Three people singing to guitar accompanimentCDSS 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.

Happy singing!

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.

A town in the Old West with a sign reading 'Yuba Dam'

Yuba Dam

Submitted by Bob Bovee

I learned this humorous ditty from my uncle, Herman Lienemann, in Nebraska more than forty years ago. Herman couldn't remember where he learned it, but thought it was back in the 1920s. I have never found a Yuba Dam anywhere or any other reference to this song.

Bob adds: I found a link to the 1893 sheet music for "Yuba Dam" at the New York Public Library. It has the same words (with three additional verses), but a completely different tune. I think it’s a great example of how songs move into the oral tradition and are passed along from there.

Listen to Bob singing "Yuba Dam:"

"Yuba Dam" sheet musicDownload a PDF of the sheet music for "Yuba Dam."

Lyrics

Out west they have some funny towns and funny names as well
There is a town called Yuba Dam ten miles from where I dwell
I rode with a conductor once who was a substitute
He didn't know the stations and this led to a dispute
"Where do you want to go?" said he, "Yuba Dam," said I
"I'll not," said he, and grabbing me, to choke me he did try
Jabs in the jaw and punches galore, he really made things hum
And when I got to Yuba Dam, I was both deaf and dumb    

That evening when I reached my home, my wife began to scold
For the supper that she had prepared had stood till it was cold
I offered explanations but they didn't pacify
And when she looked upon me, I could see blood in her eye
"Where did you get that load?" said she, "Yuba Dam," said I
And with a grab she let me have a chair that stood nearby
I left the room at the end of a broom and jumped the backyard fence 
She misconstrued the meaning and I took the consequence

Next morning with me darling wife, myself I tried to square
Not knowing that upon my coat there was a long blonde hair
She took it in her fingers and compared it with her own
And, as it was much lighter, I decided to leave home

Divorce proceedings followed, I was taken into court
And forced to pay so much each week towards my wife's support
She gave her testimony, which was everything but true
Which caused the judge upon the bench to look me through and through
"What brought this all about?" said he, "Yuba Dam," said I
"Profanity in court," said he, "will land you high and dry"
I stood no show, I went below, it was a sad mishap
And I think the town of Yuba Dam has no right on the map

Bob Bovee is a Nebraska native whose family sang and played the old-time songs. Many of the western and railroad songs he performs were learned from his grandmother and uncle. Since 1971, he has been a full-time touring musician, plays banjo, guitar, harmonica, and autoharp, sings and yodels. He now resides in rural Minnesota.

British soldiers in battle

Bibble A La Do

Submitted by Kim Wallach

I chose "Bibble A La Do" as the Song of the Month for a number of reasons. I grew up singing along with the mournful "Johnny's Gone for a Soldier" as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. Also known as "Buttermilk Hill" and "Shule Aroon," "Shule a Ghra" and "Siúil a Rún" (and many other names as well), all these songs lament a lad gone for a soldier, sometimes one for whom the singer has sold everything to supply with the tools of war, only for them to die anyway.

While I still love a sad song, there's something about the jauntiness of the rhythm and the change of modality from minor to major just at the end of "Bibble A La Do" that I love. There are tons of recorded versions of "Johnny's Gone for a Soldier," but only two I know of for "Bibble A La Do"—Art Thieme on Thieme04, and Deborah Robins on Home Fires (.99 to buy, but buy the whole CD, it's worth it!).

A cabin boy stands on deck with a mop

The Golden Willow Tree

Submitted by Joel Mabus

"The Golden Willow Tree" is a ballad with many names—often called "The Golden Vanity." Sometimes shelved as a "Child Ballad," it has been around since the days of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose exploits the earliest versions expound. Aaron Copland once turned it into a fancy high-art piece, but in earthier editions it is still a favorite with traditional balladeers.

I crafted my own version from several I have heard, notably those from Arkansas. But I have stitched in a few verses of my own to expedite the narrative and let my own words tell the story. Another instance of nothing new under the sun, the duplicitous captain and his venal crew are the very picture of Wall Street scoundrels.

Here is a good website that has links to recordings of Arkansas source singers with four variants with various titles.

Soldiers and horses drown in the Kabul RiverThis print from the Illustrated London News illustrates the drowning of the 47 men of the 10th Hussars. The actions have been compressed for dramatic purposes, but a contemporary photo of the scene of the disaster shows that the river, looking deceptively calm, was around 200 yards across.

