Posts tagged ‘Wales’

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

December 29, 2012

Week 71 – The Gower Wassail

Wassailing Bowl, mid-nineteenth century, made at the Ewenny Pottery, Bridgend. Image copyright Swansea Museum.

Wassailing Bowl, mid-nineteenth century, made at the Ewenny Pottery, Bridgend. Image copyright Swansea Museum.

Here’s a song for Twelfth Night from the great Phil Tanner (1862-1950), the “Gower Nightingale”. Phil Tanner carried on the wassailing tradition throughout his life; an informative Mudcat thread reports:

Mr Eric Gibbs, of Llangennith, remembers Phil Tanner carrying out the wassail ceremony with his friend Billy Bond, always on January 5, the eve of Twelfth Night. Phil would prepare the wassail a week before… a blend of home-brewed brown ale, elderberry wine, fruit cake, ginger and spices. The wassail would be carried in a large tin can holding about a gallon and a half. After a while, the wassail would have been enhanced with brandy, whisky, rum, anything donated by the villagers – and there would still be 12 pints of it. Phil and Billy used to retire to the Picnic Room at the King’s Head, Llangennith, where straw would thoughtfully have been provided by the landlady. They would not be seen again for a couple of days.

I first learned the song from the Steeleye Span album Ten Man Mop with reference at some point to the version printed in A.L.Lloyd’s Folk Song in England. The words of most folk revival performances (mine included) appear to derive from the verses given in Lloyd’s book, which he introduces – with typical sleight of hand – thus:

roistering carols of wassailing still survive as happy reminders of the luck perambulations of unchristian ceremony, with such melodies as the one recorded from grand old Phil Tanner before he died in a Gower workhouse in 1947, and with verses like the following.

The key word here is “like”, as the verses he prints are not necessarily those sung by Phil Tanner! (the sentence is doubly misleading since Phil Tanner actually died in 1950, not 1947). The Mudcat thread linked to above provides Tanner’s words, and those of other versions of the song collected in Gower in 1928 and 1884. It is only comparatively recently that I actually got to hear any recordings of Phil Tanner, and it’s too late to consider relearning the words I’ve been singing for more than 30 years.

The Gower Wassail

December 24, 2012

Week 70 – The Boar’s Head Carol / Babes in the Wood / The King

Bringing in the Boar's Head at The Queen's College, Oxford, from the

Bringing in the Boar’s Head at The Queen’s College, Oxford, from the “Illustrated London News,” 24 December 1846.

Here’s a Christmas cornucopia, featuring three songs which I have known and loved for a very long time indeed.

I learned ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ from the Oxford Book of Carols, prompted I think by my friend and singing companion Mike Eaton. I couldn’t swear to it, but I think this was already part of our “wassailing” repertoire before we heard the Steeleye Span recording (it was their Christmas single in 1977). And I reckon I’ve sung it every Christmas since. It’s been in the Magpie Lane repertoire since the very beginning, and is included in our Christmas set pretty much every year; the recording posted here is another from our recent Woking concert.

The carol was apparently first published in 1521 by Wynken de Worde in Christmasse. It has been sung annually at a feast in the Queens College, Oxford  – originally on Christmas Day itself, more recently on a Saturday in the weeks preceding Christmas. The following description, from William Henry Husk’s Songs of the Nativity (1868), is reproduced from

This is a modernized version of the preceding carol [#4: The Boar’s Head In Hand Bring I], and owes its chief interest to the circumstance of its being still annually sung on Christmas Day at Queen’s College, Oxford, where the custom of bringing the boar’s head to table on that day has been uninterruptedly maintained.

The new version was in all probability made and introduced into use about the commencement of the last century, as it is palpably referred to by Hearne in a note on the older carol, which he printed amongst the “Notæ et Spicilegium,” appended to his edition of William of Newbury’s Chronicle of 1719 stating that “it will be perceived how much the same carol is altered as it is sung in some places even now from what it was at first.”

The ceremony now attending the bringing in the boar’s head at Queen’s College is as follows: — The head (the finest and largest that can be procured) is decorated with garlands, bays, and rosemary, and is borne into the Hall on the shoulders of two of the chief servants of the college, and followed by members of the college, and by the college choir. The carol is sung by a member (usually a fellow) of the college, and the chorus by the choir as the procession advances to the high table, on reaching which, the boar’s head is placed before the Provost, who sends slices of it to those who are with him at the high table; and the head is then sent round to the other tables in the hall and partaken of by the occupants.

