Posts tagged ‘Sean O’Boyle’

May 9, 2016

Week 247 – When I was on horseback

More love again this week for Steeleye Span’s 1971 LP  Ten Man Mop or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again, which I consider to be the finest of all their albums. I like the album’s largely acoustic tracks – ‘Four Nights Drunk’, ‘Marrowbones’, ‘Wee Weaver’ and the jigs and reels sets – but good as those are, they only serve to highlight the brilliance of the electric numbers, in particular the magnificent ‘Captain Coulston’ and ‘When I was on horseback’. The brooding, atmospheric arrangement on the latter is quite timeless – not remotely dated – and serves the song really well. Respect to Steeleye also for not being tempted to add verses from other versions – they keep the song as a three-verse fragment (plus repeated first verse) which manages to convey a sense of impending doom, without actually revealing exactly what’s going on.

When I first heard the song I had no idea of the back story. Had the young soldier been ambushed as he entered Cork City? Had he been the casualty of a military engagement? Later, of course, I discovered that this was a member of the ‘Unfortunate Rake’ family of songs (number 2 in Mr Roud’s list), and “the young soldier who never did wrong” had not met his downfall in battle, but was dying of the pox.

Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle, working on behalf of the BBC, recorded the song at a travellers’ encampment in Belfast in 1952, from Mary Doran of Waterford. It was included (as ‘The Dying Soldier’) on A Soldier’s Life for Me (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 8) and presumably that’s where Steeleye found it. I heard that LP back in the late 1970s but I have no recollection of having heard Mary Doran’s version of this song until a couple of years ago. I must have had cloth-ears in the seventies: this time round I was completely blown away by Mary Doran’s performance. This volume of the Topic / Caedmon series doesn’t seem to be available to purchase as a CD, but if you hunt around on the web you should be able to find an MP3 version of ‘The Dying Soldier’ – it’s well worth hunting out.

When I was on horseback

August 9, 2014

Week 155 – The Bald-Headed End of the Broom

This song was recorded in 1954 by Sean O’Boyle and Seamus Ennis from Mrs. Martha Gillen, Co. Antrim. I remember Dave Townsend singing it at the Heritage Folk Club in Oxford, in the early 1980s, and learned it soon afterwards from Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain & Ireland.

It’s originally an American song, recorded by the likes of old-time singer and banjo-player Grandpa Jones – you can hear his version on the Internet Archive. This Mudcat thread cites examples of the song in print going back to the 1870s, as well as an 1885 appearance in the wonderfully-named Marchant’s Gargling Oil Songster. Further details are provided, meanwhile, in The Alabama Folk Lyric edited by Ray Broadus Browne, along with a couple of versions recorded from oral tradition in Alabama.

Mrs Gillen’s version however is, I suspect, the only one to refer to the old saying “A mole in the arm’s worth two in the leg”, which is probably the line which first attracted me to the song.

All the other versions in the Roud Index are from North America – apart from one recorded by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie from Walter Pardon in 1989, and one fragment  recorded from an unknown singer by John Howson at The Railway Tavern, Finningham, Suffolk, which you can hear on the British Library website.

 

I have, I think, always followed the song with a tune which I also learned from Dave Townsend. It was printed, as ‘Sussex Polka’, in his First collection of English country dance tunes. Dave learned it from Vic Gammon, and it would appear to be a slightly misremembered (by Dave and/or me) version of ‘What a Beau My Granny Was’.

 

The Bald-Headed End of the Broom / What a Beau My Granny Was

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina