Another week, another lady living in the North country, and once again things do not end well for her. This, of course, is much less to do with the fact that she lives in the North, than that she finds herself a character in a Child Ballad – and not many of those have a happy ending.
This very concise version of what is usually a much longer ballad was collected by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Eliza Woodberry of Ash Priors in Somerset (also the source of the version of ‘Come all you worthy Christian men’ in the Oxford Book of Carols). Sharp included it in his Folk Songs from Somerset, Series 4, and Sharp’s tireless assistant and evangelist Maud Karpeles printed it in her 2-volume collection, The Crystal Spring, which is where I learned it.
The Cruel Mother, as collected from Mrs Eliza Woodberry, from the Full English.
By no means the only Wassail song to have been collected in Somerset, once included in the Oxford Book of Carols this became for evermore The Somerset Wassail (cf. the Gloucestershire Wassail and the Sussex Carol). The notes in the book say that the song was noted by Cecil Sharp “about twenty years ago” (September 1903 in fact) from the Drayton Wassailers in Somerset. Actually he collected several other versions in the county where the words included either the verse about a farmer who didn’t know how to look after his cow (more cider is the answer!) and/or the verse about the “Girt Dog of Langport”.
Wassail Song, noted by Cecil Sharp from Miss Quick, Drayton, Somerset. From the Full English archive.
Again, according to the notes in the Oxford Book of Carols “Sharp thought that the great dog of Langport was a reference to the Danes whose invasion of Langport is not yet forgotten in that town”. I’m not sure I’d give that theory much credence. According to Mudcat
In fact, this Danish raid may be mere legend, as it seems that the Vikings never penetrated that far into the West Country. Their attempted invasion began on Christmas Day 877, when Guthrum’s surprise attack on Chippenham drove Alfred into the marshes of west Somerset. Alfred set up a base at Athelney (the Island of the Nobles) a few miles west of Langport, and immediately began organising his counter-attack. In 878 he defeated Guthrum at Edington (the Anglo Saxon Chronicle identifies the Edington near the Westbury White Horse, although there is a theory that it was the Edington by the Polden Hills near Glastonbury). It was the resulting treaty between Alfred and Guthrum which divided England into the Anglo Saxon kingdom and the Danelaw.
I think the only Danish attack on the West Country was by the force which arrived at the mouth of the Parrett and was wiped out at Cannington. If they had got any further, they would have come up against Alfred himself at Athelney.
That same Mudcat page puts forwards – and debunks – a number of theories. Bear in mind when considering them that King Alfred was an actual historical character, unlike another King whose name begins with A, and who is supposed to have associations with this part of the country. Drayton is only 15 miles from Glastonbury Tor, and the danger of infection by romantic New Age twaddle is consequently very high.
We recorded this on the Magpie Lane album Wassail and the song pops back into our Christmas repertoire every two or three years. We sang it again this Christmas, but I foolishly neglected to get a recording. So, rather than wait another twelve months, here it is with a hastily-concocted concertina part.
Last September I went to Cecil Sharp House to see Nic Jones be presented with his EFDSS Gold Badge and – much later in the proceedings than many of us would have liked – to hear him sing a few songs. This was the first time I had seen Nic perform in over 3o years; for many younger members of the audience it was the first time they’d ever seen him perform. To be honest, we’d have cheered him to the rafters just for being there, but – mirabile dictu – after 30 years away from performing, the moment he started singing it was clear that he hadn’t lost the old magic. Backed, magnificently, by his son Joe on guitar, and Belinda O’Hooley on piano, he began his set with ‘Master Kilby’. A wonderful moment, and I don’t mind admitting that a tear bedimm’d my eye.
And what a wonderful song this is. To quote the late Malcolm Douglas on Mudcat
So far as can be told, Master Kilby has been found once only in tradition; Cecil Sharp noted it from Harry Richards of Curry Rivel in Somerset, in January of 1909. That’s all we know; it doesn’t seem to have been published on broadside sheets.
Benjamin Britten published an “art music” arrangement of it, but you can be pretty sure that anyone who sings it now learned it from Nic Jones’ recording, at one remove or another.
Actually, looking at the records on the Full English site (at http://www.vwml.org/roudnumber/1434) it seems that Sharp first took this song down from Harry Richards on 29th July 1904, then went back and noted the song again – with a slightly fuller set of words – on 6th January 1909. Well, it’s a song that is well worth collecting twice.
I had messed around with it over the years, but never with any real intention of working up a proper arrangement. But just after Christmas I had another go at it, and discovered that if I moved the song down from G to F, it fitted rather nicely on the concertina. At the time I tweeted “I think I’ve just worked out a concertina accompaniment for Master Kilby. Very exciting.”
(to which my son, elsewhere in the house, sent the laconic reply “I heard”)
I made a point of going back to the tune and words as collected from Harry Richards, rather than learning the song from a Nic Jones record. But all the same, it’s only now, six months on, that the song is beginning to feel like part of my repertoire, rather than a Nic Jones cover version.
