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.
This was number 286 in Professor Child’s list. But it’s not one of the “big ballads”, and the storyline (disappointingly, I’m sure, for ballad aficionados) has no incest, fratricide, sororicide, filicide, prolicide or suicide. Indeed the song is often sung to a fairly jaunty tune, and I must admit that, when planning a setlist, this is usually included in the “jolly songs with chorus” category. Having said that, stop to think about it for a while and you realise that the death toll is actually quite high.
This version comes from the Sussex fisherman Johnny Doughty, although I learned it from Everyman’s Book of British Ballads, edited by Roy Palmer. At the time I suspect I’d never heard Johnny Doughty singing, although subsequently I saw him singing a number of times at Sidmouth and the National Folk Music Festival. He was a real entertainer, who relished being the centre of attention. His performances were punctuated by sly winks, and asides to his wife sat in the front row, especially when the topic of “a drop of treacle” arose (as I recall, his favourite tipple was a pint of Guinness).
Johnny Doughty. Photo by Doc Rowe, from the Musical Traditions article “Johnny Doughty… an interview with Vic Smith”
A recording of this song made by Mike Yates was included on the Topic LP Round Rye Bay for more, and I think I must have heard that at some point in the early eighties. I never owned a copy, however, until earlier this year when I was sorting through my parents’ record collection and, to my surprise, found a copy of the album snuck in amongst the country dance bands, the Tim Laycock, the Strawhead, the Max Bygraves, and Your One Hundred Best Tunes compilations.
Mike Yates’s notes on Round Rye Bay for more (quoted at mainlynorfolk.info) provide this background on the song’s origins:
Sir Walter Rawleigh has built a ship in the Netherlands,
Sir Walter Rawleigh has built a ship in the Netherlands,
And it is called the Sweet Trinity,
And was taken by the false gallaly,
Sailing in the Lowlands.
So begins a blackletter broadside [Version A in Child], “shewing how the famous ship called the Sweet Trinity was taken by a false Gally, and how it was again restored by the craft of a little sea-boy, who sunk the Gally,” that was printed during the period 1682-85 by Joshua Conyers, “at the Black-Raven, the 1st shop in Fetter-lane, next Holborn.”
The history books appear to have missed this particular episode in Raleigh’s life—no doubt because it was a flight of Conyers’, or some other unknown printer’s, imagination; a simple attempt to increase sales by the addition of a romantic and well-known name to an otherwise commonplace tale. Whatever the origin, the ballad certainly caught the popular imagination with the result that more than a hundred sets have been collected throughout England, Scotland, America and Australia. Johnny’s final couplet is, to my knowledge, unique to his version.
Johnny Doughty’s unique ending was a half-verse
Was there ever half a tale so sad
As this tale of the sea
Where we sailed by the lowlands low?
If I were learning the song today, I would almost certainly keep that in. But 30-odd years ago for some reason I found it unsatisfactory, so I made up my own, somewhat tongue-in-cheek final verse, in which the young cabin boy wreaks terrible revenge on the perfidious captain and his crew. Which, of course, increases the death toll even more…
The Golden vanity, or The low lands low. Such ballad from the Bodleian collection.
The first folk LPs I heard: Steeleye Span Below the Salt, All Around My Hat, Ten Man Mop; Tim Hart and Maddy Prior Folk Songs of Old England Vol 1; The Chieftains 5; The Watersons For Pence and Spicy Ale; the Copper Family A Song for Every Season. One thing which several of those had in common was really strong harmony vocals, especially on seasonal or ritual songs, and folk hymns and carols. Pride of place in this respect must go to For Pence and Spicy Ale with its harvest songs, its wassails, the magnificent ‘The Good Old Way’, and a really stirring rendition of ‘King Pharim’.
