I learned it from the Silly Sisters LP, which I must have got not long after it came out. Actually I say I learned it – it’s one of those songs where at any given time in the last 40 years I could probably have sung about 95% of the song, but never properly nailed it until now. And I have to say it was worth making the effort to learn it properly – it’s a really good song.
On this recording, the accompaniment is provided (unwittingly) by Ian Kearey playing an epinette de Vosges with two pencils (HB, as I recall). I sampled this from an old Oyster Band LP, looped it, pitch-shifted it slightly, and played around with it a bit more in Audacity, Nero Wave Editor and Magix Audio Cleaning Lab. And hey presto! here it is.
Swan Arcade recorded this song on their 1986 album Diving for Pearls, and it’s an outstanding example of their exuberant, no-holds-barred approach to harmony singing. I got the words from Hymnary.org (other online hymnals are available) from where I learn that it was written in 1911 by the prolific American hymn-writer Charles Austin Miles (1868-1946). I don’t know where Swan Arcade learned it from, but there are various recordings you can find online, including one by the Sons Of The Pioneers, with Roy Rogers on vocals. It’s OK, but not a patch on the Swan Arcade version.
I worked out some time ago that this would sound great on a C/G anglo – but that I couldn’t actually sing it comfortably in C. So when I asked Bampton Morris Fool Rob Fidler if I might borrow his Bb/F instrument, recording this song was uppermost in my mind. I must confess I still haven’t learned the words properly, but I thought I’d better get it recorded sooner rather than later – one of these days Rob is going to ask for his concertina back!
Another week, another lady living in the North country, and once again things do not end well for her. This, of course, is much less to do with the fact that she lives in the North, than that she finds herself a character in a Child Ballad – and not many of those have a happy ending.
This very concise version of what is usually a much longer ballad was collected by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Eliza Woodberry of Ash Priors in Somerset (also the source of the version of ‘Come all you worthy Christian men’ in the Oxford Book of Carols). Sharp included it in his Folk Songs from Somerset, Series 4, and Sharp’s tireless assistant and evangelist Maud Karpeles printed it in her 2-volume collection, The Crystal Spring, which is where I learned it.
The Cruel Mother, as collected from Mrs Eliza Woodberry, from the Full English.
Here’s one of those songs I have been meaning to learn for years… well over 30 years, in fact having originally heard it in the early 1980s on the LP 1977 by Bob Davenport and the Rakes.
Bob Davenport learned it from the Scottish traveller singer and accordion player, Davie Stewart. You can find Davie’s version on Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland Vol. 2, the Rounder Records reissue of the Caedmon / Topic anthology The Child Ballads 2 from the Folk Songs of Britain series (hint: it’s easier and considerably cheaper to buy this album as a download than an actual CD).
There are various theories about this song being based on actual people and events (see the song’s entry on the Mainly Norfolk website). But whether or not there’s any historical basis for the song is really irrelevant – it makes no difference to the power of the story and the song.
The verse which always caught my attention was
Her hair it was three quarters long
The colour of it was yellow
She’s wrapped it round his middle so small
And she’s carried him home from Yarrow.
The image of the grieving lover with her hair “three quarters long” is what always came into my head whenever I thought of this song, and it’s that which – finally – prompted me to learn the song.
Back in the autumn I had a conversation with an artist friend, Cathy Ward, about taking part in an exhibition she’ll be putting on at Conquest House in Canterbury, in May this year. Over the years Cathy has produced a number of astonishingly detailed drawings of, or inspired by, women’s hair. I’ve placed a couple of examples below, and you can see plenty more on her website at http://www.catharyneward.com/project/drawing-archive/. As far as I know, Cathy has never turned her hand to illustrating Child Ballads, but if she decides to give it a go, this song might be the obvious place to start.
I like the idea of a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, but in practice I just can’t get on with a lot of the music – neither the arrangements, nor the way it’s sung. So while I prepare my stuffing, and giblet stock, and cranberry sauce, I’m far more likely to be listening to carolling from Sheffield or Padstow, or The Messiah, or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. So here’s nine carols as an alternative. All have appeared on this blog over the last five years – except, bizarrely, ‘Foster’, which I always think I’ve posted before, but somehow never have. I hope they get you into whatever mood you’d like to be in as Christmas approaches. Now – is it time to put the sprouts on yet?
1. While Shepherds watched their flocks by night (Foster)
After last week’s shipwreck, I thought the blog could do with a bit of Christmas cheer. And this is very jolly indeed. Like ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’ I learned it from the Oysterband’s John Jones, and it’s a carol sung in Meltham, the South Yorkshire village where John was brought up.
It was written by Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915), an American hymn-writer who seems to have had more than her fair share of pseudonyms, and was published in Song Worship for Sunday Schools (1884). There it is credited solely to L.O.Emerson – not another of Crosby’s noms-de-plume, but joint editor of the collection. I assume it was he who set Miss Crosby’s text to music.
Ring Merry Bells, from Song Worship for Sunday Schools (1884), via hymnary.org
John Jones used to sing just the first and last verses, but having discovered a couple more online, I thought I’d include them all here – I rather like the rose of Sharon verse.
The song was very nearly featured on the Magpie Lane album Wassail. We recorded it, but it was cut from the final mix – there was a rather fancy a cappella section which, the lead and harmony vocals having been recorded at separate recording sessions, didn’t quite hang together. Having recently listened back to that outtake, however, there’s a possibility we might revive it next year.
Although I’ve usually referred to the song as ‘Ring, Merry Bells’ I believe it’s known as ‘Morning Star’ in Meltham, and that title prompted the inclusion of the Bledington morris tune ‘Morning Star’ in this arrangement.
A telegram received at Folkestone from Cromer leaves little doubt as to the fate of the brig Woodside, of Folkestone, one of her boats having been picked up. The Woodside left Sunderland on Dec. 20, and has not been heard of. She carried a crew of eight, and was bringing home a Dover sailor who had been discharged from Sunderland Hospital after illness.
Dover Express – Friday 18 January 1895
It’s coming up to Christmas, and the blog returns – but not with “a song for the time when the sweet bells chime”, as the piece popular at Yorkshire carolling sessions has it; more a song for the time when the bell shall toll…
Traditional singers, especially gypsies, would often end a song by saying “and that’s a true story”, but this one really is. It tells in five simple verses of the shipwreck of the brig the Woodside, returning home from Sunderland to Folkestone, which, like a number of other ships, foundered in the terrible storm of 22nd December 1894.
Between December 21st and 22nd, 1894, a whole fleet of British and German trawlers and cargoes were lost during the great storm over the North Sea. All were reported as missing and for some of them, floating wreckage was found
Just before Christmas 1894 the whole of the North of England was battered by a very severe gale. Commentators stated that nothing had been seen like it for over 40 years and it left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
It started around midnight on the morning of Saturday 22nd December 1894 and gradually increased in strength. The speed of the winds became so strong that they started to cause structural damage. In Leeds the chimney of Messrs. Richard Bailes & Co, Chemical Works at Woodhouse Carr was blown down onto the adjoining house on Speedwell Street. At the time a mother and her six children occupied the house, one of whom was sadly killed. Reports from Liverpool to Whitby reported similar tragedies with many people crushed or hit by falling buildings.
Two trams were blown clean off the rails in Leeds and many shop windows were blown in. In Pudsey a workman narrowly escaped death when the chimney of the factory he was working in came down. Chaos was caused to communications when, starting at midnight, one by one, the 20 telegraph wires linking Leeds with London started to fail. By 1:30 am they were all gone, there was also no communications between Leeds and Derby, Birmingham, Bristol and whole of the west of England, most other places in the north of England were also affected. The telegraph office issued a notice that all messages would only be taken at the sender’s risk.
