I learned this song from the Cornish traveller Charlotte Renals, who is featured along with her sisters Betsy Renals and Sophie Legg on the Veteran cassette Catch me if you Can (now available in expanded form as VT119CD). Her version has several two and three line verses. I’ve filled in the gaps, and put the verses in a more logical order, with the help of a very complete set of words collected by Cecil Sharp in August 1905 from Captain Robert Lewis of Minehead in Somerset.
In Charlotte Renals’ version the male protagonist is Captain Walters. A perfectly respectable name. But in Captain Lewis’ version the bounder’s name is Captain Thunderbold:
My name is Captain Thunderbold
It’s a name I will ne’er deny
Well why would you deny a name like that? And how could I resist including it in the song?
Looking at the numerous broadside versions available via Broadside Ballads Online the name seems to be universally given as ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ and this is the title Phoebe Smith has for her version of the song.
The Shannon Side – broadside from the Bodleian collection, printed by H. Such, between 1863 and 1885.
I had let this song lapse for several years, but recently relearned it, and I must say it’s good to have the song back in my repertoire.
Last Christmas I was taken to task for failing to mention, when I wrote about ‘This is the truth sent from above’, the version collected, and subsequently arranged for choir, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. That version, noted from a Mr Jenkins at King’s Pyon in Herefordshire, has, I have to admit, a rather wonderful melody. But actually variants of the same melody seem to have been used elsewhere in the Welsh border counties for other carol texts. I have a four-part arrangement which I hope to post some time of a version of ‘On Christmas Night All Christians Sing’, collected in Shropshire by Cecil Sharp, and which is clearly a variant of Mr Jenkins’ tune. And here’s another variant, once again from Herefordshire, recorded in 1909 by Vaughan Williams and E.M. Leather from Mr W. Hancock (or Hancocks) at Weobley.
The tune and first verse of the carol were printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol 4 No 14 (1910), alongside numerous other really fine carols collected by Vaughan Williams. The notes for this piece say “Noted by R. Vaughan Williams, from a Phonograph Record”. I have completed the words with a further five verses (out of an available twelve) from A Good Christmas Box, a collection printed at Dudley in the West Midlands in 1847. It would seem that the song was not infrequently classed as a Christmas carol, as can be seen from these examples from the Bodleian and Full English collections, but it’s clearly a Passiontide piece. Referring back to the Journal article, I was glad to see that Ella Leather concurs: she notes
It is a great favourite with Herefordshire singers, and was formerly sung at Christmas, although the subject is clearly the Crucifixion and not the Nativity.
The Fountain Of Christ’s Blood, from the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.
Having learned and recorded ‘Jack Williams’ a couple of months ago, this was to have been my second new song of 2014. So far, however, all attempts to din the words into my head have proved fruitless. I have occasionally, when recording songs for this blog, had the words in front of me as a safety net; this is the first time they’ve been an essential prop. I wanted to put the song online now though, as it’s appropriate for Easter, and I’m not sure that I have enough songs to keep this blog going till Easter next year!
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
My mate Bob, a man of many and varied musical enthusiasms, recently contacted me with the following:
I was knocked sideways by the unexpected sound of Shirley Collins’ voice on a recent Freak Zone, Stuart Maconie’s late night celebration of the exotic, esoteric and the little heard end of the popular music spectrum. And yes, much of it is little heard for very good reason.
She was singing a Methodist hymn called Idumea on an album called Black Ships Ate the Sky by an experimental music group called Current 93, the creative vehicle of a man called David Tibet since the 80’s.
Black Ships Ate the Sky features several versions of Idumea, each with a different vocalist but Collins’ version is the pick… It is clearly not the voice of a young woman but she holds the tune effortlessly and, more importantly, delivers a huge emotional hit. In this regard, I was reminded of the first time I heard the aged Johnny Cash singing Hurt.
I’ve had a listen to most of the album on Spotify, and I have to confess that Bob was spot on when he predicted that much of it would not be to my taste. But I can well understand how David Tibet (or indeed anyone) would be very taken with this powerful hymn.
I have a facsimile of an 1860 printing of The Sacred Harp where the source of the words is given as the Methodist Hymn Book p231. More modern editions of The Sacred Harp credit the author of the words, the great English non-conformist poet and hymn-writer Charles Wesley. You will find the full words as printed in The Sacred Harp at http://fasola.org/indexes/1991/?p=47b but Wesley wrote more than four verses – you can see a further two four-line verses under Hymn LIX in Wesley’s Hymns for Children, 1763 (Hymns for Children! with an opening line “And am I born to die” – they didn’t pussyfoot around with children in those days!) while the version printed in the Wesleyan Hymn Book of 1779 has six eight-line stanzas.
