Charlie Bridger wrote out the words of this song, and sang it for me, when I first met him in April 1983. It took me another 25 years or so to get round to learning the song, and I have to confess that, having learned it, it’s not been something I’ve returned to very often. But I think perhaps I should sing it more.
The Copper Family have a version, with a different melody to Charlie’s. It’s included in Bob’s book A Song for every Season, but not on the box-set, or on any subsequent releases. I recently asked on Facebook if anyone in the family sang the song, but the answer was “We don’t like it much… neither did Bob…”.
Well, it is a bit of a miserable old song, a bit of early Victorian sentimentality (the Roud Index has numerous songster and broadside listings, of which the earliest appears to be Bayly, Songs & Ballads Grave & Gay, 1844). But I think there’s a certain dignity in the song. It’s no Lear, but the song’s theme of an old man, alone, forgotten, friendless and with no one with whom to share his last days, has certainly not lost its relevance.
The Veteran – broadside ballad published at Taylor’s Song Mart, 93, Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, London, between 1859 and 1899. From Broadside Ballads Online.
When a singer knows upwards of 250 folk songs, you might reasonably expect his or her repertoire to include certain classic ballads – say, ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies’, ‘Banks of Green Willow’, ‘The Unquiet Grave’ and ‘Georgie’. All widely sung on the folk scene, and widely encountered in British and American tradition. Well this time last year, I didn’t have any of those songs in my repertoire. With ‘Banks of Green Willow’ the problem has been – and continues to be – deciding exactly which of the many fine collected versions to learn. I do have a version of ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies’ lined up to learn – indeed last January I was confidently saying that it would be the next song I learned. It wasn’t, and I’m wary of making any promises about quite when I might knuckle down and get it under my belt. But in the spring I did at least put together a version of ‘Georgie’ and have been singing it often enough since then to begin feeling at home with the song.
I found the melody some twenty years ago when scrolling through the copies of Vaughan Williams’ MSS held in the library named in his honour. In those days, these copies were available only on microfilm, whereas now, of course, you can get them all online. I was looking for songs RVW had collected in Kent – specifically those he noted from Mr and Mrs Truell of Gravesend. This song is the next one in the MS.
There’s a lack of clarity about its provenance. The page is headed “Kent Songs” but the source of the song is given as a Mr Jeffries, at Mitcham Fair (in Surrey). In the VWML index record the Place collected reads “England : Surrey : Mitcham CHECK” so clearly some doubt remains. I suppose Mr Jeffries may have been attending the annual fair, but have hailed from Kent. With no other information recorded about the singer, I guess we will never know.
Typically, Vaughan Williams noted just the tune and one verse – in this case verse 9 (verse 5 in my reconstruction)
He stole neither sheep nor cow
Nor oxen has he any
But he has stolen six of the king’s fat deer
He sold them to Lord Daney (Davey?)
Typically, also, I can’t quite decipher Rafe’s handwriting.
Geordie, collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from a Mr. Jeffries, 13 Aug 1907. From the Full English archive.
I have assembled a set of words from various oral and printed sources:
The first two verses – including the placing of the action on “a Whitsun Monday” and the “pretty little boy” line – come from a broadside printed by Armstrong in Liverpool in the 1820s.
Most of the other verses come from a Such ballad, from later in the nineteenth century, or the version collected by Henry Hammond from Sergeant Fudge, at East Combe Lydeard in Somerset.
The “lawyers, lawyers” verse meanwhile is based on an American version, collected by Vance Randolph from Georgia Dunaway, Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1942.
You’ll find historical background to the ballad on Mudcat and the Mainly Norfolk site. Basically, there are two similar but distinct ballads: the Scottish ‘Geordie’, where the hero’s wife successfully saves him from the gallows, and the English ‘Georgie’ (or ‘Geordie’), where her efforts are in vain. The songs may or may not have been based on actual historical incidents. But, as with Shakespeare, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the love and grief felt by the female protagonist are real enough.
Death of Georgy, printed by Armstrong of Liverpool between 1820 and 1824. From Broadside Ballads Online.
Many of the Copper Family’s songs are much loved and widely sung – national treasures, you might say. This is not one of those, but there was a time when I would be called upon to sing it at least once a year. I learned it from the Copper Family 4 LP set A Song for every Season, and from Bob Copper’s book Early to rise.
This was a popular song of the mid-19th century; presumably it had its origins in the Music Halls–the tune is very much of that type. There are several broadside copies at the Bodleian Library Broadside Collection:
Suit of Corderoy Printed between 1846 and 1854 by E.M.A. Hodges, (from Pitt’s), wholesale toy warehouse, 31 Dudley street [S]even Dials.
The suit of corduroy Printed between 1860 and 1883 by H. Disley, 57, High-street, St. Giles, London. W.C.
Suit of corduroy! Printed and Sold between 1849 and 1862 at Such’s Song Mart, 123, Union Street, Boro’ S.E.
