Posts tagged ‘Gypsies & Travellers’

May 9, 2016

Week 247 – When I was on horseback

More love again this week for Steeleye Span’s 1971 LP  Ten Man Mop or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again, which I consider to be the finest of all their albums. I like the album’s largely acoustic tracks – ‘Four Nights Drunk’, ‘Marrowbones’, ‘Wee Weaver’ and the jigs and reels sets – but good as those are, they only serve to highlight the brilliance of the electric numbers, in particular the magnificent ‘Captain Coulston’ and ‘When I was on horseback’. The brooding, atmospheric arrangement on the latter is quite timeless – not remotely dated – and serves the song really well. Respect to Steeleye also for not being tempted to add verses from other versions – they keep the song as a three-verse fragment (plus repeated first verse) which manages to convey a sense of impending doom, without actually revealing exactly what’s going on.

When I first heard the song I had no idea of the back story. Had the young soldier been ambushed as he entered Cork City? Had he been the casualty of a military engagement? Later, of course, I discovered that this was a member of the ‘Unfortunate Rake’ family of songs (number 2 in Mr Roud’s list), and “the young soldier who never did wrong” had not met his downfall in battle, but was dying of the pox.

Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle, working on behalf of the BBC, recorded the song at a travellers’ encampment in Belfast in 1952, from Mary Doran of Waterford. It was included (as ‘The Dying Soldier’) on A Soldier’s Life for Me (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 8) and presumably that’s where Steeleye found it. I heard that LP back in the late 1970s but I have no recollection of having heard Mary Doran’s version of this song until a couple of years ago. I must have had cloth-ears in the seventies: this time round I was completely blown away by Mary Doran’s performance. This volume of the Topic / Caedmon series doesn’t seem to be available to purchase as a CD, but if you hunt around on the web you should be able to find an MP3 version of ‘The Dying Soldier’ – it’s well worth hunting out.

When I was on horseback

May 1, 2016

Week 246 – House in the Country

I first encountered Ashley Hutchings on the Steeleye Span LP Ten Man Mop. It’s a great record – probably Steeleye’s best – and as it was only the third or fourth folk record I’d heard it had quite an effect on me. And not just the music. I was very taken by the photo of Ashley Hutchings on the sleeve, where he was wearing a collarless “granddad shirt”. Now I’ve never been one to take much notice of fashion, and as a teenager I was almost completely oblivious to it. But seeing that photo – and then, a little while later, Martin Carthy similarly attired on the cover of Crown of Horn – prompted a great fondness for collarless shirts which I retain to this day. Once I got to know the folk scene better, of course, I found that in the late seventies these shirts (along with beards and pewter tankards) were pretty much de rigeur for the male folkie. Less so for much of the intervening decades, but I still like them.

Back cover of Ten Man Mop

Back cover of Ten Man Mop

Over the next few years I listened to numerous albums featuring Ashley Hutchings: Please to see the King, The Prospect Before Us, Son of Morris On, The Compleat Dancing Master, Rattlebone and Ploughjack, Morris On, Amaranth, Liege and Lief (although, having read what a seminal album that was, when I eventually heard it I was left feeling a little disappointed; I still prefer What we did on our holidays). Then, in 1978, came the Albion Band’s Rise up like the Sun. One of my school friends – I think it must have been my best friend, and singing partner, Mike – bought the LP and I may well have first heard it in the Norton Knatchbull School Sixth Form Common Room. At the time, fairly new as I was to folk music, I had still managed to form various not very rational prejudices. And I wasn’t entirely sure about this record. One of my prejudices was against drum kits in folk bands – I preferred the ‘electric folk’ of early Steeleye to the full-on folk-rock sound – and this band line-up included two drummers! (Actually, this prejudice wasn’t totally irrational – I’ve heard far too many bands where an uninspired folk-rock drum beat has completely overpowered the rhythmic subtleties inherent in good dance playing, and squeezed all the life out of the music. And don’t get me started on that dreadfully disappointing Richard Thompson and Phil Pickett record…)

All the same, I wasn’t quite ready for a review of the album by Karl Dallas (possibly in Melody Maker but I think it was some more niche publication, possibly Folk Review) which he used to propound his theory that folk-rock was dead. I’d only just got into folk music via folk-rock – I wasn’t ready for it to end. Looking back, Dallas might have had a point – folk-rock didn’t die, but it was beginning to atrophy.

