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.
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.