Posts tagged ‘Napoleon’

July 25, 2020

Week 292 – The Isle of St Helena

When I first became interested in folk song, in my late teens, my local library had four collections of traditional songs: Garners Gay by Fred Hamer, Baring-Gould’s Folk Songs of the West Country, a Cecil Sharp volume – probably Folk Songs from Somerset – and The Singing Island by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. Garners Gay had the longest lasting impact, certainly in terms of the number of songs I learned from it, but The Singing Island was important too, and something Seeger and MacColl say in the introduction has always stayed with me. They tackle the question – as I think was common in sixties and seventies folk song books – of how to accompany folk songs. They say (or at least, this is what I remember them saying, 40-odd years later) that you should always learn the song first, before trying to work out an accompaniment. Now, I’ve broken that rule on numerous occasions, but it really does make a lot of sense. I certainly find that the only way to get a song’s words into my head is to sing it over and over – at home, in the car, doing the washing up – without part of my brain being preoccupied with what buttons to press on my concertina. But more importantly, singing a song like that, you can actually get to know it properly – knowing the words is essential of course, but it is only part of the story.

The only problem is that, increasingly, having sung a song unaccompanied while learning it, I then decide that’s the way I want to sing it – without any of the rhythmic restrictions imposed by an accompaniment. And thus, today I present an unaccompanied rendition of a song which I’d always visualised as wanting an accompaniment, and for which I had a pretty reasonable concertina accompaniment well on the way. But right now, I just feel like I want to sing it more freely than I could if I added an accompaniment.

I was first introduced to ‘The Isle of St Helena’ by Chris Wood in around 1983 or 1984. He’d learned it from Mary Black’s singing with De Dannan. As I recall, someone we knew was doing the sound for De Dannan’s tour, and he invited Chris along to be his assistant at their London gig. Afterwards, Chris was raving about the band in general – and who wouldn’t be? – but this song in particular. So much so that he learned it, at a time when Chris didn’t actually have many songs in his repertoire.

I always admired the song, but only properly considered learning it about 8 years ago, when a bootleg recording of Mary Black singing this live with De Dannan on a BBC radio programme surfaced on the internet. It’s beautifully sung and arranged (although unfortunately with a jump in the middle – perhaps the home taper had to turn their cassette over at that point?). And it reminded me what a great song it is. By then, of course, unlike the 1980s, it was easy to find various versions of the words. My verses are compiled from this broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland and various other sources including this American site, which is where I found the rather wonderful penultimate verse. Actually there’s several English, Scottish and American versions at Broadside Ballads Online, and it seems the song survived well in oral tradition in America, having been collected by Frank and Anne Warner, among others. Some of the rhymes for St Helena are rather spurious – ‘misdemeanour’ works, but even if I stuck to the Scots ‘winna’ instead of ‘will not’, that one’s a bit tenuous.

St. Helena - broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland

St. Helena – broadside ballad from the National Library of Scotland

I did perform this once in public back in about 2013, at an outdoor party where I’m not sure anyone was really listening, with accompaniment from Tom Miller and Joe Turner. That was a one-off, and it had remained one of those songs that, at the back of my mind, are labelled “must do something with this one day”. And then I was reminded of it once more by the song’s inclusion on this lovely new album by George Sansome, from the band Granny’s Attic. Do check that record out – you can listen to it for free, but please do George the courtesy of paying to download it, or even better, buy a physical CD; like many other folk musicians, George will have been unable to gig for the last 5 months, and probably for several months to come, so will no doubt appreciate your support.

Incidentally, if you want to listen to other versions online, with a bit of searching you’ll find recordings of the song by Mary Black (although not with De Dannan), Frank Harte and Donal Lunny, and even (rather lo-fi but to be treasured) a bootleg tape of Nic Jones singing it in a folk club in 1972.


