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 will be continuing through 2018. Our thanks to them both as well as to Lynn Nichols of the CDSS staff for shepherding them to our website.
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.)
The bit that makes the folklorists salivate is in many of the versions, including this one. Lord William doesn't get hurt until Lady Margaret calls his name out loud, breaking (so they say) his battle magic. I think it more likely that her cry breaks his berserker's concentration, and one of her severely wounded brothers manages to cut him.
Listen to a soloist from the Berea College Choir sing Earl o' Bran
LYRICS (as Margaret sings the song):
Wake ye up, wake ye up, ye seven sleepers
And do take warning of me
Take care, take care of your elder sister dear
For the younger is going with me
He put her on a milk-white steed
He rode a dapple grey
With the bugle horn around his neck
So lightly they rode away
As they rode out three miles from town
Lord William, he turned all around
He spied her father and seven brothers all
Come a-galloping over the ground
Keep still, keep still, Lady Margaret he cried
And hold my steed in your hand
While I do fight with your seven brothers all
In yon green meadow they stand
Fair Margaret spoke not any word
Nor made she any sound
Until she saw her own father's head
Come a-tumbling down to the ground
Oh, hold your hand, Lord William, she cried
For that stroke it was wondrous sore
True lovers I could get me many a one
But a father can never get more
Take your choice, take your choice, Lady Margaret he cried
Stay here, or go and be my bride
I'll go, I'll go, Lord William, she said
For you've left me no other guide
He's put her on the milk white steed
He rode the dapple grey
With the bugle horn around his neck
And so they went bleeding away
They rode till they came to his own mother's gate
He's tingled all on the ring
It's O, dear Mother, asleep or awake
Arise and let me come in
It's O, dear Mother, bind my head
For me you will bind no more
It's O, dear Sister, make my bed
For I am wounded sore.
Lord William he died all about midnight
Fair Margaret, long before day
Now all sweet lovers that love each other true
May God send them more luck than they
Margaret Nelson learned her first traditional ballad in the early 1960's. In 1982, she joined musical forces with guitarist and singer Phil Cooper. As a duo, as a trio with singer Kate Early, and as members of two successive Christmas bands, Cooper & Nelson toured, performed, and spent a lot of time recording mostly traditional songs and tunes. They released 24 recordings in 28 years, including cassettes, an LP, and CDs. (Many of the CDs are still available for sale.) In November and December, Margaret still tours with Kate Early, Phil Cooper and Susan Urban as the Bittersweet Christmas Band. In the summer, she is a regular performer at the Evanston Farmers Market, playing bouncy traditional music on her Autoharp so kids and adults can shake and bang along on home made rhythm instruments. She also performs at Memorial Day and Veterans Day gatherings sponsored by Veterans for Peace, and recently has been asked to lead songs at larger Chicago-area rallies for peace, social justice, and environmental sanity. Margaret describes her current condition as "Still vertical, still musical, and INCREASINGLY POLITICAL." Visit margaretjnelson.com for videos of Margaret in performance.
Margaret served as Board President of the Folk Alliance-Region Midwest (FARM) from 1999-2002. She was booker, host and sound babe for the Sunday Evening Folk concert series, Evanston, Illinois, 2003-2005. She is the recipient of the Folk Alliance Region Midwest Lifetime Service Award, 2006.
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:
The Banks of Red Roses: A Traditional Song
introduced by Pete Coe
I went to Ireland in 66, new to all this traditional folk stuff. I ended up in Tralee Co Cork, met up with some chaps who persuaded me to join their folk group for the Tralee Folk Group Competition where they'd planned to sing The Mingulay Boat Song. But they didn't know the words. I did, hence the invite. We came in 3rd, it would have helped us if the winners weren't called Finbar, Eddie, Paul & Ted Furey! One of the lads had some interesting songs including Banks of Red Roses which he said he'd learned from his next door neighbour in Belfast. So I learned it from him & it turned out that his neighbour was Sarah Makem. Chris Coe and I recorded the song on our first LP Open The Door and Let Us In in 1971. However, I've added a couple more verses recently, from Scottish Travellers, which fill out the grim story.