…and the solo singer gets to keep the orange out of the boar’s mouth, apparently.

You can find details on the historical background to the tradition of Boar’s Head feasts in general, and at the Queen’s College in particular, in the New Oxford Book of Carols. The following, from Husk, is reproduced here solely to amuse; not because it is likely to have any basis in historical fact!

There was an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar’s head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar’s throat, crying, “Græcum est,” and fairly choked the savage with the sage.

It is perhaps slightly odd that a carol associated solely with an archaic tradition in a single Oxford College – and half of which is in Latin – should have become so well known on the folk scene, and I’m not sure when or how this happened. I suppose some might say that this is evidence of just how divorced the folk revival is from the genuine music of the people. But you could also argue that all it really shows is that folk club singers love a good chorus song, and if it’s singable they don’t care where it comes from.

Cover of Babes in the Wood illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), from the Project Gutenberg EBook of The Babes in the Wood.

Cover of Babes in the Wood illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), from the Project Gutenberg EBook of The Babes in the Wood.

‘Babes in the Wood’ is from the repertoire of the Copper Family. It tells of two infants who wander out in the woods, get lost, and die – what could be more festive? Of course the story forms the basis of a pantomime (although I have to admit it’s not one I’ve ever seen performed). But the reason this is considered a seasonal song is because of its place in the Copper Family’s Christmas eating and music-making schedule.

Here I was going to type up Bob Copper’s description of family Christmasses, from his book A Song for Every Season; but in the event I found the following largely similar account already online, apparently the sleevenotes to a Folk-Legacy LP, Bob and Ron Copper – English Shepherd and Farming Songs.

But of all times in the year, of course, Christmas was the season when all members of the family congregated at Grand-dad’s home at Rottingdean.
That little cottage would fairly bulge with aunties, uncles, and cousins that we only saw at Christmastime. On Christmas morning, Ron and I had to take the gigantic turkey and a great round of beef down to the village bake-house to be cooked. It was all far too large to be put into the cottage oven.
We used to carry it on a home-made wooden affair about six feet long which resembled a stretcher and, walking slowly down the High Street with our load draped in white linen sheets, we must have presented a somewhat gruesome and disconcerting sight. At dinner time, everyone seemed to be flocking round Grand-dad who, as hub of the family, was in a grand, benevolent and expansive mood, smoking a cigar in his favourite holder and sporting a fancy waistcoat — the one with the cat1s-eyes buttons. Everyone was talking, hardly anyone listening, and there was a rich smell of Christmas pudding, cigar smoke and wine, all of which added up to that warm, cheerful, friendly atmosphere I have always associated with the “spirit of Christmas”.

After dinner, the older folk would doze in front to the fire, but we used to go for a walk to try to work up an appetite for tea, It was important to have plenty of room for a good tea because every mince pie we ate was supposed to ensure a happy month in the coming year. But with the best will in the world after such a dinner, twelve would be beyond the capacity of even the most enthusiastic. I have managed seven or eight, which would take me through July or August, but by that time my trouser buttons would be so tight that, reluctantly, I had to leave the rest of the year to look after itself.

About seven in the evening, grouped in a wide circle round the fire, we would all settle down to start singing. Only carols and Christmas hymns were allowed up until midnight. After that — when it was officially Boxing Day — the rest of the extensive repertoire came into its own. Towards 1 A.M. the ladies started to lay the supper — and what a supper! There was a great round of cold underdone roast beef, a ham and a vast cold rabbit pie covered with golden crust, laced with a flank of bacon and the best part of a dozen hard-boiled eggs all set in a rich, thick jelly. During supper, we always sang “The Babes in the Wood” and, when everyone had a full plate set in front of them, Granddad would strike up, “Oh, don’t you remember…” and we would all join in, interspersing singing with eating and vice-versa, ingeniously maintaining a steady continuity of both. It was really a work of art and only came after years of practice, this singing in relays. I can see Grand-dad now, finishing a line of the song with a piece of rabbit pie poised on his fork, handing over the song to Uncle Tom and consuming the mouthful of pie before taking up the tune again, two lines later, and so on until the song and most of the supper was over. By this time some of us younger ones were practically crying into our supper plates from grief over the story. This custom went on for years and was continued long after the old man’s death.

In A Song for Every Season Bob comments at this point “One cannot help thinking that in the interests of everyone’s digestion it was a good thing song had only three verses”.

