Archive for ‘Songs’

June 1, 2019

Week 283 – The Gipsey’s Song

This is a poem by John Clare (1793–1864), written around 1825, which I discovered and furnished with a tune back in about 1984. Unlike much of Clare’s poetry, it’s written very much in the style of a contemporary broadside ballad, and demands to be sung rather than read. And, unlike The Crow sat on the Willow, which I’ve never made a serious effort to learn, I used to sing this with Chris Wood back in the 1980s, and it’s recently entered the Magpie Lane repertoire.

John Clare by William Hilton, 1820, from Wikimedia

John Clare by William Hilton, 1820, from Wikimedia

Unlike other Romantic poets, Clare was not so far removed from gypsies in terms of social status, and he knew gypsies first-hand.

In The tie that binds: Gypsies, John Clare and English folk culture, Kristine Douaud writes that Clare

found their encampments a natural and civilising component of the landscape, and saw their seasonal occupations as part of rural life. Further, he recognised the Gypsies as transmitters of collective memory through their oral culture; related to this, and of the utmost importance, is the role the Gypsies’ music played in traditional life.

She continues

Gypsy dances and music form the predominant theme of many of Clare’s journal entries and autobiographical writings during this period; music is clearly a main connecting thread between Clare and the Gypsies. In a long autobiographical fragment (‘[Gipseys]’), Clare explains that his acquaintances with the gypsies were made at local ‘feasts and merry making’ (AW 1983: 69). His first contact was with ‘the Boswells Crew as they were calld[;] a popular tribe well known about here and famous for fidd[l]ers and fortunetellers’ (AW 1983: 69). As a young man, Clare ‘often assos[i]ated with them at their camps to learn the fiddle of which [he] was very fond’ (AW 1983: 69).

Kristine Douaud, The tie that binds: Gypsies, John Clare and English folk culture, Romani Studies Vol. 18, Issue 1, (June 2008), pp1-38.

AW= Anne Williams, Clare’s ‘Gypsies’, Explicator Vol. 39, Issue 3, (Spring 1981), pp9-11

It was apparently John Grey, who was married to Tyso Boswell’s daughter Sophia, who taught Clare the fiddle. Thereafter he could frequently be found exchanging tunes with gypsies who camped nearby

the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encam[p]d near the town and as I began to be a desent scraper [i.e. good fiddler] we had a desent round of merriment

Clearly in this poem Clare has romanticised the gypsy lifetstyle – did they really blithely dance barefoot through winter’s cold? I doubt it. But it’s a good song nonetheless. And one only has to look at “I’m a Romany Rai” for an example of a song written by non-gypsies, very much romanticising the gypsy life, yet taken up enthusiastically by travellers and, in the hands of a singer like Phoebe Smith, a musical and emotional tour de force.

Because this is a poem, by a proper poet, one feels a certain pressure to sing the words as the author intended. But, while not deliberately altering Clare’s words, in re-learning this song after 30 years I’ve actually treated it like any other song, and may well have departed in places from the original. To make up for this, I’ve retained Clare’s spelling of the poem’s title.

 

The Gipsey’s Song

April 19, 2019

Week 282 – Seamen Bold

There’s a very well-known version of this song – usually known as ‘The Ship in Distress’ – set to a suitably dramatic minor key tune. The fine tune came from a Mr Harwood, of Watersfield near Pulborough, and was one of four versions collected in Sussex by George Butterworth. It’s in the The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and Martin Carthy recorded it, with a typically atmospheric fiddle accompaniment from Dave Swarbrick, on the LP But Two Came By. I was familiar with both of those sources, I think, by my late teens. So when I came across another Sussex version (the song never seems to have been collected in any other county) in Bob Copper’s book A Song for Every Season, I was intrigued by the fact that this macabre tale was set to quite a jaunty major key tune – it’s pretty much exactly the same as the “normal” tune, but transposed from minor to major. Since noone else seemed to be singing this version I determined to learn it myself. And, some 40 years later, it’s finally happened.

