27. Behind The Haystack, Behind A Bush In The Garden & The Hole In The Hedge
21st June 2017
Guests: Rachel Wilson, fiddle / Mark Waters, electric bass
If the seasons were siblings, Summer would be the annoyingly happy one who’s always smiling, lives each day like it’s a celebration and seems to have all the time in the world; so infuriatingly optimistic that the others can’t stand being around them.
So to kick it off, I wanted a kind of euphoric overture to make it clear just how annoyingly happy Summer is.
I got digging through some Irish tunes, because when it comes to finding cheery tunes from Ireland, the world is your oyster (or lobster, as a friend of mine always says which I think is a much more effective turn of phrase).
I’ll be completely honest and admit the only reason I chose these three tunes is because they all seemed to be innuendos. Luckily, they work really well together. Unless it isn’t luck at all, and all innuendo tunes have to follow similar musical rules? Who knows...
This one actually made it onto Songs From The Seasons, but I shortened the name because I didn’t want to have to tell the story in press interviews.
28. The Maid and The Palmer
1st July 2017
Guests: Rachel Wilson, fiddle / Evie Rapson, vocals / Tom Gill, accordion / Alex James, clarinet, saxophone / Katie Joynes, flute / Matthew Mefford, upright bass
Apparently folk singers in ye olde days used to avoid singing this song and I’m not surprised: there is so much wrong with it, I don’t even know how to start unpicking it. I was introduced to this biblically-inspired murder/incest ballad through John Kirkpatrick and Martin Carthy’s arrangement, which they played with Steeleye Span, then Brass Monkey when they got Spanned-out.
In fact, we have John and Martin to thank for taking an old dance tune called From Night Till Morn and splicing it onto this song like a folky Frankenstein’s monster. There is something glorious about the juxtaposition between what might be the jolliest tune in the English repertoire and these horrifically dark lyrics.
Here’s a synopsis for you: A pilgrim rocks up to a well and forgets to bring his bucket, so he asks a nearby lady if he can borrow hers. She says no, presumably because she either doesn’t have one or he’s a weird fellow and she’s keen to end what has quickly become an awkward conversation. He immediately makes things even more awkward by saying, “If your boyfriend was here, I bet you’d lend him your bucket.” (Is this a euphemism too? I don’t even know any more. Why did he say that?)
She says, “But I don’t have a boyfriend,” which is as good a response as any to such a strange man.
The pilgrim/palmer/whatever he is then takes it to the next level of inappropriateness and says he knows she is lying because he knows she has had nine children… and he knows where she buried them all.
[Cue scary violin sound effect.]
Plot twist - he’s right! She breaks down and begs for penance but because he’s still bitter about the bucket, says he won’t give her any, but will instead turn her into a stepping stone for seven years, the clapper in a bell for another seven and a monkey that has to go for a run in hell for the final seven. She’s fine with the first two but can’t stand the monkey idea, which I don’t quite understand because it just reminds me of that episode of the Mighty Boosh when Bollo dies. The hell-apes have an 80s glam rock band and it looks like heaps of fun.
Such a quirky story called for a collaboration with members of York’s quirkiest band: the Bramble Napskins. For a time, the nightlife of York reverberated with the raucous noise only the Napskins knew how to make. I was dead keen to work with at least some of them on this project and I’m pleased I did because they have since stopped playing as a band. So I’m chuffed to have shared this recording with Evie, Tom, Katie and Alex from the Bramble Napskins, not forgetting Matt and Rachel who came along for the party too.
Fellow Yorkie, Rich Hardcastle, described this one as folk’s answer to Bohemian Rhapsody and I think he’s right. If they make Wayne’s World 3, I’ll be there.
29. Robin Hood and The Pedlar
7th July 2017
Guests: Polly Bolton, mandolin / Matthew Mefford, upright bass
One of the best things about this whole project was discovering loads of new music. Barry Dransfield’s first album - Barry Dransfield - was one of those discoveries. It reminds me of Martin Carthy’s debut album, not so much musically, but the way just one voice and guitar can conjure so much atmosphere. It is packed with earwormy melodies, charismatic vocals and there is something about his guitar playing that compels me to try to become a better guitarist.
At the time, it was the kick up the backside I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone and try something more ambitious. So I grabbed my trusty Taylor and got stuck into my own attempt at Robin Hood & The Pedlar. It’s one of those old English songs involving a convoluted argument that ends with, “Oh! It turns out we’re related! Shall we go to the pub and celebrate?”
