It feels like I’ve known this song for ever, although in truth it can’t be more than about – oh – 37 years…
I first heard it performed by Fred and Ray Cantwell on the Topic LP Songs of Seduction. Typically, the version included on that LP had lost more than half its verses; I must have got the missing verses from Peter Kennedy’s book Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. Kennedy had recorded the Cantwell family at Standlake in Oxfordshire in 1956. I’d always assumed that Fred and Ray were brothers, but looking at the entries for the Kennedy recordings in the British Library Sound Archive catalogue, it seems that there was a brother Ray (75 years old in 1956, and a couple of years older than Fred) and it was these brothers who sang the version of ‘Husbandman and Servingman’ later popularised by the Young Tradition. But the accordion-playing Ray on this song was a much younger man, Fred’s son. There’s a Mudcat thread with a contribution from Fred Cantwell’s granddaughter, where it’s stated that Fred had eight sons. From Mudcat I learn also that Greg Stephens has fond memories of hearing one of these sons, Aubrey, singing this song in a pub in Standlake in the 1960s, while the Roud Index reveals that Gwilym Davies recorded a few songs from John and Aubrey Cantwell in the late seventies. Gwilym tells me that he met John and Aubrey when they were living in Stonehouse in Gloucestershire in the seventies: “we had several lively pub sessions together. I have some recordings from then, but they are fairly noisy pub sessions”. These recordings are deposited with the British Library but, like those made by Kennedy, not yet digitised and publicly available online.
I’ve always thought of this song as a bit of a hackneyed old number, and it may well have been in the sixties but, to be honest, I can’t recall ever having heard anyone else sing it. Maybe it’s just the tune which is hackneyed, thanks (or rather, no thanks) to the Yetties. In any case, I’ve always really enjoyed singing it. And, although I suppose it’s actually a song of seduction and betrayal, I like to sing it “so sweet and tenderly” as if it were an innocent pastoral love song.
I’m pleased to report that on the Rounder CD reissue of Songs of Seduction we are treated to four verses (the usual third verse being omitted). Annoyingly the sloppily-edited CD notes still show just two verses, with the other three italicised and labelled “Additional verses”. So did Fred only sing four verses, and Kennedy has restored the missing verse from elsewhere? Or did he normally sing five verses, but only four on this occasion? Or did he actually sing all five verses and, even with all the space available on a compact disc, Kennedy / Rounder still decided to edit one out for the record? I’m not the only one to be irritated by all of this. But, like Rod Stradling, I was really pleased when I got hold of this record on CD – especially as, when I first heard it back in the seventies, it was, apart from the Copper Family, the first time I’d heard field recordings of traditional British singers; listening to the songs again 25 years later reminded me just what an influence hearing the old LP had had on me.
And being able to hear two more verses of this song, at least, was a treat: it’s a fine spirited performance from Mr Cantwell, where he is clearly enjoying himself – after singing the line “Now I’m going to India for seven long year” the singer calls out excitedly “I been there!” (as a soldier, too, one might assume, although that’s pure speculation). And we do also get to hear that he inserts a short whistled refrain between each verse. Indeed the notes contain this rather wonderful sentence
Fred Cantwell said emphatically, as he finished the recording, ‘It ain’t much now, but I used to be able to whistle just exactly like a nightingale when I had my teeth.’
I can’t whistle like a nightingale. But I’ve never been able to resist adding a little whistled coda at the end of the song. Well it worked for Otis Redding…
The Nightingales Sing