Posts tagged ‘Cecil Sharp’

January 3, 2015

Week 176 – The Somerset Wassail

By no means the only Wassail song to have been collected in Somerset, once included in the Oxford Book of Carols this became for evermore The Somerset Wassail (cf. the Gloucestershire Wassail  and the Sussex Carol). The notes in the book say that the song was noted by Cecil Sharp “about twenty years ago” (September 1903 in fact) from the Drayton Wassailers in Somerset. Actually he collected several other versions in the county where the words included either the verse about a farmer who didn’t know how to look after his cow (more cider is the answer!) and/or the verse about the “Girt Dog of Langport”.

Wassail Song, noted by Cecil Sharp from Miss Quick, Drayton, Somerset. From the Full English archive.

Wassail Song, noted by Cecil Sharp from Miss Quick, Drayton, Somerset. From the Full English archive.

Again, according to the notes in the Oxford Book of Carols “Sharp thought that the great dog of Langport was a reference to the Danes whose invasion of Langport is not yet forgotten in that town”. I’m not sure I’d give that theory much credence. According to Mudcat

In fact, this Danish raid may be mere legend, as it seems that the Vikings never penetrated that far into the West Country. Their attempted invasion began on Christmas Day 877, when Guthrum’s surprise attack on Chippenham drove Alfred into the marshes of west Somerset. Alfred set up a base at Athelney (the Island of the Nobles) a few miles west of Langport, and immediately began organising his counter-attack. In 878 he defeated Guthrum at Edington (the Anglo Saxon Chronicle identifies the Edington near the Westbury White Horse, although there is a theory that it was the Edington by the Polden Hills near Glastonbury). It was the resulting treaty between Alfred and Guthrum which divided England into the Anglo Saxon kingdom and the Danelaw.

I think the only Danish attack on the West Country was by the force which arrived at the mouth of the Parrett and was wiped out at Cannington. If they had got any further, they would have come up against Alfred himself at Athelney.

That same Mudcat page puts forwards – and debunks – a number of theories. Bear in mind when considering them that King Alfred was an actual historical character, unlike another King whose name begins with A, and who is supposed to have associations with this part of the country. Drayton is only 15 miles from Glastonbury Tor, and the danger of infection by romantic New Age twaddle is consequently very high.

We recorded this on the Magpie Lane album Wassail and the song pops back into our Christmas repertoire every two or three years. We sang it again this Christmas, but I foolishly neglected to get a recording. So, rather than wait another twelve months, here it is with a hastily-concocted concertina part.

The Somerset Wassail

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

July 6, 2014

Week 150 – Young girl cut down in her prime

It’s Week 150, and here to celebrate is the song which is number 2 in Steve Roud’s index (bizarrely I don’t currently sing a version of Roud number 1). There are 219 examples listed, but no doubt the number could be much higher. Starting life in the late eighteenth century as a “homilectic street ballad… concerning the death and ceremonial funeral of a soldier “disordered” by a woman” (A.L.Lloyd’s notes, Penguin Book of English Folk Songs) the song has spread all over the English-speaking world, and the expiring principal character has metamorphosed from an Unfortunate Rake or Unfortunate Lad to an Unfortunate Lass, a Sailor Cut Down in his Prime, Dying Airman, Dying Stockman, Cowboy, Gambler… while the location might range from St James’ Hospital, to St James’ Infirmary, down by the Royal Albion, the Banks of the Clyde, Cork City, the Streets of Laredo…

The unfortunate lad, broadside printed by Such between 1863 and 1885, from the Bodleian collection.

The Unfortunate Lad, broadside printed by Such between 1863 and 1885, from the Bodleian collection.

The very first version I heard would have been ‘When I was on Horseback’, on the Steeleye Span album Ten Man Mop. That version, recorded in the 1950s from Irish tinker Mary Doran, is rather minimalist: if you don’t already know the story it’s hard to work out exactly what’s going on (incidentally you can hear Mary Doran’s stunning version on the recently-released Topic CD set The Flax in Bloom). A bit later I came across ‘St James’ Infirmary’ in the Penguin Book of American Folk Songs edited by Alan Lomax. It’s a song I’ve always meant to learn, but never have (although I can play the chords on the ukulele). Then I heard another version, in the shape of ‘The Bad Girl’ on Fiddler’s Dram’s eponymous post-‘Bangor’ LP (it’s actually one of several pretty good tracks on the album).

