When A Man’s In Love


A song from Ireland, with universal relevance.

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A Young Man Came Courting


There are a great many archives of song, stories and rhyme in US universities, much of it from community or family tradition.  Three years ago I found the poem A Young Man Came Courting and added a tune. 

Photo by Scott-Wood.

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Fair Helen

11 Hawthorn

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Brigg Fair

Joseph Taylor summoned up his courage and sang Brigg Fair at the end of a song competition in 1908. Percy Grainger, who later wrote his orchestrated version, wrote: Mr. Joseph Taylor is in many respects the most exceptional folksinger I have yet heard. Although he is 75 years of age, his lovely tenor voice is as fresh as a young man’s, while the ease and ring of the high notes, the freshness of his rhythmic attack, his clear intonation of modal intervals, and his finished execution of ornamental turns and twiddles (in which so many folk-singers abound) are typical of all that is best in the vocal art of the peasant traditional-singers of these islands.

I thank the anonymous photographer of the Lincolnshire Wolds for the superbly atmospheric picture.

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Let No Man Steal Your Thyme


thyme.jpegThe aromatic herb thyme has long been used in folk lore and English folk song as an obvious metaphor, along with that other evocative herb, rue. Thyme stands for courage and strength; and rue for regret. The hand print was made and photographed by Anita Sanchez. Click on a pic to see them all larger.

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Mr Punch & Judy Man

Punch&Judy Reuters:StefanWermuthpg

I enjoyed Punch & Judy as a boy at St Leonards-on-Sea but the photo is of Professor Mark Poulton’s show on Weymouth Beach. See more on the Weymouth P&J FB page. Thankyou Mark! Long live live theatre!

Punch & Judy Man
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Over The Hills And Far Away


This was a well-known Redcoat song. The fine tune was popular from nursery to alehouse, with suitably adjusted words of course. Click a photo to see them all larger. The impossibly steep hill in one photo is topped by a pillar to Admiral Rodney, the nation’s darling until Lord Nelson came along.

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What Did Your Sailor Leave You?

There are several copies of this song in the Reverend Sabine Baring Gould manuscripts and I suppose this version originated there. The remarkable statue, Les Voyageurs, is by French artist Bruno Catalano, in Marseilles, France.

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The Handsome Cabin Boy

The chances of discovering a secret female among the crew of a ship may seem remote but it did happen, so we read in old accounts. Whatever the odds The Handsome Cabin Boy was a popular song on land and sea and was printed by every press in London. Thank you very much indeed Blueberry-Tale for the excellent photograph.

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Swinging On The Gate


I don’t remember when or where I came across the enjoyable Swinging On A Gate.

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Polly Vaughan

Polly Vaughan is one of a number of traditional ballads I knew before I teamed up with ‘Scrumpy’ Pete Cunningham in 1966 in the local folk clubs. This version doesn’t quite make it clear that Polly pleaded successfully for her true love after her own death.

Thankyou to Adrian for the pic http://www.flickr.com/photos/adrians_art/42260455972

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The Arrow To The Quiver

In 1970 Dave Totterdell lent me a book of Victorian poetry which included The Arrow To The Quiver. I have an idea it may be Irish but I’ve been unable to discover who wrote the poem or find any reference to it. The tune is mine.

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Roger’s Courtship


Roger, in today’s traditional song, has poor dress sense which doesn’t help his attempts at courting. I doubt if having a suit knitted for him would have helped either.

Some years ago in our town we woke up one morning to find knitting and crochet on statues, post boxes, trees and railings. It was our introduction to the idea. At one time Yarn storming was done anonymously. We still don’t know who did our burst. But some of the work in the above photos was done with official permission; the bridge and the admirable contribution of Horncastle Women’s Institute for instance. I thoroughly enjoy these temporary additions to the daily scene and admire the skill, patience and inventiveness of the knitters. Daring too in the case of the undersea ladies. Click on a pic to enjoy them all a bit larger.

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My Canary’s Got Circles Under His Eyes

the-economic-canary-in-the-coal-mine-has-hit-a-high-note.jpgElsie Carlisle.jpg

Written by Ted Kohler, Edward Pola and Jack Golden, British dance band star Elsie Carlisle recorded My Canary’s Got Circles Under His Eyes in 1931 and so did Al BowllyMarion Harris, the Debroy Somers Band (Dan Donovan, vocalist), and Fred Spinelly’s Band.

The “Proops’ column”, mentioned in the song was an enormously popular regular dose of sound comment and advice from English ‘agony aunt’ Marjorie Proops in The Daily Mirror for thirty years.

Several people sang the song in the folk clubs around Hertfordshire in the mid to late 1960s. The best version came from the excellent Classic Jug Band. (Where are they now, I wonder?)

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Ye Mar’ners All

Mrs Marina Russell (then aged 76) of Upwey, Dorset sang this song to Henry Hammond in 1907 but didn’t remember all the words, so he used those supplied by W Haines of ‘Halfway House, between Sherborne and Yeovil’. The photo shows the Old Ship at Upwey in 1910, when Mrs Russell lived in the village.

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I Want To Sing In Opera

My grandfather, pictured here in the middle of France in the First World War, had a good sense of humour, a fine voice and sang in the music halls. But, so far as I’m aware, had absolutely no ambition regarding opera, though he knew this song, which was written by Worton David & George Arthurs in 1910.

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The Three Sisters

I love this song and the constancy of the youngest sister. It’s an ancient ballad with a story known all over northern Europe.

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Sir John Barleycorn

Traditions associated with life, death and rebirth must be among the oldest in the world. Versions of John Barleycorn, collected by Cecil Sharp and many others, tell of the need to die in order to live, a concept familiar not least to Christians.

I decided to play concertina on this new recording so I also added a photo, taken this morning, of the barley fields overlooking my little town.

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Ballad Of The Shape Of Things


Sheldon Harnick wrote the outstanding Ballad of the Shape of Things for ‘The Littlest Revue‘ in 1956.

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Port Mahon

One of Sidney Carter’s memorable songs. I wish I’d asked him more about it.

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Old Grey Squirrel

As a ten-year-old schoolboy I greatly enjoyed Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘Old Grey Squirrel’ without understanding any of the implications. Re-reading it as an adult reminded me of my father’s boyhood love of the sea which, at the age of fifteen, led him into the Royal Navy.  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 my father did, or live with a dream unfulfilled, like Squirrel.

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Nice Young Maidens

This song has the extraordinary advice that nice young maidens shouldn’t be too fussy about their choice of husband! The tune and first verse were part of a skipping game I collected in 1980.

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Kitty Alone And I

One of countless variations of the familiar tale first published by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1611, this song would have been seven minutes long if I hadn’t restricted the chorus to every other verse. The charming Kitty in the photo is my grand daughter.

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The Shoemaker’s Kiss

For some reason in English folk song shoemakers and cobblers have a reputation for licentious behaviour. In this song the daughter (and more surprisingly her mother) appear remarkably innocent about cause and effect, which I find rather endearing.

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The Bedmaking


Things might have gone better for the heroine of this lively tale if she’d used a bit of discretion. It was collected by Hammond & Gardiner in Dorset, in 1906. The apt tune is part of the Sherborne Morris version of The Cuckoo’s Nest.

The splendid bed was made by FreeRangeDesigns.co.uk

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I’ll Never Go Riding Again!

A cautionary late Victorian tale of the public response to a new cyclist whose enthusiasm exceeds his skill. From my unique collection of bicycle songs and verse.

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On A Tuesday Morning

On A Tuesday Morning (The Sign Of The Bonny Blue Bell) came from sisters Mrs Louie Hooper and Mrs Lucy White in Hambridge, Somerset, September 1903. Collected by Cecil Sharp.

Louie is with the concertina given to her by Cecil Sharp. The top photo is Hambridge.

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The Frog & The Mouse

First appearing in the 16th century; a great many variants have been collected from all over the English-speaking world. The present version was one of three I sang as a boy at various schools. The illustrations by Randolph Caldecott tell the story as he knew it in his own Victorian childhood.

