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.

Soldiers and horses drown in the Kabul RiverThis print from the Illustrated London News illustrates the drowning of the 47 men of the 10th Hussars. The actions have been compressed for dramatic purposes, but a contemporary photo of the scene of the disaster shows that the river, looking deceptively calm, was around 200 yards across.

Ford O’ Kabul River


Submitted by George Stephens

One of Rudyard Kipling’s “Barrack Room Ballads,” the poem, set to a tune by Peter Bellamy, describes a tragic night in March, 1879, when the British 10th Hussars attempted to cross Kabul River to occupy Kabul, Afghanistan. The river was high with water from melting snow, and 46 men and many horses were lost.


Afghanistan, at a strategic cross roads linking North, South, East, and West, has been unsuccessfully invaded multiple times through recorded history, most recently by the British, the Russians, and UN forces, led by the United States. It has gained the nickname “the place where empires come to die.” This song seems a fitting comment on the current military adventurism taking place in Ukraine. “Gawd ’elp ’em if they blunder.”


As sung by (the late!) Tony Barrand, accompanied by John Roberts:

"Ford o' Kabul River" sheet musicDownload a PDF of the sheet music for "Ford o' Kabul River."

Lyrics

Words – Rudyard Kipling
Tune – Peter Bellamy

Kabul town’s by Kabul river—blow the trumpet, draw the sword—

There I lef’ my mate for ever, wet an’ drippin’ by the ford. 

Ford, ford, ford o’ Kabul river, ford o’ Kabul river in the dark!

There’s the river up and brimmin’, an’ there’s ’arf a squadron swimmin’

’Cross the ford o’ Kabul river in the dark.



Kabul town’s a blasted place—blow the trumpet, draw the sword—

’Strewth I sha’n’t forget ’is face wet an’ drippin’ by the ford!

Ford, ford, ford o’ Kabul river, ford o’ Kabul river in the dark! 

Keep the crossing-stakes beside you, an’ they will surely guide you 

’Cross the ford o’ Kabul river in the dark.



Kabul town is sun and dust—blow the trumpet, draw the sword—

I’d ha’ sooner drownded fust ’stead of ’im beside the ford.

Ford, ford, ford o’ Kabul river, ford o’ Kabul river in the dark!

You can ’ear the ’orses threshin’, you can ’ear the men a-splashin’,

’Cross the ford o’ Kabul river in the dark.



Kabul town was ours to take—blow the trumpet, draw the sword—

I’d ha’ left it for ’is sake—’im that left me by the ford.

Ford, ford, ford o’ Kabul river, ford o’ Kabul river in the dark!

It’s none so bloomin’ dry there; ain’t you never comin’ nigh there,

’Cross the ford o’ Kabul river in the dark?



Kabul town’ll go to hell—blow the trumpet, draw the sword—

’Fore I see him ’live an’ well—’im the best beside the ford.

Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river, ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
Gawd 'elp 'em if they blunder, for their boots'll pull 'em under,
By the ford o' Kabul river in the dark.

Turn your 'orse from Kabul town—blow the trumpet, draw the sword—
'Im an' 'arf my troop is down, down an' drownded by the ford.
Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river, ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
There's the river low an' fallin', but it ain't no use o' callin'
'Cross the ford o' Kabul river in the dark.

George Stephens writes: I’ve always had a somewhat latent, but strong, interest in music. Minor childhood prodigy on clarinet, then immersion in ’50’s Philadelphia pop and soul, early exposure to the Weavers from older brothers’ records, Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary; most importantly, discovery of Folk-Legacy Records. And the rest, as they say... I’ve sung with the cowboy/civil servant band Sidekicks, my late wife, Mary LaMarca, and my wife Kathy Westra Stephens, at festivals, house concerts, benefit concerts ,and where ever they’ll have us. Kathy and I have released a CD, Birds of Passage, on Folk-Legacy, now available (as are all F-L releases) from Smithsonian-Folkways.


Women wait outside an Irish sod cottage

Bold Riley

Submitted by Ian Robb

This well-known sailor's farewell, in its many versions, seems to have become a favorite memorial song in recent years. There are several versions of the chorus going around, and I always find myself trying to guess, usually wrongly, which one to sing, so I've used the simplest version I know, and also kept the song fairly short.

The term "white stocking day" refers to the happy day on which the wives, sweethearts, or mothers collected an advance on their absent sailor's pay. The last verse I've added from the text of the Georgian Sea Islands song, "Good-bye My Riley-O."

Flash Phelps plays accordion while Dick Corbett singsFlash Phelps and Dick Corbett

The Foggy Dew

Submitted by Nick Dow

Early in this century, Nick Dow and his wife visited The White Lion at Broadwindsor. Nick writes, “The landlord was Dick Corbett, a prolific singer. The button accordion was played by ‘Flash’ Phelps, and the numerous locals were entertained by two brothers, Doug and Sam Phillips.