I don’t suppose I connected these songs at the time; that realisation came later (and, later still, the history and evolution of the song was covered in some depth by David Atkinson in the first of the EFDSS’s short-lived Root & Branch series).

I had planned for many years to learn Harry Upton’s ‘Royal Albion’ (or possibly Alf Wildman’s similar ‘The Banks of the Clyde’) but again never got round to it. Then I came across this version, and very soon realised it was a song I had to learn – especially when I found I could sing it in D minor, and it just fits like a dream on the C/G anglo.

The tune was collected by Cecil Sharp from Shadrack ‘Shepherd’ Haden, at Bampton in Oxfordshire. It is printed, along with two others, in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society number 17, in 1913. Sharp does not seem to have collected more than the first verse from Shepherd Haden; the five verses given in the Journal were noted by Francis Jekyll at East Meon in Hampshire (the singer’s name is not given). I put together a composite set of words from various sources, including the Hampshire version – which is also the version included in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

“Sailor Cut Down In His Prime” collected from Shepherd Haden 21 Aug 1909, from the EFDSS Full English archive.

Although I’ve been singing this for a few years now, I’ve not actually performed it in public that often, and the accompaniment is still quite fluid: I recorded it three times for this blog, and played the ending differently each time. Still not sure which one I prefer, so if you see me singing this at a gig, it might have changed again.

Young girl cut down in her prime

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

February 8, 2014

Week 129 – Jack Williams

Another robber meets a sticky end…

Here’s a very first outing for a song which I’ve only just learned. I discovered it a few years ago on a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, leafing through the bound volumes of Cecil Sharp’s Folk Tunes and Folk Words. I think I first came across the song as noted from Harry Richards of Curry Rivel in Somerset, then sought out a fuller version, which led me to this version, from Mrs Elizabeth Smitherd (or is it Smilhard?) of Tewkesbury.

I am a boatman, noted by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Elizabeth Smitherd, Tewkesbury, 11 Apr 1908. Image copyright EFDSS.

I am a boatman, noted by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Elizabeth Smitherd, Tewkesbury, 11 Apr 1908. Image copyright EFDSS.

I have collated Mrs Smitherd’s words with texts from several sources – broadside printings from the Bodleian’s collection (such as the one shown below), and North American versions including one from Ballads and sea songs from Nova Scotia by William Roy Mackenzie, the words of which are reproduced on this Mudcat thread. A bit further down that same thread, Malcolm Douglas says “The song had reached America by at least 1835, when it appeared in The Forget Me Not Songster, between The Rambling Soldier and Canada I O.” And you can now see that version (in an 1840 printing) online, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

You can find several broadside versions of the song at Ballads Online and in the Full English archive.

Jack Williams, the boatman, from the Bodleian Broadside collection, Printed by J.K. Pollock, North Shields, between 1815 and 1855.

Jack Williams, the boatman, from the Bodleian Broadside collection, Printed by J.K. Pollock, North Shields, between 1815 and 1855.

As for the oral tradition, the Full English site has three versions collected in the early twentieth century by Sharp, one by Alfred Williams and one by George Butterworth, all from Southern England.

Most versions have a happy ending, but I just don’t buy that. No convincing explanation is given as to how Jack Williams manages to break free from prison, just “and then I escaped”. So in my version, I’m afraid, he is left not only complaining about his perfidious lover, but contemplating an unhappy fate.

Jack Williams

January 25, 2014

Radio 2’s Cecil Sharp Collection

I must admit I don’t usually take very much notice of the Radio 2 Folk Awards. It’s nice to see one’s friends winning a gong, of course, and there’s a certain pleasure to be had in dissing the once-famous-singer-songwriters-with-a-tenuous-connection-to-the-UK-folk-scene who generally seem to get the Lifetime Achievement Awards (although honourable exceptions in the list of people who have won that award include Malcolm Taylor, Bill Leader and Ian Campbell).

Anyway this year, Radio 2 makes its first induction into its Folk Awards Hall of Fame. I would have expected, and been quite happy for, the first inductee to be a performer like Shirley Collins, or Martin Carthy or, indeed, the entire Waterson-Carthy clan. But I’m actually even more pleased to say that, ninety years after his death, the first inductee is none other than dear old Cecil Sharp. And they are treating this as an opportunity to promote the EFDSS’s Full English archive, and to encourage people to explore that collection, sing the songs Sharp collected, and contribute recordings of them to the Folk Show website.

