"Luve's as warm among cotters as it is among courtiers," says the Scots proverb, and if songs are an accurate barometer of emotional temperature, then the cotter, along with most of his class, would appear to have gone through life without ever feeling the need of an electric blanket.
Furthermore, when it came to making up songs which matched the intensity of his feelings, the cotter seems, on the whole, to have been rather more successful than his more socially-elevated contemporaries. This is not to say that the ‘folk' have been more pre-occupied with the theme of love than have formal composers or creators in the field of Anglo-American popular song; love is a perennial theme with all kinds of songmakers and probably accounts for well over half of all songs written in English or in any dialect of English.
Tin Pan Alley
If there is no fundamental thematic difference between the folk, the formal, and the popular amatory song, there is a tremendous difference in the way the theme is treated. This difference of approach is between the amatory folksong on the one hand, and the formally composed and popular song on the other.
This division would, at first sight, appear to be a somewhat strange one particularly in view of the fact that many commentators in the present folksong revival are fond of saying that today's Tin Pan Alley creations are tomorrow's folksongs. An analysis of the last fifty years of Anglo-American popular song does not support this theory; on the contrary, it shows that pop song (as far as the treatment of subject matter is concerned) leans overwhelmingly towards the type of song created by formal composers.
Maggie vs ‘my honey'
In both classes of song we are presented with a lover whose sole function is to love or to be loved, to be rejected, jilted and betrayed. The lovers have no social identity, they appear to live without having to work; if they have names then they are usually of the kind derived from classical literature or, in the case of the pop songs, the beloved is addressed affectionately — and possessively — as "my gal", "my baby", "my sugar", "my honey", etc.
In the folksongs the lovers generally possess the kind of names that have been common throughout the British Isles for the last three or four hundred years —Willie, Johnnie, Maggie, Peggy, Barbara, Helen, Mary, Annie, etc, —and, as often as not, we are told in the course of the first three or four lines, that Johnnie is a weaver, collier, soldier, brewer, or ploughboy and that Mary is a farmer's daughter, who milks her father's cows or minds his sheep.
Again, in formal and popular type love songs, there is usually a total lack of topographical detail: the lovers exist in a circumscribed part of an idealised landscape or in an area as abstract as deep space. There is an equally loose disregard for time, which is, so to speak, perpetually frozen, so that there are no seasons, no hours, no days or nights.
Folksongs, on the other hand, are usually quite explicit; Johnny, a brisk young sailor, soldier, deserter, roving heckler, ploughboy, etc., walks out one bright May morning, or one morning in June, or sweet July, in the ewing time, in the nutting time, just as the tide was flowing, and encounters Mary milking, reaping, dressing flax, washing or bleaching her clothes on the banks of a sweet purling stream, or by the salt sea strand.
The most important difference, however, lies in the action of the songs, In formal and pop songs the action is nearly always minimal; a young man loves a young woman (or the other way around), and he or she is frustrated and unhappy or, less frequently, happy and fulfilled.
At the conclusion of the song the condition of the lovers is unchanged —they are still frustrated and unhappy, or happy and fulfilled. Nothing has happened to them. In most folksongs, lovers consummate their love at a fairly early point in the text, and thereafter events follow in a perfectly logical sequence; the young girl becomes pregnant and marries her lover or is abandoned by him; or, alternatively, the couple make love, taking enormous pleasure in the encounter and then part, still full of admiration for each other.
Abstract pop, specific folk
Perhaps it would be true to say that in formal compositions and pop songs, we are presented with an abstract concept of romantic love, shared by a ‘he' and a ‘she' who are themselves mere abstract formalisations of social attitudes, whereas in folksongs we are asked to observe the effects which love has on specific human beings functioning in a specific set of circumstances.
To claim for our amatory folksong a greater degree of realism than is apparent in formal and pop songs, is not to say that they are mere matter-of-fact descriptions of sexual encounters, That they are often forthright and refreshingly frank in their observations of human pleasures and passions, is undeniable; that they can combine candour with sensuousness, tenderness with sensuality, humour with lust, and delicacy with appetite, is equally true.
