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, as well as to Lynn Nichols for shepherding them to our website.
Lost on the Lady Elgin
introduced by Lee Murdock
This song was composed by Henry C. Work in the wake of one of the worst maritime disasters to occur until that time. The Lady Elgin was a side-wheel steam-powered vessel, 300 feet long with a capacity of 1000 tons. She carried finished goods, mail, general freight and passengers between lake-towns in the United States and Canada. Her master was Captain Jack Wilson, well respected among his peers and considered a first-rate sailor.
On the evening of September 8, 1860, the Lady Elgin slipped her lines at the dock in Chicago, Illinois, on her return trip down Lake Michigan, the next stop being Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Around midnight, a storm blew up, creating slow going in the frothy seas. The lumber schooner Augusta was heading to South Chicago with her load when she accidentally ran into the Lady Elgin in the confused seas. Although her bow was damaged, the Augusta continued onto her destination, leaving the crippled steamer to her fate.
Shortly thereafter, the Lady Elgin sank, leaving in her wake many passengers fighting for survival, clinging to the debris still floating amid huge waves. As the night progressed, the stormy winds from the northeast continued to rage, blowing the survivors toward shore.
Come morning, over three hundred people had lost their lives, many being dashed along the rocks along the lakeshore, within a hundred feet of salvation. As with many tragic events, this shipwreck was reported in the newspapers extensively, even as far away as England in The Illustrated London News.
Originally, this song spoke to the emotional sense of loss to those families who lost loved ones in this tragedy. As I researched the story behind the song, I came across first-hand accounts of this event that were not related in the original lyrics. Therefore, I took it upon myself (with some trepidation) to “add to the tradition” by writing three additional verses that tell of bravery and sacrifice in the face of this disaster.
Up from the poor man’s cottage, forth from the mansion door;
Sweeping across the valley and echoing along the shore;
Caught by the morning breezes, borne on the evening gale;
Comes the voice of mourning, a sad and solemn wail.
Lost on the Lady Elgin, sleeping to wake no more,
Numbered with those three hundred who failed to reach the shore.
Staunch was the noble steamer, precious the freight she bore,
Gaily she loosed her cables a few short hours before.
Grandly she swept our harbor, joyfully rang her bell,
Little thought we ere morning ‘twould toll so sad a knell.
*A thunderstorm at midnight, big seas began to roll,
One hundred miles of water was the noble steamer’s goal.
But a fatal slash on her port side from a schooner bearing pine,
An eerie silence shrouded all, the dying engines whined.
*Oh, here’s to Captain Wilson, may his soul forever rest,
When his noble steamer plunged beneath the surging crest.
Leading songs and prayers for every woman, man and child,
He bravely faced the elements on that long night so wild.
*And here’s to Edward Spencer, who lived along the shore,
That night the waves came breaking in with cries above the roar.
Sixteen times he plunged into the boiling surf to wrest
Another soul to safety asking, “Did I do my best?”
‘Tis the sound of children, crying for parents gone.
Children slept that evening, but orphans woke at dawn.
Sisters for brothers weeping, husbands for missing wives,
Such were the ties dissevered by those three hundred lives.
*Additional verses added by Lee Murdock.
Reprinted from Lake Rhymes, Folk Songs of the Great Lakes Region, ©2019 by Lee & Joann Murdock
Lee Murdock has one foot in contemporary folk music, and one foot firmly planted in the folk music tradition. In his arrangements of songs from traditional archives, the listener will hear the influences of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, David Crosby, Dan Fogelberg, Stan Rogers, Carolan, and Martin Carthy.
Having studied the traditional folk songs of the British Isles and Appalachian American music, Lee discovered the music of the Great Lakes region while searching for the folk songs from his native Illinois and the midwest. In that quest, Murdock uncovered a boundless body of music and stories about the Great Lakes. Grounded in the work song tradition, Murdock comes alongside with ballads of contemporary commerce in the grand folk style.
On the traditional side, Murdock draws heavily on the archives of authentic sailing songs collected in the early twentieth century. Housed at the University of Michigan, Professor Ivan Walton’s collection of songs of the Great Lakes sailors was unpublished until 2002, when Detroit journalist Joe Grimm completed Walton’s work, published by the Wayne State University Press and titled Windjammers, Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors. Murdock’s contribution of the musical scores to the text filled a long-missing link in North American folklore and song.
