Archive for ‘Songs’

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

December 19, 2020

Magpie Lane at the Holywell, 2017

Today, I should have been playing two Christmas shows at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford with Magpie Lane – my favourite gigs of the year. Alas, it was not to be.

As a small consolation, Tim Healey has sent us two videos he shot at one of our Christmas gigs in 2017, and these are now on YouTube:

Tim filmed these on his phone, from the back of the hall, so they’re not super-high quality. But they do capture something of the joyful spirit of our annual Christmas concerts.

Like many others, we’re desperately looking forward to a time when it’s safe to play in public again.

 

The ‘Wren Boys’ Song’ is associated with Irish wren-hunting traditions on 26th December, St Stephen’s day – for a bit more information see www.magpielane.co.uk/sleevenotes/knock_at_the_knocker/wren_boys.htm

‘The Trees are all bare’ is from the Copper Family of Rottingdean in Sussex. We’ve recorded this twice now, on Wassail and our most recent CD, The 25th. There are two other live recordings on this blog, from December 2013 – see Week 175 – The Trees are All Bare.

 

December 7, 2020

Week 300 – Shepherds Arise

I started this blog in August 2011 and posted to it religiously, week in week out, for five years. Since then posts have been sporadic, appearing at completely irregular intervals, but I decided to retain the “Week…” prefix. In the summer I realised that I was fast approaching Week 300 and decided this should be celebrated in some way. I’m not sure what form that celebration would have taken in a normal year, but in 2020 there seemed to be only one thing to do – assemble a virtual choir. And the choice of song, once it came to me, seemed obvious: record my favourite Christmas carol, the Copper Family’s “curly tune”, ‘Shepherds Arise’.

I transcribed the song from A song for every season, added a few extra notes to Ron’s bass line, and wrote two extra harmony parts. I then sent out the score plus a midi backing track, and invited people to record themselves singing along. In terms of musical direction, all they got was “have fun, and channel your inner Copper Family / Sheffield Carols / West Gallery spirit”. And that, it would seem, is exactly what they’ve done.

So here you have the finished article, performed by a bunch of wonderful human beings who also happen to be wonderful singers.

This being folk music, singers have interpreted the written notation in slightly different ways. And – just as I hoped they would – people have sung the carol in their own individual style. The end result is not the smooth polyphony of a cathedral choir, but – to borrow a word I’ve heard Dave Townsend use in relation to choirs of the West Gallery period – heterophony. You can hear the individual singers, and it’s all the better for it. When recording stuff remotely, on your own, with a four-square backing track, there’s the danger that it all ends up sounding a bit lifeless. Not so here. I reckon we’ve captured the spirit of a really good carol-singing session – the kind of session I love to be part of, and which we’ll all be missing this year (although, as one contributor has quite rightly commented, “I ain’t never been to a pub carol-session as tight as that before!!!”).

If you fancy joining in, well, obviously you can just make up your own harmonies and sing along to this recording. But I’ve also set up a Google folder with all of the written parts, the midi track, and even a video where you can see exactly where you are in the score as you sing along (a bit like a bouncing ball video, although there isn’t actually a ball). That video can also be found at https://youtu.be/_5fooV0OPv4

In previous posts (Week 284 and  Week 285) I wrote of how my school friend Mike and I – and eventually a number of other people – used to go out “wassailing” around Ashford and Saltwood in Kent. Mike had been given a copy of the single LP A song for every season for his seventeenth birthday. We learned ‘Shepherds Arise’ from there. We sang it the first year we went out, and it remained absolutely central to our Christmas repertoire thereafter. It was in the fact the carol we had just sung when told by a usually appreciative householder “I have to say I thought that was dull as ditchwater!”. To be fair, I suspect we sang it a lot slower than we do in this recording.