In particular they’re looking for renditions of ‘The Seeds of Love’, ‘Claudy Banks’ and ‘Barbara Allen’ (as well as three of William Kimber’s exquisite morris tunes).  I was rather chuffed to find that one of the versions of ‘Seeds of Love’ included in their Cecil Sharp Playlist on Spotify is Magpie Lane’s recording of the song, from our CD Jack-in-the-Green (although the pedant in me objected “that version wasn’t collected by Cecil Sharp”).

Of course I know, and have already posted here, any number of songs collected by Cecil Sharp – see Of those three songs specifically mentioned, so far the only one I’ve recorded is ‘Barbara Ellen’, which I posted here last June: Week 93 – Barbara Ellen. I’ve now uploaded the same file to Soundcloud, so I can tweet the link to #R2CecilSharp.

Any of you singers out there, why don’t you do the same?

September 22, 2013

Week 109 – Poor Old Horse

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.

Some versions of this song feature in Christmas folk plays, and are linked to the theme of death and resurrection – see for more on this.

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.

Poor Old Horse, collected by Cecil Sharp from Michael Johnson, April 1911. From the Full English archive.

Poor Old Horse

July 13, 2013

Week 99 – Master Kilby

Last September I went to Cecil Sharp House to see Nic Jones be presented with his EFDSS Gold Badge and – much later in the proceedings than many of us would have liked – to hear him sing a few songs. This was the first time I had seen Nic perform in over 3o years; for many younger members of the audience it was the first time they’d ever seen him perform.  To be honest, we’d have cheered him to the rafters just for being there, but – mirabile dictu – after 30 years away from performing, the moment he started singing it was clear that he hadn’t lost the old magic. Backed, magnificently, by his son Joe on guitar, and Belinda O’Hooley on piano, he began his set with ‘Master Kilby’. A wonderful moment, and I don’t mind admitting that a tear bedimm’d my eye.

And what a wonderful song this is. To quote the late Malcolm Douglas on Mudcat

So far as can be told, Master Kilby has been found once only in tradition; Cecil Sharp noted it from Harry Richards of Curry Rivel in Somerset, in January of 1909. That’s all we know; it doesn’t seem to have been published on broadside sheets.

Benjamin Britten published an “art music” arrangement of it, but you can be pretty sure that anyone who sings it now learned it from Nic Jones’ recording, at one remove or another.

Actually, looking at the records on the Full English site (at it seems that Sharp first took this song down from Harry Richards on 29th July 1904, then went back and noted the song  again – with a slightly fuller set of words – on 6th January 1909. Well, it’s a song that is well worth collecting twice.

I had messed around with it over the years, but never with any real intention of working up a proper arrangement. But just after Christmas I had another go at it, and discovered that if I moved the song down from G to F, it fitted rather nicely on the concertina. At the time I tweeted “I think I’ve just worked out a concertina accompaniment for Master Kilby. Very exciting.”

(to which my son, elsewhere in the house, sent the laconic reply “I heard”)

I made a point of going back to the tune and words as collected from Harry Richards, rather than learning the song from a Nic Jones record. But all the same, it’s only now, six months on, that the song is beginning to feel like part of my repertoire, rather than a Nic Jones cover version.

'Master Kilby' collected by Cecil Sharp from Harry Richards, 1909. © EFDSS

‘Master Kilby’ collected by Cecil Sharp from Harry Richards, 1909. © EFDSS

Master Kilby

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

July 7, 2013

Week 98 – Nobleman and Thresherman

Postwar folk song commentators and activists such as A.L. Lloyd seized on industrial folk song – ‘Blackleg Miner’, ‘Four Loom Weaver’, ‘Coal Owner and the Pitman’s Wife’ and the like – as the product of a proletariat engaged in class struggle. Their Marxist beliefs would, I suppose, have predisposed them against expecting to find similar material coming out of the rural working class, and this was probably just as well – I can think of very few examples of traditional country songs raging against the social order. (Even in poaching songs, while there are often complaints about the “hard-hearted judges”, it is the gamekeepers – the agents of the landowning classes, rather than the landowners themselves  – who are usually perceived as the enemy).

