Monday, 31 October 2011

30: Old Mother Lee

A suitably gruesome choice for halloween, this tale of infanticide is in fact a children's skipping song (hence the wonderfully cheerful and rhythmic tune). The Spinners recorded a version of this song on their 1974 recording "The Spinners at the London Palladium".

The Spinners' album notes explain how the song came to be collected: "The girls of Kirkdale, Liverpool, whose brothers at Major Street school gave this to Tony Davis, had certainly not heard of Professor Child. However, their skipping is unmistakeably based on the 'Cruel Mother' ballad substituting the grim realities of 'forty police', 'the magistrate' and capital punishment for the ghostly children and the 'fires of hell' of the older form of the story." Children always seem to appreciate a grizzly tale, and as suggested, the song does appear to have developed from 'The Cruel Mother', Ballad #20 in Francis J. Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, in which a mother gives birth to an illegitimate child, kills it, and is subsequently damned.

(The picture I'm using above is indeed of a picture of the walnut tree (because of the recurring line 'down by the walnut tree'), though the tree is sadly not in Liverpool - I somehow doubt whether there are any, but correct me if I'm wrong?)

Old Mother Lee has a well known Irish relation 'Weela Wallia', and as a version of 'The Cruel Mother' is it #9 in the Roud folksong index.

Monday, 24 October 2011

29: My Liverpool

Brian Jacques, the Liverpudlian author of the Redwall series of books, was also a folk singer (he performed with the group The Liverpool Fishermen) as well as a radio presenter on BBC Radio Merseyside. This song was written by him and used as the theme for his radio show "Jakestown". It's rather a sentimental song, but you can see what a good writer Jacques was through some of the flashes of lyrical brilliance (I particularly like the line "a bus with a cargo of hangovers heading down to the docks"). The image above is the cover from a book of his writings (including this song) published in 1979.

The radio show that this song introduced was, like the man himself, unique - recordings of his beloved opera sat side by side with comedy and world music. Brian Jacques died earlier this year.

Monday, 17 October 2011

28: Robin and Gronny

A song about Robin and his Nan getting blind drunk, and Robin subsequently having to rescue his Nan from a ditch. Given to Frank Kidson in 1892-3 by Mr W.H. Lunt, one of his Liverpool informants, who learnt it from an old Lancashire woman (hence the Lancashire terms like 'hoo' for 'she'). It was published in the Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol. 2 No. 9 (1906). Elsewhere in what is now Merseyside, a different version (with similar words but a rather different tune) was collected in 1907 by Anne Gilchrist from a Mrs Sumner of Southport - I have used some of the words of that Southport version to complete the unfinished story in Kidson's version.

The tune and words appear to have a decent Lancashire pedigree; Kidson notes that the tune was used for a song by Charles Dibdin, Jr in 1801, and Wm Bruce Olson (in the Folk Music Journal Vol. 5 No. 2) has traced a variant of the words back to a manuscript from the 1690s.

Robin and Gronny is #1579 in the Roud Folksong Index.

Monday, 10 October 2011

27: Liverpool Judies

I've just come back to the UK from Gloucester, Massachusetts, where they have a fantastic Tuesday night shanty session, and so I feel very much in the mood for a shanty. This is a very well known Capstan shanty. Hugill gives several variants of the words and of the tune, and it turns out that the version I'm using is a compilation from a couple of sources; the words are those Hugill gives in Shanties and Sailors' Songs, and the tune is one of the variants (B) that he gives in Shanties from the Seven Seas.

The theme of the song is shanghaiing - that is, kidnapping people to work on ships. In this version, the sailor is drugged by a 'crimp' (the term used for this kind of kidnapper) and wakes up on board a ship bound around Cape Horn. Hugill tells us "In the 1840s, when this shanty probably came into being, New York's sailortown was notorious for its crimps and boarding house masters."

Hugill also offers some explanation of the particular meaning of 'Liverpool Judies' in this song: "The phrase 'The Towrope Girls' was a common one in the days of sail. When a ship was homeward bound with a favourable wind someone would remark 'Aye, the gals 'ave got 'old of our towrope, me hearties!' They were a sort of magnet, supposedly pulling with sailors and their ship twoards the land... In the case of this shanty the common Liverpool word for a young girl was used - 'Judy'.

This song is #928 in the Roud folksong index and different versions are sometimes known by the title 'Liverpool Girls' or 'Row, bullies, row'.