Category Archives: pleasant and delightful

You divers bold

Here’s my version of Child ballad #68, variously known as “Young Hunting”, “Young Redin” and “Earl Richard”. It’s one of the strangest stories in a collection that has plenty of them. It’s not so much the supernatural elements which make it unusual as the fact that they’re essential to the resolution of the plot – a plot which is about a rather sordid murder case.

My text comes mostly from the version recorded by Tony Rose, who credited it to a folk singer called Pete Nalder. On looking at the original in Child’s collection (which is online) it turns out that Nalder did an extraordinary job piecing together a coherent song out of a disparate and fragmentary set of texts. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’ve gone back to Child and tweaked it some more.

Here’s Nalder’s text and my text, and some notes on where it all comes from. Child has eleven versions, lettered A to K. Three of them – G, H and I – are short fragments; of the other eight, A and J tell a slightly different story, while D, E and F end (or break off) part way through. (It’s version 68F, more or less, that was later collected as “Earl Richard”; it’s been recorded by Spiers and Boden, among others.) B, C and K all tell the whole story. What Pete Nalder seems to have done, as you’ll see below, is to piece together a complete song from at least five different versions, probably B-E and J. For myself I either used or modified every verse of Nalder’s version except one (verse 13, the one with the “heavy smell”). I added three verses, all corresponding to verses in versions C and D. Like Nalder, I ended up using something from all of versions B, C, D, E and J.

A blank in Nalder’s column means I’ve added a verse; a blank in my column means I kept Nalder’s verse.

