Song number 8 in Classic English Folk Songs, formerly the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, and few would argue that this is a classic of the genre.
It’s actually a song which I’ve almost certainly never sung in public, and which I’ve never really considered to be part of my repertoire. Partly because I’ve always planned to learn Tom Willett’s magnificent version (and having got this version of my chest, so to speak, maybe I finally will), but also because it’s just one of those songs which everyone knows. Still, I seem to know the words without having to think about them, and it is a classic, and it’s a great song to sing; so it seemed daft not to post a version here.
I would have first heard it as the opening track of Steeleye Span’s Please to see the King. Where – like a lot of songs on the two Carthy / Hutchings Steeleye LPs – it’s given a wonderfully sparse, austere, atmospheric and totally effective arrangement. Shortly after hearing that recording I would have heard the OK but far less interesting arrangement on the first Steeleye LP, and then Andy Irvine’s take on the song, on the debut Planxty album. I suspect most of the words went in by osmosis, but having them in the Penguin book would have helped – no need to transcribe them from tape or vinyl.
Vaughan Williams noted the tune, but no words, from Mrs Ellen Powell, at Westhope, near Weobley in Herefordshire. Malcolm Douglas, in his additional notes for Classic English Folk Songs, suggests that Vaughan Williams and Bert Lloyd used Peter Verrall’s version, or possibly the Such broadside shown below, as the basis of the verses given in the book.