The servingman the plowman would invite
To leave his calling and to take delight ;
But he to that by no means will agree,
Lest he thereby should come to beggary.
He makes it plain appear a country life
Doth far excel : and so they end the strife
Dixon & Bell, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England (1857)
Here’s another one from the Cantwell family of Standlake in Oxfordshire (see last week’s entry) which Peter Kennedy recorded from the brothers Fred and Ray in November 1956.
A different – part-sung, part-spoken – variant of the song is performed at the end of the Symondsbury Mummers’ play. Kennedy recorded that also in the 1950s; you can hear a more recent recording made by Bob Patten of both the play and the song on the British Library Sound Archive website. In fact a search of the Roud Index / Full English suggests that versions of this song were widespread in the South of England. Lucy Broadwood included it in both English County Songs and Sussex Songs. Her version was reproduced from Davies Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols -see www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/servingman_and_the_husbandman.htm. The song appeared in The Loyal Garland (1686), and is in the Roxburghe Collection; Malcolm Douglas’ notes to the song quote Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad, as dating it to “1665 or earlier”.
A similar version to the Cantwells’ was performed by Janet Blunt’s indefatigable informant William Walton of Adderbury in North Oxfordshire, sometimes with the assistance of Samuel Newman – the song is, after all, clearly designed to be performed by two people.
When we were assembling material for inclusion on the Magpie Lane CD, The Oxford Ramble. I think I suggested this song, knowing of its Oxfordshire connections. In fact Ian Giles already knew the song, having learned it from the Young Tradition LP Galleries. I’d also heard it on that record (or rather on Galleries Revisited – I’m a bit younger than Ian!) but made a point of getting hold of the Cantwells’ version, on one of those dreadful, tatty old Folktrax cassettes. I was not particularly surprised to learn that Peter Bellamy and Royston Wood had in fact recorded a fairly faithful reproduction of the song as sung by Ray and Fred Cantwell.
Below you will find a video of Ian and me singing the song at the first ever Magpie Lane concert in 1993, and then again – having revived the song after a long lay-off – at a concert in Bampton Church last autumn.
Husbandman and Servingman
Magpie Lane: Ian Giles, Andy Turner, Sophie Thurman, Jon Fletcher, Mat Green – vocals
St Mary’s Church, Bampton, 21st September 2013.
Magpie Lane: Ian Giles and Andy Turner – vocals
Banbury Bill: Mat Green – fiddle
As I was going to Banbury: Ian Giles – vocal; Pete Acty – mandola; Jo Acty – vocal; Isobel Dams – cello; Tom Bower – side drum; Mat Green – fiddle; Andy Turner – C/G anglo-concertina.
Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 3rd May 1993.