I heard all of these records c1976-77, when I was in the fifth form, going into the lower sixth. Alongside my burgeoning enthusiasm for traditional song, I was also a keen member of our school choir. Mostly, at Christmas, our repertoire came from Carols for Choirs (the green book) but we would also do the occasional number from The Oxford Book of Carols. I remember singing ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ one year, while the invitation-only Madrigal Choir (and no, I never was invited) did ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ from the same source. Anyway, rifling through the book, I was somewhat surprised and intrigued to discover that it contained a number of carols which I knew from folk LPs. Including, rather bizarrely, ‘King Pharim’. This was presented with a set of words which the editors had considered might be suitable for choirs (although I’m sure I’ve never heard any choir attempt it, and suspect I never will); but the footnotes also reproduced the somewhat incoherent lyrics as collected in Surrey from a family of gypsies by the name of Goby, in 1893. The collector was Lucy Broadwood, and she included the carol in her English Traditional Songs and Carols (1908). The notes in that book give the following information:
Child’s English and Scottish Ballads should without fail be consulted for notes on the carols “St. Stephen and Herod” and the “Carnal and the Crane.” The first-named is preserved in the British Museum, in a MS. judged to be of the time of Henry VI. It narrates that St. Stephen, dish-bearer to King Herod, sees the Star of Bethlehem, and tells the king that Christ is born. Herod scoffingly says that this is as likely as that the capon in the dish should crow. The capon thereupon rises, and crows “Christus natus est!” This legend is extremely ancient, and widely spread over Europe. Its source seems to be an interpolation in two late Greek MSS. of the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus. “The Carnal and the Crane” (see Sandys’ Christmas Carols and Husk’s Songs of the Nativity), appeared on broadsides of the middle of the eighteenth century. The well-informed crane instructs his catechumen, the carnal (i.e., crow), in matters pertaining to the early days of Jesus; and tells how the wise men tried to convince Herod of the birth of Christ by the miracle of the roasted cock, which rose freshly feathered, and crowed in the dish. It also relates the legend of the Instantaneous Harvest, which occurs in Apocryphal Gospels (see B. Harris Cowper’s Apocryphal Gospels). The carol consists of thirty stanzas, some of which have lines in common with the Surrey carol here given. It, likewise, is exceedingly corrupted and incoherent, and must have been transmitted orally from some very remote source. The singers of the Surrey version are very well known Gypsy tramps in the neighbourhood of Horsham and Dorking. “King Pharim” is of course a corruption of “King Pharaoh,” and that name is properly given in a very interesting traditional version of “The Carnal and the Crane” lately noted in Herefordshire. It is quite natural that gypsies should substitute “Pharaoh” for “Herod,” for, on the first appearance of gypsies in Europe (in the fifteenth century), the Church spread the legend that they came from Egypt with a curse upon them because they had refused to receive the Virgin and Child. The gypsies in time came to believe themselves Egyptians, and, according to Simson (1865), recognise Pharaoh as their former king. There is, however, an interesting allusion to Pharaoh in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, Chap. xxv.: “Thence they (Joseph, Mary and Jesus), went down to Memphis, and having seen Pharaoh they staid three years in Egypt; and the Lord Jesus wrought very many miracles in Egypt.” The editor of the Gospel adds, “Memphis may have been visited, but who was Pharaoh? Egypt was then under Roman rule.” The sixth verse of the “King Pharim” carol is a paraphrase of a passage in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Chap. xx.
I’m pretty sure my friend Mike and I first went out “wassailing” Christmas 1976. That was just the two of us, but by the following year our numbers had swollen, and a sizeable band of singers continued to go out singing every Christmas for the next 10 years or so. We sang a whole bunch of songs pinched from the Watersons, but I don’t think this was one of them. However when Carol and I moved to Oxford in the late 1980s, and organised a carol-singing ensemble there, this did make it into our repertoire. I remember singing it with Magpie Lane too, in the early days, with instrumental accompaniment. Although it fell by the wayside after a year or two, it’s one of those songs I always sing around the house at Christmas-time. A couple of years ago I tried it for the first time on C/G anglo (instead of the more obvious G/D). It seemed to fit, so I recorded it. The recording has languished in the vaults since then, but I think it’s time to let it see the light of day. This recording is also my first – and so far only – attempt to experiment with multi-tracking, so you get a bit of melodeon as a special treat, It’s not the most polished performance, but think Dr Johnson – dogs – hind legs etc.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina, D/A melodeon
Jean François Millet, The Flight Into Egypt, c. 1864. Image copyright the Art Institute Chicago.
Thanks to its inclusion on various Peel and Kershaw sessions, Martin Carthy’s reconstruction of this Child Ballad is known well beyond the confines of the folk world. John Peel reckoned that every time Martin recorded a new session, the song had acquired a few extra verses. Well, there are plenty to choose from, even before you start making up brand new ones. There are in fact whole chunks of the Carthy story which are missing from my version. In particular, when the King goes out hunting, nothing of note seems to happen, and he comes home safely two verses later.
