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 will be continuing through 2018. Our thanks to them both as well as to Lynn Nichols of the CDSS staff for shepherding them to our website.
Starving to Death on a Government Claim
introduced by Bob Bovee
"Starving to Death on a Government Claim," also known as Lane or Greer County Bachelor, is a traditional song from the late 19th century. It's often sung in 6/8 time to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman," or sometimes in 3/4. I learned it from a 78 rpm record by Ed Crain with considerable changes to the tune, words and tempo. Growing up in Nebraska, I can identify with the life and landscape of this song, the hardships of a difficult existence.
My name it is Perkin, an old bachelor I am
You’ll find me out west on an elegant plan
You’ll find me out west in the county of fame
Starving to death on a government claim
Hurrah for Greer County, the land of the free
The home of the bedbug, grasshopper and flea
I’ll sing of its praises, I’ll tell of its fame
While starving to death on a government claim
My clothes are all ragged, my language is rough
My bread is corn dodger, my goodness how tough
Nothing to eat and nothing to wear
From nothing to nothing is the Greer County fare
My house it is built of the national soil
The walls are erected according to Hoyle
The roof has no pitch, but is level and plain
And you always get wet if it happens to rain
How happy am I when I go to bed
A rattlesnake rattles a tune at my head
A gay little centipede free from all care
Creeps out of my pillow and into my ear
Come all you claim-holders take warning by me
Don’t live with the bedbug, grasshopper and flea
I’ll travel east, I’ll marry me a wife
And quit these corndodgers the rest of my life.
Bob Bovee is a Nebraska native whose family sang and played the old-time songs. Many of the western and railroad songs he does were learned from his grandmother and uncle. Since 1971, he has been a full-time touring musician, plays banjo, guitar, harmonica, and autoharp, sings and yodels.
introduced by William Pint and Felicia Dale
Annan Water is a superb example of the folk process in action.
In the late 1960's English singer Nic Jones encountered lyrics in Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, that had been taken from yet another book, Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders. Jones modified the words, turned the final stanza into a chorus, borrowed a melody from another traditional English song, and processed it all into a brand new 'traditional' song. Annan Water describes the tragedy of a man's struggle to reach his true love, riding his horse to exhaustion at a swollen river's banks and finally attempting and failing to swim the raging water. The singer, admonishing the treacherous river, vows to build a bridge guaranteeing that never again will it divide true lovers.
The Shearin's No' For You
introduced by Ed Miller
It's an old song, probably 19th century, from the song-rich northeast lowlands of Scotland; one of many songs relating to the harvest time of late summer. Harvest time in the old agricultural system of Lowland Scotland was one of the few times when men and women worked together out-of-doors. They would form "gangs" where the men would do the shearing (cutting by scythe or "heuk") and the women the picking-up and "stookin" before the crop was taken off for threshing. The 2nd verse may be romantic; but the other 3 are not.
In the first verse, the young man says "don’t even come to the harvest, you're so pregnant you can't bend over to pick it up," and the 3rd and 4th verses tell her to forget dressing nicely and making herself look good as life from now on will be one of drudgery at home with the children...typical Scottish fare!
There are many versions of this song... some have verses where the girl complains of being taken advantage of and then abandoned by the young man; but this is a more benign version.
Listen to Ed Miller sing the tune:
Listen to Scots Women sing the tune:
introduced by Sparky and Rhonda Rucker
"Shady Grove" is a traditional Southern Appalachian song. Like many mountain songs that blend Celtic and African influences, it is most often played in a modal tuning. Its origins are murky. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Volume III, credits it as a "Negro song." In the Journal of American Folklore, the song was collected in both Kentucky and Tennessee. In one of her books, Jean Ritchie reminisced about hearing it as a fiddle tune when she was growing up in eastern Kentucky. We have recorded this song twice — once on our CD, Treasures & Tears, and again on Dear Jean, the Jean Richie tribute album.
A video from our live performance for a Jean Ritchie tribute at KY Music Weekend on July 25, 2015 can be found at:
introduced by Keith Kendrick
This wonderful version of “Bedlam” was collected by Cecil Sharp from Jack Barnard in Bridgewater 1906. I found it in Book 2 of The Crystal Spring: English Folk Songs, and I've been singing it since the 1970s.
Having seemingly been cruelly cheated out of her loved one (who, incidentally must have been either a thoroughly nasty piece of work or simply a complete and utter prat!) by jealous or unthinking friends, this poor girl, suffering probably only from a bout of melancholy, finds herself inappropriately dumped in a mental institution mistakenly diagnosed as slightly loopy, an all too common occurrence in days gone by – and not totally unheard of in more recent times either!
LIsten to Keith and Sylvia Needham sing the tune:
The Bonny Bunch of Roses
introduced by Joel Mabus
For the CDSS Song of the Month, I offer "The Bonny Bunch of Roses," as performed on Irish television in 1965 by a young Colm Walsh of County Clare. Here is the video of his performance:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQE3AS3Vzb0 (also embedded on the right)
I have transcribed his melody and also the lyric he uses which is NOT what is posted beneath the video. I have never heard this exact version anywhere else — there are many, many variants. The song is in the "Bonaparte Canon" as it were. In this ballad, the young out-of-favor Napoleon II is speaking with his mother, Archduchess Marie Louise, after daddy is dead and buried at St. Helena. He tells he will do what his father failed to do — give her the "bonny bunch of roses" — being England, Ireland and Scotland. And she says, "Don't try it, kid!"
A version of this tune is sometimes called "Bonaparte's Retreat" (one of the several) and exists as an Appalachian fiddle & banjo tune called "The Bunch of Roses."
introduced by Geoff Kaufman
There are a number of versions of this lovely song most commonly called "Home, Dearie, Home." I first heard this one from Ed Trickett in a house concert in NYC just as I was getting serious about performing and I often give it credit for steering me toward a career built around maritime music. I love its poignant vignette of the sailor far from home and the whimsical twist of the wife neglecting to tell him if their baby is a boy or girl.
Hear the song performed by Geoff Kaufman:
Throw Open Your Shutters
introduced by Lynn Nichols
At CDSS, we are stewards of traditional music, dance, and song, but while the songs may be traditional, the traditions are living ones. Which brings me to "Throw Open Your Shutters." Connecticut composer Amy Fell Bernon wrote this high energy, festive choral work in the Renaissance madrigal style in 2000 as a tribute to her high school choral director in Jamesville-DeWitt, NY. The piece features a wonderful interplay between voice parts, particularly in the “Hey Ding-a-dong” section. Bernon has set it in SATB, SSA, and TBB versions, and it is performed either with piano accompaniment or a cappella.
Amy Fell Bernon is one of Connecticut’s leading composers of choral music. She’s also a talented singer, pianist, conductor. Amy’s music is accessible and unpretentious, and she has received countless commissions from choral festivals and ensembles of all levels. Her works for treble voices are especially popular among women’s choirs and youth choirs.
The Wild Rover
introduced by Brian Peters
The Wild Rover is one of the best-known traditional songs, but it’s not the Irish drinking anthem many people assume. It began life in the 1670s as an English broadside ballad about a hard-drinking ‘Bad Husband’ who saw the error of his ways, but was edited down over the centuries, rebranded as ‘The Wild Rover’, and a chorus added. It was popular in England, Scotland and Australia, and the version made famous by the Dubliners contains elements from all of those places. Brian’s version was collected in Hampshire, England, in 1906, and retains the older chorus and temperance message – a similar version was written down in the same area as early as 1820.
Watch/Listen to Brian perform The Wild Rover at this link or embedded above: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96Xuu8yeTFc
She's Like The Swallow
introduced by Suzanne Mrozak
This beautiful version of "She's Like the Swallow" comes from The Folk Songs of Canada, by Edith Fulton Fowke (Literary Editor) and Richard Johnston (Music Editor), first published in 1954. My own copy of the book is the 1955 second printing and I learned it a few years after that. Fowke identifies this as a song from Newfoundland but does not name her source. Dr. Neil Rosenberg, Professor Emeritus, Department of Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, who has published a wonderfully detailed scholarly article about the song, says that Fowke collected it from Albert Simms from McCallum Harbour, Hermitage Bay. The text that Dr. Rosenberg cites is different from the one Fowke published, however, so the actual source is a bit of a mystery.
Listen to Alan Mills sing the tune from the CD: Songs, Fiddle Tunes and a Folk Tale from Canada, by Alan and Jean Carignan:
The Night Guard
introduced by Martha Burns
The night guard is truly the most romantic figure of cowboy lore. Imagine starry skies and a lone cowboy singing to his herd and the night guard invariably comes to mind. “Singing to quiet the cattle is important,” the writer Owen Wister reflected in his western journals near the end of the old trail days. “The more restless they are, the louder or more inarticulate is the singing, no words being used at all, but only a strange wailing. But as the cattle grow quiet, the music gathers form, and while the herd lies quietly at rest on the plain, the night herders are apt to sing long definite songs as they ride round and round the edges.”
This song captures that feeling better than any other I know. It comes from Jack Webb, who recorded it for Victor in 1930, one of only two sides he ever recorded. Born in 1902, Webb lived most of his life in Oklahoma, becoming one of the earliest and most celebrated rodeo stars in the country’s history. He could rope six horses abreast at a gallop and shoot articles from his head by pulling a string attached to a rifle trigger. Occasionally billed as the “Crooning Cowboy,” he also composed and sang cowboy songs. “The Night Guard” is apparently one of Webb’s own.