Cover of the single LP version of A Song for every Season, from discogs.com

Cover of the single LP version of A Song for every Season, from discogs.com

In terms of the oral tradition, this carol is unique to the Copper Family (if you look at the VWML entries for Roud 1207 ignore the references to ‘Abraham Newland’ – that’s an error which should be corrected shortly). And so far it only seems to have turned up a few times in manuscript sources. William Adair Pickard-Cambridge (1879 – 1957) published a four-part setting in 1926, in his book A Collection of Dorset Carols. Some of the pieces in this book had been written down by his father, who had been rector of Bloxworth in Dorset. ‘Shepherds Arise’, it seems, came from an anonymously-authored manuscript from nearby Winterborne Zelston. Pickard-Cambridge may well have tidied up both the harmonies and the words. We shall never know, as the original manuscript was destroyed when his house was hit during the Blitz, in 1940. However another Dorset version has been discovered, from Puddletown, and this is safely preserved in the Dorset Record Office. This version, transcribed and edited by Rollo Woods, was printed in West Gallery Harmony: Carols & Celebrations (WGMA, 1998). And you can find another arrangement on the Roding Music website.

(Information in the preceding paragraph based on the Wikipedia article on ‘Shepherds Arise’, the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website, and Francis Roads’ article on Pickard-Cambridge’s Dorset carols).

 

I was delighted to be joined on this recording by friends from various parts of my life. Most of the contributors have sung with at least one other person here, but we’ve definitely never all been in the same room together. There are people who, in a normal year, I would sing with regularly, with Magpie Lane and/or Christminster Singers. There are people I’ve never sung with before, except possibly in a pub session. And there are people who I sang with often back in the 1970s/early 1980s, but very rarely since.

To everyone who took part, an enormous, heartfelt, Thank You.

I’d like to mention in particular those people who rely on music for their income. Like everyone in the arts world, 2020 has been a disastrous year for them. Do check out the links I’ve given below – you might find a few tasty CDs you could buy as presents for friends or family, or even just for yourself. Every little helps.

 

Several of the singers on this recording are, or have been, associated with the Oxford folk scene in one way or another.

Jon Boden is one of several people here who, I’m sure, need no introduction. He now lives in the 21st century folk Mecca that is Sheffield – indeed, his nearest pub is one with a flourishing carol-singing tradition. But he has strong links with Oxford, having lived for several years in a room above the Half Moon, the city’s best known session pub. It was of course Jon’s A Folk Song A Day project which originally inspired me to start this blog, and it’s chastening to think, as I celebrate 300 posts, that Jon did considerably more than that in just one year.

https://www.jonboden.com/ – and look out for the 2021 Spiers and Boden reunion.

Jackie Oates and I were both involved in a project put together by Paul Sartin for the 2011 Broadstairs Folk Festival. She moved to Oxford shortly after that, and has since become a leading light in the local folk scene. In 2019 she was Musician in Residence at the Museum of English Rural Life, part of the University of Reading, where I work. Some of the songs to come out of that residency were included on her most recent CD, Needle Pin, Needle Pin, recorded with John Spiers.

https://www.jackieoates.co.uk/

Jim Causley is a big champion of Devon traditions, so it’s entirely appropriate that I first saw him singing at the Sidmouth Festival. We first met, I think, at a pub session in Bampton, Oxfordshire, and over the years our paths have crossed at various folk clubs and festivals. Jim has kept himself busy during lockdown, releasing the entirely home-made Cyprus Well II, and with a new CD, Devonshire Roses, due for release soon.

https://www.jimcausley.co.uk/

George Sansome and I have met only once, and briefly at that. He’s singer and guitarist with the excellent Granny’s Attic and earlier this year released a really good eponymous solo album. Through various online exchanges it emerged that I really like his stuff and, rather gratifyingly, he’s a fan of both Magpie Lane and this blog.

https://georgesansome.co.uk/

Ian Blake was the original clarinettist in the Mellstock Band, and we got to know each other while recording the album Under the Greenwood Tree. Ian has lived in Australia for many years, but that doesn’t stop him from playing with the group SANS, whose other members hail from the UK, Finland and Armenia.

https://www.ianblake.net/

Sophie Thurman is a fellow Magpie Laneite. Round about now we’d have been limbering up for a series of Christmas gigs, the highlight, as ever, being our afternoon and evening concerts at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. That’s one of my favourite days of the year. But, much as I miss playing gigs with Magpie Lane, what I’ve really missed this year is meeting up with the rest of the band, and the enormous fun we all have, whether we’re performing, recording, or just rehearsing.

Some people reading this will already have all the Magpie Lane CDs. But did you know you could also get a restorative shot of Sophie’s vocals by buying a CD by Jenkinson’s Folly?

Tom Bower was a founder member of both Magpie Lane and the Christminster Singers. And he provided the magnificent cover illustration for our most recent Christmas CD, The 25th.

https://sites.google.com/site/worktombower/

Marguerite Hutchinson was Tom’s replacement in Magpie Lane, appearing on Six for Gold and Knock at the Knocker. She returned to play Northumbrian smallpipes on The 25th.

She’s joined here by her husband Giles Hutchinson, and her niece Lucy Davies.

Caroline Butler sang on the Under the Greenwood Tree album, and is now a fully-fledged member of the Mellstock Band. She’s also a member of the The Oxford Waits. We sing together in the Christminster Singers, and have been playing together in the dance band Geckoes for 30 years. Caroline is also an accomplished artist.

http://carolineritson.co.uk/

Becca Heddle is another member of the Christminster Singers, as well as being an award-winning writer of books for children.

 

I’m particularly pleased to be joined on this recording by the members of my first ever folk group, Gomenwudu.

Mike Eaton was my best friend at school and, as detailed in various posts here over the years, played a vital role in turning me on to folk music: he lent me his Dad’s copy of Below the Salt around this time of the year in 1975, and then he introduced me to the Copper Family.

Jonathan Jarvis was in the year below Mike and me, but we got to know each other through school choir and orchestra (where he was a much more accomplished performer than Mike and me). The three of us  were talking one lunchtime just inside the main school doors, when some spotty little oik from the third year – no doubt trying to get in from the playground when school rules said only senior boys were allowed in – commented “you look like three twins”. I don’t know if Jon remembers that, but I was pleased to find recently that it’s as fresh in Mike’s mind as it is in mine.

We got to know Gill Wren through her brother, who was in our class at school, and when we discovered that she liked folk music, she was quickly invited into the group.

As was Alison Tebbs. Her family home was absolutely at the centre of our social world when Mike and I were in the sixth form. Her wonderfully hospitable parents George and Beth put up with the presence of countless teenage boys in their living room and kitchen, talking too loud, making rubbish jokes, drinking famously dreadful coffee, and listening to music (there must have been others, but I particularly remember Dylan, the Beatles, Steeleye, Lindisfarne, Sex Pistols, Horslips, and Barclay James Harvest). At the end of the evening, no matter how many of us there were, George would pack us all into the back of his estate car and drive us home.

When making her recording for this project, Alison was joined by her daughter, Zoe Tebbs.

Gomenwudu singing at my 18th Birthday party, 1978

Gomenwudu singing at my 18th Birthday party, 1978.

And – last but not least – I’m joined by family members Carol Turner and Joe Turner, both of whom have made previous appearances on this blog.

Carol and I have been members of the Christminster Singers since the beginning. Carol sang harmony vocals (“spine-tingling” vocals according to Dave Arthur, and I’m not going to disagree) on my first, and so far only, solo album; and in the summer of 2012 she depped with Magpie Lane for an unwell Ian Giles at a couple of festivals.

Joe has also depped for Mat Green with Magpie Lane and, in 2010 stood in for Paul Sartin at a few Bellowhead gigs. More often playing electric guitar or drums in recent years, you can check out Joe’s band Junk Whale at https://junkwhale.bandcamp.com/music.

A massive Thank You once more to all of them.

And, finally, many thanks to the Copper Family whose treasury of songs and singing traditions continue to be a joy and an inspiration.

 

Shepherds Arise

Alison Tebbs, Andy Turner, Becca Heddle, Carol Turner, Caroline Butler, George Sansome, Giles Hutchinson, Gill Wren, Ian Blake, Jackie Oates, Jim Causley, Joe Turner, Jon Boden, Jonathan Jarvis, Lucy Davies, Marguerite Hutchinson, Mike Eaton, Sophie Thurman, Tom Bower, Zoe Tebbs – vocals.

 

 

Detail of a miniature of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the De Lisle Psalter. Copyright the British Library.

Detail of a miniature of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the De Lisle Psalter (Arundel 83 II). Copyright the British Library.

