As we approach the darkest time of the year, the sun goes to sleep and with it the sharp definition that it bestows upon the world. In the long, dark nights, more is possible because less is certain. Out of this unknown comes the supernatural. As we are called inward, called to sleep more and more, so are dreams are strengthened and we can become acquainted with our unconscious soul. This is the part of us that understands and communicates with the fairies, the elementals and sidhe. The old, authentic folk music is true because it addresses this part of us – it sings to the non-rational, pre-discursive part of our experience, and in so doing brings us into communion with it – a much needed act in today’s over-analytical world.
If I were back home, today I’d be going to a party called the Solstice Revels, complete with Morris dancing, contra dancing, a mummers play, circus arts, storytelling, and other general merriment for six hours. It was always one of the highlights of the year, so I thought I’d share something Englishy and magical in spirit of it.
Roberts and Barrand sing with an uncanny harmony which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is an old form of harmony, an organic and off-kilter one which seems to predate the methodized mathematical harmonies that characterize western vocal music. And because they have such a compelling quality to their voices, their energies, and their songs, they manage to avoid the trap too common to English folk-singers, namely that of sounding like a total dork. They’re more like the Watersons, or the Pinder Family, or some Appalachian clan – they do find a harmony, but it’s an itchy harmony that wakes you up rather than lulling you into passivity. Enjoy these ballads, seek out their other work, and cozy up for winter – it’s going to be a long one.
JOHN ROBERTS & TONY BARRAND
Widely acclaimed for their lively and entertaining presentations of English folk songs, JOHN ROBERTS and TONY BARRAND have performed at major festivals, colleges, clubs and coffeehouses throughout the United States, Canada, and their native Britain. They sing the ballads and songs of the sea, of rural pursuits, of social and sociable situations, of industrial toil and strife, and much more, typically arranging their material thematically to better illustrate the lives and the social history of the people who made and sang the songs. Their songs are punctuated with tales, monologues, dances and tunes, giving a more complete appreciation of the wealth, diversity, and vitality of the English folk tradition.
John and Tony met at Cornell University in 1968, as fellow graduate students in psychology. They discovered that they shared a common interest in folk song, and started performing together the following year. Unaccompanied two-part singing was always a primary staple of their repertoire, and the stark harmonies of their well-balanced voices soon brought them to the attention of the folk music community. They also draw upon a variety of instrumentation: John is a leading exponent of both Anglo and English concertina, as well as being a fine banjo and guitar player; Tony is a skilled percussionist, on drums, bones and spoons.
Both are active in the folk dance arena as well as in song. Tony is a well-known Morris and clog dancer, and his teaching is in demand across the United States. His recent book, Six Fools and a Dancer, has been hailed as the definitive work on Morris Dance in the United States. John, an able dancer himself, is more often found providing the music on concertina. When not singing or dancing (and often when he is) Tony teaches folklore and esthetics via the University Professors Program at Boston University; John is a freelance music engraver and desktop publisher.
In their many years together as a professional team, Roberts and Barrand have recorded with a number of companies including Swallowtail, Front Hall, Folk Legacy, National Geographic, and, most recently, Golden Hind. These recordings include a critically-acclaimed album of authentic sea shanties, an album of drinking songs recorded live in a Chicago tavern, An Evening at the English Music Hall, and four albums of songs from their celebrated Christmas pageant, Nowell Sing We Clear. Their latest release (August ’92) is a program of English folk songs entitled A Present from the Gentlemen. They have also recorded a selection of the songs that the composer Percy Grainger collected in Lincolnshire during the early years of this century, to be released in the near future. Their next project will be a sequel to an earlier recording of sea songs and shanties.
Label: Folk Legacy Records
As children, we are as familiar with the story-world of elves, giants, witches, and ghosts as we are with the world of the reality around us. This kind of fantasy plays a major role in our growing up, but as we mature it seems to get shuttled further and further into the backs of our minds, closeted up, to be released only for the occasional entertainment of our own children.
But it is precisely this variety of fantasy which provided a major part of the entertainment of days gone by. Songs and tales, carried in a family tradition intermittently refreshed by itinerant musicians and raconteurs, were full of bizarre encounters between young men and water nymphs, knights and dragons, fairy queens and magicians; and many of these same ballads, as song or story, have been carried down to us through the same family traditions.
Why were these themes so popular? In a world of oppression and misery, the adventure world of heroic knights and distressed damsels offered some brief escape. And in the world of the inquisition, of the continuing struggle between God and Satan, the shining white and the murky black, with the might of the church pitted against the insidious powers of witchcraft, it would seem natural to spice these adventures with the incarnations of supra-terrestrial forces.
But changing times lead to changing ballads. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table give way to Robin Hood and his merrie band of outlaws. Regal seductions make room for romps in the hayloft, Contemporary events are celebrated in new ballads, which take pride of place in the family repertoire. Many of the older songs are forgotten, or changed beyond recognition; but they are not all lost.