He has released 21 CDs from 1981-2018, with each recording presenting a balance of traditional, original and contemporary music with a ear to expanding the audience of folk music lovers. With a deeper understanding of the folk process, Lee Murdock’s work is a documentary and also an anthem to the people who live, work, learn and play along the freshwater highways of North America.
introduced by Kim Wallach
It was autumn, around 16 years ago, a friend died unexpectedly of a heart attack. My marriage with my hopes and dreams was also dying. I was searching through my big collections of songs - Lomax, Warner etc - tracking down songs I wanted to learn. I found "Pinery Boy," and the Warner version of "Lang a-Growing." Then in Folk Songs of the Catskills by Cazden, Haufrecht & Studer, State University of New York Press, Albany c 1982, I found the relatively rare "Bright Phoebe." The raw grief and loss in both melody and lyric matched what I was feeling perfectly, and I set about learning it.
I am a singer and a songwriter. The way I understand the world, my place in it and my feelings about it has always been through music.
Tickle Cove Pond
by Mark Walker
introduced and performed by Anita Best
"Tickle Cove Pond" was written by Mark Walker, a fisherman and songwriter who lived in Tickle Cove, Bonavista Bay in Newfoundland, Canada during the late 19th century. This song is prized locally for the beauty and wit of the lyrics, which turn a mundane event into an act of heroism. In addition, this song has been recorded by a St. John's Traditional Folk group called Connemara, Anita Best and Sandy Morris on a CD entitled Some Songs, and by classical singer Meredith Hall. It was also recorded by the Vermont-based ensemble Nightingale.
I'm Going Back to North Carolina
introduced by Judy Cook
performed by Frank Proffitt
I love this traditional song from the southern Appalachians for its simplicity, accessibility, and poignancy. It’s easy to keep it going by adding either the first or third verse as a chorus between every verse, or by adding any number of “zipper verses” that might suit the situation. We have the song sung by Frank Proffitt on the album Frank Proffitt of Reese, NC (1962), Folk Legacy Album #1. The entire Folk Legacy catalog is now available on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
For the Company Underground
introduced by Margaret Walters
performed by Margaret Walters, Don Brian, and Robert Boddington
Words: Francis MacNamara, aka Frank the Poet, written approx. 1839
Tune: adapted by Margaret Walters from “Norwich Gaol” from Peter Bellamy's 1977 ballad opera, The Transports
Francis MacNamara was a convict transported to Australia in 1832 on the ship Eliza. An incorrigible rogue, he served more than 17 years punishment. "For the Company Underground" is Frank's letter to J. Crosdale, Esq., who was the superintendent of the Australia Company's Colliery Establishment in Newcastle (north of Sydney), outlining the precise conditions under which he would be prepared to work underground.
The Maid of Sweet Gurteen
introduced by Marge Steiner
The song is found in Northern Ireland and in the Canadian Maritimes.
Roud number: 3025
The singer is Frank Murphy in Derryard, Roslea.
Recorded on 08/21/1978
I like to introduce people to source singers when I'm giving talks and such, and I was taken with Frank Murphy's modal rendition. Please note that, as with many source singers, Frank’s tune varies from verse to verse. We have transcribed the first verse here, but urge people to listen carefully to the entire song.
Starving to Death on a Government Claim
introduced by Bob Bovee
"Starving to Death on a Government Claim," also known as Lane or Greer County Bachelor, is a traditional song from the late 19th century. It's often sung in 6/8 time to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman," or sometimes in 3/4. I learned it from a 78 rpm record by Ed Crain with considerable changes to the tune, words and tempo. Growing up in Nebraska, I can identify with the life and landscape of this song, the hardships of a difficult existence.
introduced by William Pint and Felicia Dale
Annan Water is a superb example of the folk process in action.
