Posts tagged ‘Ploughboys’

January 28, 2017

Week 264 – Dowie Dens of Yarrow

Here’s one of those songs I have been meaning to learn for years…  well over 30 years, in fact having originally heard it in the early 1980s on the LP 1977 by Bob Davenport and the Rakes.

Bob Davenport learned it from the Scottish traveller singer and accordion player, Davie Stewart. You can find Davie’s version on Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland Vol. 2, the Rounder Records reissue of the Caedmon / Topic anthology The Child Ballads 2  from the Folk Songs of Britain series (hint: it’s easier and considerably cheaper to buy this album as a download than an actual CD).

There are various theories about this song being based on actual people and events (see the song’s entry on the Mainly Norfolk website). But whether or not there’s any historical basis for the song is really irrelevant – it makes no difference to the power of the story and the song.

The verse which always caught my attention was

Her hair it was three quarters long
The colour of it was yellow
She’s wrapped it round his middle so small
And she’s carried him home from Yarrow.

The image of the grieving lover with her hair “three quarters long” is what always came into my head whenever I thought of this song, and it’s that which – finally – prompted me to learn the song.

Back in the autumn I had a conversation with an artist friend, Cathy Ward, about taking part in an exhibition she’ll be putting on at Conquest House in Canterbury, in May this year. Over the years Cathy has produced a number of astonishingly detailed drawings of, or inspired by, women’s hair. I’ve placed a couple of examples below, and you can see plenty more on her website at As far as I know, Cathy has never turned her hand to illustrating Child Ballads, but if she decides to give it a go, this song might be the obvious place to start.

Flaxenvale by Cathy Ward

Flaxenvale by Cathy Ward

Exquisite Knot by Cathy Ward

Exquisite Knot by Cathy Ward

Dowie Dens of Yarrow

August 18, 2013

Week 104 – Banks of Sweet Dundee

Banks of Sweet Dundee - broadside from the National Library of Scotland

Banks of Sweet Dundee – broadside from the National Library of Scotland “Word on the Street” collection.

This post completes the second year of A Folk Song A Week. Never having counted how many songs I actually know, it’s hard to say how many more I have to post, but I reckon I can keep going for another year or so.

This one – a piece of  “sublime doggerel” according to Frank Kidson – I learned very early in my career as a singer of folk songs, from Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s The Singing Island. The source of the song is given as “William Miller, Stirling” –  MacColl’s father, I believe.

It was once a very popular song in England, Scotland and beyond – look at all the recorded versions in the Roud Index.

Banks of Sweet Dundee

June 16, 2012

Week 43 – All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough

An Oxfordshire version of a well-known song – well-known in the folk revival, but also widely sung in oral tradition.

Although this was not included on the first Magpie Lane CD, it was certainly in our repertoire when we played our first concerts in May 1993, and was included on our second album, Speed the Plough. In those days we followed the song with the dance tune ‘Speed the Plough’, aka  “The National Anthem of English Country Dance Music”. But we’re a band that likes to move with the times, so in more recent years we’ve taken to playing – as on this this live recording – ‘New Speed the Plough’, from Vic Gammon’s A Sussex Tune Book (N.B. the word “New” in this context is relative – the tune comes from the Welch family MS, dated 1800).

We learned the song from the Oxfordshire section of Lucy Broadwood’s English County Songs. There are four songs in that section, and the source for all of them is given as Mr R. Bennell. It’s not made clear whether Mr Bennell was simply responsible for communicating the songs to Miss Broadwood, or if she collected them directly from his singing . Fortunately Broadwood researcher Irene Shettle has provided the answer – Mr Bennell wrote out the words and tunes and sent them to the collector in a series of letters in November 1891.

Mr Bennell was a professional cornet player, then living in Richmond. The pieces he sent to Broadwood were songs which he remembered from his younger days, having been brought up at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. Of this song he wrote

I have written the tune of (It was early etc) as I have always heard it sung round about Nettlebed in Oxfordshire where I was brought up. I have herd strangers sing it to the air of Villikins and his Dinah, which melody you are no doubt acquainted with.


I have also written two more, one I may call the Nettlebed Cricket Song as I have never heard a word of the song or a bar of the melody sung in any of my travels. Neither of the songs I have dotted down have the peculiar quaintness and minor tendency of most of our most rural district songs but I could commit several to paper, but the words I could not easily obtain now I am away. I have written the two first and the two last verses of the Leathern Bottle. I can remember no more. There are various difficulties in the way as regards the words of songs; our ancestors in their simplicity were rather coarse even in their sentimental ditties. This for one thing gives rise to a difficulty where as regards the tune there would be none. In answer to your enquiry as to my profession I beg to state that I am a musician and play the cornet for a living in all lines of the business theatrical or otherwise. I object to publicity regarding myself unless consulted. Any remuneration for my little efforts would be thankfully received to cover postage etc. If these songs should give you any satisfaction or be of any help to you in your labours I will furnish you with another or two

In English County Songs Lucy Broadwood gives the Nettlebed tune for this song (under the title ‘Twas Early One Morning’), but prints a set of words “from a gardener’s boy in Berkshire”.

All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough / New Speed the Plough

Magpie Lane

Andy Turner: vocal, one-row melodeon
Ian Giles: vocal, percussion
Mat Green: fiddle
Sophie Thurman: cello
Jon Fletcher: guitar

recorded direct from the mixing desk, Banbury Folk Festival, 14th October 2007

April 21, 2012

Week 35 – The Lark in the Morning

The Lark in the Morning - from the Bodleian Library collection

Here’s the opening track from the new Magpie Lane CD, The Robber Bird. I learned this from Roy Palmer’s excellent book Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (now republished as Bushes and Briars). Vaughan Williams noted down the tune and first verse on the 24th April 1904, from Mrs Harriet Verrall, of Monk’s Gate, Horsham in Sussex; Roy added further verses from a printed broadside. The song itself is a celebration of ploughboys’ sexual prowess – it is taken as read that they worked hard, but here it is made clear that they also knew how to have a good time, and were fecund to boot. We top and tail our arrangement with ‘The Muffin Man’, a dance tune from the manuscript tune book of William Mittell, dated 1799, from New Romney in Kent. I learned this from the ABC notation file transcribed by George Frampton, and made available by the Village Music Project.

The Robber Bird is not currently available even in the very best record shops. But you can order it online from

Or of course you could buy a copy at one of our gigs. We will be celebrating the 108th anniversary of the collection of this song in Reading on Tuesday, at the Museum of English Rural Life, with the wonderful Hilary James and Simon Mayor.

Magpie Lane

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Mat Green: fiddle, vocal
Sophie Thurman: cello, vocal
Jon Fletcher: bouzouki, vocal
Ian Giles: drum, vocal