The Isle of St Helena

June 26, 2015

Week 201 – The Bonny Bunch of Roses O

Here’s one last Napoleon song (for the time being). It’s a song which I’ve only learned in recent weeks, although I’ve been aware of it for a very long time. I first came across it in Frank Purslow’s book Marrowbones, where the words are set to a slowed down version of the dance tune The Rose Tree. Since then I’ve heard numerous versions both on record and at folk clubs and festivals, but have never really felt inclined to take the song up. Largely, I think, because of the rather confused narrative structure of the song – who, exactly, is supposed to be talking to whom? And when? And in what tense? And why, yet again, does Napoleon think the best way to get to Russia from France is to go over the Alps?

The general consensus is that it’s a conversation between Napoleon’s only legitimate son, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles (Prince Imperial, King of Rome, Prince of Parma, Placentia and Guastalla, Duke of Reichstadt, blah blah blah) and his mother, Napoleon’s second wife,  Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma. I’ve no idea if the young Napoleon had delusions of restoring the glories of his father’s Empire, but it seems likely enough, given his father’s own inflated sense of self-worth, and the way that, later in the century, Louis-Napoleon / Napoleon III traded heavily on the family name. At all events, although he showed promise in his military training in exile in Austria, in 1832 he caught pneumonia, followed by TB, and drooped his youthful head for the last time, at the age of only 21.

What made me sit up and take notice of the song was hearing the Hastings fisherman Noah Gillette singing it on You Never Heard So Sweet, one of the second tranche of Topic’s The Voice of the People series, released in 2012. That recording was made by Bob Copper during his song-collecting days for the BBC, in 1954, and Bob’s time among the fishermen of Hastings Old Town is recounted in chapter 6 of his book Songs and Southern Breezes. The  song was actually the opening track on the 1977 Topic LP Songs and Southern Breezes, an album I have never owned, but had heard a couple of times over the years. I can only assume that I wasn’t paying proper attention on those occasions.

Noah Gillette - photo from Gary Gillard's website

Noah Gillette – photo from Gary Gillard’s website

I was reminded of the song again by Shirley Collins’ multimedia presentation on Bob’s collecting activities as part of the Ten Thousand Times Adieu event at Cecil Sharp House in January this year. And as the bicentennial of Waterloo approached, I reckoned that if I was ever going to learn this song, the time to do it was now.

I’ve made no attempt to slavishly copy Noah Gillette’s words (in fact I’ve swapped a couple of the verses around), his phrasing or his melodic variations. But I have retained, for example, his “famous warbling songster” and his oh-so-simple, but really effective, trick of reversing two notes in the phrase “in spite of all the Universe”. I’ve also retained a really important phrase from the very last line. In nineteenth century broadsides, and versions noted down by the early collectors, the last two lines are usually

The deeds of bold Napoleon
Will sting the bonny bunch of roses O

But singing in 1950s Britain, perhaps mindful of recent historical events, Noah Gillette had changed this to

All the deeds of bold Napoleon
Will never conquer the Bonny bunch of roses, O

And that’s what I sing. Because, when all is said and done – and whatever Andrew Roberts might tell us to the contrary – we don’t have any more time for a little Napoleon than a little Hitler.

Bonny Bunch of Roses O - 19th century broadside from the Frank Kidson Manuscript Collection, via the Full English.

Bonny Bunch of Roses O – 19th century broadside from the Frank Kidson Manuscript Collection, via the Full English.

And following on from that thought, I really can’t resist sharing this photograph of a wonderful wartime newspaper cutting, which my friend Gavin Atkin spotted on the wall of Hunton Village Hall, in Kent. That’s the way to deal with jumped-up little dictators with their silly moustaches and their silly uniforms – call them a little squirt!

1940s newspaper cutting, photographed in Hunton Village Hall by Gavin Atkin.

1940s newspaper cutting, photographed in Hunton Village Hall by Gavin Atkin.

Incidentally, Gavin also maintains a blog. It’s mainly concerned with boats and boatbuilding, but you’ll also find a number of sea-related songs and tunes on the site. Do check it out.

