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.