Well, after a brief hiatus, here’s the first non-weekly instalment of A Folk Song A Week. I learned this from one of my absolute favourite singers, Kevin Mitchell, via his 1977 Topic LP Free and Easy. Kevin calls it ‘Two Strings on a Bow’, and he learned it from Anne Brolly of Dungiven, County Derry. The LP notes say
American singers call this song The Bird’s Courtship or The Leather Winged Bat
(indeed I was reminded of the song recently when listening to Elizabeth Laprelle’s solo album, The Birds’ Advice)
– it’s quite common there but only once has it been collected in the British Isles; Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle obtained it from Liam O’Connor of Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone…
Kevin has changed the tune of the chorus so that the air as a whole is that of the hornpipe The Cuckoo’s Nest – a not inappropriate combination of tune and words.
The version collected by Peter Kennedy from Liam O’Connor in 1953 was included in his mammoth book Folksongs of Britain and Ireland.
Learned from the Silly Sisters LP, which I really liked in 1976, and which I still think is an excellent album – not dated at all – forty years on.
It seems that Anne Briggs was responsible for popularising this song – it was on the classic sixties album The Iron Muse, where A.L. Lloyd noted
It seems to have originated in the linen-mills of Northern Ireland but has since spread to textile workers elsewhere. The form easily allows for improvised words and many local verses are attached to the tune. A “doffer” is a worker who takes the full bobbins off the spinning machines.
Martin Carthy expands on this
“doffers” were the women who took the finished cloth from off the machines for the next stage in its production. It was work that was largely done bent double, which explains the line “she hangs her coat on the highest pin.” The Doffing Mistress was the supervisor, and, in consequence, never did the job itself. The upshot of this was that she could stand up straight, something which doffers, bent double as they were all their working lives, found difficult to do.
(Thanks to Reinhard Zierke’s Mainly Norfolk site for these quotations)
My recording of the song features a two-row melodeon accompaniment, which is not something you’ll get from me very often. Were he still around, Samuel Johnson might have compared it to a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”.
In the summer of my first year at Oxford I did some harmony singing with Caroline Jackson-Houlston and Tony Snell. I don’t think we ever got to perform in public, but we had a few rehearsals at Tony’s house on the Woodstock Road. I’m sure there must have been other songs we were looking at, the only ones I can recall were all sourced from an LP of Canadian folk songs which I think had recently come Caroline’s way: The Barley Grain For Me by Margaret Christl And Ian Robb With Grit Laskin. We had a go at the John Barleycorn-esque title track and ‘O no, not I’ – which I must get round to re-learning- and possibly ‘Hard Times’. I don’t think we ever tackled this one, but I learned it from the LP and, at the time, it seemed like a pretty obscure song. Then, within a couple of years, it seemed like you couldn’t go to a folk club or session without someone singing it, usually with a bodhran accompaniment. I’ve no idea who popularised it (it certainly wasn’t me!), but it seemed to get very popular very quickly.
Like a lot of the songs on The Barley Grain For Me, ‘By the hush’ was included in The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, edited by Edith Fowke. And a selection of songs from that book were included on a Leader LP (grey gatefold sleeve, like Unto Brigg Fair and A People’s Carol) called Far Canadian Fields, Which I knew of, but had never seen, until a few months back when I was very pleased to find a copy in the Oxfam Music shop in Reading.
All of the songs on that LP were collected by Edith Fowke, four of them from Mr O.J. Abbott (source also of ‘The Plains of Waterloo’) about whom the collector writes:
O.J. Abbott was an exceptionally fine traditional singer with an extensive and unusual repertoire. Born in England in 1872, he came to Canada as a young boy. He learned his many songs from Irish families living on farms in the Ottawa valley and from men in the lumbercamps. I met him first when he was eighty-five, and in the closing years of his life he appeared at the Newport and Mariposa folk festivals and at the International Folk Music Council’s meeting in Quebec in 1961.
This song – recorded in 1957 – Mr Abbott learned from a Mrs O’Malley, “the wife of an Ottawa valley farmer, for whom he worked back in the 1880s”.
The Bodleian has a broadside ballad called ‘Pat in America’ with almost identical words. Except it doesn’t start “It’s by the hush, my boys” but “Arragh, bidenahust my boys”. That, it seems, is a corruption of the Gaelic phrase Bí i do thost, meaning be quiet. So “by the hush”, whilst not a phase I’ve ever encountered in any other context, seems a reasonable English translation.
