Week 299 – The Good Old Way

Long ago, in a previous age (last February to be precise), I posted a recording of ‘Country Life’, which was Side 1 Track 1 on the Watersons’ magnificent 1975 LP For pence and spicy ale. And now, here’s the final track on side 2.

Like hundreds of others up and down the country, we sang these two almost to death back in the late 1970s /early 1980s. Except “sang them to death” isn’t the right expression – they’re such good songs that they bear repeated singing, and I love them now, as I did back then.

Of the two, this had the greatest impact on my musical tastes and interests. I had already heard Wassails and some other seasonal songs, but this was my first introduction to folk hymnody, and it opened the door to further discoveries – including West Gallery, Shape Note, and the carolling traditions of places such as Padstow and South Yorkshire. I’m not a believer, but I have a love of all types of vernacular sacred music-making. I love the passion in the words, and in the singing of the songs, especially when sung as part of a community – whether that community be a congregation of Old Regular Baptists, the inhabitants of a Cornish fishing port, or a modern West Gallery choir consisting principally of people with slightly off-centre musical tastes who just enjoy a good sing (as an aside, I’m also a big fan of oratorios by Bach and Handel, Fauré’s Requiem and Rachmaninov’s Vespers).

Bert Lloyd’s sleevenotes for For pence and spicy ale say

Unlike John Wesley, who preferred the tunes of imported elite composers such as Handel, Giordani and their lesser fellows, the “gospel trumpeters” went in for folky tunes like Amazing Grace and The Good Old Way. John Cennick (1718-55), who broke away from the Wesleys, was the founder of folky hymnody with his Sacred Hymns (Bristol 1743), which had an enormous effect on the wildfire revivals in Britain and America. The Good Old Way is said to have been a favourite hymn of the wild evangelist John Adam Grenade (1775-1806). In America it acquired a “Hallelujah” chorus and in that form came back to England and was printed in the Ranters’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (c. 1820). Our version was collected by John Clague from a marble-mason on the Isle of Wight, John Cubbon. It appears in the Folk Song Journal (No. 30), and serves to remind us what grand tunes have been lost to our hymnbooks through the tyranny of Ancient & Modern.

The “Isle of Wight” is a typo – Dr John Clague actually noted the song in the Isle of Man, circa 1829. When printed in the 1926 Journal of the Folk-Song Society, in an  article by Anne Gilchrist and Lucy Broadwood, it was part of a series of articles on Manx traditions which appeared in the Journal between 1924 and 1926. Looking at that article for the first time, I see that the Watersons (probably unconsciously) altered the tune somewhat, in particular omitting a sharpened sixth in the first line. Well, I’m not going to change the way I sing it, after more than 40 years.

If you don’t have access to the Journal of the Folk-Song Society through JSTOR, you’ll find the same tune, with a piano arrangement by W.H.Gill, in Manx National Songs with English Words, Selected from the MS. Collection of The Deemster Gill, Dr J. Clague, & W.H.Gill (Boosey & Co. 1896), and here it is:

The Good Old Way arranged by W.H.Gill

The Watersons also made the entirely sensible decision to cut two of the five verses. You can find all seven verses at Hymnary.org. American Shape Note versions, such as those in Southern Harmony or the Sacred Harp, are set to an entirely different tune and, as A.L.Lloyd pointed out, have a different chorus:

And I’ll sing hallelujah,
And glory be to God on high;
And I’ll sing hallelujah,
There’s glory beaming from the sky.

Of course it’s wonderful, today, to have access to these different sets of words at the click of a mouse button. Back in the seventies when we learned this song we had to write the words out from listening to the LP. And we didn’t always make a very good job of it. We could never make sense of the first lines of the second verse: “Our conflict’s here, the Great Davy / Shall not prevent our victory”.  Who was this Great Davy – another name for Old Nick perhaps? Of course, when I finally saw the words in print, it all made perfect sense: “Our conflict’s here, though great they be…”.

But my singing partner Mike, who had a good ear for this sort of thing, made a good job of transcribing the Watersons’ harmonies. Here’s my copy, marked “GOMENWUDU PRODUCTIONS” at the top – Gomenwudu (obscure Old English word for a harp) was, thanks to Mike’s Dad, the name of our harmony group. And at the bottom, I’ve just noticed, “PRINTED BY L. BOWLER, KARL MARX RULES OK Etc”. Lucas Bowler, the class Leftist, was another schoolfriend, and he must have got Mike’s original sheet of manuscript paper copied. He had been the first boy at school to have a Casio calculator – his Dad worked in marketing or sales, and had got it as a freebie. Clearly Luke’s Dad also had access to a photocopier – at a time when our secondary school teachers were still having to turn out purple smudgy copies on a Banda machine!

The Good Old Way - four part harmony arrangement

The Good Old Way – four part harmony arrangement transcribed by Mike Eaton c1976

I am well aware that the proper way to sing this song is in glorious vocal harmony, but at the outset of this blog I said that I wouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; so here it is sung by me alone, with a concertina arrangement.

The Good Old Way

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

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