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.
One of quite a number of songs I’ve learned from Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring: English Folk Songs Collected by Cecil Sharp. Dear old Cecil had the tune and first verse of this song from Michael William Johnson at Ilmington in Warwickshire. Mr Johnson was one of the Ilmington morris dancers; as far as I can see this is the only song that Sharp noted from him.
Sometimes, however, a cigar is just a cigar. And in this case, as far as I’m concerned, the poor old horse is just a poor old horse. Certainly you can read it as a metaphor for the frailties and indignities of human old age, but there’s no resurrection, just an inexorable decline into the grave.
Poor Old Horse, collected by Cecil Sharp from Michael Johnson, April 1911. From the Full English archive.