The Bonny Bunch of Roses O

June 19, 2015

Week 200 – The Grand Conversation on Napoleon

At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender… but the legend lived on, of course, and his years of exile on the lonely Isle of St Helena provided further material for those who sought to romanticise the man in verse or song. I think this is a rather fine  – if typically confused – example of such pieces. I first heard it in the late 1970s, on a Strawhead LP lent to me by my friend Simon Oliver. A few years later, on a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, I looked the song up, and copied it out from the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol. 2 (1906). Vaughan Williams had collected the song in 1904, from Henry Burstow (born 1826) of Horsham in Sussex,. There are several examples of nineteenth century broadside printings to be found at Ballads Online and the Full English but apart from Henry Burstow’s version (one of quite a number of Napoleonic songs in his repertoire) the song was only found twice by the early English collectors in oral tradition – once by Baring-Gould in Devon, and by Vaughan Williams, again, in Norfolk. In more recent times, versions have been recorded in Ireland from Elizabeth Cronin of Cork in the 1950s, and from Tom Costello of Connemara in 1972 (the latter can be heard on Volume 8 of The Voice of the People). Gordon Hall (who of course had a strong connection with, and interest in, Henry Burstow) sang the song on the Veteran CD When The May Is All In Bloom. In the sleevenotes to that CD John Howson notes

As the broadside versions mention Napoleon Bonaparte’s death, this ballad must date from sometime after 1821. Both Harkness of Preston and Such of London published the song in about 1840 but it was probably based on an earlier broadside ballad called The Grand Conversation under the Rose. Perhaps due to the popularity of the Napoleon ballad, they both, some time later published The Grand Conversation on Nelson.

The Grand Conversation on Napoleon Arose - broadside from Ralph Vaughan Williams Manuscript Collection, via the Full English.

The Grand Conversation on Napoleon Arose – broadside from Ralph Vaughan Williams Manuscript Collection, via the Full English.

There’s an interesting article on this, and other pro-Napoleon ballads, on the Musical Traditions site –The Grand Conversation: Napoleon and British Popular Balladry, by the always-readable Vic Gammon.



Well there we are then: two hundred consecutive weeks of songs on this blog. When I started I guessed that I knew about 150 songs. A little while ago I revised my estimate up to 200, and now I’m thinking the total might be nearer 250. In fact the number keeps increasing: next week’s song (yet more Napoleon) is a song I’ve only learned in the last few weeks. To those of you who have followed this blog over the years, and made supportive or constructive comments, many many thanks – it has meant a lot to me.

The Grand Conversation on Napoleon

September 9, 2012

Week 55 – A Dream of Napoleon

A Dream of Napoleon - ballad sheet printed by J. Catnach of Seven Dials, between 1813 and 1838 - from the Bodleian collection

A Dream of Napoleon – ballad sheet printed by J. Catnach of Seven Dials, between 1813 and 1838 – from the Bodleian collection

I’m sure there must have been some dull Napoleon ballads, but those I know all have a certain majesty in both the tune and the lyrics. I learned this one from Roy Palmer’s Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was noted down on a very productive collecting trip to King’s Lynn in Norfolk, in January 1905,  from a “Mr Crist” – actually, it would seem, Mr Charles Crisp, formerly able-bodied seaman in the Merchant Navy, but by then a resident of the King’s Lynn Union (i.e. the workhouse).

This information about the singer I learned from research carried out by Katie Howson, of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, as part of a project called “North End Voices”, and available at

A very similar version of the song was recorded further round the Norfolk coast from Sam Larner. First recorded in the 1950s, Larner was clearly from a different generation to Mr Crisp and the other singers from whom Vaughan Williams took down songs in Norfolk. But it’s worth remembering that he was born in 1878, so was in his late twenties when RVW came collecting; and had their paths crossed I’ve no doubt he could have provided the composer with a significant body of songs.

A Dream of Napoleon