January 8, 2023

Week 309 – The Cherington Wassail

Last week I posted a Wassail song which was definitely collected in Oxfordshire: . My searches of the VWML catalogue also threw up 3 phonograph recordings made by James Madison Carpenter, all of the same song. None of the recordings is dated, and all are credited to an unnamed “Oxfordshire Singer”.

The first thing that struck me about the song is that it is very reminiscent of the well-known wassail printed in the Oxford Book of Carols as ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’. Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire are neighbouring counties, so I wondered if this particular strain of wassail song had crossed over the border. However, the more I look into it, the more likely it seems that the American collector Carpenter was confused, and wrongly labelled a song he had actually recorded in Gloucestershire.

The GlosTrad website has a list of songs collected by Carpenter in the county. This includes three wassails. Both the Avening and Minchinhampton songs are similar, but clearly not the same as these “Oxfordshire” recordings. The Cherington Wassail Song on the other hand looks suspiciously close.

The song’s source is given on the website as Tanner, Thomas and Howes Mr and Phelps, Charlie. Carpenter’s own notes are quoted thus:

Mr Howes has known for sixty years. Bowl decorated with fox’s brush and holly bow, with bough, decorated with ribbons. Charlie Phelps checked the Cherrington (sic) Wassail sung by Tom Tanner.

I did wonder if Thomas Tanner was related to the Bampton singer Charles Tanner, and that was where the Oxfordshire connection came from. But the GlosTrad page on Thomas Tanner tells us that he came from a well-established Cherington family, so I think that’s a red herring. When I consulted members of the Traditional Song Forum, the replies I got suggested that Carpenter’s attributions were not always to be relied upon.

Elaine Bradtke, who works for the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, wrote

I’ve been working on the Carpenter Collection with Julia Bishop.  A couple things to note: Carpenter was not the best of record keepers. His indexes for cylinders and discs are often rather vague, or just plain incorrect, and I suspect they were made significantly later than the recordings themselves. He also seemed to be a little geographically challenged, so his indications of locations may not always be correct. But that’s what we had to work with when we indexed the collection.  After we transcribed much of the material, we were able to match many of the texts to the recordings and give more precise attributions.  However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Cylinder 131 00:00. We don’t know who sang it or where it was sung.
You are correct, it is very close to the Gloucestershire versions.  Especially Avening, and Cherrington where they repeat “Our bowl it is made of some mappelin tree With our wassailing bowl we’ll bring unto thee”. But it is not an exact match to any of the typescript texts in the collection.  I would say it’s probably Gloucestershire, despite what his own index said.

The GlosTrad site – and I’ve no doubt that the site’s founders Carol and Gwilym Davies will have based this attribution on the best information available – lists Tom Tanner as the singer of ‘The Unquiet Grave’, which comes immediately after the Wassail song on this recording https://www.vwml.org/record/VWMLSongIndex/SN18617. So I’m going to assume that it’s also Tanner singing the Wassail – it certainly sounds to me like the same singer. So I’m also assuming that the song I’m posting here is essentially the Cherington Wassail.

Out of laziness as much as anything else, I’ve sung the words from this transcription by Carpenter, which uses a standard chorus, rather than repeating the last two lines of the song.

Incidentally, all three Wassails collected by Carpenter in Gloucestershire refer to the bowl being made of the “mappelin” or “maypolin” tree. As far as I can tell, this is simply another name for the maple.

The Cherington Wassail

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

December 28, 2022

Week 308 – The Adderbury Wassail

A couple of people have asked me recently if there were any Wassail songs collected in Oxfordshire. A quick search of the VWML catalogue brings up 10 records, but most of these actually refer to the same song – the two verse fragment collected by Janet Blunt from William ‘Binx’ Walton of Adderbury in December 1917. Of the others, none can definitively be said to be an Oxfordshire song:

In his book Village Song & Culture: A Study Based on the Blunt Collection of Song from Adderbury North Oxfordshire, Michael Pickering writes

Binx tried hard to remember this song for Blunt in December 1917, but could remember only two of the three verses in their entirety. Of the first verse, only the opening came back to him: ‘Good mortal man, remember…’
This is a familiar wassail song line, and we can safely assume that the nature of those following was didactic.