I avoided trying to reconstruct Barry’s version (it was too tricky and besides, what’s the point?) but leaned quite heavily on it, partly because the way he sings it is so much fun. To add something new, I invited Polly and Matt back. I knew they’d both bring so much colour to it, and there were a few lines I wanted to try as guitar-mandolin twin harmonies.
I’m proud of how this one turned out. It manages to sound old, yet fresh. This recording was also one of those moments when you look back and see how much of the mountain you’ve climbed. As a point of reference, my previous arrangement for this lineup was The Official Brawle on Winter. I think this one is in a different league. Progress.
30. The Trees They Do Grow High
16th July 2017
Reading a list of artists who have recorded The Trees They Do Grow High is like reading a Who’s Who of folk music. That’s another thing I love about traditional music: the songs themselves open up gateways to new artists. You fall in love with a song, then think, “So-and-so did a version of it!? I wonder what their version sounds like…”
This was one of those gateway songs for me. It was another I first heard on Martin Carthy’s first album, and it led me to an army of his contemporaries.
Experts aren’t sure of it’s exact origins (some suspect it might be as old as medieval times) but it was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Robert Burns collected a version called Lady Mary Ann which made it all the rage in Scotland.
The song itself tells the tragic story of an arranged marriage between a woman and her much younger husband. She spends years watching him grow up, but he sadly never makes it to adulthood. She buries him, leaving us with the beautiful parallel of her watching the grass growing over his grave.
In an effort to do something different with it, I tried it out on the piano. If any instrument is good at drawing out melancholy from a song, it is the piano. So I had an arrangement, but now I needed a recording. And there was no way I was going to record a piano and vocal performance on a squeaky, non-weighted keyboard. I love my Hammond Sk1, but this was not its calling.
At the time, I played the piano at Bettys in York three times a week, and they have a beautiful Yamaha Baby Grand piano. I spoke to them nicely, and they kindly said I could use it. Hurrah! Thanks Betty! Dan Webster and I trotted up the stairs into the Belmont Room, set up some microphones and got recording. We also recorded an impromptu performance of Spanish Ladies and Ride On which are floating around on YouTube somewhere.
I am pleased with my arrangement of The Trees They Do Grow High, but I do have one regret: I wish I’d recorded the vocals live with the piano. The piano part was a bit rushed which forced me into some pretty hasty delivery of vocals later on. Perhaps some day I’ll record it again, but even if I don’t, it was another valuable lesson learned.
31. Nobody’s Jig
21st July 2017
Guests: Angela Gordon, flute / Catriona Cannon, harp / Matthew Mefford, upright bass / Rachel Brown, cello
If John Playford was around nowadays, he would be HUGE on TikTok. He knew all the dance moves; so well, in fact, that he published a book of country dances called The English Dancing Master. Nobody’s Jig was published in the 6th edition in 1679 and I like to think he named it after someone, then fell out with them just before publication.
“And who did you say this jig was named after, Mr Playford?”
“Nobody! It’s nobody’s jig now...”
I picked up the tune from ‘Historical Popular Music’ duo, Dapper’s Delight, which comprises the virtuosic recorder and concertina playing of Susanna Borsch and Adrian Brown. My brother Ben bought me two of their albums for my birthday, having bumped into Adrian’s daughter in the French alps. Years later, we did a concert together at The Basement in York. Small world.
Nobody’s Jig fascinated me because it sounds almost like contemporary soundtrack music - like the whimsical incidental music when some quirky character is up to some mischief. I thought it would work perfectly for another project I was working on at the time, so I got tinkering with some pizzicato strings, flutes and harp to see how far I could take the soundtrack vibe. Handy too, because when it came to finding material for the Seasons Project, this one was ready and waiting. I enlisted some talented friends to replace the software instruments, and made a video to pop on YouTube - something I wish I’d done for all the songs.
A year later, it ended up in the background of a Radio 4 Christmas advert with narration by David Tennant. Funny old world...
32. Davy Lowston
30th July 2017
Remember Lord Franklin from Winter? It was a song set in one of the most northern points of the northern hemisphere and at the time I released it, that part of the Earth was tilting away from the Sun. This song - Davy Lowston - was released when the Earth had travelled to the opposite side of the Sun, and it was the southern hemisphere’s turn to do the tilting and shun the sunlight. To give things a satisfying sense of symmetry, I chose another song about a 19th century voyage, but this time to one of the most southern points of the southern hemisphere.
In 1809, a crew captained by David Lawrieston set sail aboard The Active from Australia to hunt seals. They were dropped off on a small island just off the coast of New Zealand and caught lots of seals - all was going well (not for the seals…) - until The Active never turned up to pick them back up again. The song suggests they all met a horrible and swift demise, but in truth they were far too resourceful for that.
