Archive for ‘Songs’

February 25, 2018

Week 272 – The Bitter Withy

I’m not sure why this song popped up in my head a few weeks back. I used to sing it occasionally a long time ago – mostly just around the house or in the car – having absorbed it from Mike Waterson’s irrepressibly individualistic recording on The Watersons’ LP  Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy. Having decided to resurrect the song, I thought I’d check out other versions. I wasn’t sure if it was one of those songs which is widely sung in the folk revival, but rarely if ever collected from tradition. Actually the VWML Archive Catalogue shows that it has been quite widely collected – but particularly in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.

The words – often a bit garbled (“up Lincull and down Lincull”) – were sung to a variety of good tunes, both major and minor. Unable to decide between them, I then had a listen to the version from gypsy singer Charlotte Smith on the Topic/Caedmon album Songs of Christmas/Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9) and immediately decided that was the one for me. It’s a very simple tune, with a span of less than an octave, but it really got its hooks into me. I don’t know how many verses Charlotte Smith sang to Peter Kennedy when he recorded her at Tarrington in Herefordshire in October 1952; only two appear on the Topic LP, and Kennedy’s recording doesn’t appear to be available on the British Library website. So I started to compile my own set of words, from the versions accessible via the Full English, and those printed in old FSS / EFDSS Journals. But I soon realised

  • the words I’d learned (perhaps misremembered) from Mike Waterson were very firmly lodged in my brain
  • I was unlikely to assemble a better set of lyrics

so it just made sense to carry on singing the same words I had always sung.

A.L.Loyd, from whom I imagine Mike Waterson learned this song, was very taken with the idea of the working class Christ teaching a lesson to the three snobbish young aristocrats who refuse to play ball with him (see Folk Song in England page 116-118, and Lloyd’s album notes reproduced at And the picture painted here of a young Jesus who misbehaves, just like any other child, and gets a thrashing from his mother for his pains, is very much at odds with the portrayal of Jesus in Victorian Christmas carols, where “no crying he makes”, and “Christian children all should be, Mild, obedient, good as He”. As this is a carol I’ve always associated it with with Christmas, but of course there’s nothing remotely Christmassy about it. Indeed I feel very strongly that songs about Jesus drowning a bunch of stuck-up rich kids really are not just for Christmas…


The Bitter Withy

Mural from the monastery church on the summit of Bahar Dar, Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

Mural from the monastery church on the summit of Bahar Dar, Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

Max Ernst: The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926)

Max Ernst: The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926)

December 28, 2017

Week 271 – The Gloucestershire Wassail

Here is to Fillpail and to his left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year

I first came across this Wassail song in the Oxford Book of Carols in the 1970s – although, unlike the ‘Somerset Wassail’ it never actually became part of my repertoire. With a slightly different set of words the song was part of the Magpie Lane Christmas set from the very beginning, and we recorded it – with a different singer leading each verse – on our 1995 CD Wassail.

For this recording I’ve gone back to the version in the Oxford Book of Carols. The notes with the song tell us that the tune was collected by Vaughan Williams “from an old person in Gloucestershire”. Actually, it turns out that Vaughan Williams took it down in the inn at Pembridge in Herefordshire, in July or August 1909, from a singer whose name he did not record, but who presumably was a native of Gloucestershire.

The words printed in the book were collated from other versions collected by Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams in Gloucestershire – from William Bayliss of Buckland and Isaac Bennett of Little Sodbury – as well as nineteenth century printed sources. Magpie Lane’s words are closer to those originally collected by RVW at the inn in Pembridge.

You can find several other Wassail songs collected in Gloucestershire on Gwilym Davies’ GlosTrad site; and can read much more about this song, and the tradition which it accompanied, on the Gloucestershire Christmas website.

Tetbury Wassailers in about 1930. Photo by James Madison Carpenter, copyright the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. From

Tetbury Wassailers in about 1930. Photo by James Madison Carpenter, copyright the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. From


Waes Hael!


The Gloucestershire Wassail

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina


December 21, 2017

Week 270 – As I sat on a sunny bank

Last night we had a really joyous carols and tunes session at the Bell Inn, Adderbury, North Oxfordshire. It’s a fantastic pub at any time (disclosure: I play in a band with Sandy, the landlady – but I challenge anyone to visit the pub and fail to be impressed). Last night, with about two thirds of the Christminster Singers, plus various friends and friends of friends, we really raised the roof with a selection of rousing carols from Dorset, Yorkshire – and Oxfordshire. It was particularly pleasing to be able to sing a few of the carols collected in Adderbury around a hundred years ago by Janet Blunt – ‘Adderbury Church’, ‘High let us swell’ and ‘Newton’s Double’ (which featured here four Christmasses ago). But here’s one we didn’t sing…

Janet Blunt collected several versions of ‘As I sat on a sunny bank’ / ‘I saw three ships’ in Adderbury. All used some variation on the well-known tune – apart from Sam Newman (a native of Wiltshire) who sang it to the tune of ‘Buffalo Girls’. This one was noted down from Clara Gillam, the parlour maid at Blunt’s home Halle Place, aka Adderbury Manor, and I learned it from the Blunt MSS via the Full English website.