Old motifs, like old soldiers, seldom die; they live on in the new ballads and in adaptations of the old, altered, perhaps, but never really forgotten. Occasionally they appear in full glory in a miraculously preserved saga of ancient intrigue, perhaps remaining almost unchanged over the centuries. They may just come as fleeting allusions, shadows of the past ill at ease in their new settings. Sometimes (particularly, it seems, in their migration across the Atlantic) they disappear, leaving stark, grim tales of unexplained death, murder, and tragedy, And at times, it seems, they serve only to muddle an apparently rational sequence of events. But they remain with us, in many cases the same supernatural elements common to our children’s fairy tales: the ghosts, wizards, talking birds, shape transformations, and miracles of a magical world of long ago.
The songs we sing here were born of this stock. Because of our biases, they are based on English or English-derived tradition, or are English in style or spirit (as it were). Many of them are filled unashamedly with the fantastical events of the balladry of yesteryear; others carry only faint indications of some long-gone past, of unnatural happenings, of pagan ritual, and of disconcerting power, In the primal forest of folk songs, these are our dark ships.
Rudyard Kipling’s “A Tree Song” sets the scene for the stories and poems of Puck of Pook’s Hill, This setting of the verses is by the late Peter Bellamy who, after the breakup of the Young Tradition, became one of Britain’s best-known exponents of traditional song. He has arranged a considerable number of Kipling’s “songs,” using original melodies or adapting traditional ones. This tune is his own.
We also use it as a scene-setter, a “calling-on song.” The magic of trees lies deep in the roots of Druidic religion and mythology, and the oak, ash, and thorn are central characters of the bardic tree-alphabets; much of this tree lore has survived in folk tales, in English as well as in Celtic tradition.
Of all the trees that grow so fair, old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the sun than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn:
Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs,
(All on a midsummer’s morn!)
Surely we sing of no little thing
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
Oak of the clay lived many a day
Or ever Aeneas began,
Ash of the loam was a lady at home
When Brut was an outlaw man,
And Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town,
(From which was London born);
Witness hereby the ancientry
Of Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,
Yew that is old, in churchyard mould,
He breedeth a mighty bow,
Alder for shoes do wise men choose,
And Beech for cups also,
But when you have killed, and your bowl it is spilled,
And your shoes are clean outworn,
Back you must speed for all that you need
To Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,
Ellum, she hates mankind, and waits
Till every gust be laid,
To drop a limb on the head of him
That anyway trusts her shade,
But whether a lad be sober or sad,
Or mellow with ale from the horn,
He’ll take no wrong when he lyeth along
‘Neath Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,
Oh, do not tell the priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin,
But we’ve been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring summer in,
And we bring you good news by word of mouth,
Good news for cattle and corn:
Now is the sun come up
from the south,
By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,
Cyril Poacher, our source for this “pub” version of a most venerable ballad, was a regular at the Saturday night sing-songs in The Ship Inn, at Blaxhall in Suffolk, The somewhat garbled nature of the story line is heightened by the mysterious “Hold the wheel” chorus, apparently the result of a misunderstanding of “had his will” by a visiting (and presumably inebriated) yachtsman, It stuck.
O wager, O wager, O wager I’ll lay you,
I’ll lay you five thousands to your one
That a maiden I will go to the merry broomfield
And a maiden I’m sure I will return.
That a maiden I will go to the merry broomfield
And a maiden I’m sure I will return
Hold the Wheel!
And then did this young maid get on a bay hobby’s back,
All for to ride to that green broom (that green broom),
And when she got there, she found her own true love
Lying in that merry green broom fast asleep.
Nine tines did she walk round the crown of his head,
Nine times round the soles of his feet,
Nine times did she say, “Awake, master,
For your own true love is standing nearby.
And when she had done all that she dare do,
She stepped behind that bunch of green broom (that green broom)
All for to hear what her own true love would say
When he awoke out of his domestic sleep.
He said, “If I’d been awake instead of being asleep,
My will I would have done toward thee,
Your blood, it would have been spilled for those small birds to drink,
And your flesh it would have been for their food.”
“You hard-hearted young man, how could you say so?
Your heart it must be hard as any stone,
For to murder the one that loved you so well
Far better than the ground that you stand on,
“Nine times of this bell did I ring, master,
Nine times of this whip did I crack,
Nine times did I say, ‘Awake, master,
For your own true love is standing nearby.”
1 Oak, Ash, and Thorn – 2:43
2 The Broomfield Wager – 4:12
3 The Wife of Usher’s Well – 2:45
4 Tom of Bedlam – 3:57
5 The Dreadful Ghost – 4:22
6 The Foggy Dew – 5:07
7 The Derby Ram – 3:31
8 The Maid on the Shore – 3:45
9 Reynardine – 3:03
10 The False Lady – 3:21
11 Polly Vaughn – 3:18
12 The Two Magicians – 5:19