You can hear Bob Copper singing ‘Seamen Bold’ on the Leader box set, A Song for Every Season (assuming you’re lucky enough to have access to this long deleted classic). He revisited the song  in 1998 on the CD Coppersongs 3, which is one of the few Copper Family recordings I don’t seem to have in my collection. More recently, an older recording became available on the Topic 3-CD set Good People, Take Warning – sung by Bob’s father Jim Copper in 1951.

 

Seamen Bold, noted from Jim Copper by Francis Collinson. From the VWML Archive.

Seamen Bold, noted from Jim Copper by Francis Collinson. From the VWML Archive.

If you’re interested in learning more about songs of cannibalism (or cannibalism narrowly averted) in the tradition, check out Paul Cowdell’s article Cannibal Ballads: Not Just a Question of Taste in the Folk Music Journal Vol. 9, No. 5 (2010).

 

Seamen Bold

April 5, 2019

Week 281 – King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O

In my previous post I related how, around 35 years ago, I discovered Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in Newcastle Poly library. Now there are certain tracks on those 6 LPs which I consider to be as fine as anything ever committed to shellac, vinyl, or whatever it is they make CDs out of. I’m thinking especially of Buell Kazee’s ‘Butcher’s Boy’, Dock Boggs’ ‘Country Blues’, and Clarence Ashley’s ‘House Carpenter’. I’ve never learned any of those. In fact I think I’ve only ever learned three songs from the whole Anthology, and I’ve not posted any of them here till now.

This song doesn’t reach classic status, but it stuck in my mind and, like Old John Braddalum, I made a point of learning it when I became a parent. Both were a staple part of the Turner family singalong repertoire on long car journeys, so it’s very pleasing that Joe is now able to provide the banjo accompaniment the song really needs.

The version on the Anthology was recorded by Chubby Parker for Columbia Records in New York, August 1928. Parker was a hugely popular entertainer on the National Barn Dance radio show, broadcast on Chicago radio station WLS, between 1925 and 1931.

Chubby Parker - from the My Old Weird America blog.

Chubby Parker – from the My Old Weird America blog.

The song itself dates back to Elizabethan time. According to Wikipedia

Its first known appearance is in Wedderburn’s Complaynt of Scotland (1548) under the name “The Frog cam to the Myl dur”, though this is in Scots rather than English. There is a reference in the London Company of Stationers’ Register of 1580 to “A Moste Strange Weddinge of the Frogge and the Mouse.” There are many texts of the ballad; however the oldest known musical version is in Thomas Ravenscroft‘s Melismata in 1611.

 

 

The Marriage of the Frogge and the Mouse, from Thomas Ravenscroft's Melismata (1611)

The Marriage of the Frogge and the Mouse, from Thomas Ravenscroft’s Melismata (1611)

There are several nineteenth century broadside printings of ‘The frog in the cock’d hat’ in the Bodleian Broadside collection, and numerous versions have been collected from oral tradition in Britain and North America.

 

King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O

Andy Turner – vocal
Joe Turner – 5-string banjo, vocal

March 25, 2019

Week 280 – I saw the light

As a teenager – based on very little exposure to either genre – I had no time for Reggae or Country music. By the time I left university, however, I’d become a Reggae fan. This conversion was largely thanks to my friends Mike Eaton and Chris Taylor, and to certain specific records: Bob Marley and the Wailers ‘Lively up yourself’ (the Live at the Lyceum version), Desmond Dekker ‘The Israelites’, Capital Letters ‘Smoking my Ganja’ and, above all, Chris’ white-label 12 inch of ‘Give me’ by Earth and Fire.

Country music had to wait a little longer. Up until about 1983, if you’d asked me if I liked country music my answer would probably have been “No – of course not”. But slowly I came to realise that the folk = good / country = bad dichotomy was really not sustainable, particularly as in American music the line between folk and country was in no way clearly defined. I discovered Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in the Newcastle Polytechnic library in 1983 or 84. One of the 6 discs was missing, and at least one of the remaining sides was so scratched as to be unplayable. But what I could listen to provided a wonderful introduction to the variety and interconnectedness of American vernacular music: the Carter Family (folk or country?), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Buell Kazee, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Charlie Patton, and Henry Thomas, to name just a few.

