How few love songs, how little love music at all, the great composers of the Anglo-Saxon world have produced! Oh, hundreds of pieces dealing with polite affection between lover and lass, with gentle heart-to-heart responses, with tears, idle tears. But the real bite of passion, the genuine evocation of erotic experience embraced without reserve and remembered with pride and joy, seems to be missing. Is it due to Puritanism, the climate, the food?
The answer would seem to lie in none of these things. For if we transfer our attention from the world of written music to the world of unwritten music, from the world of gentility to that of commoner folk, the picture changes. Certainly in the amatory folk songs of England and Scotland there is no lack of sensuous freedom and delight. So much so, that the scholar collectors have felt bound to modify the lexis of many of the amatory songs before committing them to print, presumably in order to protect polite people from being contaminated by the songs of rougher men and women. (In this album, such songs arc restored to their original form, as the collectors first found them.) Not that any of these are dirty songs. Experienced collectors have found that the truly bawdy ballad, the ballad with an excess of graphic sexual detail, is found among students and uprooted men-without-women such as soldiers, sailors and prisoners. But among the "classical" folk singers, such songs are rare. The British amatory folk songs generally show a more permissive attitude to sex than their White American counterparts. They look the facts of life in the eye and tell of what they see. proudly, delicately, perhaps with a grin, but never a snigger. They are songs with a clean joy or sadness over the large realities of virginity and desire, passion and pregnancy.
They are rich in delicate metaphors. The morning dew, the chiefest grain, the bird in the bush, the cuckoo's nest, the flower garden and the herb called thyme, have a constant erotic meaning to country singers. They are the love utterances of a people living a life in tune with the cycle of the seasons and the round of mating and increase.
Whistle, Daughter, Whistle: This is evidently an old song, for the eager-hearted girl is seriously advised to whistle for the fulfilment of her desires, and whistling, as is well known, summoned the old god of the witches—or the Devil, if you will. The jest-book humour of the song and the remarkably neat shape of its lyric have made some scholars think it may have been made by some high-spirited young clerk, not long after Chaucer's time, when ballads on the theme of sexual impatience were fashionable. This is one of the original versions Cecil Sharp heard in Somerset fifty years ago.
Once I had a True Love: Isla Cameron learned this song "from some girl in Paris". It is in fact well-known in the South of England, and has also turned up in Australia. Its usual title, named for its opening, is As Sally Sat Weeping, and often in both words and tune there is a reminiscence of the familiar children's game song. Poor Jenny (or Mary or Sally) is a- Weeping, which may at one time have been a dramatisation of this little lyrical charmer.
The American Stranger: A young man returns to Scotland from America to find a bride who will share his life in the wilds. He vows that he will be true, in the conventional imagery of fidelity. Ships will sail without sails, little fish turn to whales, and the mountain ash will grow in mid-ocean before he is false to the girl who accepts him. This version conies from a Falkirk iron smelter named Boston Dunn, Another, rather longer version in Ord's Bothy Songs and Ballads, indicates that the song must date from before the Revolutionary War.
My Bonny Miner Lad: This song is still sung in some mining areas, sometimes with an additional verse at the start and under the title: Six Jolly Miner Lads. The verse about building a castle appears in many folk songs, especially Irish ones. The song seems commonest in the Scottish coalfields. I have recovered two versions, from an ex-miner, Charles McVey of Dumfriesshire, and a miner's wife, Mrs. Cosgrove, of Newtongrange, Midlothian. The American specialist in mining lore, George Kerson, had the song from Pennsylvania and from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. The former version was sung by an English immigrant from Cumberland; the latter version seems to have been learnt from Mrs. Cosgrove, who spent some years in Glace Bay. At least two different tunes are associated with the song. This one resembles the melody, perhaps Irish in origin, attached to the Newfoundland song She's Like the Swallow, collected by Maud Karpeles in 1929-30.
Let No Man Steal Your Thyme: one of the most famous of all English love-songs, and a celebrated piece of erotic symbology. Out of this song grew another, still more famous, called The Seeds of Lave, which was the first folk song Cecil Sharp ever noted (from the vicarage gardener of Hambridge, Somerset). Also known as The Sprig of Thyme, it has wandered across to Ireland, and it is an unpublished Irish version that Miss Cameron sings here, learned from a recording in the B.B.C.'s Recorded Programmes Library.