In looking for additional verses to add to the two which Walton did remember, I came across this nice version by former Adderbury Morris Squire Tim Radford. But noting that he’d got a couple of the verses from the Albion Band, I thought I’d choose some others, just to be different. The “mortal man remember” phrase I associate with the Hampshire Mummers’ Song ‘God Bless the Master’, and it turns up also in this Sussex Mummers’ Carol. I’ve borrowed my first couple of verses from there (verses which I think can fairly be categorised as “didactic”); added a generic “God bless the master…” verse as verse 3; and then I finish off with William Walton’s two verses. This means I get to sing the splendid line “A bit o’ your good vittles ma’am” at the end of the song, finishing off, appropriately enough with

We wish you a Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year.

Sentiments which I heartily endorse.

William Walton's Wassail Song, from the Janet Blunt MSS.

William Walton’s Wassail Song, from the Janet Blunt MSS.

The Adderbury Wassail

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

November 8, 2022

Week 307 – When Adam was first created

I must have been singing this song for very nearly 45 years. Always unaccompanied in harmony, of course, as is right and proper for a song from the Copper Family repertoire.

In the last year or so, I’d toyed with an arrangement in F on my C/G anglo. But this morning I decided to try it on the more sonorous Crabb F/C concertina which I found myself unable to resist at this summer’s Whitby Folk festival. It seemed to fit, and although my voice hasn’t been at its best of late, it didn’t seem too croaky. So I decided to slap it down on “tape” and post it here straightaway.

The song’s central point is – as James Brown would attest – that man is nothing without a woman. But, as with so many traditional songs, the words are written very much from the man’s perspective, and betray the fact that the song originated in a male-dominated society. I feel that the song’s heart is in the right place: it insists that Woman is not to be trampled upon by Man, but that she was created “his equal and partner to be”; but then blows it in the very next line by stating “when they’re united in one, sir, the man is the top of the tree”. Oh well.

Looking at broadside versions of the ballad on the Bodleian website, it’s clear that these lines weren’t inserted by the Coppers, but were there from the start. They’ve been softened a little in the the rather nice version of ‘When Adam was created’ which Sharp collected in 1918 from Jasper Robertson at Burnsville in North Carolina – in fact the song has been explicitly turned into a wedding song.

In praise of dear women I sing - ballad from the Bodleian website

In praise of dear women I sing – ballad from the Bodleian website

 

When Adam was first created

Andy Turner – vocal, F/C anglo-concertina

December 22, 2021

The Trees are all Bare / The Sussex Carol

It’s been a pretty quiet year for the A Folk Song A Week blog – although I have posted quite a lot of tunes on my Squeezed Out site (in fact, in a daring piece of cross-platform syndication, I shall be sharing this same video on that blog too).

The video here was filmed at the end of the final gig in a run of half a dozen Magpie Lane Christmas concerts, at the rather lovely 12th century church of St. Leonard, Bengeo, Hertford.

In the interval I asked the vicar if he’d mind filming the last number on my phone. At which point he introduced me to Dr Mike Howarth, an audience member who just happens to be a former BBC cameraman. Mike is clearly used to working with rather higher quality equipment than the camera on my Android phone, but he wasn’t going to let that get in the way of some rather more interesting camera work than the static point and shoot video I had been envisaging! So many thanks, Mike, for producing this lovely souvenir of our Christmas gigs.

What you have here are:

  • First, the Copper family’s ‘The Trees are all Bare’ – always the final song in our Christmas programme, ever since 1994. For more on this song, see Week 175 – The Trees are All Bare.
  • And then the obligatory encore (although on this occasion we had to prompt the audience to demand one!). This invariably consists of the Shetland tune ‘Christmas Day i’da mornin” segueing into ‘The Sussex Carol’. That, too, has been featured on this blog before – almost exactly 10 years ago, as Week 18 – The Sussex Carol.

