Posts tagged ‘May’

May 1, 2023

Week 310 – Staines Morris

I think I must have first heard ‘Staines Morris’ at the end of Shirley and Dolly Collins’ Anthems in Eden suite, but learned it – as, no doubt, did countless others – from Shirley’s singing on Morris On. The source of the song is William Chappell’s Popular music of the olden time (1859). Chappell says

This tune is taken from the first edition of The Dancing Master. It is also in William Ballet’s Lute Book (time of Elizabeth); and was printed as late as about 1760, in a Collection of Country Dances, by Wright.

The Maypole Song, in Actæon and Diana, seems so exactly fitted to the air, that, having no guide as to the one intended, I have, on conjecture, printed it with this tune.

John Playford’s Dancing Master was first published in 1651, while the Actæon and Diana referred to here is Acteon & Diana with a pastoral storie of the nimph Oenone followed by the several conceited humours of Bumpkin the huntsman, Hobbinal the shepherd, Singing Simpkin, and John Swabber the seaman, by Rob. Cox, acted at the Red Bull with great applause, circa 1655. You can find the complete text on the University of Michigan’s Early English Books Online website. These verses are sung by “Country Wench 1”.

These days I’m pretty resistant to all this Merrie England guff, but I’ve retained a soft spot for this song. After all, the words might be a bit twee, but it is a rather fine tune. In our teens we used to sing it in our vocal harmony group Gomenwudu (in fact I’m pretty sure Mike used to sing Ashley Hutchings’ bass line). I’ve always thought of it primarily as a vehicle for vocal harmonies. But a couple of years ago I realised that it was possible to play it on the anglo. I didn’t really get it together then and, if I’m honest, I haven’t entirely got it together now. But as May Day approached I had another go at it. Put into a more singable key, with different fingering, on a different concertina, it seemed like a more viable proposition. And here it is – somewhat under-rehearsed, but if I’m ever going to post the song on this blog, it really has to be on May 1st – with multi-tracked vocals and two concertinas. Oh, and a Tierce de Picardie at the end. Again, something I tend to avoid like the plague, but here it just seemed right.

Maypole dance - from an early 20th century postcard, unknown location and date.

Maypole dance – from an early 20th century postcard, unknown location and date.

Staines Morris

Andy Turner – vocals, C/G and C/F anglo-concertinas

May 1, 2014

Week 141 – Good morning lords and ladies

Good morning lords and ladies it is the first day of May

May Day at Ickwell 1914 - from the Ickwell May Day Festival website

The blind song collector Fred Hamer recorded this short piece from the Bedfordshire singer Mrs Margery ‘Mum’ Johnstone, and it is one of several May songs and carols included in Hamer’s excellent little book Garners Gay (one of the others is the ‘Northill May Song’ which I posted here a couple of years ago). I first started dipping into Garners Gay circa 1976, and it was probably not long after that I learned this song.

Hamer’s recording of Mrs Johnstone singing it was included on the EFDSS LP Garners Gay. That’s never been released on CD, but you can hear her singing and talking about Bedfordshire May Day customs in this video from Pete Castle:

(I posted this link two years ago, but it’s worth repeating)

Because of its seasonal nature, and its brevity, this is not a song I’ve ever sung very much in public (although I think we did it once or twice in the early days of Magpie Lane). Strangely, until I came to record it a couple of weeks back, it had never occurred to me to try it with concertina, but actually it seems to work rather well.

Happy May Day one and all.

Good morning lords and ladies 

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

April 29, 2013

Week 88 – Swalcliffe May Day Carol

The first Magpie Lane album, The Oxford Ramble, was released just over 20 years ago, and we played our very first concert, in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, on 3rd May – May Bank Holiday Monday – 1993. We will be returning to the Holywell tomorrow for a 20th anniversary concert, where we will be joined by former members of the band, and a number of special guests. Twenty years ago this was the final song of the night, and it is giving away no secrets, I suspect, if I say that this song will also feature in our concert tomorrow.

I learned the song from Forty Long Miles: twenty-three English folk songs from the collection of Janet Heatley Blunt, edited by Tony Foxworthy and published by Galliard / EFDSS in 1976.

Swalcliffe (pronounced sway-cliff) is a village near Banbury in North Oxfordshire. The words of the carol were noted by Miss Annie Norris around 1840 from the singing of a group of children in the village. The words were passed onto the collector – and Adderbury resident – Janet Blunt in 1908, and she finally collected a tune for the song from Mrs Woolgrove of Swalcliffe, and Mrs Lynes of Sibford, at Sibford fete, July 1921 (this information, and much more about music-making in Adderbury, can be found in Michael Pickering’s book Village Song and Culture).

You can now find Miss Blunt’s notes on the Take Six archive – see below.

