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 to all Christians.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not all recruiting sergeants got their man. Arthur McBride came from a BBC field recording of a singer in Walberswick, Suffolk in 1939 (East Anglia had a sizeable a sizeable population of Irish labour in the 19th century) and Bert Lloyd recorded it in the 1950s.
The Navy had to have sailors and press gangs did the evil work. The Neglected Tar is an illustration from c.1800 reminding us that menfolk might be away for years and no provision whatever was made for wife and family. Not only that but after completing his time at sea a sailor had to wait for up to two years for his pay. If he was killed his family received nothing.
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.)
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 final verse of this rather gentle toast to the fairer sex was written on the back page of my 1969 notebook, and may not belong to that song at all, but it fits, so I included it on this recording, just in case.
I remember swapping one of my songs for A Sailor Courted at a late night sing-around at my host’s house after my booking at their folk club in the 1970s, but I’m sorry to say I don’t recall the club or the singer.
The pic, by Patricia Jacobs Photography, is of The Seven Dials Rapscallions an arresting, realistic and sometimes rather alarming street theatre company! They fit rather well with our traditional song about a worldly lady of the town and a kindly innocent young man.
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.
As I’m out for a longish hilly ride this morning I think a song about cycling is called for. It’s from my unique album of veteran verse of the wheeling life I compiled from early publications and folk tradition. The tune’s mine.
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 month of May is the traditional time, if one were to believe English folksong, for lovers to be meeting, or in this case meeting happily again.James Thomas Linnell (1820 – 1905) painted The Haymakers and Springtime in Surrey, where I first drew breath.
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.