“I was able to record the whole evening. The repertoire consisted of a catholic selection of songs, from the hit parade to the music hall, from country music to folk song proper. Dick Corbett, an ex-military man sporting a large handlebar moustache, regaled us with old favorites from his service days. ‘Widdicombe Fair’ was followed by ‘I Am the Music Man.’ Then, with no warning, Dick produced three verses of ‘The Foggy Dew,’ and as if by prior arrangement, Doug and Sam Phillips, singing in unison, gave voice to ‘The Ball of Yarn,’ with Flash Phelps playing for all he was worth.

“The Phillips brothers then launched into a selection of music hall songs. Some were reasonably well known. ‘Fireworks,’ written by T.W. Connor, was followed by ‘Slap Bab’ and the less common ‘Nobody Noticed Me!,’ sung originally by Jack Pleasance, the shy comedian, famous for his song ‘I’m Shy, Mary Ellen.’”

Sculpture of a Scottish couple during the Highland ClearancesThe Exiles, a statue created by Gerald Laing as a memorial to those displaced in the Highland Clearances.

Scarborough Settler's Lament

Submitted by Ken Willson and Kim McKee

Written in 1840 by Sandy Glendening with music by Fowke, this song relates the loneliness felt by immigrating Scots after the battle of Culloden and then the Highland Clearances. The Highland chieftains were compelled by the victors in the struggle (British government) to increase income from their land, and so began to clear off the crofters by the thousands. Many of these people wound up in Canada and America.

My own family (MacDonald) wound up in Greenfield, Canada and from there to North Dakota, which gives me a deep appreciation for the sentiments within. Scarborough is located by Toronto.

Engraving of Tom o'BedlamTom o'Bedlam in The Belman of London (published in 1608)

Tom o’Bedlam’s Song

Submitted by Tim Edwards

The lyrics come from the early 17th century, and it has been described as the finest anonymous poem in the English language (though there is a theory that Shakespeare might have contributed to it). Tom in the song is a licensed beggar discharged from the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London (“Bedlam”).

I first heard it sung by Dave “Steve” Stephenson of the wonderful Songwainers of Cheltenham in the early 70’s, and loved it at first hearing. I learnt it shortly afterwards after finding the words in a poetry book of my father’s (Other Men’s Flowers, collected by A.P. Wavell—full of gems) and have been singing it ever since. Dave found the tune as a virginal arrangement in a Drexel manuscript—now in the New York Public Library.

It’s always been one of my very favorites, and for me, the last verse in particular is sublime.

A shepherd plays pan pipes while two young women dancePan Pipes by Walter Crane, 1884

We Shepherds Be the Best of Men (Roud 284)

Submitted by Gwilym Davies

There are many songs in the English tradition praising the virtues of farming life, such as "All Jolly Fellows that Follow the Plough," "Jim the Carter's Lad," and the song presented here. It is particularly popular in the English South and Midlands, where sheep farming was dominant. It is no older than the 19th century in this form, but is based on an older song praising sailing life.

Richard Chidlaw learned this version from singer William Chappell in Tresham, Gloucestershire, hence the reference to Tresham Hill. Other versions place the action elsewhere. Gwilym Davies recorded Richard singing it in on October 4, 2003 in Dursley, Gloucestershire. You still hear the song fairly regularly in local sing arounds.

A young woman holding a babyCatch Me If You Can

Submitted by Pete Coe

"Catch Me If You Can" is a broadside I did at the time when the original recordings were released on Veteran Tapes' Songs from Cornish Travellers, later re-released on Veteran/Backshift on CD, then recorded by me on "In Paper Houses." I seem to remember that a copy of the original release on VT was sent to the Library Of Congress.

For anyone who's interested, the Veteran recordings of Betsy and Charlotte Renals and Sophie Legg are available on downloads from Proper. Their tape/CD was also titled "Catch Me If You Can." My recording of the song is also available on the usual downloads, and I've still got CDs available via my website.

So....in March 1978, I headed down to Bodmin in Cornwall to record family and travellers' songs from Betsy (78) and Charlotte Renals (76) and Sophie Legg (60). I'd been introduced to their songs by Sophie's son Vic at Bodmin Folk Club, and then to the ladies themselves on previous visits. Betsy, as head of the family, wanted to know why a young man like me was interested in these old songs sung by old ladies. I realised this was a test, so I sang her "The Banks of Red Roses," which met with her approval, and the recording dates were set.

"Somebody's Waiting for Me" sheet music coverSomebody’s Waiting for Me / Country Garden

Submitted by Shelley Posen

One of my all-time favourite traditional songs was originally titled, “Somebody’s Waiting for Me,” but the traditional singer who performed it best, as far as I am concerned, called it “Country Garden.”

That singer was Mac Masters, a Newfoundland sea captain I met in the early 1970s through my fellow Folklore graduate student, Wilf Wareham. Wilf’s father had been the merchant in Harbour Buffett, a fishing settlement on an island in Placentia Bay off the south coast of Newfoundland.

Old Mr. Wareham used to send Mac and his schooner around the bay every fall to pick up the salt fish made that summer. Wilf told me Mac was an especially welcome visitor in each outport, because evenings, after the fish had been loaded into the schooner’s hold, there’d be a “time” or party, and Mac would sing.

