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.
Submitted by Arthur Knevett
This ballad has enjoyed widespread popularity. It was regularly printed on broadsides, which have kept it in circulation and helped to stabilize the text.
The story is a ‘ripping yarn’ concerning an adventurous lord who sails to Turkey and is taken prisoner. The jailer’s daughter, Sophie, releases him and he sails home to freedom. After seven years, she decides to find him, and having done so, he jilts his new bride and marries her!
It’s one of the few Child ballads that has a happy ending (except, of course, for the jilted bride). It has been a favourite of mine since I learnt it in the 1960s from the recording of Bert Lloyd (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. 2 on Riverside Records, 1956).
Submitted by Ed Trickett
I spent only one evening with E. G. Huntington at his home on Martha's Vineyard. That was in 1965. It was a truly wonderful evening of music and conversation, during which Gale played for me this version of the "Greenland Whale Fisheries" which he called "Brave Boys."
I didn't have a tape recorder or my photographic memory with me, so he wrote out the melody and sent it to me some months later, along with a small booklet of The Dukes County Intelligencer, May, 1961, which was published by the Dukes County Historical Society in Edgartown, Massachusetts.
Abroad as I Was Walking
Submitted by Carolyn Robson
The folk song collector George Gardiner collected over 1200 songs from the county of Hampshire in southern England during the period 1904–1908. In 1907, he collected about 164 songs from five women in the village of Axford near Basingstoke in the northwest of the county.
One of these women, Sarah Goodyear, gave him 41 of these songs, including one of my favourites, ’Abroad as I was walking.’ It is the common tale of a young woman who is seduced by an older man and falls pregnant. He is what is commonly termed a ‘bounder’ and blames her for her ‘wanton will,’ though she is just 14 years old. These days, it would have been a clear case of child sex abuse.
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.
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.
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.”