Ford O’ Kabul River


Submitted by George Stephens

One of Rudyard Kipling’s “Barrack Room Ballads,” the poem, set to a tune by Peter Bellamy, describes a tragic night in March, 1879, when the British 10th Hussars attempted to cross Kabul River to occupy Kabul, Afghanistan. The river was high with water from melting snow, and 46 men and many horses were lost.


Afghanistan, at a strategic cross roads linking North, South, East, and West, has been unsuccessfully invaded multiple times through recorded history, most recently by the British, the Russians, and UN forces, led by the United States. It has gained the nickname “the place where empires come to die.” This song seems a fitting comment on the current military adventurism taking place in Ukraine. “Gawd ’elp ’em if they blunder.”


Women wait outside an Irish sod cottage

Bold Riley

Submitted by Ian Robb

This well-known sailor's farewell, in its many versions, seems to have become a favorite memorial song in recent years. There are several versions of the chorus going around, and I always find myself trying to guess, usually wrongly, which one to sing, so I've used the simplest version I know, and also kept the song fairly short.

The term "white stocking day" refers to the happy day on which the wives, sweethearts, or mothers collected an advance on their absent sailor's pay. The last verse I've added from the text of the Georgian Sea Islands song, "Good-bye My Riley-O."

Flash Phelps plays accordion while Dick Corbett singsFlash Phelps and Dick Corbett

The Foggy Dew

Submitted by Nick Dow

Early in this century, Nick Dow and his wife visited The White Lion at Broadwindsor. Nick writes, “The landlord was Dick Corbett, a prolific singer. The button accordion was played by ‘Flash’ Phelps, and the numerous locals were entertained by two brothers, Doug and Sam Phillips.

“I was able to record the whole evening. The repertoire consisted of a catholic selection of songs, from the hit parade to the music hall, from country music to folk song proper. Dick Corbett, an ex-military man sporting a large handlebar moustache, regaled us with old favorites from his service days. ‘Widdicombe Fair’ was followed by ‘I Am the Music Man.’ Then, with no warning, Dick produced three verses of ‘The Foggy Dew,’ and as if by prior arrangement, Doug and Sam Phillips, singing in unison, gave voice to ‘The Ball of Yarn,’ with Flash Phelps playing for all he was worth.

“The Phillips brothers then launched into a selection of music hall songs. Some were reasonably well known. ‘Fireworks,’ written by T.W. Connor, was followed by ‘Slap Bab’ and the less common ‘Nobody Noticed Me!,’ sung originally by Jack Pleasance, the shy comedian, famous for his song ‘I’m Shy, Mary Ellen.’”

Sculpture of a Scottish couple during the Highland ClearancesThe Exiles, a statue created by Gerald Laing as a memorial to those displaced in the Highland Clearances.

Scarborough Settler's Lament

Submitted by Ken Willson and Kim McKee

Written in 1840 by Sandy Glendening with music by Fowke, this song relates the loneliness felt by immigrating Scots after the battle of Culloden and then the Highland Clearances. The Highland chieftains were compelled by the victors in the struggle (British government) to increase income from their land, and so began to clear off the crofters by the thousands. Many of these people wound up in Canada and America.

My own family (MacDonald) wound up in Greenfield, Canada and from there to North Dakota, which gives me a deep appreciation for the sentiments within. Scarborough is located by Toronto.

Engraving of Tom o'BedlamTom o'Bedlam in The Belman of London (published in 1608)

Tom o’Bedlam’s Song

Submitted by Tim Edwards

The lyrics come from the early 17th century, and it has been described as the finest anonymous poem in the English language (though there is a theory that Shakespeare might have contributed to it). Tom in the song is a licensed beggar discharged from the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London (“Bedlam”).

I first heard it sung by Dave “Steve” Stephenson of the wonderful Songwainers of Cheltenham in the early 70’s, and loved it at first hearing. I learnt it shortly afterwards after finding the words in a poetry book of my father’s (Other Men’s Flowers, collected by A.P. Wavell—full of gems) and have been singing it ever since. Dave found the tune as a virginal arrangement in a Drexel manuscript—now in the New York Public Library.

It’s always been one of my very favorites, and for me, the last verse in particular is sublime.

