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.
The Hills of Mexico
introduced by Sara Grey
The tune and text is a variation of “Buffalo Skinners” from Woody Guthrie but Woody’s version is more likely derived from this version. This is one of my favorite songs – so plaintive such a common theme.
I heard this version from Roscoe Holcomb; it’s ironic the way songs can move in opposite directions. We doubt Roscoe ever travelled west – someone probably had migrated back to the Southeast and he heard it there.
Listen to Sara Grey and her son Kieron Means sing "The Hills of Mexico," from their album Better Days a Comin':
When I's in old Fort Worth in eighteen eighty-three
An old Mexican cowboy come steppin’ up to me
Sayin' “How’d you like, young feller, and how’d you like to go
And to spend another season with me in Mexico?”
Lord, I had no employment, back to him did say
“Well, accordin' to your wages, accordin' to your pay.”
“I will pay to you good wages and oft times, too, you know
If you'll spend another season with me in Mexico.”
Now with all this flatterin' talkin' he signed up quite a train
Some ten or twelve in number, some able bodied men
And our trip it was a pleasant one, and we hit the western road
And we crossed the old Peace River to those hills of Mexico.
It was there our pleasures ended and our troubles they began
Well, a lightning storm did hit us and made our cattle run
And we all got full of stickers from the cactus that did grow
And the outlaws they did rob us in those hills of Mexico.
Well I went up to that cowboy, and I gave to him my hand
And he gave me a string of horses, so old they could not stand
And I nearly starved to death there, and I mean to let you know
That I never saved a dollar in those hills of Mexico.
Oh they put me on a steamboat and back to home did go
Well the bells they did ring, and the whistle it did blow
Well the bells they did ring, and the whistle it did blow
Far from the God-forsaken country that they call Old Mexico.
Sara Grey is a fine American singer, banjo player and song collector, who is immersed in the song traditions of both sides of the Atlantic. Her love affair with traditional songs for over 60 years has given her an incomparable knowledge of songs and ballads and how they have moved and evolved. She wants to gather the songs and pass them on to future generations so that they will have the pleasure of hearing and singing them just as she has. After living and singing in Britain for more than 45 years, Sara has returned to her native New England and is living in Maine with her husband Dave. She continues to tour actively, mostly with her son Kieron Means. See more about Sara at her website.
I Saw Three Ships
introduced by Dave Para
Like John Roberts & Tony Barrand, Dave Para loves this "Crawn" version of the widespread carol “I Saw Three Ships.” It was collected in 1895 from a Humber estuary boatman on the east coast of England, and ultimately published by Baring-Gould in his Garland of Country Songs in the same year.
It finally makes sense out of the puzzle of why three ships appear in the Christmas narrative at all. Legend has it that the skulls ("crawns" = "craniums" = "crowns"?) of the "Kings" or "Wise Men" were taken and lodged in the cathedral at Cologne.
Dave thinks of this more as a pilgrim carol than a Christmas song, so here it is in March.
The Trooper and the Tailor
introduced by Mark Gilston
I performed my first public concert at the Yellow Door Coffeehouse in Montreal in 1971. When I was putting together my set list, I noticed that two of the songs contained lyrics about ears which had been isolated from their owners’ heads. “The Cat Came Back” had the line, “Next day all they found was Freddy’s own right ear.” “Perrine” had the the line, “The mice they chewed and chewed and only left an ear.” I was also familiar with the song, “Jackknife” from the Unholy Modal Rounders, which begins, “I was cleaning my jackknife when you did appear. I had a fight with you; I cut off your ear.”
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.
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