Listening to John Peel and Radio 1 new boy Andy Kershaw also helped to open my ears. Peel was playing a lot of “cowpoke” bands such as the Boothill Foot-tappers (whose ‘Get your feet out of my shoes’ remains a perennial favourite) while much of what Kershaw played wasn’t folk, but was clearly influenced to some degree by American roots music.

It was a review by Maggie Holland that prompted me to seek out and listen to some Hank Williams. At least, that’s what I thought, but a little while ago I did some digging around on the fRoots website, and in my back copies of Southern RagFolk RootsfRoots, and it seems that the way I remember it is not how it actually happened. But what one remembers is often more important than what really happened…

My recollection is that Maggie reviewed this cheap and cheerful Hank Williams compilation, in Southern Rag or Folk Roots, along with a similar release featuring either Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter Family. And that the review started along these lines: “Many people say they don’t like Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers, yet they’ve never listened to either of them”. I’d never specifically dissed either performer, but in all other particulars this described me, and I determined to do something about it.

Having now looked at the fRoots reviews indexes, I see that this particular album has never been reviewed in the magazine. Although a different Hank LP was reviewed in FR30. And compilations by both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were reviewed in SR22. I suspect I may have conflated the two reviews. I’ve just read the one from SR22 – yes it was written by Maggie Holland – and it says something not entirely dissimilar to what I remembered. Annoyingly I can’t find the first couple of dozen Folk Roots – they must be in an as yet undiscovered box in the garage – so I can’t check the Hank Williams review.

Anyway, from the summer of 1984 I was working for Kent County Libraries – at an exciting time when the holdings of all the county’s major libraries were searchable via the new computerised catalogue. This enabled me to sit at my desk pretending to work, while seeking out and ordering up records from all over the county. I think I’d already checked out and really enjoyed Emmylou Harris’ LP Pieces of the Sky (I remembered the final track, ‘Queen of the Silver Dollar’ from my Radio Caroline listening days). But it was Hank that made the greatest impression. It was curiously familiar, yet at the same time like nothing I’d ever heard before. I suppose the Anthology of American Folk Music had started to accustom me to those desperate emotional voices of “the old weird America” and Hank’s singing was in a direct line from those earlier singers. Incredible to think that one man carried so much pain, and brought happiness to so many, in such a short life.

This song, first recorded in 1948, is an original Hank composition, but it fits seamlessly into the American country/folk gospel tradition.

Hank Williams publicity photo for WSM in 1951. From Wikipedia.

Hank Williams publicity photo for WSM in 1951. From Wikipedia.

Joe and I recorded it at the end of a rehearsal last night. We were practising for a performance this coming Friday at Eclectic Cabaret, at Wootton near Oxford. It’s a free gig featuring, as the name suggests, performers from a variety of acoustic-ish musical styles. These days Joe can most often be found playing at Oxford’s various rock venues, with bands such as Junk Whale and Worry. However, of my three children, Joe is also the only one who spent their first wage packet on an old-timey 5-string banjo.

 

I saw the light

Andy Turner – vocal
Joe Turner – 5-string banjo, vocal

March 17, 2019

Week 279 – You Roving Lads of Pleasure

By the time I became interested in folk music, Planxty had already disbanded. As related in , it was a school friend Pete Carlton who first introduced me to the band and, of course, I thought they were wonderful. It was thus with great delight that I discovered from an advert in Melody Maker that Planxty were playing a comeback gig at the Hammersmith Odeon on Easter Sunday 1979. Alan Greenwood, one of the Oyster Morris musicians, gave a lift to me and Dixie Fletcher, organiser of the Duke’s Folk club in Whitstable.