Listen to Pete playing & singing Banks of Red Roses: https://petecoe.bandcamp.com/track/banks-of-red-roses
The Boy That Wore The Blue
introduced by Shelley Posen
The Boy That Wore The Blue, also known as The Soldier’s Letter, is an American Civil War song of unknown origin, Roud #4389. For some reason, it found favour in the logging camps of Eastern Canada and the Northeast U.S. over the next century.
I learned it in 1977 from Loy Gavan in Chapeau, Quebec, a village on Allumette Island in the Upper Ottawa Valley. It’s one of the most poignant and eloquent songs I’ve ever heard. The song’s vague and seemingly random provenance gives some insight into how traditional singing worked in a community, how offhand and precarious it could be, and how lucky we are to have what traditional songs we have.
The Boy That Wore The Blue came to Chapeau in the 1930s via an itinerant man-of-all work named Carl Brian—an “Englishman” (from England? an Anglophone?) who came from Quebec, no one knew exactly where. He cleaned the stables at the village hotel and did farm chores. Always short of money, Brian sang in the hotel bar after work for drinks: “He'd sit and sing that song I betcha four times in the night,” said Loy. “He sang lots of songs, but that was the best—the best song, the best story.” Loy’s older brother Cliff learned it from Brian, and Loy learned it from Cliff.
The Boy That Wore The Blue captivated me the first time I heard Loy sing it, and was the first of many songs I learned from him. It was “Loy’s song” in Chapeau: if I asked someone else to sing it, they’d demure: “That’s Loy’s song”—meaning not his property, but that he sang it best.
The Bay of Biscay
introduced by Harry Tuft
The origin of this song, "The Bay Of Biscay" eludes me, even after a search of the internet. It appears that versions have been done by Shirley and Dolly Collins and Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, before the version I heard and have used in my own singing, by Norma Waterson on the album Waterson/Carthy. I imagine it would fall into the category of the ghost return of a dead lover. The melody is appropriately haunting, and Ms. Waterson's version is impressive. I included it on an album I released in 2011, Treasures Untold, on my own label, Manasses Records.
Here is a link to Norma Waterson singing “The Bay of Biscay” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_BK-e9mlvI (also embedded above)
Song, Composed in August (Now Westlin Winds) by Robert Burns
introduced by Andrew Calhoun
This was first published in the Kilmarnock edition of Robert Burns' Poems: Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in 1786. Burns' first draft was written ten years before in 1776. Robert was then 17 and its addressee, Peggy Thomson, of Kirkoswald, was 13. Burns indicated that it was to be sung to the tune of a humorous Ayrshire ballad, "I Had A Horse, I Had Nae Mair."
Here is the first verse of the model:
'I had a horse, and I had nae mair,
I gat him frae my daddy;
My purse was light, and my heart was fair,
But my wit it was fu' ready.
And sae I thought me on a time,
Outwittens of my daddy,
To see mysell to a lawland laird,
Wha had a bonny lady.'
Mr. Burns later sent his lyric to The Scots Musical Museum, indicating that it could be set to the tune, "Port Gordon." Scholars for well over a century have taken this gesture as evidence that Burns was disaffected with his original choice, which has never been published with the lyric; but they are missing something. "I Had a Horse, I Had Nae Mair" (I Had No More) had already been published, with its tune, in the second volume of the Musical Museum, where it is song #185; James Johnson (and Burns) preferred not to repeat melodies, hence his flexibility. The tune to which this is now commonly sung is neither of those to which he assigned it. Robert Burns is unique among major poets of his time in composing to melodies; he played fiddle, and needed to become deeply engaged with a tune before he could write lyrics for it; he was also a major collector of traditional lyrics and tunes. I explain in the linked video why this particular tune is of inseparable artistic importance to this particular lyric.
