Posts tagged ‘Norfolk’

September 27, 2020

Week 296 – The Long Peggin’ Awl

I learned this song from Folk Song in England by A.L.Lloyd, which I borrowed from my local public library in about 1976. Lloyd includes it as an example of the

profusion of humorous songs whose erotic metaphors concern the miller’s grinding stones, the weaver’s shuttle (and its to-and-from as he works at the loom the young woman carries beneath her apron), the blocking-iron of the priapic jolly tinker (‘She brought me though the kitchen and she brought me through the hall, and the servants cried: The devil, are you going to block us all?’), or the cobbler’s awl, as in this song recorded in 1954 from Harry Cox, the Norfolk singer, by Peter Kennedy.

(For examples of songs about those other trades see The Maid and the Miller on this blog, O.J. Abbott’s song ‘The Weaver’, and ‘The Jolly Tinker’ – preferably the version recorded in Mohill, County Leitrim, from the irrepressible Thomas Moran)

I stopped singing the song after a while, because I thought I’d got the tune wrong. I’m not sure why I didn’t just learn it again properly – especially as, I now realise, I had access to a recording of Harry Cox himself singing it on the LP Songs of Seduction which I had borrowed from the library, and recorded onto cassette without hesitation at the time or, indeed, regret at any time since. That was the first record I heard of traditional singers and it made a big impression on me. But I have absolutely no recollection of this song being on the LP – I could have sworn I only heard Harry Cox’s version on the expanded CD reissue put out by Rounder in 2000. Well, not for the first time just recently, I find that my memory is playing tricks on me – a sign of things to come, no doubt, as I enter my seventh decade!

We recorded a nice arrangement of this – with Benji Kirkpatrick on vocals – on the Magpie Lane CD Six for Gold and it was after this that I did finally learn the song properly. I’m not sure why I overlooked it while this blog was in its weekly heyday, but I’m glad to rectify the omission now. It’s only five verses, and lasts less than 2 minutes, but it’s still a joy to sing.

In case you don’t know what a cobbler’s awl looks like, here’s one from the 1840s, recovered at Erebus Bay, King William Island, up in the frozen North of Canada – abandoned by a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition.

Cobbler's awl: a relic of Sir John Franklin's last expedition 1845-48, from the National Maritime Museum.

Cobbler’s awl: a relic of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition 1845-48, from the National Maritime Museum.

The Long Peggin’ Awl


May 17, 2020

Week 289 – The Ghost Ship

As I’ve probably mentioned before, I have rather an ambivalent attitude towards Peter Bellamy’s singing. But I can’t deny that hearing his album The Fox Jumps Over The Parson’s Gate at the age of 17 or 18 had quite an effect on me. I learned several songs from the LP – certainly ‘The Female Drummer’ and ‘Saint Stephen’. And at a time when my singing style was heavily influenced by those I heard on record (Martin Carthy, Mike Waterson, Tim Hart, Cathal McConnell) I couldn’t help picking up some of Bellamy’s vocal tricks too. I learned this one with the aid of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s The Singing Island – an important book for me, as it was one of the few books of folk song in my local library.

It was quite a few years later before I heard the song sung by Bellamy’s source, the Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner. That was on the Topic CD Now Is The Time For Fishing, which features recordings made by MacColl and Seeger between 1958 and 1960. It’s a great record, fully deserving of its classic status. But in fact you can get all of the 1958-60 recordings of Sam Larner made by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker on the award-winning Musical Traditions double CD Cruising Round Yarmouth. If you root around on the Musical Traditions website you’ll find a Downloads page, where you can buy a copy for the price of a pint (actually less than the cost of a pint, if you’re used to London and SE England prices – and anyway, all the pubs are shut at the moment).

I’m very clear that I learned this from Peter Bellamy, not Sam Larner. Indeed there are certain points in the song where – although I’ve probably not listened to Bellamy’s recording of the song more than half a dozen times in the last 30 years – I feel I have to consciously restrain myself, to stop myself throwing in a Bellamyesque yelp. But having just listened to my recording alongside that on The Fox Jumps Over The Parson’s Gate I think I might finally have arrived at my own way of singing the song.

