Not exactly full of Christmas cheer, this week’s entry. Nor does this bleak song portray the Redeemer as a particularly forgiving or compassionate deity. It’s quite widely sung these days, but has been rarely collected. In fact pretty much every version you hear around the folk scene is likely to derive directly or indirectly from the version recorded by Fred Hamer from the wonderful Shropshire gypsy singer May Bradley, or that collected in 1912 from her mother Esther Smith by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ella Leather.
You can hear May Bradley singing the song on the EFDSS CD A Century of Song, and on the Musical Traditions disc Sweet Swansea. Her mother’s singing had also been recorded – on phonograph cylinder – although unfortunately we’re not in a position to hear that.
On the EFDSS cassette The Leaves of Life – following on from May Bradley’s singing of ‘Under the Leaves’ – you can hear the moment when Fred Hamer realises that she is the daughter of Esther Smith. Hamer seems to get quite excited at the Vaughan Williams connection, but Mrs Bradley is clearly unimpressed by any mention of “the greatest composer in this country”. It’s a lovely insight into the cultural chasm that could exist between singer and collector.
This curious carol was one of a number collected by Alice Elizabeth Gillington (1863-1934), a clergyman’s daughter and student of gypsy culture who herself spent the last quarter century of her life as a gypsy. The Herefordshire gipsy carol, On Christmas day it happened so is a variant of this one.
I’ve almost known the words of this song for years, and recently decided it was time I learned it properly. Incidentally, this is not the only Christmas song from Shropshire where the sins of the farmer are visited upon his livestock – see also ‘The Man that Lives’.
In previous posts I’ve mentioned the Shropshire singer Fred Jordan, but I think this is the only song I sing which I learned directly from him. I used to see Fred a fair bit in the eighties and early nineties at festivals such as Sidmouth and – especially – the National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington. I was very taken with Fred’s singing of this song, and asked him to sing it one year in a singing session at Sutton Bonington. He readily obliged and, typically, even apologised afterwards for having muffed the words slightly.
Yet another song from Fred’s mother, although Fred probably also heard the Irish singer Margaret Barry performing it at English festivals. Surprisingly, we can find no trace of an author for the words, although the tune is well-known under a number of different titles, including Eochaill—which is the Irish name for the town of Youghal—or else Boolavogue.
The truth sent from above, from the Bodleian collection: T. Bloomer, Printer, 53, Edgbaston-street, Birmingham, between 1821 and 1827.
I got this – and a number of other goodies – on a carol-collecting expedition to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library ten or so years ago. I had the song from Cecil Sharp’s Folk Tunes MS. He noted it down in October 1911 from seventy-one year old Samuel Bradley (not Bradley Wiggins, as I mistakenly announced at a recent concert) and seventy year old Seth Vandrell at Lilleshall in Shropshire. His notes in the MS say “Always sung to this tune. Learned many years ago”.
Sharp published this carol, and at least a couple of others noted on the same 1911 collecting trip, in his English Folk Carols – and he can’t have wasted any time preparing these songs for inclusion since the book was published late the same year.
The notes in the book say
This carol was sung to me by the two singers in unison, Mr. Vandrell refreshing his memory by referring to a small book of carols, printed locally, from which the words in the text have been transcribed. I have, however, omitted seven stanzas between the eighth and the last. “The Truth” is printed in A Good Christmas Box, and is included in Hone’s list [Christmas Carols now annually Printed].
I’ve omitted even more of the sixteen stanzas – I use only those printed in the Oxford Book of Carols. I don’t know if the carol words have a West Midlands origin, but that this might be the case is suggested by the opening couplet of one verse
Then after this, ‘twas God’s own choice
To place them both in Paradise
which would be a perfect rhyme if sung in a Brummie accent!
This song was included on the Magpie Lane CD Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell. I’ve posted up two versions (although basically the same arrangement): the first is just me and concertina, the second is the full band, recorded a couple of weeks back in the generously reverberant acoustic of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking.
This is the truth sent from above
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Magpie Lane, recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Jon Fletcher – bouzouki, vocal
Sophie Thurman – cello
Mat Green – fiddle
Marguerite Hutchinson – flute
‘John Barleycorn’ was one of the first traditional songs I ever heard. That was the Steeleye version, which I soon discovered was pretty much the same as that printed in Fred Hamer’s Garners Gay. Like pretty much everything on Below the Salt, I learned that version at the time; and I’m pretty sure it was for a while in the repertoire of a group I sang with at University, The Paralytics aka Three Agnostics and a Christian.
In more recent times, I have recorded two different versions with Magpie Lane. First, on The Oxford Ramble Ian Giles and I sang the classic Shepherd Haden version. Then on A Taste of Ale I sang a version collected by Gwilym Davies in the 1970s. The Oxfordshire version should appear on this blog at some point, since it is, notionally at least, still in my repertoire. But the Devon version, like much of the material on A Taste of Ale, was worked up for the CD, then forgotten about (I can’t actually recall the tune right now).
If I was starting from scratch, and looking for a ‘John Barleycorn’ version to sing, I might well be tempted by the rather nice minor key version (another from Bampton-in-the-Bush) printed in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. But here’s a version which I recorded on a demo tape with Chris Wood, circa 1985. This came from Peter Kennedy’s Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. Kennedy collected the song from Bert Edwards of Little Stretton, Shropshire, and it’s similar to the way another Shropshire singer, Fred Jordan, used to sing the song.
The notes to this song in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs say
It was perhaps inevitable that this song would attract the ritual-origins theorists who claimed that it was all to do with corn spirits and resurrection, but it is now generally agreed that such notions were romantic wishful thinking and there is no evidence either for the theories themselves or for this song to be anything other than a clever allegory.
If we stick to what we do know…
Well if you want to know what we do know, you’ll have to buy the book. Even if you never learn any of the songs, it’s worth every penny for Steve Roud’s excellent well-informed and thoroughly commonsensical introduction.
One of my favourite songs, and another from the wonderful May Bradley (see last week’s post). I learned this from the book Garners Gay, prompted by having heard the song on the LP Rose of Britain’s Isle by John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris. I adjusted the way I sing ‘Sweet Swansea’ a little bit after hearing May Bradley herself sing it on the Garners Gay LP. In particular I really liked the way she repeated the last verse, but changing the words ever so slightly. It was the lack of this feature on either of the versions included on the Musical Traditions CD Sweet Swansea which made me realise that some of the recordings from the 1971 EFDSS LP had not (initially) been included on this CD. It turned out that the National Sound Archive had provided Rod with all of the recordings they had of Mrs Bradley – which, sadly, suggests that one reel of tape must have gone missing at some point between 1971 and 2010; hopefully this will reappear at some point.
According to May Bradley the song was based on an actual incident, and had been written by her “double great grandfather”; and it’s certainly the case that only one other version is known to have been collected, by Cecil Sharp in 1907, from Caroline Passmore, Pitminster, Somerset.
When, in my late teens, I became fascinated with traditional song, I looked in my local public library to see what songbooks they had on the shelves. As I recall there were just three: a volume of songs collected by Sharp, Seeger and MacColl’s Singing Island, and Garners Gay by Fred Hamer (to be fair, they added Peter Kennedy’s monumental Folk Songs of Britainand Ireland a little while later). Of these three, Garners Gay was, and has remained, my favourite. It contains some lovely songs, and I liked the way that Fred Hamer’s notes talk as much about the singers as the songs.
This is one of the songs I learned from the book. It was collected from May Bradley, a gypsy singer settled in Ludlow. It was several years later that I actually got to hear a recording of Mrs Bradley’s singing: in 1988 the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library released the cassette The Leaves of Lifefeaturing previously unheard Fred Hamer recordings; and around the same time I came across the old EFDSS LP Garners Gay, which included May Bradley singing this song. On listening to these recordings it was immediately apparent that May Bradley was a very fine singer indeed, so I was delighted when, a couple of years ago, Rod Stradling’s Musical Traditions label put out Sweet Swansea, a whole CD of her songs. If you want to know just how good I thought this CD was, you can read my review; or you can just go straight ahead and buy it – if you’re a fan of traditional singing you really won’t regret it.