The Devil Buck
introduced by Mark Gilston
This song was "gifted" to me by Ben Mendel from New York City in the late 1970's. He told me he learned it from Bob Beers and that it was originally from Montana. I have been unable to find any other recorded sources or versions, though my understanding is that the huge evil cervine premonition of death is a legend in the northwestern states and in southwestern Canada. It certainly is a wonderfully eerie song, and I always included it in concerts around Halloween.
Listen to Mark sing the tune (also embedded above): https://youtu.be/dN3kdF21LPw
Double Sledder Lad
introduced by Matthew Byrne
Variant of a traditional ballad called "The Lumber Camp Song" found all over northeastern North America. Evidence collected on its background suggests a New Brunswick or Maine origin. This variant was arranged and recorded by Jim Payne & Fergus O'Byrne on their 1995 album Wave Over Wave: Old And New Songs Of Atlantic Canada (SingSong Inc). A very similar variant was collected in 1959 from Martin Deveau of Upper Ferry, NL, by Kenneth Peacock and published as Hurling Down The Pine in Songs Of The Newfoundland Outports, Volume 3, pp.750-751, by the National Museum of Canada (1965) Crown Copyrights Reserved.
Sweet William's Ghost
introduced by Lisa Null
The version I sing of "Sweet Williams Ghost" (Child #77) is based on the singing of Mike Kent of Cape Broyle Newfoundland. It was collected as "Lady Margaret" in 1951 by Kenneth Peacock in Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, vol 2. I love the way it deals with the continuance of love and commitment after death. William has to be relieved of the promise he made to marry Margaret who follows him over the hills walking and talking, even asking if she can be buried with him. It's an old ballad, appearing in Allan Ramsay's The Tea Table Miscellany (1740) and Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Bill Shute accompanies this song on a guitar played like a hammered dulcimer.
Listen to Bill and Lisa sing the song on this YouTube clip (also embedded above): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SlzH1KI7V4
Welcome Home My Sailor
introduced by Ian Robb
I first heard this “unbroken token” ballad from a young St. John's singer, Ellen Power, then in her teens, at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival. Asking around, I discovered that the song had come from singer and accordion player Dorman Ralph, of Little Harbour Deep, White Bay, Newfoundland, who lived in St John's from 1956 until his death in 1999.
I was attracted to the song for two reasons: Firstly, I loved the denouement, when not only do the long parted lovers fall into each other's arms, but “both sat down to sing..." Secondly, I was intrigued by the melody, which is a version of that collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Harriet Verrall, in Monk's Gate, Sussex, and to which he set John Bunyan's poem “To Be a Pilgrim," creating one of the best known English hymns. On the English folk scene, the tune is mostly associated with Mrs Verrall's song “Our Captain Cried All Hands” and with a version of “A Blacksmith Courted Me," but despite the fact that the text of “Welcome Home My Sailor” is known in England, sung and recorded by no less than Lal Waterson and later, Eliza Carthy, the tune used is quite different.
The words here are as I sing it, mostly from Jim Payne and Fergus O'Byrne's version on their CD, How Good is Me Life, with some inevitable minor tinkering.
Drive Dull Care Away
introduced by Dick Swain
This wonderful song was introduced to most people by Joe Hickerson on his recording, Drive Dull Care Away, Vol. 1, Folk Legacy Records, FSI-58. It was collected on Prince Edward Island from Charles Gorman by folklorist Edward (Sandy) Ives, and published in his book, Drive Dull Care Away: Folksongs from Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, PEI, Institute for Island Studies 1999, pp. 81-82. The book includes a CD with a field recording of Charles Gorman singing the song. In the late 18th and early 19th century it appeared in broadsides and a number of songsters under the titles "Contentment" or "The Friendly Society." In the notes to his recording, Joe Hickerson says that an untitled version of the song was published in the September 30, 1775 issue of The Pennsylvania Ledger; or the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania & New Jersey Weekly Advertiser, and included the refrain, "Let us then constant be / For while we're here / My friends so dear / We'll fight for liberty."
Listen to John Roberts and Debra Cowan sing the song in this YouTube video (also embedded above): https://youtu.be/LElqdYyWwu4
When I Went for to Take My Leave
introduced by Dave Para and Cathy Barton
Ozark song collector Loman Cansler often sang this song he learned from his grandfather James Broyles, originally from Laclede County, Missouri, and he recorded it for Folkways in 1959. A variant of “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” its extended phrasing suggests a Western sound. The Civil War references are vague, but the main story remains all too relevant. “Texian” was a term used by early colonists and leaders in the Texas Revolution, many of whom were influential during the Civil War.
Watch Dave and Cathy sing the song in the video on the right (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mKnh6_xrCw). You can also hear Loman Cansler sing it from his 1959 Folkways album on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/track/41kBY3yNTtZ80GqkOamMVu.
Banks of Green Willow/Bonnie Annie ( trad. Child 24, arr. by Craig)
introduced by Moira Craig
Notes on the Song:
This is of the Jonah ballad form where it is bad luck for a woman to be on board ship. In this version, the captain’s pregnant lover seems to be the cause the ship is having problems and she is thrown overboard to die! The visual images in this ballad are amazing and to me the tune represents the sounds of the sea rising and falling. The words and tune can be found in Traditional Folksongs and Ballads of Scotland.
Listen to Moira Craig singing the tune. You'll find the song lyrics beneath the notation below.
The Death of Bill Brown
Introduced by David Jones
David says: I learned this song from a recording by A. L. Lloyd, "English Street Songs," (Riverside, issued in 1956), an LP that I found in the $1.00 bin at Alan Block's Sandal Shop in Greenwich Village. The LP was reissued as a CD, "Ten Thousand Miles Away" (2008). I mostly use Lloyd’s words which can be found on the website "Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music." Alongside, are Peter Bellamy's words which are just about the same. Also on this site is a video of Peter singing the song. The song has been recorded by Roy Harris, Peter Bellamy, A. L. Lloyd, and others.
The YouTube video posted above is an audio-only version of Peter Bellamy singing the song. And here is another fine version by Peter Coe:
Money is King, by Neville Marcano (a.k.a. Growling Tiger)
Introduced by Deborah Robins
Particularly now, this calypso song, which was widely performed in the 1950s, is, sadly, still relevant: the story of how the underclass is invisible while those with wealth can “commit murder, get off free, live in the Governor’s company...”. I first heard this song performed on an album by the very young and wonderful Bob Gibson, a regular at my parents’ favorite local Chicago club, The Gate of Horn, and, later, by the composer, Trinidadian “Growling Tiger.” According to Gibson, who was a friend and colleague of mine, his travels to the West Indies in the 1950s gleaned many songs which he transported to the states, “Money is King” among them. The original lyrics differ from those recorded by Gibson in 1956, with Gibson opting to replace island jargon. Alan Lomax recorded Marcano singing his signature song in 1962. See below for the original lyrics and two performances by Growling Tiger, and then below that for Gibson’s lyrics and performance.
Tha Sneachd’Air Druim Uachdair (There is Snow on Druinoehter)
February’s song is a Gaelic song submitted by Sara Grey. It is a traditional song sung by Donnie Murdo MacLeod from the Outer Hebrides, and here's a recording made on Skye of Donnie singing it:
The January Man
introduced by Judy Cook
Our song for this month is Dave Goulder’s “January Man.” It’s a song of fine images, insight into human nature, and just a hint of mysticism. We’re invited to contemplate the ever-circling years and our place in them. Dave wants to be sure folks sing the lyrics as he wrote them, and I know I’m not alone in wanting to hear this song sung more; this should help.