Geordie: In this favourite ballad, the hero is sometimes a Scottish laird, sometimes an English poacher. He kills forbidden game, is caught and tried. In most sets of this ballad, he is hanged, but in this unusual version his wife gets him free by sheer force of character. A piquant incident is that where the bow-legged old Irish lord gets his come-uppance from the haughty and devoted wife of the bold deer-slayer.
Buy Broom Besoms: The moorlands behind the lively black town of Newcastle are covered in broom, and broom-cutting has been an important occupation thereabouts for centuries. Once the broom was used for sweeping floors (the name of the household implement comes from the name of the shrub) but nowadays it has special uses in steel rolling mills. This song derives from the old street cry of the Newcastle broom sellers. It was a favourite piece of the notorious street fiddler of a hundred and fifty years ago. Blind Willie Purvis. Some believe that Blind Willie made the song.
Geordie: Folk song scholars have long been racking their brains over this ballad. There is the Scottish ballad, in which the hero is an aristocrat: and there is the English ballad, in which he is a common outlaw. The English ballad derives something from two broadsides, Georgie Stoole (early seventeenth century) and The Life and Death of George of Oxford (early eighteenth century), but it may in origin be older than either of these, and perhaps older than the Scottish ballad, too, for it may derive from one of the many medieval outlaw ballads, such as were pulled together by a clerkly hand and made into the Robin Hood cycle. It is a very common ballad, and many sets of it have been collected within the last half-century. The melody of this version is one obtained by Cecil Sharp from Charles Neville, of East Coker, Somerset.
Maid On the Shore: This song is rarer in Britain than in the New World. A fragmentary Irish version was reported in the nineteenth century. Several versions turned up in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Maine. Missouri and California. It was thought to have disappeared from England, until a version was recorded in the grim city of Birmingham in 1952. A simitar ballad exists in the Latin countries and in Scandinavia in forms that suggest the Maid was no ordinary girl but a kind of siren, a mermaid with magical powers of singing men to sleep or to death. In this version, however, she is nothing supernatural, just an ordinary. resourceful and determined girl with better luck than usual.
Are Ye Sleeping, Maggie?: This version of an old song called Sleepy Maggie was made by Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), the Paisley bard. Apprenticed to the cotton weaving trade at the age of nine, Tannahill is said to have spent more time cobbling verses than watching his loom. Country singers in south-west Scotland rank him as one of the most gifted song-writers in that great army of working-class bards who followed in the wake of Robert Burns.
Still I Love Him: This song comes from the repertory of Bob Roberts, a sprilsail-barge skipper plying along the east coast of England. Mr. Roberts has a headful of social songs of this kind, chorus songs well-suited for ladies and gentlemen to sing with a mug in their hand. The tune is a relative of the familiar Villikins and his Dinah.
The Waters Of Tyne: The Tyne divides the counties of Durham and Northumberland, and to the lovers facing each other on opposite banks, the river must have seemed very wide. The song seems to be made by a learned hand, though no author is known for it. It was first printed in Bell's Northern Bards, in 1812.
The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvinhaugh: This song of the constant hearted washer-girl probably began life as a Glasgow street song, but versions arc now found in many parts of Scotland. The situation of the returned sailor, unrecognised, who tests his sweetheart and finds her faithful is one that country singers never tire of. Text and tune of this version come from the singing of one of the greatest living bothy-ballad singers, Jimmy MacBeth, of Elgin, in North-east Scotland. Additional verses are from Willie Mathieson, of Castleton, near Banff.
Bobby Shaftoe: The Northumbrian bagpipe is an elegant little instrument, played by means of a bellows under the arm, and having a gentle silvery tone. The melody of Bobby Shaftoe was a pipe tune long before words were ever attached to it. In 1761, Robert Shaftoe, a landowner of Benwell, near Newcastle, used the gay little melody for an electioneering song. It seems likely that the present words became attached to it after the election campaign was forgotten. It is perhaps the best-known of all the many songs from the Newcastle district.