Pete Nalder Phil Edwards Child source
Title: Young Hunting Title: Earl Richard Young Hunting: A, K
Earl Richard: D, F, G
As she was a-walking all alone
Down in a leafy wood
She has heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
The lady stood in her bower door
In her bower door she stood
She heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
C, E, K
“Bower”: C
“Wood”: E
She thought it was her father dear
Come riding over the land
But it was her true love Earl Richard
Came riding to her right hand.
C (Note 1)
“Come down, come down, you fine young man,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
“Come down, come down, young Earl Richard,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
B-F, K
“stay the night”: B, C, F, K
“O I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor come into your arms at all
For a finer girl than ten of you
Is a-waiting beneath the town wall.”
B-F, K
“come into your arms”: E
“Oh well, a finer girl than ten of me
I wonder now how that might be?
For a finer girl than ten of me
I’m sure that you never did see.”
C, E
Then he has leaned him across his saddle
For a kiss before they did part,
And she has taken a keen, long knife
And she’s stabbed him to the heart.
C-F
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, you fine young man
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can weary wait in alone.”
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, young Earl Richard,
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can wearily wait alone.”
D-F
“Until the flesh it rots”: from Young Henry, a later American version
(D has “till the blood seeps from your bone”)
But as she walked up on the high highway
She’s spied a little bird up in a tree,
Saying, “O how could you kill that fine young man
As he was a-kissing of thee?”
 C-E, G, J
“Come down, come down, you pretty little bird
And sit upon my right knee,
And your cage shall be made of the glittering gold
And the spokes of the best ivory.”
 A-G, I-K
“I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor sit upon your right knee,
For as you did serve that fine young man
I know that you would serve me.”
 A-G, I-K
“O then I wish I had my bended bow
And my arrow close to my knee.
I would fire a dart that would pierce your heart
As you sit there a-piping on that tree.”
 D, F, I
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
And nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly across the sea to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
Nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly away to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
D, I
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken that fine young man
And she’s walled him behind a stone.
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken young Earl Richard
And she’s laid him upon a stone.
E (Note 2)
And she has kept that fine young man
For full three-quarters of a year
Till a heavy smell it began to spread
And it filled her heart with fear.
 Verse omitted E (Note 3)
So she’s called unto the servant girl
And this to her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
She’s called to her servant girl
And unto her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
E
B, D, F and J all have “there’s a dead man in my room”,
which is a bit less effective
So the one of them’s took him by the shoulders,
And the other one’s took him by the feet
And they’ve thrown his body in the River Clyde
That runs so clear and so sweet.
Body in the Clyde: A-C, H, J, K
Head and feet: E
Hands and feet: F
And the deepest spot in Clyde’s water
It’s there they’ve thrown Earl Richard in
And they laid a turf on his breast-bone
To hold his body down.
Deepest part of the river: A-C, K
Turf: A, K (Note 4)
And they had not crossed a rig of land,
A rig but barely one,
Before they saw his old father coming
A-riding all along.
D, J (“rig of land” only in J)
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For we’ve come a-seeking for my only son
Who used to visit your gate.”
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For I’ve come a-seeking for my eldest son
Who used to visit your gate.”
D, J
And there came a-seeking for this fine young man
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for this fine young man
Full many’s the lady bright.
And there came a-seeking for young Earl Richard
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for young Earl Richard
Full many’s the lady bright.
 B
Now the ladies turned them around and about
And they made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “We greatly fear that your son is dead
And he lies ‘neath the water and drowned.”
And the lady turned around and about
And she swore by sun and moon
Saying, “I never saw your son Earl Richard
Since yesterday morning at noon.”
A, J; G and K have the swearing but not the turning around (Note 5)
“I fear, I fear the Clyde’s waters
That run so swift and so deep
I fear, I fear your son has drowned
And under Clyde’s waters he does sleep.”
A, D, J (Note 6)
“So, who will dive from either bank
For gold and for fee?”
And the young men dived from either bank
But his body they could not see.
J; A and K have the unsuccessful diving but not the offer of gold
Then up and speaks that pretty little bird
A-sitting up high in the tree,
Saying, “O cease your diving, you divers bold,
For I’d have you to listen to me.”
 A, C, H, J, K
“And I’d have you to cease your day diving
And dive all into the night.
For under the water where his body lies
The candles they burn so bright.”
 A, C, H, J, K
So the divers ceased their day diving
And they dived all into the night.
And under the water where his body lay,
The candles they burned so bright.
 A, C, J, K
And they have raised his body up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
And they have raised Earl Richard up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
 A, J
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “O who has killed my only son
Who used to follow my hounds?”
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “Oh, who has killed my eldest son
Who held my hawk and hound?”
 J (Note 7)
Then up and speaks the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his light leman took his life
And then threw his body in.”
Then up and spoke the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his true love took his life
And then threw his body in.”
 J
“O blame not me,” the lady says,
“For it was the servant girl.”
So they built a fire of the oak and ash
And they put that servant girl in.
A, B, J
But the fire wouldn’t take upon her cheek
And the fire wouldn’t take upon her chin,
And nor would it take upon her hair
For she was free from the sin.
A, J; similar to B, C and H (Note 8)
And when the servant girl touched the clay cold corpse,
A drop it never bled.
But when the lady laid her hand upon it
The ground was soon covered with red.
B, C, J (phrasing from J)
So they’ve taken out the servant girl
And they’ve put the lady in.
And the fire it reached a ruddy red,
And all because of her sin.
A, B, J (Note 9)
And the fire took fast upon her cheek,
And the fire took fast upon her chin,
And it sang in the points of her yellow hair,
And ’twas all because of her sin.
A, B, J, K (third line from K)