I must admit, I don’t specifically remember them playing ‘Rambling Boys of Pleasure’ that night, but I’m pretty sure they would have done – it was probably the same setlist as captured on the recently released (and highly recommended) One Night In Bremen, recorded a bit later on the same tour. The song first grabbed my attention on the new LP After the break recorded at the end of the tour, and released later the same year. For me, this was the stand-out track, and I can’t really explain why I never got round to learning it. But maybe that was as well, as it left me open to explore other versions of the song. Some 10 or 15 years ago, leafing through the bound volumes of Cecil Sharp’s Folk Tunes in the Vaughan William memorial Library, I came across a song called ‘The Rambling Beauty’. Looking up other versions in the catalogue led me to Frank Purslow’s book The Foggy Dew (now included along with Purslow’s The Constant Lovers in the excellent Southern Harvest). And then I noticed, on the next page a version of this song collected by George Gardiner from David Marlow at Basingstoke, and I took a photocopy to add to my big pile of songs I probably should do something with one day.

Last year when I finally sat down to piece together a version to learn, I decided to base it, not on David Marlow’s version but on this version collected by Cecil Sharp from William Stokes, at Chew Stoke, Somerset on 11 Jan 1907.

Ye roving lads of pleasure, collected from William Stokes. From the VWML archive.

Ye roving lads of pleasure, collected from William Stokes. From the VWML archive.

I’ve collated the words from these two sources, with the broadside version shown below. This was printed by G. Jacques, Oldham Road Library, Manchester, and can be found on the Bodelian’s Broadside Ballads Online website.

 

The rambling boys of pleasure, from Broadside Ballads Online.

The rambling boys of pleasure, from Broadside Ballads Online.

Note that on this broadside version it’s “Down by yon valley gardens”. On some others it’s “down by Sally’s Gardens”, and earlier printings don’t have that verse at all. Steve Gardham’s notes to the song in Southern Harvest suggest it started as two entirely separate songs, which were combined in Northern English printings at some time before 1850. You can check out all of the versions in the Bodlein’s online collection at http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/search/roud/386.

You Roving Lads of Pleasure

December 24, 2018

Week 278 – Stannington

Regular visitors to this blog will probably be aware of my fondness for the carolling tradition that continues to this day in the villages around Sheffield. A few weekends ago I made my first ever visit to a Sheffield carolling session – the Sunday lunchtime sing at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth. The pub was (literally) full to overflowing, the singing was lusty and joyful, and it felt so good to be able to join in old favourites like ‘Hark Hark What News’, ‘Jacob’s Well’ and ‘Diadem’ in their proper surroundings. So, my first visit, but definitely not my last.

I’d previously heard this piece on the double CD The Theme, The Song, The Joy, which I reviewed for last year’s Folk Music Journal. The album contains recordings made over the years at the biennial Festival of Village Carols organised by Ian Russell, including a 2014 recording of ‘Stannington’ sung by carollers from the Royal Hotel, with Manny Grimsley taking the solo. To be honest the song hadn’t made much impression on me, but the day after going to Dungworth I found it was lodged in my head. So I dug out the words, worked out the chords, took it down a tone and worked out the chords again, and decided I’d try to get a decent recording made in time for Christmas. Give it another year and I might be more on top of it, but this is a blog, not a CD – spontaneity rather than perfection is the name of the game.

Stannington being sung at the Royal Hotel, Dungworth.

Stannington being sung at the Royal Hotel, Dungworth.

I’m indebted to Dave Eyre for providing some background information on this song, via a comment left on Jon Boden’s A Folk Song a Day entry for December 21st 2010

Ian Russell writes in the book which accompanied the Dungworth CD [i.e. Hark, Hark! What News]:

Central to the tradition since the 1950’s usually as a solo. Written by the late Mina Dyson (born Gee – 1890 – also wrote “Bradfield” in 1971). Tune (c. 1945) originally set to anniversary hymn “God Send You Many Days as Sweet as This” by Edward Lockton. Word “Sing All Ye People” written for Christmas 1952.

