Archive for July, 2016

July 29, 2016

Week 258 – Working on the new railroad

I learned this from the singing of Jim Mageean. Jim was a guest at the Heritage Society in Oxford circa 1981, and he was pretty much a permanent fixture at Sidmouth around that time. I thought that this might have been one of the very few songs I’d simply absorbed from hearing it sung. But actually I find that, in my big lever arch folder of folk words and tunes, I have the words neatly typed out, almost certainly on Caroline Jackson-Houlston’s typewriter; so I suppose I must have asked Caroline to look out the words for me on one of her regular visits to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

The typed words, in common with pretty much every version I can see online, have the refrain as “And I’ve been all around this world”. I’m sure I’ve always sung “And I’ve been all over this world”. I think that’s how Jim Mageean sang it; if not, it’s how I thought  he sang it.


Working on the new railroad

July 23, 2016

Week 257 – If I were back ‘ome in ‘Ampshire

I was out for a walk recently when, suddenly, a great flock of birds rose up from an adjoining field, circled for a bit, then flew away. Which immediately brought this song to mind.

It’s the last song in Bob Copper’s 1973 book Songs and Southern Breezes, which of course chronicles Bob’s time as a folk song collector, including some years spent away from his beloved Sussex, running a pub at Cheriton in Hampshire.  I can’t recall if the song is mentioned in the text of the book as having been collected from a specific singer; maybe it was just universally known in those parts.

But funnily enough, in case you thought this was a quintessentially Hampshire song, the Full English has one other version – collected from Albert Bromley of Shotley in Suffolk, and entitled ‘I wish I were back home in Suffolk’. I suppose those pesky blackbirds get all over the country…


illustration copyright Andrew Davidson

illustration copyright Andrew Davidson

If I were back ‘ome in ‘Ampshire

July 15, 2016

Week 256 – Baltimore

A saucy song, and no mistake, which I learned from the Topic LP Round Rye Bay for More: Traditional Songs from the Sussex Coast, featuring Mike Yates’ 1976 recordings of the irrepressible  Sussex fisherman Johnny Doughty. Or, possibly, learned from my friend Adrian Russell, who had learned it from a Johnny Doughty recording.

I listened to Johnny singing this recently, and found that he only had  a few verses. I then looked online for fuller versions, and couldn’t really find any. So I have made use of my knowledge of the female anatomy, imperfect though I’m sure this is, to expand the song.


July 9, 2016

Week 255 – Doffing Mistress

Learned from the Silly Sisters  LP, which I really liked in 1976, and which I still think is an excellent album – not dated at all – forty years on.

It seems that Anne Briggs was responsible for popularising this song – it was on the classic sixties album The Iron Muse, where A.L. Lloyd noted

It seems to have originated in the linen-mills of Northern Ireland but has since spread to textile workers elsewhere. The form easily allows for improvised words and many local verses are attached to the tune. A “doffer” is a worker who takes the full bobbins off the spinning machines.

Martin Carthy expands on this

“doffers” were the women who took the finished cloth from off the machines for the next stage in its production. It was work that was largely done bent double, which explains the line “she hangs her coat on the highest pin.” The Doffing Mistress was the supervisor, and, in consequence, never did the job itself. The upshot of this was that she could stand up straight, something which doffers, bent double as they were all their working lives, found difficult to do.

(Thanks to Reinhard Zierke’s Mainly Norfolk site for these quotations)

My recording of the song features a two-row melodeon accompaniment, which is not something you’ll get from me very often. Were he still around, Samuel Johnson might have compared it to a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”.

Doffing Mistress

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G melodeon

July 1, 2016

Week 254 – By the Hush

In the summer of my first year at Oxford I did some harmony singing with Caroline Jackson-Houlston and Tony Snell. I don’t think we ever got to perform in public, but we had a few rehearsals at Tony’s house on the Woodstock Road. I’m sure there must have been other songs we were looking at, the only ones I can recall were all sourced from an LP of Canadian folk songs which I think had recently come Caroline’s way: The Barley Grain For Me by Margaret Christl And Ian Robb With Grit Laskin. We had a go at the John Barleycorn-esque title track and ‘O no, not I’ – which I must get round to re-learning- and possibly ‘Hard Times’. I don’t think we ever tackled this one, but I learned it from the LP and, at the time, it seemed like a pretty obscure song. Then, within a couple of years, it seemed like you couldn’t go to a folk club or session without someone singing it, usually with a bodhran accompaniment. I’ve no idea who popularised it (it certainly wasn’t me!), but it seemed to get very popular very quickly. 

