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 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.

Just out of interest, here is a different version of it, collected by Sharp in Gloucestershire and sung by Jon Doran, who is making a name for himself on the circuit. I hope you enjoy it.

"We Shepherds Are the Best of Men" sheet musicDownload a PDF of the sheet music for "We Shepherds Are the Best of Men."

Lyrics

1. We shepherds be the best of men that e'er trod English ground,
When we come to an alehouse, we value not a crown
We spends our money freely and pays before we go
With no ale in the vale where the cold wintry winds do blow.
(Repeat last two lines)

2. A man that is a shepherd doth need a valiant heart,
He must not be faint-hearted but boldly do his part,
He must not be faint-hearted be it rain or frost or snow,
With no ale in the vale where the cold wintry winds do blow.
(Repeat last two lines)

3. When I kept sheep on Tresham Hill it made me heart to ache
To see the ewes hang out their tongues and hear the lambs to bleat,
Then I set out with courage and o'er the hills did go
And penned them there in the fold while the cold wintry winds do blow.
(Repeat last two lines)

4. As soon as I had penned them there I turned me back in haste
Unto some jovial company some liquor for to taste,
For drink and jovial company they are me heart's delight
While me sheep lie asleep all the forepart of the night.
(Repeat last two lines)

Gwilym Davies hails from southern England but also has Welsh ancestry. He is an experienced singer of traditional songs, both accompanied and unaccompanied. For more than 40 years, he has been tracking down and recording traditional singers, and more than half his repertoire is based on songs from those singers. He has learned a large number of songs first-hand from the English Traveller community. He is a tireless researcher of folk song and has given many presentations on the subject. He recently had a book published, Catch it, Bottle it and Paint it Green, which recounts some of his experiences of meeting and recording source singers on both sides of the Atlantic.

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...?).

18th-century engraving of a rattlesnakeSpringfield Mountain

Submitted by Judy Cook

The tragedy retold in this oldest of America’s native ballads, “Springfield Mountain,” took place in southern Massachusetts in 1761. The name of the family varies in different versions of the song. In truth it was Mirick, but Cushman, the one in John Galusha’s version, was one of the oldest family names in that part of Massachusetts. The location, Springfield Mountain, is now known as Wilbraham Mountain, near Springfield, MA. The song has passed into oral tradition, and comic versions are easily found.

John Galusha spent his life in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State – as a logger, game and fishing guide, forest ranger, and farmer. In 1940, when he was 81, he and his wife were living in a farmhouse near North Creek. It was there that Anne and Frank Warner collected “Springfield Mountain” from him. The song can be found in their wonderful book “Traditional American Songs.” I have made a few slight changes to the song.

Photo of workers at a lumber millBangor lumber mill workers, courtesy of the Maine Memory Network

Shove the Grog Around (Shanty Song)

Submitted by Dick Swain

A stout drinking song with a great chorus. At least two versions of the song, both probably dating back to the 1870s, have been published and recorded. The “Shanty Song” version was collected from Mrs. Annie V. Marston of Charlestown, Maine and first published in Eckstorm and Smyth, Minstrelsy Maine (1926). The earliest version of the “Raftman’s Song (Old Butler)” I have found is in the Joel Kimball Diary, April 24, 1874, Livingston Manor, NY (Sullivan County) (accessed May 23, 2021).

The most complete version of the “Raftsman’s Song” (with words almost identical to Joel Kimball’s version) was collected by Ellen Stekert from Ezra Barhight of Gallilee, Pennsylvania and published in “Four Pennsylvania Songs Learned before 1900, From the Repertoire of Ezra V. Barhight” in Goldstein and Byington, Two Penny Ballads and Four Dollar Whiskey (1966).

Painting of twin boys"Portrait of Two Boys, called the Artist's Twin Brothers," by John Syme, from the National Galleries of Scotland

The Cruel Mother

Submitted by Moira Craig

In Scotland, the law concerning the general crime of infanticide took two forms during the period 1660-1800. If a married woman (or less commonly man) was prosecuted for the killing of a newborn child, the charge would remain the common law offence of murder, unless it could be proved that the child was born healthy and that the accused had wilfully killed it.

The only chance a lower-class woman had, if she didn’t want to go into service, was to marry and to try to marry well. Unfortunately, if a girl became pregnant before marriage and the father refused to acknowledge the pregnancy, she was likely to be ostracised and banished from the family or village and her chance of marriage in the future was unlikely. It was probable that she would live a life of penury and destitution. It is not surprising, then, that women would try to hide their pregnancy and kill their babies in an attempt to continue a “normal” life.