Here are the lyrics, the musical notation, and a bit of information about Dave Goulder. I love Ed Trickett’s singing of this song: simple, unaccompanied, very accessible. You'll find a YouTube video (audio only) embedded below or at this link: https://youtu.be/ZJkAng-57gA
Lamb and Lion
introduced by Lorraine Hammond
Our celebration of this "CDSS Year of Song" has kept us singing, and our "Song of the Month" has been a meaningful part of that celebration — a great new CDSS resource for songs. They are archived here, and ready for you to add to your own repertoire, each one chosen by a singer who treasures the choice they offered.
We began our "Song of the Month" year with Brendan Taaffe’s elegant "May It Fill Your Soul," and we’ll close out the calendar with a round that speaks to the heart of this season, "Lamb and Lion." It is a round in four parts that I wrote one wintry season as a holiday gift to tuck into the cards I was sending. It has found its way into the new Rise Again song compilation by Annie Patterson and Peter Blood, and Sol Weber’s Rounds Galore.
See the bottom of the page for the tab notation.
The audio below is from a recording by the wonderful songwriter and entertainer, Christine Lavin (with the Mistletones). Songs have an uncanny way of staying in circulation!
Introduction by Katy German
One of my favorite things about the folk process is the way a song can reemerge in different forms over time. Whether accidental or intentional, changing some portion of melody or words can suddenly give a song new life and depth. This song is a beautiful example. The melody is a simple and beautiful 19th century hymn, with alternative words from Eastern Kentucky singer and storyteller Randy Wilson. Randy kept the melody and some of the poetry from the traditional version, but mixed in phrases and language to give it a more universal spiritual appeal. I first heard Randy sing his version of Farther On about a decade ago at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, KY. At the time I thought it was a clever rewording and recognized it's appeal as a soulful yet easy group singing option. What I have found since then, though, is that this is the song that rises to my mind every single time I am feeling discouraged or low on hope. It is a meditation for my soul when I am feeling derailed. I asked Randy what inspired this version and he replied, "I liked the chorus and wanted to make a spiritual out of it, with repetition so that folks could join in easily." I guess sometimes it's just as simple as that. Here is one of the traditional arrangements, along with Randy's alternative lyrics. I've included both versions so that the readers and singers can enjoy it in more than one incarnation. And Randy, thank you for this beautiful song.
Katy German is a CDSS Board member living in Asheville, NC. She loves community singing and introducing children, families, and first-timers to country dance traditions.
Skin and Bones
Introduction by Lorraine Hammond, with Jon Pickow
October’s song will be a spooky one! I learned this long ago from Jean Ritchie, of Viper, Kentucky. I have sung it for hundreds of children, delighting as they jump, startle, and then collapse with laughter and relief. And grown-ups are not exempt either! Perfect Hallowe’en musical fare.
Skin and Bones has a venerable British Isles legacy. The Roud index at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library lists more than sixty sources. One early print source is “Halliwell, Nursery Rhymes of England (3rd edn. 1843) pp.85-86, There Was A Lady All Skin and Bone.”
Interest in singing from the American “Sacred Harp” tradition has grown stronger in recent years, an awareness that is reflected in our selection for this month’s Song of the Month.
Introduction by Sasha Hsuczyk
The Sacred Harp is an American collection of hymns that has been continuously in print since it was first published in Georgia in 1844. Families of singers in many parts of the South have been singing from the book for generations, and today the Sacred Harp is enjoyed and used all over the U.S. as well as abroad. Part of what I think makes the book appealing to people from such a wide range of places and backgrounds are the universal messages that many of the songs express. As individual people we may lead very different daily lives, but as humans, collectively, we share a lot of the same emotions as we face the various trials of life. I find that singing from the Sacred Harp can offer a great deal of comfort, as well as a chance to empathize with others through song.