This song, judging by the number of times it has been collected in England and beyond, seems to have been hugely popular. Not only does it not challenge the status quo, but invites us to join in blessing the noble gentleman who – most improbably – bestows “fifty five good acres” on the hardworking labouring man. Although actually traditional singers do seem to have toned down somewhat the obsequious nature of the song as found in printed broadsides, such as Good Lord Fauconbridge’s generous gift, printed by J. Pitts of London, between 1819 and 1844, of which this is the final verse.

No tongue was able in full to express
In depth of their joy and true thankfulness
Then many a courtsey and bow to the ground
Such noblemen there are few to be found

This particular version was collected by Cecil Sharp at Hamstreet in Kent, in September 1908.  Not being an authority on Sharp’s handwriting, I’d be hard-pressed to say if he meant to record the singer’s name as Clarke Lankhurst or Lonkhurst (or even Larkhurst). In fact it was almost certainly Clarke Lonkhurst, who the local Kelly’s Directory lists as landlord of the Duke’s Head at Hamstreet. George Frampton, who has researched all of the singers Sharp encountered on this collecting trip, has established that Mr Lonkhurst also worked as a carrier, and was a keen sportsman – playing football and cricket, and a member of the Mid-Kent Stag Hunt. He has also found – just to add even more confusion to the matter of his surname – that in the 1901 Census he is listed as Clarke Longhurst, age 37, born at Dunkirk near Faversham. There are Longhursts from Romney Marsh in my family tree, on my mother’s side, so it’s just possible that this singer is a distant relation of mine.

[ As an aside, I’ve just done a Google search which has located an endorsement from Clarke Lonkhurst, in The horse-owner’s handy note book or common diseases of horses and other animals, with their remedies  (1908), of  Harvey’s Embrocation:

“I have been using your Embrocation for Capped Elbew with great benefit. — Clarke Lonkhurst, Duke’s Head Hotel, Hamstreet, Ashford, Kent, July 29th, 1908.” ]

Clarke Lonkhurst only sang four verses of this song; I followed my usual practice of completing the words by borrowing verses from the Copper Family version. Had I held on a little, I would have come across a pretty complete set of words collected in 1942 by Francis Collinson from Harry Barling of South Willesborough, Ashford, Kent. This Mr Barling was most likely the same Harry Barling who is listed in the 1901 Census as a Carrier General, living at Aldington, born at Ruckinge; and in the 1881 Census as living at the “Good Intent”, Aldington Frith – i.e. from very much the same part of the world, and a similar age, as Clarke Lonkhurst. The singers’ tunes are almost identical except that Harry Barling’s is in 4/4 and Clarke Lonkhurst’s in 6/8.

Including a song collected by Cecil Sharp gives me the opportunity to mention the EFDSS’s Full English archive, launched a couple of weeks ago. I’ve not, unfortunately, had very much time to explore the site as yet, but it is without doubt an incredible resource – both for researchers, and for those on the look-out for new versions of old songs.

It builds on the Take Six archive, which presented digital images of the collections of  Collinson, Butterworth, Blunt, Hammond, Gardiner and Gilchrist. Now we also have access to the work of relatively little-known collectors such as Harry Albino and Frank Sidgwick through to the big names: Lucy BroadwoodRalph Vaughan Williams and, of course, Cecil James Sharp. The whole thing has been thoroughly and professionally catalogued and indexed, and even looks quite cool – whatever has happened to the DEAFASS we used to love to malign in the past!

Here’s examples of what you can find:

Clarke Lonkhurst’s ‘Nobleman and Thresherman’ from Cecil Sharp’s Folk Words MS (permament URL

Nobleman and Thresherman, collected from Clarke Lankhurst by Cecil Sharp - from Sharp's 'Folk Words' © EFDSS

‘Nobleman and Thresherman, collected from Clarke Lankhurst by Cecil Sharp – from Sharp’s ‘Folk Words’ © EFDSS’

and the musical notation from Sharp’s Folk Tunes (permanent URL

Nobleman and Thresherman, collected from Clarke Lankhurst by Cecil Sharp - from Sharp's 'Folk Tunes' © EFDSS

Nobleman and Thresherman, collected from Clarke Lankhurst by Cecil Sharp – from Sharp’s ‘Folk Tunes’ © EFDSS

As you’ll see, each record has a permament URL, to make it easy to refer others to a specific record. And there are some nice little features, like the ability to refer to a simple URL to point to all the versions of  a particular Roud number e.g. this song would be – just substitute the Roud number of your choice.

