Recorded onto a phonograph cylinder by Australian musician, composer and (briefly) folk song collector Percy Grainger in 1908, this fragment of a song has continued to fascinate singers, arrangers and composers alike. It was first sung to Grainger by George Gouldthorpe at Brigg in July 1906 – see his transcription below from the EFDSS’s magnificent Full English archive. I learned the song from the (also magnificent) Leader LP Unto Brigg Fair: Joseph Taylor and Other Traditional Lincolnshire Singers Recorded in 1908 by Percy Grainger.
Mr Gouldthorpe was born around 1840 – he told Grainger he had “a vast of years” – and had lived most of his life in the place of his birth, Barrow-upon-Humber. He had worked as a lime-burner and, by 1908, after a spell in Brigg workhouse, had moved in with his sister at Goxhill. Regarding this move, Mr Gouldthorpe said “I was easier in my mind”. Which, as Bob Thomson comments in his notes to Unto Brigg Fair, “one suspects is a grim understatement of the circumstances”.
You can read about the background to the song itself on Reinhard Zierke’s Mainly Norfolk site and on this page on the Lincolnshire County Council website, part of a series of articles headed Legacy of Lincolnshire Songs. In short, nothing is known of the old miser “Steeleye” Span, or his foreman John Bowling, still less of this exchange of fisticuffs between them. Although the song has all the hallmarks of a local composition, it would seem that George Gouldthorpe may have got the names confused. With the expansion of local newspapers, court reports and other archival material on the web, it’s entirely possible that details will eventually emerge. Part of me hopes that they do. But another part of me feels that, maybe, it’s best if some mysteries just remain as mysteries,