When I discovered the Boys of the Lough in the late seventies, one of the things I liked most about the band was the pure, clear, high tenor singing of Cathal McConnell. A year or two later at the Sidmouth Festival – I’m guessing 1979 or 1980 – I came across a singer with a similar style, but who I would rate even higher. That singer was Kevin Mitchell, born in Derry, but for a long time a resident of Glasgow. I had no hesitation in buying his Topic LP Free and Easy when I subsequently came across it in Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford and, as I recall, I didn’t waste much time in learning this song from it.
The LP sleeve notes say
Known better as The Airy Bachelor or The Black Horse (O Lochlainn, ”lrish Street Ballads”, no. 17) this has been widely distributed on ballad sheets and is common, especially in Donegal, whence this version obtained from John McCracken of Innishowen. The “Songs of the People” contains a song called The Hungry Army. The title is, intended or not, a pun; the army composed of underpaid, badly treated, hungry men, or the army hungry for recruits to replace those who fell in battle, deserted, died under the lash or from disease. Sergeant Acheson is just such a recruiting officer as contrived by dint of cajolery, chicanery or sometimes criminality to feed it. The Black Horse is, according to Sam Henry (“Songs of the PeopIe”, no. 586), a by-name for the 7th Dragoon Guards – The Princess Royals.
Several printed versions can be found at Ballads Online, with titles such as A new song called the Black Horse or A Much-admired Song Called the Black Horse. All the versions collected from the oral tradition are, unsurprisingly, Irish, with the exception of the rather confused fragment, You Lads of Learning, recorded in Ludlow from May Bradley.
Kevin Mitchell is, as far as I know, still singing like an angel, although it’s unfortunately some years since I last saw him. I have a very distinct memory of a singing session at the National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington in the early 1990s, when the Sussex singer Gordon Hall – a big, bluff man, but a real softy on the inside – was moved almost to tears by the beauty of Kevin’s singing.
The Light Horse