There’s a long history of poets and songwriters, from Robbie Burns through W.B. Yeats and Ewan MacColl to Bob Dylan, writing verse inspired by, based on or adapted from traditional songs. In the British folk revival, there have been many attempts to write new songs “in a traditional style”. Often the results are little more than pastiche; or else sound less like a traditional folk song, and more like the kind of nineteenth century broadside ballad which would never have entered the tradition in a million years. Some have succeeded however – Roger Watson and Martin Graebe spring to mind – in creating new songs which retain the structure and form of traditional song, but have a value in their own right. I’d say Richard Thompson also succeeded in doing this, with his ‘Little Beggar Girl’, while Chris Wood’s ‘Hollow Point’ makes no attempt to sound like an old song, but shows how traditional lyrics can be woven into a powerful new composition. And Dylan, to this day, weaves snatches of traditional song lyrics into his compositions.
But to mind, this song, written by Bob Davenport and set to a traditional tune (‘The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite’), comes closest to sounding like a traditional song – and being a really good song in its own right. I learned it from the LP 1977 by Bob Davenport and the Rakes, released on Topic in… oh, you’re ahead of me.
The Jealous Sailor