Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cruel Ship's Carpenter

A murder ballad in which a man murders his girlfriend. He then takes ship, the ship runs into trouble and the girl's spirit returns to deal with the murderer.

According to the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs; "This song was widely collected in Britain and Ireland with a huge number of versions found in North America where it was one of several songs called Pretty Polly."

The song originated in much longer form in the 18th century but was published in shorter form in the early and mid 19th century in shorter form by several broadside printers. There are a number of broadsides of this ballad in the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballad Collection. In them,  a sailor's suspicion that a ship with a murderer on board is unable to sail on further is invoked. In this case the murderer, having denied his crime is confronted by his ghost of his victim who tears him limb from limb.

The version I sing here, I found in Cecil Sharpe's and Maud Karpeles's book of songs they collected in the Appalachians in 1916/17. In this version the ship carrying the murderer sinks and his victim's soul comes to escort the murderer's soul to hell. I find this somehow more satisfying, I don't know why but it somehow feels more convincing.

I accompany myself on a soprano ukulele and have added a shruti box drone which added to the almost constant Gm chord, I think helps to convey something of the darkness of this song. 

I recently heard another version of this song sung by Bob Conroy of Long Island, USA on a visit here to the UK. His version was interesting because it lacked the ghostly element.

Freeborn Man

This song was written by Ewan MacColl for the radio ballad Travelling People which was originally broadcast in 1964 and was the last of eight radio ballads broadcast between 1959 and 1964.

The radio ballads were the original creation of Charles Parker, a BBC radio producer together with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger who between them created a form of documentary which mixed the voices of the actual participants involved with sounds recorded in the field and songs written by Ewan MacColl and arranged by Peggy Seeger.

The radio ballads were groundbreaking in using the actual voices of participants involved in the events which the radio ballad was based on. Previously, in documentaries about ordinary working people, participants were interviewed and then the topic of the interview would be scripted and actors would then be used on the actual programme. The format devised by Parker was very successful and the BBC had to repeat them as a result of requests from listeners after they were first broadcast.

I first came across them in the late 1960s when I found the first one, The Ballad of John Axon, on an LP in the local library. I was captivated and went back looking for more. The local library had two more, Singing the Fishing and The Travelling People and there was reference to a fourth, The Big Hewer. I found the mixture of dialogue and song compelling and there were some wonderful songs.

The Travelling People is concerned with the gypsy and tinker population who were, and are, a people who live on the margins of our society and are still treated with suspicion to this day by the rest of the population.

You can find out more about the radio ballads on the BBC website or Google "radio ballads" and follow the links.

In my own version of Freeborn Man, I simply accompany myself on a soprano ukulele.

Monday, June 11, 2012

All Things are Quite Silent

I first heard this song some years ago sung by Jo Freya. The story it tells of a man taken from his marriage bed by the press gang is a sad one, but the tune is truly lovely.

It is the first song in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and was collected by Vaughan Williams in Sussex in 1904 from a Ted Baines. It is the only time this song has been collected in the oral tradition.

Impressment as a means of "recruiting" men to serve in the Royal Navy seems to date back to the time of Edward I but the first act legalising impressment was in 1563. Over the next 250 years a number of acts of parliament governing impressment were passed and the practice was at its most active during the wars of the eighteenth century and particularly during the Napoleonic wars. The practice died out after 1815 though the various acts have never been formally repealed. 

The press gangs were both feared and hated as they could take people at any time, though their main targets were men with either seagoing or river boat experience and landsmen were less likely to be taken and taking someone from their home in the manner described was probably extremely rare, though undoubtedly very distressing. 

The notes on the song suggest it probably dates from before 1835, the date of the last act regulating impressment.

I recorded the song as an entry for a competition for the Ukulele Underground Forum. The condition was a single take and no post processing so the video is simply what I recorded using my camcorder with the sound being from the camcorder's internal mic. I did remove the bits at each end of me switching the camera on and off as it annoys me when I see that on You Tube videos. I accompanied myself on a soprano ukulele tuned ADF#B