Posts tagged ‘Soldiers’

June 10, 2018

Week 274 – Bold General Wolfe

General James Wolfe was one of those dashing military heroes of the British Empire so much admired in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. A successful military commander Europe in the seemingly endless wars against the French in the eighteenth century, in 1758 William Pitt offered him the opportunity to fight them also in North America.

In March 1759, prior to arriving at Quebec, Wolfe had written to Amherst: “If, by accident in the river, by the enemy’s resistance, by sickness, or slaughter in the army, or, from any other cause, we find that Quebec is not likely to fall into our hands (persevering however to the last moment), I propose to set the town on fire with shells, to destroy the harvest, houses and cattle, both above and below, to send off as many Canadians as possible to Europe and to leave famine and desolation behind me; belle résolution & très chrétienne; but we must teach these scoundrels to make war in a more gentleman like manner.”  (Wikipedia)

After laying siege to Quebec for three months, on 13 September 1759 Wolfe  led a daring early morning assault which took the French by surprise (was that really gentleman like?). They were defeated in only fifteen minutes – a defeat which opened the way for the British taking control of all Canada; but, as this song records, Wolfe was fatally shot in the moment of victory.

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West (via Wikimedia)

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West (via Wikimedia)

I originally heard the song on, and learnt it from, the Watersons’ eponymous 1966 LP. I’m indebted to George Frampton for alerting me to this Kentish version, some years before the EFDSS Take Six / Full English archive made the work of the early twentieth century collectors so much more accessible. It’s from the George Butterworth collection, but was actually noted down by Butterworth’s friend Francis Jekyll, nephew of the famous garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Unfortunately we don’t know any details about the singer of the song, other than the fact that in September 1910, he or she was resident in the Workhouse at Minster, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.

Bold General Wolfe, as collected by Francis Jekyll in Minster, 1910. From the VWML archive catalogue.

Bold General Wolfe, as collected by Francis Jekyll in Minster, 1910. From the VWML archive catalogue.

Jekyll noted only the tune, not the words, so I carried on singing the verses I already knew, from Frank Puslow’s Marrowbones / the Watersons.

Looking at the collected versions, it’s clear this was a popular song, in the South of England at any rate. And, of course, there were numerous broadside printings.

Bold General Wolfe - Such broadside from the Lucy Broadwood collection, via the VWML archive catalogue.

Bold General Wolfe – Such broadside from the Lucy Broadwood collection, via the VWML archive catalogue.

James Wolfe actually had Kentish connections. Not with the Isle of Sheppey, as far as I’m aware, but with Westerham, where he was born in 1727, and where a statue was erected to his memory in 1911.

Statue of James Wolfe, Westerham, Kent after being unveiled by Field Marshall Roberts, 2nd Jan 1911.

Statue of James Wolfe, Westerham, Kent after being unveiled by Field Marshall Roberts, 2nd Jan 1911.


Bold General Wolfe

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

January 29, 2016

Week 232 – The Veteran

Charlie Bridger wrote out the words of this song, and sang it for me, when I first met him in April 1983. It took me another 25 years or so to get round to learning the song, and I have to confess that, having learned it, it’s not been something I’ve returned to very often. But I think perhaps I should sing it more.

The Veteran - as written out by Charlie Bridger


The Copper Family have a version, with a different melody to Charlie’s. It’s included in Bob’s book A Song for every Season, but not on the box-set, or on any subsequent releases. I recently asked on Facebook if anyone in the family sang the song, but the answer was “We don’t like it much… neither did Bob…”.

Well, it is a bit of a miserable old song, a bit of early Victorian sentimentality (the Roud Index has numerous songster and broadside listings, of which the earliest appears to be Bayly, Songs & Ballads Grave & Gay, 1844). But I think there’s a certain dignity in the song. It’s no Lear, but the song’s theme of an old man, alone, forgotten, friendless and with no one with whom to share his last days, has certainly not lost its relevance.


The Veteran - broadside ballad published at Taylor's Song Mart, 93, Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, London, between 1859 and 1899. From Broadside Ballads Online.

The Veteran – broadside ballad published at Taylor’s Song Mart, 93, Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, London, between 1859 and 1899. From Broadside Ballads Online.

The Veteran

August 20, 2015

Week 209 – Bonnie Woodhall

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.

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.

Bonnie Woodhall

Andy Turner – vocal
Nick Passmore – guitar

January 31, 2015

Week 180 – The Lass of Swansea Town

Just after Christmas I was in the car, singing the ‘Gower Wassail’. When I finished, without thinking, I found myself launching into this one, which I’d not sung for a very long time. The link of course is that both were collected from the “Gower Nightingale”, Phil Tanner. But just as I first heard his Wassail song performed by Steeleye and the Watersons, I first encountered this one on Mike Waterson’s eponymous 1977 LP. I actually learned the song from Roy Palmer’s book The Rambling Soldier. Roy takes three of Phil Tanner’s four verses, and completes the story with additional verses from a late nineteenth century Harkness broadside.

