I’m yet to hear a bad version of this song, I think. Whether it be from traditional singers such as Charlie Scamp, Pop Maynard or Amy Birch; or revivalists such as Nic Jones, John Jones with the Oyster Ceilidh Band or – my current favourite – Jackie Oates.
This version originates with Sussex concertina-player Scan Tester, but I learned it from Bob Davenport, via the Bob Davenport and the Rakes LP, 1977. You can hear recordings of Scan himself singing the song on I Never Played to Many Posh Dances, and on O’er His Grave the Grass Grew Green (Voice of the People Vol. 3).
The lakes of Cold Finn, from the Bodleian Library collection; printed by Henry Such, London, between 1863 and 1885.
This week I was going to post the Copper Family’s ‘Sheepshearing Song’. However when I looked on the net to get some background information, I discovered that actually I’d already done that song almost exactly a year ago! My memory’s not what it was, you know…
I’ve often puzzled over the last verse: what was the white robe the singer used to wear, and why did the girl’s parents look down on him him for wearing it? was he some kind of a priest, or a member of the Carmelite order?
Having seen the ballad sheet shown below from the Bodleian Library, I think the answer is more prosaic. The last verse here (sung from the woman’s perspective) is
Why did you banish my true love from me?
Why did he die and I never see him more?
Because that my parents look’d slightly on him
They robbed me of the lad I adore
So I suspect “robbed” has at some point been misheard as “robed”, and from there we get the Coppers’
But it was her cruel parents that looked so slightly on me,
All for the white robe that I once used to wear.
‘The lad I adore’ – broadside ballad from the Bodleian Library’s collection, printed by J. Marshall, Newcastle, between 1810 and 1831.
The reference in the penultimate verse, incidentally, to playing on the pipes of ivory is, I’m assured a “delicate euphemism for lovemaking”. Caroline Jackson-Houlston, who sings a Dorset version of this song, pointed this out to me many years ago; you can read more on this in her article Thomas Hardy’s Use of Traditional Song in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Dec., 1989), pp. 301-334.
I was given this song by Dave Townsend. Back in 1994 Dave invited Ian Giles and myself to be guest vocalists (alongside Sally Dexter and the wonderful Julie Murphy) on the Mellstock band album Songs of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex on Saydisc. We spent a very enjoyable two days at David Wilkins’ house-cum-studio overlooking the River Severn, and I have to say I really like the album. Dave Townsend had (typically) found a collection of lesser-known versions of songs mentioned in Hardy’s works – wherever possible versions from Dorset – and provided them with interesting and effective arrangements. And though I say it myself, I was in particularly good voice those two days in May.
On the record the arrangement for this song featured English concertina, violin, cello and vox humana (hello Charles, if you’re reading this) with, if I’m not very much mistaken, a nod towards Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending. I have occasionally performed it since then as an unaccompanied piece. I’d not sung it for ages, but it came into my mind a week or so again and I was reminded what a lovely song it is. Then, as luck would have it, I had the pleasure of seeing Ian Giles sing it on Friday night, accompanied by Dave Townsend on concertina. Folk club organisers please take note: after you’ve given me a booking, Ian and Dave should be next on your list.
The song itself was collected from Robert Barratt of Piddletown, Dorset, by Henry Hammond in June 1906.
“The Grey Cock”, collected by Henry Hammond from Robert Barratt of Piddletown, Dorset. Image copyright EFDSS.
In previous posts I’ve mentioned the Shropshire singer Fred Jordan, but I think this is the only song I sing which I learned directly from him. I used to see Fred a fair bit in the eighties and early nineties at festivals such as Sidmouth and – especially – the National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington. I was very taken with Fred’s singing of this song, and asked him to sing it one year in a singing session at Sutton Bonington. He readily obliged and, typically, even apologised afterwards for having muffed the words slightly.
Yet another song from Fred’s mother, although Fred probably also heard the Irish singer Margaret Barry performing it at English festivals. Surprisingly, we can find no trace of an author for the words, although the tune is well-known under a number of different titles, including Eochaill—which is the Irish name for the town of Youghal—or else Boolavogue.
One of my all-time favourite records is Selected Jigs Reels And Songs by De Danann. Of course Frankie Gavin’s fiddle and Alec Finn’s bouzouki were at the heart of the De Danann sound. But one of the things that makes this LP special is the singing of Johnny Moynihan, especially his two unaccompanied songs, ‘The Flower Of Sweet Strabane’ and ‘Barbara Allen’, both of which are simply sublime. Johnny’s version of ‘Barbara Allen’came from the County Armagh singer Sarah Makem. And if you’ve not heard her singing, do yourself a favour and get hold of the Topic CD The Heart Is True, which is as good a record of traditional singing as you’re likely to hear (then, if that just whets your appetite, you can move on to the 3-CD Musical Traditions set As I Roved Out).
This is not Mrs Makem’s gloomy minor key version however. I’d always meant to learn it, but never got further than writing out the words from the De Danann record. The version I actually sing comes (yet again) from Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring and was collected by Cecil Sharp in 1923, from William Pittaway of Burford in Oxfordshire. I’m not completely sure when I learned it, but I think it was probably in the early days of Magpie Lane, when I was very much on the look-out for Oxfordshire material. In fact this song was, briefly, in the band’s repertoire. Maybe it’s time to revive it – although I’ve a sneaky suspicion that I’ve grown too attached to singing it unaccompanied to like it any other way.
The song is, according to the notes in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs “far and away the most widely collected song in the English language”. It dates back to at least the mid-seventeenth century. Samuel Pepys heard it sung on 2nd January 1666:
to my Lord Bruncker’s, and there find Sir J. Minnes and all his company, and Mr. Boreman and Mrs. Turner, but, above all, my dear Mrs. Knipp, with whom I sang, and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of “Barbary Allen;”
Mrs Knipp was an actress, and predictably it was not just her singing that Sam Pepys admired:
Thence, it being post night, against my will took leave, but before I come to my office, longing for more of her company, I returned and met them coming home in coaches, so I got into the coach where Mrs. Knipp was and got her upon my knee (the coach being full) and played with her breasts and sung, and at last set her at her house and so good night.
The earliest known printed version of the ballad dates from around the same period; the ballad sheet shown here was printed in Newcastle c1760. This copy is from the Bodleian’s collection, but you’ll find another copy of the same ballad at the Huntingdon Digital Library.
“Barbara Allen’s cruelty: or the young man’s tragedy” from the Bodleian Library collection.