When their pitiful rations ran out, what did they eat: seal!
When their rowing boat was destroyed in a storm, which animal skin did they use to fashion canoes: seal!
If anyone knew how to use a seal carcass efficiently for a range of everyday purposes, it was these guys.
Using their makeshift, seal-skin canoes, they made it to the mainland of NZ and even found some tasty roots to make a change from seal meat. Eventually, another ship - Governor Bligh - turned up and rescued them all. Unlike the tale of Lord Franklin, this one ends happily ever after (not for the seals).
At risk of sounding like a broken record, I heard this song from... Martin Carthy. With just a guitar, he somehow manages to make it sound poignant, peaceful and cinematic all at the same time. I tried to lift that element from it and draw it out even further and brass was the texture that got me there.
So Davy Lowston might not tell its own story faithfully or in any great detail, but it conveys a beautiful atmosphere and a message I whole-heartedly agree with: stop hunting seals!
33. Prickle Eye Bush
5th August 2017
Guests: Frances Sladen, vocals / Alex James, saxophones / Mark Waters, electric bass / Nathan Greaves, electric guitar
When Mark had finished playing his part on this track, he turned to me and said, “You know you are completely mad, don’t you?” He had a point; this is one of the more eccentric arrangements on the Seasons Project. Possibly of my entire career.
This is one of the oldest folk songs and it has so many variations, they’re not so much variations, as entirely different songs based on the same theme: someone has been captured and is waiting for their true love to pay a bounty or they will hang. It has been played as ‘Gallows Pole’ by everyone from Leadbelly to Led Zeppelin (who reportedly heard it from Fred Gerlach) and as ‘Prickle Eye Bush’ by folks like The Watersons and Bellowhead. The ‘prickly bush’ is a metaphor for getting yourself in a spot of bother and due to the glorious discrepancies in pronunciation and spelling across time and space, we ended up with ‘prickle eye bush.’
Speaking of discrepancies, how did I get from the lilting melody I first heard from Spiers & Boden to… this?
A big part of starting a new arrangement is choosing what sort of rhythm you want to go with. So I sang the melody in a few different ways, and this just popped into my head. I thought, “It hasn’t been done this way before.” There may be a very good reason for this, but it is done now, and cannot be undone, lest it be taken to the depths of Mordor and cast into the fires from whence it was forged.
One redeeming feature is the contributions from all the collaborators on this song, including Alex. I wanted to experiment with arranging for brass on Summer, and he managed to pull off a one-man saxophone section.
34. Raggle Taggle Gipsy O
11th August 2017
Guests: Jack Woods, mandolin / Alex James, saxophones / Matthew Mefford, upright bass
If you've ever listened to any folk music at all, you’ll probably know this one. And if you’ve ever listened to The Road To Horn Fair (my album of traditional songs lovingly turned up to 11) you will be familiar with my other version of it. That version is to the tune everyone knows, so I was intrigued when I discovered there was another tune.
We used to go down to an acoustic session at The Habit in York, and all sorts of musicians would pop by if they were passing through town. One evening, a couple dropped in and sang Raggle Taggle Gypsies... but to a different tune. It was beautiful. Thankfully I was in the habit (see what I did there?) of recording the sessions on my phone to listen back to any songs I liked, so I have a recording of that very moment. That couple never came back and I never found out their names, but thank you to whoever you are for introducing me to this way of playing this song. Perhaps one day we’ll meet again.
Years later, I was digging around for material for the Seasons Project and I stumbled across a video of Waterson:Carthy singing Raggle Taggle Gypsies and it reignited an old memory from that evening at the Habit. It was the same tune the mystery folk duo sang it to. In the video, good old Norma Waterson gives us the history: it is no older than six-hundred years old, it’s from East Anglia and this particular tune belongs to the family of folk singer Walter Pardon.
It is a story of excitement, adventure and forbidden desire. It is the story of a noblewoman who runs off in the dead of night with three gypsies - in some versions, John Faa, the King of the Gypsies - to escape the constraints of her stuffy lifestyle and indulge in the freedom of the world of the travelling folk. Yes, it is tinged with starry-eyed romanticism, but I can understand how it has captured the imagination of people for centuries to become one of the most well-known and well-loved British folk songs of all time. After all, when the pressures of life start to pile up, the idea of running away from it all to go and lie in an open field on a summer’s night and gaze up at the stars does seem appealing.