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Banish Misfortune

I have a large collection of songs and an even larger one of music; both are expanding almost daily. I can’t hope to record everything that takes my fancy, but here’s a favourite Irish tune on concertina, bodhran and guitar. May it set your toes tapping and banish the blues.

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The Funny Family

Alison McMorland LP.jpeg

Children delight in nonsense rhymes (me too) and my collection of street rhymes and games has plenty of them. Alison McMorland’s book and album ‘The Funny Family’ has this song which includes words and phrases found in many skipping, clapping and ball games. When I first heard her version of The Funny Family in the 1970s I thought it was the best and longest and had a good tune to go with it. The words were slightly different to versions I already knew so I spent some time learning Alison’s and sang it around the schools. When I returned to some schools a year or more later I found that the children had adapted the song. If I was teaching in a school for any length of time it meant I had to sing what they sang, including variations in the tune and word order, because I was outnumbered! That’s the folk process. It’s also the reason why I had to write the chorus down for this morning’s recording.

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Oh Dreedle Me

At the height of a party someone decides they’ll sing a folksong. Unfortunately it’s the gloomiest of dismal ballads, accompanied by bagpipes.

From Sue Ashby’s book, Through the Knot-Hole, with my tune and running commentary. Sue is a musician, singer, artist, old friend and enthusiastic knitter.

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The Pleasant Ohio


Printed song sheets of such songs as The Pleasant Ohio were hawked about the countryside and towns for centuries. The sellers would sing their songs for prospective buyers to hear and the ‘latest’ news was carried from one community to another like a newspaper, and just as sensational. I wonder how many folk were persuaded by tales of near-paradise in the New World? For many of them life could hardly be worse than it was at home and at least some will have found a new life worth living in a land flowing with milk and honey.

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The Milk Maid


It’s a great pity I didn’t take a single photograph of children playing traditional games when I was visiting schools as a young man in the sixties or later when I was teaching. I took it for granted that the games I knew as a child and those I saw in classroom and playground – skipping, two and three balls, clapping games and so on – would continue. But when I searched online for suitable photos to illustrate ‘The Milk Maid’ I could only find black & white pics of the 50s, 60s and earlier. Almost all the photographs of games in schools are organised, many of them with adults clearly in charge and teaching the children how to play. I don’t think the games themselves have quite died out, but they’re rarely seen and nowadays it isn’t the done thing to take photographs of children playing.

A while ago my wife and I saw a couple of girls outside their flat playing a complicated clapping game with a rhyme I didn’t know. In the old days I would have asked if I could write down the words, but on that occasion I didn’t think we should even stand and watch them.

If you click on a photo in the block you should get a larger view which you can ‘arrow’ through to see them all.

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How I’m Longing To Marry


Being ‘left on the shelf’ as we used to say, was no laughing matter in the old days. There were few decent ways for a single woman to support herself safely, in towns particularly, and as time went on they could be vulnerable to all kinds of unpleasantness. Although our traditional song is light-hearted enough, just under the surface there’s quiet apprehension.

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The Month Of Liverpool

The Month Of Liverpool was assembled from rhymes given to me by several children I taught and are of the ‘I went to the pictures tomorrow’ school of poetry. The photos are all of Liverpool, even the morris sides.

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The Gablory Man


A gablory or gaberlunzie man was a strolling, some say licensed, beggar. Why anyone should want to follow one is a mystery, but each to their own. The word is all but unknown south of the border, except among the folk fraternity perhaps, where the stories, songs and music live on. My copy of The Gablory Man came from a girl I taught in a village in deepest Hertfordshire, which is a fair walk from Scotland even with a following wind.

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The Cuckoo

The Cuckoo is the harbinger of spring, love and new life but, because she lays her eggs in another’s nest, to country folk she also represented unfaithfulness. Incidentally, it’s the male who ‘sings’ cuckoo. The superb photograph is by Alan McFadyen.

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23rd of June

To celebrate the day here’s a favourite version of an Irish song, great fun to sing, that I learned from Pete Cunningham when we teamed up in 1966. His father had a large collection of Irish music.