The earliest known appearance of the carol in print was in 1666. According to the New Oxford Book of Carols the story is based  on

the Mediterranean journeyings of the supposed relics of the magi, the ‘Three Kings of Cologne’, the splendour of whose final voyage has remained vivid in European folk memory. The Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and discoverer of the True Cross, carried them to Constantinople in the fourth century, from where they were later taken by St Eusthathius to Milan. In 1162 the skulls were gifted to Cologne Cathedral by Friedrich Barbarossa, and Bishop Renaldus brought them there, to rest in the jewelled caskets in which they remain to this day.

The notes in the book also refer to this version of the carol in Baring-Gould’s manuscript collection, which was noted from a boatman on the River Humber by the artist Lewis Davis, and preserves the link with Cologne:

I axed ’em what they’d got on board
They said they’d got three crawns [skulls]
I axed ’em where they was taken to
They said they was ganging to Coln upon Rhine
I axed ’em where they came frae
They said they came frae Bethlehem

As I Sat On A Sunny Bank, from the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.

As I Sat On A Sunny Bank, from the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.

I follow the song with ‘Christmas Day In The Mornin’’ a tune from Bruce & Stokoe’s Northumbrian Minstrelsy of 1882, where it is associated with the words

Dame get up and bake your pies,
Bake your pies, bake your pies;
Dame get up and bake your pies,
On Christmas Day in the morning.


As I sat on a sunny bank / Christmas Day in the Mornin’

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina, one-row melodeon in C

September 17, 2017

Week 269 – Kitty from Ballinamore

Like ‘As I roved out from the County Cavan’, I learned this from the LP Triona, by Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill. Like a lot of other songs in her repertoire, I believe she had this one from her aunt, Neillí Ní Dhomhnaill. It’s a song which doesn’t seem to have been recorded frequently. You can hear Seamus Ennis singing a version on the Musical Traditions CD of late sixties recordings from the King’s Head Folk Club. And there are two recordings from Northern Irish singers – both as ‘Kate from/of Ballinamore’ – on Topic’s ever-expanding Voice of the People series: Geordie Hanna on Volume 6 Tonight I’ll Make You My Bride and Paddy Doran on The Flax in Bloom. Finally, there’s a rather charming 78 rpm recording by Joseph Maguire available to listen to via the ITMA Digital Library (that’s the Irish Traditional Music Archive, and nothing to do with Tommy Handley).


Kitty from Ballinamore

April 23, 2017

Week 267 – The Grey Funnel Line

I have two Cyril Tawney songs in my repertoire. I posted ‘Sally Free and Easy’ almost a year ago; now here’s the other one.

Written in 1959, it was the last song Cyril Tawney wrote before leaving the Royal Navy. You’ll find his own account of its composition at

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.

The Grey Funnel Line

April 13, 2017

Week 266 – Dwelling In Beulah Land

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 (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!

Dwelling In Beulah Land

Andy Turner – vocal, Bb/F anglo-concertina

February 4, 2017

Week 265 – The Cruel Mother

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.

The Cruel Mother, as collected from Mrs Eliza Woodberry, from the Full English.

The Cruel Mother

January 28, 2017

Week 264 – Dowie Dens of Yarrow

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 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.

Flaxenvale by Cathy Ward

Flaxenvale by Cathy Ward

Exquisite Knot by Cathy Ward

Exquisite Knot by Cathy Ward

Dowie Dens of Yarrow

December 24, 2016

Christmas Bonus: a festival of nine carols, and no lessons

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)

for other versions see Week 225 – While Shepherds Watched and 


2. This is the truth sent from above



3. As Shepherds Watched Their Fleecy Care



4. Newton’s Double



5. The Shepherds Amazed



6. Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise



7. All Hail and Praise



8. Hark Hark What News



9. The Sussex Carol


December 23, 2016

Week 263 – Morning Star

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

Ring Merry Bells, from Song Worship for Sunday Schools (1884), via

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.

Happy Christmas everybody!

Morning Star

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina