I first heard this circa 1977, as the conclusion to Shirley and Dolly Collins’ magnificent Anthems in Eden Suite. I’ve always liked the song, but it had not occurred to me to learn it until a year or so ago. With Whitsun approaching, a few weeks back I thought I’d better get on with it. Having been so familiar with the song for so long, I was surprised to find that I had to apply quite some effort to get the words into my head. But here it is, and I’m really glad I made the effort – it really is a good song.
It was written in the late 1960s by Shirley’s then husband, Austin John Marshall, whose comments on the song can be found on the Mainly Norfolk site:
Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris.
Dancers at Ilmington, with fiddler Sam Bennett. 1920s? From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.
I suppose there probably weren’t many women’s morris teams in the sixties when Austin John Marshall wrote these words, but by the time I got involved in the folk scene in the late 1970s they were very much in evidence, and I’ve always associated the ladies dancing at Whitsun with morris rather than country dance. There will be many out dancing this Whitsun weekend, so here’s to the Esperance, and these unknown (to me) women dancing at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1912, and morris teams such as Windsor and Oyster, who started in the 1970s and are still going strong.
Morris dancers at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1912. From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.
P.S. I do realise that Whit Sunday was actually two weeks ago, but Bampton still refer to their annual day of dance as Whit Monday, and that’s good enough for me.
I’m not entirely sure where or when I learned this song. Almost certainly not from Cyril Tawney himself, although I did see him two or three times in the early eighties. I think I must have picked the song up from a floorsinger at the Faversham Folk Club. These days you can find the words to pretty much any song with a quick web search, but in those pre-Internet days I just sang the words as I remembered them.
Checking now what the composer himself sang, I see I’ve introduced some minor variations, but nothing to alter the spirit of the song. And in fact I think Cyril Tawney approved of variation, as part of the song’s absorption into the collective consciousness (or folk tradition, if you prefer). You can read about the background to the song here.
As Cyril noted, the song is lyrically, though not melodically, structured like a blues. And possibly this is the closest thing I’ll be posting here to a twelve-bar blues, as I don’t think I have any examples of the real thing in my repertoire.
More love again this week for Steeleye Span’s 1971 LP Ten Man Mop or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again, which I consider to be the finest of all their albums. I like the album’s largely acoustic tracks – ‘Four Nights Drunk’, ‘Marrowbones’, ‘Wee Weaver’ and the jigs and reels sets – but good as those are, they only serve to highlight the brilliance of the electric numbers, in particular the magnificent ‘Captain Coulston’ and ‘When I was on horseback’. The brooding, atmospheric arrangement on the latter is quite timeless – not remotely dated – and serves the song really well. Respect to Steeleye also for not being tempted to add verses from other versions – they keep the song as a three-verse fragment (plus repeated first verse) which manages to convey a sense of impending doom, without actually revealing exactly what’s going on.
When I first heard the song I had no idea of the back story. Had the young soldier been ambushed as he entered Cork City? Had he been the casualty of a military engagement? Later, of course, I discovered that this was a member of the ‘Unfortunate Rake’ family of songs (number 2 in Mr Roud’s list), and “the young soldier who never did wrong” had not met his downfall in battle, but was dying of the pox.
Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle, working on behalf of the BBC, recorded the song at a travellers’ encampment in Belfast in 1952, from Mary Doran of Waterford. It was included (as ‘The Dying Soldier’) on A Soldier’s Life for Me (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 8) and presumably that’s where Steeleye found it. I heard that LP back in the late 1970s but I have no recollection of having heard Mary Doran’s version of this song until a couple of years ago. I must have had cloth-ears in the seventies: this time round I was completely blown away by Mary Doran’s performance. This volume of the Topic / Caedmon series doesn’t seem to be available to purchase as a CD, but if you hunt around on the web you should be able to find an MP3 version of ‘The Dying Soldier’ – it’s well worth hunting out.
I first encountered Ashley Hutchings on the Steeleye Span LP Ten Man Mop. It’s a great record – probably Steeleye’s best – and as it was only the third or fourth folk record I’d heard it had quite an effect on me. And not just the music. I was very taken by the photo of Ashley Hutchings on the sleeve, where he was wearing a collarless “granddad shirt”. Now I’ve never been one to take much notice of fashion, and as a teenager I was almost completely oblivious to it. But seeing that photo – and then, a little while later, Martin Carthy similarly attired on the cover of Crown of Horn – prompted a great fondness for collarless shirts which I retain to this day. Once I got to know the folk scene better, of course, I found that in the late seventies these shirts (along with beards and pewter tankards) were pretty much de rigeur for the male folkie. Less so for much of the intervening decades, but I still like them.