(As an aside, not really relevant to any of this, but I’ll mention it anyway, I distinctly remember where I read that Karl Dallas review. It was at a sort of folk youth club set up by folk dance enthusiasts Don and Marjorie Lang, at a scout hut or similar, quite near the seafront in Hythe. I can only remember going to a couple of the Sunday afternoon meetings, but the club might have gone on for longer than that – I didn’t live in Hythe, and it must have been coming up to the time when Mike and I took our A levels. At one of the meetings I did attend – the first one I think – I first encountered Adrian Russell, who had been brought in to demonstrate his prowess on the anglo-concertina. We must have kept in touch  after that first meeting, and went onto become firm friends.)

Having initially had mixed feelings about Rise up like the Sun, after a few years I realised that if I stopped pigeonholing the record, and treated it purely on its own merits (i.e. not as folk, not as folk-rock, not as rock – just as music) it was quite clearly a work of genius. The arrangements of tracks like ‘Poor Old Horse’ are quite superb. And although Karl Dallas might not have been able to come to terms with John Tams changing the tune of ‘The Gresford Disaster’, I now consider that track to be one of the greatest ever recorded under the Albion brand. I love Graeme Taylor’s guitar work, and the way the track builds to an emotional climax – then achieves an even greater emotional impact as the volume drops and Tams sings those last few accusatory verses. There are several songs which produce a Pavlovian effect in me, making my eyes water as a certain line is reached. These range from ‘No Man’s Land’ to Michelle Shocked’s  ‘Anchorage’ and Gram Parsons’ ‘Thousand Dollar Wedding’. And one such moment is definitely when John Tams sings

And the owners have sent some lilies, dear God,
To pay for the poor colliers’ lives.

Stupidly, I’m welling up as I type them now.

 

Of all the Albion records, this is the one where Tams had the greatest creative input, and he must take much of the credit for the album’s brilliance. But it was Ashley Hutchings who had the contacts which enabled him to assemble such a stellar cast of backing vocalists, including Richard and Linda Thompson, Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy, Julie Covington and the McGarrigles. On ‘House in the Country’ (you see, I got to the point eventually) Tams duets with Kate McGarrigle, and the result is, of course, sublime.

On the album sleeve this track is credited to M. Stewart, and I assumed it was a modern composition, perhaps by some folk scene singer-songwriter I’d not encountered. But then, during a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library I think, I came across the song in the 1975 Folk Music Journal, in an article on Scottish travellers’ songs by Peter A. Hall.

The composer was Maggie Stewart, a travelling singer related to the famous Stewarts of Blairgowrie – she was Jeannie Robertson’s aunt, and Stanley Robertson’s “great grand aunt”. A grandson, James Stewart, contributes this information on Mudcat

My GrandMother Maggie Stewart was Born at the Loch O’ the Lee’s outside Banchory in the year of 1902 and died in Aberdeen in the year of 1983 aged 80 years old. she lived in Forfar for years when Hamish Henderson went to Forfar to Record some of the Stewarts and Maggie Stewart was just one of them same family of Folk singers.

Tobar an Dualchais  tells us that Maggie Stewart was

born in Banchory, on Deeside, but spent more time around Alford, Tarland and Aboyne. She travelled Deeside, Donside, Perthshire, Skye, Argyllshire and the Glasgow area with a horse and cart.

There’s a 1979 recording of Stanley Robertson singing this song (with additional verses, not printed in the Journal) at http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/68644/7 and elsewhere on the site you’ll find a discussion about the various songs composed by Maggie Stewart.

Maggie Stewart being recorded by her nephew Stanley Robertson. From 'The Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers a selection of images from the project'. Image copyright the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.

Maggie Stewart being recorded by her nephew Stanley Robertson. From ‘The Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers a selection of images from the project’. Image copyright the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.

Peter Hall’s introduction to this song in the Journal says

Another indication of a flourishing tradition is the addition of new material into the repertoire. The most obvious, although not the only way this may take place is by the composition of original songs. Maggie Stewart, formerly living in Aberdeen and now in Montrose, has written a number of fine pieces as well as being an important contributor of traditional material. The song given here illustrates the dilemma of tinkers who wished to become integrated into society and yet at the same time not to discard any of their own character and custom. The Second World War was an important era for the travelling community, when the expanded bureaucratic machine pushed tinkers into the mainstream of society, requiring them to fight and to be listed and counted.

(Actually, Stanley Robertson suggests the song related to the period following the First World War, rather than the Second). Hall continues

In one of the best papers on the tinker’s life style Farnham Rehfisch deals with the institution of marriage:

“During the two wars quite a number of Tinkers were taken into the Armed Forces. It was very much easier for wives to collect family allowances and other government-granted aid if they were able to show documents proving a legal marriage to a serviceman. This was often essential since many of those who were in charge of the distribution of such benefits were very much prejudiced against members of the group and went to great lengths to avoid satisfying their just claims.”

Society is still ambiguous about accepting tinkers into its midst and the mutual tension embodied in the relationship is well caught in the next song.

House in the Country

February 11, 2016

Week 234 – Johnny Abourne

Photo of Phoebe Smith by Mike Yates, from the Veteran Records website.

Photo of Phoebe Smith by Mike Yates, from the Veteran Records website.

Tune, title, and words of verse 1 (mostly):  from the great Phoebe Smith, via Mike Yates’ recording on the Topic LP The Travelling Songster: An Anthology from Gypsy Singers.

All other words: from  ‘Bothy Songs & Ballads’ by John Ord.

Phoebe Smith’s title, ‘Johnny Abourne’, is a mishearing or corruption of the original Scottish title ‘Jamie Raeburn’.  Similarly, she consistently sang ‘Canada’  rather than the perhaps unfamiliar word ‘Caledonia’.

The Wikipedia entry for ‘Jamie Raeburn’ states that

Jamie Raeburn is reputed to have been a baker in Glasgow before being sentenced for petty theft, although he was allegedly innocent, and then sent out to the colonies as punishment…

In Robert Ford’s ‘Vagabond Songs and Ballads of Scotland: With Many Old and Familiar Melodies’ (1901) he writes the following in relation to the song:

The above was long a popular street song, all over Scotland, and sold readily in penny sheet form. The hero of the verses, in whose mouth the words are put, I recently learned on enquiry, through the columns of the Glasgow Evening Times, was a baker to trade, who was sentenced to banishment for theft, more than sixty years ago. His sweetheart, Catherine Chandlier, thus told the story of his misfortunes: We parted at ten o’clock and Jamie was in the police office at 20 minutes past ten. Going home, he met an acquaintance of his boyhood, who took him in to treat him for auld langsyne. Scarcely had they entered when the detectives appeared and apprehended them. Searched, the stolen property was found. They were tried and banished for life to Botany Bay. Jamie was innocent as the unborn babe, but his heartless companion spoke not a word of his innocence.

You’ll find numerous recordings of the song from Scottish tradition at http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk

I’m always amazed that this version, with it’s wonderful tune, is not more widely sung.

Jamie Raeburn: broadside printed by James Kay, Glasgow. Probable period of publication: 1840-1850. From the National Library of Scotland Word on the Street site.

Jamie Raeburn: broadside printed by James Kay, Glasgow. Probable period of publication: 1840-1850. From the National Library of Scotland Word on the Street site.

Johnny Abourne

September 12, 2015

Week 212 – Enniscorthy Fair

There was once a time – long ago now – that I would sit at home accompanying myself on mandolin or mandola. Occasionally, this would even happen in public. One song which got this treatment was ‘Galtee Farmer’, learned from the Steeleye Span LP Commoners Crown. As far as I can recall that one never got a public airing, and at some point I stopped singing it altogether. However in 1986 I bought a cassette issued by the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Early in the Month of Spring, which contained a traditional variant of ‘Galtee Farmer’. The singer was Bill Cassidy, a traveller originally from Co. Wexford but, at the time he was recorded by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in 1973, camping illegally under the Westway flyover in North Kensington.