I’d like to add that this was always sung by a man called Wilf Daff and Brian Shuel has two photographs of his doing just that, one in front of the dartboard and one next to the organ with David Smith playing He was a remarkable tenor singer and when people joined in at the last verse – often at a cry of “altogether” – his voice soared over the crowd. Truly memorable.

When Wilf stopped coming the song was taken over by Billy Mills who was one of the singers who came from the Lodge Moor area when David Smith began playing.

Happy Christmas one and all! Here’s to hope, and joy, and peace.

Stannington

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

November 11, 2018

Week 277 – The First Time

In my late teens, when I started going to dances, the band of choice was the Oyster Ceilidh Band, and invariably at some point in the evening there would be a song spot featuring various members of the band – Fiddler’s Dram, John Jones and Cathy Lesurf, or Beggars Description. The latter was a duo consisting of the band’s bassist, Ian Kearey, and Alison Salter (now Alison Fenner). Their repertoire included Blues and other stuff that these days would be called Americana, alongside some British folk. The song which left the most lasting impression was ‘The First Time’, which they sang unaccompanied in harmony. It was written by Debbie Cook – like all of the Oysters, a regular at Duke’s Folk, the excellent Sunday night folk club which met at the Duke of Cumberland in Whitstable. Debbie was best known for penning ‘Day Trip to Bangor’ which featured on the first Fiddler’s Dram LP in 1978 and then, a year later, was reimagined by Dingle’s Records and became an unlikely number 3 chart hit. She later became a scriptwriter for The Archers and Eastenders, amongst other things.

This song always struck me as both moving, and very singable. Some years later (late 80s I’d guess) I got Ian Kearey to write out the words for me, and when Carol and I started singing together we added this to our repertoire. I hope the tune is right. I’ve not heard anyone else sing the song for about 40 years, but this is how I remember it.

Every year as Remembrance Day approaches, I’ve thought “we must record that song for the blog”. This year, of all years, I decided it just had to be done. So here’s a recording made on 11th of the 11th 2018, one hundred years on from the signing of the Armistice which brought an end to “the war to end wars”.

Pour ma bien aimee - postcard sent from the front by my Grandad Bert Elkins to his sister Daisy

Pour ma bien aimee – postcard sent from the front by my Grandad Bert Elkins to his sister Daisy

The tune at the end is ‘The Battle of the Somme’ a 9/8 pipe march – a Retreat March – by Pipe Major William Laurie (1881-1916) who fought at, and died at, the Somme. For more, and a score of the march (with lots of those really complicated bagpipe decorations) see http://cornemusique.free.fr/ukbattleofsomme.php. There’s a lovely rendition of the piece on Scottish smallpipes on Vicki Swan’s blog The Smallpiper Podcast. And another on YouTube – played on melodeon – by the inimitable Martin Ellison.

 

Dedicated to my Grandad, Albert Victor Elkins, the only person I really knew who served in the Great War. He was 18 when it all began, and he somehow managed to survive all four years of the war. I loved my Grandad dearly, but unfortunately by the time I was old enough to ask him sensible questions about the War, he was no longer in a state to answer them. But it must have been his wartime experiences that led him to ask, whenever I came home from University, “do they give you a decent billet?”

Albert Victor Elkins

Albert Victor Elkins

Bert Elkins (back, right, with no moustache) and unknown comrades

Bert Elkins (back, right, with no moustache) and unknown comrades

And to my great-uncle Thomas Morris “Johnnie” Turner who died aged 21 at Ypres in 1917. He’s not so much, as Eric Bogle put it “just a picture without even a name” as a picture with a name and nothing else. To my shame I don’t even know what relation he was to my paternal Great-grandfather – also Thomas Morris Turner – or how come he served in the Liverpool Scottish Regiment.

Thomas Morris

Thomas Morris “Johnnie” Turner, killed at Ypres 1917

And to the millions of others who died, or were maimed, or who were mentally scarred, or who lost loved ones, in this war and the many others that came after it.