 

 

November 16, 2020

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

October 5, 2020

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

September 27, 2020

Week 296 – The Long Peggin’ Awl

I learned this song from Folk Song in England by A.L.Lloyd, which I borrowed from my local public library in about 1976. Lloyd includes it as an example of the

profusion of humorous songs whose erotic metaphors concern the miller’s grinding stones, the weaver’s shuttle (and its to-and-from as he works at the loom the young woman carries beneath her apron), the blocking-iron of the priapic jolly tinker (‘She brought me though the kitchen and she brought me through the hall, and the servants cried: The devil, are you going to block us all?’), or the cobbler’s awl, as in this song recorded in 1954 from Harry Cox, the Norfolk singer, by Peter Kennedy.

(For examples of songs about those other trades see The Maid and the Miller on this blog, O.J. Abbott’s song ‘The Weaver’, and ‘The Jolly Tinker’ – preferably the version recorded in Mohill, County Leitrim, from the irrepressible Thomas Moran)

I stopped singing the song after a while, because I thought I’d got the tune wrong. I’m not sure why I didn’t just learn it again properly – especially as, I now realise, I had access to a recording of Harry Cox himself singing it on the LP Songs of Seduction which I had borrowed from the library, and recorded onto cassette without hesitation at the time or, indeed, regret at any time since. That was the first record I heard of traditional singers and it made a big impression on me. But I have absolutely no recollection of this song being on the LP – I could have sworn I only heard Harry Cox’s version on the expanded CD reissue put out by Rounder in 2000. Well, not for the first time just recently, I find that my memory is playing tricks on me – a sign of things to come, no doubt, as I enter my seventh decade!

We recorded a nice arrangement of this – with Benji Kirkpatrick on vocals – on the Magpie Lane CD Six for Gold and it was after this that I did finally learn the song properly. I’m not sure why I overlooked it while this blog was in its weekly heyday, but I’m glad to rectify the omission now. It’s only five verses, and lasts less than 2 minutes, but it’s still a joy to sing.

In case you don’t know what a cobbler’s awl looks like, here’s one from the 1840s, recovered at Erebus Bay, King William Island, up in the frozen North of Canada – abandoned by a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition.

Cobbler's awl: a relic of Sir John Franklin's last expedition 1845-48, from the National Maritime Museum.

Cobbler’s awl: a relic of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition 1845-48, from the National Maritime Museum.

The Long Peggin’ Awl

 

August 27, 2020

Week 295 – My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him

I’m not sure what brought this song to mind a few weeks back. My friend Mike and I learned it in the late seventies from the wonderful Silly Sisters LP. During the intervening years I’ve joined in the chorus numerous times at folk clubs, but don’t recall having sung the song itself. Still, it’s funny what sticks in the furthest recesses of your mind, and it didn’t take very much work to release these words from wherever they’d been hiding all these years. And then it seemed a shame not to post the song here, before I forgot all about it again.

I’d assumed this song came from – and had probably been “improved by” – A.L.Lloyd, and I’m at least partially right, I think. Lloyd prints a set of words in Folk Song in England which are similar (but not identical) to those collected by Sharp in 1904 from George Wyatt at Harptree, Somerset.

O Dear O, collected from George Wyatt, Harptree, Somerset. From the VWML archive catalogue.

O Dear O, collected from George Wyatt, Harptree, Somerset. From the VWML archive catalogue.

O Dear O, collected from George Wyatt, Harptree, Somerset. From the VWML archive catalogue.

The notes at the back of the book say “MS Text composite”, while the source for the minor key tune is, in typically vague, unverifiable fashion, given as “A.L.L. (Dorset 1939)”. In Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland, Peter Kennedy gives a Scottish version where much of the tune is major, but ends on the relative minor. The versions collected in the West Country, however, by Sharp and Hammond, share a tune which is definitely in the major key.

Listening to Lloyd singing the song on The Foggy Dew and Other Traditional English Love Songs, he is clearly the source of the minor key tune ubiquitous on the folk scene today (and which I sing here). But he actually delivers it in a gentler, more nuanced way, and the tune that he collected and/or concocted has more variety than the Silly Sisters’ rather stark version. While one may regret that Lloyd wasn’t more transparent with his sources, he was clearly a great performer (who I regret never having seen live); and when he “improved” a folk song, it pretty well always ended up, to contemporary ears at least, a better song.

