Three people singing to guitar accompanimentCDSS Song of the Month

Community and traditional song in the 21st century

Join us each month in song!

CDSS designated 2016 our Year of Song. We chose it for two reasons: to honor the start of Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles’ prolific folk song collecting in southern Appalachia (1916-1918), and to look at how song serves CDSS's mission. This examination also begins a cycle of focusing on one or two genres at a time, as we identify community needs and allow for better use of our resources.

Our Song of the Month feature has been so well received that we decided to make it a permanent part of the website. You'll find an archive of these songs below as well as new ones being posted in the months to come.

CDSS’s song traditions are based primarily in the English and Anglo-American traditions — folk songs, ballads, sea shanties, rounds, songs with choruses. We also include spirituals, work songs, country harmony, African call and response, shape note and gospel, contemporary a cappella, and new arrangements of traditional songs. Our special emphasis is on community singing.

Lorraine Hammond, CDSS Board member and Song Task Group Chair, spearheaded our Year of Song efforts and oversaw 2016’s song selections. Judy Cook took on that role in 2017 and continues to contribute each month, with help from Lorraine. Our thanks to them both.

Happy singing!

Note: Many of these old songs should be looked at as "fairy tales for adults" in that they often address very strong, and sometimes scary, subject matter. They allow us to deal with difficult situations and emotions with the distance afforded by putting it in a song. They are cautionary tales, and had their use as such.

Children in the 1920s dance around a man in a city street

Jack Ashton

Submitted by Matthew Byrne

Written by Keith Marsden, who founded the West Yorkshire folk singing group Cockersdale. Keith was from Morley, near Leeds, and although he died at the young age of 52, he left an impressive repertoire of brilliantly crafted and cleverly written songs.

This song tells of a captivating storyteller who held a crucial role for children looking to indulge their imaginations and escape the dreary day-to-day of a dull factory town in postwar England. Some great language in this one: a “pierrot” is a mime street performer, and a “corky” refers to a cricket ball.

Sheet music for "Jack Ashton"Download a PDF of the sheet music for “Jack Ashton.”

Listen to Matthew singing “Jack Ashton:”

Listen to another version by Finest Kind:

Lyrics

Oh the times were hard and mean and our childhood days were lean,
In the land they said was fit for Flanders heroes
It was all a seaside show where poor folk couldn't go,
We just stood outside while others watched the pierrots.

And we only had to spend what our friend Jack Clegg would lend,
There was little of Lloyd George's promised glories,
But each evening down the street by the gaslamp we would meet.
And we'd listen while Jack Ashton told his stories.

Chorus:
And we sat there and listened with our mouths open wide,
Though we knew in our hearts that the old devil lied.
But we needed to believe in the magic he would weave,
And we took a glass for old times' sake the day Jack died.

Now our all-wise parents said that he'd a screw loose in the head,
And that we were daft to listen to his lies.
But we saw their daily grind and heard the magic in his mind,
And we all knew who was daft and who was wise.

Though he nearly broke our necks playing soccer on the Rec.,
And his bowling with a corky could be gory,
As the evening sun went down, by the lamp we'd gather round,
And we'd listen while Jack Ashton told a story.

Chorus

Now that Jack's been laid to rest, if there's any justice left,
He'll be spinning yarns now to the Holy Ghost.
And gathered round his knee, open-mouthed as we would be,
Sit saints and angels, all the heavenly host.

And he'll tell them how he saved old Moses from the waves,
And slew Goliath with one mighty blow.
While an all-forgiving Lord listens smiling at his words,
As we did by the gas lamp long ago.

Chorus

Storytelling through song is a fundamental duty of traditional music, and Matthew Byrne does this brilliantly. With a repertoire shaped by his musical upbringing, Byrne supports the tradition with powerful vocals, polished guitar work, engaging storytelling, and a presence that fills the room.

Byrne's parents were both singers and song collectors and he grew up with a strong family focus on sharing songs. He has inherited a unique repertoire, as well as a fascination with unearthing and reimagining traditional music.

Flowering heather plant

Wild Mountain Thyme

Submitted by Jennifer Armstrong

My parents (George and Gerry Armstrong) learned this song from Sandy and Carolyn Paton of Folk Legacy fame, who learned it from the McPeake family.

“Wild Mountain Thyme” (also known as “Purple Heather” and “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?”) is a Scottish/Irish folk song. The lyrics and melody are a variant of the song “The Braes of Balquhither” by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) and Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780–1829), but were adapted by Belfast musician Francis McPeake (1885–1971) into “Wild Mountain Thyme,” and first recorded by his family in the 1950s.

My mother loved this song as one of the few romantic folk songs, and sang it, “If my true love won’t go, I will surely find no other.” My father, on the other hand, sang it, “If my true love she won’t go, I will surely find another,” claiming it was more a love song to the wild mountain thyme and purple heather than it was to a person. The melody I sing is what my mother sang, and sometimes I sing “no other” and sometimes “another!”

Listen to Jennifer singing “Wild Mountain Thyme:”

"Wild Mountain Thyme" sheet musicDownload a PDF of the sheet music for “Wild Mountain Thyme.”

Lyrics

Oh, the summer time is coming,
And the leaves are sweetly blooming,
And the wild mountain thyme
Blooms around the purple heather.
Will you go, lassie, go?

Chorus:
And we'll all go together
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will you go, lassie, go?

I will build my love a bower
By yon clear crystal fountain,
And on it I will pile
All the flowers of the mountain.
Will you go, lassie, go? ...

Chorus

If my true love won't go,
I will surely find another (no other)
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather.
Will you go, lassie, go?...

Chorus

Oh, the summertime is coming
And the leaves are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Blooms around the purple heather.
Will you go, lassie, go?...

Chorus

Jennifer Armstrong writes: I am a musician, singer and storyteller with deep roots in and great love for the folk tradition. I have many recordings, books and websites and invite you to take a deeper look at my many offerings at my website and Patreon.

Handwritten score of "I've Lived in Service"Original transcription of "I've Lived in Service," courtesy of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

I've Lived in Service

Submitted by Margaret Walters

“I’ve Lived In Service” was collected in 1904 from Mrs Harriett Verrall of Monxgate near Horsham, Sussex by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

I learned it around 1980 from the singing of Vic Gammon, who recorded it with the Pump and Pluck Band on a cassette called “What a Beau My Granny Was.”

Irish construction workers in London after World War II

London Town

Submitted by Ed Miller

I know this is an Irish song, but I've always had a fascination with emigrant songs, whether to 
America or to England and Scotland.

At the Swannanoa Gathering a few years ago, John Doyle and Eamon O'Leary came on stage and said they'd like to introduce a friend who had never sung here before....on came Kevin Burke! Now Kevin is a world famous fiddler; but singing a song he had written? I was very moved by the song and immediately sought out a recording of the show.

By a lovely coincidence, Kevin was playing in Austin when Rich Brotherton and I were recording this CD, and we were delighted he agreed to play on the instrumental breaks.



A town in the Old West with a sign reading 'Yuba Dam'

Yuba Dam

Submitted by Bob Bovee

I learned this humorous ditty from my uncle, Herman Lienemann, in Nebraska more than forty years ago. Herman couldn't remember where he learned it, but thought it was back in the 1920s. I have never found a Yuba Dam anywhere or any other reference to this song.

Bob adds: I found a link to the 1893 sheet music for "Yuba Dam" at the New York Public Library. It has the same words (with three additional verses), but a completely different tune. I think it’s a great example of how songs move into the oral tradition and are passed along from there.

British soldiers in battle

Bibble A La Do

Submitted by Kim Wallach

I chose "Bibble A La Do" as the Song of the Month for a number of reasons. I grew up singing along with the mournful "Johnny's Gone for a Soldier" as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. Also known as "Buttermilk Hill" and "Shule Aroon," "Shule a Ghra" and "Siúil a Rún" (and many other names as well), all these songs lament a lad gone for a soldier, sometimes one for whom the singer has sold everything to supply with the tools of war, only for them to die anyway.

While I still love a sad song, there's something about the jauntiness of the rhythm and the change of modality from minor to major just at the end of "Bibble A La Do" that I love. There are tons of recorded versions of "Johnny's Gone for a Soldier," but only two I know of for "Bibble A La Do"—Art Thieme on Thieme04, and Deborah Robins on Home Fires (.99 to buy, but buy the whole CD, it's worth it!).

A cabin boy stands on deck with a mop

The Golden Willow Tree

Submitted by Joel Mabus

"The Golden Willow Tree" is a ballad with many names—often called "The Golden Vanity." Sometimes shelved as a "Child Ballad," it has been around since the days of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose exploits the earliest versions expound. Aaron Copland once turned it into a fancy high-art piece, but in earthier editions it is still a favorite with traditional balladeers.

I crafted my own version from several I have heard, notably those from Arkansas. But I have stitched in a few verses of my own to expedite the narrative and let my own words tell the story. Another instance of nothing new under the sun, the duplicitous captain and his venal crew are the very picture of Wall Street scoundrels.

