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.
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.
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.
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” (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).
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).
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).
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. You can also hear Loman Cansler sing it from his 1959 Folkways album on Spotify here.
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.