Grave fears are entertained at Sunderland for the safety of the vessels – George, of Southampton; Woodside, of Folkestone; and Ketch Elizabeth, of Sunderland, which left the Wear on the 21st of December, and have not since been heard of. The crews number 20. Anxiety is also felt concerning the steamer Prescott, which left the Wear on the 29th ult. For Marseiiles. [and which was indeed lost with all hands]
The Globe, Tuesday 08 January 1895
Details of the Woodside and its crew were related in the Folkestone Express, January 1895:
THE LOSS OF THE WOODSIDE COLLIER.
There is now unhappily no doubt that this vessel foundered in the recent disastrous gale in the North Sea on Saturday, December the 22nd, and that the crew were drowned. No particulars of the disaster will ever be known. Her crew consisted of six men and a boy. Their names were Henry Milton, of Fenchurch street, master, who leaves behind a widow and family, the youngest child being about 12; Jesse Wooderson, mate, widow and three young children; Benjamin Cotterell, ordinary seaman, recently married; John McKay, able seaman, single; William Baker, able seaman, single; and Charles Woollett, boy. There was also on board a man named James Batchelor, supposed to belong to Whitstable, who had broken his leg, and the captain was giving a passage to Folkestone.
The young man, Benjamin Cotterell, was a son of Mr. Cotterell, of the Ham and Beef Warehouse, High Street. He has another son who during the heavy gale was in great peril in another ship, not far away from the spot where the Woodside is supposed to have foundered. Writing on board the schooner Via, from Gateshead-on-Tyne, on Boxing Day, to his father, he says: “We arrived here safely on Monday evening, after having a fearful time of it. We left London on Wednesday, blowing a gale, and got out clear of the river, when the forepeak halyards came down, and we had to put back to Sheerness with the head of the sail split. Left again on Thursday morning, and went into Harwich in the evening. Left Friday morning, and got down off Flamborough Head on Saturday morning at four o’clock, when that terrible gale struck us, It had been blowing a moderate gale all night. We were blown right off the land – blew all our head sails to ribbons and two of the head stays with them. At last we got her hove to, with only a close-reefed mainsail on her, and oil bags over the side. I very nearly lost the run of my mess, owing to the lower topsail. We lay hove to for about 10 hours, seas breaking aboard all the time. I think it was a lot worse than last year. I was over to Sunderland yesterday, and was told the Woodside left on Thursday. I hope she came all right out of it.”
We understand arrangements are being made to raise a fund for the benefit of the widows.
It seems likely that this song was locally composed as part of, or to draw attention to, those fund-raising efforts. It has been collected only once, from the brothers John and Ernest ‘Ted’ Lancefield, of Aldington in Kent. They were employed as gardeners at Goldenhurst, Noel Coward’s country home. Francis Collinson, who noted the song down in June 1942, would have moved in the same circles as Coward – both were involved in musical theatre – so it is no surprise that he should have visited Goldenhurst; he might even have been invited over specifically to meet the musical Lancefield brothers.
In Collinson’s MS the song is headed ‘The Woodside Woodison’. The second word in this title always puzzled me but, looking at the list of victims above, I see that Jesse Wooderson was mate of the Woodside. Aldington is not far from Folkestone where the Woodside was based, so the Lancefields may well have known members of the Wooderson family. I’m not sure how old Ted Lancefield was when he died in 1954, but it’s not inconceivable that he knew Jesse Wooderson himself.
‘The Woodside Woodison’ as collected from John & Ted Lancefield, June 1942. From the Francis Collinson MSS via the Full English.
Well, after a brief hiatus, here’s the first non-weekly instalment of A Folk Song A Week. I learned this from one of my absolute favourite singers, Kevin Mitchell, via his 1977 Topic LP Free and Easy. Kevin calls it ‘Two Strings on a Bow’, and he learned it from Anne Brolly of Dungiven, County Derry. The LP notes say
American singers call this song The Bird’s Courtship or The Leather Winged Bat
(indeed I was reminded of the song recently when listening to Elizabeth Laprelle’s solo album, The Birds’ Advice)
– it’s quite common there but only once has it been collected in the British Isles; Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle obtained it from Liam O’Connor of Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone…
Kevin has changed the tune of the chorus so that the air as a whole is that of the hornpipe The Cuckoo’s Nest – a not inappropriate combination of tune and words.