I learned this – along with quite a number of other songs – from Maud Karpeles’ collection The Crystal Spring. Cecil Sharp noted the song in September 1903 from Louie Hooper and Lucy White, at Hambridge in Somerset. It was included in Sharps’ Folk Songs from Somerset where it is notated in alternating bars of 2/4 and 3/4. I sing it pretty much in 6/4 – but what’s the odd extra beat between friends?
The line “when he spied his watch hanging by her clothes” always brings to my mind an image of the two lovers walking in a garden (actually it’s my Mum’s back-garden) where a load of washing is hanging out on the line. And there’s his watch, pegged up between one of her nighties and a pair of bloomers…
In common with a good many other people, I imagine, I first heard this on the Young Tradition album Galleries, where it was sung by Royston Wood. Having heard that performance, I then learned the song from Maud Karpeles’ collection The Crystal Spring.
Cecil Sharp had the song from 76 year old George Radford, a shoemaker from East Brent in Somerset who, being a bachelor with no children to support him, had become a resident of the Bridgwater Union – the Workhouse. The notes at folkinfo.org quote Maud Karpeles as follows
The singer said that his father had been a great singer, but that this was the only song he had managed to learn from him. It was the only modal tune in the singer’s repertory, most of which were ‘composed’ songs. Cecil Sharp had some doubts as to whether this was an authentic folk song.
I’m certainly glad that Sharp put his doubts to one side and noted the song down – because otherwise we would know of no other version from the English tradition. Indeed the Roud Index lists only one other version from any source, from Kentucky, printed in 1923 in Song Ballads & Other Songs of the Pine Mountain Settlement School (not, you may be surprised to learn, a publication with which I am familiar).
Jack Crawford, who recorded this song on his Pride of the Season CD, offers it as an example of just how much chance plays in determining which songs have been noted and recorded from the tradition. If Cecil Sharp hadn’t visited the Bridgwater Workhouse on 22nd August 1905… if he hadn’t been introduced to George Radford… if he had decided the song wasn’t worth collecting….
Within less than a year from Sharp’s visit, Mr Radford had died. Fortunately this song, the only one he had learned from his father Job Radford, did not die with him.
This is a song I found on one of my occasional forays through the copies of the Sharp MSS held in the Library at Cecil Sharp House. Often when just browsing, rather than looking for anything in particular, it will be an unusual or striking title which first jumps out and grabs my attention, and that was almost certainly the case with this one. Sharp noted it down on 27th December 1905 from Susan Williams (1832-1915), of Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset.
The song has a long history – see Steve Gardham’s “Dungbeetle” article, The Distressed Maid for Musical Traditions, from which it is clear that this version is derived (and only slightly condensed) from ‘The Dublin Tragedy’, first published on a broadside printed by Mayne of Belfast in the mid nineteenth century.
Susan Williams (1832-1915), Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset. Photograph by Cecil Sharp. copyright EFDSS.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
I can’t actually remember much about the rest of the novel, but that opening sentence is totally unforgettable.
Which is completely unrelated to this week’s song, except that the narrator of the song very nearly faces a firing squad, and is saved from his fate – somewhat implausibly – at the last minute.
I came across this version in Cecil Sharp’s MSS at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Sharp had it in December 1908 from Jack Barnard at Bridgewater in Somerset.
Mr Barnard started the song with “the first time I deserted…”
That’s fair enough, but I thought I’d give the central character a bit of back-story, so I added an initial couple of verses (from an unnamed source) in the Alfred Williams collection.
Jack Barnard, photograph by Cecil Sharp; copyright EFDSS.
The Deserter, from the Bodleian Library collection.
Sometimes when I go to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library I am looking for something in particular. But recently I’ve taken just to browsing through the bound volumes of Cecil Sharp’s Folk Tunes and Folk Words. Somehow it can be quite a thrill to see some classic of the folk revival, as originally notated a hundred years or so ago, in Sharp’s hand. But even better when you come across an unusual variant of a song, or discover a song which you’ve never encountered before.
Such was the case with ‘A Cornish Young Man’, which Sharp noted down on 11th April 1904 from Fred Crossman of Huish Episcopi in Somerset. In the 1950s, Fred’s son – also Fred – was recorded singing a version of the same song by Peter Kennedy. But Mr Crossman Junior had learned it from another singer in the area and, funnily enough, had no recollection of the song having been in his father’s repertoire.
I have added three extra verses at the end of the song, taken from a ballad sheet in the Bodleian’s collection, titled ‘The Outlandish Dream’ (which starts, potentially misleadingly, with the phrase “An Outlandish Knight”).
Of course it is always rash, having found a “new” song in Sharp’s MSS, to assume that no one has been there before you. In particular, that Martin Carthy hasn’t been there before you. Since learning the song I’ve discovered that Martin has recorded ‘A Cornish Young Man’, and it’s on the CD version of Right of Passage – a fact which had escaped my attention since I only have the vinyl version of that album.
The Outlandish Dream – from the Bodleian Library collection