CDSS 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.
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.
The Water Is Wide
Submitted by Harry Tuft
My early introduction to folk music was a recording of Burl Ives, and on that one he sang "Waly, Waly." Not too long after, I was introduced to the recordings of Pete Seeger—that's where I first heard "The Water Is Wide," and I was struck by the fact that there were similar verses in the two songs. Wikipedia tells me that it was Cecil Sharp in 1906 who constructed the song we now universally sing from previous related versions. For fun, look there and you'll see the diversity of artists who have recorded it.
Over the years, I heard so many versions of the song, and interestingly, most of them included the same verses—no "folk process" here, apparently. And I always liked the song, but particularly the versions by Steve Goodman and James Taylor—they both "Americanized" the lyric, and I appreciated that. So, when it came to my version, I did make three changes: 1) a slightly Reggae beat; 2) I end all verses on the "four," never resolving to the "one;" 3) I have written one verse (can you tell which it is...?).
Submitted by Judy Cook
The tragedy retold in this oldest of America’s native ballads, “Springfield Mountain,” took place in southern Massachusetts in 1761. The name of the family varies in different versions of the song. In truth it was Mirick, but Cushman, the one in John Galusha’s version, was one of the oldest family names in that part of Massachusetts. The location, Springfield Mountain, is now known as Wilbraham Mountain, near Springfield, MA. The song has passed into oral tradition, and comic versions are easily found.
John Galusha spent his life in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State – as a logger, game and fishing guide, forest ranger, and farmer. In 1940, when he was 81, he and his wife were living in a farmhouse near North Creek. It was there that Anne and Frank Warner collected “Springfield Mountain” from him. The song can be found in their wonderful book “Traditional American Songs.” I have made a few slight changes to the song.
Shove the Grog Around (Shanty Song)
Submitted by Dick Swain
A stout drinking song with a great chorus. At least two versions of the song, both probably dating back to the 1870s, have been published and recorded. The “Shanty Song” version was collected from Mrs. Annie V. Marston of Charlestown, Maine and first published in Eckstorm and Smyth, Minstrelsy Maine (1926). The earliest version of the “Raftman’s Song (Old Butler)” I have found is in the Joel Kimball Diary, April 24, 1874, Livingston Manor, NY (Sullivan County) (accessed May 23, 2021).
The most complete version of the “Raftsman’s Song” (with words almost identical to Joel Kimball’s version) was collected by Ellen Stekert from Ezra Barhight of Gallilee, Pennsylvania and published in “Four Pennsylvania Songs Learned before 1900, From the Repertoire of Ezra V. Barhight” in Goldstein and Byington, Two Penny Ballads and Four Dollar Whiskey (1966).
The Cruel Mother
Submitted by Moira Craig
In Scotland, the law concerning the general crime of infanticide took two forms during the period 1660-1800. If a married woman (or less commonly man) was prosecuted for the killing of a newborn child, the charge would remain the common law offence of murder, unless it could be proved that the child was born healthy and that the accused had wilfully killed it.
The only chance a lower-class woman had, if she didn’t want to go into service, was to marry and to try to marry well. Unfortunately, if a girl became pregnant before marriage and the father refused to acknowledge the pregnancy, she was likely to be ostracised and banished from the family or village and her chance of marriage in the future was unlikely. It was probable that she would live a life of penury and destitution. It is not surprising, then, that women would try to hide their pregnancy and kill their babies in an attempt to continue a “normal” life.
"The Cruel Mother" exists in a number of variants, in some of which there are verses where the dead children tell the mother she will suffer a number of penances each lasting seven years, e.g. "Seven years to ring a bell / And seven years porter in hell." Those verses properly belong in "The Maid and the Palmer" (Child ballad 21). Variants of "The Cruel Mother" include "Carlisle Hall," "The Rose o Malinde," "Fine Flowers in the Valley," "The Minister's Daughter of New York," and "The Lady From Lee," among others. "Fine Flowers of the Valley" is a Scottish variant. "Weela Weela Walya" is an Irish schoolyard version.
Submitted by April Grant
I first heard "Katie Catch" from Boston-area singer Gus Reid. He learned it from the singing of Fay Hield, who revived it and, I believe, slightly rewrote/combined versions from the book The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland Volume 2 by Alice Bertha Gomme, and from Iona and Peter Opie's Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. It's the kindest of songs, about sweethearts deciding to get married, and looking forward to all the good things that they'll do together.
When I hear this song, from Gus, Fay Hield, or most recently from Rhode Island singer Cate Clifford, I almost always burst into tears. I'm not the only one, I've noticed. None of us can explain it except to say, "It's so beautiful!" or "It's the one where everything is OK!" In a genre where tragic endings and complaints make for the most gripping songs overall, sometimes our hearts cry out for one where nobody has to die and we can watch everything go well for a change.
A Pilgrim’s Way
Submitted by Cate Clifford
"A Pilgrim's Way" began as a Rudyard Kipling poem which, according to Mainly Norfolk, appeared in his book The Years Between. Then Peter Bellamy added his original tune.
When I first heard this love letter to humanity, sung by A.J. Wright, I felt like I'd heard my own heart in song. May it lighten and strengthen yours.
The Amorites were a semi-nomadic people who lived in Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Syria during the 3rd millennium BC. They founded the ancient city of Mari, and the first dynasty of Babylon. Eremites are Christian hermits. A "general averagee" is a sailor on a cargo ship.
Submitted by Jeff Gillett
Glenlogie, or Jean O Bethelnie is No. 238 in the Child Collection. The earliest text in Child dates back to 1768.
It is a ballad with a happy ending, but perhaps none the worse for that! There is no murder, no rape, no incest: the most sensational element is emotional blackmail. The young Lady Jeannie sees Glenlogie and falls head-over-heels in love with him. When he says he is already promised to another, she takes to her bed and prepares to die for love. Glenlogie relents, they are married and (we suppose) live happily ever after!
Sprig of Thyme
Submitted by Peter and Barbara Snape
"Sprig of Thyme" was widely collected and published on broadsides throughout the British Isles. The version we sing here is from the John Greaves collection of Irlam Hall, Manchester and published in Lancashire Lyrics, Songs and Ballads of the County Palatine, edited by John Harland in 1866.
The song is of the same character as "The Seeds of Love" and also "Love's Evil Choice or The Unfortunate Damsel," a poem written by Mrs Fleetwood of Habergham Hall, Padiham, near Burnley in Lancashire, who wrote it to console herself when, in 1689, her husband’s extravagances finally led to the loss of the family estate.
It is interesting to note some similarities between "Sprig of Thyme" and "Seeds of Love," the first song collected by Cecil Sharp.
Submitted by Arthur Knevett
This ballad has enjoyed widespread popularity. It was regularly printed on broadsides, which have kept it in circulation and helped to stabilize the text.
The story is a ‘ripping yarn’ concerning an adventurous lord who sails to Turkey and is taken prisoner. The jailer’s daughter, Sophie, releases him and he sails home to freedom. After seven years, she decides to find him, and having done so, he jilts his new bride and marries her!
It’s one of the few Child ballads that has a happy ending (except, of course, for the jilted bride). It has been a favourite of mine since I learnt it in the 1960s from the recording of Bert Lloyd (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. 2 on Riverside Records, 1956).
Submitted by Ed Trickett
I spent only one evening with E. G. Huntington at his home on Martha's Vineyard. That was in 1965. It was a truly wonderful evening of music and conversation, during which Gale played for me this version of the "Greenland Whale Fisheries" which he called "Brave Boys."
I didn't have a tape recorder or my photographic memory with me, so he wrote out the melody and sent it to me some months later, along with a small booklet of The Dukes County Intelligencer, May, 1961, which was published by the Dukes County Historical Society in Edgartown, Massachusetts.
Abroad as I Was Walking
Submitted by Carolyn Robson
The folk song collector George Gardiner collected over 1200 songs from the county of Hampshire in southern England during the period 1904–1908. In 1907, he collected about 164 songs from five women in the village of Axford near Basingstoke in the northwest of the county.
One of these women, Sarah Goodyear, gave him 41 of these songs, including one of my favourites, ’Abroad as I was walking.’ It is the common tale of a young woman who is seduced by an older man and falls pregnant. He is what is commonly termed a ‘bounder’ and blames her for her ‘wanton will,’ though she is just 14 years old. These days, it would have been a clear case of child sex abuse.
The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow (Child 214)
Submitted by Margaret Bennett
I've chosen a ballad I’ve loved for years: ‘The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow’ (Child 214).
As a student in the mid-sixties, I joined the Glasgow Folksong and Ballad Club, and among the unforgettable singers was an Aberdeenshire traveller, Davie Stewart. He played the accordion and sang with such conviction that I was transfixed.