CDSS 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.
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 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.
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.