Like a lot of the songs on The Barley Grain For Me, ‘By the hush’ was included in The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, edited by Edith Fowke. And a selection of songs from that book were included on a Leader LP (grey gatefold sleeve, like Unto Brigg Fair and A People’s Carol) called Far Canadian Fields, Which I knew of, but had never seen, until a few months back when I was very pleased to find a copy in the Oxfam Music shop in Reading.

All of the songs on that LP were collected by Edith Fowke, four of them from Mr O.J. Abbott (source also of ‘The Plains of Waterloo’) about whom the collector writes:

O.J. Abbott was an exceptionally fine traditional singer with an extensive and unusual repertoire. Born in England in 1872, he came to Canada as a young boy. He learned his many songs from Irish families living on farms in the Ottawa valley and from men in the lumbercamps. I met him first when he was eighty-five, and in the closing years of his life he appeared at the Newport and Mariposa folk festivals and at the International Folk Music Council’s meeting in Quebec in 1961.

This song – recorded in 1957 – Mr Abbott learned from a Mrs O’Malley, “the wife of an Ottawa valley farmer, for whom he worked back in the 1880s”.

The Bodleian has a broadside ballad called ‘Pat in America’ with almost identical words. Except it doesn’t start “It’s by the hush, my boys” but “Arragh, bidenahust my boys”. That, it seems, is a corruption of the Gaelic phrase Bí i do thost, meaning be quiet. So “by the hush”, whilst not a phase I’ve ever encountered in any other context, seems a reasonable English translation.

For the historical background to the song, see the Traditional Ballad Index – there’s a lot more information than I’ve quoted below

There is much historical truth in this song. There were indeed new Irish immigrants in the northern armies in the Civil War: “According to one account, some of the 88th’s recruits [soldiers in the 88 NY Regiment, one of the regiments of the Irish Brigade] enlisted shortly after they had exited the immigrant landing point at Castle Garden, and spoke no English, only the Irish Gaelic of the landless Catholic tenant farmer” (Bilby, p. 27). And the unit they joined, the Irish Brigade of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced “Marr”), had a horrendous loss rate even by Civil War standards.

In the first two years of the war, the brigade — originally 63 NY, 69 NY, 88 NY; 28 Mass, another Irish unit, added before Fredericksburg (Bilby, p. 63) and the not-so-Irish 116 PA added in October 1862 (Bilby, p. 61) — had the highest casualty rate of any comparable unit in the Army of the Potomac. According to Bilby, p. ix, “In its four year history, the brigade lost over 4,000 men, more than were ever in it at any one time, killed and wounded. [p. 239 calculates that, in all, 7715 men served in the brigade.] The Irish Brigade’s loss of 961 soldiers killed or mortally wounded in action was exceeded by only two other brigades in the Union army.”

The unit suffered in many battles. In the Seven Days’ Battles, for instance, the 69 NY alone had 155 casualties (Bilby, p. 45), although other regiments of the brigade suffered less. At the end of the Peninsular Campaign, the 69th had only 295 men with the colors (Bilby, p. 49) — meaning that it had already suffered 60% casualties. Meagher did manage to drum up a few recruits that summer, but not enough to offset the brigade’s losses (Bilby, p. 50).

At the Battle of Antietam, the first division of the Second Corps, which contained the Irish Brigade, suffered 212 killed, 900 wounded, and 24 missing (Murfin, p. 375); the Irish Brigade alone is said to have lost 506 of 2944 men (Beller, p, 74). At the start that battle, the four regiments of the brigade were commanded by one colonel and three lieutenant colonels; at the end, they were commanded by two lieutenant colonels, one major, and one captain (Murfin, p. 347). Sears-Antietam, p. 243, says that the 63rd and 69th New York both suffered casualties on the order of 60%. Craughwell, p. 98, says that one company had every man killed or wounded, and on p. 105 says that the thousand-man-strong brigade suffered 540 casualties. Since the brigade started with roughly 3000 men, it had lost two-thirds of them prior to Antietam, and by the end of that battle, five out of six were killed, wounded, captured, victims of disease, or had deserted.

Pat in America: broadside printed by Taylor, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London between 1859 and 1899. From the Bodleian collection.

Pat in America: broadside printed by Taylor, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London between 1859 and 1899. From the Bodleian collection.

By the Hush