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 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.
A closely related German ballad exists in many variants: a child comes to a woman's wedding to announce himself her child and that she had murdered three children. The woman says the Devil can carry her off if it is true, and the Devil appears to do so.
Infanticide and illegitimacy have been recurrent themes in many European ballads. This version is from the Greig Duncan collection. The woman kills the babies to conceal the fact that she is no longer a virgin and of marriageable material. However, her conscience plays tricks on her and she awaits her fate.
Listen to Moira Craig singing "The Cruel Mother:"
There was a king’s daughter in the north,
Hey the rose and the linsie O;
And she has courted her father’s clerk,
And awa’ by the greenwood sidie O.
She courted him a year and a day,
Till her appearance did her betray.
She leaned her back against a tree,
Thinking that she would lighter be.
She leaned her back against a thorn,
And bonny are the boys she has born.
She took out her wee penknife,
And she’s ta’en awa’ their twa sweet lifes.
She took the kerchief fra her neck,
And she’s wrapped them in a winding sheet.
She buried them beneath a marble stone,
Thinking to win a maiden home.
She looked owre her father’s castle wa’,
And she saw twa bonny boys playing at the ba’.
O bonny boys, gin thou were mine,
I’d dress ye in the silk sae fine,
The sovilne* and the green-grass silk
Ye’d never drink nane but the farrow cow’s milk
O mother, mother, when we were thine,
We never saw nane o’ your silk sae fine.
The sovilne and the green-grass silk;
We never drank nane o’ your farrow cow’s milk.
O bonny boys, come tell to me,
The kind of death that I’m tae dee?
Seven years a bird in the bush,
And seven years a fish in the flood,
Seven years a warning bell,
And seven years in the deeps o’ hell.
Welcome, welcome, bird in the bush,
And welcome welcome, fish in the flood.
Welcome, welcome, warning bell,
But God keep me from the deeps o’ hell.
* Sovilne: sable fur
Moira Craig writes: I was born and brought up outside of Glasgow and my home was always full of singing and music. I never thought much about it; it was normal to me. While Scottish traditional songs are my main love, I’ll sing anything at the drop of a hat and hopefully will continue to do so till the day I die.
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.
Listen to Fay Hield sing the song on the album "Old Adam" on Spotify, or listen on YouTube below.
Lyrics as sung by Fay Hield:
Down in yonder meadow where the green grass grows,
Little Katie Catch goes a-washing of her clothes,
She sang, and she sang, and she sang so sweet,
Come over, Johnny Walker, come over the street.
Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Katie Catch, come draw the latch
And sit by the fire and sing,
Take up a cup and fill it up
And let the neighbours in.
Little Katie Catch she made a pudding nice and sweet,
Young Johnny Walker took a spoon for to eat.
Taste love, taste love, don't say no,
Tomorrow we'll be married, to the church we will go.
Bedding sheets and pillow slips and blankets and all,
A little baby on your knee and that's the best of all.
A guinea, a guinea, a guinea gold ring,
Come take me to the church and hear the little choir boys sing.
A guinea gold ring and a peacock hat,
A penny for the church and a feather for his cap.
She paints her cheek and he curls his hair,
She kisses Johnny Walker at the foot of the stair.
April Grant writes: I'm a singer and songwriter who lives in the Boston area. During the pandemic I've been letting out my urge to perform by doing the occasional show over Zoom. I also write short stories and poetry. I dunno, dude, words are fun.
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.
The Setting of the Sun (Roud 133, Laws O 36)
Submitted by Martin Graebe
I heard this first as 'Polly Von,' sung by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, but that is an interpretation of a traditional song with many titles. Though widely found in England and Ireland, Roud lists more variants in the USA than from anywhere else.
This lovely version was collected by Sabine Baring-Gould from mine-worker Samuel Fone, of Mary Tavy, in 1893. Fone was his most prolific singer and a man who specialised in beautiful tunes, some learned from navvies he had worked with. I have 'repaired' verse 2. You can see the manuscript entry here.
Submitted by Cindy Mangsen
Child Ballad #239 exists in fragments, telling the story of Annachie and his love Jeannie, forced by her father to marry another man for his status and wealth. Jeannie tells her parents that if she marries the lord, she'll refuse to share his bed and will die for her true love.
Sure enough, she dies on the very day of the wedding, which is also the day Annachie returns from his seafaring. He dies, of course, of grief. It's a tear-jerker of a story, but when put to this beautiful melody (thank you, Nic Jones), becomes incredibly moving. Emily Friedman introduced me to this song, many years ago in Chicago.
This song was written in support of our friends working in health care and other essential fields during the COVID-19 pandemic, who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe and healthy while being denied everything from basic protective equipment to hazard pay. We wanted to send support to our friends on the front lines, express outrage and frustration that they have been put in such an impossible situation, and hope for the day that we can welcome them back safely.
This song is also a call to action for those of us who are still financially secure - please check out the fundraiser mentioned at the end of the video, with clickable links available through the video on YouTube and Facebook.