And there is no lack of imaginative ideas in the way in which the subject is handled. Traditional love songs are rich in euphemism, ranging from the most delicate and oblique metaphors, to analogies obvious enough to have provoked an immediate belly-laugh from the crowds who followed the mountebanks of Athens and Sparta five centuries before Christ.
At various times throughout history, stern moralists have attempted to wean the ‘rude unlettered folk' from their ‘lewd and licentious songs and ballads'. It would appear that their efforts have not been entirely crowned with success. A surprisingly large number of amatory folksongs have survived and the scores of young singers encouraged by the current folksong revival are busy ensuring that they will continue to survive.
All the songs recorded for this album have in common the theme of sexual encounter and desire, a theme which is shared in some measure by the overwhelming majority of English and Scots folksongs. The amatory pieces presented here, however, differ in some respects from the general run of traditional love songs.
For one thing, they are all more concerned with the act of love than with an abstract idealisation of it; indeed, they are scarcely concerned at all with romantic love, with its sighs and protestations of fidelity, its frustrations and betrayals instead they deal with physical desire and the joys and pleasures attendant on the consummation of the body's appetite. They are, in short, erotic folksongs.
They differ, too, in the manner of their treatment of the subject. All of them may be broadly described as euphemistic. In some of them, the action flows, so to speak, from a single extended metaphor; in others, a series of analogies are skilfully combined like a set of variations on a musical theme. In one or two cases a single phrase or even a single word embedded in the text informs us that the song is in code and at the same time serves as a key to unlock the code.
The metaphors may be as delicately oblique as in 'The Bird in the Bush', 'The Gairdener's Chylde' and the 'Furze Field' — or as obvious as those used in 'The Cobbler' or the Thrashing Machine'. They can be tender, boastful, sly, lusty — but they are never coy.
A third point of difference between the songs in this collection and the main corpus of traditional love songs is that most of the pieces here remained unpublished until comparatively recently, or were printed in versions from which erotic detail was almost entirely expurgated.
Allowing for the fact that some collectors bowdlerized folksong texts with an eye to popular publication, and in particular to school publication, it is still odd that these revised versions can also occasionally be found in the pages of folk society journals.
Equally strange and irritating are those isolated single verses followed by a note informing the reader that the remainder of the text 'is of a character unsuitable for the pages of this journal'. One asks oneself why it is suitable to print John Donne's rapturous climactic line '0 my America, my Newfoundland !' and why a Norfolk farm labourer's enormously satisfying cry of 'Then I entered the bush of Australia' is unsuitable.
'Unsuitable for publication'
Aristophanes, in The Lysistrata, has the magistrate say: 'Another (husband) will go to the cobbler, a great strong fellow with a great long tool, and tell him: "The strap of one of my wife's sandals presses her little toe, which is extremely sensitive; come in about mid-day to supple the thing and stretch it." ' Balzac, in the opening sentence of the short story, entitled Innocence, swears: 'By the double red crest of my chanticleer and by the pink lining of my love's black slipper!' Publishers, even in Victorian times, did not consider Aristophanes or Balzac to be unsuitable for publication; why then, is a traditional song like 'The Cobbler' who 'to the bedroom goes mending ladies' shoes' confined to manuscript collections?
Again, why is it necessary when commenting on traditional songs such as 'The Molecatcher' or The Furze Field' to describe their affectionate euphemisms for male and female genitals as 'the lingua franca of the folk'? It is also the 'lingua franca' of Shakespeare, Jonson, and the whole tribe of Elizabethan poets and dramatists, not to mention Plautus, Terence, Sappho, Virgil, Ovid, Chaucer, Burns and indeed almost every poet who has ever concerned himself with the most absorbing of all themes.
'Sex makes it interesting'
Gershon Legman, in his magnificent work on erotic folklore and bibliography (wittily entitled THE HORN BOOK), writes:'Erotic folklore is to be collected for the same reason that it is proliferated : because it is about sex. That is what makes it interesting both to the "oral source" and to the collector — who is supposed to be a human being, with all the organs and impulses of a human being — that is what makes it socially valuable and historically important.
'Sex, and its folklore, are far more interesting, more valuable, and more important in every social and historical sense, than, for instance, the balladry of murder, cruelty, torture, treachery, baby-killing, etc., which are the principal contents, to give only one familiar example, of the Child ballads.'
