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.

The Lady Elgin"The lake steamer Lady Elgin, as she lay at her wharf at Chicago on the day before she was lost. -From a photograph by S. Alschuler."

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.

Cemetery in Newfoundland, CanadaBright Phoebe

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.

Mark WalkerTickle 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.

Frank Proffitt playing banjoI'm Going Back to North Carolina

Traditional
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.

A convict in chains en route to AustraliaFor 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.

Annan Water

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.

Listen to a great version sung by the Irish vocal trio, The Voice Squad.

vectorstock 3626681The 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.

Shady Grove

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.

A video from our live performance for a Jean Ritchie tribute at KY Music Weekend on July 25, 2015 can be found here.

Bedlam

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!

The Bonny Bunch of Roses

introduced by Joel Mabus

roseFor 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."

     
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