I immediately decided to learn Bill’s version, but felt I needed to change soem of the words, to make it more singable. It’s not that the story is incomplete the way Bill sang it, but the sense in some of the lines seemed to have been mangled a bit e.g.

I’ll engage this mare to all kind work
And her trial won’t be a quest

or

She looks so style and handsome
And so action in my eye

On a visit to Cecil Sharp House, Malcolm Taylor found me a couple of excellent sound recordings as a possible source of alternative lyrics. One was by Lal Smith, another travelling singer, recorded by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s. And the other was by an unidentified singer, recorded at Killorglin Puck Fair, Co. Kerry. Checking the Roud Index, it must have been this BBC recording, made in 1947 (the catalogue record says “Co. Derry” but that must be a typo – the Puck Fair is definitely held in Kerry).

This Killorglin recording was quite remarkable. Made, I imagine, in a pub, with a very noisy, boisterous clientele, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a recording where it was so obvious that the singer, and everyone with him, was quite so monumentally plastered.

I can no longer remember which lines of my version of the song came from Lal Smith or the singer at the fair (or perhaps from my memory of the Steeleye recording). It may even be that some I just made up.

For more on Bill, and the other Irish travellers recorded by Jim and Pat, see the notes to the Musical Traditions set, From Puck to Appleby; and then purchase the CD, or download a copy – it will cost you all of £4.

Enniscorthy Fair

December 13, 2014

Week 173 – On Christmas Day

Not exactly full of Christmas cheer, this week’s entry. Nor does this bleak song portray the Redeemer as a particularly forgiving or compassionate deity. It’s quite widely sung these days, but has been rarely collected. In fact pretty much every version you hear around the folk scene is likely to derive directly or indirectly from the version recorded by Fred Hamer from the wonderful Shropshire gypsy singer May Bradley, or that collected in 1912 from her mother Esther Smith by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ella Leather.

You can hear May Bradley singing the song on the EFDSS CD A Century of Song, and on the Musical Traditions disc Sweet Swansea. Her mother’s singing had also been recorded – on phonograph cylinder – although unfortunately we’re not in a position to hear that.

On the EFDSS cassette The Leaves of Life – following on from May Bradley’s singing of ‘Under the Leaves’ – you can hear the moment when Fred Hamer realises that she is the daughter of Esther Smith. Hamer seems to get quite excited at the Vaughan Williams connection, but Mrs Bradley is clearly unimpressed by any mention of “the greatest composer in this country”. It’s a lovely insight into the cultural chasm that could exist between singer and collector.

Another version of the song, collected from an unnamed gypsy singer in the New Forest, is titled ‘In Dessexshire as it Befel’. You can download a PDF of that version from http://spellerweb.net/cmindex/Gipsy/Dessexshire.html

The notes on that site say

This curious carol was one of a number collected by Alice Elizabeth Gillington (1863-1934), a clergyman’s daughter and student of gypsy culture who herself spent the last quarter century of her life as a gypsy. The Herefordshire gipsy carol, On Christmas day it happened so is a variant of this one.

I’ve almost known the words of this song for years, and recently decided it was time I learned it properly. Incidentally, this is not the only Christmas song from Shropshire where the sins of the farmer are visited upon his livestock – see also ‘The Man that Lives’.

On Christmas Day

December 5, 2014

Week 172 – King Pharim

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.

King Pharim

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.

Jean François Millet, The Flight Into Egypt, c. 1864. Image copyright the Art Institute Chicago.

October 31, 2014

Week 167 – The Small Birds Whistle

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.

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.

The Small Birds Whistle

August 3, 2014

Week 154 – Allan MacLean

Here’s one which I’ve recently revived after a long gap. I learned it originally (under the title ‘The Minister’s Son’) from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s book Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland. They had recorded the song in 1963 from Charlotte Higgins – you can hear a slightly earlier recording made by Hamish Henderson on the excellent Tobar an Dualchais site (search hint when using that site: if you want to search by Roud number, use the Classification field in Advanced Search and prefix the number with “R” e.g to find other versions of this song search for “R2511”). For reasons which I no longer recall, I chose not to sing Charlotte Higgins’ tune, but instead used Harry Cox’s tune for ‘Blackberry Fold’ (or at least, Harry Cox’s tune as learned from Peter Bellamy’s rendition of it on The Fox Jumps Over the Parson’s Gate). It seems to fit pretty well – at any rate it’s flexible enough to accommodate the lines which simply have too many syllables to fit.