An emphatic statement, but no more emphatic than the one made by Beatrice in John Marston's Dutch Courtesan: 'We pronounce boldly robbery, murder, treason, which needs be far more loathsome than an act which is so natural, just and necessary as that of procreation. You shall have an hypocritical vestal virgin speak that with close teeth publicly which she will receive with open mouth privately … I love no prohibited things, and yet I would have nothing prohibited by policy but by virtue, for as in the fashion of time, those books that are called in, are most for sale and request, so in nature those actions which are most prohibited are most desired." '
Ballad of the Trades
This comprehensive catalogue of the tools of the trades might be said to sum up the contents of this album. Each of the songs has been conceived in the terminology of the trade of its maker, each process of work honed down to fine shades of description, each symbol exactly mirroring or extending the tool(s) used, or the medium in which the trade is carried on.
Such a song could well be extended into modern life, what with the myriad of new professions, trades and skills daily being developed — as long as the eye remains receptive to impressions of shape, the hand to impressions of texture and the mind open to analogous sensation and creation, 'The Ballad of the Trades' could well have thousands of verses! (Source : a collation of several broadside texts, with tune by the singer.)
The Shepherd Lad
'The Baffled Knight', the title by which Professor Child designates this ballad type (No 112 in his collection), was first printed in the Deuteromelia of Thomas Ravenscroft, in 1609. It was henceforth a favourite with broadside printers. A second, third and fourth part of the ballad was written towards the end of the 17th century and were later combined into the version found in the Pepys ballads. A similar story is found in ballads from Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany and Denmark. (Source: from the singer's father, William Miller, with some verses collated from Greig's LOST LEAVES.)
The Wanton Seed
Gershon Legman : 'The folklore, the science, the religion and the songs of people living this (agricultural) are filled, in a sincerely accepted way, with the profound sexual tonality, both open and symbolized, that is basic to its fabric. The sexuality and fertility of the human being becomes his or her principle feature, as it is in biological fact, and the prime concern of the husbandman. He sees it, he accepts it, and he celebrates it in his folklore and song, precisely as he accepts the same immanent sexuality of every other part of his life, with the superb simplicity of Shakespeare's ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA II, ii. 242 : "He plough'd her, and she cropt." ' (Source: text: Reeves, p. 276; tune: from the Hammond Collection in the Cecil Sharp House, London, D.404.)
The Wind Blew The Bonnie Lassie's Plaidie Awa'
Robert Ford printed a version of this spirited song in VAGABOND SONGS AND BALLADS and, in a note, writes: My friend, Mr. D. Kippen of Crieff, has it that the song was composed by an Irishman who lived in Crieff near to the cross in the early years of the present century (early 1800?s) and who was known by the name of "Blind Bob".' Ford describes the version in his book as 'a little high-kilted", though 'by no means rudely indelicate.' In actual fact the kilt stops short at the ankle and only the most bigoted Presbyterian might be expected to register shock at the sight of a mere inch or two of bare leg. Our version on the other hand, has abandoned the kilt completely and goes tripping by with bare hurdies, unabashed and unrepentant. (Source: Hughie Graeme, Galloway singer.)
The Coachman and his Whip
A somewhat longer version of this can be seen in the collection of Original Broadsides in the Nottingham University Library. This particular version was learned from Sam Larner of Winterton, Norfolk, in 1961.
The Thrashing Machine
It is easy to place a time-limit at which this song could have been started, for the threshing machine came of age in the late 1780?s. The song is delicately balanced, not only in its use of the machine analogy, but the fact that threshing is a harvesting process, closely tied up with the concepts of fruition. The adopting of such a machine as a symbol is but an extension of the older type of song which glorified the 'tearing scythe' or the reaper's hook, and so on. And, for people who lived close to the land and depended upon it for their sustenance, they themselves might often have seemed but extensions of the same natural sequence of events which provided them with their living. (From the singing of Anne O'Neil, Belfast tinker woman, N. Ireland.)
Maid of Australia
This is a great favourite among country singers in Norfolk, although it appears to be unknown elsewhere. Learned from the singing of Sam Larner, of Winterton, Norfolk.