For the historical background to the song, see the Traditional Ballad Index – there’s a lot more information than I’ve quoted below
There is much historical truth in this song. There were indeed new Irish immigrants in the northern armies in the Civil War: “According to one account, some of the 88th’s recruits [soldiers in the 88 NY Regiment, one of the regiments of the Irish Brigade] enlisted shortly after they had exited the immigrant landing point at Castle Garden, and spoke no English, only the Irish Gaelic of the landless Catholic tenant farmer” (Bilby, p. 27). And the unit they joined, the Irish Brigade of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced “Marr”), had a horrendous loss rate even by Civil War standards.
In the first two years of the war, the brigade — originally 63 NY, 69 NY, 88 NY; 28 Mass, another Irish unit, added before Fredericksburg (Bilby, p. 63) and the not-so-Irish 116 PA added in October 1862 (Bilby, p. 61) — had the highest casualty rate of any comparable unit in the Army of the Potomac. According to Bilby, p. ix, “In its four year history, the brigade lost over 4,000 men, more than were ever in it at any one time, killed and wounded. [p. 239 calculates that, in all, 7715 men served in the brigade.] The Irish Brigade’s loss of 961 soldiers killed or mortally wounded in action was exceeded by only two other brigades in the Union army.”
The unit suffered in many battles. In the Seven Days’ Battles, for instance, the 69 NY alone had 155 casualties (Bilby, p. 45), although other regiments of the brigade suffered less. At the end of the Peninsular Campaign, the 69th had only 295 men with the colors (Bilby, p. 49) — meaning that it had already suffered 60% casualties. Meagher did manage to drum up a few recruits that summer, but not enough to offset the brigade’s losses (Bilby, p. 50).
At the Battle of Antietam, the first division of the Second Corps, which contained the Irish Brigade, suffered 212 killed, 900 wounded, and 24 missing (Murfin, p. 375); the Irish Brigade alone is said to have lost 506 of 2944 men (Beller, p, 74). At the start that battle, the four regiments of the brigade were commanded by one colonel and three lieutenant colonels; at the end, they were commanded by two lieutenant colonels, one major, and one captain (Murfin, p. 347). Sears-Antietam, p. 243, says that the 63rd and 69th New York both suffered casualties on the order of 60%. Craughwell, p. 98, says that one company had every man killed or wounded, and on p. 105 says that the thousand-man-strong brigade suffered 540 casualties. Since the brigade started with roughly 3000 men, it had lost two-thirds of them prior to Antietam, and by the end of that battle, five out of six were killed, wounded, captured, victims of disease, or had deserted.
Pat in America: broadside printed by Taylor, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London between 1859 and 1899. From the Bodleian collection.
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.
I learned this from the singing of Fi and Jo Fraser on the Old Swan Band’s second LP, Old Swan Brand. Although the release date given on the sleeve of that record is 1978, my recollection is that it didn’t actually come out until much later, around 1980 or 1981. I bought my copy at the Bracknell Folk Festival in, I’m fairly sure, 1982. It was a secondhand copy. A signed, secondhand copy. Which always rather amused me: presumably someone saw the band, and enjoyed their music so much that they not only bought a copy of the record, but got the band to sign it; only to find, when they got it home, that it really wasn’t what they were expecting. Actually, that’s quite feasible, as the signatures on the cover are those of the Swan Band circa 1981 (including Richard Valentine, and “the invisible Paul Burgess”), and the band had a rather different sound by then – much fuller with the addition of the piano and. dare I say it, rather more polished. Also, it’s possible that the purchaser liked the tunes, but couldn’t stand all that singing…
Anyway, I was pleased to give the record a home, and I was particularly taken with this song. I imagine that the record originally had, or was intended to have, a booklet or insert giving details of the provenance of all the songs and tunes. My secondhand copy had none, and neither did the second copy which I inherited from my Mum last year. So maybe this was cut as a result of Free Reed’s financial problems at the time. Whatever the reason, the lack of an insert meant I had no information about where Jo and Fi got this song from (and I’ve never got round to asking either of them).
This was one of the songs I used to sing with Chris Wood in the 1980s, and I remember Chris saying that he thought they’d probably learned it from Mick Hanly’s A Kiss In The Morning Early. That’s one of those classic 1970s LPs which, for some reason, I’m pretty sure I never heard. Poking around on Mudcat and elsewhere, it seems that most of the songs on that album came from Colm O Lochlainn’s book More Irish Street Ballads. But Hanly seems to have used a different tune to the one found in O Lochlainn, and indeed O Lochlainn’s verses may well have been collated from various sources, such as printed broadsides.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter – it’s just a great song. So thanks Jo and Fi.
The sailor’s adieu. Broadside printed by J Pitts of Seven Dials, between 1819 and 1844. From Broadside Ballads Online.
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
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.
I learned this beautiful song from the singing of Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, on her 1975 solo album Triona. I picked up a secondhand copy of that LP as a student, in Garon Records, in the Covered Market in Oxford, and I’m eternally grateful that I did – it’s a fantastic record. Chiefly because of the singing, of course, but I’m also very partial to a well-struck harpsichord.
About the song itself, I have little to say. The album sleevenotes don’t give much away, but a bit of rooting about on the net suggests that it’s a version of Roud 4720.
You can hear a related song, ‘As I Went in by Inverness-shire’, sung by the Scottish traveller Sheila Stewart, on the Tobar an Dualchais site. And the phrase “Phoenix Island” crops up in the song of that name on Sam Lee’s most recent album, a song which he learned “from the Delaney Family who live in the less than bucolic Traveller site under the Shepherds Bush A40 flyover”.
O’Reilly From The Co. Cavan; Or, The Phoenix Of Erin’s Green Isle – ballad sheet from the Cecil Sharp Manuscript Collection , via the Full English.
I learned this song from… actually, do I need to finish that sentence? I think anyone of my generation will probably take it for granted that I learned it from the singing of Andy Irvine, on the Planxty album The Well Below the Valley. And they would be absolutely right.
I was introduced to Planxty by my school friend Peter Carlton, who had (and I reckon these facts were often related) an older brother, and more advanced musical tastes than me. He wouldn’t lend me his copy of the record – it was too precious – but he made me a cassette copy. And of course, I thought it was absolutely marvellous. Among much else, I rather liked the fact that there were two, completely unrelated, songs with the same title: Christy Moore’s ‘As I roved out’ was a song from the Sixteen Come Sunday family, while Andy Irvine’s – this one – is sometime referred to as ‘The Deluded Lover’, and was learned from the great Paddy Tunney. While I liked both tracks, Andy’s was definitely my favourite; and it’s fair to say I’ve always been more of a fan of Andy Irvine than Christy Moore.
I recorded an unaccompanied take of this song back in March. And thus, a week or so later, when singing some songs in the kitchen with my friend Nick Passmore (see Week 188), this was fresh in my mind, and it seemed an obvious one to try together. So here you have both versions, one unaccompanied, and one with Nick’s bouzouki.
As the Telegraph article said, Bob Copper “is rightly hailed as one of the key figures in 20th-century English folk music”. He made a lasting impression on me with his singing, his books, and his stories of country life in days gone by, and the central role which music-making played – for his family and others. He was also a thoroughly nice bloke and decent human being. He always seemed to be good-humoured, always generous in his encouragement and support of other singers.
Back in 1991 or thereabouts, I played the Lewes Saturday Folk Club and Nellie’s at Tonbridge on consecutive nights. After the Lewes gig I was put up by Bob’s next-door neighbour George Wagstaff (another really nice man, sadly no longer with us). George knew that I would want to meet Bob, so he invited him round for a big cooked breakfast. Suitably fortified, straight after breakfast Bob (then in his late seventies) was setting off with John Copper and Jon Dudley on what I think was an annual walking tour of Sussex.
Bob Copper – photo copyright Ian Anderson of fRoots magazine
I learned this song from Bob’s singing on the Veteran CD When the May is all in Bloom. It’s not from the family repertoire; rather, Bob learned the song from Seamus Ennis when they were both working as song collectors for the BBC in the 1950s.
An Irish emigration song which I learned back in the 1970s from Cathal McConnell, via an early Boys of the Lough LP. Checking online I find that the song was on their Second Album, under the title ‘Lough Erne’. That’s an album I never owned. I might have borrowed a copy from the local library, but actually I think I might have bought it for my friend Mike as a birthday present (following the time-honoured music-lover’s rule of buying other people records you want to hear yourself). I’d have got the tune from listening to the record; I probably learned the words from Music and Songs from the Boys of the Lough, a Boys of the Lough songbook published in 1977.
The notes in that book say that Cathal learned the song from Joe Holmes, a traditional singer from near Ballymoney in Co. Antrim. This Mudcat thread contains a lot of background information about the song, posted by Jim Carroll from Here I Am Amongst You, Len Graham’s book about his friend and musical partner Joe Holmes. From this we learn that this song probably pre-dates the Famine. While after the Famine the majority of Irish emigrants to America were Catholics, before then the greatest number had been Protestants:
In Ireland the Ulster Presbyterians experienced a number of problems that made their lives difficult. As Presbyterians in an Anglican state, most of them faced religious hostility from the government. Like the Catholic population they were subject to penal laws barring them from higher education and the professions and forcing them to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland. From the 1680s until the American Revolution temporarily cut off shipping, at least 250,000 sailed to North America. After the Revolution an even larger wave crossed, perhaps 500,000 more, peaking in the period between the Napoleonic wars and the Great Famine.