. And I think it’s a fair bet that they had learned this song from the performance by John Kirkpatrick on Morris On. It would be another 2 or 3 years before I heard that album, by which time I had already heard a field recording of ‘The Nutting Girl’ being sung by Cyril Poacher in the famous Blaxhall Ship. This was in a recording made by Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax in 1954, and included on the LP Songs of Seduction, which was the first record I borrowed on joining my local public library’s record department. It’s very much a live recording, with plenty of audience participation and, naturally, calls from the “Chairman” Wicketts Richardson for “order please”.
I’ve heard it said that Cyril had another pint before each new take of this song, which is why there is, as it were, a certain lack of continuity between the takes. In fact, in the notes to the Musical Traditions CD Plenty of Thyme Rod Stradling puts the number of takes as nineteen – in which case, it’s not surprising if Cyril seems slightly the worse for wear by the end; in fact it’s a wonder he was still standing at all!
Those notes also tell us that Cyril learned the song from his maternal grandfather, William ‘Cronie’ Ling:
My grandfather Cronie Ling would put me on his knee and sing The Nutting Girl – that was the first song I heard, and he used to let me smoke his pipe too.
From the photo below it would appear that not only the song, but also the pipe-smoking habit stayed with him.
Cyril Poacher – photo from the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust website
“The nut girl” broadside ballad from the Bodleian Library collection. Printed by J. Pitts, Seven Dials, London between 1819 and 1844.
The bonny labouring boy, from the Bodleian Library collection; printed by J.F. Nugent, & Co. (Dublin) between 1850 and 1899.
I first heard this on an Irish compilation LP which I borrowed from my local record library in the late 1970s. I remember little about the album, except that it featured the Sands Family, and Planxty doing ‘Three Drunken Maidens’. But thanks to the wonders of the internet I can now reveal that it must have been The Best Of Irish Folk, and the band doing this song was Aileach (me neither).
I didn’t actually learn the song from the record, but it was probably having heard the recording which prompted me to learn the song when I found it in Peter Kennedy’s massive tome, Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. It must have been around the same time as well that I saw the song being performed by Shirley and Dolly Collins, at a one-day festival at City University, featuring the entire roster of the Oglesby-Winder agency (i.e. pretty much all the top acts on the English folk scene). I’m slightly puzzled, when there is so much trivia, ephemera and nostalgia on the web, that I can’t seem to find any mention of this event. A post on Facebook this morning confirms that I didn’t dream the whole thing, and it turns out that a number of people with whom I am now friends were at the event. Initially noone seemed willing to commit to when it happened, but Chris Foster – who was on the bill – has just stated very confidently that it was in October 1978. He remembers it clearly because he’d just spent a week in the studio recording his second LP, All Things in Common.
Anyway, the version in Peter Kennedy’s book is from the great Harry Cox. You can hear him singing the song on the Topic double CD The Bonny Labouring Boy.
Collected by Cecil Sharp at Warehorne in Kent on the 23rd September 1908, from James Beale.
Other versions – George Maynard’s for instance – often have the female protagonist as “The Poor Old Weaver’s Daughter”.
I added the last verse, because otherwise the song ended with the line “May your prospect never be blighted”. That didn’t seem right when almost every other verse had ended with the phrase “poor old woodman’s daughter”. Actually, having seen other versions now, I realise that a simpler approach would have been to just switch Mr Beale’s last two verses around.