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

One Comment to “Week 292 – The Isle of St Helena”

  1. Thanks for this, and for the link to Nic Jones!

    The Brave Old Oak is a fine song too, see e.g. the recording by the Dovetail Trio.

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