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: http://www.vwml.org/record/SBG/1/3/228.
And, needless to say, the song appeared on at least one broadside ballad sheet.
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