In the late 1960's English singer Nic Jones encountered lyrics in Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, that had been taken from yet another book, Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders. Jones modified the words, turned the final stanza into a chorus, borrowed a melody from another traditional English song, and processed it all into a brand new 'traditional' song. Annan Water describes the tragedy of a man's struggle to reach his true love, riding his horse to exhaustion at a swollen river's banks and finally attempting and failing to swim the raging water. The singer, admonishing the treacherous river, vows to build a bridge guaranteeing that never again will it divide true lovers.
The Shearin's No' For You
introduced by Ed Miller
It's an old song, probably 19th century, from the song-rich northeast lowlands of Scotland; one of many songs relating to the harvest time of late summer. Harvest time in the old agricultural system of Lowland Scotland was one of the few times when men and women worked together out-of-doors. They would form "gangs" where the men would do the shearing (cutting by scythe or "heuk") and the women the picking-up and "stookin" before the crop was taken off for threshing. The 2nd verse may be romantic; but the other 3 are not.
In the first verse, the young man says "don’t even come to the harvest, you're so pregnant you can't bend over to pick it up," and the 3rd and 4th verses tell her to forget dressing nicely and making herself look good as life from now on will be one of drudgery at home with the children...typical Scottish fare!
There are many versions of this song... some have verses where the girl complains of being taken advantage of and then abandoned by the young man; but this is a more benign version.
Listen to Ed Miller sing the tune:
Listen to Scots Women sing the tune:
introduced by Sparky and Rhonda Rucker
"Shady Grove" is a traditional Southern Appalachian song. Like many mountain songs that blend Celtic and African influences, it is most often played in a modal tuning. Its origins are murky. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Volume III, credits it as a "Negro song." In the Journal of American Folklore, the song was collected in both Kentucky and Tennessee. In one of her books, Jean Ritchie reminisced about hearing it as a fiddle tune when she was growing up in eastern Kentucky. We have recorded this song twice — once on our CD, Treasures & Tears, and again on Dear Jean, the Jean Richie tribute album.
introduced by Keith Kendrick
This wonderful version of “Bedlam” was collected by Cecil Sharp from Jack Barnard in Bridgewater 1906. I found it in Book 2 of The Crystal Spring: English Folk Songs, and I've been singing it since the 1970s.
Having seemingly been cruelly cheated out of her loved one (who, incidentally must have been either a thoroughly nasty piece of work or simply a complete and utter prat!) by jealous or unthinking friends, this poor girl, suffering probably only from a bout of melancholy, finds herself inappropriately dumped in a mental institution mistakenly diagnosed as slightly loopy, an all too common occurrence in days gone by – and not totally unheard of in more recent times either!
LIsten to Keith and Sylvia Needham sing the tune:
The Bonny Bunch of Roses
introduced by Joel Mabus
For the CDSS Song of the Month, I offer "The Bonny Bunch of Roses," as performed on Irish television in 1965 by a young Colm Walsh of County Clare. Here is the video of his performance.
I have transcribed his melody and also the lyric he uses, which is not what is posted beneath the video. I have never heard this exact version anywhere else — there are many, many variants. The song is in the "Bonaparte Canon," as it were. In this ballad, the young out-of-favor Napoleon II is speaking with his mother, Archduchess Marie Louise, after daddy is dead and buried at St. Helena. He tells he will do what his father failed to do — give her the "bonny bunch of roses" — being England, Ireland and Scotland. And she says, "Don't try it, kid!"
A version of this tune is sometimes called "Bonaparte's Retreat" (one of the several) and exists as an Appalachian fiddle & banjo tune called "The Bunch of Roses."
introduced by Geoff Kaufman
There are a number of versions of this lovely song most commonly called "Home, Dearie, Home." I first heard this one from Ed Trickett in a house concert in NYC just as I was getting serious about performing and I often give it credit for steering me toward a career built around maritime music. I love its poignant vignette of the sailor far from home and the whimsical twist of the wife neglecting to tell him if their baby is a boy or girl.
Hear the song performed by Geoff Kaufman:
Throw Open Your Shutters
introduced by Lynn Nichols
At CDSS, we are stewards of traditional music, dance, and song, but while the songs may be traditional, the traditions are living ones. Which brings me to "Throw Open Your Shutters." Connecticut composer Amy Fell Bernon wrote this high energy, festive choral work in the Renaissance madrigal style in 2000 as a tribute to her high school choral director in Jamesville-DeWitt, NY. The piece features a wonderful interplay between voice parts, particularly in the “Hey Ding-a-dong” section. Bernon has set it in SATB, SSA, and TBB versions, and it is performed either with piano accompaniment or a cappella.
