Another one from John Kirkpatrick. This was on his 1984 solo LP, Three In A Row: The English Melodeon, which featured mainly self-composed tunes played on one- and two-row melodeons, and three-row button accordion. And which is probably the record I would pull out if I ever had to demonstrate why John is not only my favourite anglo player, but also my favourite melodeon player.
There are two songs on the album: a lovely version of ‘A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, and this fine love song. If you saw John performing this at the time, you may remember that the accordion accompaniment featured his unique “hammering on” style. Not able to match that, I sing it unaccompanied.
This was number 286 in Professor Child’s list. But it’s not one of the “big ballads”, and the storyline (disappointingly, I’m sure, for ballad aficionados) has no incest, fratricide, sororicide, filicide, prolicide or suicide. Indeed the song is often sung to a fairly jaunty tune, and I must admit that, when planning a setlist, this is usually included in the “jolly songs with chorus” category. Having said that, stop to think about it for a while and you realise that the death toll is actually quite high.
This version comes from the Sussex fisherman Johnny Doughty, although I learned it from Everyman’s Book of British Ballads, edited by Roy Palmer. At the time I suspect I’d never heard Johnny Doughty singing, although subsequently I saw him singing a number of times at Sidmouth and the National Folk Music Festival. He was a real entertainer, who relished being the centre of attention. His performances were punctuated by sly winks, and asides to his wife sat in the front row, especially when the topic of “a drop of treacle” arose (as I recall, his favourite tipple was a pint of Guinness).
Johnny Doughty. Photo by Doc Rowe, from the Musical Traditions article “Johnny Doughty… an interview with Vic Smith”
A recording of this song made by Mike Yates was included on the Topic LP Round Rye Bay for more, and I think I must have heard that at some point in the early eighties. I never owned a copy, however, until earlier this year when I was sorting through my parents’ record collection and, to my surprise, found a copy of the album snuck in amongst the country dance bands, the Tim Laycock, the Strawhead, the Max Bygraves, and Your One Hundred Best Tunes compilations.
Mike Yates’s notes on Round Rye Bay for more (quoted at mainlynorfolk.info) provide this background on the song’s origins:
Sir Walter Rawleigh has built a ship in the Netherlands,
Sir Walter Rawleigh has built a ship in the Netherlands,
And it is called the Sweet Trinity,
And was taken by the false gallaly,
Sailing in the Lowlands.
So begins a blackletter broadside [Version A in Child], “shewing how the famous ship called the Sweet Trinity was taken by a false Gally, and how it was again restored by the craft of a little sea-boy, who sunk the Gally,” that was printed during the period 1682-85 by Joshua Conyers, “at the Black-Raven, the 1st shop in Fetter-lane, next Holborn.”
The history books appear to have missed this particular episode in Raleigh’s life—no doubt because it was a flight of Conyers’, or some other unknown printer’s, imagination; a simple attempt to increase sales by the addition of a romantic and well-known name to an otherwise commonplace tale. Whatever the origin, the ballad certainly caught the popular imagination with the result that more than a hundred sets have been collected throughout England, Scotland, America and Australia. Johnny’s final couplet is, to my knowledge, unique to his version.
Johnny Doughty’s unique ending was a half-verse
Was there ever half a tale so sad
As this tale of the sea
Where we sailed by the lowlands low?
If I were learning the song today, I would almost certainly keep that in. But 30-odd years ago for some reason I found it unsatisfactory, so I made up my own, somewhat tongue-in-cheek final verse, in which the young cabin boy wreaks terrible revenge on the perfidious captain and his crew. Which, of course, increases the death toll even more…
The Golden vanity, or The low lands low. Such ballad from the Bodleian collection.
