Essential Traditional Folk Songs #7: ‘Blackwaterside’ performed by Bert Jansch and others.

Here is the late Bert Jansch performing his classic arrangement of the old Irish folk song ‘Blackwaterside’.

I first heard Bert’s distinctive style of singing and playing on the first real folk album I ever owned, Pentangle’s ‘Basket of Light‘. His website is here.

Bert learned Blackwaterside from Anne Briggs, but her version of it was quite different from his. It was Bert who transformed the song into a guitar classic, but Anne was a much better singer than him. Here she is:

Many have since followed in Bert’s footsteps. Here is Cara Luft, channelling Bert Jansch.

As usual, Mainly Norfolk has a good summary of the recording history of the song. Mudcat Café has an interesting discussion on the history of the song, though it gets a little heated in places. The late Malcolm Douglas gives a good summary:

The version on the Digital Tradition is from Jean Redpath’s recording; she doesn’t name a source, other than to say that it’s Irish.  Probably most people who sing it nowadays are using the version recorded in the 1960s and ’70s by, most notably, Sandy Denny and before her, Bert Jansch.  Jansch got it from Anne Briggs, who in turn -so far as I know- had it from A.L.Lloyd.  Lloyd may have got it from the BBC Sound Archives’ recording (made by Peter Kennedy and S. O’Boyle in 1952) of Paddy and Mary Doran.

Peter Kennedy gives a version, Down By Blackwaterside, in Folksongs of Britain and Ireland.  That one came from the traveller Winnie Ryan, (Belfast, 1952), and has pretty much the tune we all know.  Versions with much the same text (but different tunes) were collected in the West Country around the turn of the century by, among others, Baring Gould (The Squire And The Fair Maid) and Gardiner (Abroad As I Was Walking).  The issue is muddied by the fact that there are other, overlapping songs such as Captain Thunderbolt (Down By The Shannon Side) and Down By The Riverside and another song called Down By Blackwaterside (The Irish Maid) which has a quite different story.  19th century broadsides of most of those can be found at the Bodleian Library site. 

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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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