Link to Martha singing "The Night Guard." Click here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr_S_oQgBkg or the YouTube image above right.
Here's Adieu to All Judges and Juries
introduced by Tim Radford
I have always had a deep interest in Penal Transportation Songs. I think of them as being that perfect combination of a rural song and a sea song, tinged often with aspects of politics and law and order.
Transportation as a punishment started in Great Britain in the 17th century and was originally to North America, but that ceased in 1776 with the US becoming independent. Transportation to Australia began in 1787, and although it officially ended with the passing of the Penal Servitude Act of 1857, the last convicts were transported as late as 1868.
Here’s Adieu to All Judges and Juries ticks all the boxes for me: a great tune, a poignant story with that touch of hope at the end. The version I list here was collected in 1908 by Dr. George Gardiner in Hampshire from the singing of George Blake, who spent most of his life living and working in and around Lyndhurst & Emery Down in The New Forest.
introduced by Judy Cook
Sailing was a favorite song of Americans in the early years of the Twentieth Century. It was one of the songs selected from those sent in by 20,000 people in response to a request from the National magazine. Four hundred of those songs were selected by Joe Mitchell Chapple and published as Heart Songs Dear to the American People first published in 1909, and revised many times since then. The song also appears in the 1938 book 357 Songs We Love to Sing. Sailing was written in 1880 by Godfrey Marks, a pseudonym of British organist and composer James Frederick Swift (1847–1931). Many people know and enjoy singing the chorus, but many fewer realize there are three fine verses to go with it.
Listen to Judy Cook sing Sailing
Earl o' Bran
introduced by Margaret Nelson
Back in the early 60's my oldest sister Patricia Nelson was a student at Hanover College in Indiana. She was taken on a class field trip to Berea College, and came back with an LP of the Berea College Choir that included a solo a capella rendition of a Kentucky version of "Earl o' Bran" (Child #7), the first traditional ballad I'd ever heard. I'd sung in church choirs, junior and senior. I'd also spent a lot of time as a youngster reading all the folk tales and fairy tales I could get my hands on, a pretty wide selection since the Racine Library never bought into the notion that fantasy was bad for kids. When I found out there were rich old stories that had TUNES to them, I was permanently hooked.
According to Child, Earl o' Bran has many versions and antecedents all over Scandinavia, including Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland; and in Germany as well. In some of them, the hero steals the lady without waking her family, but some person of ill-will sees them, accepts a bribe to say nothing, and then hurries straight to the girl's family. As I understand this shaved-down Kentucky version, the guy and the girl could have been a long way down the road before anyone noticed she was gone, but our hero is so proud of himself as a fighting man that he blows his hunting horn, his "bugle horn," deliberately waking up and challenging her father and all seven of her brothers. (The first six notes of the tune are definitely a horn call.)
introduced by Gwilym Davies
Mercifully, the days when you could be hanged for poaching are long gone but there must have been times when the scenario of "Georgie" was very real to many. Theories abound as to the historical truth of the events of the song, but none is convincing. The ballad "George Stoole" from the 17th Century sets much the same scene and even shares some verses with more modern versions. The ballad in something approaching its present form has been noted from the 18th century onwards. This version is from Hampshire, England, and was collected by Alice Gillington from an unnamed traveler.
Here's a link to Gwilym Davies singing the song (also embedded above):
A Sailor's Life
introduced by Denise and Stuart Savage
This song was collected in November 1899 by W Percy Merrick, and can be found in the Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol.1 - No.3, 1901. Widely collected in Southern England, see the version in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, attributed to Henry Hills, a farmer from West Sussex who lived in Lodsworth, a village just 3 Miles from Petworth, where Stuart was born. We have been singing this simple but lovely song for over 40 years, and still love it.
Listen to Denise and Stuart singing the song:
The Banks of Red Roses: A Traditional Song
introduced by Pete Coe
I went to Ireland in 66, new to all this traditional folk stuff. I ended up in Tralee Co Cork, met up with some chaps who persuaded me to join their folk group for the Tralee Folk Group Competition where they'd planned to sing The Mingulay Boat Song. But they didn't know the words. I did, hence the invite. We came in 3rd, it would have helped us if the winners weren't called Finbar, Eddie, Paul & Ted Furey! One of the lads had some interesting songs including Banks of Red Roses which he said he'd learned from his next door neighbour in Belfast. So I learned it from him & it turned out that his neighbour was Sarah Makem. Chris Coe and I recorded the song on our first LP Open The Door and Let Us In in 1971. However, I've added a couple more verses recently, from Scottish Travellers, which fill out the grim story.