There is also a mostly illegible Glasgow edition, which specifies the tune as that of Four and Nine.
Some of the above are in Standard English, others are written in the “Stage Cockney” of the day. There isn’t a great deal of variation in the texts, though locations and the name of the tailors vary. Evidently, the song made it to the USA as well; there is a songsheet at the “America Singing” Collection:
The Suit of Corduroys H. De Marsan, Publisher, 60 Chatham Street, N. Y. [no date.] Again, much the same, but with the incontinence episode omitted, perhaps for the benefit of tender American sensibilities!
Suit of corderoy. Broadside from the Bodleian collection. Printed between 1846 and 1854, by E. Hodges, Printer, (from Pitt’s), wholesale toy warehouse, 31 Dudley street [S]even Dials
I have followed John Copper’s lead on the 1970s recording and inserted an additional raspberry into the last line of the song. As John so eloquently put it
Percy Grainger recorded the melody for I Courted a Damsel from the great Joseph Taylor, and the words are from various sources. I learned it from Bill Prince, who had it from a woman he calls a songfinder extraordinary, whose name is Michelle Soinne.
Now I’m pretty sure I own a copy of that LP – bought at Sidmouth in the early-mid nineties, when festival record stalls were selling off their stocks of vinyl at knock-down prices. Bizarrely, I can’t recall ever having listened to the record though (an omission I mean to rectify as soon as possible). And – although I knew that Martin had learned this song from Bill, who in turn had learned it from Michelle – I hadn’t realised that he had ever recorded the song.
I first heard it performed by my friends Michelle Soinne and Andy Cheyne, both at live gigs and on their excellent cassette-only album Fish Royal.
It appears that Percy Grainger – with Frank Kidson, whose transcription is shown below – first noted the song from Joseph Taylor in April 1905.
Once I courted a damsel, as noted by Frank Kidson
He returned to make a phonograph recording of the song in July the next year. As far as I know, that recording has never been made publicly available – it’s not on Unto Brigg Fair nor on any of the volumes of The Voice of the People. Maybe the surviving copies of the recording are simply no longer playable.
Once I courted a damsel, phonograph transcription by Percy Grainger
I learned the words from Yellowbelly Ballads Part Two edited by the poet Patrick O’Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy had previously included Joseph Taylor’s fragment, with additional verses composed by himself, in Twenty-One Lincolnshire Folk Songs, but had subsequently realised to which family of songs the fragment belonged, and in Yellowbelly Ballads the additional words are adapted from the version collected by Henry Hammond in the Alms Houses at Taunton, from a Mr Poole.
The beauty bright – broadside printed for W. Armstrong, Banastre-street, Liverpool, between 1820 and 1824. From the Bodleian collection.
A few days ago I was considering a temporary suspension of activity at A Folk Song A Week. I have a particularly busy month coming up, and no song recordings in my store (apart from the one I have saved for use as The Last Song On The Blog). But a recording window presented itself (i.e. the rest of the household were out for the day!) and I now have enough songs put by to last me into February. Moreover, prompted in part by a reminder from Jim Causley that there are twelve days of Christmas, and they’re a long way from being over, this song suggested itself as just right for New Year.
I knew it from a 1950s Peter Kennedy recording of Charlie Bate from Padstow, included on the Topic/Caedmon LP Songs of Ceremony (Volume 9 of the Folk Songs of Britain series). Some twenty years ago I suggested it as a possible Magpie Lane number, but at the time it met with little enthusiasm. Subsequently I’ve occasionally thought of trying it out as a solo piece, but never quite got round to it. On Monday, however, I found the tune going round my head so, in the evening, I listened to the Songs of Ceremony track to get the words down. What I had forgotten was that the LP only included a couple of verses before segueing into the Truro Wassail Bowl Singers singing the ‘Malpas Wassail’. A search of the web failed to turn up any further verses, although clearly Charlie Bate’s song is a version of this Cornish Wassail song (source not given) and this one from Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book (1929). I emailed a query to the TradSong list, and by 10 next morning had been sent a different Kennedy recording of Charlie Bate, made in 1956, and included on the Folktrax cassette West Country Wassailers.
This recording had six verses which I quickly transcribed and set about singing. As I had anticipated, the song sits beautifully in C on a C/G anglo, and by 11.30 that morning I had recorded the song for inclusion here.
Charlie Bate was an important figure in Padstow, and a man with a lovely, gentle singing style. You can hear a number of recordings of Charlie singing if you search the British Library Sounds website. I’m making no promises, but I’m greatly tempted to learn his I was the lover of Lady Chatterly!
Given the state of the world, it might be unduly optimistic to wish everyone peace, happiness and prosperity, but I hope at least that making and listening to music may bring you joy in 2016 – in fact, I can do no better than to repeat the traditional blessing
Joy, health, love and peace
Be all here in this place