This song was written by John Kirkpatrick, but I learned it from Martin Carthy’s 1971 LP Landfall. The song is written in the extremely rare Locrian mode. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only song I’ve ever heard in that mode. It’s only recently that I’ve got my head round the modes (and I still can’t exactly remember which one’s which). But to check out for yourself what the Locrian sounds like, play a scale on a piano keyboard, starting on a B and using only the white notes. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? And yet, somehow, while there is a certain strangeness about the tune of ‘Dust to Dust’, it doesn’t sound completely outlandish or contrived (and it’s just right for the macabre subject matter of the song). John must still have been quite young when he wrote this piece. Early twenties, I’d guess. I don’t know if there was anything in particular that prompted him to write this, or if it was just an interesting challenge for a budding songwriter. When I learned the song – in my early twenties – I’d had very little exposure to death. As the years roll by, however, we are all inevitably affected by death, and it has become increasingly apparent that, not only has John Kirkpatrick concocted a wonderfully memorable tune, but there’s also a lot of wisdom in the words of this song . My Mum died earlier this year, but she had lived to a fairly ripe old age, was very frail, and had dementia, so her death was a welcome release (indeed a close family friend referred to her funeral as a “joyous celebration”, which is exactly what it was). The deaths that have affected me most deeply have been those of my musical friends, Howard Salt and Dave Parry, both from cancer; and babies Edmund (still-born) and Patrick (born with cystic fibrosis, lived just a few weeks) who both died at a time when we were expecting our second child, and only months after my Dad’s death from cancer. Death come early, death come late… The song’s lyrics draw very heavily, of course, on words from the Anglican funeral service, and other biblical passages. The refrain is from the Order for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer:
Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the Priest shall say, FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
while the lines
Rich and poor all go the same, I’ll bury you all there is no favour. Don’t spend your life in seeking gain, No gold from death will ever save you
remind me of this wonderful verse from Sternhold and Hopkins’ “Old Version” of Psalm 39
Man walketh like a shade, and doth in vain himself annoy, In getting goods, and cannot tell who shall the same enjoy.
And the whole song (like this traditional song) shares the sentiment of this passage from the Anglican burial service:
When they come to the grave, while the corpse is made ready to be laid into the earth, the Priest shall say, or the Priest and Clerks shall sing: MAN that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death…
When my Dad died, I had been to only a couple of funerals, and had not particularly thought about what to expect. I was brought up sharp when, following behind the coffin, at the entrance to the Church the vicar intoned that passage. The truth contained in it was brought into sharper focus by the rather Gothic language (and not diminished by the fact that, personally, I have no sure and certain hope of eternal life). Twenty years on, at my Mum’s funeral, I don’t recall that passage being used – or if it was, it was in a more modern translation. But really, for the sheer majesty of the words, you can’t beat the Authorised Version.
The Sir John & Elizabeth Smythe memorial, St Mary’s Church, Ashford, Kent. Photo from geograph.org.uk
‘The Oyster Girl’ is a widely-collected song. Given my interest in songs with a Kentish connection, you might expect me to sing George Spicer’s version, or the version which Francis Collinson collected from Mrs Frances Baker in Maidstone, or maybe one of these. But in fact I learned this from Roy Palmer’s Book Songs of the Midlands. Roy himself collected the song from the Black Country singer George Dunn of Quarry Bank in Staffordshire.
When I paid tribute to Roy Palmer a few weeks ago, I neglected to mention his collecting activities. In fact Roy recorded a number of singers, primarily in Gloucestershire and the West Midlands, including major figures such as George Dunn and Cecilia Costello. You can listen to his recordings on the British Library Sound Archive website, at http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Roy-Palmer-collection. Here’s George Dunn singing ‘The Oyster Girl’, recorded in 1971, when the singer was 84 years old.
The recording is also included on the excellent Musical Traditions CD Chainmaker. I’d been singing the song for many years before I heard the original recording. When I did, I was pleased to find that George Dunn also appeared to enjoy delivering the line “So it’s ‘ook it with your basket of oysters” – that’s always been the high point of the song for me.
The notes to Chainmaker say of this song that “The song’s earliest appearance in print seems to be as The Eating of Oysters in a garland of eight texts issued under the title of A New Patriotic Song by M Randall of Stirling (c.1794-1812)”. Here’s a printed copy from the mid-nineteenth century where, somewhat bizarrely, in the last verse the narrator is identified as a Frenchman (so, clearly, thoroughly deserving of being tricked by the oyster seller).
The Oyster Girl – nineteenth century broadside from Broadside Ballads Online.
I learned this song from Maud Karpeles’ book, The Crystal Spring Volume 2, a copy of which I received as an eighteenth birthday gift from Cathy Lesurf and Will Ward. The song was just one of a number of good pieces collected by Cecil Sharp from the inmates of Marylebone Workhouse. This one was sung to him by William Atkinson on 19th October 1908.
You can view Sharp’s original notes on the EFDSS Full English archive. When the song was published in the 1914 Journal of the Folk-Song Society he wrote
Mr. Atkinson was born in York and plied his trade of silversmith in Sheffield and London. He learned this song from a shop-mate, Mr. Frank Habershon, a native of Sheffield, who regarded the song as a “family relic.” Mr. Habershon learned it from his father, who, in turn, had had it from his father. The song was always sung at weddings and other important family gatherings.
– no doubt because it’s such a cheerful piece!
Often known as ‘Six Dukes Went A-Fishing’, in The Crystal Spring it is given the title ‘The Duke of Bedford’. The mention of Woburn, the family seat of the Dukes of Bedford since 1547, appears to link the story firmly with that branch of the aristocracy. And a note by Lucy Broadwood in the 1914 Journal attempts to make sense of the “weird rush of waters” in the last verse:
It is possible that “Wo-burn,” which is in a neighbourhood where “woe-waters” suddenly flow – to the alarm of the superstitious – may have given rise to the idea that a bursting forth of a “woe-burn” was prophetic of disaster to the Duke of Bedford’s family.
But honesty forces her to admit that
The distinguished member of the family to whom I submitted the ballad cannot connect the story or the superstition with any of his kin.
Indeed, she concludes that the song as collected may be the combination of two separate ballads, and that the original had nothing to do with any historical Duke of Bedford. Various other nobles have been suggested, but on this Mudcat thread ballad expert Bruce Olson says quite categorically that “This is a traditional version of a broadside ballad on the death of the Duke of Grafton (son of Charles II and Barbara Villers) killed while storming Cork in 1690”. As so often, the same thread has a really valuable contribution by Malcolm Douglas, summarising the various versions, early ballad sources, and linking to sources of further information.
When I first learned this, as an impatient youth, I thought the simple 8-bar melody somewhat repetitive, and added a second strain. I’ve retained that, but just in verses 4, 8 and 10.
A few years ago I came across this song while browsing through the copy of Cecil Sharp’s Folk Words in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. I was pleased to see that Sharp had collected a couple of verses omitted from The Crystal Spring.
The courts of his father
No longer will ring
With the clink of his gold spurs
And the twang of bow string.
In chase and in tournament
A valiant knight,
Who kept his escutcheon
With honour most bright.
Initially I thought I’d have to learn these – one does not lightly pass up the chance to sing the word “escutcheon” in a folk song. But it didn’t take me long to decide that actually Ms Karpeles’ editorial judgment had been sound. The two verses don’t add anything, they’re not particularly singable, and they seemed to add an air of nineteenth century fake medievalism to the song, which had not previously been apparent. Sharp wrote
I suspect that the earlier stanzas are traditional but that the concluding four were either added by some member of the Habershon family or derived from a broadside of recent date.
And in the case of the two omitted verses I’ll have to agree with Lucy Broadwood’s comments (actually pertaining to the whole of the second half of the song)
the stamp of the early nineteenth century is on their matter and phraseology, and they are full of absurd anachronisms.
Six Dukes, as collected from William Atkinson. Cecil Sharp’s ‘Folk Tunes’ via the Full English archive.