The song concerns a student who is expelled from his College following a sexual liaison initiated at a party. Of course, Universities and Colleges still take a very strict line on this kind of thing. As a result, noone in higher education today would ever contemplate getting involved with sex and drinking and that kind of thing. That’s what my children tell me anyway…

 

Allan MacLean

April 26, 2014

Week 140 – Down By The Shannon Side

I learned this song from the Cornish traveller Charlotte Renals, who is featured along with her sisters Betsy Renals and Sophie Legg on the Veteran cassette Catch me if you Can (now available in expanded form as VT119CD). Her version has several two and three line verses. I’ve filled in the gaps, and put the verses in a more logical order, with the help of a very complete set of words collected by Cecil Sharp in August 1905 from Captain Robert Lewis of Minehead in Somerset.

In Charlotte Renals’ version the male protagonist is Captain Walters. A perfectly respectable name. But in Captain Lewis’ version the bounder’s name is Captain Thunderbold:

My name is Captain Thunderbold
It’s a name I will ne’er deny

Well why would you deny a name like that? And how could I resist including it in the song?

Looking at the numerous broadside versions available via Broadside Ballads Online  the name seems to be universally given as ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ and this is the title Phoebe Smith has for her version of the song.

The Shannon Side – broadside from the Bodleian collection, printed by H. Such, between 1863 and 1885.

The Shannon Side – broadside from the Bodleian collection, printed by H. Such, between 1863 and 1885.

I had let this song lapse for several years, but recently relearned it, and I must say it’s good to have the song back in my repertoire.

Down By The Shannon Side

 

March 8, 2014

Week 133 – The Constant Farmer’s Son

This is a proper traditional ballad where all the main characters end up unhappy and/or dead. Just for once, it features a young lady whose parents approve of her choice of life-partner but, needless to say, there’s a fly in the ointment. In this case it’s her brothers, who want her to marry a rich young lord. They promise to kill her unsuitable suitor, and are as good as their word, inviting him a to a fair, then doing him over with a couple of sticks (although in the interests of efficiency, and preserving the internal rhyme scheme, they might have done better to have used knives).

I learned this from an Irish traveller, Josie Connors, via the VWML cassette Early in the Month of Spring. This cassette presented recordings of Irish travellers made by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in various unromantic locations (e.g. an illegal camp underneath the Westway flyover in North Kensington) in and around London – Josie Connors, I think was recorded at Langley, near Slough. Most if not all of those recordings are now available on the Musical Traditions CD From Puck to Appleby.

The notes to that CD say

The plot of The Constant Farmer’s Son was used in the 14th century by Boccaccio in The Decameron and later made the subject of poems: by Nuremberg poet Hans Sachs in the 16th century and, in the early 19th century, by John Keats in his Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

Based on an older song, The Bramble Briar or Bruton Town, which has been described as ‘probably the song with the longest history in the English tradition’, it owes its continued popularity to its appearance on nineteenth century broadsides.  A version from Hertfordshire in 1914 gives it as ‘Lord Burling’s (or Burlington’s) Sister or The Murdered Serving Man.

As well as being found widely in England, it is very popular in Ireland, though it has only appeared in print there a couple of times.  It is included in the Sam Henry Collection which gives four sources and, more recently it was included in Fermanagh singer John Maguire’s autobiographical Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday.  Josie learned it from her mother, a Dublin Traveller.

About twenty years ago I sang this song in a ballad session at Sidmouth. The collector Keith Summers was sitting near me. When I’d finished the song he just leaned across and said “You got it boy”. That’s one of those cryptic remarks which I may well have misinterpreted, but I’ve always taken it as a huge compliment from a man who had spent an enormous amount of time in the company of traditional singers.

The Merchant's Daughter And Constant Farmer's Son - ballad sheet from the Frank Kidson Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.

The Merchant’s Daughter And Constant Farmer’s Son – ballad sheet from the Frank Kidson Manuscript Collection, via the Full English archive.

The Constant Farmer’s Son