Matty Groves

To finish our ‘Daily Traditional Folk Song – Summer 2012’ series, we return to the work of the late great Doc Watson. Here Doc sings a folk song known in North America as ‘Matty Groves’ (it’s from his 1966 album ‘Home Again’); in the British Isles it is usually known as ‘Little Musgrave’. There are excellent recordings of the British variant by Planxty, Martin Simpson, and Nic Jones; Jean Ritchie also recorded the song as ‘Little Musgrave’, which goes to show that these songs can’t be neatly divided into ‘British’ and ‘American’ versions! But, as one of the YouTube comments says, there is not the tiniest bit of pretension in Doc’s voice, and so I’m very pleased to have him bring our summer home with this old song.

This song is very old; there’s a version of it on a broadside ballad sheet in the Bodleian Library in Oxford dating back to 1658. Mudcat has a good discussion of ‘Little Musgrave’ on this thread (and there are many links). Wikipedia will give you the Coles Notes version here!

I’ve already mentioned Doc Watson in our posts from July 20th and August 13th; there are very few musicians for whom I have a greater respect and admiration. Rest in peace and rise in glory, Doc.

And since this is the final post in our ‘Daily Traditional Folk Song – Summer 2012’ series, can I just say how much I’ve enjoyed searching out the posts and doing the research about the songs; many of them I knew anyway, but some I didn’t, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. And thank you to all who have started following my blog and have left comments on the songs; I’m glad you enjoyed them.

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Clyde Water

Continuing our Nicfest, today we have a song that appeared on his famous 1980 album ‘Penguin Eggs’ – but in my opinion, this live solo version is much better (Nic says on the sleeve notes to one of his live albums that even Julia, his wife, didn’t like what he’s done to Clyde Water – under the title of ‘Drowned Lovers’ – on Penguin Eggs). Once again, it comes from Nic’s collection of live recordings ‘Game, Set, and Match’.

Nowadays this is often thought of as an English folk song because the versions by Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, and Kate Rusby have become so well-known. However, it has in fact never been collected anywhere other than Scotland, and all the traditional versions are written in Scots brogue; Nic Jones may have been the first to Anglicize the lyrics, and Kate Rusby certainly got her version from him. One interesting change that Nic introduced is that the earlier versions all state that Willie’s nose began to bleed (apparently an old superstition that your lover was being unfaithful to you), but Nic changed this to ‘He’s doubting on fair Margaret’s love, and his heart began to bleed’.

This song, under the name ‘The Mother’s Malison’ (i.e. curse) appears as Ballad #216 in Francis J. Child’s ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, and the earliest version he quotes dates back to 1802. However, Child collected written texts, not oral songs from singers, and the oral versions no doubt considerably predate the written texts. A discussion on various versions of the song appears on Mudcat Café here, and Mainly Norfolk has its usual summary of British recordings here.

By the way, Kate Rusby’s version is available on YouTube here. Martin Carthy also has a very fine version, sung to a completely different tune, but I can’t find it on YouTube; it’s available from Amazon.com here.

Seven Yellow Gypsies

I’m strongly tempted to have a Nic Jones Fest in the last couple of days of this series! Whether or not we do that, it was unthinkable that we could have a summer of traditional folk songs without including at least one version of ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’. So here we have a live recording of Nic Jones singing the song; this recording is found on ‘Game, Set, and Match’, which is one of the collections of his live recordings.

I’m not entirely sure of the history of ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’, but I know that it is one of the most widely-known songs in the tradition. There are several different sub-families of it, including ‘Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’ (which I first heard on a Planxty recording, and have also heard to a completely different tune from Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson), ‘Black-Jack Davy’ (which I think is an Irish/American variant), and ‘Gypsy Laddie/Gypsy Davy’.

Mainly Norfolk has a summary of the British recording history of this song here. There are numerous discussions of the history of the song on Mudcat Café; this is a good place to start. I’ve been wondering for a while if Bob Dylan got his ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ song title from a line in this song, but of course I have no way of knowing.

I should add that this variant of the song is customarily sung in the minor key; I don’t know if Nic transposed it into the major, or if he tapped into another version of the tune. I suspect the former.

Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór

We haven’t had much in the way of instrumental music in this series, so here is one of my favourite instrumentals, ‘Si Bheag, Si Mhor’ by the blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), arranged and played by William Coulter.

Wikipedia says of O’Carolan,

(he) was a blind early Irish harper, composer and singer whose great fame is due to his gift for melodic composition. He was the last great Irish harper-composer and is considered by many to be Ireland’s national composer. Harpers in the old Irish tradition were still living as late as 1792…but there is no proof of any of these being composers. Ó Hámsaigh did play some of Carolan’s music but disliked it for being too modern. Some of O’Carolan’s own compositions show influence from the style of continental classical music, whereas others such as Carolan’s Farewell to Music reflect a much older style of “Gaelic Harping”.

‘Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór’ is said to have been Carolan’s first song – the piece he wrote after he was urged to take up composition at the first house he ever visited. The title translates as “The little fairy hill and the big fairy hill” and is said to be based upon a local legend about a war between two fairy armies.

William Coulter is a well-known American guitarist (amongst many other things, he was the guitarist on Eilis Kennedy’s CD ‘A Time to Sail’, mentioned in the previous post). His website is here.

