Article MT231

Wonderfully Curious

some thoughts on the English song tradition

The subject of English folk-song has recently been very prominently before the public.  Twenty years ago, however, it was only by a very few people that folk-songs were known to exist in this country; and even they, probably, were quite unprepared for the developments that have since taken place.

Cecil Sharp.19071

On 3rd July, 1900, the folklorist Anne Geddes Gilchrist visited the Lancashire village of Whalley.  During her stay she collected a handful of children's songs - Sally Water, Up the Streets, On the Carpet and Sally Married, The Wind Blows High, In and Out the Windows, Old Roger is Dead, Sally Go Round the Moon and Jack Needles - from a group of unnamed children (I say children because in a note to the song Jack Needles she say that 'the children could not remember any more').2  My maternal grandfather, Arthur Hart, was born in Whalley and would have been about 14 years of age in 1900, so it is unlikely that he was one of the children who sang to Ms Gilchrist.  But he certainly did know a number of folksongs, some of which came to him from his father, Edward 'Teddy' Hart, who had moved to Whalley from the Cambridgeshire fens village of Prickwillow.  Ours was not what you would call a singing family.  I had to prise songs from my grandfather, though my father would sing occasionally at family get-togethers.  Most of my father's songs were picked up during World War Two, which he spent mostly in the company of men from Fife.  Surprisingly, most of these songs were of Irish origin and it was odd to hear him singing such pieces as Kevin Barry, Suvla Bay or Nelly Coming Home from the Wake.  He also had a number of extremely bawdy army songs, many of which were directed towards the Regimental Sergeant Major (and/or the Sergeant Major's daughter!), though he would always 'soften' these when he sang them at home, much to my mother's amusement!  I too loved to join in the singing and I always considered singing to be one of life's joys.

Many years ago, in a French museum, I saw a number of stones arranged in a circle, just as they had been found by archaeologists.  Each stone was roughly carved into a common shape, though each stone was of a different size.  The stones had been cut during the Upper Palaeolithic period and the archaeologists were originally unable to come up with a use for the stones.  One day someone had the idea to tap each stone with a piece of wood and, believe it or not, each stone rang out with a different note!  The stones formed an early musical instrument, known as a lithophone.  Elsewhere in Europe archaeologists have discovered simple bone flutes:

Gravettian sites in Europe have provided large numbers of multiholed wind instruments, shown by experimentation to have served as flutes.  Their sound qualities are quite haunting, and they show an equidistant scale.  At one site alone, the cave of Isturitz in France, more than a dozen of these, often decorated with simple incisions, were found.  Of course, we shall never know what Gravettian music was like, but we certainly have irrefutable evidence of its existence.3
The Gravettian period can be dated to some 22,000 to 28,000 years ago.  But flutes have also been found in the preceding period, the Aurignacian, which flourished 28,000 to 40,000 years ago.4

It seems that humanity has been musical for a very long time indeed and, of course, this is still the case today.  We may not know too much about the musical tastes of our Aurignacian and Gravettian ancestors, but we do know something about the music that was made during the last couple of thousand years.  When Christianity first arrived in the British Isles there is no doubt that the Church included music and singing in its religious services.  Much of the church music was modal in character, and it just may be that people working in the fields outside the great abbeys and monasteries could have absorbed some of these church melodies and used them for their own secular songs and dance tunes, thus helping to give rise to the music that, today, we call folk music.  Music, according to the singer and scholar A L Lloyd, could be compared to the branches of a tree:

Deep at the root, there is no essential difference between folk music and art music; they are varied blossoms from the same stock, grown to serve a similar purpose, if destined for different tables.  Originally they spring from the same area of man's mind; their divergence is a matter of history, of social and cultural stratification.5
Lloyd, a Marxist at heart, saw the importance of history and of the social divisions of society that gave rise to folk music.  Did Lloyd, I wonder, also consider whether or not Cecil Sharp and other song collectors from that period (such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, Lucy Broadwood or Anne Gilchrist) saw a distinction between themselves and their singers, in the way that is often termed otherness?  These collectors certainly came from a different social background from that of their singers, but they must also have found themselves, musically speaking, miles away from performers who sang in modes that, to begin with, were extremely alien to their own musical backgrounds.  Examinations of these collectors' manuscripts have shown that songs with modal tunes were often given priority over other songs when it came to publishing the songs, and it is tempting to see such collecting activity as but a part of the general interest in otherness that then existed in a country with a worldwide Empire.6  Interestingly, the non-musical song collector Alfred Williams, who was only able to note the words of the songs, produced one of the most interesting song collections ever made; possibly because, unlike Sharp and the others, he did not fully understand just what constituted a 'folksong' and so he wrote down just about everything he heard.7

Cecil Sharp, writing fifty years before Lloyd, had stated that three principles were necessary for the evolution of folk songs, which, he thought, were the products of a purely oral tradition.  These were continuity, variation and selection.

Without the first, Continuity, no evolution can take place.  Its function is to prepare the way.  It is a passive rather than an active agent; a condition, not a cause.  The second principle, Variation, creates the material which renders development possible.  Variation, of itself, does not necessarily lead to development.  Change may produce growth, or it may be sterile; or, again, it may lead to corruption.  The function of the third principle, Selection, is to ensure that variation shall, in certain cases, result in organic growth and development.  Of itself, variation merely provides the building material, the bricks and mortar.  The moulding of that material, the business of construction, the determination of the form that the building shall take, these are the work of Selection.8
In 1954 the International Folk Music Council, taking Cecil Sharp's ideas as a starting point, defined folk music as:
the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission.  The factors that shape the tradition are: (1) continuity which links the present with the past; (2) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (3) selection by the community which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.9
The International Council also stressed the fact that the term folk music, which includes folk songs, can be 'applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and subsequently has been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community.'10  So far as Cecil Sharp was concerned, if his three principles were present within a singing community, then he felt able to say whether or not a song was a folksong.  Songs with known composers, such as Music Hall songs - many of which were sung by the people that Sharp was visiting - were clearly not folksongs, and so were put aside or ignored totally.  Cecil Sharp also believed that folk songs were the product of rural societies, a belief that could still be found in 1997 when the European scholar Jan Ling was able to say:
When I use the terms folk music, folk songs, and folk dances, I primarily mean rural music taught, without being written down, by one generation to the next.11
Actually, some of Cecil Sharp's contemporary collectors, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frank Kidson, were not too certain about the so-called oral tradition.  Folk song melodies were certainly passed along by word of mouth, but, as we shall see later, the words could, and indeed often were, either written down by the singers or else learnt from printed texts called broadsides.  But, before we consider the importance of the broadside press, we need to consider one final stage in the quest for definitions.  During the Late 1940's and 50's a number of labour historians began to reassess Sharp's definition.  Were folk songs, they asked, really the exclusive domain of the rural class (or peasantry to use the term that Sharp preferred), or could folk songs also be found in urban societies?  And, if so, were these songs still passed from generation to generation in the manner that Sharp had suggested?  And, why only study the so-called folk songs, when singers were singing many other types of songs?  In 1967 A L Lloyd published his influential book Folk Song in England which contains many urban - Lloyd called them industrial - songs, thus leading the way for the American folklorist and historian Archie Green to come up with the all-embracing phrase vernacular songs, thus eliminating the need for discrimination when it comes to the repertoire of folk singers.12

There have been many changes in attitude to folk songs, or should I say vernacular songs, during the years that I have been collecting songs.  In 1999 two maverick American anthropologists, Sally and Richard Price, had this to say about changes in their own field when it came to the study of art and aesthetics.  What they said could also be applied to the study of folk song and music:

Gone are the days of describing discrete, 'authentic' traditions.  Welcome, instead, to the exploration of change, movement, hybridization, creolization, negotiated identities, borderlands, and unstable authenticities.13
It is now time to consider those printed song texts - the broadsides.  Sharp and many of his contemporaries collected broadsides and sometimes used them to complete song texts when they published otherwise incomplete songs that they had collected 'from the lips of the peasantry'.14  According to Sharp:
The ballad broadside, which sprang into life very soon after the invention of printing, consisted of a single sheet of paper, upon one side of which were printed the words only of the ballad, or song.  These broadsheets were hawked about the country by packmen, who frequented fairs, village festivals, and public gatherings of all sorts, and who advertised their wares by singing them in market-places, on village greens, in the streets of the towns, and wherever they could attract an audience.  In this way ballads and songs were disseminated all over the land.  In later days the broadside would have two or more ballads printed upon it, and sometimes several ballads were bound together and distributed in small books of three or four pages, called 'garlands'.15
But Sharp, ever plagued with his quest for the 'genuine peasant song', clearly believed that broadsides had a negative effect on the transmission of folk songs:
Many of these broadside ballads were the productions of the literary hacks of the towns, the Fleet Street scribblers of the day; occasionally they were written by ballad-mongers of literary repute, like Martin Parker.  Some of them were learned by the hawkers during their country excursions, and were afterwards recited by them, for a consideration, to their employers.  In this manner the traditional ballad found its way on to the broadside, but, usually, in a very garbled form, and after many editings.  Consequently, the ballad-sheet, while it aided the popularization of the ballad, also tended to vulgarize it.  It was only very rarely that a genuine traditional ballad found its way on to a broadside without suffering corruption.  A broadside version of a ballad is usually, therefore, a very indifferent one, and vastly inferior to the genuine peasant song.16
Martin Parker (c.1600 - c.1656) was one of the best-known ballad writers from the early part of the 17th century.  Thought, at one time, to have been an inn keeper, he is perhaps best known for his epic ballad A True Tale of Robin Hood (Child 154)17, which can be dated to 1631-32, and for a number of ballads of a political nature.  Perhaps he learnt his skill as a ballad writer from the sheets that were often to be found in Taverns:
Even the walls of cottages and little alehouses would do something; for many of them had old English ballads, such as Death and the Lady, and Margaret's Ghost, with lamentable tragedies or King Charles's golden rules, occasionally pasted on them.  These were at that time the learnings, and often, no doubt, the delight of the vulgar.18
Such ballads were printed in a heavy Gothic type and were known as Blackletter Broadsides.  By the end of the 18th century the typeface had changed into something resembling that used in books today.  These 18th and 19th sheets soon became known as Whiteletter Broadsides, because the type was so much easier to read.  Most of the songs, in this book can be traced to broadsides printed at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, when London printers such as John Pitts (1765 - 1844) and James Catnach (1792 - 1841)19 were active.  Some songs and ballads that were printed on black-letter sheets survived, on the lips of folksingers, into the 19th and even the 20th centuries.  Other songs that were first printed in black-letter, served as the basis for later songs that appeared at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.  As the French writer André Malraux once noted:
La métamorphose n'est pas un accident, elle est la loi même de la vie de l'œuvre d'art.  (Metamorphosis is not an accident; it is the basic rule in the life of a work of art.)20
Of course, there were many other 19th century printers, and here Henry Parker Such (1808 - 1882) springs to mind21, not only in London, but also in most cities and large towns throughout the country.

Here is a song text of The Lily-White Hand that I heard sung in 1973 by the Sussex singer George Spicer:

The Lily-White Hand (Roud 564)

As Johnny walk-ed out one mid-summer's morn
Down by the river side,
'Twas there he spied a pretty fair maid
Who was pleasing to his mind.

"Good morning to you, my pretty fair maid,
Come sing your lover's song.
For I should like to marry you."
"Kind sir, I am too young."

"The younger you are, the better for me,
That in some future day,
I may think within myself,
That I married my wife a babe."

He took her by the lily-white hand,
He kissed both cheeks and chin,
He took her to a very large house
For to spend the night within.

The night being past, the morning came,
The sun shone bright and clear.
The young man arose, put on his clothes,
Saying, "Fare-ye-well my dear."
      "But that's not the promise you gave to me,
Down by the river side.
You promised that you would marry me,
Make me your lawful bride."

"If that is the promise I gave to you,
It's more than I can do.
To think of marrying a poor girl like you,
So easily led astray."

"So you may go home to your mother's house,
And there you may cry your fill.
And think what you have brought on yourself
All by your own good will."

"I will not go home to my mother's house
To take any grief or distress;
But I will go and drown myself,
All in some lonesome place."

He took her by the lily-white hand,
He kissed both cheeks and chin.
He took her to the riverside
And he gently pushed her in.22

George's text was similar to that printed on an early Victorian broadside, as The Distressed Maid, by John Pitts.  Other Victorian printers, such as Wheeler and Swindells of Manchester and Forth of Hull, also issued the words to the song on their respective sheets.  The song was also known as The Gentleman's Meeting and, as such, was included in a Glasgow chapbook printed c.1818 by R Hutchison, who then worked at No.10, Saltmarket.  Hutchison's title is strange, when one considers how the man has treated the young girl.  Or is there an intended irony in the title?  Most Edwardian collectors have come across the song at some time or other - often from Gypsy singers who seem to be especially fond of it - and there are versions from Ireland and Scotland as well as England.  Cecil Sharp also noted a couple of sets in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Kentucky in 1916-17.23

I said above that some songs were based on earlier pieces that had first appeared on blackletter broadsides.  Thanks to the detective work of Steve Gardham, we now know that The Lily-White Hand stems from a 17th century blackletter broadside titled The Forsaken Damosel: Or, The Deluded Maid that was printed by J Hose, 'over against the King's Arms near Holborn Bridge', c.1670.  24

The Forsaken Damosel: Or, The Deluded Maid

A Young Man woo'd this Maid unto her sorrow
And thus her chiefest Jewel he did borrow,
With flattering speeches he did her delude,
And all was for a Maiden-head he su'd,
Which having got he basely cast her off,
For all the world at her to jeer and scoff.

To a pleasant new tune: Or, A Shepherds daughter once there was.

Abroad as I of late did walk,
under a green-wood side,
I heard two Lovers freely talk,
which caus'd me there to abide. 

Before he did the Maid espy,
he heard her sing full sweet,
Which caused him for to draw nigh,
and thus he did her greet. 

God speed, God speed, you pretty Maid,
in singing of your song,
Sweet wilt thou be my Bride,
he said, kind sir I am too young. 

The younger that thou art sweeteheart,
The fitter for my bed
That I may say another day,
I Married with a Maid. 

O stay (quoth she) it may not be,
therein there may be danger,
For me so quickly to agree,
to marry with a stranger.

I am but fifteen years of age,
though I be something tall,
Therefore I dare not yet engage,
least I should catch a fall. 

O fie sweet-heart, you're old enough,
for I have heard them say,
Make use of time and gather up
your rose-buds whilst you may. 

Time being lost, cannot be gain'd,
and beauty it will fade,
Then be not coy my only joy,
thou stayst too long a Maid. 

He took her by the lilly white hand
and he kist her wantonly,
He brought her in that merry mood,
all night with him to lye. 

Where all the forepart of the night,
they did both sport and play,
Whilst Cupid laught to see them fight
in such an amorous fray.
But when the morning did appear
this Damsel blushing said
The young man he start up for fear
That they should be betraid. 

Sweet-heart (quoth he) I must away
since you have been so kind
To let me have your maiden-head,
pray keep me in your mind. 

Now I have lain with you, kind sir,
and pleas'd you to the life,
And will you not your promise
keep and marry me for your wife. 

If I did promise you sweet-heart,
it was in a merry mood,
I never mean to marry one
That is so quickly woo'd. 

But if you be with child sweet-heart,
as I perceive you be,
Your petticoat needs no tucking up,
it's lin'd with taffety. 

O false disloyal man she said
can you find in your heart
To leave a poor deluded maid,
and in disdain to part. 

Whilst others they do walk abroad
to hear the small birds sing,
Hereafter I must stay at home,
to rock the cradle and spin. 

But if I were a maid again,
as I was yesternight,
I would not change my Maiden-head,
for Lord, Duke, Squire nor Knight. 

My belly shews I plainly see,
that he hath done me wrong,
I wish it may a warning be,
To maids that hear this song. 

That others may a warning take,
to be more nice and coy,
for flatering young-men strive
to make Maids have a Baby Boy.

This is just one example.  Sometimes only part of a song or ballad has survived from the black-letter text.  George Fradley, a wonderful singer from Derbyshire, once sang me this version of The Two Sisters:

The Two Sisters (Roud 8, Child 10)

Two sisters walked by the river brim, bough down, bough down
Two sisters walked by the river brim, the bough shall bend to me
Two sisters walked by the river brim, the elder one pushed the younger one in
Singing I'll prove as true to me love as me love proved true to me.

Oh Sister, sister lend me thy hand, bough down, bough down
Oh Sister, sister lend me thy hand, the bough shall bend to me
Oh Sister, sister lend me thy hand, and thy shall have both houses and land
Singing I'll prove as true to me love as me love proved true to me.

I'll neither give thee hand nor glove, bough down, bough down
I'll neither give thee hand nor glove, the bough shall bend to me,
I'll neither give thee hand nor glove, until thou give me Dai(?) to love
Singing I'll prove as true to me love as me love proved true to me.

At first she sank and then she swam, bough down, bough down
At first she sank and then she swam, the bough shall bend to me
At first she sank and then she swam, until she came to a mill dam
Singing I'll prove as true to me love as me love proved true to me.

The miller he came with his rod and his hook, bough down, bough down
The miller he came with his rod and his hook, the bough shall bend to me,
The miller he came with his rod and his hook, and fished the fair damsel out of the brook
Singing I'll prove as true to me love as me love proved true to me.

Oh miller I'll give thee guineas ten, bough down, bough down
Oh miller I'll give thee guineas ten, the bough shall bend to me
Oh miller I'll give thee guineas ten, he took them and then he pushed her in again
Singing I'll prove as true to me love as me love proved true to me.

The miller was hung on yonder gate, bough down, bough down
The miller was hung on yonder gate, the bough shall bend to me
The miller was hung on yonder gate, for drowning the farmer's daughter Kate
Singing I'll prove as true to me love as me love proved true to me.25

In George's version the second part of the story, where the murder is revealed by way of a singing viol (an early fiddle), has been lost, although the motif has survived in some Scottish and American versions.  This motif was also known to the Brother's Grimm who printed a version of the ballad, as a tale, under the title The Singing Bone.  Scholars have since found variants of this tale all over Europe and as far away as India and Africa.  (See Tale-Type 780 in The Types of the Folktale by Antti Aarne & Stith Thompson.  Helsinki.  1961).  Anyway, this is how George Fradley's song, The Two Sisters, appeared on a blackletter broadside that was printed in London by Francis Grove in 1656.

The Two Sisters 1656 blackletter broadside

There were two sisters, they went playing,
With a hie downe downe a downe-a
To see their fathers ships come sayling in.
With a hy downe downe a downe-a

And when they came unto the sea-brym,
The elder did push the younger in.

“O sister, O sister, take me by the gowne,
And drawe me up upon the dry ground.”

“O sister, O sister, that may not bee,
Till salt and oatmeale grow both of a tree.”

Somtymes she sanke, somtymes she swam,
Until she came unto the mill-dam.

The miller runne hastily downe the cliffe,
And up he betook her withouten her life.

What did he doe with her brest-bone?
He made him a violl to play thereupon.

What did he doe with her fingers so small?
He made him pegs to his viol withall.

What did he doe with her nose-ridge?
Unto his viol he made him a bridge.
      What did he doe with her tongue so rough?
text unknown

Whad did he doe with her veynes so blew?
He made him strings to his viol thereto.

What did he doe with her eyes so bright?
Upon his viol he played at first sight.

What did he doe with her tongue so rough?
Unto the viol it spake enough.

What did he doe with her two shinnes?
Unto the viol they danc'd Moll Syms.

Then bespake the treble string,
“O yonder is my father the king.”

Then bespake the second string,
“O yonder sitts my mother the queen.”

And then bespake the strings all three,
“O yonder is my sister that drowned mee.”

“Now pay the miller for his payne,
And let him bee gone in the divel's name.”26

It will be seen that, in the blackletter ballad, there is a refrain, 'With a hie downe downe a downe-a'.  Nowadays such refrains can appear to be meaningless, though this has not always been the case.  Take, for example, the well-known song Scarborough Fair with its refrain 'Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme'.  In this song certain acts are brought about by magical means, and herbs, such as parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, were once used to ward off unwanted magical attention.  So, if you were singing about magic, it would only be logical to also name these herbs in the song, so that the singer and the audience would be protected from this magic during the singing of the song.  Most of us no longer believe in magic these days, but we do continue to include such song refrains, even though the meaning has long since been lost.  In Tom Newman's Oxfordshire version of Scarborough Fair we can still find a trace of this magical use of plant names.

Sing Ovy and Sing Ivy (Roud 12, Child 2)

Me old grampy died and left me with three acres of land,
Sing ovy and sing ivy.
Me old grampy died and left me with three acres of land,
With a bunch of green holly and ivy.

I ploughed it up with three rams eye

I drilled it with three peppercorns

I reaped it down with my little penknife

I shocked it up in three little shocks

I carried it home in three walnut shells
      I threshed it out with three bean stalks

I winnowed it out with the tail of me shirt

I shocked/sacked it up in three little sacks

I sent it to market with three young rats

The team of rats came chackling back,
With a fifty-five shillings and the empty sack.
The bells did ring and the carter did sing,
Sing ovy and sing ivy.27

Sing Ovy, Sing Ivy is an offshoot of the song Can You Make Me a Cambric Shirt? which, in turn, is related to the old ballad The Elfin Knight (Child 2).  It is hugely and widely popular and well over half of Roud's 275 entries are from North America.  In 1794 Joseph Ritson described Sing Ovy, Sing Ivy as 'a little English song sung by children and maids' and, interestingly, Tom Newman always referred to it as being a children's song.  The earliest known set of words was printed c.1670 as The Wind hath blown my Plaid away, or, A Discourse betwixt a young Woman and the Elphin Knight, although the song's basic theme had previously been included in the 14th century collection of folk tales called Gesta Romanorum.

Another old ballad, which seldom turns up in complete versions any more, has caused quite a lot of speculation as to its origins.  This fragment came again from the singing of George Fradley.

Lankin (Roud 6, Child 93)

You can have my daughter Betsy so young and so sweet
You can have as much money as the stones in the street.

I don't want your daughter Betsy or the stones in the street
I would rather see your life's blood rolling down at my feet.

False Lankin nipped the baby and caused it to cry
And the nurse kept on singing “hush-a-baby-by-by”.

There was blood on the staircase, the was blood in the hall,
There was blood on the carpet where the lady did fall.28

In the complete story, a mason is owed money for building work on a Lord's castle.  The mason, seeking revenge when the Lord is absent, kills the Lord's child and wife.  The child's nurse is also implicated in the killings and, like the mason, is subsequently executed.  This is one of the most gruesome ballads that Professor Child included in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  The ballad may be based on an actual event that occurred at Balwearie Castle in Fife, which was built in the 15th century, although the story is also associated with other places in Perthshire, the Scottish Borders and in Northumberland.  Over the years much has been written about this ballad.  Anne Gilchrist, for instance, has ingeniously suggested that the name Lamkin /Lammikin (which Child saw as an epithet) possibly indicated that the murderer was pale-skinned and, as such, could possibly have been suffering from leprosy, which was well-known in medieval Britain.  Gilchrist, adding that one supposed medieval 'cure' for the disease was to be obtained by taking human blood (obtained from an innocent child and preserved in a silver bowl), was thus able to offer a 'complete' explanation for the events described in this ballad.29  George Fradley's fragment is similar, in parts, to the broadside text printed in London by John Pitts c.1820, under the title The Lambkin.

The Lambkin Pitts 1820 broadside text

Says the Lord to the Lady I am going without
Beware of false Lambkin while I am without
What care I for false Lambkin or any of his kin,
For my doors they are all bolted, my windows are pinn'd.

As soon as the Lord got out of my sight;
There stood false Lambkin for to come in that night
Then in come false Lambkin in the dead hour of the night
Where there's no fire burning nor no Candle light.

She pinch'd the pretty baby till she made it to cry;
While the nurse sat a singing hush a bye hush a bye
O nurse O nurse how sound you do sleep
While my pretty baby does cry and does weep.

O, I can't keep it quiet neither with milk or with pap,
So I says my fair lady come and take it on your lap
How can I come down in the dead hour of the night
When there's no fire burning nor no Candle light.

O then she came down not thinking any harm
Its there stood false hearted Lambkin to catch her in his arms
O Lambkin O Lambkin spare me my life so sweet
You shall have as much money as stones in the street.
      What care I for as much money as the stones in the street,
I would sooner see your heart's blood run down at my feet
O Lambkin O Lambkin spare my life till one o' clock
You shall have as much money as you can carry on your back.

O Lambkin O Lambkin spare my life for one hour
You shall have my daughter Betsy she's the fairest Franch(?) flower
Call down your Betsy she may do some good,
She'll hold the silver basin to catch your heart's blood.

O Betsy O Betsy in the window so high
Why don't you come down to see you poor mother (die?)
O Betsy O Betsy in the window so high
When she see her own father come riding close by.

O father O father don't lay the blame on me
Twas the nurse and false Lambkin killed the lady and baby
There is blood in the kitchen likewise in the hall,
There is blood in the parlour where the lady did fall.

O the nurse shall be hung on a gallows so high
While Lambkin shall be burnt in a fire close by
The bells shall be muffled and so dismal shall sound
Whilst the Lady and baby doth lies under ground.

Finally, here is another piece, a song this time, but one with many of the qualities of a ballad, which used to be sung by the remarkable Norfolk singer Walter Pardon in the 1980s.

Bright Golden Store (Roud 1638)

I've just been paid off with my bright golden store,
And I'll soon let you know how I come by some more.
Concerning flash ladies, the truth I will tell,
As fortune would have it, it went very well.

A sailor on shore, to an alehouse I went,
To find some flash lady was all my intent.
I saw then before me, by one, two and three,
I said to myself, there is one here for me.

And one of them dressed in a new silken gown,
I gave her the wink and she came and sat down.
I ordered the waiter to bring her some gin,
She said, “My dear boy, for me this is the thing.

And now for you dearest, lodging I'll provide.
You are the young man who must lay by my side.
One golden sovereign before you can try.”
I paid down my money and upstairs went I.

I quickly undressed and jumped into bed.
My money I planted safe under my head.
She lay down beside me and cuddled me tight,
But I shammed fast asleep and she thought herself right.
      A little while after she quickly arose,
To search the room over to find out my clothes.
To search my clothes over was all her design,
To discover the place where I kept all my kind.

And there stood a stick, the size of my thumb,
I jumped out of bed and I well laid it on.
To escape from my blows downstairs she quickly flew,
Crying, “Ten thousand murders, lord what shall I do?”

Next morning I looked to see what I could find,
For she in her haste had left all things behind.
I searched through her pockets, her gown and her coat,
And found ten gold sovereigns and a bundle of notes.

I've just been paid off with my bright golden store,
And now you all know how I came by some more.
Concerning flash ladies, the truth I did tell,
As fortune would have it, it went very well.30

An early broadside version of this song, titled The Tar's Frolic, or The British Sailor can be found in volume 8 of William Chappell and W H Ebsworth's The Roxburghe Ballads (London.  1871-97).  It was reprinted later, as The Tar's Frolic or, the Adventures of a British Sailor by J Davenport of West Smithfield, London (see John Holloway and Joan Black's Late English Broadside Ballads [1975].  pp.259- 60) and several Edwardian song collectors came across the piece.  There is a recording of Harry Cox singing his version of the song on the Topic double CD Harry Cox - the bonny labouring boy (TSCD512D), where it is titled Miss Doxy.  Although Walter Pardon did not use the term doxy in his version of the song, the word does appear on the broadsides and, meaning a prostitute, can be dated to the late 16th century.

Sometimes we find different songs sharing a common theme.  Take, for example, this rather long blackletter broadside, A Woman's Work is Never Done, which was licensed to John Andrews, 'printer at the White Lion in Pye Corner (London)' on June 1st 1629. 

A Woman's Work is Never Done

Here is a song for maids to sing,
Both in the winter and in the spring;
It is such a pretty, conceited thing,
Which will much pleasure to them bring:
Maids may sit still, go, or run,
But a woman's work is never done.

As I was wandering on the way,
I heard a married woman say
That she had lived a solid life [grave, serious]
Ever since the time that she was made a wife.
“For why,” quoth she, “my labor is hard,
And all my pleasures are debarred:
Both morning, evening, night and noon,
I'm sure a woman's work is never done.

“And now,” quoth she, “I will relate
The manner of my woeful fate;
And how my self I do bestow,
As all my neighbours well do know:
And therein all, that will hear,
Unto my song I pray awhile give ear;
I'll make it plainly to appear, right soon,
How that a woman's work is never done.”

“For when that I will rise early in the morn,
Before that I my head with dressings adorn,
I sweep and cleanse the house, as need doth require,
Or, if that it be cold, I make a fire:
Then my husband's breakfast I must dress,
To fill his belly with some wholesome mess;
Perhaps thereof I eat a little, or none,
But I'm sure a woman's work is never done.”

“Next thing that I in order do,
My children must be looked unto;
Then I take them from their naked beds,
To put on their clothes and comb their heads:
And then, what hap soever betide,
Their breakfast straight I must provide.
“Bread!” cries my daughter; and “Drink!” my son,
And thus a woman's work is never done.

“And when that I have filled their bellies full,
Some of them I pack away to school,
All save one sucking child, that at my breast
Doth gnaw and bite, and sorely me molest:
But when I have laid him down to sleep,
I am constrained the house to keep,
For then the pottage-pot I must hang on,
And thus a woman's work is never done.”

“And when my pottage-pot is ready to hoil, [boil over]
I must be careful all the while;
And for to cum the pot is my desire,
Or else all the fat will run i' th' fire.
But when th'leven o'clock bell it doth chime,
Then I know 'tis near upon dinner time:
To lay the tablecloth I then do run,
And thus a woman's work is never done.”
      “When dinner time is gone and over-past,
My husband he runs out o' th' doors in haste;
He scarce gives me a kiss for all that I
Have dealt and done to him so lovingly;
Which sometimes grieves me to the heart,
To see him so clownishly depart:
But to my first discourse let me go on,
To show a woman's work is never done.”

“There's never a day, from morn to night,
But I with work am tired quite;
For when the game with me is at the best,
I hardly in a day take one hour's rest;
Sometimes I knit, and sometimes I spin,
Sometimes I wash, and sometimes I do wring.
Sometimes I sit, and sew by myself alone,
And thus a woman's work is never done.”

“In making of the beds such pains I take,
Until my back, and sides, and arms, do ache;
And yet my husband deals so cruelly,
That he but seldom comes to comfort me.
And then at night, when the clock strike nine,
My husband he will say, 'tis supper time;
Then presently he must be waited upon,
And thus a woman's work is never done.”

“When supper's ended to bed we must go--
You all do know 'tis fitting it should be so--
Then do I think to settle all things right,
In hope that I shall take some rest by night.
The biggest of my children together I lay,
And place them by degrees so well as I may:
But yet there is a thing to be thought upon,
For why, a woman's work is never done.”

“Then if my husband turns me to the wall,
Then my sucking child will cry and brawl;
Six of seven times for the breast 'twill cry,
And then, I pray you judge, what rest take I.
And if at any time asleep I be,
Perchance my husband wakes, and then wakes me;
Then he does that to me which cannot shun,
Yet I could wish that work were oftener done.”

“All you merry girls that hear this ditty,
Both in country, and in the city;
Take good notice of my lines I pray,
And make the use of the time you may:
You see that maids live more merrier lives,
Then do the best of married wives:
And thus to end my song as I begun,
You know a woman's work is never done.”

In 1974 I recorded another similarly titled song from Harry Upton, a retired cow man, at his home in Balcombe, Sussex.  Clearly, Harry's song was different from the broadside, even though the title and sentiments were identical.

A Woman's Work is Never Done (Roud 1717)

I'm a poor hard-working female ever since I've been a wife.
If you listen I will tell to you my woes.
For there's plenty more the same so I'll tell you jolly plain,
Just what a married woman undergoes.
Its very nice at first, you have no babes to nurse,
The days and nights so happy they seem;
But when the kiddies come, you can reckon you are done,
That' when a woman's trouble it begins.

Washing and scrubbing and mending up the clothes.
All the kiddies, with their shirts, out they will run.
I've already buried five and I have ten more alive,
So I find a woman's work is never done.
      Each morning there's the kiddies to wash and bundle off to school,
And two or three are kicking up a row;
While the oldest gets a playing, the silly little fool,
And lets the baby fall upon the ground.
We've lately britched young Tommy; he's often in distress,
And, holding up his trousers, in he runs,
For there's a job to do, for he's been and made a mess,
So I find a woman's work is never done.

If you go up the street, five minutes for a treat,
You're bound to take the young 'uns out as well.
For you have no time to stop, just to have a little drop,
'Cause the old man might come home, you cannot tell.
If he comes home and finds you out, he's bound to rave and shout,
Or: “Where the dickens is your mother gone?”
So you never ought to roam, but to always be at home.
So I find a woman's work is never done.31

Harry's song would seem to be a product of the Victorian or early Edwardian Music Hall stage and has only been found in the repertoires of two traditional singer (Harry and Walter Pardon, who only remembered one verse of the song).  We know of no whiteletter broadside.  However, the title, or more accurately, a variation of the title, was used for another Victorian song, A Woman Never Knows When her Day's Work's Done (Roud 2690) which did appear on whiteletter broadsides printed by Such and Fortey, both of London, Pearson of Manchester and Walker of Newcastle. 

A Woman Never Knows When her Days Work's Done

Now just attend to me,
Married men of all degree,
While I tell you the vicissitudes of life,
There's nothing, understand,
Half so pleasing to a man,
As a good temper'd, kind, and loving wife.
She is always at her work,
Tho' sometimes used like a Turk;
Here and everywhere compelled she has to run;
While a man can banish care,
Drown sorrow and dull care,
A woman never knows when her day's work's done.

Then just attend to me,
To your wives be kind and free,
And never mind the clatter of her tongue,
If you the truth will speak,
You know the live-long week,
A woman never knows when her day's work's done.

That man must be a fool,
Who will strive his wife to rule,
Or drive her, like an elephant, about,
You will find 'ere you begin,
You may knock nine devils in,
But never can you knock one devil out.
We nothing ought to hear,
But “my darling” and “my dear,”
And to please his wife a man should miles run,
Her all indulgence give,
Then happy will he live,
For a woman never knows when her day's work's done.

Every married man should know
They now have made a law,
That if any man should dare ill-use his wife,
Six months he will bewail
In a dark and dismal jail,
With heavy irons on him day and night.
      Men, be advised by me,
Use the women tenderly,
And to please her you must always cheerful run,
For you all must know full well,
If the truth you will but tell,
That a woman never knows when her day's work's done.

Married women take advice,
Get you everything that's nice,
A little drop of brandy, rum, or gin,
And if your husband should complain,
Give the compliment again,
And whack him with the wooden rolling-pin.
When some women well behaves,
They're oft used worse than slaves,
And must not dare to use their pretty tongue,
Let the world say what it will,
I will say, and prove it still,
That a woman never knows when her day's work's done.

They must wash and iron on,
They must mangle, starch, and blue,
They must get your victuals ready in a crack,
They must get you tea and toast,
They must frizzle, fry, and roast,
And wash the dirty shirt upon your back.
They must clean the quilt and rugs,
They must hunt the fleas and bugs,
They must nurse your little daughter and your son,
And, like a poor goose,
Get nothing but abuse,
A woman never knows when her day's work's done.

Men, to your wives be kind,
Thus pleasure you will find,
And happy through the world you will run,
You must surely tell a lie,
If this statement you deny,
A woman never knows when her day's work's done.

Finally, there is another song, also titled A Woman's Work is Never Done (Roud 2340), that Cecil Sharp collected in Berkshire, in 1907.  But, again, this is a different song from all the others and, although no broadside is known for it, it too would seem to be the sort of thing that could have appeared on a whiteletter broadside. 

Clearly, some songs date from after the blackletter period of printing.  We can date Jack Goodban's song The Shannon Frigate to an event that occurred in 1813.  Jack sang me the song whilst sitting in his kitchen, which overlooked the English Channel.  The song began:

The Shannon Frigate (Roud 963)

Whilst on board the Shannon frigate
In the merry month of May,
Watching the bold Americans,
Off Boston Heights we lay;
Our ship she lay at anchor,
A frigate stout and fine,
Four hundred and twenty men she had
And her guns were forty-nine.32

Two songs that I collected in Oxfordshire and Kent can also be linked to actual events.  Freda Palmer's song Maria Marten concerns a murder that occurred in Suffolk in 1827, while Charlie Bridger's song The Folkestone Murder tells of a murder, and its aftermath, that happened during the period 1856 - 57. 

Maria Marten (Roud 215)

In eighteen hundred and twenty-seven,
on the ninth day of June;
Maria was dressed all in men's clothes
and her mother to her did say. 

“Oh daughter, why dost thou disguise thyself?
Pray tell it unto me.
For I'm sure some harm or other
May happen unto thee.”

“Oh mother, I am going to the red barn
To meet my William dear.
His friends won't know me as I am,
Nor when I shall get there.”

“I will put on my wedding gown,
And we will haste away
To Islip Town; tomorrow is fixed
All for to be our wedding day.”

She straightway went to the red barn
And never more was seen.
'Til eleven months was over,
Her mother she dreamt a dream.
      Three nights she dreamt the very same dream,
Unto her husband did say:
“I will have thee rise instantly
And with thee take your spade.”

“Thy neighbour with his pickaxe,
Shall bear thee company;
To the far corner of red barn.
My daughter there you'll see.”

They straightway went to the red barn,
To the place where they'd been told;
And with their spade and pickaxe
They raised the floor and mould.

And when they'd dug seven inches deep,
The body there was found. 
Tied in a sack and mangle-ed,
With many a ghastly wound.

This damsel caused many young men
To court her, as you'll find;
'Til at length on a farmer's son
This damsel fixed her mind.33

The Folkestone Murder (Roud 897)

All people pay attention and listen to my song.
I'll tell you of a murder, it won't detain you long.
It was near the town of Folkestone, this shocking deed was done.
Maria and sweet Caroline were murdered by Switzerland John.

He went unto their father's house at nine o'clock one night,
And little did poor Caroline think he owed her any spite.
“Will you take a walk, dear Caroline, along with me?” cried he
And she agreed to accompany him to Shoreham cliff next day.

Her mother said “Dear daughter, you'd better stay at home,
For I do not think that it's safe for you to go with that man alone
You had better take your sister, along with you to run.”
“Dear mother, I've no objection.  Dear sister, you may come.”

So early in the morning, before the break of day,
Maria and sweet Caroline from Dover they did stray.
But before they reached at Folkestone, the villain he drew his knife.
Maria and sweet Caroline, he took away their life.

Down on the ground the sisters fell just in their blooming youth,
“For mercy” cried the innocents, their eyes were filled with tears.
He plunged the dagger in their breasts, their lovely breasts so deep.
He robbed them of their own sweet life and left them there to sleep.
      He kissed their pale lips as they lay on the ground.
He took their capes from off their backs and on him they were found.
He said “Farewell, sweet Caroline, your blood my hands has stained,
No more on earth shall I see you but in heaven we'll meet again.”

At seven o'clock next morning, the bodies they were found
In a lonely spot near Folkestone, lay bleeding on the ground.
And if you go unto that spot, these letters you will find
Cut deeply into the soft green turf - Maria and Caroline.

When the prisoner he was taken, his own life he tried to take,
But he was taken to Maidstone jail and there condemned to die.
He said “Farewell to all my friends in this world I'm left alone.
I'm doomed to die for murder far from my native home.”

“Hark the solemn bell is tolling, for the scaffold I must prepare.
I hope that in heaven my soul may rest and meet Maria there.
Now all young men take warning and beware of this fate of mine,
And all young women think of Maria and lovely Caroline.”34

Broadside printers always welcomed a popular theme to increase their sales and, as one Victorian peddler put it, 'There's nothing beats a stunning good murder'.  Maria Marten's death, in 1827, was a boon to the printers.  Maria had left Polstead in Suffolk with William Corder, whom she intended to marry in order to avoid a bastardy charge.  She was never seen alive again, and following a series of prophetic dreams by her mother, her body was found, buried in The Red Barn, Polstead.  Corder was arrested, found guilty of Maria's murder, and hanged outside Bury St Edmunds jail on August 11th, 1828.  Maria Marten, the 'innocent nymph of her native village', became something of a cult figure on broadsides and in melodramas such as Murder in the Red Barn, so much so that her three illegitimate children - to different fathers - and her possible criminal activities with Corder became overshadowed by the myth that grew up around her death.  Indeed, research now suggests that her mother's 'supernatural dreams' were motivated not so much by psychic phenomena as by her own criminal knowledge and probable association with Corder.  This version of Maria Marten is loosely based on a broadside issued by the printer James Catnach of Seven Dials, as Corder's 'dying speech'.  It was later reprinted by several other London and provincial printers. 

The Folkestone Murder is based on an event that occurred in 1856 /57.  Dedea Redanies, born in Belgrade in the 1830s, came to England and enlisted into the British Swiss Legion, then stationed at Dover Castle.  He began courting a young girl called Caroline Back, whose father worked as a dredger in Dover harbour.  Redanies was apparently of a jealous nature and he accused Caroline of flirting with a sergeant in his unit.  On 3rd August the couple took a walk to Shorncliffe Camp, accompanied by Caroline's sister Maria, and Redanies killed both girls at Steddy's Hole, some five miles from Dover.  Redanies attempted to escape, but was captured the next day at a farm near Canterbury, after unsuccessfully trying to take his own life.  He was hanged at Maidstone Prison on New Year's Day, 1857.  Almost all of the collected versions of the song have come from either Kent or Sussex, although a couple of versions have turned up in Labrador and Newfoundland.

It was Charlie Bridger who also gave me the song The Zulu Wars which can also be dated to a specific year.

The Zulu Wars (Roud 5362)

How I loved to tell the story, which I've often told before,
How we fought for death or glory at the blessed Zulu war.
Side by side we fought like demons to keep the enemy at bay.
Until Jack received a bullet wound, which made the fellow say

Chorus: “Give my love to Nancy, the girl that I adore.
Tell her that she'll never see her sailor any more.
Say I fell in battle while fighting with those blacks,
Every inch a sailor beneath the Union Jack.“

At first I thought that he was jesting, knowing he liked a bit of fun,
Until I saw that he was resting on the barrel of his gun.
Then I knew that he was badly wounded or he never would give way,
When, shaking hands, he said “Old comrade, the best of friends must part some day.”

“Take this ring from off my finger and this locket from my neck,
For I have but little time to linger so I hope you'll not forget.
And should you ever reach old England, which you may perhaps some day,
Give these relics to my mother and my orders please obey.”

I said “I'll not forget to tell her.  Of these words you may be sure.”
For it did grieve me much severely to see the fellow rothering in his gore.
The look he gave me when we parted, I'll remember to this day,
And when for camp that day we started, I fancied I could hear him say … 35

Although the Zulu Wars lasted for the period 1838-1888, this song is actually only concerned with the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.  In 1879 the wife of Sihayo, a Zulu chief, fled with her lover into British territory.  Sihayo's sons crossed the frontier into Natal and killed her.  The British, perceiving the growth of Zulu power as a threat to their imperial ambitions, used this as an excuse to invade Zululand on 11th January, 1879.  The British force, under Lieutenant-General Frederic Thesiger, Lord Chelmsford, set out to defeat the Zulu chief Cetshwayo and his 29,000 strong army, but things didn't exactly go according to plan when, on 22nd January, the main Zulu army led by Ntshingwayo kaMahole and Mavumengwana kaNdlela finished off the British central column at Isandhlwana, killing some 1,500 British soldiers.  It was, almost certainly, the greatest victory ever won by Africans against Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa.  An attempt that night to capture the central column's depot at Rork's Drift was beaten off by a handful of British soldiers and, after the right column fought through an elaborate ambush as Nyezane, Chelmsford wisely decided to retire to Natal.  There was some fighting in March, 1879, but it was not until May that Chelmsford launched his second invasion.  On 4th July the Zulu army was routed at Ulundi and resistance ended when Cetshwayo was captured on 1 September.  The song The Zulu Wars was issued shortly after these events by the Edinburgh broadside printer Sanderson. 

When I first heard Charlie sing this song, in 1984, I was at a loss to explain why a sailor should have been involved in the campaign.  However, it turns out that after the British defeat at Isandlwana a Naval Brigade was formed from members of HMS Shah and HMS Boadicea and that the Brigade helped defend the British square at the Battle of Gingindlovu (2nd April, 1879) and was present at the relief of Echowe, on the following day.

It is a strange fact that some songs, which sound rather modern, are, in fact, quite old, and that some songs, which sound quite old, are actually rather recent in age.  Take, for example, Ray Driscoll's song The Doughty Packman which contains quite a number of 'old' words, such as 'doughty', 'buffet', 'Shire Reeve' and 'hansled', and which, on the surface, appears to be an old song.  When I first met Ray he had forgotten many of his songs and had to recall them over a period of time.  Ray first told me that he had learnt this when he was a young lad in Shropshire.  Some schoolboys were singing it in the schoolyard and Ray learnt the song from them, though where the schoolboys got it from is anybody's guess.  However, he later said that he had learnt it from a teacher when he was a schoolboy in London.  Apparently the teacher had the words written down in a note book.  The more I listen to the song, the more I now feel that it is a Victorian/Edwardian piece that was written by someone who wished to 'write a folksong'.

The Doughty Packman (Roud 18306)

As I was going to Shrewsbury Town
Right-fol, laity-o.
As I was going to Shrewsbury Town
Three jolly road robbers on me rode down,
With a right-fol-lol- lol laity-o.

I am but a packman out earning me bread,
For the three jolly robbers you'll soon be dead.

The first came in with a kick and a blow,
I gave him good buffet and laid him full low.

The next came in with a swing and a shout,
I up with me staff and I hit him about.
      The next he cried, “'My brothers are slain.”
So I up with me staff and I served him the same.

I put the three wolves' heads in a bag,
And I set off to town on the robbers own nag.

At last at the Shire Reeve's house I came,
And asked for my bounty all in the King's name.

He hansled (handed) me full fifty pence,
Which I spent with a bawd and I took myself hence.

Now all you young fellow who road-robbers be,
Take care lest your packmen be doughty as me.36

Some songs also entered the popular imagination via the Stage.  Take, for example, the well known ballad Barbara Allen.  It was first mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary entry for January 2, 1666, when he said that he was pleased to hear Mrs Knipp (an actress) singing 'her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen'.  Freda Palmer's song As I Was a Walking, which comprises lines from several other folk songs, was also sung on the stage in 1786 by Mrs Dorothy Jordan.  Presumably intended as a folk song parody, it was performed in the entertainment The Virgin Unmasked, which was based on a piece by Henry Fielding.

As I Was A-Walking (Roud 965)

As I was a-walking one morning in May,
I met a fair damsel to sigh and to say,
“My love he's gone from me and showed me false play,
It was down in the meadows among the green hay.”

The very next time that I did him see,
He vowed and declared he'd be constant to me.
I asked him his name and he made this reply,
“It is T-I-M-O-T-H-Y.”

“My father's possessed with ten thousand or more,
And I am his daughter and his only heir.
Not one penny in portion, he vows and declares
If I marries to Y-O-U my dear.”
      “Oh, that's for your fortune, love, you never mind,
I'll make you a husband both loving and kind.
So off to the church, love, come let us prepare,
Never mind your F-A-T-H-E-R.”

So off to the church the very next day,
Then home to her father without more delay.
“Dear hon-or-ed father I tell unto you,
We are M-A-R-R-I-E-D.”

And then the old man he began for to swear,
“You've married my daughter, and my only heir.
But since it is so, I have a new son,
You are W-E-L-C-O-M-E.”37

I suppose that, ultimately, every song has to have a point of origin.  In other words, somebody or other must have been the first person to sing that song.  One song, popular today in Northumberland and the Scottish borders, is Alwinton Show.  Alwinton is a village in beautiful Coquet Dale, Northumberland.  Its annual Border Shepherd's show, held in October, is the final, and largest, event of the season.  The song was written many years ago by Billy Bell of Redesdale.  This set of words comes from Graham Dick, a shepherd from Thockrington, Tyneside.  Extra verses, shown in italics, were collected from Cathie Johnson of Jedburgh, who calls the song Bellingham Show.  Both singers used the ubiquitous Villikins and Dinah tune for the song.

Alwinton Show

A'm just an auld herd and I live far oot bye,
And I seldom see owt but the sheep and the kye;
But I says to wor Betsy, I think I will go,
And have a bit look at the Alwinton show.

Very well, says the auld wife, if ye've money tae spare,
It's an awful lang time since they've sin ye doon there;
Oor back lambs selt weel an wor losses are low,
So I think I'll gang doon tae the Alwinton show.

So I gets myself dressed in me best suit of clothes,
Ma brass nebbed shoon polished as bright as two sloes;
Me big high-necked collar an me tie in a bow,
I looked quite a smasher at Alwinton show.

Aa made my way doon to the showground fore-straight,
An I paid me bit shilling tae get in at the gate;
When I met wi some friends an they cried oot hello,
So happy tae meet ye at Alwinton show.

[Aw was feeling gay dry so in we all went,
Just ta have a wee drop and a crack in the tent.
Aw said mines a half, but the others cried no,
There's nae half glasses at Bellingham Show.]

We then had a drink, or it might have been two,
To tell yer the truth, why it could have bin three;
But the wee drop we had set our faces aglow,
As we talked ower hard times at the Alwinton show.

Aa then had a look at the tups an the hogs,
The horses, the coos, the fat sheep and the dogs;
And all o'er the showground I thought I would go,
Determined tae miss nowt at Alwinton show.

Aa then had a look at the butters an eggs,
Sat doon on some boxes, for tae ease me ald legs;
When alang came an herd wife full forty and slow,
Contented and jolly at Alwinton show.

Excuse me, says she, for I don't like mistakes,
But which are the duck eggs and which are the drakes?
Aa was only just wondering 'cause I thought you might know,
For they're intelligent people at Alwinton show.

I says tae her, Misses, quite plain tae be seen,
The duck eggs are white an the drake eggs are green;
How foolish one is, but how wise one may grow,
By making enquiries at Alwinton show.
      [A stept up tae a chap that was shaved tae the lips,
Says a canny man three penny worth o chips;
He cursed and sent me to the regions below,
He was a motor car driver at Bellingham show.

Excuse me, cries aw, but aw doot aw am green,
A thought ye were minding a fried chip machine;
Wey man that's a motor belongs Lord so and so,
And we're having a day oot at the Bellingham show.]

Aa made my way round by the edge of the crowd,
And aa smoked me awd pipe in a nice happy mood;
When alang came a woman an she cried, Uncle Joe,
Am so pleased tae meet ye at Alwinton show.

Why, she flung her arms roon me and she gave me a kiss,
Being an awd man like me, well it surely was bliss;
But I was not her uncle, and I told her straight so,
Mistake she was making at Alwinton show.

She let oot a yell and I thought she might faint,
For it's often a jealous woman's complaint;
Aa stooped doon beside hor, me shoelace to tie,
(In) less than a jiffy she was away from me eye.

Well I felt kind of dry an the day was far spent,
So I thought I would have a wee drop in the tent;
When I gets tae the tent why me pockets were low,
The fly jade she's robbed me at Alwinton show.

So I gans tae the bobby tae tell him me tale,
He says, Tha's nowt but a silly awd fool;
For I ought tae knaa better than an herd man should know,
Than tae meddle the lasses at Alwinton show.

I was not contented and loud I did yell,
The bobby he took me straight off tae a cell;
He kicked me inside there on the tip of his toe,
Saying, Keep yourself quiet at Alwinton show.

Aa gets up the next morning an I made my way hame,
But tae the awd wife not a word did I name;
For sooner or later there'll be plenty tae blow,
Aboot my misfortune at Alwinton show.

Noo I gets this blue paper an it says that next week,
A've got tae appear tae his worship the beak;
For seven days teasing oakum me poor hert is low,
An I'm gannin nae mair back tae the Alwinton show,
An I'm gannin nae mair back tae the Alwinton show.38

Clearly, national borders have not stopped songs from travelling from country to country and a cursory examination of the eight volume Greig/Duncan folksong collection will show many songs that have been found in England as well as in Scotland.39  In fact, so-called English songs have been found scattered throughout the world.  There were broadside printers in Scotland, Ireland and North America and Cecil Sharp, who spent a total of fifty-two weeks in the Appalachian Mountains of North America song-collecting, was able to add some 1,600 songs and tunes to his collection from this region alone.  Sharp, of course, was not the only collector then working in North America, but he was certainly one of the most productive.  Some of the songs were clearly traceable to American broadsides, but many had also been taken to the New World by the Scots, Irish and English emigrants.40

Some of the folksongs that were printed over and over on English broadsides show little variation when collected from singers.  These would include such songs as The Banks of Claudy (Roud 266), The Banks of Sweet Dundee (Roud 148), The Bold Fisherman (Roud 291), Caroline and Her Young Sailor Bold (Roud 553) and The Handsome Cabin Boy (Roud 239).  Occasionally we find that some well-known songs have seldom been printed on broadsides.  I only know of one Victorian broadside of a Wassail Song for example.  It was printed c.1850 in Bradford and the words were reprinted in William Henry Husk's Songs of the Nativity (1868).

Wassail Song

Here we come a wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wandering
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you a happy New Year.
And God send you a happy New Year

Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley. 

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbours' children
Whom you have seen before. 

Call up the Butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring;
      Let him bring us a glass of beer,
And the better we shall sing.

We have a little purse
Made of ratching (stretchable) leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within. 

Bring us out a table,
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf. 

God bless the Master of this house,
Likewise the Mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go. 

Good Master and good Mistress,
As you sit by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Are wandering in the mire.

I find it extremely interesting to note that the broadside text is very Christian in outlook, unlike many of the collected texts, such as this set collected from Alice Francombe, at her home in Cam, Dursley, Glostershire in1980, which contain far older pagan images. 

Wassail Song (Roud 209)

Waissail, waissail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made of the maypole and tree,
And a wassailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.
Drink unto thee, drink unto thee,
Our wassailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.

Now here's to the ox and its too long tail,
May God send our master a fine keg of ale.
A fine keg of ale as we may all see,
And a waissailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.

Now here's to the ox and to its hind leg,
May God send our master a fine christmas peg.
And a fine christmas peg as we may all see,
And a wassailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.

And here's to the ox and to its long horn,
May God send our master a fine crop of corn.
A fine crop of corn as we may all see,
And a waissailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.
Drink unto thee, drink unto thee,
Our waissailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.
      Now here's to the ox and to its right eye,
May God send our Mrs a fine Christmas pie.
A fine Christmas pie that we may all see,
And a wassailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.
Drink unto thee, drink unto thee,
Our waissailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.