There are many broadside printings of the song listed in Steve Roud’s Index, but few from the oral tradition – besides this one from Wales, there’s just a handful of examples, from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Canada. You can hear brief recordings of a couple of Canadian versions on the website MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada here and here (they look like blank pages at first, but scroll to the bottom and you’ll find a transcription, sheet music and audio). The song’s setting is by no means fixed to Swansea – indeed many of the printed examples allow the singer to substitute the place name of their choice, such as this one from Lucy Broadwood’s collection.

The Lass Of ---- Town. From the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive.

The Lass Of —- Town. From the Lucy Broadwood Manuscript Collection, via the EFDSS Full English archive.

The Lass of Swansea Town

August 16, 2014

Week 156 – The Gentleman Soldier

I learned this song many years ago from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs – but only did so as a result of having heard it performed by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick on the LP Byker Hill.  The version in the Penguin book was collected by Anne Gilchrist in 1907 from Thomas Coomber of Blackham in Sussex. Miss Gilchrist’s notes say “Sung in camp” – Mr Coomber had apparently been in the local militia.

The sentry box - ballad printed by H. Such of London, between 1863 and 1885. From the Bodleian collection.

The sentry box – ballad printed by H. Such of London, between 1863 and 1885. From the Bodleian collection.

The Gentleman Soldier

June 7, 2014

Week 146 – The White Cockade

Here’s a song from the Copper Family repertoire which I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard sung by any member of the family. I learned it from Bob Copper’s book A Song for Every Season (it’s also in The Copper Family Song Book) but it’s not on the 4 LP set of the same name, or on any more recent Copper Family albums.

Looking at the Roud Index I see that there’s a 1955 BBC recording of Bob singing the song, while what I initially assumed to be  the same recording (or one by Peter Kennedy of a similar vintage) appeared on Folktrax cassette FTX-238 – Come all you Bold Britons. Looking at the Folktrax archive, however, I see that this recording – like several others on the cassette – is listed as “Bob with conc”. Bob only learned to play the concertina in the 1980s when caring for his wife during her long illness, and it would  appear that these recordings date from that period (the recordings on the Folktrax cassette are dated “1963-1983”). There’s more information in Peter Kennedy: an appraisal on the Musical Traditions site (this is point 20 on the long list of Negatives):

There are also a considerable number of recordings which are copies, given to him for interest’s sake, by other collectors.  He has also sold these illegally via Folktrax.  Bob Copper told Kennedy that he was learning the concertina.  Peter told him that he would like to hear what he sounded like.  Bob sent him a “pretty ropey” (Bob’s words) self-recorded practice tape.  This ended up being released on Folktrax.


The origins of the song itself, and what significance if any should be attached to the colour of the cockade (white? blue? green?) in different versions of the song, are addressed in his usual pithy and informative style, by the late Malcolm Douglas on Mudcat here and here.

White cockade - broadside ballad from the Bodleian collection.

White cockade – broadside ballad from the Bodleian collection.


I don’t think I’ve ever sung this in public, and may never do so. In a world where the version popularised by the Watersons is universally known, going to a folk club or session and singing a version with a slightly different set of words and refrain is asking for trouble.


The White Cockade

May 24, 2014

Week 144 – The Nightingales Sing

It feels like I’ve known this song for ever, although in truth it can’t be more than about –  oh – 37 years…

I first heard it performed by Fred and Ray Cantwell on the Topic LP Songs of Seduction. Typically, the version included on that LP had lost more than half its verses; I must have got the missing verses from Peter Kennedy’s book Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. Kennedy had recorded the Cantwell family at Standlake in Oxfordshire in 1956. I’d always assumed that Fred and Ray were brothers, but looking at the entries for the Kennedy recordings in the British Library Sound Archive catalogue, it seems that there was a brother Ray (75 years old in 1956, and a couple of years older than Fred) and it was these brothers who sang the version of ‘Husbandman and Servingman’ later popularised by the Young Tradition. But the accordion-playing Ray on this song was a much younger man, Fred’s son. There’s a Mudcat thread with a contribution from Fred Cantwell’s granddaughter, where it’s stated that Fred had eight sons. From Mudcat I learn also that Greg Stephens has fond memories of hearing one of these sons, Aubrey, singing this song in a pub in Standlake in the 1960s, while the Roud Index reveals that Gwilym Davies recorded a few songs from John and Aubrey Cantwell in the late seventies. Gwilym tells me that he met John and Aubrey when they were living in Stonehouse in Gloucestershire in the seventies: “we had several lively pub sessions together.  I have some recordings from then, but they are fairly noisy pub sessions”. These recordings are deposited with the British Library but, like those made by Kennedy, not yet digitised and publicly available online.

I’ve always thought of this song as a bit of a hackneyed old number, and it may well have been in the sixties but, to be honest, I can’t recall ever having heard anyone else sing it. Maybe it’s just the tune which is hackneyed, thanks (or rather, no thanks) to the Yetties. In any case, I’ve always really enjoyed singing it. And, although I suppose it’s actually a song of seduction and betrayal, I like to sing it “so sweet and tenderly” as if it were an innocent pastoral love song.