Incidentally, I’ve always called this ‘The Outlandish Knight’ because that’s what it’s called in Garners Gay. But May Bradley called it ‘The Dappledy Grey’, and actually she makes no mention of an outlandish knight – her version starts “Now it’s of a Turkey he came from the north land”. Fred Jordan, who was born in Ludlow and knew May Bradley well, had a very similar version of the song, which he called ‘Six Pretty Maids’. He had learned his version from members of another local gypsy family, the Lockes.
In December 1911 Cecil Sharp was in Shropshire collecting Christmas carols. I’m not sure if he went to Shropshire specifically to collect carols or whether, it being near to Christmas, that was simply what the people he met chose to sing. Equally, I don’t know if the counties along the Welsh border were a particularly rich source of folk carols, or if he’d have done just as well at that time of the year in, say, Essex, or Kent, or Oxfordshire. Whatever the case, he had a rich haul.
Actually, Sharp probably did have a good idea what he was looking for. He’d already visited the village of Lilleshall in October that year, and collected some fine – and mainly pretty obscure – carols from the splendidly named Samson Bates: ‘Awake, awake’,’The Little Room’, ‘This is the truth sent from above’, ‘The Twelve Apostles’, ‘The Virgin Unspotted’… He returned to see Mr Bates on 19th and 20th December, but this was just part of a very productive few days, during which he collected carols from a range of singers in the area. On December 18th, for instance, he noted ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and ‘The man that lives’, from a Mrs Kilford of Lilleshall.
By Sharp’s time – and for some decades before that – carols had become associated almost exclusively with Christmas. Historically of course, that wasn’t the case – and there were plenty of carols which now got sung at Christmas which really had nothing to do with that particular season. Equally, he found plenty of Christmas carols which focused on the need to live a godly life (and what would befall you if you didn’t), rather than cosier motifs such as angels, shepherds, ox, ass and baby Jesus in a manger. All the same, ‘The man that lives’ has to be one of the least cosy carols I know. It sets out its stall right from the start:
The man that lives must learn to die,
Christ will no longer stay;
Our time is short, death’s near at hand
To take our lives away.
To my mind it seems to look with rather too much relish on the fate of unrepentant sinners. That they’ll suffer the torments of hell may well accord with your personal theology; but what pleasure can the supreme being derive from seeing the sinner’s sheep rot?
Mrs Kilford’s text is very similar to that found in printed sources such as A Good Christmas Box (a collection from 1847 which we know was still widely used as a source by the singers Sharp met in this area) or this ballad sheet in the Bodleian’s collection, printed in Birmingham around 1850. This suggests that she had probably learned the song from a printed source. Other versions of the carol were collected by Ella Leather and Vaughan Williams in Herefordshire, and by Sharp himself from a Mrs Halfpenny (again, what a wonderful name!) at Lilleshall on 20th December 1911.
Saviour's Love - from the Bodleian Library ballad collection
In between, on 19th December, he had taken down two very similar versions of ‘Have you not heard within a few miles of Lilleshall’: from Samson Bates (at The Trench) and Henry Bould (at Donnington Wood).
This is another carol which turns up (usually as ‘The Saviour’s Love’) in printed sources: for example this sheet printed by T. Bloomer of Birmingham, between 1817 and 1827; and, of course, in A Good Christmas Box. Indeed Sharp noted just two verses from Samson Bates, before writing “Rest the same as in ‘A Good Christmas Box'”.
Originally, I based my tune on the way Henry Bould sang the carol. But I find that, having sung it for a few years without consulting the music, I’ve drifted away in places. Oh well, that’s the oral tradition… sort of.
I started off learning just the three verses printed in E.M. Leather & Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire. Those are, in themselves, a bit of a mish-mash: the notes say “Text from Mr C. Bridges, Pembridge, and Mr W. Phillips, Leigh, Worcestershire, with a few additions from A choice collection of Christmas Carols (Tewkesbury, 1786) and A Good Christmas Box“. Subsequently, I’ve added three more from the fourteen available in A Good Christmas Box.