The First Time / Battle of the Somme

Carol Turner – vocal
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina (‘The First Time’), G/D anglo-concertina, one-row melodeon in D (‘Battle of the Somme’)

October 9, 2018

Week 276 – The Crow Sat On The Willow

For several months now, Fay Hield has been managing – no, let’s say curating – the  hashtag on Twitter. Every week a new theme is suggested, then on Tuesday anyone is free to post links to songs linked to that theme. So far, in best Blue Peter style, I’ve been posting links to previous entries on this blog, but I thought it was time to record something specially for the weekly Twitter gathering.

This week’s theme is poetry. While many traditional songs are very poetic, as far as I can recall, I have previously recorded only one setting of an actual poem – Billy Bragg’s setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’. Despite my intentions at the time, I’ve never got round to learning that one by heart. Here’s a setting of a John Clare poem, and again I’m reading the words off a sheet of paper. But in this case (like ‘Boxing Day’ and ‘The Widow that keeps the Cock Inn’) not only have I not learned the words; frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever really had any intention of learning the words. Still, as I said in reference to those other two songs, since I made up the tune, if I don’t sing it, nobody will.

I was first alerted to John Clare (in relation to folk music at any rate) by the setting of his ‘The Cellar Door’ on the LP No Relation by Royston Wood and Heather Wood. As a student I started to investigate his poetry, and discovered, for instance, that the title of the Watersons’ For pence and spicy ale was taken from a Clare poem (‘Christmas’, part of ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’). This one, with its talk of the ploughman’s love for a milkmaid, seemed like a suitable candidate to be turned into a song – although traditional songs tend not to have this slightly awkward 10-line structure. I’m not sure if I actually ‘composed’ the tune, or just assembled sequences of notes which I’d encountered in various traditional song tunes. In fact, what I sing now may not be the tune I originally made up – I never wrote it down or recorded it, but 36 years on, I think this is pretty close to what I intended to sing back then.

You can find the words online in various places. I think I copied them out from The Later Poems of John Clare edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield.

Crow in the Willow: Solitary crow perched in a willow tree. Image copyright Suzanne Goodwin.

Crow in the Willow: Solitary crow perched in a willow tree. Image copyright Suzanne Goodwin.

 

The Crow Sat On The Willow

June 16, 2018

Week 275 – Death of Poor Bill Brown

There were two distinct ‘Death of Bill Brown’ songs put out by the broadside printers, although both would appear to have been based on an incident which took place at Brightside near Sheffield in 1769. You’ll find details on the Yorkshire Garland Group’s page for ‘The Death of Poor Bill Brown’, along with a recording of this song by the fine Yorkshire singer Will Noble. An example of the earlier version of the song is this printing of ‘Bill Brown’ by Harkness of Preston, put out between 1840 and 1866. The version shown below, which is much closer to the version which survived in oral tradition, was printed in London by H.P. Such between 1863 and 1885.

Poor Bill Brown, printed by Such between 1863 and 1885. From Broadside Ballads Online.

Poor Bill Brown, printed by Such between 1863 and 1885. From Broadside Ballads Online.

Like Will Noble I learned this song from the singing of Arthur Howard (1902-1982), although unlike Will I learned it from a record, not in person. Arthur Howard was a sheep farmer from a long line of South Yorkshire sheep farmers. Born at Mount Farm, near Holme, a few miles south-west of Holmfirth, he later lived and worked on a farm at Hazlehead near Penistone. He was a leading light among the singers of the Holme Valley Beagles, as heard on the Leader LP A Fine Hunting Day. This song, which he learned from his father, appears on Arthur Howard’s solo LP, Merry Mountain Child, released on Ian Russell’s Hill and Dale label in 1981. It was later included on the EFDSS CD A Century of Song.

The album cover shown below is pinched from Reinhard Zierke’s Mainly Norfolk site. I see that his copy, like mine, is signed. I seem to remember that in the early eighties Ian Russell advertised signed copies of the LP in the back of English, Dance & Song. I’m guessing that Reinhard ordered his copy from there, as I did.