The Ghost Ship

November 1, 2015

Week 219 – Maid of Australia

When I was 16 or 17 I signed up to the record-lending section of my local public library. The first two discs I borrowed were an early music recording of songs from the Carmina Burana, and the Topic/Caedmon LP Songs of Seduction. Now the Folk Songs of Britain series, of which this was part, has been heavily criticised for the way its editors, Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy, chopped out verses from songs, or had bits of one song sung by several different singers. (The CD reissue of Songs of Seduction did restore most of the originally-deleted verses, but some reviewers still found plenty to complain about – complaints which could be summed up as objecting to Kennedy’s rather high-handed and proprietorial attitude towards the songs and their singers). But back in 1961 when the LP was first released, I guess the editors had limited time available on each disc, and they wanted to present, to those unused to listening to British traditional singers, as wide a range of songs and as wide a range of singers as possible. In that they succeeded. Some 15 years later, I was just the kind of listener the records had been aimed at: I had developed (via Steeleye, the Watersons, the Chieftains etc.) a great love of folk music, but so far the only traditional singers I had heard were the Copper Family. Suddenly, I was presented with some of the greats of traditional song – Harry Cox, Thomas Moran, Jeannie Robertson, Davie Stewart, George Spicer… And (I was a teenage boy, remember) they were all singing about sex. What’s not to like?

One of the songs included on the LP – in a reasonably complete form, as I recall – was Harry Cox’s ‘Maid of Australia’. So I was familiar with the song from the LP, then learned the words from Peter Kennedy’s book Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland, also borrowed from the public library. (Incidentally, after years of borrowing that book from various libraries, I finally bought a copy the other week – one of a number of books Steve Roud was selling off at the EFDSS Folk Song Conference, in a desperate effort to reduce the size of his personal library before moving house).

It’s one of those songs which, for no apparent reason, seems to have been a favourite in East Anglia, and hardly ever encountered elsewhere in Britain – besides Harry Cox, it has been recorded from Walter Pardon and Sam Larner, while Vaughan Williams took down a version from Mr Crist in King’s Lynn, and John Howson recorded a version in 1993 from Tom Smith at Thorpe Merieux in Suffolk. Just to prove it’s not a solely East Anglian preserve, however, here’s the version Sabine Baring-Gould noted from George Doidge at Chillaton in Devon:

And, needless to say, the song appeared on at least one broadside ballad sheet.

The maids of Australia, printed between 1863 and 1885 by H. Such. From the Bodleian collection.

The maids of Australia, printed between 1863 and 1885 by H. Such. From the Bodleian collection.

The song itself is, of course, the most fantastic male sexual fantasy. The narrator is out for a walk by the Hawkesborough River. He sits down to rest for a bit, when who should he spy but a young native woman – a young woman intent on having a dip in the river, it would seem as, without further ado, she takes off all her clothes. Realising that she is being watched, she blushes, but her embarrassment is shortlived: she quickly recovers her composure and makes it clear that she feels no reason to be ashamed of her naked body.

For the young man on the bank, things just seem to get better and better.

Well she dived in the water without fear or dread
And her beautiful limbs she exceedingly spread

– well, there’s a sight for a young man

Her hair hung in ringlets, the colour it was black
Sir, said she, you will see how I float on my back…

Oh my – I think I might need to go and have a lie-down.

Well she can’t swim for ever, of course. After a while she begins to get tired. Ever the gentleman, he helps her out. But – accidentally, of course – his foot slips, and down they fall together. And, in possibly the finest pun in English traditional song, “then I entered the bush of Australia”.

They frolic together for a while – “in the highest of glee”, naturally. But all men are bastards, so he ups and leaves her, and nine months later (all folk song characters being unfeasibly fecund) she finds herself a single mother.

I did for a while sing a rewrite of the last verse, in which I attempted to draw attention to the colonialist, patriarchal attitudes implicit in the song. But it was just as clumsy as that makes it sound, so I reverted to Harry Cox’s original. At least that way the audience can join in with the last line.

Maid of Australia

April 5, 2014

Week 137 – Van Diemen’s Land

Learned from the singing of Walter Pardon, via his debut LP, A Proper Sort. And it’s a particularly fine performance by Walter as well – you can hear the same recording, made in 1974 by Bill Leader and Peter Bellamy, on Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land (The Voice of the People Volume 4).

