Those of you who sometimes find life imitating High Fidelity may have been asked to list your top five opening tracks on albums. My list would certainly include ‘I saw her standing there’ and ‘Country Home’ (Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Ragged Glory). Perhaps ‘The Kesh Jig’ etc. (The Bothy Band, The Bothy Band) and ‘Shirley’ (Billy Bragg, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry). And definitely ‘Canadee-i-o’, the opening track on Nic Jones’ timeless classic Penguin Eggs. I first heard Nic play the song at a concert in Hertford College, Oxford in early 1980. Penguin Eggs was released later that year and of course I, like many others, played it over and over.
It was probably just a little bit later than that when I acquired a copy of the Topic LP Sussex Harvest, on which the opening track, funnily enough, is ‘Canadee-i-o’ – sung by Harry Upton from Balcombe, West Sussex, recorded by Mike Yates. I fairly soon decided to learn Harry Upton’s version, although it was probably some years later before I ever sung it in public – I always felt that the song wanted an accompaniment, but it took me a long time to work one out. In fact the accompaniment I play now has had several iterations over the years. I remember that I was always vaguely dissatisfied with it, but having recently come back to the song for the first time in about five years I’m much happier with it. So either I’ve got better at playing it, or I’ve improved it somehow, or my quality threshold has gone down.
On the excellent BBC Four documentary The Enigma of Nic Jones – Return of Britain’s Lost Folk Hero there were several sequences where Harry Upton’s ‘Canadee-i-o’ could be heard, behind film of the old blue-label Topic LP being played. I’m not sure if this was meant to suggest that Nic Jones learned the song from a recording of Harry Upton. If so, it’s further evidence, if any were needed, of Nic’s wonderful creative ability, as his wonderful rendition bears only a passing resemblance to the song as recorded from Harry Upton.
Mike Yates’s 1970s recording of Harry Upton singing ‘Canadee-i-o’ can now be found on the Musical Traditions CD Up in the North and Down in the South. Mike’s notes tell us that Harry, a retired cowman, had learned ‘Canadee-i-o’ from his father, a Downsland shepherd. Apparently he and his father would sometimes sing together in harmony. It is also interesting to note that “like the Copper Family, Harry had many of his songs in manuscript form, often in his father’s handwriting, and had owned a collection of broadsides, mainly printed in the 1880s by the daughter of Henry Parker Such, of the Borough in south London. Bought originally in Brighton, these had also been inherited from his parents”.
The Roud Index shows that this song was popular on broadsides, and has been collected throughout the British Isles. Had I not already had a version of the song in my repertoire I might well have been tempted to learn the version collected by Francis Collinson from Mr Newport of Boughton Aluph, a village just outside my home town of Ashford in Kent. Perhaps some seafaring, folksong-singing Kentish resident who follows this blog might like to give it a go? If it helps, there’s a transcription of the tune and words on Folkopedia.
Andy Turner: vocal, C?G anglo-concertina