"The Cruel Mother" exists in a number of variants, in some of which there are verses where the dead children tell the mother she will suffer a number of penances each lasting seven years, e.g. "Seven years to ring a bell / And seven years porter in hell." Those verses properly belong in "The Maid and the Palmer" (Child ballad 21). Variants of "The Cruel Mother" include "Carlisle Hall," "The Rose o Malinde," "Fine Flowers in the Valley," "The Minister's Daughter of New York," and "The Lady From Lee," among others. "Fine Flowers of the Valley" is a Scottish variant. "Weela Weela Walya" is an Irish schoolyard version.

Painting of a young woman holding a basket of laundry"The Little Laundress" by Walter Dendy Sadler

Katie Catch

Submitted by April Grant

I first heard "Katie Catch" from Boston-area singer Gus Reid. He learned it from the singing of Fay Hield, who revived it and, I believe, slightly rewrote/combined versions from the book The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland Volume 2 by Alice Bertha Gomme, and from Iona and Peter Opie's Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. It's the kindest of songs, about sweethearts deciding to get married, and looking forward to all the good things that they'll do together.

When I hear this song, from Gus, Fay Hield, or most recently from Rhode Island singer Cate Clifford, I almost always burst into tears. I'm not the only one, I've noticed. None of us can explain it except to say, "It's so beautiful!" or "It's the one where everything is OK!" In a genre where tragic endings and complaints make for the most gripping songs overall, sometimes our hearts cry out for one where nobody has to die and we can watch everything go well for a change.

Painting of "The Journey of the Magi" by SassettaDetail from "The Journey of the Magi" by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni)

A Pilgrim’s Way

Submitted by Cate Clifford

"A Pilgrim's Way" began as a Rudyard Kipling poem which, according to Mainly Norfolk, appeared in his book The Years Between. Then Peter Bellamy added his original tune.

When I first heard this love letter to humanity, sung by A.J. Wright, I felt like I'd heard my own heart in song. May it lighten and strengthen yours.

The Amorites were a semi-nomadic people who lived in Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Syria during the 3rd millennium BC. They founded the ancient city of Mari, and the first dynasty of Babylon. Eremites are Christian hermits. A "general averagee" is a sailor on a cargo ship.

Painting of "A Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl" by David Allan"A Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl" by David Allan

Glenlogie

Submitted by Jeff Gillett

Glenlogie, or Jean O Bethelnie is No. 238 in the Child Collection. The earliest text in Child dates back to 1768.

It is a ballad with a happy ending, but perhaps none the worse for that! There is no murder, no rape, no incest: the most sensational element is emotional blackmail. The young Lady Jeannie sees Glenlogie and falls head-over-heels in love with him. When he says he is already promised to another, she takes to her bed and prepares to die for love. Glenlogie relents, they are married and (we suppose) live happily ever after!

A young woman working in an herb garden

Sprig of Thyme

Submitted by Peter and Barbara Snape

"Sprig of Thyme" was widely collected and published on broadsides throughout the British Isles. The version we sing here is from the John Greaves collection of Irlam Hall, Manchester and published in Lancashire Lyrics, Songs and Ballads of the County Palatine, edited by John Harland in 1866.

The song is of the same character as "The Seeds of Love" and also "Love's Evil Choice or The Unfortunate Damsel," a poem written by Mrs Fleetwood of Habergham Hall, Padiham, near Burnley in Lancashire, who wrote it to console herself when, in 1689, her husband’s extravagances finally led to the loss of the family estate.

It is interesting to note some similarities between "Sprig of Thyme" and "Seeds of Love," the first song collected by Cecil Sharp.

Lord Bateman chained to a tree, while Sophia approaches

Lord Bateman

Submitted by Arthur Knevett

This ballad has enjoyed widespread popularity. It was regularly printed on broadsides, which have kept it in circulation and helped to stabilize the text.

The story is a ‘ripping yarn’ concerning an adventurous lord who sails to Turkey and is taken prisoner. The jailer’s daughter, Sophie, releases him and he sails home to freedom. After seven years, she decides to find him, and having done so, he jilts his new bride and marries her!

It’s one of the few Child ballads that has a happy ending (except, of course, for the jilted bride). It has been a favourite of mine since I learnt it in the 1960s from the recording of Bert Lloyd (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. 2 on Riverside Records, 1956).

     
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