I’m pleased to report that on the Rounder CD reissue of Songs of Seduction we are treated to four verses (the usual third verse being omitted). Annoyingly the sloppily-edited CD notes still show just two verses, with the other three italicised and labelled “Additional verses”. So did Fred only sing four verses, and Kennedy has restored the missing verse from elsewhere? Or did he normally sing five verses, but only four on this occasion? Or did he actually sing all five verses and, even with all the space available on a compact disc, Kennedy / Rounder still decided to edit one out for the record? I’m not the only one to be irritated by all of this. But, like Rod Stradling, I was really pleased when I got hold of this record on CD – especially as, when I first heard it back in the seventies,  it was, apart from the Copper Family, the first time I’d heard field recordings of traditional British singers; listening to the songs again 25 years later reminded me just what an influence hearing the old LP had had on me.

And being able to hear two more verses of this song, at least, was a treat: it’s a fine spirited performance from Mr Cantwell, where he is clearly enjoying himself – after singing the line “Now I’m going to India for seven long year” the singer calls out excitedly “I been there!” (as a soldier, too, one might assume, although that’s pure speculation). And we do also get to hear that he inserts a short whistled refrain between each verse. Indeed the notes contain this rather wonderful sentence

Fred Cantwell said emphatically, as he finished the recording, ‘It ain’t much now, but I used to be able to whistle just exactly like a nightingale when I had my teeth.’

I can’t whistle like a nightingale. But I’ve never been able to resist adding a little whistled coda at the end of the song. Well it worked for Otis Redding…

The Nightingales Sing

March 28, 2014

Week 136 – The Light Horse

When I discovered the Boys of the Lough in the late seventies, one of the things I liked most about the band was the pure, clear, high tenor singing of Cathal McConnell. A year or two later at the Sidmouth Festival – I’m guessing 1979 or 1980 – I came across a singer with a similar style, but who I would rate even higher. That singer was Kevin Mitchell, born in Derry, but for a long time a resident of Glasgow. I had no hesitation in buying his Topic LP Free and Easy when I subsequently came across it in Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford and, as I recall, I didn’t waste much time in learning this song from it.

The LP sleeve notes say

Known better as The Airy Bachelor or The Black Horse (O Lochlainn, ”lrish Street Ballads”, no. 17) this has been widely distributed on ballad sheets and is common, especially in Donegal, whence this version obtained from John McCracken of Innishowen. The “Songs of the People” contains a song called The Hungry Army. The title is, intended or not, a pun; the army composed of underpaid, badly treated, hungry men, or the army hungry for recruits to replace those who fell in battle, deserted, died under the lash or from disease. Sergeant Acheson is just such a recruiting officer as contrived by dint of cajolery, chicanery or sometimes criminality to feed it. The Black Horse is, according to Sam Henry (“Songs of the PeopIe”, no. 586), a by-name for the 7th Dragoon Guards – The Princess Royals.

Several printed versions can be found at Ballads Online, with titles such as A new song called the Black Horse or A Much-admired Song Called the Black Horse. All the versions collected from the oral tradition are, unsurprisingly, Irish, with the exception of the rather confused fragment, You Lads of Learning, recorded in Ludlow from May Bradley.

An admired song called the Black Horse - nineteenth century ballad sheet printed by Haly, Cork; from Ballads Online.

An admired song called the Black Horse – nineteenth century ballad sheet printed by Haly, Cork; from Ballads Online.

Kevin Mitchell is, as far as I know, still singing like an angel, although it’s unfortunately some years since I last saw him.  I have a very distinct memory of a singing session at the National Folk Music Festival at Sutton Bonington in the early 1990s, when the Sussex singer Gordon Hall – a big, bluff man, but a real softy on the inside – was moved almost to tears by the beauty of Kevin’s singing.

The Light Horse

September 1, 2013

Week 106 – The Deserter from Kent

I learned this from the Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs. It was collected in 1907 from a Mr Kemp, at Elstead in Surrey. The collector was Walter Ford, who was one of the early members of the Folk Song Society, and served on the committee. He wrote Lucy Broadwood’s obituary in the 1929 Journal; Dorothy De Val, in her In Search of Song: The Life and Times of Lucy Broadwood describes Ford as “a long-time members of the Society and a singer in the tradition of Plunket Greene, as well as a contemporary of Sharp at Cambridge.”

Mr Kemp was described by Ford as “an agricultural labourer, aged about 75”. But he may have knocked a decade and a half off the singer’s age: according to Classic English Folk Songs, the only likely candidate to be found in the 1901 census for Elstead is the 86-year old George Kemp.

The song is quite rare – the only other known version appears to be one which Ewan MacColl collected from the gipsy singer, Nelson Ridley. If the deserter did come from the West of Kent, that probably means he was deserting from the The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment; the soldiers who apprehend him, meanwhile, were from the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot (later the Norfolk Regiment).

You can find a 1990 recording of this song on my album Love, Death and the Cossack.

The Deserter from Kent