Having not performed together since December 2020, it was great to be playing with Magpie Lane again. Even if I could never quite rid myself of the worry that, with a new variant on the loose, we were all in great danger of getting infected, just before Christmas.

Many thanks to

  • Ed Pritchard, for stepping in so magnificently to dep for Mat Green.
  • The event organisers who took sensible COVID precautions in order to keep band and audience safe
    (N.B. for anyone wondering if there should have been a comma after “event organisers” – no, a comma was very deliberately omitted, and you can make of that what you will).
  • The audience members who tested before coming to a gig, who wore masks, and kept their distance, but nevertheless (we hope) had an enjoyable night out.

 

The Trees are all Bare

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Ian Giles – vocal
Ed Pritchard  – fiddle
Sophie Thurman – cello
Jon Fletcher – vocal, bouzouki

 

Christmas Day i’da mornin’ / The Sussex Carol

Ian Giles – vocal, percussion
Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Ed Pritchard  – hardanger fiddle
Sophie Thurman – vocal, cello
Jon Fletcher – vocal, bouzouki

November 24, 2021

Week 306 – Only Remembered

A couple of weeks ago I heard that Larry Gordon – great enthusiast for and promoter of Shape Note singing, and leader of numerous choirs, most notably Northern Harmony – had fallen off his bike, sustained irreversible brain damage and would shortly be taken off the ventilator. That same evening I heard that Barry Coope had died after a short illness. I didn’t know either man well. I’d probably not seen Larry for 20 years, and while Barry and I would say hello if we bumped into each other at a festival, that was about it. But the sudden, unexpected nature of their deaths – and, to be honest, the fact that Barry was only a few years older than me – made me feel quite emotional. The next day I found myself turning to songs associated with Larry and Barry which seemed appropriate. In Larry’s case it was a favourite Shape Note piece, ‘Parting Friends’, which he recorded with both the Word of Mouth Chorus and the Bayley-Hazen Singers. For Barry, it was Coope Boyes & Simpson’s sublime arrangement of ‘Only Remembered’.

That’s as perfect a slice of vocal harmony as you’re ever likely to hear. And if you search YouTube you’ll find other live recordings of the song, demonstrating that it was not just in the recording studio that they were able to attain this perfection.

‘Only Remembered’ started off as a hymn with words by Free Church of Scotland minister Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). The tune was composed by the prolific Ira Sankey – you can find the words and score at hymnary.org. It was adapted by John Tams for use in the stage production of Warhorse – in particular he made it less overtly religious by writing a new last verse (“Who’ll sing the anthems, who’ll tell the story” strikes me as particularly Tamsian line). And then it was adapted further by CBS – the rhythm changed from 4/4 to 3/4, and the harmonies are all their own.

I’d never thought of learning this song previously, but set about it immediately. Initially I toyed with learning the original version from my copy of Sankey’s Sacred Songs & Solos. But I soon decided that, as it was the CBS version that had made me want to learn the song, that’s what I should sing. I made this recording at the weekend. It’s not perfect. The concertina accompaniment is still in development. But I wanted to get it down and posted straightaway, as just a small tribute to an absolutely wonderful singer.

On their weekly radio show, Thank Goodness it’s Folk, James Fagan and Sam Hindley presented a tribute to Barry just a few days after he died. It could have been a solemn affair, but in fact it turned out to be a rather joyful celebration of, as guest Ray Hearne put it, a man with a heart of gold and a voice of silver. You can hear the programme on Mixcloud.