A shepherd plays pan pipes while two young women dancePan Pipes by Walter Crane, 1884

We Shepherds Be the Best of Men (Roud 284)

Submitted by Gwilym Davies

There are many songs in the English tradition praising the virtues of farming life, such as "All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough," "Jim the Carter's Lad," and the song presented here. It is particularly popular in the English South and Midlands, where sheep farming was dominant. It is no older than the 19th century in this form, but is based on an older song praising sailing life.

Richard Chidlaw learned this version from singer William Chappell in Tresham, Gloucestershire, hence the reference to Tresham Hill. Other versions place the action elsewhere. Gwilym Davies recorded Richard singing it in on October 4, 2003 in Dursley, Gloucestershire. You still hear the song fairly regularly in local sing arounds.

A young woman holding a babyCatch Me If You Can

Submitted by Pete Coe

"Catch Me If You Can" is a broadside I did at the time when the original recordings were released on Veteran Tapes' Songs from Cornish Travellers, later re-released on Veteran/Backshift on CD, then recorded by me on "In Paper Houses." I seem to remember that a copy of the original release on VT was sent to the Library Of Congress.

For anyone who's interested, the Veteran recordings of Betsy and Charlotte Renals and Sophie Legg are available on downloads from Proper. Their tape/CD was also titled "Catch Me If You Can." My recording of the song is also available on the usual downloads, and I've still got CDs available via my website.

So....in March 1978, I headed down to Bodmin in Cornwall to record family and travellers' songs from Betsy (78) and Charlotte Renals (76) and Sophie Legg (60). I'd been introduced to their songs by Sophie's son Vic at Bodmin Folk Club, and then to the ladies themselves on previous visits. Betsy, as head of the family, wanted to know why a young man like me was interested in these old songs sung by old ladies. I realised this was a test, so I sang her "The Banks of Red Roses," which met with her approval, and the recording dates were set.

"Somebody's Waiting for Me" sheet music coverSomebody’s Waiting for Me / Country Garden

Submitted by Shelley Posen

One of my all-time favourite traditional songs was originally titled, “Somebody’s Waiting for Me,” but the traditional singer who performed it best, as far as I am concerned, called it “Country Garden.”

That singer was Mac Masters, a Newfoundland sea captain I met in the early 1970s through my fellow Folklore graduate student, Wilf Wareham. Wilf’s father had been the merchant in Harbour Buffett, a fishing settlement on an island in Placentia Bay off the south coast of Newfoundland.

Old Mr. Wareham used to send Mac and his schooner around the bay every fall to pick up the salt fish made that summer. Wilf told me Mac was an especially welcome visitor in each outport, because evenings, after the fish had been loaded into the schooner’s hold, there’d be a “time” or party, and Mac would sing.

Mac must have been a splendid singer back then, because when I first heard him perform decades later, his strong, reedy voice still kept excellent pitch, and he beguiled the ear with a quirky sense of melody and changes of rhythm. His large repertoire was replete with late Victorian sentimental ditties such as “Country Garden.“

“Somebody’s Waiting for Me” was composed in 1902 by Andrew B. Sterling (words) and Harry von Tilzer (melody), two pioneers of Tin Pan Alley long before it was called that. The song’s first line set the narrative in a “concert garden”—a small beer garden or hall, usually attached to a tavern, where customers could drink and party while entertainers performed on a small stage. Concert gardens were American cousins of the Parisian café concert and the English music hall of the same era. They preceded vaudeville by a decade or two.

Woodcut image of a couple in a rowboatThe Water Is Wide

Submitted by Harry Tuft

My early introduction to folk music was a recording of Burl Ives, and on that one he sang "Waly, Waly." Not too long after, I was introduced to the recordings of Pete Seeger—that's where I first heard "The Water Is Wide," and I was struck by the fact that there were similar verses in the two songs. Wikipedia tells me that it was Cecil Sharp in 1906 who constructed the song we now universally sing from previous related versions. For fun, look there and you'll see the diversity of artists who have recorded it.

Over the years, I heard so many versions of the song, and interestingly, most of them included the same verses—no "folk process" here, apparently. And I always liked the song, but particularly the versions by Steve Goodman and James Taylor—they both "Americanized" the lyric, and I appreciated that. So, when it came to my version, I did make three changes: 1) a slightly Reggae beat; 2) I end all verses on the "four," never resolving to the "one;" 3) I have written one verse (can you tell which it is...?).

     
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