Essential Traditional Folk Songs #2: Maddy Prior sings ‘Dives and Lazarus’

Maddy Prior is a legend on the English folk music scene, having been the lead singer of ‘Steeleye Span’ and then gone on to front several bands of her own as well as undertaking numerous solo projects. Her website is here. I believe the musicians are Benji Kirkpatrick and Giles Lewin.

Dives and Lazarus is an old folk ballad based on the biblical parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. As usual, ‘Mainly Norfolk‘ has a good summary of the song’s recording history in England. Two nineteenth-century versions of the text are given in Child’s ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, but Child also notes possible earlier versions dating back as far as 1557. The tune is a well-known one and is often sung in Ireland to a song called ‘The Star of the County Down’.

There are other excellent renditions of this song, including this much quieter and more reflective version from Martin Simpson’s 2001 CD ‘The Bramble Briar’. This live version by Nic Jones is very poor recording quality but is also quite valuable – the tune is slightly different from the Prior and Simpson versions. The Young Tradition recorded a very fine unaccompanied version on their 1965 album ‘The Young Tradition’; it can be found here. Note their use of the name ‘Diverus’ rather than ‘Dives’, which is also well known in the tradition.

2 thoughts on “Essential Traditional Folk Songs #2: Maddy Prior sings ‘Dives and Lazarus’

  1. Definitely the Martin Simpson version for me. There’s an annoying tradition within the English folk tradition of showing off by using the most dismal, obscure tune possible when performing famous songs as if dreariness makes a folk song more authentic. Maddy Prior is rarely guilty of this sin but she is in this case. Martin, on the other hand, goes straight for the popular vote, and quite right too.

    There’s an epic, instrumental version of “Dives and Lazarus” performed by Martin Simpson and Chinese pipa player, Wu Man, which is well worth checking out.

  2. I agree with you in liking the Simpson version, although I think his guitar part may be a little too elaborate (I think Martin likes to show off that way). When it comes to dreariness, though, I don’t especially find his version any less dreary than Maddy’s. I think the one I enjoyed the most may have been the Young Tradition version.

    Truth be told, I think this song could use a new tune. I’m sure it wasn’t always sung to ‘Star of the County Down’.

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