Listen to Pete playing & singing Banks of Red Roses: https://petecoe.bandcamp.com/track/banks-of-red-roses
The Boy That Wore The Blue
introduced by Shelley Posen
The Boy That Wore The Blue, also known as The Soldier’s Letter, is an American Civil War song of unknown origin, Roud #4389. For some reason, it found favour in the logging camps of Eastern Canada and the Northeast U.S. over the next century.
I learned it in 1977 from Loy Gavan in Chapeau, Quebec, a village on Allumette Island in the Upper Ottawa Valley. It’s one of the most poignant and eloquent songs I’ve ever heard. The song’s vague and seemingly random provenance gives some insight into how traditional singing worked in a community, how offhand and precarious it could be, and how lucky we are to have what traditional songs we have.
The Boy That Wore The Blue came to Chapeau in the 1930s via an itinerant man-of-all work named Carl Brian—an “Englishman” (from England? an Anglophone?) who came from Quebec, no one knew exactly where. He cleaned the stables at the village hotel and did farm chores. Always short of money, Brian sang in the hotel bar after work for drinks: “He'd sit and sing that song I betcha four times in the night,” said Loy. “He sang lots of songs, but that was the best—the best song, the best story.” Loy’s older brother Cliff learned it from Brian, and Loy learned it from Cliff.
The Boy That Wore The Blue captivated me the first time I heard Loy sing it, and was the first of many songs I learned from him. It was “Loy’s song” in Chapeau: if I asked someone else to sing it, they’d demure: “That’s Loy’s song”—meaning not his property, but that he sang it best.
The Bay of Biscay
introduced by Harry Tuft
The origin of this song, "The Bay Of Biscay" eludes me, even after a search of the internet. It appears that versions have been done by Shirley and Dolly Collins and Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, before the version I heard and have used in my own singing, by Norma Waterson on the album Waterson/Carthy. I imagine it would fall into the category of the ghost return of a dead lover. The melody is appropriately haunting, and Ms. Waterson's version is impressive. I included it on an album I released in 2011, Treasures Untold, on my own label, Manasses Records.
Here is a link to Norma Waterson singing “The Bay of Biscay” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_BK-e9mlvI (also embedded above)
Song, Composed in August (Now Westlin Winds) by Robert Burns
introduced by Andrew Calhoun
This was first published in the Kilmarnock edition of Robert Burns' Poems: Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in 1786. Burns' first draft was written ten years before in 1776. Robert was then 17 and its addressee, Peggy Thomson, of Kirkoswald, was 13. Burns indicated that it was to be sung to the tune of a humorous Ayrshire ballad, "I Had A Horse, I Had Nae Mair."
Here is the first verse of the model:
'I had a horse, and I had nae mair,
I gat him frae my daddy;
My purse was light, and my heart was fair,
But my wit it was fu' ready.
And sae I thought me on a time,
Outwittens of my daddy,
To see mysell to a lawland laird,
Wha had a bonny lady.'
Mr. Burns later sent his lyric to The Scots Musical Museum, indicating that it could be set to the tune, "Port Gordon." Scholars for well over a century have taken this gesture as evidence that Burns was disaffected with his original choice, which has never been published with the lyric; but they are missing something. "I Had a Horse, I Had Nae Mair" (I Had No More) had already been published, with its tune, in the second volume of the Musical Museum, where it is song #185; James Johnson (and Burns) preferred not to repeat melodies, hence his flexibility. The tune to which this is now commonly sung is neither of those to which he assigned it. Robert Burns is unique among major poets of his time in composing to melodies; he played fiddle, and needed to become deeply engaged with a tune before he could write lyrics for it; he was also a major collector of traditional lyrics and tunes. I explain in the linked video why this particular tune is of inseparable artistic importance to this particular lyric.
The Devil Buck
introduced by Mark Gilston
This song was "gifted" to me by Ben Mendel from New York City in the late 1970's. He told me he learned it from Bob Beers and that it was originally from Montana. I have been unable to find any other recorded sources or versions, though my understanding is that the huge evil cervine premonition of death is a legend in the northwestern states and in southwestern Canada. It certainly is a wonderfully eerie song, and I always included it in concerts around Halloween.
Listen to Mark sing the tune (also embedded above): https://youtu.be/dN3kdF21LPw
Double Sledder Lad
introduced by Matthew Byrne
Variant of a traditional ballad called "The Lumber Camp Song" found all over northeastern North America. Evidence collected on its background suggests a New Brunswick or Maine origin. This variant was arranged and recorded by Jim Payne & Fergus O'Byrne on their 1995 album Wave Over Wave: Old And New Songs Of Atlantic Canada (SingSong Inc). A very similar variant was collected in 1959 from Martin Deveau of Upper Ferry, NL, by Kenneth Peacock and published as Hurling Down The Pine in Songs Of The Newfoundland Outports, Volume 3, pp.750-751, by the National Museum of Canada (1965) Crown Copyrights Reserved.