I have mentioned previously on this blog that my introduction to folk music came via Steeleye Span’s 1972 LP Below the Salt. It might be an exaggeration to say that I was hooked after one listen, but it wouldn’t be so far from the truth. My best friend Mike lent me his Dad’s copy of the record, and Mike and I were soon singing the songs together in harmony – ‘Spotted Cow’, ‘Rosebud in June’, ‘Gaudete’, ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘King Henry’. Indeed I’m sure I must have known all of the songs on the album at one time, including Side 1 Track 5, ‘Royal Forester’.
I remember singing that one day in the kitchen at home, and my Dad calling out “Here Jean, have you heard these saucy songs our son is singing?”. At which point it emerged that my Mum, who must have had a sheltered upbringing, was unfamiliar with the word ‘maidenhead’. Well, to be fair, so was I until I started singing folk songs!
One thing I have always admired about the early Steeleye albums was the fact that the record sleeves had notes about the songs. Often brief, cryptic, half-fact half-fantasy notes, but still useful to me as a newcomer to traditional music – at the time I had no idea who Harry Cox, Queen Caroline Hughes or John Strachan were, but I absorbed their names, and recognised them later when I started exploring real traditional singing (although it would be many years before I actually got to hear Queen Caroline Hughes, and the first time I heard John Strachan of Fyvie, Aberdeenshire was his very brief – mainly spoken – contribution to the Songs of Seduction LP)
Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson recorded this song from Strachan in July 1951, and it was included on another of those Topic/Caedmon Folk Songs of Britain albums, The Child Ballads 2. My local library had most of the records in that series, and I think I may have borrowed this one, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Certainly the way I sing ‘Royal Forester’ owes nothing (I’m afraid) to John Strachan, and is very much my recollection of the song as sung by Steeleye. But in fact Steeleye’s version was pretty faithful to the original.
I don’t think this was ever a song I performed in public, and I’d not sung it at all for many years, until maybe 2 or 3 years back. When, thinking of songs I could include here, I had a go at remembering the words. And, after a little bit of scrabbling around in dusty, neglected corners of my brain, found that they all came flooding back.
As it was one of the very first traditional song I learned, it seemed appropriate to post it here to mark 250 weeks of this blog.
I first encountered Ashley Hutchings on the Steeleye Span LP Ten Man Mop. It’s a great record – probably Steeleye’s best – and as it was only the third or fourth folk record I’d heard it had quite an effect on me. And not just the music. I was very taken by the photo of Ashley Hutchings on the sleeve, where he was wearing a collarless “granddad shirt”. Now I’ve never been one to take much notice of fashion, and as a teenager I was almost completely oblivious to it. But seeing that photo – and then, a little while later, Martin Carthy similarly attired on the cover of Crown of Horn – prompted a great fondness for collarless shirts which I retain to this day. Once I got to know the folk scene better, of course, I found that in the late seventies these shirts (along with beards and pewter tankards) were pretty much de rigeur for the male folkie. Less so for much of the intervening decades, but I still like them.
Back cover of Ten Man Mop
Over the next few years I listened to numerous albums featuring Ashley Hutchings: Please to see the King, The Prospect Before Us, Son of Morris On, The Compleat Dancing Master, Rattlebone and Ploughjack, Morris On, Amaranth, Liege and Lief (although, having read what a seminal album that was, when I eventually heard it I was left feeling a little disappointed; I still prefer What we did on our holidays). Then, in 1978, came the Albion Band’s Rise up like the Sun. One of my school friends – I think it must have been my best friend, and singing partner, Mike – bought the LP and I may well have first heard it in the Norton Knatchbull School Sixth Form Common Room. At the time, fairly new as I was to folk music, I had still managed to form various not very rational prejudices. And I wasn’t entirely sure about this record. One of my prejudices was against drum kits in folk bands – I preferred the ‘electric folk’ of early Steeleye to the full-on folk-rock sound – and this band line-up included two drummers! (Actually, this prejudice wasn’t totally irrational – I’ve heard far too many bands where an uninspired folk-rock drum beat has completely overpowered the rhythmic subtleties inherent in good dance playing, and squeezed all the life out of the music. And don’t get me started on that dreadfully disappointing Richard Thompson and Phil Pickett record…)
All the same, I wasn’t quite ready for a review of the album by Karl Dallas (possibly in Melody Maker but I think it was some more niche publication, possibly Folk Review) which he used to propound his theory that folk-rock was dead. I’d only just got into folk music via folk-rock – I wasn’t ready for it to end. Looking back, Dallas might have had a point – folk-rock didn’t die, but it was beginning to atrophy.