May Day Song from the Janet Heatley Blunt collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive

May Day Song from the Janet Heatley Blunt collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive

Man is but a man, his life’s but a span
He is much like a flower
He’s here today and he’s gone tomorrow
So he’s all gone down in an hour

Twenty years ago when I sang those words they really struck home, as I knew that my Dad was dying of cancer. What I didn’t realise was that he would indeed be “gone tomorrow” – he died the very next day. He never got to see Magpie Lane, but he did hear The Oxford Ramble – on cassette – just before he died. Apparently he liked the second side best, because he said it had more of me on it. That comment is so typical of both my parents!

So here’s to my Dad, and all the friends and good times I’ve had these last twenty years with Magpie Lane.

The video below is neither hi-fi nor hi-res, but it’s what we’ve got. If you’re coming to see us tomorrow night, I hope you enjoy it as much as we intend to.

Swalcliffe May Day Carol

Magpie Lane

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Ian Giles: vocal, big bass drum
Tom Bower: vocal, side drum
Jo Acty: vocal
Pete Acty: mandola
Mat Green: fiddle
Chris Leslie: fiddle
Isobel Dams: cello

Filmed by Nicola Field, 3rd May 1993.

May 7, 2012

Week 37 – Queen of the May

Julia Margaret Cameron, 'For I'm to be Queen of the May, Mother'; The May Queen, 1875. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘For I’m to be Queen of the May, Mother’; The May Queen, 1875. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

This was the first song I learned from a book of folk songs, rather than from a recording of Steeleye Span or the Watersons. This meant that I had to take my own decisions about how to sing it, without having someone else’s arrangement in my head (having said that, I don’t suppose I sang it in anything like my own voice but, as with everything else in those days, as a curious amalgam of wannabe Tim Hart, Mike Waterson and Martin Carthy at his most idiosyncratic).

I learned it, like last week’s song, from Fred Hamer’s book Garners Gay. Hamer recorded the song from Bedfordshire singer Harry Scott. Some recordings of Harry Scott have been made available, on the EFDSS cassette The Leaves of Life, but at present if you want to hear his ‘Queen of the May’ I think you’ll need to visit the British Library Sound Archive – which so far, I haven’t.

Looking out of the window on this May Bank Holiday, I think the young lady in the song might well have said “I’m not going with you, because you’ll get my dress horribly muddy”; or perhaps just stayed at home in the dry.







Queen of the May

April 30, 2012

Week 36 – Northill May Song

Learned many years ago from Fred Hamer’s lovely little book, Garners Gay. Fred collected it from “Chris Marsom and others” – Mr Marsom had by that time emigrated to Canada, but Fred met him on a visit to his native Northill, Bedfordshire. Fred’s notes say

The Day Song is much too long for inclusion here and the Night Song has the same tune. It was used by Vaughan Williams as the tune for No. 638 of the English Hymnal, but he gave it the name of “Southill” because it was sent to him by a Southill man. Chris Marsom who sang this to me had many tales to tell of the reception the Mayers had from some of the ladies who were strangers to the village and became apprehensive at the approach of a body of men to their cottage after midnight on May Eve.

You can hear Vaughan Williams’ setting of the tune (one of many traditional tunes which he slipped in to the English Hymnal) at

text: ‘Jerusalem My Happy Home’
tune: ‘Southill’, tra­di­tion­al arranged Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Eng­lish Hymn­al (Lon­don: Ox­ford Un­i­ver­si­ty Press, 1906), num­ber 638 (MI­DIscore)

There’s more information on May Day customs in and around Northill – and some nice old photos – on the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service website.

Young men going maying including the bride and Moggers and Moggies

Young men going maying including the bride and Moggers and Moggies.
From “Old Village Customs in Northill” page at

On 1st May several customs were observed. Children would go garlanding, a garland being, typically, a wooden hoop over which a white cloth was stretched. A looser piece of cloth was fastened at the top which was used to cover the finished garland. Two dolls were fastened in the middle, one large and one small. Ribbons were sewn around the front edge and the rest of the space was filled with flowers. The dolls were supposed to represent the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. The children would stop at each house and ask for money to view the garland.

Another custom, prevalent throughout the county if not the country, was maying. It was done regularly until the outbreak of the First World War and, sporadically, afterwards. Young men would go around at night with may bushes singing May carols. In the morning a may bush was attached to the school flag pole, another would decorate the inn sign at the Crown and others rested against doors, designed to fall in when they were opened. Those maying included a Lord and a Lady, the latter the smallest of the young men with a veil and bonnet. The party also included Moggers or Moggies, a man and a woman with black faces, ragged clothes and carrying besom brushes.

And finally – before we get to the song itself (which is very short) here’s a link to a recently posted May Day video from Pete Castle. Pete lived in Bedfordshire in the seventies and eighties, and he met and recorded Mrs Marjorie “Mum” Johnstone who had sung a couple of May songs for Fred Hamer some 20 years earlier. The video has “Mum” singing the two songs, and talking about her involvement in May Day customs as a young girl.

Northill May Song