So there you have a song for the approach to Christmas, one to accompany your Christmas Day supper of cold rabbit pie, and finally ‘The King’, a song to accompany (or perhaps replace) your Boxing Day wren-hunting expedition.

1869 replica of an early nineteenth century Pembrokeshire wooden wren house, From the People's Collection Wales.

1869 replica of an early nineteenth century Pembrokeshire wooden wren house, From the People’s Collection Wales.

Why people in various parts of Britain should have got into the habit of hunting a wren on St Stephen’s Day I really don’t know. There are numerous theories on the internet, and just because they’re all implausible doesn’t mean that one of them isn’t true.

I recently came across a good article which, in a few pages, gives an overview of the various forms which wren-hunting traditions took, and the songs which accompanied them. This is Hunting the Wren by Phyllis Kinney, in Welsh Music History Vol. 6 (2004) and it’s well worth a read.

In Pembrokeshire, where this song comes from, the wren, once captured, formed the centrepiece of a house-visiting custom which dates back at least as far as the late seventeenth-century. Edward Lhuyd, scholar and antiquarian, wrote

They are accustomed in Pembrokeshire etc. to carry a wren in a bier on Twelfth Night; from a young man to his sweetheart, that is two or three bear it in a bier [covered] with ribbons, and sing carols. They also go to other houses where there are no sweethearts and there will be ale etc. And a bier from the country they call Cutty Wran.

Phyllis Kinney also quotes this description by Reverend John Jenkins (‘Ifor Ceri’, 1770-1829) of a similar custom in Cardiganshire:

In the Vicinity of Cardigan the following Singular Custom prevails and which is probably of Druidical origin: On the Night of the Fifth of January a Certain Number of Young Men, generally four, take a Wren which is considered a Sacred Bird, and confine him in a cage (which they call his Bier [Elor]) decked with all the Ribbons they can procure from the Girls of the Neighbourhood. With the Wren thus gaudily housed they visit the Families of the District, singing alternate Stanzas in his praise as King of the Birds and as procuring for them many Blessings during the ensuing Year, on account of his being made a Captive and a Victim.

‘The King’ was recorded from two retired schoolteachers, Dorothy and Elizabeth Phillips, from Hook in Pembrokeshire.

They also gave first-hand reminiscences of the custom, which they remembered from the 1920s. The wren-party would go to ‘any manor houses in the neighbourhood where they would have food and drink and sometimes money’, during the period between 6 and 12 January, which they called ‘Twelfth-Tide’. The wren-house was ‘a little wooden cottage and dressed with ribbons really crêpe paper and the wren was inside and when they entered the house of course they all looked in and wanted to see the king.

The date of this recording is given as 1981, but I’m assuming this was a return visit and that these were the same “two old ladies in Pembrokeshire” from whom Andy Nisbet collected the song in the 1960s.

Martin Carthy has recorded this song at least three times in different settings. I learned it, as I’m sure many others did also, from the Steeleye Span album Please to see the King. But Martin had already recorded it with Dave Swarbrick on Prince Heathen (1969). In fact Norma Waterson told me that, a few days after Martin had first heard ‘The King’ from Andy Nisbet, he happened to meet the Watersons at a festival – and immediately taught them this song! A decade or so later, of course, Martin was a a member of the Watersons, and they recorded ‘The King’ on Sound sound your instruments of joy.

I’d always thought of it as an unaccompanied harmony song, but in the mid-90s I found myself playing around with it on concertina, and found that it fitted a treat in F on the C/G anglo – which happened to be more or less the key that Ian Giles wanted to sing it in. So it became a Magpie Lane number, and we recorded it on our first Christmas CD, Wassail. Though I say so myself, I was rather pleased with the unexpected chord sequence and duetting clarinet parts at the end of that recording.

Although both ‘The King’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’ are Magpie Lane favourites, here I sing them solo, accompanied on my clacketty old wooden-ended baritone Bb/F box.

Happy Christmas, one and all.

The Boar’s Head Carol

Magpie Lane, recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.

Sophie Thurman, Ian Giles, Andy Turner, Jon Fletcher, Marguerite Hutchinson, Mat Green – vocals

Babes in the Wood

Andy Turner – vocals, baritone Bb/F anglo-concertina

The King

Andy Turner – vocals, baritone Bb/F anglo-concertina

October 18, 2011

Week 8 – As I roamed out

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…

As I roamed out

Update 18th October 2011

Have done some further investigating, and discovered quite a lot more information about this song.

  1. From 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.
  2. 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
    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.
  3. 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.