The Cuckoo's Nest
Like 'The Bird in the Bush', this fragment is the terse versification of a good sexual analogy. (Source: learned from Jeannie Robertson, Aberdeen.)
The Gairdener Chylde
No. 219 in Child's definite collection, this ballad seems to have been collected only from northern sources and even then but rarely. Its first appearance in print was in a rather corrupt form in an Edinburgh chapbook dated 1776, The floral codes for desire, love, rejection, etc., are common in country songs, but rarely is the code as elaborate as it is here. (Source: from the singer's mother, with verses collated from Greig's LOST LEAVES,)
Broadside versions of this piquant story can be found in both the Roxburghe and the Bagford collections under the title of 'The Fair Maid of Islington', or The London Vintner Over-reached'. The version given here was collected by Peter Hall, of Aberdeen, from Jessie MacDonald, a 97-year-old MacDuff (Banffshire) woman.
Andrew and his Cutty Gun
The earliest published song under this title appeared in Alan Ramsay's TEA-TABLE MISCELLANY (1740). Robert Burns, in a letter to George Thompson in 1794, described the version given here as 'the work of a master'. (Source: Merry Muses of Caledonia, p. 1 20.)
The Game of 'All Fours'
All Fours (or High Low Jack and the Game) was still a popular card game as late as the mid-1930?s. The song to which the game gave its title has, apparently, been collected in many parts of England but, until Frank Purslow published Gardiner's version in MARROWBONES, appears never to have got into print. The version here is from the singing of Sam Larner of Winterton, Norfolk.
From the singing of George Spicer, Copthorne, Sussex. An almost identical text can be seen in the collection of Original Broadsides in Nottingham University Library.
Of all the creatures abounding in field, river, forest and mountain, the most celebrated is neither deer nor dog, fish nor fowl, It is the modiewark, or mole, which enjoys the most popularity as an erotic symbol in Scots and English country songs. This witty example of the gype was collected by Burns. (Source: text, Merry Muses of Caledonia, tune from Johnson. No. 354.)
The Furze Field
This is a curious and unique song — it is obviously passionate, obviously directed at one person (a man), hence meant to be sung by a woman. Yet it is the kind of song one almost never hears sung by a woman! It was collected from Mr. Moses Mills at Preston Candover, Alresford, Hants, in 1907 by George Gardiner. It is the kind of song which was the staple fare of the chapbooks, the cheap, popular collections of songs sold on the streets from the early 1700?s onwards. Its circular, almost fugue-like melody, its incremental repetition, the tenderness and gentleness of conception and utterance, set it quite aside in atmosphere from the rest of the songs on this album.
The Long Peg and Awl
Nearly every male country singer in southern England has such songs as this in his repertoire, although hardly ever do such songs as this appear in print or get sung in mixed company. The symbol is, of course, too obvious to ignore, too common in communities where the small craftsman plying the tools of his trade is a commonplace. This particular piece has chiefly been collected in southern England, in eastern Canada and northern United States. (Source: from the singing of Harry Cox, Catfield, Norfolk.)
The Maid Gaed to the Mill
This defiant assertion of the right to be wanton is a central theme in Scots literature and a constantly recurring one in traditional Scots songs. An English version The Miller and the Lass' can be found in the Cecil Sharp manuscripts. (Source: from the singer's father, collated with verses from David Herd.)
The Bird in the Bush
This is one of the most intensely amorous songs in the entire English repertory. The quiet, leisurely action and the disarmingly simple language succeed in producing an atmosphere compounded equally of sensuousness and mystery. The Scots air which accompanies the text is from Christie's TRADITIONAL BALLAD AIRS.
She was a Rum One
For the north-east Scots ploughman, the horse was a sacred beast, and women were often described in horsey terms, compared to horses in build, stride and character. The final verse, although very direct, is typical of the bothy songs made by these plowmen. As Rob Donald, the Gamrie shepherd, commented after hearing this song for the first time, 'That a gey rough sang, but it gets richt to the hairt o' the maitter.' and that is an understatement, (Source: from the singing of Jeannie Robertson, Aberdeen.)