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.
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.
I learned this song from the Watersons’ 1981 LP Green Fields and for pretty much all of the intervening 35 years it has been one of my default songs to fall back on, when I need a chorus song in a singaround or pub session.
Bert Lloyd – Topic’s go-to man for sleeve notes back in the seventies and early eighties – states in the notes for this song that it was
noted by Frank Kidson from Mrs Kate Thompson of Knaresborough.
The booklet notes for the Carthy Chronicles, which features a different Watersons recording of the song, expand on this:
Young Banker has words collected from a maidservant from the Isle of Axholme near Doncaster, set to a tune which Frank Kidson collected from Kate Thompson of Knaresborough
The Full English, of course, has the tune which Frank Kidson collected from Mrs Thompson in Knaresborough; while the words (with a slightly different tune), which were noted down by Alfred Atkinson from an unnamed singer in the Isle of Axholme – in North Lincolnshire, between Doncaster and Scunthorpe – in 1904, can be found in the 1905 Journal of the Folk-Song Society.
Other versions have been collected in Lincolnshire (by Percy Grainger), Gloucestershire (Alfred Williams and Cecil Sharp), Somerset (Sharp), and Herefordshire (Ella Leather).
I learned the song to sing with Caroline Jackson-Houlston, and it was she who typed out the words for me, almost certainly from the JFSS. Whereas the Watersons (following the collected version) have the last line of the chorus as “For my young banker I will go there”, Caroline changed this to “For my young banker I will go bare”. This seemed to make more sense in context and, she thought, was almost certainly how the line had originally been written. But in fact the broadside version (titled ‘A new song called The banking boy’) which you can see on the Bodleian’s Broadside site, also has that line as “For the young banker I will go there”.
A new song called The banking boy – 19th century ballad sheet from Broadside Ballads Online.
The young banker in this song, incidentally, is not a high-flying, cocaine-snorting, economy-destroying financial whizzkid, but “a man who made embankments, stone walls and such” (A.L.Lloyd), or perhaps “A labourer who makes or repairs the banks of waterways; spec. one who digs drains, ditches, or canals” (OED).
So take a good look at my face
You know my smile looks out of place
If you look closer it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears
I’ll be all smiles tonight, boys, I’ll be all smiles tonight
If my heart should break tomorrow I’ll be all smiles tonight
It has always seemed to me that this song was inspired by the same sorts of emotions as Smokey’s classic…
Mike Yates recorded the song in 1972 from George ‘Tom’ Newman of Clanfield, near Bampton, in Oxfordshire. I first heard it sung by Lal and Norma Waterson on the LP Green Fields and subsequently learned it from the transcription of Mike Yates’ recording in Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs, edited by Roy Palmer.
Only a few songs recorded from Tom Newman have been made available on record: ‘The Tree in the Wood’ appeared in the seventies on the Topic LP Green Grow the Laurels, and then again – along with ‘Sing Ovy, Sing Ivy’ – on the Musical Traditions CD Up in the North, Down in the South. Meanwhile Tom’s song ‘My Old Hat That I Got On’ (which Magpie Lane recorded on the CD Six for Gold) was included on Volume 13 of The Voice of the People.
This song, however, has unfortunately never been made available. Mike Yates’ recordings can be accessed at the British Library Sound Archive, but are not available to listen to remotely. One day I must make a trip there, and this will certainly be on my list of recordings to check out. In the meantime I have absolutely no idea if the way I sing ‘Fare thee well cold winter’ bears even the slightest resemblance to the way Tom Newman sang it.
George ‘Tom’ Newman was in his 90th year when I met him and, sadly, I only knew him for the last six months of his life. Originally from Faringdon, he was living in a small bungalow in the village of Clanfield, near Bampton. I was told that Tom used to occasionally turn up at the Bampton Whit Monday ceremonies with his one-man band and would proceed to accompany the traditional morris team around the village. John Baldwin, whose  Folk Music Journal article again introduced me to Tom, had described Tom thus: He is an old man now and tends to become very excited when singing; sitting in a chair and pumping the floor with his feet alternately, and similarly his knees with clenched fists.
It must be twenty years ago that I sang this song at a folk club and someone pointed out that the chorus crops up in a Carter Family song. Mike Yates has written that, when he collected ‘Fare thee well cold winter’ he assumed that Tom Newman had picked up the chorus from an old recording – by the Carter Family perhaps, or Kitty Wells. But in fact Cecil Sharp collected a version from Lucy White, of Hambridge in Somerset, which included a “We’ll be all be smiles tonight” chorus.
The chorus comes from an American song written by T. B. Ranson in 1879, which may well have gained popularity in Britain at the time. Lucy White’s version proves that Ranson’s chorus had been added to the older British song by 1903 at least, some decades before it was being recorded by various American performers (there were several recorded versions before the Carter Family recorded their ‘I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight’ – see the Traditional Tune Archive for details). I’m not aware of any connection between Lucy White and Tom Newman, so these two collected versions suggest that the song – with this chorus – must have had some kind of wider currency in Britain in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century.
Fare-thee-well cold winter. 19th century broadside ballad from the Bodleian collection.
Shepherd Haden might be the best known traditional singer from Bampton (see last week’s entry), but both Cecil Sharp and Alfred Williams, who noted down songs from Hayden, also collected songs from his younger neighbour, and Bampton morris man, Charlie Tanner.
You will find biographical details on Charles Tanner (1845-1922), drawn from census and other records, on the Wiltshire Community History website (it was from here that I learned that in 1891 Tanner was living next door to Shadrach Haden / Hayden / Haydon).
On the same site, you’ll find a list of 23 songs collected from Mr Tanner by the Swindon railwayman poet, Alfred Williams. Williams, of course, lacked the skills to notate his singers’ tunes, and unfortunately Sharp only took down the tunes for eight of these songs (see the Full English).
Sharp noted ‘Chain of Gold’ on 7th September 1909. Williams visited Tanner in the following decade, and the words of this song appeared in the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard on 11th March 1916.
Versions of this song – a classic example of a sad story set to a jolly tune – seems to have been popular in Oxfordshire: George Butterworth collected versions at Stanton St John, Charlton and Oakley in Oxfordshire, and at Brill just over the border in Buckinghamshire. The words I sing were collated from Tanner’s version, and others printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol. 4 (1913).
Charlie Tanner – photo by Cecil Sharp, copyright EFDSS
I have mentioned previously on this blog that my introduction to folk music came via Steeleye Span’s 1972 LP Below the Salt. It might be an exaggeration to say that I was hooked after one listen, but it wouldn’t be so far from the truth. My best friend Mike lent me his Dad’s copy of the record, and Mike and I were soon singing the songs together in harmony – ‘Spotted Cow’, ‘Rosebud in June’, ‘Gaudete’, ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘King Henry’. Indeed I’m sure I must have known all of the songs on the album at one time, including Side 1 Track 5, ‘Royal Forester’.
I remember singing that one day in the kitchen at home, and my Dad calling out “Here Jean, have you heard these saucy songs our son is singing?”. At which point it emerged that my Mum, who must have had a sheltered upbringing, was unfamiliar with the word ‘maidenhead’. Well, to be fair, so was I until I started singing folk songs!
One thing I have always admired about the early Steeleye albums was the fact that the record sleeves had notes about the songs. Often brief, cryptic, half-fact half-fantasy notes, but still useful to me as a newcomer to traditional music – at the time I had no idea who Harry Cox, Queen Caroline Hughes or John Strachan were, but I absorbed their names, and recognised them later when I started exploring real traditional singing (although it would be many years before I actually got to hear Queen Caroline Hughes, and the first time I heard John Strachan of Fyvie, Aberdeenshire was his very brief – mainly spoken – contribution to the Songs of Seduction LP)
Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson recorded this song from Strachan in July 1951, and it was included on another of those Topic/Caedmon Folk Songs of Britain albums, The Child Ballads 2. My local library had most of the records in that series, and I think I may have borrowed this one, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Certainly the way I sing ‘Royal Forester’ owes nothing (I’m afraid) to John Strachan, and is very much my recollection of the song as sung by Steeleye. But in fact Steeleye’s version was pretty faithful to the original.
I don’t think this was ever a song I performed in public, and I’d not sung it at all for many years, until maybe 2 or 3 years back. When, thinking of songs I could include here, I had a go at remembering the words. And, after a little bit of scrabbling around in dusty, neglected corners of my brain, found that they all came flooding back.
As it was one of the very first traditional song I learned, it seemed appropriate to post it here to mark 250 weeks of this blog.
I’m not entirely sure where or when I learned this song. Almost certainly not from Cyril Tawney himself, although I did see him two or three times in the early eighties. I think I must have picked the song up from a floorsinger at the Faversham Folk Club. These days you can find the words to pretty much any song with a quick web search, but in those pre-Internet days I just sang the words as I remembered them.
Checking now what the composer himself sang, I see I’ve introduced some minor variations, but nothing to alter the spirit of the song. And in fact I think Cyril Tawney approved of variation, as part of the song’s absorption into the collective consciousness (or folk tradition, if you prefer). You can read about the background to the song here.
As Cyril noted, the song is lyrically, though not melodically, structured like a blues. And possibly this is the closest thing I’ll be posting here to a twelve-bar blues, as I don’t think I have any examples of the real thing in my repertoire.
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.
I learned this from Caroline Jackson-Houlston. She and I used to sing it together – performing as Flash Company – in the early 1980s, and it’s one of several songs from that period which she and I both retain in our individual repertoires. Mind you, Caroline has always made quite clear what her reaction would be, if a suitor buggered off for a year then came back claiming “you’re the one I really want” – and it wouldn’t be to drag him off to church.