35. The Blacksmith
16th August 2017
Guests: Angela Gordon, flute / Polly Bolton, mandolin / Matthew Mefford, upright bass / Edward Simpson, cajon
Here’s yet another one I got from Hark! The Village Wait, and evidence I’m slowly but surely covering the entire album by accident. Steeleye Span was one of the first bands I discovered on vinyl LP as a student, and it had a big impact on me, making that bridge between the folk music I was just discovering and the rock music I had grown up with. Their first album, Hark! The Village Wait, with its edgy, garage-rock grain, pushed boundaries I didn’t even know existed and suddenly there were footprints I felt I could follow in.
Shortly after this unlikeliest of epiphanies, Steeleye Span announced they were coming to play in York at the Barbican. They were touring their Wintersmith album which I had completely fallen in love with (partly due to the Terry Pratchett collaboration), so it was a no-brainer I just had to be there. It was every bit as epic as I could have imagined. They played all the belters from the new album and pretty much all the classics from their back catalogue I could have dreamt of, including The Blacksmith from Hark! The Village Wait.
As I walked out of the auditorium, buzzing and star-stricken, I looked to one side… and there was Maddy Prior, casually strolling out to meet her audience. Anyone who has met her will tell you how down-to-earth and good-humoured she is (I guess that’s the secret to maintaining such a long career). We were having a natter and I said I was getting into singing folk songs and that I wanted to sing The Blacksmith, but wasn’t sure if I could get away with singing a love-song that is told from a woman’s perspective. She answered me with a question: “Aren’t we always being actors when we sing folk songs, so does it really matter?”
It seems so obvious now, but as a naive and nervous fledgling folk singer, this was exactly the nudge-out-of-the-nest I needed. And who better from, but the very person who had inspired me to sing the song in the first place?
36. The Mermaid’s Prophecy
27th August 2017
Guests: Matthew Mefford, upright bass / Frances Sladen, vocals
Tune by Maddy Prior / lyrics traditional, translated by Richard Chandler Alexander Prior, adapted by Joshua Burnell
It is 12th century Denmark. Valdemar II is the King and Dagmar of Bohemia is Queen. One day, the king’s ship grinds ashore and his men walk onto dry land carrying a cage. They march it straight into the castle and into the dungeons. It holds a rare catch: a mermaid. This one is particularly powerful and for fear of their lives, no-one dares go near the creature.
Queen Dagmar, however, knows about mermaids, and there is something she wants from this one and she knows how to get it. She summons the mermaid to the castle hall and commands her servants to open the cage.
The mermaid steps out and sullenly makes it clear she will not be taking commands from anyone. Instead of issuing commands, however, Dagmar invites the mermaid to sit beside her on a blue cushion. There is a pause, then the mermaid asks what she has done to deserve to be killed, for she knows a silver knife is hidden beneath the cushion. The queen’s plan had worked: her trick had proved the mermaid had the power to read the future and she demands the mermaid tells her future.
Impressed by the queen’s cunning, the mermaid agrees. She begins to dance, and as she dances, she reveals that Dagmar will have three sons: the first will be king of Denmark, the second will inherit the throne, and third will be the wisest person ever born. However, this will come at the greatest cost: Dagmar will die in childbirth.
Despite hearing a premonition of her own death, the queen is overcome by joy and, grateful to the mermaid, rushes to the king to ask if the mermaid can be set free. The king refuses, saying the mermaid had sunk seven of his best ships. And here, the narrative shifts a bit. In the original story, Queen Dagmar breaks down and begs the king until he pities her and releases the mermaid, but I wasn’t a fan - surely such a cunning and brave character is better than this? So I tweaked it slightly.
The queen disguises the mermaid in red and gold, and in secret, she is led from the castle and released back into the sea. Before she swims away, the mermaid thanks the queen with one last premonition: she will be welcomed into heaven for treating the mermaid as an equal and doing the right thing.
I like this story. It doesn’t go where you expect and seems ahead of its time. The mermaid reminded me of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; an archetypal character who lets the protagonist believe they are in control, then flips the power balance, but gives them a chance to redeem themselves and become a stronger person as a result. I also love the relationship between the mermaid and the queen. Both explore different aspects of femininity: one longs for motherhood, despite knowing it will cost her her own life; the other longs for freedom and independence. They quickly form a bond, recognising the other’s plight and each play a fundamental role in helping the other.
This is my favourite narrative that appears on the Seasons Project and the beautiful tune Maddy Prior wrote for her version of Sheath & Knife seemed to conjure just the right mood for it.
37. Sir Bosmer In Elfland
1st September 2017
Guests: Jack Woods, mandolin / Mark Waters, electric bass / Nathan Greaves, electric guitar
Music traditional / lyrics traditional, translated by Richard Chandler Alexander Prior, adapted by Joshua Burnell
Winter had The Nightingale, so Summer needed a fantasy epic of its own. So I delved back into my book of ancient Danish ballads and sifted through the tales of dwarves, dragons and wizards until I came across the perfect candidate: the story of the Queen of the Elves who lures an innocent young man into Elfland from whence he shall never return. Mwahahahaaaa!
It is a story that has been told and retold and retold. Fairport Convention rocked-up the scottish Tam Lin; elves must have been whispering in Keats’ ear when he wrote La Belle Dame Sans Merci; The Wee Free Men gives us the Terry Pratchett-ed version in novel form with some tiny, blue, kilt-wearing, foul-mouthed scotsmen thrown in for good measure; and, come to think of it, it reminds me of the babe. What babe, you ask? David Bowie dressed in a backcombed wig and very tight leggings dancing about in Labyrinth.
So I was delighted to find another retelling of this classic. My favourite moment from this one is when the elf queen transforms her fingers into vines to pick the lock of Sir Bosmer’s room. You can almost see the Arthur Rackham illustration. If only I could draw.
Folk ballads tend to be made up of a string of verses, as opposed to pop songs which have long choruses and go verse-chorus-verse-chorus et cetera. Sometimes ballads built a one-line chorus into each verse so everyone could join in easily, a bit like a call-and-response.
Lots of the Danish ballads do this, including Sir Bosmer In Elfland, and as I wanted to use an existing folk tune, I had to find one that also followed a similar form. Handily, Tony Rose’s performance of the English song Just As The Tide Was Flowing popped up on YouTube and was exactly what I needed. (Eliza Carthy’s version is breathtakingly beautiful, by the way - you should listen to it).
The chorus line in Sir Bosmer In Elfland was ‘the linden tree is all in leaf’, which although adequately summery, is a bit pants to sing. So played around with the melody under the line ‘just as the tide was a’flowing’ and came up with ‘in the summer as the leaves were a’growing.’ I squished four verses together, chopped off the last line of the fourth and transplanted the chorus line onto the end of each verse, and voilà! Frankenfolk’s monster was alive!
To transport us well and truly into the elven realm, I flipped the tonality of the melody whenever the Elf Queen performs her spooky magic, leaving us trapped in the tonic minor by the end, like poor old Sir Bosmer. Not easy listening, but a great adventure when you’re in the right mood.
38. Bridget O’Malley
9th September 2017
The second piano and vocal song recorded in the session at Bettys, and like The Trees They Do Grow High, it is a lament and one I could imagine being sung on a clear summer night under the stars.
It is a traditional Irish song with a pretty tune that stuck in my head after I heard the Silly Wizard version (what a band name!) This led me to discover a video of June Tabor singing it at a folk festival in 1990, accompanied by Mark Emerson and Giles Levin on violins. If my recording of it serves any purpose, it should be to direct you to watch that video, if you haven’t already. I can honestly say it is one of the most emotive performances I have ever seen. There is something magic about the straining harmony of the violins, the stillness of the crowd, the wind blowing in the microphone and June’s deep, velvety voice. Imagine what it must have been like actually being there.
39. Farewell To Tarwathie
16th September 2017
Guests: Angela Gordon, low whistle / Mark Waters, electric bass
Whilst rummaging in the record shop in Haworth where I first discovered Shelagh McDonald’s Stargazer (more on this in Autumn), I also found a record by a band called Fungus. It is such a wonderfully obscure album, featuring two sides of folk-rock; one in English and the other in Dutch. I love it - particularly the Dutch songs. I wanted to use something from the album, but as I can’t speak, let alone sing, in Dutch, I picked something from the other side. Farewell To Tarwathie struck me as an aptly poignant farewell song to close Summer.
It was written by a miller from Aberdeenshire called George Scroggie and is about a whaler feeling homesick as he prepares to sail to the inhospitable coasts of Greenland. I always get a vivid mental image of the boat leaving the shore, silhouetted against the glow of one of the last summer sunsets. It reminds me of Frodo and Gandalf sailing off on the last boat from the Grey Havens to go to the undying lands.
At the Songs From The Seasons album launch at The Crescent in York, we closed the show with this one, just as it closes the album. After we played it, someone came up to me and said, “I loved that Judy Collins cover!” Unbelievably, I had managed to record, release, rehearse and perform a version of the Farewell To Tarwathie without even knowing Judy Collins had sung the most well-known version of it. I’m not sure if it is a testament to how folk songs transcend ownership by any individual artist, or my inability to Google things. Judy did a terrific version, arranged for solo voice and whale.