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Carolan’s Welcome

Turlough Carolan was a blind Irish harper and prolific composer much celebrated in his lifetime (1670 – 1738) and even more widely today.

The photograph is of Catherine FitzGerald at home in Glin Castle, Ireland, where Carolan’s harp stands by a bookcase, if I recall correctly.

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Bricks and Mortar


In c.1990 I heard a girl of nine or ten singing Bricks & Mortar to herself when I was teaching in a Stevenage school. I asked her where the song came from and she said, ‘That man with the guitar who teaches us and does assembly sometimes. Small, with a beard.’

He turned out to be a chap I saw in the folk clubs from time to time: Gordon the Gnome, (possibly not his real name). There and then the girl wrote the whole song out for me – quite a feat, and very kind, but I never saw her or ‘Gordon’ again.

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Somewhere Safe

In my professional folk days I once sang at a folk club in Benfleet named The Hoy At Anchor. Tony Prior was resident singer then and still sings at the club today. I’m forty years older now, so I imagine he is too, and we both experience the same memory problems which are the subject of his song, Somewhere Safe. (The photo was taken a bit further up the coast at the Oulton Broad Folk Club in the days when I frequently learnt a song at one hearing. Which is one reason why my song collection is so large.)

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The Sprig Of Thyme

I’ve quite forgotten where I found this song with its simple and familiar metaphor. Thankyou to Nick Upton for his photo of wild thyme by the Cornish seashore.

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The Seeds Of Love

There are many versions of this song; the earliest were from a woman’s point of view and make more sense, as you may discern, but all are a lovely part of the folk tradition.

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Down In Our Village

The words of ‘Down In Our Village’ were printed in York between 1803 and 1848 on a broadside I found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

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The Rambling Sailor

The song came from Bert Lloyd. I never asked where he found it, but all the Victorian broadsheet presses printed versions. The illustration is by Rowlandson.

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Benjamin Bowmaneer

The Tailor of Gloucester at Work c.1902 Helen Beatrix Potter 1866-1943 http://www.tate.org.uk

Mary Spence of Patterdale had this song from her great-aunt, Sarah Foster, who came from Sedbergh in Cumbria. Mary wrote: “My great-aunt learned it from a travelling tailor who came to mend her father’s clothes, probably between 1804 and 1807. The story she told my father (her nephew) was that she listened outside the window of the room where the tailor worked, ran away to practice what she heard, and then returned for more. I learned the song by hearing my father and eldest sister sing it, who both had it from the fountain-head, so to speak. I am sure they both copied the great-aunt faithfully as it was performed with rather a nasal twang and several little kinks and turns, especially before the last note; also a cousin who had it from his mother makes no variation in his rendering. Some years ago I wrote it down for the interest of it.” From The Folk Song Journal 1930.

14 June 2020

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Adieu, My Lovely Nancy

Adieu My Lovely Nancy, a familiar theme, was collected by Max Hunter from Mrs Bertha Lauderdale of Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1959.  Verse 6 is from a Sussex version collected in 1898 by Mrs K Lee. The Illustration is a detail of Jemmy’s Farewell by John Hodges Benwell, engraved by Bartolozzi, 1780’s, from the British Museum.

12 June 2020

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Madam, Will You Walk?

Lucille Blake, folk singer and teacher, then living in Hertford, first drew my attention to this song in 1967. I have another version in which the lady refuses every gift from the young man, until finally accepting his wealth, at which point the man himself says no. But we’ll have none of that petulance here! Another version I collected, chanted, rather than sung, was a long rope skipping game which ended with repeating ‘yes – no’ until the skipper straddled the rope.

10 June 2020

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Nobody’s Come To Marry


From my large collection of songs gathered mostly during my years in folk clubs. Nobody’s Come To Marry Me… sang two girls in unison under a single light at a dim, crowded Daventry folk club in 1967. Their twinkling eyes and cheery faces made the song not in the least sorrowful, so I think loving John eventually got his courage up and everything turned out well.

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It’s A Rosebud In June

Among the loveliest of English traditional songs, and one I sing all year round.

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