The version collected by Peter Kennedy from Liam O’Connor in 1953 was included in his mammoth book Folksongs of Britain and Ireland.
So, ladies and gentlemen, here is my two hundred and sixtieth consecutive weekly post. Which means that A Folk Song A Week is five years old.
When I started the blog, I guesstimated that I knew about 150 songs. Obviously that turned out to be a significant understatement – the last time I did a reckoning, I counted up about another fifty songs that I know, plus more that I don’t know yet, but really must get around to learning some time. Given time, I hope to post all of those here. However, after five years, I’m going to cut myself some slack. This is certainly not the end of the blog, but I will no longer be maintaining a strict weekly publishing schedule. That’s not to say there won’t be a post next week, or the week after – but don’t count on it. So, if you want to be sure of never missing a post, do subscribe using the tools on the right.
I have to say, starting up this blog was one of the best decisions I ever made. I started it at a time when I really wasn’t doing enough singing – this way, I thought, I’ll be forced to sing at least once a week. Also, a couple of years previously, I had had a medical problem with my throat, which prevented me from singing for the best part of a year. I was (am) afraid that the problem might return, and I wanted to document my repertoire while I could. Primarily for my own benefit, but also for my children, and for posterity – whether or not posterity was remotely interested.
Obviously, I can’t speak for posterity, but it has been exceedingly gratifying to receive many positive comments – here, on Facebook, and just bumping into people at gigs, sessions and elsewhere. So thank you, everyone who has had nice things to say. I started the blog for myself, but it’s still very satisfying to know that other people appreciate it.
And I’ve learned so much writing up the weekly blog entries. Even where I thought I knew quite a bit about the song already, a bit of digging around on my bookshelves and on the web has invariably produced further information. There’s such a wealth of information online now for anyone with an interest in these old songs, and the sources continue to multiply. When I began, we were still marvelling at the EFDSS Take Six resource. But that turned out just to be whetting our appetite for the riches which the Full English archive would offer. The Bodleian, too, has expanded and improved its Broadside Ballad site. And then there’s sites like Tobar an Dualchais, Gloucestershire Traditions and, one I found just recently, The music of Sally Sloane. My heartfelt thanks to all the people involved in building and updating these sites. And to everyone whose contributions to Mudcat I have plundered over the last five years, especially to the late Malcolm Douglas, who I never knew, but whose name I am always pleased to see cropping up on a thread about a song’s origins.
And a massive thank you to Reinhard Zierke, whose Mainly Norfolk site is normally my first port of call when researching a song (if only because it always provides me with a Roud number and a link to the Full English), and whose comments here have been unfailingly constructive and helpful. Reinhard – you’re a gent.
As for this song, for a long while I’ve had it stored up to use as The Last Song On The Blog. Well, this isn’t actually the Last Post, but it seemed like a suitable time to post it here. Bob Copper sings it on Turn o’ the Year, disc 4 of the Leader A Song for Every Season box set; although I learned it from my mate Adrian Russell, on one of the sing-songs we used to have driving between country pubs in Kent. Being polite, Bob Copper sings “give the old bounder some beer”. Adrian, I’m pretty sure, always used to sing “give the old bugger some beer”, which I imagine is closer to what Bob and his father’s Rottingdean companions actually sang between songs in the Black Horse.
At the end of a song, quite often the company in general would sing,
A jolly good song and jolly well sung,
Jolly good company, everyone;
If you can beat it you’re welcome to try,
But always remember the singer is dry.
Give the old bounder some beer —
He’s had some, he’s had some.
Then give the old bounder some more.