(As an aside, not really relevant to any of this, but I’ll mention it anyway, I distinctly remember where I read that Karl Dallas review. It was at a sort of folk youth club set up by folk dance enthusiasts Don and Marjorie Lang, at a scout hut or similar, quite near the seafront in Hythe. I can only remember going to a couple of the Sunday afternoon meetings, but the club might have gone on for longer than that – I didn’t live in Hythe, and it must have been coming up to the time when Mike and I took our A levels. At one of the meetings I did attend – the first one I think – I first encountered Adrian Russell, who had been brought in to demonstrate his prowess on the anglo-concertina. We must have kept in touch after that first meeting, and went onto become firm friends.)
Having initially had mixed feelings about Rise up like the Sun, after a few years I realised that if I stopped pigeonholing the record, and treated it purely on its own merits (i.e. not as folk, not as folk-rock, not as rock – just as music) it was quite clearly a work of genius. The arrangements of tracks like ‘Poor Old Horse’ are quite superb. And although Karl Dallas might not have been able to come to terms with John Tams changing the tune of ‘The Gresford Disaster’, I now consider that track to be one of the greatest ever recorded under the Albion brand. I love Graeme Taylor’s guitar work, and the way the track builds to an emotional climax – then achieves an even greater emotional impact as the volume drops and Tams sings those last few accusatory verses. There are several songs which produce a Pavlovian effect in me, making my eyes water as a certain line is reached. These range from ‘No Man’s Land’ to Michelle Shocked’s ‘Anchorage’ and Gram Parsons’ ‘Thousand Dollar Wedding’. And one such moment is definitely when John Tams sings
And the owners have sent some lilies, dear God,
To pay for the poor colliers’ lives.
Stupidly, I’m welling up as I type them now.
Of all the Albion records, this is the one where Tams had the greatest creative input, and he must take much of the credit for the album’s brilliance. But it was Ashley Hutchings who had the contacts which enabled him to assemble such a stellar cast of backing vocalists, including Richard and Linda Thompson, Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy, Julie Covington and the McGarrigles. On ‘House in the Country’ (you see, I got to the point eventually) Tams duets with Kate McGarrigle, and the result is, of course, sublime.
On the album sleeve this track is credited to M. Stewart, and I assumed it was a modern composition, perhaps by some folk scene singer-songwriter I’d not encountered. But then, during a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library I think, I came across the song in the 1975 Folk Music Journal, in an article on Scottish travellers’ songs by Peter A. Hall.
The composer was Maggie Stewart, a travelling singer related to the famous Stewarts of Blairgowrie – she was Jeannie Robertson’s aunt, and Stanley Robertson’s “great grand aunt”. A grandson, James Stewart, contributes this information on Mudcat
My GrandMother Maggie Stewart was Born at the Loch O’ the Lee’s outside Banchory in the year of 1902 and died in Aberdeen in the year of 1983 aged 80 years old. she lived in Forfar for years when Hamish Henderson went to Forfar to Record some of the Stewarts and Maggie Stewart was just one of them same family of Folk singers.
Maggie Stewart being recorded by her nephew Stanley Robertson. From ‘The Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers a selection of images from the project’. Image copyright the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.
Peter Hall’s introduction to this song in the Journal says
Another indication of a flourishing tradition is the addition of new material into the repertoire. The most obvious, although not the only way this may take place is by the composition of original songs. Maggie Stewart, formerly living in Aberdeen and now in Montrose, has written a number of fine pieces as well as being an important contributor of traditional material. The song given here illustrates the dilemma of tinkers who wished to become integrated into society and yet at the same time not to discard any of their own character and custom. The Second World War was an important era for the travelling community, when the expanded bureaucratic machine pushed tinkers into the mainstream of society, requiring them to fight and to be listed and counted.
(Actually, Stanley Robertson suggests the song related to the period following the First World War, rather than the Second). Hall continues
In one of the best papers on the tinker’s life style Farnham Rehfisch deals with the institution of marriage:
“During the two wars quite a number of Tinkers were taken into the Armed Forces. It was very much easier for wives to collect family allowances and other government-granted aid if they were able to show documents proving a legal marriage to a serviceman. This was often essential since many of those who were in charge of the distribution of such benefits were very much prejudiced against members of the group and went to great lengths to avoid satisfying their just claims.”
Society is still ambiguous about accepting tinkers into its midst and the mutual tension embodied in the relationship is well caught in the next song.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, we boldly go into the fifth year of this blog’s existence. And it’s my birthday soon. So to celebrate, here’s something recorded earlier in the year, with a typically sensitive guitar accompaniment from my old friend Nick Passmore (for more on Nick, see Week 188).
Andy and Nick at a recent Oyster Ceilidh Band dance in Canterbury.
I used to sing this back in the 1980s with Chris Wood. Chris, Nick and I all knew the song from the classic post-Planxty Andy Irvine & Paul Brady LP – although, being averse to transcribing lyrics from records if I can possibly help it, I’d got the words from Roy Palmer’s book The Rambling Soldier. The album sleevenotes say that Andy Irvine first heard the song sung by Dick Gaughan, but set the words (probably from Sam Henry’s Songs of the People, although that’s not explicitly stated)to his own tune.
