When the EFDSS republished the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs as Classic English Folk Songs, they got it just about right. Certainly it’s the classic collection of English folk songs, and as a result of their inclusion in the book many of the songs in it have become staples of the folk revival. And there are some real gems: ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’, ‘The Blacksmith’, ‘Death and the Lady’, ‘The Grey Cock’, ’Lovely Joan’…
I’d put ‘Salisbury Plain’ right up there with the best of them: for me it’s the epitome of a classic English folk song. It has a fantastic modal tune, and the words are wonderfully evocative. The male lead, though a rogue, is clearly something of a charmer
As I walked over Salisbury Plain,
Oh, there I met a scamping young blade.
He kissed me and enticèd me so
Till along with him I was forced for to go.
Clearly you could interpret the word “forced” to mean that the narrator was subject to physical coercion. But the way I read the song, she was just swept off her feet, and ultimately found the scamping young blade irresistible.
And the last verse – especially the slightly oblique last line – is, well, classic.
Read the expanded notes on the song in Classic English Folk Songs however, and you soon realise that, not for the first time, this classic owes more than a little to the editorial interventions of A.L.Lloyd. The Penguin edition makes clear that the tune given was collected by Vaughan Williams from Mr and Mrs Verrall, from Horsham in 1904, while RVW had the words from their near neighbour, Henry Burstow (incidentally, can this really be the first song I’ve posted here from the great Henry Burstow? shameful, if so). But now we learn that
the editors have modified Mr Burstow’s text in places, and omitted the final verse:
So now young men a warning take by me,
And never keep those flash girls company,
For if that you do you will rue,
And you will die upon the high drop at last.
Well it’s good to have the full facts available, and it would appear that it’s fairly easy to determine the extent of Bert Lloyd’s intervention here – which is sadly not the case with many of the other songs he introduced to the folk scene (‘Reynardine’, ‘Weaver and the Factory Maid’, ‘Recruited Collier’ and ‘Lucy Wan’ spring to mind). And while one can regret that Lloyd was often less than transparent when he “improved” a traditional song, it’s hard to fault his artistic judgement – in most cases it seems he really did improve on the originals. There’s nothing wrong with Henry Burstow’s final verse, but I have no hesitation in saying this song is more effective without it.
Incidentally, I first heard this song sung unaccompanied by Martin Carthy on the LP Prince Heathen, and I’d rate it as one of the finest performances of Martin’s recording career.