Ghost of Willie-O/Bay of Biscay

Unaccompanied (‘a capella’) singing would at one time have been the heart of the British folk tradition, but of course it has long since been eclipsed by the accompanied variety (usually by the guitar). But here we have one of the finest vocal harmony groups around (although they do also play instruments from time to time), ‘Finest Kind’ from Ottawa, singing this year at the Mystic Sea Music Festival.

‘Ghost of Willie-O’ (also known as ‘Bay of Biscay’) is a night visiting song of the spookical variety. Maddy Prior and Tim Hart included in on their 1969 album Folk Songs of Old England Vol. 2′, and included these sleeve notes:

An Irish song of the night visiting variety collected by Geoff Woods from James McKinley of Tra-Narossen, Donegal. Like so many of these songs the drowned sailor, after a seven year absence, appears to his girlfriend in the middle of the night; presumably an extension of the belief that unless a body received Christian burial the soul could not rest in peace.

Mainly Norfolk gives the recording history of the song here (though they do not notice Finest Kind, being mainly a British site). There is an 1867 broadside which is clearly related in the Bodleian library broadside collection here. The discussion at Mudcat is slightly, but not brilliantly, helpful.

Finest Kind’s website is here, from which I pinched the following information:

Finest Kind was formed in Ottawa, Canada, in 1991 by Ian Robb, Ann Downey, and Shelley Posen. Ian, originally from London, England, is renowned as one of North America’s most gifted performers of British folksong, a concertina player extraordinaire, charter member of Toronto’s Friends of Fiddler’s Green, and composer of folk standards such as “The Old Rose and Crown.” Ann, who hails from the southwestern U.S., plays guitar, banjo, and bass, and has performed in bands playing old-time and cowboy music, bluegrass, klezmer, jazz, and swing in North America and Europe. Shelley, a professional folklorist from Toronto, is a versatile singer and multi instrumentalist who has spent a lifetime researching, teaching, writing about, performing, and sometimes composing songs.

I was introduced to the music of Finest Kind a few years ago by my friend Jeffrey Reed and am very grateful to him for telling me about them. As I said, they do have a name for their vocal harmonies, and they have produced a priceless spoof on the song ‘John Barleycorn’ in which they make fun of the way they harmonize these songs. I’m feeling generous today, so it’s two for the price of one day! Enjoy!

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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