Mac must have been a splendid singer back then, because when I first heard him perform decades later, his strong, reedy voice still kept excellent pitch, and he beguiled the ear with a quirky sense of melody and changes of rhythm. His large repertoire was replete with late Victorian sentimental ditties such as “Country Garden.“

“Somebody’s Waiting for Me” was composed in 1902 by Andrew B. Sterling (words) and Harry von Tilzer (melody), two pioneers of Tin Pan Alley long before it was called that. The song’s first line set the narrative in a “concert garden”—a small beer garden or hall, usually attached to a tavern, where customers could drink and party while entertainers performed on a small stage. Concert gardens were American cousins of the Parisian café concert and the English music hall of the same era. They preceded vaudeville by a decade or two.

Woodcut image of a couple in a rowboatThe Water Is Wide

Submitted by Harry Tuft

My early introduction to folk music was a recording of Burl Ives, and on that one he sang "Waly, Waly." Not too long after, I was introduced to the recordings of Pete Seeger—that's where I first heard "The Water Is Wide," and I was struck by the fact that there were similar verses in the two songs. Wikipedia tells me that it was Cecil Sharp in 1906 who constructed the song we now universally sing from previous related versions. For fun, look there and you'll see the diversity of artists who have recorded it.

Over the years, I heard so many versions of the song, and interestingly, most of them included the same verses—no "folk process" here, apparently. And I always liked the song, but particularly the versions by Steve Goodman and James Taylor—they both "Americanized" the lyric, and I appreciated that. So, when it came to my version, I did make three changes: 1) a slightly Reggae beat; 2) I end all verses on the "four," never resolving to the "one;" 3) I have written one verse (can you tell which it is...?).

18th-century engraving of a rattlesnakeSpringfield Mountain

Submitted by Judy Cook

The tragedy retold in this oldest of America’s native ballads, “Springfield Mountain,” took place in southern Massachusetts in 1761. The name of the family varies in different versions of the song. In truth it was Mirick, but Cushman, the one in John Galusha’s version, was one of the oldest family names in that part of Massachusetts. The location, Springfield Mountain, is now known as Wilbraham Mountain, near Springfield, MA. The song has passed into oral tradition, and comic versions are easily found.

John Galusha spent his life in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State – as a logger, game and fishing guide, forest ranger, and farmer. In 1940, when he was 81, he and his wife were living in a farmhouse near North Creek. It was there that Anne and Frank Warner collected “Springfield Mountain” from him. The song can be found in their wonderful book “Traditional American Songs.” I have made a few slight changes to the song.

Photo of workers at a lumber millBangor lumber mill workers, courtesy of the Maine Memory Network

Shove the Grog Around (Shanty Song)

Submitted by Dick Swain

A stout drinking song with a great chorus. At least two versions of the song, both probably dating back to the 1870s, have been published and recorded. The “Shanty Song” version was collected from Mrs. Annie V. Marston of Charlestown, Maine and first published in Eckstorm and Smyth, Minstrelsy Maine (1926). The earliest version of the “Raftman’s Song (Old Butler)” I have found is in the Joel Kimball Diary, April 24, 1874, Livingston Manor, NY (Sullivan County) (accessed May 23, 2021).

The most complete version of the “Raftsman’s Song” (with words almost identical to Joel Kimball’s version) was collected by Ellen Stekert from Ezra Barhight of Gallilee, Pennsylvania and published in “Four Pennsylvania Songs Learned before 1900, From the Repertoire of Ezra V. Barhight” in Goldstein and Byington, Two Penny Ballads and Four Dollar Whiskey (1966).

Painting of twin boys"Portrait of Two Boys, called the Artist's Twin Brothers," by John Syme, from the National Galleries of Scotland

The Cruel Mother

Submitted by Moira Craig

In Scotland, the law concerning the general crime of infanticide took two forms during the period 1660-1800. If a married woman (or less commonly man) was prosecuted for the killing of a newborn child, the charge would remain the common law offence of murder, unless it could be proved that the child was born healthy and that the accused had wilfully killed it.

The only chance a lower-class woman had, if she didn’t want to go into service, was to marry and to try to marry well. Unfortunately, if a girl became pregnant before marriage and the father refused to acknowledge the pregnancy, she was likely to be ostracised and banished from the family or village and her chance of marriage in the future was unlikely. It was probable that she would live a life of penury and destitution. It is not surprising, then, that women would try to hide their pregnancy and kill their babies in an attempt to continue a “normal” life.

"The Cruel Mother" exists in a number of variants, in some of which there are verses where the dead children tell the mother she will suffer a number of penances each lasting seven years, e.g. "Seven years to ring a bell / And seven years porter in hell." Those verses properly belong in "The Maid and the Palmer" (Child ballad 21). Variants of "The Cruel Mother" include "Carlisle Hall," "The Rose o Malinde," "Fine Flowers in the Valley," "The Minister's Daughter of New York," and "The Lady From Lee," among others. "Fine Flowers of the Valley" is a Scottish variant. "Weela Weela Walya" is an Irish schoolyard version.

     
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