Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occasional Folk Songs
Van Dieman's Land

I've not posted for a while. Here's a song about poaching and transportation.

I first came across this song in 1965 in a little red book called “101 Scottish Songs”.  In there, the song was titled “The Poachers” and the source was given as “From Ord's Bothy Ballads”. Some 20 years later, I bought a copy of Roy Palmer's “English Country Song Book” and in it found the same song with one extra verse and a different final verse and with a different tune. I later came across several other versions in the Bodleian Library's Broadside Ballad collection.

An article in Mustrad discusses ballads relating to transportation to Van Diemen's* land in general and refers to this ballad in particular. Van Diemen's land was not normally a first destination for those transported but was used as a transfer destination from other places for convicts who had transgressed further. Transporation for poaching was not common – figures given in the Mustrad article suggest that only about 300 out of about 162 000 males transported. (It seems female poachers were unknown). Roy Palmer suggested that the ballad was written in response to an act of 1828 which provided that if three men were found in a wood after dark and one of them carried a gun or bludgeon all three were liable to transportation for 14 years. Roy Palmer uses this to suggest that the ballad dates from about 1829 or 1830. The ballad gives a pretty graphic description of the conditions in Van Diemen's land and ends with an admonition to give up poaching. The song circulated widely throughout the British Isles and has been found in Ireland and Scotland as well as England. The tune I use is the one I found in 101 Scottish Songs and is a variant of “Dives and Lazarus” but in 6/8 time.

* Note: Van Diemen's land is the correct spelling for the name of the colony (later Tasmania) but the ballads nearly all spell it Van Dieman's land.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Occasional Folk Songs

The Unquiet Grave

(Child 78, Roud 51)

The unquiet grave recounts a tale of someone who mourns too long for their dead lover. The ballad has been collected many times in the oral tradition and the Roud Index contains 108 entries mainly from Southern England, the North Eastern USA and Canada.
The ballad contains two pieces of folk mythology; that mourning for too long will prevent the spirit of the departed from being at piece and a kiss from the shade of a dead lover hastens your own death.
To me this ballad contains a reminder that life carries on after a loved one has departed and that, while mourning is part of saying farewell, in the end you must get on with your own life and put what has formerly been behind you.
The version I sing here is more or less a version I heard sung on a recording by Ian Campbell and is also very close to the first version in Child. I accompanied myself on a shruti box.
There have been many recordings of this song. The song seems to tap into something deep in our psyche. One I liked was by Gryphon. They sang a different version to me using the tune "Dives & Lazarus".

Occasional Folk Songs

To accompany or not?

It's a matter of personal taste. Some songs work well unaccompanied and others seem to need accompaniment. It depends on the song and how you as an individual feel. I use concertina, ukulele and shruti box to accompany songs. The simplest accompaniment is with the shruti box which simply provides a drone. The tunes of many traditional songs are modal and a drone will often work very well with such melodies.

The shruti box is a simplified version of the Indian harmonium. You may have seen an Indian harmonium. It is a keyboard instrument with a hand worked bellows at the rear to blow air over the reeds. The shruti box dispenses with the keyboard and has a system of stops or flaps to open the reeds as needed. Mine is tuned to the western equal temperament scale and has a one octave range from G to G'. It is fully chromatic and has flaps to uncover the reeds and can be set in any key. I put a short video on You Tube demonstrating the shruti box.

Shruti box demonstration video.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Occasional Folk Songs

This blog was inspired by Jon Boden's "Folk Song a Day" project and other similar projects that followed it. I am not going to post songs at regular intervals but rather when the mood takes me or when I have time from my other activities - hence "Occasional Folk Songs".

I want to share my enjoyment of Folk music generally so I shan't be confining myself to just songs. As well as singing I also play various instruments - tolerably I hope. It's the old adage "Jack of all trades, master of none" but I enjoy playing all my instruments so I shall carry on that way. Anyway back to the blog's theme, as well as songs I shall also post tunes.

Both the songs and tunes will be a mixture of traditional material and more recently written material by writers/composers whose origins were in folk music. Sometimes maybe even sometimes the occasional pop song or jazz number.

For a start here is a tune which is a favourite of mine: Westmoreland

Westmoreland was originally published in Playford's "Dancing Master" in 1686. The Dancing Master was a dance manual and contained instructions for dancing "country dances". Along with each dance was a tune for the dance. The original edition was published in 1651 by John Playford, a London publisher, as "The English Dancing Master". It was an immediate success and eventually ran to 18 editions over the next 80 years. After the first edition it was simply known as the "Dancing Master". John Playford published the first seven editions up to 1686 after which his son, Henry took over publishing the eighth to the twelfth editions. After his death in about 1707/8 a John Young took over publishing the thirteenth to the eighteenth editions, the eighteenth edition appearing somewhere between 1725 and John Young's death in 1732, probably in about 1728.

The original, 1651 edition contained 105 tunes and over the 80+ years the Dancing Master was in print, a further 430 tunes were included at one time or another.

Westmoreland first appeared in the seventh, 1686 edition in 6/4 time. It was published by Walsh in the eighteenth century as an untitled dance in 6/8 time. It was included in the English Folk Dance and Song Society's (EFDSS) recent tune book "Hardcore English" as a waltz.

I play it on wooden flute and I added an accompaniment using my Yamaha electronic keyboard.