‘Rose of Allandale. A Favorite Ballad’. Published by Thomas Birch, 95 Canal Street, New York. From the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection.
I’m not sure who I first heard singing the song. I have a vague recollection that it was the Coppers themselves on a Radio 2 broadcast. Or perhaps Nic Jones (on the Bandoggs LP), or the Oyster Band’s John Jones at a pub session.
While the Coppers repeat the last line of each verse as a refrain, I sing the same chorus throughout. I have, however, retained the Coppers’ somewhat irregular timing in the chorus. And I have it on good authority from Pete Collins, who was once privileged to sing bass with the Copper Family, that Bob would have approved of the fact that I sing “Dale” with two syllables.
It was down near Miltown Malbay,
Not a thousand miles from Galway,
When I was young and merry
In the breezy hills of Clare,
That I spied a colleen comely,
With winsome ways and homely
And she driving in a donkey-cart
And she going to the fair.
Micho picked up this song from the singing of his father, Austin. This is, without a doubt, one of the most popular songs sung in Clare today. It was written by the poet, schoolteacher, and Gaelic scholar, Tomás Ó hAodha (1866 – 1935) of Miltown Malbay. It first appeared in a collection of his poems entitled ‘The Hills of Clare’, published circa 1922. In common with many singers Micho has compressed the original twelve verses into a more singable seven.
The tune is ‘The Stack of Barley’.
Micho Russell. Copyright: RTÉ Stills Library
My friend Nick came across a two-verse parody of this song where “the crossest man in Clare” had become “the coarsest man in Clare” – and his daughter had, to judge by the lyrics, inherited his rough tongue.
I learned this from The Watersons’ 1966 LP The Watersons. A.L.Lloyd’s sleevenotes to the album mention “the collection of English songs made by William Alexander Barrett and published in 1891” without specifically saying that’s where the Watersons got their version from. But actually, thanks to the Internet Archive, we can see that what they sing is very close to what Barrett printed in his English Folk Songs.
The punch ladle – late nineteenth century broadside from the Bodleian collection.
I have heard Jackie Oates sing one of the versions in Sabine Baring-Gould’s collection, which seemed to be less bumptious and rather more reflective. I couldn’t be sure if those qualities were inherent in the song itself, or just the way she sang it; either way, it was very pleasant to hear.
It’s Week 150, and here to celebrate is the song which is number 2 in Steve Roud’s index (bizarrely I don’t currently sing a version of Roud number 1). There are 219 examples listed, but no doubt the number could be much higher. Starting life in the late eighteenth century as a “homilectic street ballad… concerning the death and ceremonial funeral of a soldier “disordered” by a woman” (A.L.Lloyd’s notes, Penguin Book of English Folk Songs) the song has spread all over the English-speaking world, and the expiring principal character has metamorphosed from an Unfortunate Rake or Unfortunate Lad to an Unfortunate Lass, a Sailor Cut Down in his Prime, Dying Airman, Dying Stockman, Cowboy, Gambler… while the location might range from St James’ Hospital, to St James’ Infirmary, down by the Royal Albion, the Banks of the Clyde, Cork City, the Streets of Laredo…
The Unfortunate Lad, broadside printed by Such between 1863 and 1885, from the Bodleian collection.
The very first version I heard would have been ‘When I was on Horseback’, on the Steeleye Span album Ten Man Mop. That version, recorded in the 1950s from Irish tinker Mary Doran, is rather minimalist: if you don’t already know the story it’s hard to work out exactly what’s going on (incidentally you can hear Mary Doran’s stunning version on the recently-released Topic CD set The Flax in Bloom). A bit later I came across ‘St James’ Infirmary’ in the Penguin Book of American Folk Songs edited by Alan Lomax. It’s a song I’ve always meant to learn, but never have (although I can play the chords on the ukulele). Then I heard another version, in the shape of ‘The Bad Girl’ on Fiddler’s Dram’s eponymous post-‘Bangor’ LP (it’s actually one of several pretty good tracks on the album).
I don’t suppose I connected these songs at the time; that realisation came later (and, later still, the history and evolution of the song was covered in some depth by David Atkinson in the first of the EFDSS’s short-lived Root & Branch series).
I had planned for many years to learn Harry Upton’s ‘Royal Albion’ (or possibly Alf Wildman’s similar ‘The Banks of the Clyde’) but again never got round to it. Then I came across this version, and very soon realised it was a song I had to learn – especially when I found I could sing it in D minor, and it just fits like a dream on the C/G anglo.
The tune was collected by Cecil Sharp from Shadrack ‘Shepherd’ Haden, at Bampton in Oxfordshire. It is printed, along with two others, in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society number 17, in 1913. Sharp does not seem to have collected more than the first verse from Shepherd Haden; the five verses given in the Journal were noted by Francis Jekyll at East Meon in Hampshire (the singer’s name is not given). I put together a composite set of words from various sources, including the Hampshire version – which is also the version included in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
“Sailor Cut Down In His Prime” collected from Shepherd Haden 21 Aug 1909, from the EFDSS Full English archive.
Although I’ve been singing this for a few years now, I’ve not actually performed it in public that often, and the accompaniment is still quite fluid: I recorded it three times for this blog, and played the ending differently each time. Still not sure which one I prefer, so if you see me singing this at a gig, it might have changed again.