 

Only Remembered

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

June 13, 2021

Week 305 – The Prentice Boy

In 1995 Dave Townsend invited Ian Giles and me to sing on a new Mellstock Band record, Songs of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. We recorded our contributions over two sunny days at the Saydisc recording studios – namely David Wilkins’ house at Littleton-on-Severn. I may be wrong, but my memory is that all the singers and musicians were put up in the house; we ate breakfast and lunch together; and then in the evening we’d go down to the village pub for dinner and a few pints of Smiles’ bitter. A very enjoyable experience all round. The recordings themselves were largely stress-free and, though I say it myself, I was in particularly good voice at the time – although not in such good voice as the wonderful Julie Murphy, who Ian and I were encountering for the first time, and whose singing just blew us away.

True to form, Dave Townsend had come up with some interesting material. Ian got to sing a lovely version of ‘The Foggy Dew’ which we immediately pinched for ourselves, and which was subsequently turned into a Greatest Hit for Magpie Lane. I sang, and was able to add to my own repertoire, ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ and ‘The Light of the Moon’, plus ‘The Prentice Boy’. I never considered actually learning this one, as I already sang a version of Roud 263 (‘The Wexford Murder’ which I’ve been singing since the early 80s, but which I’ve yet to record satisfactorily for this blog). However, for the sake of completeness, I thought I’d include it here.

The song was collected by Henry Hammond from Joseph Elliott of Todber in Dorset, with some additional words here as noted by Thomas Hardy himself. The tune, it strikes me, is a modal version of ‘Highland Mary’.

Saydisc stopped producing new records some years ago, but I’m pleased to say that much of their catalogue, including this one, is still available both digitally and on CD. The record is listed on Spotify, but only a few of the tracks are available to play (maybe you need to take out a subscription, which is something I have absolutely no intention of doing). So here it is from YouTube. Now, the only other time I’ve featured a YouTube recording on this blog – and ranted a bit about how it really shouldn’t be there without the copyright-holder’s permission –  the track became unavailable within a few days. Such is my power! So if you want to listen to this song, you’d better do it quickly. Even better – and I say this without any financial interest whatsoever – treat yourself to the CD.

June 5, 2021

Week 304 – Winter in my heart

When I finished university I worked for a year in the public library in my home town of Ashford in Kent. Before long I had fallen madly in love with the Children’s Librarian. I was still screwing up my courage to ask her out when I discovered that she already had a boyfriend. With the wind so cruelly knocked out of my sails I had no choice but to wallow in my own self-pity for a while, and compose this song of unrequited love. Now I have never considered myself a songwriter. I’ve written maybe half a dozen songs in my entire life, and to be honest none of them has ever seriously been been designed for public consumption. Except I did once sing this one in public. I suppose it was Spring or Summer 1983, at the Wish It Was A Brewery folk club in Rochester. That was a club I hardly ever went to, and noone there really knew me, and this made it the ideal location to trot out my new composition. I sang it just so I could say “I once sang one of my own songs in public”, and I post it very here much in the same spirit.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of this expression of post-adolescent angst, I have to say that I still find the tune very singable.

The object of my affections, incidentally, went on to have a long and distinguished career with the library service in Kent, and was even awarded an MBE for her work.

Winter in my heart

March 14, 2021

Week 303 – Green Bushes

Having recorded the debut Magpie Lane album, The Oxford Ramble, we realised that we’d got a number of concerts coming up and 60 minutes of material wasn’t going to be enough to provide a full evening’s entertainment. This is one of the Oxfordshire songs I introduced to the band’s repertoire to make up the deficit. You can watch our very first performance of the song on YouTube, and we recorded it on our second CD, Speed the Plough, with Ian Giles on vocals and me playing concertina.

Over time Ian’s introduction to the song grew to be quite an epic. It featured a certain amount of fun around the man’s unprompted offer of beavers (beaver = a hat; but you knew that of course). And then much surreal nonsense about the route which the forsaken lover took en route to his tryst – “over yonder green lea, not around yonder green lea, not through yonder green lea…” culminating in a splendid woodland-based pun which I won’t reproduce here just in case we ever decide to bring the song back into lour live repertoire (also, it doesn’t really work when written down).

