Week 253 – Fare thee well cold winter

So take a good look at my face
You know my smile looks out of place
If you look closer it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears

I’ll be all smiles tonight, boys, I’ll be all smiles tonight
If my heart should break tomorrow I’ll be all smiles tonight

It has always seemed to me that this song was inspired by the same sorts of emotions as Smokey’s classic…

Mike Yates recorded the song in 1972 from George ‘Tom’ Newman of Clanfield, near Bampton, in Oxfordshire. I first heard it sung by Lal and Norma Waterson on the LP Green Fields and subsequently learned it from the transcription of Mike Yates’ recording in Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs, edited by Roy Palmer.

Only a few songs recorded from Tom Newman have been made available on record: ‘The Tree in the Wood’ appeared in the seventies on the Topic LP Green Grow the Laurels, and then again – along with ‘Sing Ovy, Sing Ivy’ – on the Musical Traditions CD Up in the North, Down in the South. Meanwhile Tom’s song ‘My Old Hat That I Got On’ (which Magpie Lane recorded on the CD Six for Gold) was included on Volume 13 of The Voice of the People.

This song, however, has unfortunately never been made available. Mike Yates’ recordings can be accessed at the British Library Sound Archive, but are not available to listen to remotely. One day I must make a trip there, and this will certainly be on my list of recordings to check out. In the meantime I have absolutely no idea if the way I sing ‘Fare thee well cold winter’ bears even the slightest resemblance to the way Tom Newman sang it.

 

George ‘Tom’ Newman was in his 90th year when I met him and, sadly, I only knew him for the last six months of his life.  Originally from Faringdon, he was living in a small bungalow in the village of Clanfield, near Bampton.  I was told that Tom used to occasionally turn up at the Bampton Whit Monday ceremonies with his one-man band and would proceed to accompany the traditional morris team around the village.  John Baldwin, whose [1969] Folk Music Journal article again introduced me to Tom, had described Tom thus: He is an old man now and tends to become very excited when singing; sitting in a chair and pumping the floor with his feet alternately, and similarly his knees with clenched fists.

Mike Yates – notes to Up in the North, Down in the South

The song itself is a bit of a mixture of ancient and modern. On this Mudcat thread Malcom Douglas pointed to a seventeenth century printing of a ballad containing the “let her go, farewel she” motif, and there are nineteenth century  broadsides with very similar lyrics to Tom Newman’s version. Except they don’t have the “All smiles tonight” refrain.

It must be twenty years ago that I sang this song at a folk club and someone pointed out that the chorus crops up in a Carter Family song. Mike Yates has written that, when he collected ‘Fare thee well cold winter’ he assumed that Tom Newman had picked up the chorus from an old  recording – by the Carter Family perhaps, or Kitty Wells. But in fact Cecil Sharp collected a version from Lucy White, of Hambridge in Somerset, which included a “We’ll be all be smiles tonight” chorus.

The chorus comes from an American song written by T. B. Ranson in 1879, which may well have gained popularity in Britain at the time. Lucy White’s version proves that Ranson’s  chorus had been added to the older British song by 1903 at least, some decades before it was being recorded by various American performers (there were several recorded versions before the Carter Family recorded their ‘I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight’ – see the Traditional Tune Archive for details). I’m not aware of any connection between Lucy White and Tom Newman, so these two collected versions suggest that the song – with this chorus – must have had some kind of wider currency in Britain in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century.

 

Fare-thee-well cold winter. 19th century broadside ballad from the Bodleian collection.

Fare-thee-well cold winter. 19th century broadside ballad from the Bodleian collection.

Fare thee well cold winter

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