Lord Franklin

I have high standards for this song, because it is amongst my top two or three all time favourite traditional folk songs. I’ve been searching YouTube all summer for a version I really liked, so I could share it with you. Well, here is New England guitarist David Surette with a lovely DADGAD arrangement (for non-guitarists, DADGAD is an alternative tuning much used by ‘Celtic’ musicians, in contrast to standard guitar tuning which is EADGBE).

The Franklin expedition was lost in the Canadian Arctic in the late 1840s, and for many years Franklin’s widow funded further expeditions to look for her husband and his crew. Franklin and his ships have still not been found, although some of the bodies of his men have been discovered, and I heard today that the Canadian government is going to have another look very soon!

This song is sometimes called ‘Lord Franklin’ and sometimes ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament’. It first appeared on a broadside ballad sheet in London around 1850, but quickly passed into the tradition and evolved, as traditional songs will. Mainly Norfolk gives a couple of alternative versions of the song along with a short list of British recordings. Mudcat has a number of interesting and wide-ranging threads on the song (including some amusing parodies of the lyrics); this one is as good a place to start as any.

I should say that my two absolute favourite recordings of Lord Franklin are not available on YouTube; they are Nic Jones’ live version (now found on his CD ‘In Search of Nic Jones‘), and a beautiful arrangement by Irish singer Éilís Kennedy on her CD ‘Time to Sail’. If you can get them, do! (‘Time to Sail’ is hard to find nowadays)

David Surette is a very fine guitarist and guitar teacher in New England. He shares a website with Suzy Burke here, on which I learn the following:

One of New England’s finest guitarists, David Surette has been quietly generating a growing following for his work as a soloist. His solo albums “Back Roads” and “Trip to Kemper” have helped to establish him as a top player and arranger of Celtic fingerstyle guitar, yet his diverse repertoire also includes original compositions, blues and ragtime, traditional American roots music, and folk music from a variety of traditions, all played with finesse, taste, and virtuosity. He is equally at home on the mandolin and bouzouki, and is well-known as a top-notch accompanist in New England’s contra dance and Celtic music circles, and is also in demand as a studio musician and sideman. He has performed throughout the country at festivals, concerts, coffeehouses and contra dances, and in 1999 toured in Brittany, France. Since 1988 Surette has enjoyed an inspired musical partnership with singer Susie Burke, with whom he has just released a duo recording, “Sometimes in the Evening”. He also plays regularly with fiddler Rodney Miller, with whom he performed at the 1999 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and wth whom he has released two recordings. In addition to performing and recording, Surette maintains an active teaching schedule, and is head of the folk department at the Concord (NH) Community Music School. He has also taught at numerous summer music camps, including Augusta Heritage Festival (WV), Swannanoa Gathering (NC), Summer Acoustic Music Week (NH), and Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School (CA). He was awarded an NEA travel grant in 1994 to study the traditional music of Brittany, and has written a book of Celtic guitar arrangements for Mel Bay Publications.

The Snow it Melts the Soonest

A few years ago Sting put out a Christmas album that included the old folk song ‘The Snow It melts the Soonest’. I have no idea where Sting learned the song, but I’d think there’s a good chance that, like many other people, he first heard it from Anne Briggs. Here, from her 1971 album ‘Anne Briggs’, is her beautiful a cappella version of ‘The Snow It Melts the Soonest’.

There’s a good discussion of the history of this song at Mudcat Café here, with links to some other interesting threads too; the song seems to have been first collected in Northumberland in 1821. Mainly Norfolk lists some of the recordings of this song, though not Sting’s (perhaps a bit of ‘real folk singer’ snobbishness going on there???).

As I mentioned on August 4th, Anne Briggs had a brief but highly influential career in British folk music in the 60s and 70s, but it has been many year since she has toured or recorded. Wikipedia gives the outline of her story here, and there is an interesting 2007 interview in the Guardian here.

Cruel (Haul Away)

Today we have Appalachian storyteller and ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams singing an American mountain version of an old British ballad, variously known as ‘Cruel’ or ‘Haul Away’.

I know very little about this song. I first heard a recognisable variant of it on Kate Rusby’s album ‘Underneath the Stars’, credited as ‘Lyrics: K. Rusby/Trad.; Tune: K. Rusby’. However, Kate’s tune is quite similar to the one Sheila Kay Adams sings in this video, which is described as ‘a song she learned from her cousin Berzilla Wallin’. So whether Kate wrote a tune that was actually quite close to a traditional source, or Berzilla Wallin learned her tune from a very contemporary singer, I couldn’t say! I do know, however, that a recognizably similar set of lyrics appears in a songbook with the marvellous name of ‘The Universal Songster, Or, Museum of Mirth, Forming the Most Complete, Extensive, and Valuable Collection of Ancient and Modern Songs in the English Language : with a Copious and Classified Index‘, published in London by Jones and Company in 1828 (see Google Books e-text here; ‘Oh, Cruel’ is on page 43).

Sheila Kay Adams was born in Tennessee in 1953 and grew up in North Carolina. She is the seventh generation of traditional ballad singers in her family, and first performed in front of an audience in 1976, accompanying her grandmother onstage at Duke University. She has recorded several albums of traditional songs, as well as publishing collections of stories. This page gives a good outline of her life and career to date.