I always enjoyed playing that concertina arrangement and, back in the summer when I decided to have a go at learning the song, part of the attraction was the thought of reviving the anglo accompaniment. However, as with ‘Nowell Nowell’, I soon realised that arrangements I use when accompanying someone else often don’t work when I try to sing the song myself. So I’ve opted for the simple approach, and sing the song unaccompanied.

Our version of the song was noted by Cecil Sharp on 15th September 1922 – so towards the end of his life – from 78 year old from Joseph Alcock of Sibford Gower, in North Oxfordshire. I’m guessing that Sharp was accompanied – and possibly introduced to Mr Alcock – by Janet Blunt, as she noted the song from him on the same day.

Green Bushes as collected from Joseph Alcock by Cecil Sharp

Green Bushes as collected from Joseph Alcock by Cecil Sharp. From the VWML Archive Catalogue.

The song seems to have been widely printed on ballad sheets in the nineteenth century, sometimes in a version where the suitor tricks the young woman’s father – a shepherd – into granting  permission for him to marry her; but in other cases with words which tally almost exactly with those collected in oral tradition.

A new song called The green bushes, from the Bodleian Broadside Ballad collection.

A new song called The green bushes, from the Bodleian Broadside Ballad collection.

 

Green Bushes

December 28, 2020

Week 302 – King Herod and the Cock

We’re only a few days into the 12 days of Christmas, and the Kings supposedly arrive at the end of that period, so I’m a little premature in posting this carol.

It’s not a song that has ever really been part of my repertoire in any meaningful sense, but it’s very short, and at some point over the last 45 years I seem to have absorbed the words. I first heard it on the Watersons’ Frost and Fire, subsequently finding the words in the Oxford Book of Carols. We recorded it with Magpie Lane back in 1995, on our Wassail album. Tom Bower sang the carol, and arranged it – an arrangement which included Paul Sartin’s oboe on the instrumental.

In this form, it has been collected only once – Cecil Sharp took it down from the 85 year old Mrs Ellen Plumb at Armscote in Warwickshire in April 1911.

King Herod And The Cock, collected from Ellen Plumb, Armscote, 1911.

King Herod And The Cock, collected from Ellen Plumb, Armscote, 1911.

However the same story crops up in ‘King Pharim’, and it was originally part of a much longer song – a Child ballad no less – called ‘The Carnal and the Crane’. Here’s Sharp’s notes on the song from his English Folk Carols, published in 1911.

The words in the text are given exactly as Mrs. Plumb sang them. I have collected no variants. The tune is a form of the well known ” Dives and Lazarus” air (see “Come all you worthy Christian Men,” Folk-Songs from Somerset, No. 88).
Mrs. Plumb’s lines, although they tell a complete story, are but a fragment of a very much longer carol, consisting of thirty stanzas, called “The Carnal and the Crane,” printed in Sandys’s Christmas Carols, Husk’s Songs 0f the Nativity, and elsewhere. For traditional versions with tunes, see Miss Broadwood’s English Traditional Songs and Carols, and The Folk-Song Society’s Journal (I, 183 and IV, 22 with notes).
In this latter carol the Crane instructs the Carnal (i.e. the Crow) in the facts of the Nativity, of the truth of which the two miracles of the Cock and the Miraculous Harvest are cited as evidence.
I am unable to offer any explanation of the meaning of the word “senses,” which occurs in the last two stanzas of the text. In the printed copies it is given as “fences” – evidently a confusion has somewhere arisen between the letter “s,” in its old fashioned form, and “f.” “Thrustened ” = “crowed”; it is evidently a derivative of t he Mid. Eng. thrusch which meant a chirper or twitterer.
The origin of the carol, and of the legends associated with it, is exhaustively analysed in Child’s Ballads, to which the reader is referred. The conversion of King Herod to a belief in the power of the new-born Christ in the way narrated in the text is an early legend, and one that is widely distributed, traces of it being found in the Scandinavian countries and other parts of Europe. It is not, I believe, mentioned in any of the Apocryphal Gospels, although the second miracle in the carol, the Miraculous Harvest, can be traced to that source.

