My Dearest Dear


I sing all my songs from the heart, but this one makes me tingle. The tune is from the 1960s folk clubs, the words are from a different version in a University collection in the United States. (I can’t be more precise as we are moving house and my notebooks are hundreds of miles away.)

Portum Quartum


By chance I once had a long and enjoyable conversation with a Polish priest who, like me, collected children’s street songs, rhymes and games. Unlike me he spoke several languages and had travelled extensively throughout Europe. I sang him some songs and showed him some clapping games and he contributed some comments and versions he’d gathered. 

Portum Quartum, far from containing a meaningless jumble of words was, he said, an old folk memory of some Latin, which he’d encountered in several countries. ‘do-men-we’, for example, was a corruption of Domine (Lord). Now you know!

The Old Couple


The traditional argument about who does the most work in a marriage continues to this day, so I’ve heard, but the old couple in our song settled the matter to their own satisfaction.

The hen in the photo looks like a speckled Sussex and the pig probably a Piétrain. The ploughing illustration is from the Stapleton Collection. I don’t know the artist.

The Mulberry Tree


Some of the older traditional ballads involve the central character answering difficult or seemingly impossible questions. Naturally, as in this song, the pure heart and motives of the rescuer are stronger than the evil enchantment. In the 1960s there were several versions of this song going round the folk clubs in Hertfordshire.

The oldest mulberry tree in Britain is in Spitalfields, London. The Gentle Author will tell you more at

The Haymaking



Haymaking was a really important time in the country calendar at which everyone who was able might help, especially before mechanisation. It meant feed for the livestock for the year to come. Continuing wet weather could ruin the hay, the farmer and all the workers and their families. A good long summer might yield two crops of hay bringing a degree of prosperity and great celebration.

Many of the old photos show the labourers with their bottles of cider, ale or small beer to help see them through the long hard day from dawn to dusk. The three women were probably land girls in the second world war. There are numerous traditional songs about harvest time and they’re always on the hopeful, celebratory side!

The Dancers Of Stanton Drew


The photos are of Avebury in Wiltshire because I don’t have any good ones of Stanton Drew. Most stone circles in Britain are linked to ancient legends, some similar to The Dancers of Stanton Drew. The song was written by Muriel Holland and Jim Parker and published by the English Folk Dance & Song Society in 1971.

The Hippies And The Beatniks O


Glasgow camp at Comrie_010713_0124.jpg

In the 1960s Miles Wootton up-dated one of the best-known traditional British folk songs, though it seems rather less modern and amusing now. The photo is of a Woodcraft Folk camp in Scotland, an organisation which our family was closely involved with for many years and which thrives to this day. There are folk camps in every civilised country, and one way or another all are about harmony, which we could certainly do with these days.

I Once Was A Ploughboy



I Once Was A Ploughboy is a song of the kind frequently printed in the 19th century, in which the innocent youth, often a worker on the land, is tricked, forced or goes to be a soldier out of duty.

The hard life of a farm hand may have seemed not so bad compared to the perils of war, and our ploughboy clearly looks forward to coming home to Sarah and never venturing away again. Such thoughts must have sustained countless young men.

Colour photos from the excellent and informative Among the other pictures are Land girls, who took the place of the men and boys who were called up for the armed forces during the Second World War. Nothing changes.

The Rambling Soldier



The painting of The Recruiting Sergeant (The King’s Shilling) is attributed to Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-1880). The song was popular in Victorian times in two versions – sailor and soldier – and frequently reprinted by the song and ballad presses all over the country. This version was recorded when I had an unexpectedly useful sore throat.

The People Next Door


RIMG0077.JPGThere are two not unconnected recordings today. The first is a well-known traditional Scottish song that I sang to our girls when they were small.

The second is a Shetland version of a traditional tune. Around 1970, if I remember rightly, Stefan Sobel told the story to a folk club audience of seeing, late one evening, a small faintly illuminated procession making its way through the dark woods to this tune.

The People Next Door? It’s said that you should never name the Good Neighbours.

Harbour of Days Gone By


Port Isaac 6 c Shutterstock VC

Louise Antell, a young teenager, wrote Harbour Of Days Gone By in 1967 or 8. It was her only song and she sang it only once. By 2008 she had become a successful author named Louise Cooper and had forgotten all about her song, but I hadn’t, and asked if I might record it. She was pleased with the result, and the album she suggested became the start of my putting all the songs I had gathered over more than fifty years, into a 400 song collection and setting up to share them. There’s more about Louise on

Locks & Bolts



Mary, a friend in the USA, mentioned the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection at Missouri State University, one of several important audio and written collections in America. Locks & Bolts is from Max Hunter’s 1960 field recording of Harrison Burnett of Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was much taken with his singing of this song which is by far the best version I know, though it suits me to take it at a somewhat faster pace.

The photo was taken by Judith, an old friend who spotted the door whilst on holiday in France. She sent it to me saying I might find a use for it one day. In the fullness of time it became the perfect illustration for one of my most satisfying albums.

Flora & Me



English folk song is full of gentle shepherds of both sexes and shows the lowly station of the characters. Flora has the chance to ‘better herself’ but finds the ‘high-ups’ base and selfish. Her brave move in church from a slightly high place to sit with her shepherd would have been noticed by the congregation and set tongues a-wagging.

The Broom Of The Cowdenknowes



This particularly lovely version of the song is from an 1877 Scottish songbook of mine with a lost cover. Based upon a true story, The Broom Of The Cowdenknowes was first published in 1651. The shepherdess, banished from home by her parents, did marry her wealthy lover whose baby she carried, but was never truly happy away from Cowdenknowes, her home in Berwickshire.

Walter Baxter’s photograph is of the farmhouse at Cowdenknowes Mains, not far from where I live.

Old Grey Squirrel


Royal Clipper Sunset Martinique

As a ten-year-old schoolboy I greatly enjoyed Alfred Noyes poem ‘Old Grey Squirrel’ without understanding any of the implications. Reading it again as an adult I was reminded of my father’s boyhood love of the sea which led him into the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen. A year later World War 2 began and he learned enough about the sea to last his lifetime.

I don’t know if it’s any better to achieve one’s ambition as he did or live unfulfilled, like Squirrel. The tune is mine. The ship is the Royal Clipper at sunset, off Martinique.