Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Unquiet Grave

Child #78

This song is one of the Child Ballads. Although many have claimed that the origins of the ballad are ancient, no evidence of the existence of the song before 1800. 

The main theme of the song, that over long mourning by the living will disturb the rest of the dead, is widespread in European Folklore and this has been taken as pointing to the song being of great antiquity - possibly pre-Christian. However as Steve Roud and Julia Bishop point out in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Song
"...the problem with 'ancient' motifs which have remain current in society, as this one had, is that they are available for incorporation into a song at any time in their history, not just at the beginning of it and their presence is no proof of antiquity"
Leaving all this aside, this is a great song and the theme of warning against excessive grief which is how I see the song is a timeless one.

Spencer the Rover

According to The New Penguin Book of English Folks Song, the earliest collected version of this song was from Derbyshire in the 1870s but it appeared in Broadsides dating back to the 1820s and 1830s.

The song was popular with singers in Yorkshire and a number of collectors thought it must have been composed in Yorkshire as most versions make reference to Yorkshire as a location within the song.

This was clearly a popular song with country singers but when I first heard it I felt it had something of the sentimental Victorian parlour ballad about it.

In my version I accompany myself on ukulele as I do on most subsequent songs that will appear in this blog as I have become involved in producing entries for the Ukulele Underground Seasons of the Ukulele series of contests.


Bonny Light Horseman

I first heard this song sung by Eliza Carthy but this version came from Roy Palmer's book The Rambling Soldier which documents the life of the soldiers of the British Army from 1750 to 1900 through their writings and their songs. 

This song comes from the Napoleonic wars and according to the description in Roy Palmer's book was popular at the time of Waterloo and remained in oral circulation for a century afterwards.

The first verse describes Napoleon's basic tactics, particularly his use of cannon in his major battles. 

There are a variety of versions of this song in circulation with a number of different verses and with other tunes.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On the Banks of the Leven

Another Graeme Miles song, once again featuring the river Leven. This and "She Walks Alone" were both taken from his book "Forgotten Songs Remembered" and were both written in 1966.

I was particularly struck by the poetry of the words of this song. When I first looked at it, I felt it stood alone as a poem without the melody but a song needs a melody and Graeme, as usual, has provided a good one that complements the song beautifully.

My version is accompanied on a Kala soprano ukulele in D-tuning.

She Walks Alone

It's a while since I posted an entry to the blog so I've got a bit of catching up to do which I hope to do over the next week or so.

She Walks Alone is a song by Teesside Songwriter Graeme Miles. 

Graeme's songs celebrate the part of Yorkshire just south of the River Tees both the industrial world along the river's banks and the beautiful North Yorks Moors. His songs are known and sung around the country, but are special to the area in which I live and in one folk club I go to, the White Hart at Mickleby you are almost guaranteed to hear at least one Graeme Miles song every week

This song features the river Leven which is a tributary of the Tees rising on the Moors above Kildale and flowing into the Tees near Yarm. The song is clearly a sad one and I like the way he leaves the ending uncertain. 

My version as with most of the next few songs was recorded for Ukulele Underground Forum's weekly competition, "The seasons of the ukulele" so the songs are accompanied on ukulele. In this case on a Flea soprano ukulele.

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.