The story of a roasted cock getting up and crowing was originally associated with St. Stephen. In the Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol. 4, No. 14, discussing ‘The Carnal and the Crane’ in the article Carols from Herefordshire, Lucy Broadwood refers to

the legend of the conversion of King Herod to the belief that Christ is born, by means of St. Stephen, who causes a roasted cock to rise in the dish and cry “Christus natus est!”

If you look at the VWML Digital Archive you’ll see that James Madison Carpenter also collected a Scottish version of Roud 306, although to my uninformed eyes there’s actually precious little to link the two verses of ‘Lood crew the cock’ with this carol.

 

King Herod and the Cock

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

December 20, 2020

Week 301 – Nowell, Nowell

A carol with strong connections to Cornwall. The version of ‘The First Nowell’ sung at carol services up and down the country for the last century or more is based on that printed by William Sandys in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833). Sandys commented

The carols contained in the Second Part, with the exception of the last four, are selected from upwards of one hundred obtained in different parts of the West of Cornwall, many of which, including those now published, are still in use. Some few of them are printed occasionally in the country, and also in London, Birmingham, and other places, as broadside carols; others have appeared, with some variation, in Mr. Gilbert’s collection, having been derived from similar sources; but a large portion, including some of the most curious, have, I believe, never been printed before.

This is one of those which had appeared – in a slightly different form – in Davies Gilbert’s 1822 publication Some Ancient Christmas Carols. Gilbert, from Helston in Conwall, had the carol from a manuscript prepared around 1816, and now with the Archives and Cornish Studies Service in Truro, A Book of Carols collected for Davies Gilbert Esq. M.P. and F.R.S. by John Hutchens.

Cecil Sharp only collected the song twice, both times in Cornwall, and on consecutive days. He noted this version from Mr Bartle Symons of Camborne on 10th May 1913. Mr Symons said he had learned it when he was a boy from a Mr Spargo. David Sutcliffe’s excellent new website Cecil Sharp’s People identifies this as most probably

Thomas Spargo, born 1811, a stonemason who married a widow Sally Bartle in the 1830s. She brought 3 boys and a girl to the marriage (by her first husband William Bartle). Although Sally died in 1862 and Thomas Spargo remarried, he continued to live near to the Bartle/Symons family. He did not die till 1888 and the link between the two families must have been maintained perhaps at Christmas time in the singing of this carol.

 

Nowell Nowell, as collected by Cecil Sharp from Bartle Symons

Nowell Nowell, as collected by Cecil Sharp from Bartle Symons

Sharp published the song, slightly amended, in the 1914 Journal of the Folk-Song Society. The American collector James Madison Carpenter had Mr Symon’s words in his collection, but he appears to have typed them out from the Journal. However he did encounter the carol several times on his visits to Cornwall, and you can hear cylinder and disc recordings made by Carpenter on the VWML site – for instance this recording of an unnamed singer from the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Had yesterday’s Magpie Lane concerts taken place yesterday, this carol would almost certainly have been in the programme (we left it out last year, so it was due for a comeback). We recorded it on our 2006 CD, Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell, and it’s been a regular part of our Christmas repertoire ever since. Having stood next to Ian Giles for so many years, I thought I probably wouldn’t have too much trouble learning the words, and this proved to be the case. But although I sing it in the same key as Ian, I found that I couldn’t sing it and play my normal concertina part. So I’ve switched to a different concertina, with different fingering, and that seemed to make things easier. It also helped to make this a bit less of a pale imitation of the Magpie Lane version. To distinguish it further, I decided to retain the 6/8 rhythm as noted by Sharp. This felt really awkward to start with – and, to be honest, I still prefer it in three-time – but I eventually settled into the new time signature. Just to cement the rhythm in my head, I prefaced the song with ‘The Rose’, one of many splendid morris tunes from the Oxfordshire Fieldtown tradition. Think of it as a Christmas rose.

The Rose / Nowell, Nowell

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina