Article MT243

May Bradley

Sweet Swansea

Musical Traditions Records' first CD release of 2010: May Bradley: Sweet Swansea (MTCD349) is now available.  See our Records page for details.  As a service to those who may not wish to buy the record, or who might find the small print hard to read, I have reproduced the relevant contents of the CD booklet here.

[Track List] [Introduction] [Biography] [The CD] [Credits]

Track List:

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Sweet Swansea
Long a-Growing
Eileen O'Grady
All Jolly Fellows
Barrow Boy
My Blue Eyed Lover
The Gown So Green
Bonny Black Bess
Cold Blows the Wind
The Barley Raking
Down the Green Groves
A Girl Thats Done Wrong
The Blind Baby
You Lads of Learning
The Little Ball of Yarn
The Leaves of Life
My Good for Nothing Man
On Christmas Day
The Outlandish Knight
The Shade of the Old Apple Tree
The Old Riverside
The Tramp's Philosophy
If I Were a Blackbird
The Willow Tree
Sweet Swansea
Sweet Swansea
Long a-Growing
The Blue Eyed Lover
Cold Blows the Wind
You Lads of Learning
You Lads of Learning
The Leaves of Life
On Christmas Day
The Outlandish Knight
If I Were a Blackbird
If I Were a Blackbird
The Willow Tree
Cover picture
Total: 79:56


This has not been an easy CD to produce; information regarding May Bradley seems to be scarce and hard to come by.  This may be in part due to the fact that she was only ever recorded by Fred Hamer, who was not all that well-known as a song collector until the publication of his book, Garners Gay, in 1967.  It contained seven of May Bradley's songs: The Outlandish Knight, Sweet Swansea, The Blackbird, Down the Green Groves, On Christmas Day, Cold Blows the Wind, The Leaves of Life.  When the EFDSS published the Garners Gay LP, in 1971, it contained only five of these songs, as did the VWML cassette, The Leaves of Life, published in 1989.  Fred Hamer died in 1969, and May Bradley not long afterwards, so it is unsurprising that few other collectors or enthusiasts got the see her, or that we cannot find much information about her.

Most people will have only heard the three May Bradley songs on the Voice of the People, and a few more the five on The Leaves of Life or Garners Gay.  This is really very sad, as she's a stunning singer who really should be far better-known.  The 'modern' song, The Tramp's Philosophy, has a very tricky tune, made even more difficult by the uneven text she has in places, but she handles it with great and musicianly aplomb, and never misses an interval.  In a very different vein, her performance of The Outlandish Knight is absolutely outstanding; she uses every trick in the traditional singer's book: melodic variation, some wonderful semitone accidentals, long and short lines, varied tempi, 6-line verses, phrase repeats ...  the list is almost endless.  Small wonder that Fred Hamer was so excited when he heard this as the first song she ever sang to him!

It's our hope that this present CD will introduce May Bradley's singing to a wider audience, and encourage some of you to sing a few of her wonderful songs.

Rod Stradling - 1.5.10

May Bradley 19.1.1902 - 1.6.1974

"Oh Lord, madam, I could tell you lovely 'istory ...  But it'd take me such a long while to think back, you know."

The speaker is May Bradley, talking to Fred and Margaret Hamer in Ludlow, Shropshire, half a century ago.  Over the course of a number of visits she did indeed impart a great deal of 'lovely 'istory', committing to posterity a wealth of songs the origins of which date back to long before she was born, and telling us much in passing about working-class rural life experiences during the first quarter of the twentieth century.1.  All material within double quotations marks in this essay are verbatim transcripts extracted from interviews with May Bradley recorded by Fred Hamer between 1959 and circa 1966.  I have omitted ongoing extraneous comments made by the collectors (most often consisting of, 'Yes' and 'I see'), primarily Fred and Margaret Hamer...
Text is too long to fit here - see Notes at the end of this piece.1  She was born 19 January 1902 to Romany parents named Robert and Esther Smith.  When enumerated in the 1911 census, aged only nine years, her parents gave her birthplace as Clipstone, in Glamorganshire, although in later life she claimed to have been "bred, borned and raised just 'round 'ere [i.e.  the vicinity of Ludlow] ...  Well, Monmouthshire ...  Chepstow in Monmouthshire I were born." Her own and many other Romany families travelled extensively around the west Midlands and into the near areas of Wales, wherever the opportunity for gainful employment led them.  May Bradley was descended from a long line of singers within her immediate family, and from close contact with other travellers over an extended period additionally absorbed many items into her repertoire. 

A chance meeting at the age of fifty-seven with the song collector Fred Hamer, with whom she established a special rapport, resulted in the survival of much of the older portion, at least, of her repertoire, now to be heard on this release.  That she knew a number of more recently composed songs is clear, but her aesthetic sense was unambiguous: "I don't like mixing the old uns with the new ones." Hamer later wrote of her version of The Blackbird:

May calls this song "My Love", and before singing it she likes to explain that she has heard "a modern song" like this, but she sings it "in the old way".2.  Garners Gay.  English folk songs collected by Fred Hamer (London: EFDSS, 1967), page 52.2
She believed that Sweet Swansea had been composed within her own family:
"Great grandfather ...  Good God, it'd be over ...  p'raps two hundred an' fifty years ago ...  See what I mean? ...  An' you see ...  'e was ..  .'e was camping on the side of this road, you see ...  Well of course them days there was very, very little money about ...  See what I mean? ...  An' of course the police come down and summonsed 'im ...  Well of course they give 'im seven days in gaol ...  He was a Smith, yes ...  So, of course, that's it, see ...  Well then, you see, this song must've been ...  it was made by, uh ...  great grandfather, as I say, well, double great grandfather ...  See, it was made by 'is own children.  See what I mean?"
Hamer : Yes.  So there's a lot of meaning in this song.
"There's a lot of meaning to it, you see, sir ...  Of course, that's it."
She herself had learned the song from her blind grandfather, her father's father, also named Robert Smith.  Certainly this Robert and his wife, also Esther, had travelled with May's parents during her childhood (see below), and, according to May, he was buried in Ludlow.

During one of the early meetings with Hamer, she offered the following information:

"My mother was the best singer in the world, please believe me ...  You go into Weobley in 'erefordshire ...  That's Weobley, eight miles away from ...  from Leom ...  from Leominster ...  My mother sung on records fifty years ago ...  Dr Leathers of Weobley, she sung on records ...  Dr Leather ...  My mother was an auld girl when I was a little girl, an' my mother sung on records.  Dr Leather in Weobley, and please believe me [?] ...  an' my mother's records are still flying around [?] ...  I 'ad a lovely mother, her name was Esther Smith ...  Of course, I canna sing, but uh ...  "
Hamer noted how, when recording the song On Christmas Day:
May said this bitter carol was her mother's favourite and this eventually gave me the clue to her identity for I remembered seeing the carol in the Herefordshire Carols published by Vaughan Williams and Mrs Leather.  3.  Ibid, page 543
Ella Mary Smith was born in Bidney, Herefordshire, in 1874, and moved to nearby Weobley following her marriage to Francis Leather in 1893.  Thanks to the rigorous and meticulous research of Andrew King we may date her initial collecting of songs within the immediate locality to no later than 1904.4.  Her life and song collecting experiences have been documented recently by Andrew King, in 'Resources in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.  The Ella Mary Leather Manuscript Collection', Folk Music Journal 9, no.5 (2010), pages 749-812.  This piece includes a valuable analytical listing of songs collected by Leather, which I have followed here.4  Writing six years later, she noted how, since September 1908, she had recorded songs from members of the Romany families of Locke, Stephens, Jones, Whatton and Smith, all of whom had gathered in the locality for the annual hop picking.  'They nearly all sing,' she wrote, 'but the older gypsies are very shy, and inclined to be distrustful.'5.  'Carols from Herefordshire.  Collected by Ella M Leather', The Journal of the Folk-Song Society 4, no.14 (June 1910), page 5.5  Among Leather's earliest successes was Angelina Whatton, whom she later described as, 'a firm friend and ally.' At first, however, there was suspicion and unease:
Hop-picking is a monotonous and silent occupation which lends itself to the unaccompanied song of the folk, so when picking began I went to the Homme Farm, near Dilwyn, to share in the work, and try to discover some singers.  There were a large number of Gypsies in the yard who have come there every year since - Whattons, Smiths, Loveridges and Johnsons.  According to the home pickers they were always singing, but when I spoke to them they became very shy ...  At last, however, Mrs Whatton's daughter, Angelina, was persuaded to sing, the promise of an old silk blouse proving irresistible.'6.  Ella M Leather.  With a Note by T W Thompson, 'III.  - Collecting folk-melodies from Gypsies in Herefordshire, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3rd series, IV, part 2 (1925), page 59.6
Angelina was baptised at Grinshill, Shropshire, on 15 May 1890, a daughter of Thomas and Mary Watton (Leather consistently added an 'h', but this is the most common form), and was thus aged eighteen at the date of their first meeting.  She proved to be an important catalyst for Leather's collecting activity among other Gypsy singers of her acquaintance, including May Bradley's mother, Esther Smith, the initial meeting with whom occurred during the following month. 

Esther Smith was born in the spring of 1876, the birth being civilly registered in the Atcham District of Shropshire during the second quarter of that year.  In three successive census takings, from 1891, her place of birth was given as Shrewsbury, Shropshire.  Her parents were William Watton, born about 1850 in Gnosall Wood, and Annie Elizabeth Knott, born about 1855 in Wolverhampton (both locations in Staffordshire), the couple marrying at Dudley, Worcestershire, on 20 August 1871.  On 5 April 1891 they were living in a caravan on Brough Hall Road, Gnosall:

[RG12 2136 13]
William WATTON Head Married 40 Nailer Staffs.  Gnosall Wood
Ann WATTON Wife Married 35       "    Wolverhampton
Esther WATTON Daughter   15   Salop.  Shrewsbury
Mary A WATTON Daughter   13       "             "
Elizabeth WATTON Daughter   11       "             "
Eliza WATTON Daughter   9   Worcester
John WATTON Son   3   Derby
Sarah Jane WATTON Daughter   8 months   Shropshire.  Ludlow
Matilda WATTON Daughter   5   Worcester.  Stourport

The birthplaces of the children, and in particular the four youngest here, offer some indication of the family's travelling circuit.  'Nailer' is not an occupation commonly associated with Gypsies, but is not entirely unknown.  Richard Watton and his son William (perhaps an uncle and cousin to Esther's father) were certainly enumerated as such on 2 April 1871, when 'Sleeping in Carts or Caravans' at Anslow, Staffordshire:

[RG10 2897 12v]
Richard WATTON Head Married 50 Nailor Travelling Gornall Staff
William WATTON Son Married 30     do        do     do        do
Mary ann WATTON Daughter in law Married 30    
Eliza WATTON Daughter Unmarried 6       do       do
Hannah WATTON     do   3       do       do
Mary ann WATTON     do   4       do       do

Esther Watton left her family in 1894 to marry Robert Smith, the union being registered in the Wolverhampton District during the fourth quarter of the year.  As their daughter May told it, "My mother and father got married in St Laurence's church in Ludlow 'ere ...  My mother was seventeen an' my father was eighteen." Robert Smith, born in Tenbury, Worcestershire, about 1875, was similarly from a large family who, like the Wattons, travelled extensively around the west Midlands and into Wales.  His father, also Robert, was born in Hodnet, Shropshire, about 1851, his mother, formerly Esther Jones, at Bangor, Denbighshire, about 1850.  They married at Cressage, Shropshire, on 2 August 1875, the ages of groom and bride given in the register as twenty-three and twenty-five respectively.  Six years later, on 3 April, the family was enumerated in Dog & Duck Lane at Westbury, Shropshire.

[RG11 2644 25v]
Robert SMITH Head Married 31 Hawker in Hard Ware Salop.  Hodnet
Ester SMITH Wife Married 38 Hawker's Wife North Wales.  Bangor
Susan SMITH Daughter   14   Montgomery.  Llanfylyn
Thomas SMITH Son   9   Do.  Buttington
Sarah SMITH Daughter   12   Do.  Welchpool
Robert SMITH Son   6   Hereford
Amos SMITH Son   2   Montgomery.  Caerhowell
Duglas SMITH Brother Married 21 Hawker in Hard Ware Salop.  Shrewsbury
Ann SMITH Sister in law Married 19   Montgomery.  ?Cam Office
Cornelius SMITH Nephew   1   Brecon
Abigail SMITH Niece   2 Weeks   Salop.  Pontesbury

and a decade later still, on 5 April, they were encamped with another couple (the Biddlecombes) in caravans at Spring Gardens, Shrewsbury:

[RG12 2110 18v]
Robert SMITH Head Married 42 Dealer in Old Iron [Salop] Hodnet
Ester SMITH Wife Married 49 Dealer in Mats &c Denbigshire Bangor
Robert SMITH Son Single 15   Worceste Tenbury
Amos SMITH Son   12   Monte Weshpool
Richard SMITH Son   9   Salop Warrington Common
Joseph M BIDDLECOMBE Head Married 28 General Dealer Do Shrewsbury
Coralius BIDDLECOMBE Wife Married 25   Gloucestere Stafford

Seven years after their marriage, on 31 March 1901, Robert and Esther Smith (Leather's singer) were living in a cottage at Coopers Hall, Cusop, Herefordshire.

[RG13 5178 32v]
Robert SMITH Head Married 24 Horse Dealer Hereford.  Tenbury
Esther SMITH Wife Married 25 Hawker Salop.  Shrewsbury
Richard SMITH Son Single 8   Shropshire.  Willington
Amos SMITH Son   1   Glamorganshire.  Bridgend
Sarah-Ann SMITH Daughter   3 Weeks   Brecon.  Hay
Adam SMITH Brother Married 27 Basket-Maker Montgomeryshire.  New Town
Sarah SMITH Sister in law Married 26 Hawker           Do.          Welshport

Clearly, Esther and her sister-in-law Sarah (neé Smith) went about hawking, while the brothers Robert and Adam dealt in horses and produced baskets for sale.  The given birthplaces of the three children once again offer some indication of their mobility.

One regular employment opportunity was harvesting the hops in September, and it was during this month each year that many of Leather's songs were gathered.  For many years Stephen Pitt Dent (born Stoke Lacey, Herefordshire, the birth registered in the Bromyard District during the first quarter of 1871) farmed at Newton Court in Dilwyn, as his father had before him.  He had a particular attachment to the efficient and hard-working Watton family.  As related by May Bradley:

"There's poor Mr Dent, a' Newton.  Between Dilwyn and Weobley ...  We picked for 'im for years ...  An' if 'e thought we was goin' somewhere else 'e'd 'ave all we children in there and he'd pay us ...  a thruppence extra a day for doing odd jobs.  You know, clearing the roots of th'ops, sir ...  Taking all the dead leaves in, an' one thing an' another ...  Well ...  [?I] know'd that, because we was always there ...  We started 'op pickin' the first night, see ...  Like ...  The first day ...  The night before we'd start 'op picking in the morning, 'e'd say, 'Come on children, you 'ave to 'ave your 'iring shillin' ...  Always 'iring shillin' for us ...  Shillin' each ...  Shillin' like as we stand, a shillin' going out ...  An' 'e'd say, 'Go an' fetch a bucket a' cider.' Well, we kids didn't drink no cider then, no ...  An' me father'd say, 'No fear, Mr Dent,' 'e said, 'let 'em 'ave,' 'e said, 'a bucket a' milk.' "
Taking pride in her own physical prowess and dexterity, she explained how:
"as a matter of fact, Mr 'amer, sir, I'll be frank an' I will tell you the truth, sir ...  An' it will be proved ...  is I've picked a bushel 'ops in twenty minutes ...  I've pulled me own vines down ...  and I've picked a bushel 'ops in twenty minutes an' I been timed ...  an' I've picked the ...  Because we used to go pea pickin' an' all, you know ...  I've picked a pod of peas in twenty minutes ...  That's for ten pence ...  them days ...  All my family ...  used to have to be [?cribs], like, but the little ones we never bothered with ...  See, after my mother died, we'd all growed up, you know ...  had three [?cribs] on the go, as we call 'em ...  We'd pick as many as two hundred bushel a day ...  So, no wonder the farmer liked [us], you know."
Ella Leather later wrote of how, 'Esther called to see me regularly at Weobley each hop-picking time, and I took the opportunity to record from her.'7.  Ibid, page 60.7  This statement might on occasion be taken quite literally, for at times she had access to a phonograph which recorded sound on cylinders.  At their first session, in October 1908, a single song was recorded, namely There is a Fountain of Christ's Blood.8.  At the present time, this is the only cylinder known to have survived - EFDSS Wax Cylinder Collection, C37/1585 - but Andrew King tells me that its parlous condition makes it virtually unplayable.  A lead that another cylinder was to be found in the Archives of Hereford Cathedral proved to be a red herring.  Thanks to Roy Palmer for laying this one to rest.8  Three years later, on 2 April 1911, the extended family, including Robert's parents, were encamped, in one van and one tent, in a field near to Hanley Court, a farm house at Kingstone, Herefordshire:

[RG14PN 15717]
Robert SMITH Head Married 35 Hawker Haberdashery Tenbury Salop
Esther SMITH Wife Married 35   Shrewsbury Salop
Amos SMITH Son   12   Bridgend Glam
Sally SMITH Daughter   10   Hay Hereford
May SMITH Daughter   9   Clipstone Glam
William SMITH Son   5   Cardiff Glam
Laney SMITH Daughter   3   Monmouth Mon
John SMITH Son   3   Shrewsbury Salop
Mary SMITH Daughter   1   Ash Mon
Robert SMITH Father Married 60   Shrewsbury Salop
Esther SMITH Mother Married 72   Tenbury Salop

The elder Robert and Esther claimed to have been married for thirty-six years, and to have had seven children born alive, only three of which were still living.  The younger pair claimed sixteen years of marriage, having produced a total of nine children, of which two had died.  As Richard, aged three at the date of previous census, is no longer in evidence he may have been one such; while the four year gap between May and William suggests another interim child who had not long survived.  Sally is presumably the Sarah-Ann of ten years earlier

It was not until the following September, 1912, that any more of Esther's songs appear in the Leather collection.  A further eight items were noted at this time: Cold Blows the Wind, I'll Have my Petticoat, My Mother Sent Me, Sheffield Park, Molly Bawn, Riding Down to Pochemar, On Christmas Day (for a second time), and The Barley Raking.  To these Andrew King suggests the possible addition of The Bitter Withy and Christmas Day is a-Drawing Nigh at Hand, this latter perhaps actually sung by one Mrs Johnson.9.  King (2010), pages 808-809.9  The following September On Christmas Day was noted for a third time.