I was inspired to learn the song after hearing Jasper Smith’s four verses fragment on the Topic LP The Travelling Songster (that recording was also included on Voice of the People Volume 11, My Father’s the King of the Gypsies). On a trip to the Vaughan Williams memorial Library I assembled enough verses to make a coherent whole, thanks in part to the seven Scottish, American and Canadian variants in Bronson’s Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads but mainly making use of the version printed in Frank Purslow’s book The Constant Lovers. That version of the song came from Albert Doe, of Bartley in Hampshire, collected by George Gardiner on 17th December 1908. Frank Purslow’s notes say that Albert Doe was “apparently a good singer with a very fine repertoire, some, if not all, of Irish origin. The tune of this version in any case betrays its country of origin, as it is a variant – a good one – of a tune much associated with texts of Irish origin, such as The Croppy Boy, The Isle of France, Sweet William, The Wild and Wicked Youth and several others”. Jasper Smith’s song is set to a variant of the same tune, while on The Travelling Songster Phoebe Smith uses an almost identical tune for ‘Sweet William’ – indeed, I think the way I sing the tune probably owes more to Phoebe than Jasper Smith.
The song itself dates back to the seventeenth century. The earliest copy in the Bodleian was “Printed for Eliz. Andrews in little St. Bartholomews court in West-smithfield” (in London) between 1664 and 1666. And while we know that all folk songs and ballads must have been written by someone, this is one where we’re pretty sure who that someone was: ‘The famous Flower of Serving-Man. Or, The Lady turn’d Serving-Man’ was entered in the Stationers’ Register on July 14, 1656, by noted (and prolific) ballad-writer Laurence Price. If your public library provides access to the Oxford DNB, you can read Roy Palmer’s biographical entry on Price at www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22759.
The famous flower of serving-men. Or The lady turn’d serving. Printed for Eliz. Andrews in little St. Bartholomews court in West-smithfield, between 1664 and 1666. From the Bodleian collection.
It must have been 1976 or 77 when I discovered a remarkable thing: folk dancing can be fun. It happened like this…
Before I was born, my parents used to go out dancing a lot: ballroom, old time, barn dances, square dances. Then in my teens, when I was old enough not to need a babysitter any more, they started dancing again, mainly at dinner dances organised by the school PTA. When my Mum tried to teach me to waltz, or do the foxtrot, I was completely uninterested. And although a bunch of my schoolfriends went to a PTA barn dance – and had fun, to be fair – I don’t think any of us considered it might be something we’d want to do on a regular basis. Similarly, when I discovered folk music at the end of 1975, I enjoyed the jigs and reels played by bands like Steeleye and the Chieftains, but thought of them only as music to listen to, not as music you might dance to. But when my Mum and Dad were invited to a barn dance in the village hall at Warehorne, a few miles from where we lived, at the last minute I tagged along. And it was a revelation.
What really made the difference was the band – the Oyster Ceilidh Band, whose music was not only extremely energetic and danceable, but also very listenable. I was hooked, and (along with quite a number of my teenage friends) became a regular at the dances organised by Ron and Jean Saunders at Warehorne. It was a tiny village hall, and the six or seven-piece band would crowd onto a stage created by placing boards on top of the snooker table (some years later I discovered that this had also been the practice in the 1930s, when Charlie Bridger – of whom more another week – used to play for village hops in the same hall).
At my 18th birthday party John Jones, Chris Taylor and Cathy Lesurf from the Oyster Ceilidh Band came along to play and call a few dances. And as a birthday present Cathy gave me a copy of Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring Volume 2. This is a collection of songs collected by Cecil Sharp, and over the years I’ve found it to be a really good source of songs. But I was particularly excited to find that one of the songs had been collected in Warehorne.
This was a song which, in The Crystal Spring, is given the title of ‘The Baffled Knight’, and which Sharp collected in Warehorne on 23 September 1908 from James Beale. Even at 18 I realised, I think, that ‘The Baffled Knight’ was a ballad scholar’s title, not what a traditional singer would have used (it doesn’t even mention a knight in Mr Beale’s song – it’s a shepherd’s son who is “baffled”). A few years later, when I looked at the copy of Sharp’s manuscripts in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, I found that in fact Mr Beale had also sung “Stroll away the morning dew”, rather than the more usual “Blow away the morning dew”. So that’s what I’ve sung ever since, and that’s how I refer to the song.
James Beale’s last verse was
So if you meet any pretty girl
And your father in the town
O never mind her squalling
Or the rumpling of her gown
But I prefer to stick with the “if you will not when you can / you shall not when you would” verse given by Maud Karpeles.
If – in a folk song at least – you ride /walk / roam / rove out on a May morning, you are guaranteed to meet a member of the opposite sex. That encounter may lead to a bit of rumpy-pumpy, maybe even true love; but it might have darker consequences.