Notes

  1. Nalder presents the key meeting as a chance encounter, making the lady’s violence seem more than usually excessive. Most Child versions have the victim as the lady’s “true love”.
  2. I felt all right about changing this, since in Child the lady doesn’t put the body either on or behind a stone. There is a stone in version E, but it’s her doorstep; it’s only really there for a rhyme.
  3. The nine-month time lag only appears in version E; I thought the song worked better if it was all happening in the same time frame. The ‘heavy smell’ was Nalder’s invention (in version E word begins to spread, which is a bit different). I don’t think it was a great idea – it’s bound to break the mood.
  4. I put this back in to prepare for the discovery of the tell-tale turf on the body when it’s brought to the surface.
  5. Child has the (guilty) ‘lady’ turning around and about and swearing (in versions A and J), not the ‘ladies’ (who only appear in version B). This was another case where I thought Nalder’s change worked less well than the source.
  6. The second half of this verse is my addition. I was pleased with the parallelism, although I’ve realised since that it’s not a true parallel (“I fear the waters” vs “I fear that your son is dead”).
  7. “Held my hawk and my hound” is straight from version J; I preferred it to “used to follow my hounds”, which conjures up images of the father as an MFH. On the other hand, both the original and Nalder’s version definitely have “only son”, not “eldest son”; it just came out like that, m’lud.
  8. Versions B, C and H are a bit nastier and more judgmental – they specify that it was only the servant’s hands that were burned by the fire, since she (or in version H he) had used them to help cover up the murder. Version B has an even more discriminating fire – it won’t burn the lady’s cheek and chin either, but only the “false arms” that had previously held the victim (which seems a bit harsh, considering that the story starts with him dumping her).
  9. The fire flaring up is a great detail, but it’s not in Child. In several versions the last couple of verses are longer than the rest, as the ballad writer tries to get more information in while keeping to the basic structure of one idea to each verse; I think Nalder made the right move by splitting this last verse in two, even though it means introducing another idea.

So that’s the work that goes on, or can go on, when you get a folk song out of a Child ballad; June Tabor did something similar when she turned Jamie Douglas (Child 204) into her song Waly Waly. When you look at the source, not one of Child’s recorded variants makes as good a song as Nalder’s composite version, and some of them are so fragmentary as to be unsingable. For instance, here’s version I in its entirety:

‘Come down, come down, thou bonnie bird,
Sit low upon my hand,
And thy cage shall be o the beaten gowd,
And not of hazel wand.’

‘O woe, O woe be to thee, lady,
And an ill death may thou die!
For the way thou guided good Lord John,
Soon, soon would thou guide me.’

‘Go bend to me my bow,’ she said,
‘And set it to my ee,
And I will gar that bonnie bird
Come quickly down to me.’

‘Before thou bend thy bow, lady,
And set it to thy ee,
O I will be at yon far forest,
Telling ill tales on thee.’

That’s your lot. Admittedly that’s an extreme example, but the only versions without any gaps are J and K, which miss out a lot of the early part of the story told by versions A-E.

I think what this brings home to me is just how hard it is to sustain one of the recurring myths of folk music – that it is (or ought to be) Folk Music, the music of the people; that revivalists are simply reviving songs that have fallen into disuse for a couple of decades or centuries, ultimately with a view to taking them back to the people who let them slip in the first place. If you want a singable version of Child 68, you can’t just pick up the text. (There’s also the unavoidable fact that the song in all its versions is written in Scots rather than English, although clearly that won’t be so much of an issue for some singers.) And picking up a text and working with it is what you do with any traditional song – whether it’s a Child ballad, a song that Cecil Sharp collected from a farmworker in 1904, or an unknown song that you’ve just found in a collection of Victorian broadsides.

I’m coming round to the view that folk music is essentially a bank of songs or a repertoire. A broadside, a Child ballad, a song collected from a farm labourer or a Traveller: these are all traditional songs, because they’re all from the accumulated traditional repertoire. And they’re still traditional songs – they’re still part of that repertoire – no matter how you piece the text together and no matter how you perform it.

Folk music as a body of songs is more or less complete, on this reckoning; there aren’t any folk songs being written, more or less by definition. Nor are the Beatles, Arctic Monkeys, Take That or whoever “the folk songs of the future”: there will be no folk songs of the future, because the traditional repertoire isn’t being laid down any more. But it’s there, and it’s big, and it’s a damn good repertoire.

This is what differentiates folk from popular music – but, intriguingly, brings it closer to classical music. When a folk audience hears a song like this one

they will already know it. That’s true for scores if not hundreds of songs, and for the real standards (like this one) it’s an understatement: they’ll know it inside out. They’ll know every word of the song and every note of the tune, and they’ll have heard it sung by several different people (at least seven in my case). What you’re listening to isn’t the song, it’s what the singer does with it. And a folk singer isn’t a folk prophet or a tribune of the people; just a specialist in a particular body of words and music. That’s good enough for me.