Here is a good website that has links to recordings of Arkansas source singers with four variants with various titles.

Soldiers and horses drown in the Kabul RiverThis print from the Illustrated London News illustrates the drowning of the 47 men of the 10th Hussars. The actions have been compressed for dramatic purposes, but a contemporary photo of the scene of the disaster shows that the river, looking deceptively calm, was around 200 yards across.

Ford O’ Kabul River


Submitted by George Stephens

One of Rudyard Kipling’s “Barrack Room Ballads,” the poem, set to a tune by Peter Bellamy, describes a tragic night in March, 1879, when the British 10th Hussars attempted to cross Kabul River to occupy Kabul, Afghanistan. The river was high with water from melting snow, and 46 men and many horses were lost.


Afghanistan, at a strategic cross roads linking North, South, East, and West, has been unsuccessfully invaded multiple times through recorded history, most recently by the British, the Russians, and UN forces, led by the United States. It has gained the nickname “the place where empires come to die.” This song seems a fitting comment on the current military adventurism taking place in Ukraine. “Gawd ’elp ’em if they blunder.”


Women wait outside an Irish sod cottage

Bold Riley

Submitted by Ian Robb

This well-known sailor's farewell, in its many versions, seems to have become a favorite memorial song in recent years. There are several versions of the chorus going around, and I always find myself trying to guess, usually wrongly, which one to sing, so I've used the simplest version I know, and also kept the song fairly short.

The term "white stocking day" refers to the happy day on which the wives, sweethearts, or mothers collected an advance on their absent sailor's pay. The last verse I've added from the text of the Georgian Sea Islands song, "Good-bye My Riley-O."

Flash Phelps plays accordion while Dick Corbett singsFlash Phelps and Dick Corbett

The Foggy Dew

Submitted by Nick Dow

Early in this century, Nick Dow and his wife visited The White Lion at Broadwindsor. Nick writes, “The landlord was Dick Corbett, a prolific singer. The button accordion was played by ‘Flash’ Phelps, and the numerous locals were entertained by two brothers, Doug and Sam Phillips.

“I was able to record the whole evening. The repertoire consisted of a catholic selection of songs, from the hit parade to the music hall, from country music to folk song proper. Dick Corbett, an ex-military man sporting a large handlebar moustache, regaled us with old favorites from his service days. ‘Widdicombe Fair’ was followed by ‘I Am the Music Man.’ Then, with no warning, Dick produced three verses of ‘The Foggy Dew,’ and as if by prior arrangement, Doug and Sam Phillips, singing in unison, gave voice to ‘The Ball of Yarn,’ with Flash Phelps playing for all he was worth.

“The Phillips brothers then launched into a selection of music hall songs. Some were reasonably well known. ‘Fireworks,’ written by T.W. Connor, was followed by ‘Slap Bab’ and the less common ‘Nobody Noticed Me!,’ sung originally by Jack Pleasance, the shy comedian, famous for his song ‘I’m Shy, Mary Ellen.’”

Sculpture of a Scottish couple during the Highland ClearancesThe Exiles, a statue created by Gerald Laing as a memorial to those displaced in the Highland Clearances.

Scarborough Settler's Lament

Submitted by Ken Willson and Kim McKee

Written in 1840 by Sandy Glendening with music by Fowke, this song relates the loneliness felt by immigrating Scots after the battle of Culloden and then the Highland Clearances. The Highland chieftains were compelled by the victors in the struggle (British government) to increase income from their land, and so began to clear off the crofters by the thousands. Many of these people wound up in Canada and America.

My own family (MacDonald) wound up in Greenfield, Canada and from there to North Dakota, which gives me a deep appreciation for the sentiments within. Scarborough is located by Toronto.

Engraving of Tom o'BedlamTom o'Bedlam in The Belman of London (published in 1608)

Tom o’Bedlam’s Song

Submitted by Tim Edwards

The lyrics come from the early 17th century, and it has been described as the finest anonymous poem in the English language (though there is a theory that Shakespeare might have contributed to it). Tom in the song is a licensed beggar discharged from the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London (“Bedlam”).

I first heard it sung by Dave “Steve” Stephenson of the wonderful Songwainers of Cheltenham in the early 70’s, and loved it at first hearing. I learnt it shortly afterwards after finding the words in a poetry book of my father’s (Other Men’s Flowers, collected by A.P. Wavell—full of gems) and have been singing it ever since. Dave found the tune as a virginal arrangement in a Drexel manuscript—now in the New York Public Library.

It’s always been one of my very favorites, and for me, the last verse in particular is sublime.

     
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