Now here's to the ox and to its right ear,
May God send our master a happy new year.
A happy new year that we may all see,
And a wassailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.
Drink unto thee, drink unto thee,
Our wassailing bowl we'll drink unto thee.

Now, Landlord, come fill us a bowl of your best.
We hope that Christ's sake in heaven will bless.
But if you should fill us a bowl of your small,
Then down shall go landlord, bowl and all.41

'The midwinter carolling custom', according to A L Lloyd, 'is very ancient.  We know it existed in ancient Greece.  And today from western Europe to the Balkans it still persists, whether the songs have pagan or Christian words, and whether the singers are in disguise or not.'42  Cecil Sharp collected no fewer than twenty-seven versions, many of which are echoes from olden times.  Take, for example, the set from Bratton in Somerset.  'The wassailers used to meet in the orchard about seven or eight o'clock in the evening, join hands, and dance in a ring round an apple tree singing the song.  At the conclusion they stamped on the ground, fired off their guns, and made as much noise as they could while they shouted in unison the words appended to the song.  Having placed some pieces of toast soaked in cider on one of the branches, they proceeded to another tree, around which they repeated the ceremony.' When Cecil Sharp asked the singer what happened to the toast, he replied: “All gone in the morning; some say the birds eat it, but …” (Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs edited by Maud Karpeles.  London, 1974.  Volume 2, p.635).  Alice Francombe's text combines both Christian and Pagan elements and has God and Christ rubbing shoulders with the ritual ox, a descendant of both the sacred Apis Bull of Egypt and the Bull Kings of ancient Turkey and Greece.

So, it would seem that folksongs were transmitted partly by way of print and partly by word of mouth.  And we know that the oral tradition can stretch over many, many years.  Here is a short story that comes from my one-time home town of Berwick-upon-Tweed:

In 1929 a Mr Craw said his father knew a man who when a boy, had been told by a very old woman that she could remember being carried as a child to see a witch burned on the Knowe.  She said "when the fire was lit, the crazed old woman held out her skinny hands to warm them at the blaze.".43
As the last-known execution of a witch occurred in Devon in 1685, the above story may seem a little far-fetched, although it seems to me that the tale is based on fact, possibly with one or two generations of tellers having slipped out of the story over the years.  And yet, there are still songs and ballads being sung today, or certainly during the last twenty or thirty years, which tell of all kinds of strange goings on.  Strange, that is, by today's standards.  What about the ballad of Broomfield Hill, a story that also involves magic and witchcraft.  Recently collected versions have turned up in Norfolk, Suffolk, Devon, Staffordshire and Sussex.  Here is a version given to me by Walter Pardon in 1979.

Broomfield Hill (Roud 34, Child 43)

It's of a young squire, who rode out one day,
By chance his lady-love did meet.
'Twas down in the lane that led to Broomfield Hill,
With these words his lady he did greet.

“A-wager, a-wager, with you pretty maid,
My one hundred pounds to your ten.
That a maid you shall go into yonder green broom,
But a maid you shall never return.”

“A-wager, a-wager, with you kind sir,
Your one hundred pounds to my ten.
That a maid I shall go into yonder green broom,
And a maid I shall boldly return.”

And when she arrived down in yonder green broom,
She found her love fast asleep;
Dressed in fine silken hose, with a new suit of clothes,
And a bunch of green broom at his feet.

Then nine times did she go to the soles of his feet,
Nine times to the crown of his head;
And nine times she kissed his cherry-red lips
As he lay on his green mossy bed.

Then she took a gold ring from off of her hand,
And placed it on his right thumb;
And that was to let her true-love to know
That his lady had been there and gone.
      Then nine times did she go to the crown of his head,
Nine times to the soles of his feet;
And nine times she kissed his cherry-red lips,
As he lay on the ground fast asleep.

And when he awoke from out of his sleep,
'Twas then that he counted the cost;
For he knew that his true-love had been there and gone,
And he thought of the wager he had lost.

He called three times for his horse and his man,
The horse that he bought so dear;
Saying, “Why didn't you wake me out of my sleep,
When my lady, my true-love, was here?”

“Oh master I called on you three times,
And three times I blew on my horn;
But I could not wake you from out of your sleep,
'Till your lady, your true-love had gone.”

Farewell and adieu to her loved-one in bloom,
Farewell to the birds on Broomfield Hill.
A maid she did go into yonder green broom,
And a maid she remains for ever still.44

Although printed on 19th century broadsides, this ballad is a remnant of an ancient, and widespread, story; one that has been known throughout Europe for many centuries.  It is quite an old ballad and, as I said above, one involving witchcraft.  Although, as David Atkinson points out in his book The English Traditional Ballad (Aldershot, 2002.  p.147), there are some inconsistencies.  'The problem can be posed thus; why, if a maiden really is intent on preserving her virginity, should she agree to meet a man among the bloom at all?  For, in ballads and folk songs, 'going to the broom' is commonly associated with (sometimes dangerous) sexual activity.' Georgina Boyes also asks some pertinent questions about this ballad in her article 'Singer, Gender and Power', that appears as article MT155 in Musical Traditions

Of course, the ballad is set on the mythical Broomfield Hill, a part of 'the greenwood' that is the home of fairies, witches and other similar creatures.  Years ago, people would have known immediately that when ballad characters enter such a place they were leaving the everyday world behind and entering a different realm, one in which the rules and laws of society were often ignored or transcended.  It is not without reason that Robin Hood and his band of outlaws also lived in such a place.  And yet, in parts of Britain, the ballad lingered on.  Perhaps, over the years, some of the meaning had become lost, or obscured.  Perhaps some listeners no longer realised what lay beneath this story and simply listened in admiration to the actions of such an independent and resourceful young girl.

I sometimes think that it is rather strange to be talking of witches, of maidens rescued (or, more likely, seduced) by passing knights, of builders who feel the need to spill human blood and of all the other thousand and one topics that make up the subjects of folksongs.  After all, we are now living in a post-modern world!  And yet, when Cyril Nunn sang his song Wonderfully Curious to me in his Oxfordshire home I quickly realised that this was a fitting title not only for Cyril's song, but also for all the folksongs that were still being sung.45  They were wonderful, truly wonderful.  And if they were curious, then it was because they were simultaneously not only a reflection of the past, but also an aspect of the living present.

Today the terms folk music and folk songs hold different meanings for different people.  A L Lloyd again:

It may be that the term 'folk song' is losing its meaning, just as the thing itself fades and merges into a general stream of music, into that One Music that begins to embrace not only Western high art, popular and traditional musics, but also the musics of other continents and cultures, with Japanese koto players taking to harpsichord, pop musicians experimenting with the bouzouki, a French composer writing Roman Catholic music in Indian style, and a Mongolian girl singing her horse-herding songs in conservatoire manner as if they were arias by Tchaikovsky.  Almost without noticing it we are being immersed in a multistratified music aimed at all levels of appreciation and all colours of skin, while a few producers of rarefied esoteric music, such as the more introvert post Webernians, renouncing all popularity or democratic spirit, fight a feeble rearguard action that may well end in silence, with a few works for reading only, not to be heard, the perfect performance all in the mind without the course intervention of musician or public.46
Like it or not, Marshall McLuhan's 'global village' is here to stay.  But, as Cecil Sharp and others have been at pains to point out, music, like all art, is in constant evolutionary change.  Folk music is not a static 'thing', but rather a process whereby change is the norm and not the exception.  Perhaps singers like Walter Pardon or Frank Hinchliffe are now a thing of the past, and that this specific period of the tradition is over.  But a tradition is, by definition, a living entity which, like all living things, is subject to change.  A tradition that remains static is moribund.  Today, the tradition may have changed, but it is certainly being replaced by some other form of singing.  Human kind is, after all, musical and the singing, I know, will continue.

Mike Yates - 10.2.10


Mike Yates - 10.2.10

Article MT231

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