Archive for July, 2020

July 25, 2020

Week 292 – The Isle of St Helena

When I first became interested in folk song, in my late teens, my local library had four collections of traditional songs: Garners Gay by Fred Hamer, Baring-Gould’s Folk Songs of the West Country, a Cecil Sharp volume – probably Folk Songs from Somerset – and The Singing Island by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. Garners Gay had the longest lasting impact, certainly in terms of the number of songs I learned from it, but The Singing Island was important too, and something Seeger and MacColl say in the introduction has always stayed with me. They tackle the question – as I think was common in sixties and seventies folk song books – of how to accompany folk songs. They say (or at least, this is what I remember them saying, 40-odd years later) that you should always learn the song first, before trying to work out an accompaniment. Now, I’ve broken that rule on numerous occasions, but it really does make a lot of sense. I certainly find that the only way to get a song’s words into my head is to sing it over and over – at home, in the car, doing the washing up – without part of my brain being preoccupied with what buttons to press on my concertina. But more importantly, singing a song like that, you can actually get to know it properly – knowing the words is essential of course, but it is only part of the story.

The only problem is that, increasingly, having sung a song unaccompanied while learning it, I then decide that’s the way I want to sing it – without any of the rhythmic restrictions imposed by an accompaniment. And thus, today I present an unaccompanied rendition of a song which I’d always visualised as wanting an accompaniment, and for which I had a pretty reasonable concertina accompaniment well on the way. But right now, I just feel like I want to sing it more freely than I could if I added an accompaniment.

I was first introduced to ‘The Isle of St Helena’ by Chris Wood in around 1983 or 1984. He’d learned it from Mary Black’s singing with De Dannan. As I recall, someone we knew was doing the sound for De Dannan’s tour, and he invited Chris along to be his assistant at their London gig. Afterwards, Chris was raving about the band in general – and who wouldn’t be? – but this song in particular. So much so that he learned it, at a time when Chris didn’t actually have many songs in his repertoire.

I always admired the song, but only properly considered learning it about 8 years ago, when a bootleg recording of Mary Black singing this live with De Dannan on a BBC radio programme surfaced on the internet. It’s beautifully sung and arranged (although unfortunately with a jump in the middle – perhaps the home taper had to turn their cassette over at that point?). And it reminded me what a great song it is. By then, of course, unlike the 1980s, it was easy to find various versions of the words. My verses are compiled from this broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland and various other sources including this American site, which is where I found the rather wonderful penultimate verse. Actually there’s several English, Scottish and American versions at Broadside Ballads Online, and it seems the song survived well in oral tradition in America, having been collected by Frank and Anne Warner, among others. Some of the rhymes for St Helena are rather spurious – ‘misdemeanour’ works, but even if I stuck to the Scots ‘winna’ instead of ‘will not’, that one’s a bit tenuous.

St. Helena - broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland

St. Helena – broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland

I did perform this once in public back in about 2013, at an outdoor party where I’m not sure anyone was really listening, with accompaniment from Tom Miller and Joe Turner. That was a one-off, and it had remained one of those songs that, at the back of my mind, are labelled “must do something with this one day”. And then I was reminded of it once more by the song’s inclusion on this lovely new album by George Sansome, from the band Granny’s Attic. Do check that record out – you can listen to it for free, but please do George the courtesy of paying to download it, or even better, buy a physical CD; like many other folk musicians, George will have been unable to gig for the last 5 months, and probably for several months to come, so will no doubt appreciate your support.

Incidentally, if you want to listen to other versions online, with a bit of searching you’ll find recordings of the song by Mary Black (although not with De Dannan), Frank Harte and Donal Lunny, and even (rather lo-fi but to be treasured) a bootleg tape of Nic Jones singing it in a folk club in 1972.


The Isle of St Helena

July 23, 2020

Week 291 – Come Write Me Down

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know that I’m a big fan of the Copper Family. This must have been one of the first Copper songs that I learned, which means I must have been singing it for very nearly 44 years. Towards the end of our wedding reception – 32 years ago today – Carol and I led a mass rendition of this in the Geoffrey Chaucer School hall in Canterbury. And a couple of years ago we did the same again, during a party at a local village hall here in Oxfordshire. The recording below provides evidence that Carol and I number some very good singers among our friends.

I had it in mind that my mate Bob (“Bob the Curator” as he likes to be known) had sent me this recording. But actually, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a phone capable of making such a good recording at the time. So maybe it was Cathy, who I’ve known literally my entire life? Or Eric? Whoever it was, thank you for recording this, and apologies for my failing memory (getting old you know!).

And massive thanks, of course, to all our friends.


Andy & Carol leading Come Write Me Down, 2018

2018. Same song, different beer.

Normally in these blog posts I write about where the song comes from. But this morning, I can’t be bothered – you’ll find plenty of details on Reinhard Zierke’s excellent Mainly Norfolk site. Meanwhile, here’s a broadside printing of the song, entitled ‘Second thoughts are best’.

Second Thoughts Are Best, from Broadside Ballads Online

Second Thoughts Are Best, from Broadside Ballads Online


Come Write Me Down


July 18, 2020

Week 290 – The Parting Glass

I consider myself lucky that I was around on the folk scene at a time when you could still see traditional performers at certain festivals and folk clubs. In the 1980s and early 90s I saw singers such as Johnny Doughty, Fred Jordan, Walter Pardon, Jeff Wesley, Packie Byrne, Frank Hinchcliffe, Freddie McKay and Willie Scott. And, of course, the famous Stewarts of Blairgowrie. I first saw them in 1980 at the first Downs Festival of Traditional Singing in Newbury, and I’m pretty sure Belle, Sheila and Cathy were all there. Over the years I saw various members of the family at the National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington and, to be honest, I probably didn’t fully appreciate at the time just how lucky I was to do so.

Belle Stewart, the matriarch of the family, was a wonderful singer – her singing of ‘Queen Among the Heather’ on the Topic album of the same name is, in my opinion, one of the finest things ever recorded. Sheila Stewart had a harsher voice, but she could still deliver a moving rendition of tender ballads like ‘The Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie’ or ‘Wi’ My Dog & Gun’. And when she sang a rousing chorus song – boy could she belt it out! The one I associate most with her was ‘Jock Stewart’ – I remember that she sang this as the closing song at the end of the National Festival, whichever year it was in the 1990s that Fred Jordan had overdone it somewhat, and had to be taken to hospital. With her powerful voice, and a room full of festival-goers singing along, she could really raise the roof.

Sheila Stewart. Photograph by Doc Rowe, from The Guardian.

Sheila Stewart. Photograph by Doc Rowe, from The Guardian.

I had forgotten about ‘The Parting Glass’ until last year, when Doc Rowe played a collection of his video recordings at the Musical Traditions Club’s weekend festival. One of the recordings Doc played was Sheila Stewart singing this, and I was reminded of just what a powerful song it was – in her hands at least. It’s included on the 1999 Topic album From The Heart Of The Tradition (recorded, as it happens, by Doc Rowe), but I learned it from this wonderful live recording made at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, in 2003 or 2004.

I’ve found myself listening to this quite often during lockdown, and in the end I couldn’t resist learning it. I was able to sing this out for the first time on Thursday night, at the Islington Folk Club’s Zoom session, and that proved that, yes I had learned all the words, so it’s properly in my repertoire now – in fact I’ve just written the title down in my little black book. The song seems to have a particular resonance at the moment, when we can’t all meet together with our loved ones, or our friends and companions, and when, quite literally, “we may or might never all meet here again”. Keep safe out there, people. Listen to the scientists, not this joke of a government.


The Parting Glass