Woodhall is apparently on the banks of North Calder Water in North Lanarkshire.
Earlier this year I attended a singing weekend in and around Stroud, as the guest of Rod and Danny Stradling. One of many good things about the weekend was that I got to meet Pete Shepheard and Arthur Watson, two fine Scottish singers with a store of good songs, and good stories to tell about them. Pete sang this in the Stradling’s kitchen, after hours on the Friday night, then again at the final session on Sunday lunchtime. I was immediately taken with the song, but didn’t at first consider learning it, as it was just so very Scottish. I still think that to really do the song justice you need to have a Scots accent, to be able to roll your Rs, and to pronounce words like “burn” with two syllables (“burran”). But with the song still going round my head days later, I found the words on the internet and decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did, because I just love singing this song (all the same, if you want to hear a really good performance of this song, check out the recording by Shepheard, Spiers & Watson on their CD They Smiled as We Cam In, Springthyme SPRCD 1042).
When I was involved in organising the early TMSA festivals in Blairgowrie we set out to bring together traditional singers and musicians from all parts of Scotland. The Mitchell Family of Campbeltown in Kintyre (father, mother, daughter and son-in-law) were invited to the 1968 festival on the recommendation of Hamish Henderson who had come across Campbeltown butcher and amateur folksong collector Willie Mitchell in 1956 during a lecture tour in Argyll organised by the WEA. The Mitchells’ singing of several Kintyre songs provided a most memorable highlight of that gathering in 1968 – two songs in particular – Nancy’s Whisky and the local Kintyre emigration song Ye Boys o Callieburn (Roud 6932) that he had collected from Mr Reid, the farmer at Callieburn. Willie Scott was also a guest that same year and, after a wonderful informal Saturday afternoon ceilidh in the Sun Lounge of the Angus Hotel and with the texts from Willie Mitchell, he quickly took both songs into his repertoire.
The small farming community of Callieburn is in the hills a few miles north of Campbeltown and the song tells of emigration from an area that suffered hardship in the 1830s and 1840s – especially during the ‘hungry 40s’ when the West Highlands had a famine almost as severe as Ireland’s.
I love the homespun nature of these verses – it really is “a song of our own composing”, and you can well believe that it was put together by a local man on the eve of emigrating. And what a wrench that must have been. The chances of ever seeing one’s friends or family again would have been negligible, hence the importance attached to the hope that “maybe yet we’ll meet in Zion”.
The picture below was painted by William McTaggart (1835–1910), who had a house in Machrihanish, and painted a number of views of the area, as well as a series depicting emigration.
William McTaggart – The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship; National Galleries of Scotland.
And here is a more modern view (but, one hopes, largely unchanged since McTaggart’s day) of the beach at Machrihanish: “Machrihanish, bright and bonnie, It’s o’er thy beach the waves are rolling”.
Here’s one which I’ve recently revived after a long gap. I learned it originally (under the title ‘The Minister’s Son’) from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s book Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland. They had recorded the song in 1963 from Charlotte Higgins – you can hear a slightly earlier recording made by Hamish Henderson on the excellent Tobar an Dualchais site (search hint when using that site: if you want to search by Roud number, use the Classification field in Advanced Search and prefix the number with “R” e.g to find other versions of this song search for “R2511”). For reasons which I no longer recall, I chose not to sing Charlotte Higgins’ tune, but instead used Harry Cox’s tune for ‘Blackberry Fold’ (or at least, Harry Cox’s tune as learned from Peter Bellamy’s rendition of it on The Fox Jumps Over the Parson’s Gate). It seems to fit pretty well – at any rate it’s flexible enough to accommodate the lines which simply have too many syllables to fit.
The song concerns a student who is expelled from his College following a sexual liaison initiated at a party. Of course, Universities and Colleges still take a very strict line on this kind of thing. As a result, noone in higher education today would ever contemplate getting involved with sex and drinking and that kind of thing. That’s what my children tell me anyway…
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.
British forces formed part of a military alliance which drove Napoleon’s French out of Egypt in 1801, and I imagine this song dates from that period. But in fact British soldiers fought many more campaigns in Egypt and Sudan over the next century and a half, so it’s a song which would not have lost its currency. And of course, on Remembrance Sunday, it is worth remarking that British troops continue to fight – and die – in a variety of “sandy desert places” to this day.
I first came across this song in the late seventies, in Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl’s book, The Singing Island, although it was several years before I learned it properly. It’s a version from Betsy Henry, of Auchterarder in Pethshire – actually, MacColl’s mother. I have anglicised it slightly, although that didn’t amount to much more than substituting “England” for “Scotland” in the last verse.
A rather lovely love song which I first heard on the long-unavailable Dick Gaughan LP, Kist O’ Gold. I learned it after finding the words in Ord’s Bothy Songs & Ballads. Both LP and book, I should add, were among the resources available in my local public library, circa 1980.