Merry Mountain Child LP cover - from Mainly Norfolk

Merry Mountain Child LP cover – from Mainly Norfolk

The recording here is unaccompanied. Back in 1994, I recorded it for Magpie Lane’s second album, Speed the Plough. That arrangement had a typically tasteful guitar accompaniment provided by Pete Acty, with a Northumbrian smallpipes part which I wrote (and was rather pleased with) played by Liz Cooke. If you want a physical copy of that CD, I see there’s one for sale on Discogs.com just now. But you’ll find it cheaper to download from whichever tax-avoiding digital platform you hate the least.

One final note, in the verse that begins “I know the man that shot Bill Brown”, the word “clown” (in the line “I know him well and can tell his clown”) should perhaps be spelled “clowen”. I’ve been reliably informed (by a man who knows the great Graham Metcalfe) that this is a Yorkshire dialect word meaning “clothes”. Knowing this, the rest of the verse makes sense.

Death of Poor Bill Brown

June 10, 2018

Week 274 – Bold General Wolfe

General James Wolfe was one of those dashing military heroes of the British Empire so much admired in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. A successful military commander Europe in the seemingly endless wars against the French in the eighteenth century, in 1758 William Pitt offered him the opportunity to fight them also in North America.

In March 1759, prior to arriving at Quebec, Wolfe had written to Amherst: “If, by accident in the river, by the enemy’s resistance, by sickness, or slaughter in the army, or, from any other cause, we find that Quebec is not likely to fall into our hands (persevering however to the last moment), I propose to set the town on fire with shells, to destroy the harvest, houses and cattle, both above and below, to send off as many Canadians as possible to Europe and to leave famine and desolation behind me; belle résolution & très chrétienne; but we must teach these scoundrels to make war in a more gentleman like manner.”  (Wikipedia)

After laying siege to Quebec for three months, on 13 September 1759 Wolfe  led a daring early morning assault which took the French by surprise (was that really gentleman like?). They were defeated in only fifteen minutes – a defeat which opened the way for the British taking control of all Canada; but, as this song records, Wolfe was fatally shot in the moment of victory.

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West (via Wikimedia)

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West (via Wikimedia)

I originally heard the song on, and learnt it from, the Watersons’ eponymous 1966 LP. I’m indebted to George Frampton for alerting me to this Kentish version, some years before the EFDSS Take Six / Full English archive made the work of the early twentieth century collectors so much more accessible. It’s from the George Butterworth collection, but was actually noted down by Butterworth’s friend Francis Jekyll, nephew of the famous garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Unfortunately we don’t know any details about the singer of the song, other than the fact that in September 1910, he or she was resident in the Workhouse at Minster, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.

Bold General Wolfe, as collected by Francis Jekyll in Minster, 1910. From the VWML archive catalogue.

Bold General Wolfe, as collected by Francis Jekyll in Minster, 1910. From the VWML archive catalogue.

Jekyll noted only the tune, not the words, so I carried on singing the verses I already knew, from Frank Puslow’s Marrowbones / the Watersons.

Looking at the collected versions, it’s clear this was a popular song, in the South of England at any rate. And, of course, there were numerous broadside printings.

Bold General Wolfe - Such broadside from the Lucy Broadwood collection, via the VWML archive catalogue.

Bold General Wolfe – Such broadside from the Lucy Broadwood collection, via the VWML archive catalogue.

James Wolfe actually had Kentish connections. Not with the Isle of Sheppey, as far as I’m aware, but with Westerham, where he was born in 1727, and where a statue was erected to his memory in 1911.

Statue of James Wolfe, Westerham, Kent after being unveiled by Field Marshall Roberts, 2nd Jan 1911.

Statue of James Wolfe, Westerham, Kent after being unveiled by Field Marshall Roberts, 2nd Jan 1911.

 

Bold General Wolfe