At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender… but the legend lived on, of course, and his years of exile on the lonely Isle of St Helena provided further material for those who sought to romanticise the man in verse or song. I think this is a rather fine – if typically confused – example of such pieces. I first heard it in the late 1970s, on a Strawhead LP lent to me by my friend Simon Oliver. A few years later, on a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, I looked the song up, and copied it out from the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol. 2 (1906). Vaughan Williams had collected the song in 1904, from Henry Burstow (born 1826) of Horsham in Sussex,. There are several examples of nineteenth century broadside printings to be found at Ballads Online and the Full English but apart from Henry Burstow’s version (one of quite a number of Napoleonic songs in his repertoire) the song was only found twice by the early English collectors in oral tradition – once by Baring-Gould in Devon, and by Vaughan Williams, again, in Norfolk. In more recent times, versions have been recorded in Ireland from Elizabeth Cronin of Cork in the 1950s, and from Tom Costello of Connemara in 1972 (the latter can be heard on Volume 8 of The Voice of the People). Gordon Hall (who of course had a strong connection with, and interest in, Henry Burstow) sang the song on the Veteran CD When The May Is All In Bloom. In the sleevenotes to that CD John Howson notes
As the broadside versions mention Napoleon Bonaparte’s death, this ballad must date from sometime after 1821. Both Harkness of Preston and Such of London published the song in about 1840 but it was probably based on an earlier broadside ballad called The Grand Conversation under the Rose. Perhaps due to the popularity of the Napoleon ballad, they both, some time later published The Grand Conversation on Nelson.
There’s an interesting article on this, and other pro-Napoleon ballads, on the Musical Traditions site –The Grand Conversation: Napoleon and British Popular Balladry, by the always-readable Vic Gammon.
Well there we are then: two hundred consecutive weeks of songs on this blog. When I started I guessed that I knew about 150 songs. A little while ago I revised my estimate up to 200, and now I’m thinking the total might be nearer 250. In fact the number keeps increasing: next week’s song (yet more Napoleon) is a song I’ve only learned in the last few weeks. To those of you who have followed this blog over the years, and made supportive or constructive comments, many many thanks – it has meant a lot to me.
The Grand Conversation on Napoleon