Nobleman and Thresherman

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

June 1, 2013

Week 93 – Barbara Ellen

One of my all-time favourite records is Selected Jigs Reels And Songs by De Danann. Of course Frankie Gavin’s fiddle and Alec Finn’s bouzouki were at the heart of the De Danann sound. But one of the things that makes this LP special is the singing of Johnny Moynihan, especially his two unaccompanied songs, ‘The Flower Of Sweet Strabane’ and ‘Barbara Allen’, both of which are simply sublime. Johnny’s version of ‘Barbara Allen’ came from the County Armagh singer Sarah Makem. And if you’ve not heard her singing, do yourself a favour and get hold of the Topic CD The Heart Is True, which is as good a record of traditional singing as you’re likely to hear (then, if that just whets your appetite, you can move on to the 3-CD Musical Traditions set As I Roved Out).

This is not Mrs Makem’s gloomy minor key version however. I’d always meant to learn it, but never got further than writing out the words from the De Danann record. The version I actually sing comes (yet again) from Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring and was collected by Cecil Sharp in 1923, from William Pittaway of Burford in Oxfordshire. I’m not completely sure when I learned it, but I think it was probably in the early days of Magpie Lane, when I was very much on the look-out for Oxfordshire material. In fact this song was, briefly, in the band’s repertoire. Maybe it’s time to revive it – although I’ve a sneaky suspicion that I’ve grown too attached to singing it unaccompanied to like it any other way.

The song is, according to the notes in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs “far and away the most widely collected song in the English language”. It dates back to at least the mid-seventeenth century. Samuel Pepys heard it sung on 2nd January 1666:

to my Lord Bruncker’s, and there find Sir J. Minnes and all his company, and Mr. Boreman and Mrs. Turner, but, above all, my dear Mrs. Knipp, with whom I sang, and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of “Barbary Allen;”

Mrs Knipp was an actress, and predictably it was not just her singing that Sam Pepys admired:

Thence, it being post night, against my will took leave, but before I come to my office, longing for more of her company, I returned and met them coming home in coaches, so I got into the coach where Mrs. Knipp was and got her upon my knee (the coach being full) and played with her breasts and sung, and at last set her at her house and so good night.

(Pepys diary extracts from

The earliest known printed version of the ballad dates from around the same period; the ballad sheet shown here was printed in Newcastle c1760. This copy is from the Bodleian’s collection, but you’ll find another copy of the same ballad  at the Huntingdon Digital Library.

“Barbara Allen’s cruelty: or the young man’s tragedy” from the Bodleian Library collection.

Barbara Ellen

May 4, 2013

Week 89 – The Woodman’s Daughter

Collected by Cecil Sharp at Warehorne in Kent on the 23rd September 1908, from James Beale.

Other versions – George Maynard’s for instance – often have the female protagonist as “The Poor Old Weaver’s Daughter”.

I added the last verse, because otherwise the song ended with the line “May your prospect never be blighted”. That didn’t seem right when almost every other verse had ended with the phrase “poor old woodman’s daughter”. Actually, having seen other versions now, I realise that a simpler approach would have been to just switch Mr Beale’s last two verses around.

I previously recorded this on the Kentish compilation The Keys of Canterbury (Steel Carpet, 1994).

Broadside ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection: The labourer's welcome home / The weaver's daughter; printed by J.  Catnach between 1813 and 1838.

Broadside ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection: The labourer’s welcome home / The weaver’s daughter; printed by J. Catnach between 1813 and 1838.

The Woodman’s Daughter

April 21, 2013

Week 87 – Sovay

I learned this – along with quite a number of other songs – from Maud Karpeles’ collection The Crystal Spring. Cecil Sharp noted the song in September 1903 from Louie Hooper and Lucy White, at Hambridge in Somerset. It was included in Sharps’ Folk Songs from Somerset where it is notated in alternating bars of 2/4 and 3/4. I sing it pretty much in 6/4 – but what’s the odd extra beat between friends?

The line “when he spied his watch hanging by her clothes” always brings to my mind an image of the two lovers walking in a garden (actually it’s my Mum’s back-garden) where a load of washing is hanging out on the line. And there’s his watch, pegged up between one of her nighties and a pair of bloomers…