Posts tagged ‘fiddle’

October 22, 2012

Week 61 – John Barleycorn

‘John Barleycorn’ was one of the first traditional songs I ever heard. That was the Steeleye version, which I soon discovered was pretty much the same as that printed in Fred Hamer’s Garners Gay. Like pretty much everything on Below the Salt, I learned that version at the time; and I’m pretty sure it was for a while in the repertoire of a group I sang with at University, The Paralytics aka Three Agnostics and a Christian.

In more recent times, I have recorded two different versions with Magpie Lane. First, on The Oxford Ramble Ian Giles and I sang the classic Shepherd Haden version. Then on A Taste of Ale I sang a version collected by Gwilym Davies in the 1970s. The Oxfordshire version should appear on this blog at some point, since it is, notionally at least, still in my repertoire. But the Devon version, like much of the material on A Taste of Ale, was worked up for the CD, then forgotten about (I can’t actually recall the tune right now).

If I was starting from scratch, and looking for a ‘John Barleycorn’ version to sing, I might well be tempted by the rather nice minor key version (another from Bampton-in-the-Bush) printed in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. But here’s a version which I recorded on a demo tape with Chris Wood, circa 1985. This came from Peter Kennedy’s Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. Kennedy collected the song from Bert Edwards of Little Stretton, Shropshire, and it’s similar to the way another Shropshire singer, Fred Jordan, used to sing the song.

The notes to this song in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs say

It was perhaps inevitable that this song would attract the ritual-origins theorists  who claimed that it was all to do with corn spirits and resurrection, but it is now generally agreed that such notions were romantic wishful thinking and there is no evidence either for the theories themselves or for this song to be anything other than a clever allegory.

If we stick to what we do know…

Well if you want to know what we do know, you’ll have to buy the book. Even if you never learn any of the songs, it’s worth every penny for Steve Roud’s excellent well-informed and thoroughly commonsensical introduction.

John Barleycorn

Andy Turner: vocals, anglo-concertina

Chris Wood: fiddle, vocals

Recorded 1985 (?) by Bernard Brown

December 24, 2011

Week 18 – The Sussex Carol

Not, of course, specifically a Sussex carol: the Roud Index lists versions collected from oral tradition in counties including Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Surrey, Herefordshire and Hampshire; while the Bodleian has copies of early nineteenth centuryballad sheets printed in London and Birmingham. Indeed, according to Wikipedia the words were first published by Luke Wadding, a 17th-century Irish bishop, in a work called Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684).

But Vaughan Williams collected this version from Mrs Verrall, of Monk’s Gate, Horsham in Sussex, in 1904, and his arrangement of the carol was included in the Oxford Book of Carols, first published in 1928 (he had also incorporated it into his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, first performed in 1912).

I’ve always enjoyed singing this carol, but these days it has a particular significance for me as it’s almost invariably the song which closes our Magpie Lane Christmas concerts in Oxford. As such it brings a mixture of emotion: exhilaration at the completion of a successful concert in front of a supportive home crowd, and a general feeling of goodwill-to-all-men-it’s-almost-Christmas; mixed with a tinge of sadness because this year’s concerts are over, and we won’t be dusting off this repertoire again for another twelve months.

Here the lead vocals are taken by my wife Carol, with my eldest son Joe on fiddle. A very happy Christmas from all of us.

Christmas ballad sheet from the Bodleian Library collection

Christmas ballad sheet from the Bodleian Library collection

The Sussex Carol

Carol Turner: vocal
Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Joe Turner: fiddle

December 18, 2011

Week 17 – The Holly and the Ivy / Christmas now is drawing near at hand

Last week it was Shropshire, this week we have two carols collected in Herefordshire.

In quires and places where they sing, if you hear ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ it will invariably be sung to the tune which Cecil Sharp collected in 1909 from Mrs Mary Clayton at Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire, and which was included in the Oxford Book of Carols. On the folk scene, this tune exercises a similar hegemony. It was recorded in the 1950s from Peter Jones of Bromsash in Herefordshire, and that recording was included on the LP Songs of Ceremony (part of the Caedmon / Topic Folk Songs of Britain series). I first heard it in 1976 or 77, at a mass door-to-door carol-singing event in the village of Warehorne in Kent, where the singing was led by John Jones and Cathy Lesurf of the Oyster Ceilidh Band. It was an absolute revelation to me a) that carols like ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ sounded really good when accompanied by melodeons and guitars, and b) that there was more than one tune to some carols – notably this one, and ‘While Shepherds Watched’ (little did I know at that stage just how many different tunes ‘While Shepherds’ could be sung to).

I’m joined on this recording by my son, Joe, on fiddle. He said he’d never actually played the tune before, but it was lodged in his brain after “years of exposure to Magpie Lane at Christmas”.  Well, it doesn’t seem to have done him any permanent harm…

In the Journal of the Folk-Song Society for 1914 you will find a number of versions of ‘Christmas now is drawing near at hand’, collected by Vaughan Williams and Sharp in various locations, but particularly in the West Midlands and counties adjoining Wales. You can find transcriptions of some of the versions which appeared in early volumes of the Journal at

I, like almost everyone else on the folk scene, learned this fine carol from the singing of the late, great Lal Waterson, on the seminal Watersons LP Frost and Fire.

A.L. Lloyd’s sleeve notes for that LP say:

This moralising carol was much used by beggars and others towards Christmas time. Its tune turns up over and again attached to such carols as The Fountain of Christ’s BloodHave You Not Heard of our Dear Saviour’s Love, and The Black Decree, also to the favourite old dialogue-ballad of Death and the Lady, traceable to the sixteenth century. Here it is sung by Elaine Waterson in a form common among gipsies habitually drifting through the West Midlands half a century ago.

It looks to me that Lal based her tune on that collected by Vaughan Williams in September 1913: “Sung by a Waggoner (name unknown), Pool-End, near Hereford, Herefordshire”, and one of those printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol V, No. 18 (1914).

'Christmas now is drawing near at hand' Sung by a Waggoner (name unknown), Pool-End, near Hereford, Herefordshire; noted by R. Vaughan Williams, Sept 1913. Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol V, No. 18 (1914) p11

Sometimes I think I’ll relearn the tune the way Vaughan Williams wrote it down – not in a vain attempt to be more “authentic”, but because it has some rather nice subtle twists. But after singing it like this for well over 30 years, I suspect that’s not going to happen.

The Holly and the Ivy

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Joe Turner: fiddle

Christmas is now drawing near at hand