During these pre-war years numerous Romany families, many of which were inter-related, would meet up each year for seasonal work on the farms.  As Dot Bradley, May's grand daughter-in-law, told it: 'They were all proud of being Romany.  Not like today.  There was none of this bad feeling.' May had recounted stories of playing in quarries with other Traveller children, including the twins Margaret and Harriet Evans, born 2 February 1904.  10.  Keith Chandler MSS (privately held, South Leigh, Oxfordshire), telephone interview with Dot Bradley, Ludlow, 4 June 2008.10  Certainly on 31 March three years earlier Esther's parents William and Ann Watton, with those children still living at home, and the family of Elias and Sarah Evans had been encamped together, in two caravans, on Monk Land Common, Herefordshire.  On this occasion the occupation of William Watton was given as 'General Dealer', and of Elias Evans as 'Hawker'.11.  Kew, The National Archives, RG13 2495 69.11

Esther Smith died at the age of forty-five, and was buried in the churchyard at Weobley on 18th December 1918.  According to May she had died in childbirth: "So there was eleven bore ...  eleven of us ...  Of course, well, see, mother died with the eleventh one."

May Smith married Thomas Bradley (born 1898) in Ludlow during mid-1923; while her sister Mary married his brother Edward five years later.  The family had been resident in the town for several decades by this date, working as labourers and hawkers, and dealt, among other items, in coal.  On 31 March 1901 they were living at 11 Frog Land.

[RG13 2504 44v]
Andrew BRADLEY Head Married 38 General Dealer Bromfield Salop
Sarah BRADLEY Wife Married 36   Kidderminster Staffs
Mary BRADLEY Daughter Single 13   Ludlow Salop
June BRADLEY Daughter Single 12       Do      Do
?Mannedy BRADLEY Daughter Single 10       Do      Do
Joebeth BRADLEY Son   8       Do      Do
Louisa BRADLEY Daughter   5       Do      Do
Thomas BRADLEY Son   3       Do      Do
Richard BRADLEY Son   7 months       Do      Do

Children from this union were William Laurence (1925), Laura M (1926) and Evelyn (birth date not known).  Although unable to read or write, May Bradley was tri-lingual, speaking Romany, Welsh, and English: "my grandfather and my parents was all Welsh.  I could speak Welsh up till I was about seventeen or eighteen." As a girl she used to go round farms to get sheep's wool, and both she and her husband continued to make a circuit of local farms until problems with her feet and legs prevented her from cycling any longer.

"An' you know, I can't go in the country now, sir ...  I was in the country every ...  You know, like, uh, 'awking and buying an' different things, but I canna do it now there for two years ...  And I go up the street, like ...  on a weekend ...  But I never do it with me 'usband, you know ...  On a weekend, Sat'day an' Sunday ...  I've 'ad people makin' remarks about, they say, 'Well.  When you ...  ' I used to ride a bicycle round the country.  They say, 'Mrs Bradley, when you coming round on your bicycle again?' I said, 'I fear I've 'ad that.' "
The well-known farm worker and singer Fred Jordan was great friends with May Bradley, and they had often sung in each others' company.  In conversation with Heather Horner on 19 June 1990 he had this to say about both her and the Bradley family in general:
H: You once said you used to know May Bradley.
F: Yes in Ludlow.  Went to school with her boys.  Had two girls and a boy, they was older.  He's still alive.  (Hen &) Chickens.  When I used to go down to the Chickens.
H: Is that the name of a pub?  That's a good name.
F: Aye, May warn't a bad singer.  Different if she got drinking.  When she got drinking she'd go from one [song] into another you know, Gypsy fashion.  But when her wanted to, her wern't a bad singer at all.  Her was a Smith, Gypsy.  The Bradleys was Hawkers - Rock salt.  Rabbit skins.  They was a very big family.  Ludlow, respectable family.  Used to keep some very good horse[s], always very good to their horses, only they was b[u]ggers for the drink.  Tremendous family ...  he [Bradley] had about six, I went to school with about four of them.  Ted Bradley had about 21 or 22.  There were a lot of them.  Tom only had three, two girls and a boy ...  Tom's been here [i.e. to Fred's cottage] many a time since I bin here; rabbit skins.  He's dead now.  His sons never took it up, hawking.
H: Did you hear her sing?  Was she one of the women that would go in the pub?
F: Aye, well the Chickens was a pub that would have the women in.  It was always the women as caused the bloody row.  Cos among the travellers it was the women drinking with the men, the women would start then.  Oh, it was always the women as caused the row, cos the Chickens ...  lot of Ludlow is traveller pubs.  Lot of Ludlow is traveller people, tremendous, half the population is traveller people.12.  Heather Horner MSS (privately held, South Leigh, Oxfordshire), interviews with Fred Jordan, Washwell Cottage, Aston Munslow, Shropshire, 19 and 21 June 1990.  Rough manuscript transcription of Tape B (recorded 19 June 1990), pages 14-15, presented here with corrected punctuation.  In conversation on 25 April 2010.12
Dot Bradley took the opposite view regarding the effects of alcohol: "Mind you, I think the more you gave her to drink the better she sang."13.  Telephone interview with Dot Bradley, Ludlow, 4 June 2008.13

Fred Hamer (1909 - 1969) was without doubt one of the most important folk song collectors working in England during the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1989 his widow, Margaret, described his extensive involvement in dance activity at the date of their early involvement:

It is some 40 years since I first met Fred.  At that time 'Dance' took up most of his leisure time, He was Squire of the Bedford Morris Men (later to be Squire of the Morris Ring), a member of the National Executive of the EFDSS, served on the District and Club Committee, called for local dances, and still found time for research into the past, looking for material missed by Cecil Sharp.14.  Margaret Hamer, insert notes to the audio cassette The leaves of life.  The field recordings of Fred Hamer (London: EFDSS, 1989).14
This final statement is one of great significance as regards motivation.  Sharp had died a quarter of a century earlier, and had effectively collected from the previous two generations to singers Hamer was meeting.  Given the rapid changes society was undergoing during the first half of the twentieth century it is astounding that Hamer's song haul was as rich among non-Gypsy singers as it proved to be.  His unexpected early onset of blindness focussed his collecting activity, but did not prevent him from continuing to play his violin.  It was in this capacity, as musician for the Bedford Morris Men, that he was in Ludlow for the 71st Meeting of the Morris Ring of England, held over the weekend of 25 to 27 September 1959.  Fred Jordan was among those present as a guest, and on one occasion he sang both Barbara Allen and, appropriately enough, his version of The Outlandish Knight, which (as I later heard many times, to my great pleasure) is very similar in both words and tune to that sung by May Bradley.15.  Souvenir programme of the event, transcribed at: (accessed 17 April 2010).  15  During the proceedings Hamer took himself off from the bustle of the tour.  As he later recounted it:
I wandered thankfully into The Blue Boar in a cool side street, and, in self defence, handed my fiddle to the landlord behind the bar as I ordered the beer so necessary to a Morris fiddler after a day on tour.  I was on familiar ground, for I had spent long, hot, summer months in Ludlow on a harsh toughening course during the war, and had come to appreciate the hospitality and warm-heartedness of the people of this lovely country town nestling comfortably below the keep of its guardian castle.

The bar was empty, for I had crept away from the too numerous musicians in grateful obedience to the call of a friend I had not seen for years, so the men would not be along for a little while.  At least, I thought it was empty, but I was startled and not a little glad that the fiddle was safely out of reach, for I heard a woman's voice from the chair beside me, making the usual plea for a tune, and expressing the usual sympathy for a blind man.  I took a long pull at my mug, sat back wearily, and suggested jokingly that the speaker should sing to me instead.  Within a few seconds, I was petrified by her response.  With her mouth but a few inches from my ear, she sang softly if a little harshly, but with the complete assurance of a practised performer, several verses of The Outlandish Knight.

Before long, it became obvious that her repertoire was extensive, that she was of gipsy stock, and that here was an opportunity that must not be missed, so before we were engulfed in the oncoming tide of thirsty Morris men and she had gone home, I had arranged to see her the next morning and negotiated for the loan of a tape recorder.

She arrived with a couple of male kinsmen and I learned that she was in fact a Gipsy, of the Smith family, and that many of her songs were from her mother.  I also found that it was not easy to get her to sing any particular song on request, but she did eventually record The Outlandish Knight, which she called The Dappledy Grey.  During this session, I was able to take some half dozen songs, one or two in the face of opposition from a Morris side close to the window.  16.  Notes written by Fred Hamer, transcribed at: (accessed 17 April 2010).16

Recognising the importance of this serendipitous encounter, Hamer planned a further exploration of May's repertoire.
It was evident that something more would have to be done, and, within a month or two, I had arranged to spend a weekend in Ludlow to see how much I could add.  Meantime, I checked the published collections of Dr Vaughan Williams and Mrs Leather, and found that, for instance, "my mother's favourite carol" had been sung by Esther Smith at Weobley in 1912 or 1913.

I was not surprised therefore when she told me that her mother was Esther Smith, and that she had made gramophone records for "Dr Leather" 50 years ago.  I was, of course, very sceptical about the "gramophone records", but I did not know then that she spoke the literal truth, not Gipsy blarney, for I discovered a year or two later that Vaughan Williams had sent a phonograph to Hereford and Mrs Leather had indeed recorded some of her songs on it.  17.  Ibid.17

Prior to Hamer's next visit to Ludlow, in 1965, fellow song collector Mike Yates encountered her through the efforts of Fred Jordan.
When I first met Fred in 1964 he took me to a pub in Ludlow to meet the marvelous Gypsy singer May Bradley.  May's husband had been banned from the pub for fighting, and so May would come over three or four times in an evening to have a jar filled with rough cider for her husband, who lived across the road from the pub.  It was a singing pub, full of Gypsies and non-gypsies, and during that first Saturday night I listened in wonderment to Fred and his friends singing all manner of songs, from Marie Lloyd's risqué She'd Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before, to May's breathtaking carol The Leaves of Life ...  We often talk of a Gypsy style of singing - here Phoebe Smith comes to mind as a pre-eminent exponent - but what struck me most that night in Ludlow was how similar all the singers, Gypsy and non-gypsy, sounded.18.  Mike Yates, booklet notes to Here's Luck to a Man ...  Gypsy Songs and Music from South-East England (MTCD320), pages 5-6.18
This echoes a conclusion reached by Ella Leather half a century earlier:
the Gypsies sing English folk-songs and carols, and play traditional dance tunes, in no way distinguishable from those collected from English folk, or house-dwellers as the Gypsy would say.  They borrow their music, as they do their religion, from the country of their adoption.19.  Leather (1925), page 64.19
Leaving aside the persecution of Romanies in England across more than four centuries, and the necessity for certain aspects of conformity, if there was an expectation of receiving a reward - whether cash, alcohol or food - for musical performance then the cultural items on offer needed to be acceptable to a non-Gypsy audience.

Peter Faulkner, born in Ludlow in 1942, was the prime facilitator of the majority of recordings heard here.  Four decades on he recalled how, upon his return to his home town in 1964 he had:

joined the South Shropshire Morris Men, and it was through this that I was introduced to Fred Hamer at Wells Ring Meeting in 1965.  Fred explained about his song collecting and was very keen to renew his connection with May, in the hope of making some recordings.  He explained how, in the late 1950s, whilst attending the Ludlow Ring Meeting, he'd met May in the Blue Boar Inn.

Later in 1965 Fred and his wife Margaret came to stay with Vivienne and me in Ludlow.  May Bradley belonged to a large extended family and was well-known in the town of Ludlow where literally everyone knew everyone else.  I arranged for Fred to meet May and her husband in their terraced cottage opposite The Hen and Chickens in Old Street.  That first meeting is still clear in my memory, over forty years later.  We sat in front of the black range, where a coal fire was burning, sipping tea, and Fred in his gifted way soon had the conversation flowing.  He freely admitted that he used his blindness as a tool to diffuse any nervousness that his would-be singers might have.  I remember May starting off with Sweet Swansea, as Fred deftly operated his reel-to-reel recorder.  I was fortunate enough at a later date to take the photograph of May and her husband which is in Garners Gay.20.  Letter from Peter Faulkner to Rod Stradling, 21 January 2008.20

Further recordings were made during the next year or two in the sitting room of the Faulkner house in Julian Road.  He observed how, on one of these occasions:
There was much preparation that day, turning the room into a recording studio.  I collected May, who was relaxed and sang her best for Fred.  May thought the world of him and boasted that she'd sent other would-be collectors packing "with a flea in their ear"! She certainly had a sharp, dry wit, surpassed only by her clear unmistakeable voice.21.  Ibid.21
May Bradley died in Ludlow Hospital on 1 June 1974.  Hers had been a life filled with toil, leavened with the exhilaration of numerous singing sessions, which, after she had become a house dweller, had garnered her a degree of status within Ludlow.  As one landlord used to say, "Poor old May's comin' in ...  Then we shall 'ave a beautiful song off 'er." A rosy view of the past, as evinced by the statement, "Oh, 't used to be beautiful, Mrs 'amer ...  I shall never see them times over again", was mitigated by a heightened sense of reality: "My father an' all my family was ...  Living an 'ard life, sir, but still, never mind."

If, as Hamer asserted, May had learned 'many of her songs ...  from her mother,' then Leather had seriously under-collected from Esther, as there is very little correlation between their respective recorded repertoires.  This is, in truth, hardly surprising, given the limited time and opportunity available during their sporadic joint meetings.  Indeed, given the wide social gulf between them it is surprising that so much was recovered.  Additionally, Leather may possibly have steered Esther towards supplying her more uncommon items.  If she did have any of the more 'modern' songs that May gave to Hamer, then Leather may not have deemed them appropriate or worth noting.  Cecil Sharp, certainly the leading song collector during the period of Leather's activity, himself eschewed such pieces, and this was a general ethos among the leading lights of the Folk Song Society.

All these academic musings pale, however, in comparison to the sheer delight to be derived from hearing one of the great English female song stylists of her generation.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy.


Transcriptions of entries in the census enumeration books are rendered as near as possible to their hand-written original form, spellings errors and all.  The originals are deposited at The National Archives, Kew, but are available in facsimile and/or transcription on a number of sites on the World Wide Web.  All but that from 1881, however, are only available by subscription.  The call numbers given here adjacent to the transcriptions are the original official designation for that location, but with the page number omitted and the folio number (as indicated by numerals stamped at top right on alternate pages in the original enumeration volumes) given instead.  So, as an example, [RG10 2897 12v] conceals the information: 1871 [RG10], Anslow, Staffordshire [2897], and, finally, the folio number, in this case the verso of folio 12 [12v].

1.  All material within double quotations marks in this essay are verbatim transcripts extracted from interviews with May Bradley recorded by Fred Hamer between 1959 and circa 1966.  I have omitted ongoing extraneous comments made by the collectors (most often consisting of, 'Yes' and 'I see'), primarily Fred and Margaret Hamer.  Where these occur on the tapes, they fall here within the ' ...  ' sequences, but their omission does not alter the sense or meaning of May Bradley's testimony in any way.  While it remains impossible to accurately transcribe the idiosyncrasies of speech, I hope to have got as close as possible here.

2.  Garners Gay.  English folk songs collected by Fred Hamer (London: EFDSS, 1967), page 52.

3.  Ibid, page 54

4.  Her life and song collecting experiences have been documented recently by Andrew King, in 'Resources in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.  The Ella Mary Leather Manuscript Collection', Folk Music Journal 9, no.5 (2010), pages 749-812.  This piece includes a valuable analytical listing of songs collected by Leather, which I have followed here.

5.  'Carols from Herefordshire. Collected by Ella M. Leather', The Journal of the Folk-Song Society 4, no.14 (June 1910), page 5.

6.  Ella M Leather.  With a Note by T W Thompson, 'III.  - Collecting folk-melodies from Gypsies in Herefordshire, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3rd series, IV, part 2 (1925), page 59.

7.  Ibid, page 60.

8.  At the present time, this is the only cylinder known to have survived - EFDSS Wax Cylinder Collection, C37/1585 - but Andrew King tells me that its parlous condition makes it virtually unplayable.  A lead that another cylinder was to be found in the Archives of Hereford Cathedral proved to be a red herring.  Thanks to Roy Palmer for laying this one to rest.

9.  King (2010), pages 808-809.

10.  Keith Chandler MSS (privately held, South Leigh, Oxfordshire), telephone interview with Dot Bradley, Ludlow, 4 June 2008.

11.  Kew, The National Archives, RG13 2495 69.

12.  Heather Horner MSS (privately held, South Leigh, Oxfordshire), interviews with Fred Jordan, Washwell Cottage, Aston Munslow, Shropshire, 19 and 21 June 1990.  Rough manuscript transcription of Tape B (recorded 19 June 1990), pages 14-15, presented here with corrected punctuation.

13.  Telephone interview with Dot Bradley, Ludlow, 4 June 2008.

14.  Margaret Hamer, insert notes to the audio cassette The leaves of life.  The field recordings of Fred Hamer (London: EFDSS, 1989).

15.  Souvenir programme of the event, transcribed at: (accessed 17 April 2010).

16.  Notes written by Fred Hamer, transcribed at: (accessed 17 April 2010).

17.  Ibid.

18.  Mike Yates, booklet notes to Here's Luck to a Man ...  Gypsy Songs and Music from South-East England (MTCD320), pages 5-6.

19.  Leather (1925), page 64.

20.  Letter from Peter Faulkner to Rod Stradling, 21 January 2008.

21.  Ibid.


First and foremost I am indebted to May Bradley's grand daughter-in-law Dot Bradley, who kindly gave me first-hand memories of the family.  In addition, I am grateful for either information and/or useful discussion to Peter Faulkner, Heather Horner, Sharon Floate, Vivienne Halton, Andrew King, Norman Burton, Roy Palmer, and Rebecca Hughes at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Rod Stradling drew up a preliminary outline of these notes, and I used that as a springboard for the final narrative.  In particular, he deserves credit not only for facilitating the valuable material given by Peter Faulkner, but for his vision and commitment in bringing these recordings to a wider audience.

Keith Chandler - 25 April 2010

Song Notes:

Roud numbers quoted are from the databases, The Folk Song Index and The Broadside Index, continually updated, compiled by Steve Roud.  Currently containing almost 288,500 records between them, they are described by him as "extensive, but not yet exhaustive".  Copies are held at: The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London; Taisce Ceol Duchais Eireann, Dublin; and The School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh.  The Folk Song Index is also accessible on-line at: They can also be purchased direct from Steve at Southwood, Maresfield Court, High Street, Maresfield, East Sussex, TN22 2EH, UK.  E-mail:

Child numbers, where quoted, refer to entries in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child, Boston, 1882-98.  Laws numbers, where quoted, refer to entries in American Balladry from British Broadsides by G Malcolm Laws Jr, Philadelphia, 1957.

It was a considerable surprise to me to find that Mr Hamer actually recorded 26 separate songs from May Bradley; seven of which he recorded twice, and three, three times - making up the 39 track total you'll find on this CD.  We have given what we think are the 'best' versions first - then, after a 10 second gap, the 13 duplicate recordings.  Our judgement as to which are these 'best' recordings is, of course, a personal one, and the duplicates should not be considered in any way inferior, or unworthy of your attention.

Where we do have more than one recorded performance of a song, the transcription of the text may contain lines or even verses, shown in talics, found in the other recording.

1.  Sweet Swansea (Roud 1612)

The first time I entered Sweet Swansea,
For the truth unto you I will tell
I were handcuffed and put into prison
And locked up in a dark dismal cell

My cell being so dark which(?) and dismal
(My cell being so dark which(?) and lonely)
No light I could see there at all
For the neat little door it were bolted
And a plank for my pillow that night.
(And a small little plank for my bed.)

Bad luck to the judges and juries
What won't leave a poor prisoner go free
Every man to the friend and relations
But it's me for my sweet liberty

Next morning my turnkey came to me
And he told me to fold up my bed
He did handle me a tin of cold water
And a small little loaf of brown bread.

Bad luck to the judges and juries
What won't leave a poor prisoner go free
Every man for their friend and relations
But it's me for my sweet liberty

If I could only find a sweet eagle
I would borrow her wings for to fly
I would fly to the arms of my true love
And it's on her sweet bosom I'd lay.

Roud has just four instances of this lovely song, three of which are from May Bradley! The other was collected by Sharp from Caroline Passmore, in Pitminster, Somerset, in 1907.

May Bradley believed that Sweet Swansea had been composed within her own family:

"He's great grandfa.  Good God, it'd be over perhaps 250 years ago.  See what I mean.  You see, he was ...  he's camping on the side of this road you see.  Well of course them days there was very very little money about.  See what I mean?  Well of course the police come down and summonsed him.  Well of course they gave him 7 days in jail ...  My poor old grandfather was a cripple and he was stone blind ...  Ten years, after he died ...  we had him brought in, and we had him buried up in Ludlow cemetry there.  Yes sir.
Fred Hamer: He was a Smith?
He was a Smith.  Yes.  So of course that's it see.  Well then you see this song must have been, it was made by great grandfather, as I say, well double great grandfather.  It was made by his own children.  See what I mean? ...  There's a lot of meaning to it, you see."

2.  Long a-Growing (Roud 31, Laws O35)

Now the trees they do grow high, my love,
But the leaves they do grow green
The time has gone and past, my love,
That me and you have seen
It's a cold and a frosty night, me love,
When me and you was sitting all alone
And we would let the ladies know

That we are growing.

Now I'll buy my wife a gown
Sure the best of linen brown
And while she is a-wearing it
The tears they will roll down
For she asked me for blue ribbons
To tie around her bonny bonny waist
And then we'll let those ladies know

That we are married.
(But we'll let the ladies know

That me and you is married.)

May Bradley's skill is amply displayed in her penultimate verse, where the extra-long text 'When me and you was sitting all alone' are effortlessly fitted into a modified melody.  Beautiful!

Roud shows this song to be widely known, with 181 entries from right across the Anglophone world, and with the majority from England.  It is most usually titled The Trees they do Grow High, but examples along the lines of Long a-Growing are also very frequent.  Clearly its popularity endured until recently, since about one third of the entries are sound recordings.

Although the sad tale of such failed arranged marriages was universal, Aberdeenshire claims it firmly for the marriage and death three years later of the young Laird of Craigston in 1634, as attested by James Maidment in A North Country Garland (1824).

Other available CD versions include Mary Ann Haynes (MTCD320), Harry Brazil (MTCD345-7), Lizzie Higgins (MTCD337-8), Ellen Mitchell (MTCD315-6), George Dunn (MTCD317-8), Fred Jordan (VTD148CD), Joe Heaney (TSCD518D), Harry Cox (Rounder CD1839), Walter Pardon (TSCD514), Duncan Williamson (Kyloe 101).

3.  Eileen O'Grady (Roud 21740)

Now I know a young lady called Eileen O'Grady
Wished in my heart she was mine
I'd never be contented 'til she gave consented
To be Ms Blarney M....

But will you come, come, beautiful Eileen
Come for a drive with me
Over the mountains and back by the fountains
Sure over the valley but won't it be lovely.
Make up your mind, don't be unkind
If you'll drive to Castlebar
For the roads is no stranger, with me there's no danger
But up like a bird in an old jaunting cart

Now Eileen says "No sir, but I will not then go sir,
You know what the people will say.
I'd rather be walking than have people talking
You know what a character will be

But will you come ...........

It would appear that this is the only time this song has ever been collected or recorded in the oral tradition.

4.  Calvary (McCaffery) (Roud 1148)

As I was scarcely sweet eighteen
Into the army I did engaged,
I've left me parents, gone on the spree
And joined the Royal Artillery.

As I was stationed one day on guard
Three officers' children came there to play.
It's from me quarters my captain came,
He ordered me for to take the names.

I took the one, oh but not the three,
The one I took, dear it has grieved me
My sergeant's had me for dislect[?] of two
My sergeant's got a dislike for me.

My loaded rifle I then prepared,
To shoot my officer on the barrack square
It was me officer I meant to kill,
I shot my captain against my will.

I've done the deed and I shed his blood
At Liverpool assizes my trial stood
Those judges and juries both said to me
"Prepare, young fellow, for the gallows' swing."

Down to Fulham Barracks I then did go,
Just to serve my time in old depot.
Now those judges and juries both said to me
"Prepare, young fellow, for the gallows' swing."

I have no father to take my part
No loving mother what'll break my heart.
I've only a girl and a friend is she
She'll pawn her sweet life for young Calvary.

There was a strongly held (but quite erroneous) belief that it was illegal to sing McCaffery in public.  This may account for the fact that Roud has only 34 instances of a song which almost all singers used to know, in my experience.  May learned it from her sister Esther, who called it Calvary - possibly to avoid the supposed ban?

Other available CD versions include Danny Brazil (MTCD345-7), Jimmy McBeath (Rounder CD 1834).

5.  All Jolly Fellows (Roud 346)

I came from the country, me name it is John.
I've travelled a hundred and thirty odd mile
I trapped there all night and it's all the next day
Right tooraleye, tooraleye tooralaleyeday

Down came the farmer with a smile on his face
"You have ploughed an acre, I'll swear and I'll vow,
You have ploughed an acre, I'll swear and I'll vow,
Then you're all jolly fellows that follows the plough.

"Now six o'clock boys to breakfast you come,
Good bread and cheese and the best of stingo
Unharness your horses and well rub 'em down
And it's call at the house for the jug that is brown."

Right tooraleye, tooraleye tooralaleyeday
Right tooraleye, tooraleye tooralaleyeday
Now I slept there all night and all the next day
Right tooraleye, tooraleye tooralaleyeday

A very popular song in England with 125 listings in Roud (only 5 references to it elsewhere - 3 from Scotland and 2 from North America).  It may be of quite late composition, and it has certainly survived well into the era of sound recording - almost all country singers had it in their repertoire and there are 29 sound recordings, almost all from central and southern England.  Most versions stick pretty close to Catnatch's broadside text, first printed around 1820. 

Other available CD versions include Bob Hart (MTCD301-2), George Townshend (MTCD304), Jeff Wesley (Veteran VTC4CD), and Fred Jordan (Topic TSCD655).

6.  Barrow Boy (Roud 21735)

All my life I wanted to be a barrowboy
A barrowboy I always wanted to be
I pushed my barrow but I pushed it with pride
A coster, sure a coster from over the other side.

I turned me back upon the whole (old) society
Just take me where the ripe bananas grow
And I sell them a dozen a shilling
That's how I gets my living
I ought to been a barrowboy years ago -
Get off me barrow!
Ought to been a barrowboy years ago.

Although this little song is quite well-known, it would appear that this is the only time it has ever been collected or recorded in the oral tradition.

7.  The Blue-Eyed Lover (Roud 16637)

Onced I courted a blue-eyed lover
And he thought the world of me
Until one day he met another
He hardly thinks no more of me.

I know my dear old mother wants me
And my brothers just the same
It's all my sisters turned against me
My father hangs his head with tears.

Although my clothes they're going ragged
Still they'll keep my baby warm
Sleep on, sleep on my blue eyed treasure
Your father won't be very long.

It was those two blue eyes that 'ticed me
'Ticed me from my happy home
Although he run away and left me
He is the father of my child.

Although May sings what is clearly a version of the Blue/Dark-Eyed Lover here, it shares the tune and a number of textual elements with Lizzie Higgins' London Lights (Roud 18815).

It is also sung, to a somewhat similar tune, by Caroline Hughes, and by Sarah Porter as the Dark-Eyed Lover.  All three versions appear to be made up of floating verses from other similar songs.  In MacColl and Seeger's superb Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland it's described as 'another of those unstable 'love has brought me to despair' texts.  The first two stanzas are from Fond Affection ...' This Fond Affection (related to Dear Companion, Roud 411) is an American song which is the same song as Go and Leave Me (Roud 459) in these islands.  Confused?

Steve Roud says "Dear Companion / Fond Affection / Go and Leave Me are clearly related songs, and MacColl's term 'unstable' is apposite, and they may well end up being conflated into one number (like the Died for Love complex), with a sub-division for the 'usual British' and 'usual American' types. 

However, I don't agree with MacColl that the Blue/Dark-Eyed Lover is necessarily part of the same song complex.  Although the sentiment and whole feel is patently similar, the actual words do not turn up in the several dozen versions I have looked at.  I'm inclined on present evidence to give it a new number - 16637 - but the missing link may well turn up in the future to tie them together."

Although there are 77 entries for Go and Leave Me, 54 of these are from North America, and only five English singers are named.  Another tip-of-the-iceberg situation for Steve, I think, because in my experience, the Go and Leave Me version is still very well-known in southern English pubs. 

Other available CD versions include Sarah Porter (MTCD309-0), Davie Stewart (Rounder CD 1793).

8.  The Gown So Green (Roud 1085)

It's abroad as I was walking

All up the king's highway
I met with a lovely woman

With a baby in her arms
I think I know its father

And you before I've seen
And don't you remember the time my love
When you wore your gown so green

I've lost one limb in battle though

As that you plain can see
By saving a bold commander's life,

All for the Prince of Wales
He's left me a noble pension

Both silver, gold and store
But it's never no more I'll repent the day
When I wore my gown so green

Not a well-known song, if Roud's total of only 35 examples is realistic.  These come mostly from England; four from Scotland make up the remainder - surprising, since it has a definite Irish look to it.

Other available CD versions include Harry Brazil, Danny Brazil, Alice Webb (MTCD345-7), Jack Norris (TSCD 651).

9.  Bonny Black Bess (Roud 620, Laws L9)

Thee shall die my dumb friend
And your soul go at rest
And for kindness I'll shoot thee
My bonny black Bess

Ne'er the wild bark could stop her,
Ne'er river express
And for kindness I'll shoot thee
My bonny black Bess

Now I'll give you a story about that, sir: You see, my grandfather told me Dick Turpin used to rob the rich to pay to give to the poor.  Well, he reared this pony, sir, she was a little colt ...  and he reared her, Dick Turpin did.  And when he reared this colt, he reared her, she was coal black, well when he reared her like, and he got old(?) enough, and he used to saddle this and he used to go, and he used to rob the rich and throw to the poor.  Well you see, madam, when the police cotched Dick Turpin and Black Bess, they couldn't keep him in jail near her, you see she used to fly over.  Now of course my grandfather told me all this, she used to fly over.  Well, this one particluar morning the man at the jail, like asked Dick Turpin if he'd put the bridle on for him to have a ride around the prison wall.  He said "Yes, but I'll have to put the bridle on meself", says Dick Turpin.  See, he whispered summat in her ears, see Dick was putting the bridle on when he whispered something into her ears.  And, my God, her throwed him off - I wouldn't know, throwed him off, wouldn't let him ride her.  So he says "Now Dick, you get on see if her'll go for you." My God, her didn't do for poor Dick, poor Dick whispered in her ears, and was away.  But the last time they cotch her that they made a song about her, that's the song - 'no tall bark stop her ne'er river express'.

Despite describing events which took place in England, it would appear that the song is only known in North America.  Roud has 50 other entries, all from Canada or the USA, and of the 12 sound recordings none is now available on CD.

10.  Cold Blows the Wind (Roud 51, Child 78)

Cold blow the drops over my true love
Cold blow the drops of rain
I never never had but one true love
And in the grave 'e'd lie.

I will do as much for my true love
That any young woman could
I will sit and I will weep all over his grave
For a twelve month and one day.

When the twelve month and one day has passed
This young man he arose
"What makes thy weep all over my grave
For they cannot take my suppose [?repose]"

"One kiss, one kiss from your clay cold lips,
One kiss I do recrave.
If I have one kiss from your clay cold lips
You can turn back to your grave."

"Now fetch me a note from the dunge...  deep
And water from a stone
And milk out of a fair maid's breast
Which maids they never have none."

"How can I fetch milk from a fair maid's breast
How can I get water from a stone
How can I get milk from a fair maid's breast
Which maids they never have none?"

This is the ballad known to Child as The Unquiet Grave.  Surprisingly, no version antedates the nineteenth century, but it is just possible that a moralising carol of the late fifteenth century, beginning 'There blows a cold wynd todaye, todaye', could have been based on Cold Blows the Wind - so says B H Bronson in The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads (Princeton, New Jersey, 1976), p.203. 

Equally surprisingly, despite its popularity and Roud's 144 instances - mostly English, with a score from N America - there appears to have only ever been three sound recordings made of traditional singers in these islands - George Dunn (MTCD317-8) and Archer Goode being the other two.  They are the only British sources since Sharp's 1921 collections from Kathleen Williams and Thomas Taylor (in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire respectively).

11.  The Barley Raking (Roud 1024)

It was in the summer an' season time
When barley wanted raking
I put my beaver up in front
And I'll face the stormy weather.

Now I'll have as good a pair of shoes
That can be made with leather.
I'll say "My love, my turtle dove,
Can you remember the barley raking?"

There are only 38 Roud entries for this song and most refer to broadside printings.  Baring-Gould had a version from Roger Hannaford of Lower Widdecombe, Devon in 1890, and George Gardiner heard it from both Henry Godwin (1907) and Mrs Randall (1905) in Hampshire.  Beyond that there are 9 versions in the Greig-Duncan Collection.  It would appear that this is the only time it has ever been recorded.

12.  Dublin (Roud 21742)

But there's a little spot in Dublin
Seems to keep my heart from worrying
There's a pair of eyes forever did I see
It's the clothes that you'll be wearing
For the shamrock we'll be sharing
But I know I'll live in Dublin with you -

Oh Annie Laurie!

It would appear that this is the only time this song has ever been collected or recorded in the oral tradition.

13.  Down the Green Groves (Roud 1478)

Now it's down the green groves I were wandering
Down the green groves by the spring
There I saw those lambs were playing
And the birds they whistled and they did sing.

Although my name it is Maria
Just a poor girl I agree
But he courted her both late and early
Until he had his will of me.

So soon he had his will and pleasure
Jealousy grew in his mind
And for to destroy his own true lover
He gave to her a glass of wine.

Soon she drank it, soon she felt it,
Daylight now will soon appear.
Oh Johnny, oh Johnny, my constant Johnny
It's all for the sake of you I die.

Now it's hark, hark, hark the cocks are crowing
Daylight now will soon appear
But it's down in the lonesome grave I'm going
It's all through my false lover that's brought me here.

Nine long hours she lay dying
Daylight now will soon appear
Oh Johnny, oh Johnny, my constant Johnny
It's all for the sake of you I die.
All for the sake of you I die.

Spoken : That's a lovely song, sir.

Although this looks like the song known as Oxford City, Poison in a Glass of Wine or Jealousy - with a verse about green groves added at the start as a scene-setter, since they have a plot and a few lines in common - Roud has it as an autonomous piece, with the master title, Through the Woods.  Other versions in Sharp's Mss, Greig Duncan, Everlasting Circle and Alfred Williams' Mss.

Other available CD versions include Pop Maynard (MTCD309-0); Fred Jordan (VTD148CD); Louie Fuller (MTCD309-0 & TSCD663).

14.  I'm a Girl that's Done Wrong (Roud 1386)

I'm a girl that's done wrong to my parents
But sadly I wander about
There's a small little shack for my shelter tonight
God help me now I am cast out.

But I've a sister what married a squire
But her money it made her a pyre??
She gave me a crown with her hair hanging down
God help me now I am cast out.

This is a fragment of a much longer music-hall song which seems to have only appeared in the oral tradition about 10 times, mostly in England.  Usually it's A Man Who's Done Wrong.  Although there have been 4 sound recordings (by Freda Palmer; Harry Upton; Mary Ann Haynes and Wally Fuller) none are now available on CD.

15.  The Blind Baby (Roud 21736)

Now the darkest cloud came across my life
It being all through my darling wife
When baby boy when he were born
To find him blind our hearts were broke.

"What is the reason, Daddy,
That I can't see like you?
Many times I've wondered what you're like;
I know you're kind and true.
Mother says God's will be done
...  to him I'll pray
Just to give me my sight and to let me see
The ...  and the light of day

Every evening after tea
I'd long to sit and to hear them read
My curly hair laid upon her breast
And kisses to my cheeks are pressed

What is the reason, dear Daddy,
That I can't see like you?
I've oftimes wondered what it's like
But I know you're so kind and true
My mother says God's will it be done
A[n' if] to you I'll pray
Just to give to me my sight and to let me see
The face of my daddy."

It would appear that this is the only time this song has ever been collected or recorded in the oral tradition.

16.  You Lads of Learning (Roud 3027)

Then come all you lads of learning,
Just a learning take by me
And won't you take the shilling
And to list on the Light Horse
With his kind persuadance with him I did regree
And I've left behind old comrade lads,
And I've fought for liberty.

It's God help my poor old father,
He's repented for what I've done.
And God help my dear old mother,
She that loves her of his son
Now as I crossed over Tallithmoor
These thoughts came in my mind
Now it's fare you well sweet Callen town
And the girls I've a-left behind.

Now as I crossed over Tallithmoor
These thoughts came in my mind
Now it's fare you well I'm bound for home
No shuttles for to throw.

On the face of it, this looks like a jumble of lines that May put together after a pint or two - but in fact she recorded it three times, identically!  It appears to be a very corrupted and truncated version of The Black Horse (Roud 3027), which has seven entries in the Index, all from Ireland.  Two are old BBC recordings, and neither are available on CD.

17.  The Little Ball of Yarn (Roud 1404)

It was in the month of May; the 21st of May,
I was strolling round my grandfather's farm. 
I met a pretty maid, unto her I say
"Let me wind up your little ball of yarn".

"No, kind sir," she said, "you are a stranger unto me,
You may love another little charm."
But what was my surprise when I looked into her eyes,
Let me wind up your little ball of yarn.

Now he takes her by the hand, he laid her in the shade
Intending to do her any harm.
Says the blackbird to the thrush as they whistle through the bush
"Keep your hand on your little ball of yarn."

It was twelve month to the day, he was strolling down that way,
He met her with a baby in her arms.
"Now I say my pretty miss, did you really think of this
When I wound up your little ball of yarn?"

Still quite a popular song (59 Roud entries, 34 of which are sound recordings), and versions are found all over the Anglophone world.  The Little Ball of Yarn has caused all sorts of speculation as to the origin, and meaning, of its title.  Vance Randolph has suggested that the ball of yarn was possibly an early form of contraceptive (clearly inefficient in this case!), although most English singers would appear to disagree.  Interestingly, in America the song was copyrighted in 1884 to one Polly Holmes.  According to Roud there are no known English broadsides of the song, a fact which suggests a late date of composition.  Cecil Sharp collected a version in 1904 (the earliest known collected version - still unpublished) and it could well be that this version, along with all the subsequent collected versions, is based on what may have once been quite an innocent song in the eyes of Ms Holmes (if, indeed, she was the composer of the song). 

Other available CD versions include Mary Ann Haynes (MTCD320), Walter Pardon (MTCD305-6), Danny Brazil (MTCD345-7), Nora Cleary (MTCD331-2), Elizabeth Stewart (EICD 002), Ray Hartland (VTC7CD), Charlotte Renals (VTC1CD), Gordon Woods (VTC2CD).

18.  The Leaves of Life (Roud 127)

It's all under the leaves and the leaves of life
Where I saw maidens from heaven
And it's one of those were Mary mild
Was our king's mother from heaven

Then she asked me what was I looking for
All under the leaves of life
I am looking for sweet Jesus Christ
With his body nailed to a tree

Dear mother, dear mother, don't you weep for me
For weeping does me some harm
For it's I may suffer for you dear mother
When you are dead and gone.

Dear mother, dear mother for you must love John
For John's been an angel so bright
But it's now I shall suffer for death dear mother
When you are dead and gone.

Go you down, go you down to yonder little town
As far as you can see
And it's there you will find sweet Jesus Christ
With his body nailed to a tree

There's a rose, and a rose, and a gentile rose
The ...  that grows so green
God will give us grace in every mortal place
For to pray to our heavenlye guide.
God will give us grace in every mortal place
For to pray to our heavenlye guide.

Roud has only 17 versions of this lovely old English carol, more usually known as The Seven Virgins.  Only 5 singers are named and all come from the Marches.  It would appear that this was the only time it had ever been recorded.

19.  My Good For Nothing Man (Roud 5387)

In the middle of the night,

No charmers(?) need to fight
Up like a nervous man I got
(spoken) Fifty years of age
At him I let fly, I pulled his hair,

I blacked his eye,
I hit on the smeller with a pot

"Oh murder", he did bawl,

But the peelers they were called,
Stright to the station, stright at hand
Now he played his cards so well

They put him in the cell
But they took away me good for nothing man.

Spoken : "My granddad learnt me that."

The only other instance of this song being collected or recorded was by Pete Coe from Betsy Renals (Viv and Vic Legg's auntie), in 1978.

20.  On Christmas Day (Roud 1078)

On Christmas day it happened so
Down in those meadows for to plough
As he were ploughing all on so fast
Up came sweet Jesus hisself at last

"Oh man, oh man, what makes thou plough
So hard upon our Lord's birthday?"
The farmer answered him with great speed
"For to plough this day I have got need."

Now his arms did quaver through and through
His arms did quaver, he could not plough
For the ground did open and loose him in
Before he could repent of sin.

His wife and children's out of place
His beasts and cattle they're almost lost
His beasts and cattle they die away
For ploughing on old Christmas day
Now his beasts and cattle they die away
For ploughing on our Lord's birthday.

Fred Hamer used more than one tape recorder and recorded in several different situations; thus you will find a good deal of extraneous noise on a few tracks, and one or two inferior quality recordings.  Possibly the worst example of this is - so very sadly - what may be her best recorded performance.  This version of On Christmas Day is badly over-recorded and with a dreadful din going on outside, or in the next room.  I have reduced the noise much more than is usually desirable so you can hear something of a truly cracking performance - and one which includes the chilling 'His arms did quiver through and through' verse, which rather makes the point of the song - missing from the better recording ...  which also fades out at the final line.

Roud shows 11 entries for this carol, but all are either by May or her mother, Esther Smith.  These are the only two sound recordings.  Sharp heard it in Armscote, Warwickshire, in 1910, as did Alice Gillington among Gypsies in the New Forest; neither named their sources.

21.  The Dapple Grey (The Outlandish Knight) (Roud 21, Child4)

Now it's of a Turkey he came from the north land
When he came alluded to me
He told me he'd take me unto the north land
And there would married be

Come fetch me some of your father's gold
Some of your mother's fee
Two of the best horses out of the stable
Where there stand thirty ay three

Now she fetched him some of her father's gold
And some of her mother's fee
Two of the best horses out of the stable
Where there stood thirty ay three

Now she mounted on her milk white steed
And him on the dapple grey
They rode 'til they came unto the seaside
So long before it was day.

"Light off, light off your milk white steed
And deliver that now unto thee
For six pretty fair maids I have drownded here
The seventh oh thou shall be

"Pull off, pull off that fine silken gown
And deliver that now unto me
I think it is looking too rich and too good
For to rot all in the salt sea."

"Now if I am to pull off my fine silken gown,
Deliver it now unto thee
I don't think it's ruffing a fitting like you
(I don't think it's fitting a ruffian like you)
A naked woman should see."

Now he turned hisself the other way
Watching those leaves growing green.
She caught him around his middle so small
And she tumbled him into the stream.

Now he plunged high and he plunged low
Until he came to the side
"Take hold of my hand my pretty fair maid,
And I will make you my bride."

"Lay there, lay there, you false hearted man
Lay there instead of me.
If six pretty fair maids you have drownded here
The seventh she has drownded thee."

Now she mounted on her milk white steed,
She led the dapple grey.
She rode 'til she came to her own father's home
So long before it was day.

Now the parrot being up in the window so high
She heard the lady go by.
"Don't prittle, nay prattle, my pretty Polly,
Don't tell no tales on me
And your cage will be made of the glittering gold
And the doors of the best ivory."

