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.
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.
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.
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.
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” (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).
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.
Sweet William's Ghost
introduced by Lisa Null
The version I sing of "Sweet Williams Ghost" (Child #77) is based on the singing of Mike Kent of Cape Broyle Newfoundland. It was collected as "Lady Margaret" in 1951 by Kenneth Peacock in Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, vol 2. I love the way it deals with the continuance of love and commitment after death. William has to be relieved of the promise he made to marry Margaret who follows him over the hills walking and talking, even asking if she can be buried with him. It's an old ballad, appearing in Allan Ramsay's The Tea Table Miscellany (1740) and Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Bill Shute accompanies this song on a guitar played like a hammered dulcimer.
Listen to Bill and Lisa sing the song on this YouTube clip (also embedded above).
Welcome Home My Sailor
introduced by Ian Robb
I first heard this “unbroken token” ballad from a young St. John's singer, Ellen Power, then in her teens, at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival. Asking around, I discovered that the song had come from singer and accordion player Dorman Ralph, of Little Harbour Deep, White Bay, Newfoundland, who lived in St John's from 1956 until his death in 1999.
I was attracted to the song for two reasons: Firstly, I loved the denouement, when not only do the long parted lovers fall into each other's arms, but “both sat down to sing..." Secondly, I was intrigued by the melody, which is a version of that collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Harriet Verrall, in Monk's Gate, Sussex, and to which he set John Bunyan's poem “To Be a Pilgrim," creating one of the best known English hymns. On the English folk scene, the tune is mostly associated with Mrs Verrall's song “Our Captain Cried All Hands” and with a version of “A Blacksmith Courted Me," but despite the fact that the text of “Welcome Home My Sailor” is known in England, sung and recorded by no less than Lal Waterson and later, Eliza Carthy, the tune used is quite different.
The words here are as I sing it, mostly from Jim Payne and Fergus O'Byrne's version on their CD, How Good is Me Life, with some inevitable minor tinkering.