This song is a ‘broadside ballad’; broadsides were penny song sheets that were sold by ballad sellers and were very popular in England throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sometimes they give some guidance as to what tune should be used (‘To the tune of…’), but often they do not. The Contemplator has a good short article about broadsides here.
Nic Jones took the words to ‘Bonaparte’s Escape from Russia: A New Song‘ and created a tune for them which has stood the test of time so well that all subsequent performers have used it, and most people think it is a traditional tune that Nic ‘discovered’! He recorded the song in 1974 for a benefit CD, but this recording today is a live recording from a compilation disc called ‘Unearthed‘; if you like it, please buy the disc!
Nic Jones was one of the most influential traditional performers in Britain until a horrific road accident ended his career – and almost his life – in 1982 (see his biography here). His album ‘Penguin Eggs‘ has been hailed as one of the best folk music albums of all time, but sadly his first four studio recordings have been mired in a record company dispute for years; they are not commercially available (at least, legally!) and Nic gets no income from them. However, Nic’s family have released three compilation CDs containing live recordings from concerts and radio appearances, all of which are available from the Mollie Music website.
Nic Jones’ many fans have been delighted that in the last couple of years he has been able to sing in concert a few times (although he says he is no longer especially interested in traditional songs). He is singing at four folk festivals in Britain this summer, accompanied by his son Joe on guitar and Belinda O’Hooley on piano. Speaking personally for a moment, there is no folk musician to whom I owe a greater musical debt that Nic Jones, and I am always glad to introduce more people to his wonderful music.