Saturday 31 December 2011

39: The Bitter Withy

This is a song in which a young Jesus Christ gets embroiled in a spot of class warfare; versions have been collected from across England, and particularly in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, but this version is from Birkenhead. Janet Blunt collected the tune from a Mrs Haigh in 1921, with a fragment of the words; the manuscript is online as part of the English Folk Dance and Song Society's Take Six project. Another slightly more complete set of words is appended from a Miss Baines, also apparently of Birkenhead. Apparently they remembered it as part of the repertoire of street carollers.

Matthew Edwards (now resident on the Wirral and a fount of knowledge about all manner of songs) has done a bit of additional detective work:
I've managed to trace the sisters who gave this song, and two others (A Wassail Song and Christ Was Born In Bethlehem), to Janet Blunt in 1921. They were Annie Beatrice Haigh and Rosamond Kelk, daughters of a bank accountant, who lived in Claughton, Birkenhead in the 1870's. Their father, John William Kelk, was originally from Brigg in Lincolnshire, but both daughters were born in the Wirral.

They told Janet Blunt that they remembered the songs being sung by child waits at Christmas in the streets of Birkenhead 30 or 40 years earlier. Where the songs might have originated is now almost impossible to tell since the population of Birkenhead at that time had grown very rapidly in a short time with the new inhabitants coming from many different parts.

The idea of the child Jesus performing a miracle which leads to the death of children who scorn him is an interesting folk survival of an apocryphal tale of the life of Christ; a 1908 article by Gordon Hall Gerould in Publications of the Modern Language Association notes the resonance between the tale and accounts of the boy Jesus in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. As for Mary's administration of corporal punishment to Christ, the curse Jesus administers to the willow branch as it strikes him provides a good explanation of why willow rots from the inside out. (The picture of the willow above, incidentally, comes from a lovely blog about a beautiful garden in Pensby, Wirral.)

The Bitter Withy is #452 in the Roud folksong index.

Saturday 24 December 2011

38: Christ Was Born In Bethlehem

This is another carol collected by Lucy Broadwood; the manuscript held in the Vaughan Williams Memorial library bears the simple note "as sung in Liverpool". Janet Blunt collected another version from a Mrs Haigh of Birkenhead with practically the same tune, though fewer words - the manuscript of this Birkenhead version is online as part of the EFDSS Take Six project.

Now, the thing is, this is quite a strange choice for Christmas, given that only 1 verse deals with the nativity, and the other 4 are about the crucifixion and resurrection - but Lucy Broadwood's version is catalogued "Christmas in Liverpool", and the version Janet Blunt collected from Mrs Haigh goes along with other carols Mrs Haigh remembered children singing in the streets around Christmastime, so this was clearly a seasonal song - reminding us that it's never too early to start looking forward to Easter!

Versions of this carol have crossed the Atlantic, with Cecil Sharp including a different variant in his English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, and it remains a popular Appalachian song. In other versions (particularly contemporary versions), the second verse does not include the direct reference to the Jews, tending towards "Judas crucified him", or "The mob they crucified him", but for the sake of archiving, I'm singing the words here according to the set given by Lucy Broadwood.

The image I've used above is a picture of a 1987 Nativity play from the Liverpool Echo.

In the Roud folksong index, this is #1122

Tuesday 20 December 2011

37: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night

A version of a well-known Christmas carol collected by Lucy Broadwood, pioneering folk-song researcher of the 19th and early 20th century. This tune is among her archived manuscripts in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library with the simple note, "Liverpool version", and together with another carol collected in Liverpool.

The words are sometimes attributed to Poet Laureate Nahum Tate (otherwise famous for trying to re-write Shakespeare plays without any of the politically contentious bits). This is because they were first published in Tate and Nicholas Brady's 1700 supplement to the New Version of the Psalms of David. According to Jeremy Dibble of the University of Durham, While Shepherds Watched was one of the first carols to pass over from from secular traditions into the church of England; it was the only Christmas hymn approved by the Church of England in the 18th century, and so gained wide circulation among ordinary people. There are many, many tunes used for the song, including 'Cranbrook' (now famous as the tune of 'On Ilkla Moor baht 'at'), and also a tune known as 'Liverpool' (no relation to the one I'm singing here), used enthusiastically in the carol-singing pubs around Sheffield at Christmas time.

The picture I've used above is from the Formby Times' coverage of the Formby Village Nativity 2008.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night is #936 in the Roud folksong index.

Thursday 15 December 2011

36: Paddy Lay Back

"'Twas a cold and dreary morning in December..." Hugill, in Shanties of the Seven Seas describes this as "both a forebitter and a capstan song and a very popular one too, especially in Liverpool Ships". So close is the association between Paddy Lay Back and Liverpool, it's sometimes simply known as 'The Liverpool Song'. As a work song, it would have been used while hauling up the anchor by pushing the drum of the capstan around as in the image above (hence the line in the chorus "Take a turn around the capstan").

This version (with the line at the end of the chorus "We're bound for Vallaparaiser [i.e. Valparaiso] round the Horn" comes from the singing of Liverpool sailors engaged in the Guano trade. They'd sail to Chile around the horn to pick up Guano, which is the accumulated excrement of cave dwelling bats, birds, etc. - rich in nirates and excellent fertiliser. The mid nineteenth century rush for this resource saw ships returning to Liverpool with thousands of tonnes of the stuff.

This song is very popular in singarounds and shanty sings, and is usually accompanied by everyone in the crowd repeating the words at the end of each line: "'Twas a cold and dreary morning in December (December!) And all of my money it was spent (SPENT SPENT!)". Sitting here on my bill, I haven't attempted any of this repetition except in the chorus where I think I'd lose the timing of the thing if I hadn't. You can try it at home, but you might look a bit odd shouting "SPENT SPENT!" or "FRANCE FRANCE!" or whatever at your computer.

In the Roud folksong index, this is #653

Thursday 8 December 2011

35: I Wish I Was Back In Liverpool

A major recurring theme in Liverpool's folk music is an encrusted layer of sentimentality. In fact, sometimes it feels as though there's an arms race to see who can come up with the most blatantly rose-tinted song about Liverpool - if so, this offering from Stan Kelly (to a tune by Leon Rosselson) blows its competition out of the water, albeit with a extremely heavy dose of tounge in cheek; in his song book, he describes it as a "soggy mess of neuralgia for the cultural mecca of the world". Still, it really hits the spot. It was used by The Spinners as a signature tune and also recorded by The Dubliners, so it's a very well known anthem to the city.

As part of the 2008 cultural capital of Europe celebrations, a group of mural artists from Belfast were brought to Liverpool to paint a series of striking murals expressing the history and culture of the city, and its connection to Ireland. The words of this song take pride of place in one of these murals, threading their way along the wall of the New Picket. (Part of the mural is shown above)