And Am I Born to Die? Hymn 41 in the Wesleyan Hymn Book. From the Internet Archive.
The composer of the tune is given as Ananias Davisson, 1816 (Although it’s possible he just harmonised a traditional tune – and it’s worth pointing out that in the nineteenth hymn books the arrangement of this song, as with many others, has only three harmony parts: the alto was added in the twentieth century). The index of composers at http://fasola.org/indexes/1991/?v=composer suggests that this is the only Ananias Davisson composition in The Sacred Harp, although there are others, no doubt, in the Kentucky Harmony, which he compiled.
Idumea, from The Sacred Harp.
I think I first heard Idumea on the Watersons’ LP Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, then a little later on the Young Tradition’s Galleries Revisited. Unlike the Watersons, the YT sing the proper harmonies (i.e. those in the book), but they don’t get the rhythm quite right. These days, of course, you can find countless versions of Idumea on the web. Here it is in its natural habitat, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1982 at Holly Springs, Georgia.
Note how many of the participants are clearly suffering somewhat in the sweltering Georgia heat, but the man in the suit and tie in the front row seems impervious to everything but the singing.
Elsewhere on YouTube, there’s a less impressive vocal performance, but with the added benefit of Lego:
(Thanks to Adrian Russell for alerting me to that one)
Clearly there are many ways this song can be interpreted. Here’s Cordelia’s Dad, live at Sidmouth in 2010:
That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Some might even think it sacrilegious, or disrespectful, or gimmicky. But that would be a mistake: lead vocalist Tim Eriksen and bassist Cath Oss are vastly knowledgeable about this music, and have been immersed in Shape Note singing for years. If you have the Cold Mountain soundtrack, you’ll have heard Tim singing Idumea solo, to his own fiddle accompaniment. And if you’ve seen the film (and frankly, if not, why not?) you will surely remember the way Idumea is used early in the film as a wonderfully effective musical backdrop to the scenes of post-battle devastation at Petersburg. Tim Eriksen coordinated the Sacred Harp singing on that film, and insisted that the recording should be made at a real Sacred Harp singing, at the Liberty Baptist Church in Alabama.
I believe it is the recording from Cold Mountain that has been used once again to provide a moving accompaniment to images of Native Americans on this final YouTube video:
Did I say final YouTube video? Let’s have one more performance full of emotion before you get to hear me sing Idumea.
Learned from the singing of Walter Pardon, via his debut LP, A Proper Sort. And it’s a particularly fine performance by Walter as well – you can hear the same recording, made in 1974 by Bill Leader and Peter Bellamy, on Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land (The Voice of the People Volume 4).
Van Diemen’s Land, in case anyone is unaware, was the former name for Tasmania. I retain Walter Pardon’s pronunciation of “Die-man” rather than the more usual “Dee-man”. There are actually two related, but distinct, songs which share the title Van Diemen’s Land. Roy Palmer believes that this one – Roud 221, originally Young Henry the Poacher – may have been a sequel to the original Van Diemen’s Land, Roud 519. Writing in the Folk Music Journal in 1976, Roy argued that both songs were prompted by two major trials of poachers in Warwickshire, in 1829. This followed the enactment of a new law in 1828 which stated that “if three men were found in a wood, and one of them carried a gun or bludgeon, all were liable to be transported for fourteen years” (FMJ Vol 3 No 2, p161). This ballad in particular, Roy says, appears to have been influenced by the events in Warwickshire.
Young Henry the poacher – ballad sheet printed by H Such between 1863 and 1885; from the Bodleian collection via Ballads Online.
I have a very distinct memory of singing this song at “One for Ron”, an event held to celebrate the life of Sussex singer Ron Spicer, a year or so after his death. There was a massive singaround in the afternoon – it must have gone on for around 3 hours, but there were so many singers present that hardly anyone got the chance to sing more than one song. When I got to the chorus of this one, I started to sing it in my normal way
Young men, all now beware
Lest you are drawn into a snare
But I quickly realised that a stronger force was at work in the room. In the far corner sat the mighty Gordon Hall – a big man, with a big voice. Gordon never liked to rush a song, and his way of singing the chorus was more like
Young men, a—-ll now bewa——re [pause]
Lest you are drawn int–o a sna——-re
There was nothing to do but go with the flow, and sing it at Gordon’s pace. Which was, clearly, the right way to sing it!