Week 250 – Royal Forester

I have mentioned previously on this blog that my introduction to folk music came via Steeleye Span’s 1972 LP Below the Salt. It might be an exaggeration to say that I was hooked after one listen, but it wouldn’t be so far from the truth. My best friend Mike lent me his Dad’s copy of the record, and Mike and I were soon singing the songs together in harmony – ‘Spotted Cow’, ‘Rosebud in June’, ‘Gaudete’, ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘King Henry’. Indeed I’m sure I must have known all of the songs on the album at one time, including Side 1 Track 5, ‘Royal Forester’.

I remember singing that one day in the kitchen at home, and my Dad calling out “Here Jean, have you heard these saucy songs our son is singing?”. At which point it emerged that my Mum, who must have had a sheltered upbringing, was unfamiliar with the word ‘maidenhead’. Well, to be fair, so was I until I started singing folk songs!

One thing I have always admired about the early Steeleye albums was the fact that the record sleeves had notes about the songs. Often brief, cryptic, half-fact half-fantasy notes, but still useful to me as a newcomer to traditional music – at the time I had no idea who Harry Cox, Queen Caroline Hughes or John Strachan were, but I absorbed their names, and recognised them later when I started exploring real traditional singing (although it would be many years before I actually got to hear Queen Caroline Hughes, and the first time I heard John Strachan of Fyvie, Aberdeenshire was his very brief  – mainly spoken – contribution to the Songs of Seduction LP)

Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson recorded this song from Strachan in July 1951, and it was included on another of those Topic/Caedmon Folk Songs of Britain albums, The Child Ballads 2. My local library had most of the records in that series, and I think I may have borrowed this one, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Certainly the way I sing ‘Royal Forester’ owes nothing (I’m afraid) to John Strachan, and is very much my recollection of the song as sung by Steeleye. But in fact Steeleye’s version was pretty faithful to the original.

I don’t think this was ever a song I performed in public, and I’d not sung it at all for many years, until maybe 2 or 3 years back. When, thinking of songs I could include here, I had a go at remembering the words. And, after a little bit of scrabbling around in dusty, neglected corners of my brain, found that they all came flooding back.

As it was one of the very first traditional song I learned, it seemed appropriate to post it here to mark 250 weeks of this blog.

Royal Forester

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