Another week, another lady living in the North country, and once again things do not end well for her. This, of course, is much less to do with the fact that she lives in the North, than that she finds herself a character in a Child Ballad – and not many of those have a happy ending.
This very concise version of what is usually a much longer ballad was collected by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Eliza Woodberry of Ash Priors in Somerset (also the source of the version of ‘Come all you worthy Christian men’ in the Oxford Book of Carols). Sharp included it in his Folk Songs from Somerset, Series 4, and Sharp’s tireless assistant and evangelist Maud Karpeles printed it in her 2-volume collection, The Crystal Spring, which is where I learned it.
The Cruel Mother, as collected from Mrs Eliza Woodberry, from the Full English.
There’s a long history of poets and songwriters, from Robbie Burns through W.B. Yeats and Ewan MacColl to Bob Dylan, writing verse inspired by, based on or adapted from traditional songs. In the British folk revival, there have been many attempts to write new songs “in a traditional style”. Often the results are little more than pastiche; or else sound less like a traditional folk song, and more like the kind of nineteenth century broadside ballad which would never have entered the tradition in a million years. Some have succeeded however – Roger Watson and Martin Graebe spring to mind – in creating new songs which retain the structure and form of traditional song, but have a value in their own right. I’d say Richard Thompson also succeeded in doing this, with his ‘Little Beggar Girl’, while Chris Wood’s ‘Hollow Point’ makes no attempt to sound like an old song, but shows how traditional lyrics can be woven into a powerful new composition. And Dylan, to this day, weaves snatches of traditional song lyrics into his compositions.
But to mind, this song, written by Bob Davenport and set to a traditional tune (‘The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite’), comes closest to sounding like a traditional song – and being a really good song in its own right. I learned it from the LP 1977 by Bob Davenport and the Rakes, released on Topic in… oh, you’re ahead of me.
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.
I learned this from the wonderful Joseph Taylor of Saxby All Saints, Lincolnshire, via the LP Unto Brigg Fair. Percy Grainger’s 1908 recording can be heard these days on The Voice of the People Vol. 3, O’er His Grave the Grass Grew Green.
The song is, as it were, of no fixed abode. Set here in Worcester City, the version which has been a staple of Magpie Lane’s repertoire for the last twenty years has the action taking place in Oxford City, It is also known as ‘Jealousy’ and (spoiler alert) ‘Poison in a glass of wine’.
Traditional singers often conclude a song by saying “and that’s a true story”. Well this one really is. The song tells of the murder in August 1856 of sisters Caroline and Maria Back (19 and 17 respectively), by Dedia Bedanies, a private in the British Swiss Legion based at Shorncliffe Barracks near Folkestone in Kent. Bedanies was tried for murder and hanged at Maidstone gaol, January 1857.
George Spicer - from the Musical Traditions website
I learned this from George Spicer who, although he spent most of his life in Sussex, was actually born at Little Chart in Kent – just a few miles from my home town. He learned this song from his father-in-law, Sydney Appleton, of Lydden, Kent. George’s son Ron – another fine singer and an absolutely lovely man – also sang this song, and recorded it on The Keys of Canterbury, an album of Kentish material with which I was also involved – see Pete Castle’s website for details.
In fact the song seems to have been well-known in Kent – perhaps as a warning to young girls. Charlie Bridger from Stone-in-Oxney had a full version, with very similar tune and words to George Spicer’s; Francis Collinson collected a couple of versions in Kent in the 1940s, but also found the song in Buckinghamshire and Dorset. Truncated versions have been recorded from a number of Southern English Traveller singers, for example Charlie Scamp.
I learned the song from George Spicer’s Topic LP Blackberry Fold which has not to date been released on CD or MP3. But you can hear George singing the song on the Musical Traditions CD Just Another Saturday Night: Sussex 1960.
Rod Stradling has described this song as “A horrible song, it seems to me, with few redeeming graces” but I’ve always had a soft spot for it. Not least because this was the song I sang when I won the first Sidmouth Singer competition, at the Sidmouth Festival back in 1984. This was a very proud moment for me – the competition was judged by Shirley and Dolly Collins, and the runners up Bill Prince and Barbara Berry were certainly no slouches as singers. Since Vic Smith has a history of re-posting this lovely picture of my knees, I’ll get in first: here’s me with Shirley, and the enormous slipware plate which was my prize.