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. 

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #6: ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’, performed by Paul Brady and others

This is an old Irish/American folk song, done beautifully by many traditional singers. This live performance by Paul Brady is from 1977; Paul recorded the song on his 1978 album ‘Welcome Here Kind Stranger‘.


A more recent video of Paul singing the song:

Aoife O’Donovan also does a lovely version of this song, although I do not think she has ever recorded it.

There’s an interesting discussion on this song at Mudcat Café here. The page at Mainly Norfolk includes a video of Martin Simpson performing a very different and very lively version of the song.

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #5: ‘Scarborough Fair’ (versions by Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, and Emily Smith)

Most people don’t know that Simon and Garfunkel got ‘Scarborough Fair’ from Martin Carthy. Paul Simon learned the song from Martin in the early 1960s in London, and, sadly, went on to record it on ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ without admitting that he was copying Martin’s arrangement, or even acknowledging that it was a traditional song and not his own composition (the story of how they reconciled that quarrel is told in this newspaper article). The song goes back a long way in the English and Scottish folk traditions; it was originally called ‘The Elfin Knight‘.

Here is Martin, now one of the grand old gentlemen of the English folk music world, with his own performance of ‘Scarborough Fair’ from his 1965 album ‘Martin Carthy‘ (which, by the way, you can hear in its entirety on YouTube here); this was the arrangement that Paul Simon heard.

For those who want to know more about Martin, check out his website here. He is one of the best loved figures in the world of traditional English folk music today.

Mainly Norfolk has a good page about ‘Scarborough Fair/Wittingham Fair/The Elfin Knight’ here. There’s also a brilliant history of the evolution of the song called ‘Tell Her to Make Me a Cambric Shirt’ – from ‘The Elfin Knight’ to ‘Scarborough Fair’ which is well worth reading.

Martin Carthy learned this song from Ewan MacColl, one of the most influential figures of the folk revival of the 1950s in England. Here is MacColl’s recorded version of the song, from the LP ‘Matching Songs of the British Isles and America‘ (1957).

But the joy of traditional folk music is that these songs continue to evolve. Emily Smith is a wonderful Scottish folk singer; she has taken a different version of the ‘Elfin Knight’ tradition, reworked it and written a wonderful new tune to it. It is found on her 2011 album ‘Traveller’s Joy‘. Here she is:

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #4: Fairport Convention sings ‘Tam Lin’

Today we have an old Scottish ballad of the ‘fantastical’ variety. ‘Mainly Norfolk’ tells us ‘This is a truly magical ballad. It was first mentioned in The Complaynt of Scotland in 1549 but no words were published until Herd put a fragment into his Ancient and Modern Scots Songs in 1769. It never seems to have been collected outside Scotland’. It is sung for us here by the great Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, from their album Liege and Lief, which first appeared in 1968.

Mainly Norfolk has an excellent page on Tam Lin here; it includes a copy of the lyrics as Sandy Denny sings them in this recording, along with several other versions. Fairport Convention have left out quite a few of the verses to make the song shorter; some of the other versions give a fuller account. For more information than you can possibly imagine, check out Abigail Acland’s comprehensive Tam Lin pages here. Alternatively, if you want the Coles Notes version, Wikipedia will do quite nicely!

Of course, the beauty of traditional folk songs is that there are many, many versions of them. One that was recorded at about the same time as the Fairport version is this excellent a cappella take by Anne Briggs (one of my favourites, despite its length); it is found on her 1971 solo recording ‘Anne Briggs’, and can also be found on ‘The Collection‘.

And here’s a much more recent re-imagining of the song by the excellent American duo Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer; they recorded this on their recent CD ‘Child Ballads‘.

Fairport Convention are surely one of the most influential folk-rock bands of all time; this Wikipedia article tells their story, and their official website is here. More information about the late Sandy Denny can be found at her official website here.

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #3: Chris Wood sings ‘Cold, Haily, Windy Night’

This song exists in at least two main versions: ‘Cold, Haily, Windy Night’ and ‘Cold Blow and the Rainy Night’. I first heard it in the second version; it was recorded by Planxty on their 1974 album ‘Cold Blow and the Rainy Night’ with a rather different tune. But here Chris Wood sings it in what I think of as a more traditionally English version.

Chris introduces this as a song about young love but of course it is actually one of the many traditional folk songs in which the man has his way with the woman and then leaves her to deal with the consequences. As usual, Mainly Norfolk has a good summary of the recording history of the various versions of this song. As Malcolm Douglas at Mudcat Cafépoints out, the song as we now know it is more of a compilation of verses from various traditional sources, rather than a traditional song in its own right.

Chris Wood’s website is here.

For those who might be interested, I created my own version of this song and wrote a new tune for it; you can hear it on my CD ‘Folk Songs and Renovations‘. Listen to the whole track on Bandcamp here.

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.