Exactly what’s going on in this version isn’t clear: who is the woman that George Collins meets? how does she know he’s going to die? and what does he die of? But none of those things really matters – they just add to the song’s wonderfully mysterious air. And in any case, what is clear from the final verse is that George was a bit of a ladies’ man, a pin-up perhaps, news of whose death leads to six pretty maids dying of a broken heart.
Actually, ballad scholars do have a pretty good idea of how this story started out. In his notes to the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, A L Lloyd wrote:
The plot of George Collins has its secrets. From an examination of a number of variants, the full story becomes clearer. The girl by the stream is a water-fairy. The young man has been in the habit of visiting her. He is about to marry a mortal, and the fairy takes her revenge with a poisoned kiss. The song telling that story is among the great ballads of Europe. Its roots and branches are spread in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. An early literary form is the German poem of the Knight of Staufenberg (c. 1310). France alone has about ninety versions, mostly in the form of the familiar Le Roi Renaud, though here much of the dream-quality of the tale is missing, since the girl by the stream is lost sight of, and instead the hero is mortally wounded in battle. The first half of the George Collins story is told in the ballad called Clerk Colvill (Child 42), the second half in Lady Alice (Child 85). Either these are two separate songs which have been combined to form George Collins or (which seems more likely) they are two fragments of the completer ballad. George Collins has rarely been reported in England, though in the summer of 1906 Dr. G. B. Gardiner collected three separate versions in different Hampshire villages, two of them on the same day. (FSJ vol.III, pp.299-301)
N.B. I’ve copied that chunk of text from a post by Malcolm Douglas – who edited Classic English Folk Songs, the revised EFDSS reprint of the Penguin Book – on Mudcat. That discussion also contains some interesting American variants. One starts
‘Twas at a western water tank
One cold December day
And in an empty boxcar
A dying hobo lay
but then recognisably becomes a version of ‘George Collins’ in the second verse
You see his girl in yonders hall
A-sewing her silk so fine
But when she heard poor George was dead
She laid her silks aside
Enos White and his wife, from the Copper Family website
The versions collected by Gardiner in Hampshire – the source of the composite version in the Penguin volume – can be found on the EFDSS Take Six website.
Another fine song from the Willett Family repertoire. It’s the very first song on the Topic LP The Roving Journeymen, sung by the octogenarian Tom, and his performance is a real tour-de-force.
He gets very nearly to the end of the tale, too, by the simple expedient of missing out the first few verses! A number of traditional singers – Joseph Taylor for instance – make the fatal mistake of starting this song at the beginning: Lord Bateman sails to the East (to fight in the Crusades?), is imprisoned by a Turk, and tied to a tree. Then, just when the Turk’s daughter makes an appearance, the singer runs out of verses and the song grinds to a halt. Tom Willett dispenses with all the back story, and starts the tale at this point. And where the words might normally be
The Turk he had one only daughter
he does a brilliant bit of rationalisation and sings
Now the turnkey had but one only daughter
It doesn’t matter about his captor’s nationality – the important fact is that he’s a gaoler, and his daughter is going to set our hero free.
I used to finish the song at the same point as Tom Willett, with the verse where Lord Bateman realises the identity of the beautiful, richly attired visitor who is asking him for a slice of bread and a bottle of wine
Now Lord Bateman flew all in a passion
His sword he broke it all in pieces three
Saying I’ll seek no more for no other fortune
Oh it’s since Sofia now have crossed the sea
But I was singing this at home one time when my Dad was around. I finished, and he immediately said “Well, what happened then?” Now admittedly this was what he used to say at the conclusion of pretty much every episode of Play for Today. But this isn’t modern drama, it’s a traditional ballad, and it deserves a proper ending. So I added on three final verses as collected by Sharp, and printed in Maud Karpeles’ The Crystal Spring.
Gosh – a Child Ballad! The first I’ve posted here, I think. I don’t set much store by Child Ballads – by which I mean that, just because a song was on the good professor’s list, I don’t regard it as in any way special, or more noble, or more important than other songs from the tradition.
This one is from George Maynard, learned from his Topic LP Ye Subjects of England. Mind you, I already knew the song, before I heard George sing it, from the Tim Hart & Maddy Prior LP Folk Songs of Old England Vol. 1; which – having originally been attracted to traditional music by Steeleye – was one of the very first folk albums I bought. Listened to it again recently, in fact, expecting it to sound rather dated. And was pleasantly surprised to find that I still found it a really good listen, with lots of great songs performed in simple but effective arrangements. Although I’m not able to enjoy Tim Hart’s singing as much as I used to, since I read a Folk Roots article where he confessed that he’d put on that ultra folky voice because he thought his natural (public school educated) voice wouldn’t suit the songs.