Van Diemen’s Land, in case anyone is unaware, was the former name for Tasmania. I retain Walter Pardon’s pronunciation of “Die-man” rather than the more usual “Dee-man”. There are actually two related, but distinct, songs which share the title Van Diemen’s Land. Roy Palmer believes that this one – Roud 221, originally Young Henry the Poacher – may have been a sequel to the original Van Diemen’s Land,  Roud 519. Writing in the Folk Music Journal in 1976, Roy argued that both songs were prompted by two major trials of poachers in Warwickshire, in 1829. This followed the enactment of  a new law in 1828 which stated that “if three men were found in a wood, and one of them carried a gun or bludgeon, all were liable to be transported for fourteen years” (FMJ Vol 3 No 2, p161). This ballad in particular, Roy says, appears to have been influenced by the events in Warwickshire.

Young Henry the poacher - ballad sheet printed by H Such between 1863 and 1885; from the Bodleian collection via Ballads Online.

Young Henry the poacher – ballad sheet printed by H Such between 1863 and 1885; from the Bodleian collection via Ballads Online.

I have a very distinct memory of singing this song at “One for Ron”, an event held to celebrate the life of Sussex singer Ron Spicer, a year or so after his death. There was a massive singaround in the afternoon – it must have gone on for around 3 hours, but there were so many singers present that hardly anyone got the chance to sing more than one song. When I got to the chorus of this one, I started to sing it in my normal way

Young men, all now beware
Lest you are drawn into a snare

But I quickly realised that a stronger force was at work in the room. In the far corner sat the mighty Gordon Hall – a big man, with a big voice. Gordon never liked to rush a song, and his way of singing the chorus was more like

Young men, a—-ll now bewa——re [pause]
Lest you are drawn int–o a sna——-re

There was nothing to do but go with the flow, and sing it at Gordon’s pace. Which was, clearly, the right way to sing it!

Van Diemen’s Land

January 11, 2014

Week 125 – Old Brown’s Daughter

A song from my favourite traditional singer, Walter Pardon, and one which I’ve been neglecting for far too long.

At the Traditional Song Forum Broadside Day at Cecil Sharp House a couple of years ago I was surprised to find that this song (albeit with a completely different tune) is very popular in Newfoundland – indeed is regarded by many Newfies as a local composition. In fact it is a British music hall song written by the George W. Hunt (1839-1904) and sung on the halls by Alfred ‘The Great’ Vance;  this Mudcat thread throws a lot of light on the song’s origins.

Vance's New Song Of Old Brown's Daughter - from the EFDSS Full English archive

Vance’s New Song Of Old Brown’s Daughter – from the EFDSS Full English archive

I remember the suggestion being made that it might be possible to date the song by the use of the word “galvanised” in the third verse, but actually I think that’s a red herring. Luigi Galvani was conducting his experiments in the second half of the eighteenth century, and it was in 1771 that he discovered that the muscles of dead frogs could be made to twitch by applying a spark of electrical current. The OED has the word ‘galvanized’ being used in this literal sense as early as 1802 (“The heat is likewise increased in the part which is galvanised.”) and 1820 (“The lungs of the galvanized rabbit had some blotches on their surface”) – both examples from The Medical and Physical Journal; I also rather like Sydney Smith’s “Galvanise a frog, don’t galvanise a tiger”  from 1825.

As for the metaphorical use of the word, the earliest known use seems to be from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, from 1853 “Her approach always galvanized him to new and spasmodic life”.

The song is almost certainly later than that. Based on the last line – “By jingo next election I will put up as MP” – I’d always thought that it probably dated from the time of the 1884 Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote for the first time to (some of) the rural working class. But I was forgetting that, although Walter Pardon was a rural singer, this song is almost certainly from a more urban milieu. So a better bet would seem to be the Representation of the People Act of 1867. That gave the vote to some urban / industrial working men for the first time, and changes which followed in its wake made it (theoretically) possible for working men to enter Parliament. The first two working class MPs, Thomas Burt and Alexander MacDonald, both miners’ leaders, were elected (for Morpeth and Stafford respectively) in 1874.

In fact, evidence is given on that Mudcat thread mentioned above, that this song predates working men actually being sent to Parliament – there’s a reference to it in Vance’s Last Great Hits in Era Magazine, Sunday December 4th 1870. So at that stage, I suppose, the idea of a working chap becoming an MP was not an impossibility, but still something so unlikely as to be faintly preposterous. That’s the sense I get from the last verse of the song, in any case.