He's got no courage in him - from Broadside Ballads Online

He’s got no courage in him – from Broadside Ballads Online

 

My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him

August 19, 2020

Week 294 – When You and I Were Young, Maggie

I always thought that I had first heard this song while watching Top of the Pops in early 1983, when I saw it performed in a pretty ghastly, slushy version by Foster & Allan (the song reached number 27 in the UK charts). However I see that De Dannan’s (obviously superior) recording of it, on The Star-Spangled Molly, came out in 1981, so I must have heard that one first. Either way, it never suggested itself as a song I would want to learn. A couple of months on from that Top of the Pops, I recorded ‘Maggie’ being sung by Charlie Bridger, which of course raised it in the authenticity stakes, as far as I was concerned; but it still wasn’t a song I really considered learning.

At some point in the 90s or 2000s I did toy with it, although I think I saw it mostly as a vehicle for a particular sort of parlour ballad concertina accompaniment. Then a few months ago, at a lockdown Zoom meeting of the Traditional Song Forum, Steve Roud mentioned this song. He said that he felt a particular affection for Southern English traditional singers, and also that there were songs to which he’d previously paid little attention but which, as he got older, seemed to have a greater resonance. He cited ‘Maggie’ as an example. Given that the song appears to have been recorded only a handful of times by English collectors, it may well have been Charlie’s version which he had in mind.

Prompted by this, I got the words out again and decided it was finally time to learn it properly. Initially I still saw it as a song which needed accompaniment, and over the next few weeks, on various boxes, I tried it in D, Eb, F and G. But – as with ‘The Isle of St. Helena’ – singing the song without an accompaniment, just to cement the words in my head, I found that I really liked it that way. It means I can sing more freely, and properly concentrate on the song. Also, I don’t have to compromise on what key to sing it in – G’s probably easiest for me to play a good anglo accompaniment, but it’s a bit too high… This way, I can sing it at whatever pitch I feel like on the day (E-ish in this recording!).

 

The following notes on the song’s origin were posted on Mudcat by Dale Young, who found them on a website about John McCormack, the Irish tenor:

According to the notes by Philip Lieson Miller for RCA LP ARL1-1698 (“When You and I Were Young Maggie.” Robert White, Tenor), this song commemorates one Maggie Clark, born in Glanford, Ontario. George Johnson also was born in this area, where he eventually became a teacher in a local school. The two became engaged and eventually married. The song alludes to features in the countryside there, including an old sawmill located on a creek near Maggie’s home. After marriage the two moved to Cleveland, but Maggie died less than a year later (in May 1865). She was buried near her old home, and Washington too came home to Canada, where he was a Professor at the University of Toronto. The poem was first published in 1864. After his wife’s death, Washington arranged for it to be set to music by Butterfield, who then lived in Detroit. He was a music teacher and minor composer, whose numerous other works are largely forgotten. The poem and the song attained great popularity in post-Civil War America. Maggie’s sister published this background information in 1941, in response apparently to various erroneous tales of its origins that had circulated.

I had thought of the song as being about an old couple, “aged and grey”, but still very much in love after all these years. Reading the notes above, at first I thought “ah no, it’s an old man still in love with his wife, even though she died years ago”. But hang on – he published the song in 1864, while his wife died the following year, in 1865. So it was actually written by a young, newly-married man, using his imagination to portray how he would feel in forty or fifty years’ time. You’ll find more detail in this 1933 article from the Canadian MacLean’s magazine.

There’s a completely different set of words sung to the same tune, where the last line of each verse is “And you said you loved only me”. According to that same Mudcat discussion, that version was written by Seàn O’Casey for his play The Plough and the Stars with the woman’s name changed to fit that of his lead female character, Nora Clitheroe. However, when Mary Black recorded this version with De Danann, to the annoyance of Noras worldwide, she changed the name back to Maggie.

 

 

When You And I Were Young Maggie, published by Oliver Ditson & Co., 451 Washington Street, Boston, 1866. From the Lester Levy Sheet Music collection.

When You And I Were Young Maggie, published by Oliver Ditson & Co., 451 Washington Street, Boston, 1866. From the Lester Levy Sheet Music collection.

 

 

When You and I Were Young, Maggie