Back cover of Ten Man Mop
Over the next few years I listened to numerous albums featuring Ashley Hutchings: Please to see the King, The Prospect Before Us, Son of Morris On, The Compleat Dancing Master, Rattlebone and Ploughjack, Morris On, Amaranth, Liege and Lief (although, having read what a seminal album that was, when I eventually heard it I was left feeling a little disappointed; I still prefer What we did on our holidays). Then, in 1978, came the Albion Band’s Rise up like the Sun. One of my school friends – I think it must have been my best friend, and singing partner, Mike – bought the LP and I may well have first heard it in the Norton Knatchbull School Sixth Form Common Room. At the time, fairly new as I was to folk music, I had still managed to form various not very rational prejudices. And I wasn’t entirely sure about this record. One of my prejudices was against drum kits in folk bands – I preferred the ‘electric folk’ of early Steeleye to the full-on folk-rock sound – and this band line-up included two drummers! (Actually, this prejudice wasn’t totally irrational – I’ve heard far too many bands where an uninspired folk-rock drum beat has completely overpowered the rhythmic subtleties inherent in good dance playing, and squeezed all the life out of the music. And don’t get me started on that dreadfully disappointing Richard Thompson and Phil Pickett record…)
All the same, I wasn’t quite ready for a review of the album by Karl Dallas (possibly in Melody Maker but I think it was some more niche publication, possibly Folk Review) which he used to propound his theory that folk-rock was dead. I’d only just got into folk music via folk-rock – I wasn’t ready for it to end. Looking back, Dallas might have had a point – folk-rock didn’t die, but it was beginning to atrophy.
(As an aside, not really relevant to any of this, but I’ll mention it anyway, I distinctly remember where I read that Karl Dallas review. It was at a sort of folk youth club set up by folk dance enthusiasts Don and Marjorie Lang, at a scout hut or similar, quite near the seafront in Hythe. I can only remember going to a couple of the Sunday afternoon meetings, but the club might have gone on for longer than that – I didn’t live in Hythe, and it must have been coming up to the time when Mike and I took our A levels. At one of the meetings I did attend – the first one I think – I first encountered Adrian Russell, who had been brought in to demonstrate his prowess on the anglo-concertina. We must have kept in touch after that first meeting, and went onto become firm friends.)
Having initially had mixed feelings about Rise up like the Sun, after a few years I realised that if I stopped pigeonholing the record, and treated it purely on its own merits (i.e. not as folk, not as folk-rock, not as rock – just as music) it was quite clearly a work of genius. The arrangements of tracks like ‘Poor Old Horse’ are quite superb. And although Karl Dallas might not have been able to come to terms with John Tams changing the tune of ‘The Gresford Disaster’, I now consider that track to be one of the greatest ever recorded under the Albion brand. I love Graeme Taylor’s guitar work, and the way the track builds to an emotional climax – then achieves an even greater emotional impact as the volume drops and Tams sings those last few accusatory verses. There are several songs which produce a Pavlovian effect in me, making my eyes water as a certain line is reached. These range from ‘No Man’s Land’ to Michelle Shocked’s ‘Anchorage’ and Gram Parsons’ ‘Thousand Dollar Wedding’. And one such moment is definitely when John Tams sings
And the owners have sent some lilies, dear God,
To pay for the poor colliers’ lives.
Stupidly, I’m welling up as I type them now.
Of all the Albion records, this is the one where Tams had the greatest creative input, and he must take much of the credit for the album’s brilliance. But it was Ashley Hutchings who had the contacts which enabled him to assemble such a stellar cast of backing vocalists, including Richard and Linda Thompson, Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy, Julie Covington and the McGarrigles. On ‘House in the Country’ (you see, I got to the point eventually) Tams duets with Kate McGarrigle, and the result is, of course, sublime.
On the album sleeve this track is credited to M. Stewart, and I assumed it was a modern composition, perhaps by some folk scene singer-songwriter I’d not encountered. But then, during a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library I think, I came across the song in the 1975 Folk Music Journal, in an article on Scottish travellers’ songs by Peter A. Hall.
The composer was Maggie Stewart, a travelling singer related to the famous Stewarts of Blairgowrie – she was Jeannie Robertson’s aunt, and Stanley Robertson’s “great grand aunt”. A grandson, James Stewart, contributes this information on Mudcat
My GrandMother Maggie Stewart was Born at the Loch O’ the Lee’s outside Banchory in the year of 1902 and died in Aberdeen in the year of 1983 aged 80 years old. she lived in Forfar for years when Hamish Henderson went to Forfar to Record some of the Stewarts and Maggie Stewart was just one of them same family of Folk singers.
Maggie Stewart being recorded by her nephew Stanley Robertson. From ‘The Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers a selection of images from the project’. Image copyright the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.
Peter Hall’s introduction to this song in the Journal says
Another indication of a flourishing tradition is the addition of new material into the repertoire. The most obvious, although not the only way this may take place is by the composition of original songs. Maggie Stewart, formerly living in Aberdeen and now in Montrose, has written a number of fine pieces as well as being an important contributor of traditional material. The song given here illustrates the dilemma of tinkers who wished to become integrated into society and yet at the same time not to discard any of their own character and custom. The Second World War was an important era for the travelling community, when the expanded bureaucratic machine pushed tinkers into the mainstream of society, requiring them to fight and to be listed and counted.
(Actually, Stanley Robertson suggests the song related to the period following the First World War, rather than the Second). Hall continues
In one of the best papers on the tinker’s life style Farnham Rehfisch deals with the institution of marriage:
“During the two wars quite a number of Tinkers were taken into the Armed Forces. It was very much easier for wives to collect family allowances and other government-granted aid if they were able to show documents proving a legal marriage to a serviceman. This was often essential since many of those who were in charge of the distribution of such benefits were very much prejudiced against members of the group and went to great lengths to avoid satisfying their just claims.”
Society is still ambiguous about accepting tinkers into its midst and the mutual tension embodied in the relationship is well caught in the next song.