Walter Pardon learned the song – and it’s worth noting that the tune is different not only from the Newfoundland version, but also from that on the printed sheet music – from his uncle, Billy Gee “who, in his turn, learned it from a local man at one of the regular singing sessions following an Agricultural Workers Union meeting in North Walsham, Norfolk some time around the end of the 19th century” (thanks to Jim Carroll, for that, via Mudcat). It was included on – indeed it provided the title for – Walter’s first LP, A Proper Sort. Both that, and his other record on Leader, Our Side of the Baulk, have of course been unavailable for many years. Most of the songs on them have been made available through other collectors’ recordings on CDs on Topic and Rod Stradling’s Musical Traditions label. But ‘Old Brown’s Daughter’ never seems to have made it onto CD. Perhaps Bill Leader and Peter Bellamy were the only people to have recorded Walter singing it.

Old Brown's Daughter - sheet music from the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music

Old Brown’s Daughter – sheet music from the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music

Old Brown’s Daughter

October 20, 2013

Week 113 – On Board a Ninety-Eight

The visitor to Oxford is of course immediately struck by the beauty of the honey-coloured stone of the medieval colleges, the Old Bod, the Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian… But another of the glories of Oxford to my mind has always been the Covered Market. And when I was a student one of the glories of the Covered Market was, without doubt, Garon Records. I spent many a happy hour browsing through the racks of second-hand LPs, and there are quite a number of records in my collection which I picked up in that shop. I’d actually discovered the shop even before I became a student, having come across it on a visit to Oxford a few months earlier. It’s funny what one remembers after 35 years. I can’t remember much about my visit to the college, but I do remember having something to eat and a couple of pints of Morrells in The Grapes. then sitting on the grass by the canal reading E.H. Carr’s What is History?  And while, sadly, I cannot recall Professor Carr’s answer to that vexed question, I’m pretty sure the two LPs I bought in Garon Records that day were The Watersons and Among the many attractions at the fair will be a really high class band.

Generally the records I bought from Garon were in pretty good nick, the exception being a dreadfully beat up copy of Peter Bellamy’s Tell it like it was. This was in such a bad state that I think I only played it a couple of times. But that was sufficient to introduce me to two Bellamy classics, ‘Courting too slow’ and ‘On Board a 98′. Bellamy wrote his own tune for both of these, finding the tune which Vaughan Williams had collected for this song “unimpressing”. I was surprised, therefore, when I found the tune in Sharp’s English County Folk Songs, that it was a perfectly acceptable tune which fitted the song rather well. I learned it immediately, and have been singing it on an off ever since, either on my own or, for a few years in the 1980s, with Chris Wood on fiddle. It seems like a suitable song to post here on the eve of Trafalgar Day.

Vaughan Williams had the song from a Mr Leatherday (sometimes given as Latterday), a sailor of King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1905.

On Board A '98, collected by Vaughan Williams from Mr Leatherday, 1905. From the Full English archive.

On Board A ’98, collected by Vaughan Williams from Mr Leatherday, 1905. From the Full English archive.

Needless to say, I think, the song can be found in nineteenth century printed sources at Broadside Ballads Online, the Bodleian Library’s revamped and much improved ballad site; see

On Board of a Ninety-Eight, printed by J. Catnach, Seven Dials

On Board of a Ninety-Eight, printed by J. Catnach, Seven Dials “between 1813 and 1838” from the Bodleian collection.

One of my wife’s ancestors was a Greenwich Pensioner, although not a resident of Greenwich Hospital itself. In the 1841 Census John O’Leary’s wife and five children are listed as living in Portsea; while he, we imagine, was off at sea. In 1851 his occupation is given as Greenwich Pensioner – one assumes he had “done his duty, served his time”, although whether he now “blessed his fate” we can’t know. He and his family were all living in New Rents, Ashford, Kent. This is a really strange coincidence – Ashford is my home town, and I certainly would have had ancestors living in the town in 1851; Carol had been unaware that any of her forebears had any connection with Kent, still less Ashford. The association seems to have been shortlived, however, as the O’Leary family were no longer in Ashford by the time of the next census in 1861.

On Board a Ninety-Eight

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

May 11, 2013

Week 90 – The Bonny Labouring Boy

The bonny labouring boy, from the Bodleian Library collection; printed by J.F. Nugent, & Co. (Dublin) between 1850 and 1899.

The bonny labouring boy, from the Bodleian Library collection; printed by J.F. Nugent, & Co. (Dublin) between 1850 and 1899.

I first heard this on an Irish compilation LP which I borrowed from my local record library in the late 1970s. I remember little about the album, except that it featured the Sands Family, and Planxty doing ‘Three Drunken Maidens’. But thanks to the wonders of the internet I can now reveal that it must have been The Best Of Irish Folk, and the band doing this song was Aileach (me neither).