Half a pint of Burton won’t hurt’n, I’m certain,
O, half a pint of Burton won’t hurt’n, I’m sure.
Clearly, it was not only in Sussex that this refrain was used in such a way. On Mudcat, Robin Turner (no relation, as far as I know) recalls
As a lad in the late 1940s and early 50s, I was taken to many concerts of the Ullswater Pack, in pubs such as the White Lion Patterdale, and the Travellers rest at Glenridding…
Many of the tunes I still recall, and I particularly recall the enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience participation at these concerts. After each singer, the MC for the evening would lead everybody in a short chorus of appreciation of the singer, which went:
“Its a Jolly good song, and its jolly well sung, Jolly good company every-one, And he who can beat it is welcome to try, But always remember the Singer is Dry!” followed by a common roar “Sup, yer Bloodhounds, Sup!”
Old, old songs belonging to the early Victorian age were given by soldiers who had great emotion and broke down sometimes in the middle of a verse. There were funny men dressed in the Mother Twankey style or in burlesque uniforms who were greeted with veils of laughter by their comrades. An Australian giant played some clever card tricks, and another Australian recited Kipling’s “Gunga Din” with splendid fire. And between every “turn” the soldiers in the fiels roared out a chorus:—
“Jolly good song,
Jolly well sung,
If you can think of a better you’re welcome to try,
But don’t forget the singer is dry,
Give the poor beggar some beer!”
Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, where they pride themselves on plain speaking, this recording of the Holme Valley Beagles suggests that there’s no messing around with “bounder” or “beggar”. Here the refrain is
Sup, you bugger, sup!
And so say all of us.
Happy old man drinking glass of beer, 1937.
Oh, there’s one last thank you before I go: to Jon Boden, whose A Folk Song A Day provided the original inspiration for this blog, and several others besides. Look what you started, Jon…
I learned this song from the Watersons’ 1981 LP Green Fields and for pretty much all of the intervening 35 years it has been one of my default songs to fall back on, when I need a chorus song in a singaround or pub session.
Bert Lloyd – Topic’s go-to man for sleeve notes back in the seventies and early eighties – states in the notes for this song that it was
noted by Frank Kidson from Mrs Kate Thompson of Knaresborough.
The booklet notes for the Carthy Chronicles, which features a different Watersons recording of the song, expand on this:
Young Banker has words collected from a maidservant from the Isle of Axholme near Doncaster, set to a tune which Frank Kidson collected from Kate Thompson of Knaresborough
The Full English, of course, has the tune which Frank Kidson collected from Mrs Thompson in Knaresborough; while the words (with a slightly different tune), which were noted down by Alfred Atkinson from an unnamed singer in the Isle of Axholme – in North Lincolnshire, between Doncaster and Scunthorpe – in 1904, can be found in the 1905 Journal of the Folk-Song Society.
Other versions have been collected in Lincolnshire (by Percy Grainger), Gloucestershire (Alfred Williams and Cecil Sharp), Somerset (Sharp), and Herefordshire (Ella Leather).
I learned the song to sing with Caroline Jackson-Houlston, and it was she who typed out the words for me, almost certainly from the JFSS. Whereas the Watersons (following the collected version) have the last line of the chorus as “For my young banker I will go there”, Caroline changed this to “For my young banker I will go bare”. This seemed to make more sense in context and, she thought, was almost certainly how the line had originally been written. But in fact the broadside version (titled ‘A new song called The banking boy’) which you can see on the Bodleian’s Broadside site, also has that line as “For the young banker I will go there”.
A new song called The banking boy – 19th century ballad sheet from Broadside Ballads Online.
The young banker in this song, incidentally, is not a high-flying, cocaine-snorting, economy-destroying financial whizzkid, but “a man who made embankments, stone walls and such” (A.L.Lloyd), or perhaps “A labourer who makes or repairs the banks of waterways; spec. one who digs drains, ditches, or canals” (OED).