Have you not heard
The man that lives
‘The Man that lives’ appeared on the Magpie Lane CD Knock at the knocker, ring at the bell, but this is a live recording – straight off the mixing desk – made at the Oxford Folk Festival in April 2006.
Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Ian Giles: vocal
Marguerite Hutchinson: vocal, recorder
Jon Fletcher: guitar
Sophie Thurman: cello
Mat Green: fiddle
Occasionally at a folk festival I’ve come across slim volumes of folk song, usually published by the EFDSS, being sold off at bargain basement prices. Should you find yourself in a similar position, my advice is – buy them, I’ve picked up some really good stuff this way. Including the source of this song, The Ploughboy’s Glory, edited by Michael Dawney. This is a collection of previously unpublished songs from the George Butterworth collection. Of course you can find all of these today on the Take Six website, but there’s nothing quite like leafing through a book looking for new songs or tunes. Especially when you only have to go as far as page 6 to find a gem like this.
Butterworth collected the song in 1908 from a Mrs Whiting of Broseley in Shropshire; or possibly Newport in Monmouthshire – the MS as reproduced on the Take Six record is ambiguous on this.
Michael Dawney reports that
Miss [Margaret] Dean-Smith’s master title for this song is ‘The Banks of Sweet Primeroses’ (sic), of which Butterworth himself collected a version, ‘Sweet Primroses’, The actual flowers are not mentioned in ‘As I roamed out’, Butterworth wrote on his MS: ‘Several verses have been omitted’ which probably (since no complete copy exists) contained an explicit invitation to sexual intercourse, as in his ‘Sweet Primroses’:
For I will make you as happy as any lady,
If you will grant me one small relief.
I almost wish I hadn’t read that: I always thought of ‘Sweet Primroses’ as such an innocent song!
Anyway, as well as the confusion as to whether this was collected in England or Wales, other questions which arise include:
where did Dawson find the words? I can only find the tune on Take Six.
and is this part of Roud 586 (‘Banks of the Sweet Primroses’) or Roud 922 (‘The Lawyer’ aka ‘Mowing the Barley’)? It’s classified as both in Steve Roud’s Index
and what was so shocking in the original? Neither Sweet Primroses or The Lawyer is usually outway rude. Was Butterworth particularly prudish? or did Mrs Whiting have an especially crude set of words?
Alas, we shall probably never know the answer to the last question. Which is a great pity. But in fact, the fragment we have left – though the result of a collector’s sensitivities rather than the refining work of the folk process – is to my mind rather beautiful. It creates a mood, without explicitly telling you what’s going on, and I don’t see that as a problem. After all, that approach to songwriting doesn’t seem to have done Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello any harm…
Have done some further investigating, and discovered quite a lot more information about this song.
From http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/watersons/songs/maymorning.html I discovered that Eliza Carthy has recorded the song, on the Waterson: Carthy album A Dark Light. That’s a record I own, but I hadn’t listened to it for some while, and had definitely not registered this song. The CD notes say “Liza learned May Morning from the Cecil Sharp collection” – but I think she has misremembered, and must have had the song, as I did, from Ploughboy’s Glory.
That page led me to this Mudcat Café thread from which I’ve learned a number of things, most importantly that the song has antecedents in a broadside ballad, probably dating from the early nineteenth century – have a look at the ballad sheets themselves by searching for “shady green tree ” at http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads/
You’ll see that it must have been (the remnants of) verses 3 and 4 that Butterworth felt couldn’t be repeated in polite society. The Roud Index has this song as number 2512.
Also on that Mudcat thread, the last contributor links the song (very plausibly) to Roud 9785, with two versions:
Well that’s a satisfying day’s work. My feeling is that ‘As I roamed out’ is clearly derived from the ballad ‘Shady Green Tree’, and should be reclassified as either Roud 2512 or 9785 – it’s an entity in itself, and nothing to do with either ‘The Lawyer’ or ‘Sweet Primroses’.
I’ve supplied the above information to the ever-helpful Steve Roud. He’s busy with other things at the moment, but will no doubt sort all of this out in due course.