I didn’t actually learn the song from the record, but it was probably having heard the recording which prompted me to learn the song when I found it in Peter Kennedy’s massive tome, Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. It must have been around the same time as well that I saw the song being performed by Shirley and Dolly Collins, at a one-day festival at City University, featuring the entire roster of the Oglesby-Winder agency (i.e. pretty much all the top acts on the English folk scene). I’m slightly puzzled, when there is so much trivia, ephemera and nostalgia on the web, that I can’t seem to find any mention of this event. A post on Facebook this morning confirms that I didn’t dream the whole thing, and it turns out that a number of people with whom I am now friends were at the event. Initially noone seemed willing to commit to when it happened, but Chris Foster – who was on the bill – has just stated very confidently that it was in October 1978. He remembers it clearly because he’d just spent a week in the studio recording his second LP, All Things in Common.

Anyway, the version in Peter Kennedy’s book is from the great Harry Cox. You can hear him singing the song  on the Topic double CD The Bonny Labouring Boy.

The Bonny Labouring Boy

October 13, 2012

Week 60 – The Rambling Blade

Only the second song I’ve posted so far from my favourite traditional singer, Walter Pardon – but this was his favourite song.

I first saw Walter sing in 1980, at the first Downs Festival of Traditional Singing, held that year in Newbury. I’d already heard the two LPs of Walter’s songs which were then available on the Leader label, A Proper Sort and Our Side of the Baulk, and it was clear from those recordings that he was a very fine singer. But what really appealed to me when I saw him was the unshowy way in which he sang his songs. In particular, I remember a singaround with everyone sitting in a circle, and each singing a song in turn. When it was Walter’s turn he stood up, launched straight into his song without any preamble, and sat down almost before the last note had died away. A quiet, private, unassuming man (from what I can tell – I never knew him), he demonstrated that you could sing in an undemonstrative way, without any overt display of emotion, and yet put a song across in a totally effective and engaging way.

Walter Pardon - photograph by John Howson, from

Walter Pardon – photograph by John Howson, from

I saw him twice more, I think. Once at a Library lecture in Cecil Sharp House when, having battled with the Friday night traffic coming up from Kent, we actually only got to see him sing a handful of songs – but one of those was ’The Rambling Blade’, and I distinctly remember him saying this was his favourite song. And then Carol and I went to see him at the Herga folk club in the summer of 1988 (I remember the date because it was just a couple of weeks after we’d got married). Our car was in danger of breaking down, I seem to remember, but I’m really glad we made the trip and got to hear him singing over the course of a full evening.

This song, of course, turns up in many guises – ‘Newlyn Town’, ‘The Flash Lad’, ‘Adieu, Adieu’ etc. etc. But there’s a particularly fine period feel to Walter’s version, with its references to “Ned Fielding” (the novelist Henry Fielding founded the Bow Street Runners in 1749, and his blind younger half-brother John is credited with turning them into London’s first effective police force).

This song appears on the Leader LP A Proper Sort (long unavailable of course, like everything else from the Leader / Trailer catalogue) and was also included on the excellent Topic CD A World Without Horses.

The Rambling Blade

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

September 1, 2012

Week 54 – The Rigs of the Time

I think I first heard this song on Shirley Collins’ 1967 LP The Sweet Primeroses, and subsequently  learned it from Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain and Ireland. The version in Kennedy’s book is as  sung by John ‘Charger’ Salmons and recorded at the Sutton Windmill, near Stalham, Norfolk  in October 1947. The recording was made for the BBC Third Programme by composer E.J. Moeran. You can hear the entire 1947 broadcast on the CD  East Anglia Sings, released by the rather wonderfully named Snatch’d from Oblivion label. A Musical Traditions article, E J Moeran: Collecting folk songs in East Norfolk – in his own words gives you all the background, and allows you to listen to the songs which he recorded; you can also buy the East Anglia Sings CD from Musical Traditions.

The song presumably dates from the Napoleonic period, judging by the rich farmers’ daughters who say

Boney alas! There’s a French war to fight and the cows have no grass.

Incidentally the three ballad sheets with the title ‘Rigs of the Time’ which can be found on the Bodleian Library Ballads site deal with a similar theme to this song, but otherwise appear unrelated.

The Rigs of the Time