Posts tagged ‘Harry Cox’

September 27, 2020

Week 296 – The Long Peggin’ Awl

I learned this song from Folk Song in England by A.L.Lloyd, which I borrowed from my local public library in about 1976. Lloyd includes it as an example of the

profusion of humorous songs whose erotic metaphors concern the miller’s grinding stones, the weaver’s shuttle (and its to-and-from as he works at the loom the young woman carries beneath her apron), the blocking-iron of the priapic jolly tinker (‘She brought me though the kitchen and she brought me through the hall, and the servants cried: The devil, are you going to block us all?’), or the cobbler’s awl, as in this song recorded in 1954 from Harry Cox, the Norfolk singer, by Peter Kennedy.

(For examples of songs about those other trades see The Maid and the Miller on this blog, O.J. Abbott’s song ‘The Weaver’, and ‘The Jolly Tinker’ – preferably the version recorded in Mohill, County Leitrim, from the irrepressible Thomas Moran)

I stopped singing the song after a while, because I thought I’d got the tune wrong. I’m not sure why I didn’t just learn it again properly – especially as, I now realise, I had access to a recording of Harry Cox himself singing it on the LP Songs of Seduction which I had borrowed from the library, and recorded onto cassette without hesitation at the time or, indeed, regret at any time since. That was the first record I heard of traditional singers and it made a big impression on me. But I have absolutely no recollection of this song being on the LP – I could have sworn I only heard Harry Cox’s version on the expanded CD reissue put out by Rounder in 2000. Well, not for the first time just recently, I find that my memory is playing tricks on me – a sign of things to come, no doubt, as I enter my seventh decade!

We recorded a nice arrangement of this – with Benji Kirkpatrick on vocals – on the Magpie Lane CD Six for Gold and it was after this that I did finally learn the song properly. I’m not sure why I overlooked it while this blog was in its weekly heyday, but I’m glad to rectify the omission now. It’s only five verses, and lasts less than 2 minutes, but it’s still a joy to sing.

In case you don’t know what a cobbler’s awl looks like, here’s one from the 1840s, recovered at Erebus Bay, King William Island, up in the frozen North of Canada – abandoned by a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition.

Cobbler's awl: a relic of Sir John Franklin's last expedition 1845-48, from the National Maritime Museum.

Cobbler’s awl: a relic of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition 1845-48, from the National Maritime Museum.

The Long Peggin’ Awl


November 1, 2015

Week 219 – Maid of Australia

When I was 16 or 17 I signed up to the record-lending section of my local public library. The first two discs I borrowed were an early music recording of songs from the Carmina Burana, and the Topic/Caedmon LP Songs of Seduction. Now the Folk Songs of Britain series, of which this was part, has been heavily criticised for the way its editors, Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy, chopped out verses from songs, or had bits of one song sung by several different singers. (The CD reissue of Songs of Seduction did restore most of the originally-deleted verses, but some reviewers still found plenty to complain about – complaints which could be summed up as objecting to Kennedy’s rather high-handed and proprietorial attitude towards the songs and their singers). But back in 1961 when the LP was first released, I guess the editors had limited time available on each disc, and they wanted to present, to those unused to listening to British traditional singers, as wide a range of songs and as wide a range of singers as possible. In that they succeeded. Some 15 years later, I was just the kind of listener the records had been aimed at: I had developed (via Steeleye, the Watersons, the Chieftains etc.) a great love of folk music, but so far the only traditional singers I had heard were the Copper Family. Suddenly, I was presented with some of the greats of traditional song – Harry Cox, Thomas Moran, Jeannie Robertson, Davie Stewart, George Spicer… And (I was a teenage boy, remember) they were all singing about sex. What’s not to like?

One of the songs included on the LP – in a reasonably complete form, as I recall – was Harry Cox’s ‘Maid of Australia’. So I was familiar with the song from the LP, then learned the words from Peter Kennedy’s book Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland, also borrowed from the public library. (Incidentally, after years of borrowing that book from various libraries, I finally bought a copy the other week – one of a number of books Steve Roud was selling off at the EFDSS Folk Song Conference, in a desperate effort to reduce the size of his personal library before moving house).

It’s one of those songs which, for no apparent reason, seems to have been a favourite in East Anglia, and hardly ever encountered elsewhere in Britain – besides Harry Cox, it has been recorded from Walter Pardon and Sam Larner, while Vaughan Williams took down a version from Mr Crist in King’s Lynn, and John Howson recorded a version in 1993 from Tom Smith at Thorpe Merieux in Suffolk. Just to prove it’s not a solely East Anglian preserve, however, here’s the version Sabine Baring-Gould noted from George Doidge at Chillaton in Devon:

And, needless to say, the song appeared on at least one broadside ballad sheet.

The maids of Australia, printed between 1863 and 1885 by H. Such. From the Bodleian collection.

The maids of Australia, printed between 1863 and 1885 by H. Such. From the Bodleian collection.

The song itself is, of course, the most fantastic male sexual fantasy. The narrator is out for a walk by the Hawkesborough River. He sits down to rest for a bit, when who should he spy but a young native woman – a young woman intent on having a dip in the river, it would seem as, without further ado, she takes off all her clothes. Realising that she is being watched, she blushes, but her embarrassment is shortlived: she quickly recovers her composure and makes it clear that she feels no reason to be ashamed of her naked body.

For the young man on the bank, things just seem to get better and better.

Well she dived in the water without fear or dread
And her beautiful limbs she exceedingly spread

– well, there’s a sight for a young man

Her hair hung in ringlets, the colour it was black
Sir, said she, you will see how I float on my back…

Oh my – I think I might need to go and have a lie-down.

Well she can’t swim for ever, of course. After a while she begins to get tired. Ever the gentleman, he helps her out. But – accidentally, of course – his foot slips, and down they fall together. And, in possibly the finest pun in English traditional song, “then I entered the bush of Australia”.

They frolic together for a while – “in the highest of glee”, naturally. But all men are bastards, so he ups and leaves her, and nine months later (all folk song characters being unfeasibly fecund) she finds herself a single mother.

I did for a while sing a rewrite of the last verse, in which I attempted to draw attention to the colonialist, patriarchal attitudes implicit in the song. But it was just as clumsy as that makes it sound, so I reverted to Harry Cox’s original. At least that way the audience can join in with the last line.

Maid of Australia

May 11, 2013

Week 90 – The Bonny Labouring Boy

The bonny labouring boy, from the Bodleian Library collection; printed by J.F. Nugent, & Co. (Dublin) between 1850 and 1899.

The bonny labouring boy, from the Bodleian Library collection; printed by J.F. Nugent, & Co. (Dublin) between 1850 and 1899.

I first heard this on an Irish compilation LP which I borrowed from my local record library in the late 1970s. I remember little about the album, except that it featured the Sands Family, and Planxty doing ‘Three Drunken Maidens’. But thanks to the wonders of the internet I can now reveal that it must have been The Best Of Irish Folk, and the band doing this song was Aileach (me neither).

I didn’t actually learn the song from the record, but it was probably having heard the recording which prompted me to learn the song when I found it in Peter Kennedy’s massive tome, Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. It must have been around the same time as well that I saw the song being performed by Shirley and Dolly Collins, at a one-day festival at City University, featuring the entire roster of the Oglesby-Winder agency (i.e. pretty much all the top acts on the English folk scene). I’m slightly puzzled, when there is so much trivia, ephemera and nostalgia on the web, that I can’t seem to find any mention of this event. A post on Facebook this morning confirms that I didn’t dream the whole thing, and it turns out that a number of people with whom I am now friends were at the event. Initially noone seemed willing to commit to when it happened, but Chris Foster – who was on the bill – has just stated very confidently that it was in October 1978. He remembers it clearly because he’d just spent a week in the studio recording his second LP, All Things in Common.

Anyway, the version in Peter Kennedy’s book is from the great Harry Cox. You can hear him singing the song  on the Topic double CD The Bonny Labouring Boy.

The Bonny Labouring Boy

February 2, 2013

Week 76 – The Setting of the Sun

This is quite the jolliest version of ‘Polly Vaughan’ that I’ve come across.

Dave Parry introduced me to the song, which he’d found in Sabine Baring-Gould’s Songs of the West (the 1905 edition, for which Cecil Sharp acted as musical editor). Baring-Gould collected the song on 12 July 1893 from Sam Fone of Mary Tavy in Devon. The words as printed in Songs of the West struck me at the time as having been rewritten and unnecessarily prettified by Baring-Gould, and now that we can see the original – thanks to Martin Graebe and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library – I think my suspicions are confirmed. In any case, I retained only the tune, first verse and chorus, with the remaining verses taken from what I’d probably consider the definitive version of this song, from the great Harry Cox.

Incidentally, I’ve always thought that the “I shot my true love because I thought she was a swan” argument a rather dodgy line of defence. Wasn’t killing one of the Queen’s swans a crime which was subject to fairly severe penalties?

On an even more trivial note, although – I assure you – I have never been an avid watcher of Neighbours, I vaguely recall that in the late 1980s there was a plot where a young man did indeed shoot his girlfriend in a freak hunting accident. Although this may not have been a swan-related shooting. And I’m not saying for sure that the scriptwriters were familiar with the Polly Vaughan / Molly Bawn / Shooting of his dear family of ballads…

The Setting of the Sun, from Baring-Gould's notebook. Image copyright the Wren Music Trust, via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

The Setting of the Sun, from Baring-Gould’s notebook. Image copyright the Wren Music Trust, via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

The Setting of the Sun

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

May 27, 2012

Week 40 – The Female Drummer

I learned this from Peter Bellamy’s 1969 solo LP  The Fox Jumps Over the Parson’s Gate. Bellamy learned the song from the great Harry Cox of Catfield in Norfolk (you can hear him singing it on the Topic double-CD The Bonny Labouring Boy) while Walter Pardon, from nearby Knapton, had a very similar version. Obviously this is a song which ought really to be sung by a woman, but with such an impressive list of male precedents, I won’t let this worry me. In any case, it’s a joy to sing.

The Female Drummer