Week 297 – Harp Song of the Dane Women

It’s probably my memory playing tricks again, but I really cannot recollect having been introduced to any poetry at school until the 5th form when, having got our English Language O levels out of the way, we did English Lit in the space of a year. Given the time constraints, we were very much taught what we needed to pass, and not too much more. We did one Shakespeare play (Taming of the Shrew, which I enjoyed immensely, and chunks of which I can still quote to this day), one other play (Arms and the Man, which was OK but didn’t make a lasting impression), and a selection of poems chosen from the Sheldon Book of Verse. This could have been a pretty joyless experience, but we were taught by the excellent Trevor Eaton, who really brought the subject to life. He also taught me O level, and then A level Logic – the most enjoyable academic courses I’ve done in my life. And he was instrumental in switching me on to folk music, as it was his copy of Below the Salt which I was lent by his son Mike, who happened to be my best friend at school.

The Sheldon Book of Verse (book 3, I think it was) contained some really good stuff: ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘Convergence of the Twain’, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, ‘Night Mail’, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, Henry Reed’s wonderful ‘The Naming of Parts’, and ‘Harp Song of the Dane Women’, which had originally appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill.

It was probably a year or so later that I decided to set Kipling’s words to music. Having discovered the joys of singing, whether with others or on my own, and having discovered that poetry wasn’t necessarily boring, I guess it was only a matter of time before I started making tunes for poems – just be grateful it was Kipling, and not some Elvish twaddle from Tolkein. I was also influenced, I think, by my Mum’s ancient copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury which included a few contributions by Anon: ‘Jock o’Hazelgreen’ which I’d heard on Dick Gaughan’s first LP (and before you ask, no, I’m afraid I don’t have a copy of that long-deleted record), and ‘Twa Corbies’, which I knew from the first Steeleye album. If folk songs could be poems, then why shouldn’t poems become folk songs.

I can’t be sure, but I was probably also aware that Peter Bellamy had made arrangements of Kipling’s verse, even if I’d not at that stage heard any (Bellamy did record an arrangement of ‘Harp Song’ but, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard it).

I’ve never actually sung this song in public, but the tune had stayed with me, more or less. Then last year, going through some old cassette tapes, I found not one, but three recordings of me singing this. The variations between those three versions suggest that the tune was never exactly fixed in stone, and in re-learning the song I’ve probably changed it slightly again.

I’d been thinking for a while I should post up a recording of this piece, and was prompted to do so by the fact that I thought the #TradSongTues theme on Twitter this week was going to be Poetry. Actually, I’ve just checked, and Poetry lost out in the vote to Baking. Damn! Should have made up a song about King Alfred burning the cakes.


Illustration by H. R. Millar from the 1911 edition of  Puck of Pook's Hill - image from Wikimedia Commons
Illustration by H. R. Millar from the 1911 edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill – image from Wikimedia Commons

The Harp Song of the Dane Women

5 Comments to “Week 297 – Harp Song of the Dane Women”

  1. Wonderful!
    Remember the English lit course well! “I’ll feeze you I’faith”

  2. That was terrific! Great words well set.

  3. “hop me over every kennel home”, “beetle-headed flap-ear’d knave”, “Tush, tush, fear boys with bugs”

  4. This is a great tune you have for this, Andy! Peter Bellamy did indeed record a highly idiosyncratic version of it on which he accompanies himself on guitar, with Dave Arthur on bodhrán. It’s on ‘Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye’ (Argo ZFB81), of which I’ve had a copy since the early 1970s. (Sadly I lent someone my copies of ‘Mainly Norfolk’ and ‘Tell It Like It Was’ and never got them back.) I do still have a very scratchy well-played copy of ‘No More For Ever’ too.

  5. Thanks Nick. None of this vinyl-related information surprises me! I have a copy of ‘Tell it like it was’ which I bought in Garon Records in the Covered Market in Oxford during my student days. It was very badly scratched when I bought it, and as a result I’ve only played it a handful of times. Looking on discogs.com I see that, unlike ‘The Noah’s Ark Trap’, copies of Gaughan’s ‘No More For Ever’ can be found which won’t break the bank.

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