Now the lady was up in her bedroom so high
Unto the parrot she said
"Whatever's the matter my pretty Polly,
You are prattling so long before day?"
"Now the cat she's got up in the window so high
I'm afraid that she will have me."

"Well done, well done my pretty Polly
You have changed your notes well for me
Now your cage will be made of the glittering gold
And the doors of the best ivory, ivory,
And the doors of the best ivory."

One of the most well-known of the big ballads, with 672 entries in Roud's Index.  The ballad of Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight, as it's otherwise known, has been found in various forms throughout Europe, the earliest printed text being from a German broadside dated 1550.  A L Lloyd in Folk Song in England, linked the story to an engraving on a sword scabbard dated 300 BC, which is now in the Leningrad (St Petersburg) Museum.  It certainly seems to have caught the imagination of traditional singers, many versions having appeared throughout England and Scotland, though it seems not to be particularly widespread in Ireland.  However, I should mention that Cornelius 'Corny' McDaid of Buncrana, Co Donegal, sang a very full and splendid version as False Lover John, which he taught to Kevin Mitchell. 

Other available CD versions include Sarah Porter (MTCD309-0), Jumbo Brightwell (MTCD339-0), Bill Cassidy (MTCD325-6), Roger Grimes (MTCD335-6), Fred Jordan (Rounder CD1775, Topic TSCD600); Mary Ann Haynes (Topic TSCD661); Lena Bourne Fish (Appleseed APRCD1035) and Kevin Mitchell (MTCD315-6).

22.  By the Shade of the Old Apple Tree (Roud 10242)

In the shade of the old apple tree
Was a blossom that you gave to me.
With a heart that is true, I'll be waiting for you
By the shade of the old apple tree

I'll never forget the day when we were parted
When I walked around that dear old apple tree
I can hear the dear(?) buzz of a bee
And it seems to whisper to me
With a heart that is true, I'll be waiting for you
By the shade of the old apple tree.

Roud has only 8 instances of this music-hall song, only one of which is from England.  Just two sound recordings exist, both from the USA.  It was recorded extensively in America by old time artists during the 1920s and '30s, with twelve known commercial issues.

23.  Down by the Riverside (Roud 564, Laws P18)

As I walked out one bright summer's morn
Down by the riverside
I met with a pretty fair young maid
Placing gently towards my side

I took her by the lily white hand,
Kissed both her cheeks and her chin.
I took her down by the riverside
Just to spend one night with her.

"This is not the promise that you gave to me
Down by the riverside.
You promised that you would marry me
Make me your lovely wife."

"Who'd think of marrying a girl like you
To make you my lawful wife?
You'd better go to your own mother's home
Just to dry those tears away."

"I'd rather go and drownd myself
Down in some lonesome place."

Now he took her by 'er lily white hand,
Kissed both her cheeks and her chin.
He led her down by the riverside
There gentlye pushed her in.

Spoken - " 'e knows it"
FH - "Go on"

Oh there she goes, oh there she goes
She's going with the tide.
Instead of her having a watery grave,
Ah, she ought to have been my bride.

A well-known song, with 83 entries in the Roud Index, more than a quarter of which are sound recordings.  Almost all are from England, plus a few from the north of Ireland and North America.  Gypsy names crop up frequently amongst the listed singers.  Both words and tune are remarkably close to that sung by Freda Palmer, of Leafield, Oxfordshire.

Other available CD versions include Danny, Harry and Lemmie Brazil, Doris Davies (MTCD345-7), George Spicer (MTCD311-2); Mary Lozier (MTCD341-4), Fred Jordan (Veteran VTD 148CD), Harry Cox (TSCD 512D).

24.  The Tramp's Philosophy (Roud 10672)

There's an old tramp a-resting

One day down the lane
When a gang of young sportsmen came by.
They passed many jokes at his old ragged coat
And the old tramp he said with a smile:

"You may laugh, you may chaff,
Just because I am down in the world
You will find out to your sorrows,
You're up today and down tomorrow.
You can't put a stop to misfortune,
Whatever's to be will be.
I might have been up in the world like you,
And you may have came down like me.

Misfortune it came through the force of my heart
And lower and lower I feel
And from this day to that when the sportsmen they met
And the old tramp he said with a smile:

"Don't you laugh, don't you chaff ...

Paul Marsh also recorded this from Bob Mills in Winchester in 1978 - the only other Roud entry.

25.  My Love (If I Were a Blackbird) (Roud 387)

Now it's of a fair damsel my fortune were had
I were overcourted by a rakish young lad.
I have kept me love's company night and be day
But now Johnny's lifted, sure he's gone far away.

My love's an old soldier but he's neat, tall and thin.
There is none in the army come equal to him.
With his red rosy cheeks and his curly black hair
His flattering tongue draws my heart to a snare.

Now some people's talking I'm out of my mind.
Some people says that I'm large with a child
But it's let them be talking and say what they will
For the love I've got for him I'll keep it up still

Now if I were a scholar I'd handle me pen
I would write him a letter, to him would I send.
God sends him safe sailings and fair winds to blow
There is adieu to my true love wherever he go

Now if I were a blackbird I'd whistle, I'd sing
I would follow the ship that my true love sailed in
On the top of his mainmast I would build my nest
That long night, sure I'd gaze upon his lily white breast.

May called this song My Love, and before singing it she liked to explain that she had heard "a modern song" like this, but she sings it "in the old way".  Sussex Gypsy singer Mary Ann Haynes was very much of the same opinion; she had a rather similar song, which she called The Bold Sailor Boy, and believed that If I were a Blackbird, with its verse about 'Donnybrook Fair', was a later, and different, piece.  And she may well have been right, because most singers these days seem to have been influenced by the 1939 recording of the song by the singer Delia Murphy, which was often played on the radio (as was Ronnie Ronalde's 1950s recording).

Some commentators have described If I were a Blackbird as a song composed entirely of 'floating verses', although most collected sets seem to be quite similar, a fact that suggests broadside origins - although Roud doesn't list any ...  certainly, May Bradley's version appears to be almost all 'floaters'.  The song does not appear to have been popular in America (only 3 examples out of a total of 69), though several of the verses associated with it do turn up in any number of Appalachian songs, such as Pretty Saro, The Turtle Dove, The Wagoner's Lad and Little Sparrow

Other available CD versions include Walter Pardon (MTCD305-6), Mary Ann Haynes (MTCD320), Harry Brazil (MTCD345-7), Albert 'Diddy' Cook (VT140CD and TSCD665), Blanche Wood (Rounder CD 1786).

26.  The Willow Tree (Roud 18831)

As I passed by a willow tree, willow tree
That willow leaf blew down on me
I picked it up it would not break
I've passed my love, he would not speak.

Speak young man and don't be shy, be shy
For I am the girl can pass you by
For friends we met and friends we'll part
You'll take my hand but not my heart

I wish your bosom were of glass, of glass
That I could view it through and through
Just to view those secrets of your heart
If I'd love one, I can't love two.

Oh give me back to the one I love, I love
Oh give, oh give him back to me
If I hondely had that one I love
How happy happy more I'd be.

My love he is a sailor boy, sailor boy
He sails the ocean through and through
And when he gets so far away
He hardly thinks no more of me

So give, oh give him back to me, to me
(Now give me back to the one I love, I love)
Oh give, oh give him back to me
If I hondely had that one I love
How happy happy more I'd be.

Roud has 11 versions of this lovely song, four of which are from North America.  The others are from May Bradley, plus Sam Richards collected it from Bill 'Pop' Hingston, of Dittisham, Devon, in the 1970s, as did Gavin Greig from a Miss Ross, in Scotland.  No other recordings are available on CD.

27.  10 second space

28.  Sweet Swansea

29.  Long a-Growing

30.  Blue-Eyed Lover

31.  Lads of Learning

32.  Lads of Learning

33.  Leaves of Life

34.  On Christmas Day

35.  Outlandish Knight

36.  If I Were a Blackbird

37.  Willow Tree


The biographical section of this booklet was written by Keith Chandler - who took over the booklet production from Rod Stradling a couple of years ago, to his enormous relief! Keith also checked the song transcriptions.  The song notes were written by Rod Stradling.

The recordings were all made by Fred Hamer, mastered from digital copies made by the British Library, where the original recordings are housed.  The photograph (the only existing one we can find) is by Peter Faulkner.

My sincere thanks to all of them - and to everyone else who has contributed so willingly of their time and expertise:

• Hugh Hamer - for permission to use his father's recordings.

• Peter Faulkner - for information about the making of the Fred Hamer recordings of May Bradley.

• Danny Stradling - for transcriptions and proof-reading.

• National Sound Archive of the British Library, where the original Fred Hamer recordings are housed.

• Andrew King - for digital copies of those recordings.

• Malcolm Taylor at the VWML - for digital copies of the Garners Gay LP recordings.

• Steve Roud - for providing MT with a copy of his Folk Song Index, whence came some of the historical information on the songs.  Also for help with finding songs and allocating Roud numbers to new entrants to the Index.

Booklet: editing, DTP, printing
CD: production by Rod Stradling
A Musical Traditions Records production
© 2010

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