Amy Fell Bernon is one of Connecticut’s leading composers of choral music. She’s also a talented singer, pianist, conductor. Amy’s music is accessible and unpretentious, and she has received countless commissions from choral festivals and ensembles of all levels. Her works for treble voices are especially popular among women’s choirs and youth choirs.
The Wild Rover
introduced by Brian Peters
The Wild Rover is one of the best-known traditional songs, but it’s not the Irish drinking anthem many people assume. It began life in the 1670s as an English broadside ballad about a hard-drinking ‘Bad Husband’ who saw the error of his ways, but was edited down over the centuries, rebranded as ‘The Wild Rover’, and a chorus added. It was popular in England, Scotland and Australia, and the version made famous by the Dubliners contains elements from all of those places. Brian’s version was collected in Hampshire, England, in 1906, and retains the older chorus and temperance message – a similar version was written down in the same area as early as 1820.
Watch/listen to Brian perform The Wild Rover at this link or embedded above.
She's Like The Swallow
introduced by Suzanne Mrozak
This beautiful version of "She's Like the Swallow" comes from The Folk Songs of Canada, by Edith Fulton Fowke (Literary Editor) and Richard Johnston (Music Editor), first published in 1954. My own copy of the book is the 1955 second printing and I learned it a few years after that. Fowke identifies this as a song from Newfoundland but does not name her source. Dr. Neil Rosenberg, Professor Emeritus, Department of Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, who has published a wonderfully detailed scholarly article about the song, says that Fowke collected it from Albert Simms from McCallum Harbour, Hermitage Bay. The text that Dr. Rosenberg cites is different from the one Fowke published, however, so the actual source is a bit of a mystery.
Listen to Alan Mills sing the tune from the CD: Songs, Fiddle Tunes and a Folk Tale from Canada, by Alan and Jean Carignan:
The Night Guard
introduced by Martha Burns
The night guard is truly the most romantic figure of cowboy lore. Imagine starry skies and a lone cowboy singing to his herd and the night guard invariably comes to mind. “Singing to quiet the cattle is important,” the writer Owen Wister reflected in his western journals near the end of the old trail days. “The more restless they are, the louder or more inarticulate is the singing, no words being used at all, but only a strange wailing. But as the cattle grow quiet, the music gathers form, and while the herd lies quietly at rest on the plain, the night herders are apt to sing long definite songs as they ride round and round the edges.”
This song captures that feeling better than any other I know. It comes from Jack Webb, who recorded it for Victor in 1930, one of only two sides he ever recorded. Born in 1902, Webb lived most of his life in Oklahoma, becoming one of the earliest and most celebrated rodeo stars in the country’s history. He could rope six horses abreast at a gallop and shoot articles from his head by pulling a string attached to a rifle trigger. Occasionally billed as the “Crooning Cowboy,” he also composed and sang cowboy songs. “The Night Guard” is apparently one of Webb’s own.
Listen to Martha singing "The Night Guard" here or the YouTube image above right.
Here's Adieu to All Judges and Juries
introduced by Tim Radford
I have always had a deep interest in Penal Transportation Songs. I think of them as being that perfect combination of a rural song and a sea song, tinged often with aspects of politics and law and order.
Transportation as a punishment started in Great Britain in the 17th century and was originally to North America, but that ceased in 1776 with the US becoming independent. Transportation to Australia began in 1787, and although it officially ended with the passing of the Penal Servitude Act of 1857, the last convicts were transported as late as 1868.
Here’s Adieu to All Judges and Juries ticks all the boxes for me: a great tune, a poignant story with that touch of hope at the end. The version I list here was collected in 1908 by Dr. George Gardiner in Hampshire from the singing of George Blake, who spent most of his life living and working in and around Lyndhurst & Emery Down in The New Forest.
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.
Listen to Judy Cook sing Sailing
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.
Listen to Denise and Stuart singing the song: