Song of the Month
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, as well as to Lynn Nichols for shepherding them to our website.
The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow (Child 214)
Submitted by Margaret Bennett
I've chosen a ballad I’ve loved for years: ‘The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow’ (Child 214).
As a student in the mid-sixties, I joined the Glasgow Folksong and Ballad Club, and among the unforgettable singers was an Aberdeenshire traveller, Davie Stewart. He played the accordion and sang with such conviction that I was transfixed.
Apart from a stint in the army during WW1, Davie spent his life as an itinerant worker, finally settling in Glasgow, where he was a street singer. Alan Lomax recorded him in London in 1957 capturing the passion that stopped folk in the street: Davie knew how to tell the story.
Listen to Davie Stewart, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1957:
Listen to Margaret Bennett, recorded at the Storytelling Festival, Edinburgh, 2018:
There was a lady in the north,
You’d scarcely find her marrow
She was courted by nine noblemen,
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.
Her faither had a young ploughboy
And him she loved most dearly,
She dressed him up as a nobleman,
And sent him off to Yarrow.
These nine noblemen sat drinking wine,
Drinking tae their sorrow,
That the fairest maid you ever saw
Was in the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.
“Well, did you come here tae play cards or dice?
Did you come here for sorrow?
Or did you come here to slay us a’
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow?”
“Well, I neither cam tae play cards or dice,
Nor did I come for sorrow,
But one by one as lang as ye stand
I will fight ye a’ in Yarrow.”
Well it’s three he drew, and three he slew,
And three he deadly wounded;
But her false brother John came running in
And pierced him through the middle.
“Oh go home, go home, you false young man,
Go tell your sister’s sorrow,
That her true lover John lies dead and gone
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.”
“Oh mother dear, I have dreamed a dream,
I fear it may prove sorrow,
That my true lover John lies dead and gone
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.”
“Oh, daughter dear, I have read your dream,
And yes, the blood proves sorrow,
For your true lover John lies dead and gone,
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.”
Her hair being of three-quarters lang,
The colour bein yellow,
She wrapped it round his middle sae sma’
And she carried him hame tae Yarrow.
“Oh, mother dear, come and mak my bed,
Oh make it long and narrow,
For my true lover John died for me today,
I will die for him tomorrow.”
Originally from the Isle of Skye, Margaret Bennett is a singer, storyteller and writer. She studied Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and from 1984–96 was on the staff of the School of Scottish Studies. She now lives in Perthshire, sings at festivals both sides of the Atlantic, and teaches part-time at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
The Setting of the Sun (Roud 133, Laws O 36)
Submitted by Martin Graebe
I heard this first as 'Polly Von,' sung by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, but that is an interpretation of a traditional song with many titles. Though widely found in England and Ireland, Roud lists more variants in the USA than from anywhere else.
This lovely version was collected by Sabine Baring-Gould from mine-worker Samuel Fone, of Mary Tavy, in 1893. Fone was his most prolific singer and a man who specialised in beautiful tunes, some learned from navvies he had worked with. I have 'repaired' verse 2. You can see the manuscript entry here.
Listen to Martin and Shan Graebe sing "The Setting of the Sun," from their album Dusty Diamonds, Wildgoose Records, WGS359CD, 2008:
Sung by Samuel Fone, Mary Tavy, 12 July 1893
Come all you young fellows that carry a gun
Beware of late shooting when daylight is done
For it's little you reckon what hazards you run
I shot my own love at the setting of the sun.
In a shower of rain as my darling did run
All under the bushes a shower to shun
Her apron ‘bout her neck I took her for a swan
I shot the only maid I loved at the setting of the sun.
I'll fly from my country I nowhere find rest
I shot my own true love as a bird on her nest
Oh curse that old gunsmith that made that old gun
I shot my own true love at the setting of the sun.
In a shower, etc.
O it's son, dearest son, don't you run away
Don't leave your own country until the trial day
Don't leave your own country till the trial is done
For shooting your own love at the setting of the sun.
In a shower, etc.
On a night to her uncle the fair maid appeared
Saying, ‘Uncle, dear uncle, of me be not afeard
With my apron ‘bout my neck in the rain I did run
He shot me as a swan at the setting of the sun.
In a shower, etc.
Martin Graebe is a researcher and writer and is best known for his study of the life and work of Sabine Baring-Gould. His book As I Walked Out: Sabine Baring-Gould and the Search for the Folk Songs of Devon and Cornwall (Signal Books, 2017) has received both the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award and the R. G Hoskins Prize. He and his wife, Shan, perform traditional songs together with a particular focus on the songs of Southern England.
Submitted by Cindy Mangsen
Child Ballad #239 exists in fragments, telling the story of Annachie and his love Jeannie, forced by her father to marry another man for his status and wealth. Jeannie tells her parents that if she marries the lord, she'll refuse to share his bed and will die for her true love.
Sure enough, she dies on the very day of the wedding, which is also the day Annachie returns from his seafaring. He dies, of course, of grief. It's a tear-jerker of a story, but when put to this beautiful melody (thank you, Nic Jones), becomes incredibly moving. Emily Friedman introduced me to this song, many years ago in Chicago.
This song was written in support of our friends working in health care and other essential fields during the COVID-19 pandemic, who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe and healthy while being denied everything from basic protective equipment to hazard pay. We wanted to send support to our friends on the front lines, express outrage and frustration that they have been put in such an impossible situation, and hope for the day that we can welcome them back safely.
This song is also a call to action for those of us who are still financially secure - please check out the fundraiser mentioned at the end of the video, with clickable links available through the video on YouTube and Facebook.
Braw Lads of Galla-Water
introduced by Andrew Calhoun
This lyric to "Galla-water" is taken from David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scots Songs (1769), p. 312. Herd was an excellent collector who did not manipulate/correct the source material, but he did not publish the song melodies.
The song was next published as #125 in Volume 2 of The Scots Musical Museum, with the lyric poorly adjusted. The SMM’s musical editor, Stephen Clarke, only printed the A part of the melody, a move typical of this indolent character through whom so much of the Scots song tradition, including the bulk of the songs of Robert Burns, has unfortunately been filtered. Clarke was in fact a church organist from Durham, England.
The full tune I sing here, "Braw Lads of Galla-water," was published by James Oswald in book 8 of The Caledonian Companion in 1756. Burns wrote a new version of the song using the same first line for the publisher George Thomson, but it does not match the quality and mystery of the old words. The shifting perspective in the lyric is well supported by the contrasting musical parts.
The Lincolnshire Poacher
introduced by David Jones
"The Lincolnshire Poacher" has been referred to as the unofficial county anthem of Lincolnshire. It is said that the song was a favorite of King George IV and dates back to the American Revolution (1776).
The tune has been used as a quick march by several British regiments, including the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment, who are known as the “Poachers.” It was also used by some New York Regiments during the American Civil War.
On a personal note: This was a song we sang at school. I first sang it when I was 10 years old, so I have known it for 75 years. It was a great relief to sing this song after “Who is Sylvia,” “Nymphs and Shepherds,” and other arty-type songs which were commonly sung in school singing classes. You may remember Jean Redpath talking about songs sung at British schools. She was very funny.
Another factor in its favor is that it has a good tune and is easy to sing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).