Thousands or more

In comments, Rob wrote:

I remember when I was at school there was much polemic in the pages of Folk Review from the likes of Dick Gaughan and Pete Bellamy about whether one could truly call singer-songwriters “folk” at all: specifically about the extent to which they were likely to be writing songs that would become the “traditional music” of the future. I suppose the exemplar there would be Ewan MacColl: when I listen to the old Radio Ballads I can’t always tell which songs are Trad. arr. MacColl and which are MacColl. Or this one which has been around for ages and has come pretty much detached from knowledge of its author (I’d certainly forgotten who wrote it). “Anon” being the larval form of “trad” I’d say it was on its way. And there are plenty of what you might call genre songs, like “Dorset Be Beautiful” and “Drink Up Thee Zyder” on the same journey.

I’m not sure. I’m a bit of a puritan – or possibly a pessimist – with regard to “traditional music of the future”: I don’t think there will be such a thing, unfortunately. Borrowing some stuff I wrote earlier (on Mudcat):

If recording technology were somehow abolished next week, a 22nd-century collector might well pick up local variants of Blowin’ in the Wind and Mr Tambourine Man. But we’ll never know: Dylan isn’t music of the people, Dylan’s a recording artist. Traditional and folk-transmitted music survives here and there – football chants, playground rhymes, some hymns and carols – but there’s really no music that’s “of the people” in the sense of living and developing among ordinary people in the course of their lives.

The ubiquity of broadcast and recorded music changed everything. Once a song’s recorded, there’s a single, readily-available answer to the question: “what should that sound like?” We know the right melody, the right chords and the right words, and if we want to know how it all fits together we can listen to the writer singing it. That’s a huge change from the conditions that existed as recently as a hundred years ago. Traditional music – folk music, as far as I’m concerned – is all about reaching back before that break and finding out what people used to do for music, before they could all listen to the same thing at the flick of a switch.

The problem is that the availability of broadcast music cuts away the ground from under the oral tradition. Do you sing while you work? Do your workmates? Do you sing at home to relax? When your friends or family want some music of an evening, do they suggest having a few songs? The oral tradition works in communities and societies where people can, by and large, answer Yes to all four. Those conditions may still obtain in some parts of the world, but they certainly don’t in Britain (or the US).

This isn’t something that’s happened overnight. The uniformity imposed by mechanical reproduction has been eroding the oral tradition for a long time, going back to pianolas and mass-produced parlour songbooks. Ironically, the oral tradition finally gave up the ghost (in this country at least) at around the same time the Revival was really getting going. Oral transmission among folkies does go on, but we aren’t so much a community as a network of hobbyists. Live music made by ordinary people without making a big deal of it – because it’s what you do, because it passes the time, because everyone’s got a song in them – has basically died out.

This isn’t an anti-folkie point – quite the opposite. (I think some of the anti-trad polemicists get this far and then take a wrong turning, writing off the music on the basis that (a) some people demonstrably claim too much for it (b) they don’t like those people and (c) they don’t actually like the music either. It’s easily done – ask me about opera some time, or rather don’t.) As far as I’m concerned, live music made by enthusiastic amateurs (and a few enthusiastic professionals) is great – it’s one of the brighter spots in my life at the moment. Live traditional music, in particular. The songs that have survived from the oral tradition – or survived long enough to be collected – are, by and large, really good songs: in performance, they work in a way that most new songs don’t. It’s true that there are new songs coming through in the style of the old songs – Shantyman, Bring us a barrel and so on – but they’re only ever likely to be heard by a tiny minority of the population. A bit of humility, and a bit of awareness of what’s gone, are in order. We’re not the folk, and any new music we make is never going to be folk music.

Which, apart from anything else, is what makes the folk music we do have so valuable. Counting variants, there are hundreds of songs out there from the traditions of England and Scotland alone. So much music, so little time! What’s more likely to sound good – a song that started life on a seventeenth-century broadside, passed through countless hands and voices before being collected in 1904, and has since been taken up and shaped and polished by three or four generations of revivalists, or “a song you won’t have heard, because I’ve only just finished writing it”?

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