Tradition Unbound

Q:  How many folk musicians does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A:  Five.  One to screw in the bulb and four to talk about how much better the old bulb was.

Funny, maybe, but not really true.  Folk musicians are usually thought of as traditionalists: clingers to the past, archaic preservationists of some previous century.  Really, though, folk musicians have always been in the business of changing the songs they love to fit their times and circumstances and make the songs—created by their musical ancestors—their own.  Though this has been the nature of folk music for centuries, modern folk singers often take heat for it.  Kate Rusby, a “British folk sensation [who has] garnered scores of awards and sold more [CDs] than most folksingers would dare to dream of”, 1 understands the malleable nature of folk music well.  Responding in an interview to a question about the artistic liberty she takes with traditional songs said,

When I was starting with the guitar and my three chords, I would change words in the songs or change a bit of the tune to suit me. And when I first started playing, people were coming up going, “That’s not how that song goes.” And I’d say, “Does it matter?” And they’d say, “Yes, you can’t just change things.” But you only have to open one of the ballad books, like the Childe [sic] ballads, and there’s probably 80 versions of the same ballad that has just been changed here and there. Because each time it’s been passed on to somebody else over the years, they’ve changed it to suit themselves. Robin Morton, who manages Battlefield Band, is a song collector. One of his books says that lots of young people are changing the music, but he says that “an unchanging tradition is a dying one.” Because if people aren’t going to make it how they want to sing it and how they want to listen to it, it will just die out. So I’m of that same thinking. But with some of them, I’ll have found a story in a book but it won’t have the tune to it, so I’ll write a tune for it, and then it becomes like a co-write. Or some of them have lots and lots of verses and I’ve thought, “I’d like to do the story, but I’m going to have to squidge it [condense it] all down.” So I rewrite it, carefully, so the story is still there. 1

“80 versions of the same ballad” might be an exaggeration, but the famed ballad collector Rusby citied, Frances James Child, did collect “a good three dozen [variants of] the adventures of Robin Hood.” 2

Child was a Victorian intellectual and man of letters, “named Harvard’s Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory at 26” eventually becoming Harvard’s first Professor of English. “…he was one of his century’s leading Chaucer scholars [whose] close friends included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry and William James, and Charles Eliot Norton.” 2 Child also became the prototypal folklorist when he followed his passion: “…the preservation of a ballad tradition” by systematically collecting and documenting “…all known English and Scottish ballads and their American and Canadian variants.” 2 His work resulted, ultimately, in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a five volume set containing 305 ballads in 5000 variants “…arranged chronologically, earliest to latest, and reproduced exactly as they appeared in their independent sources.” 3

It is the richness of the variants of each ballad that so plainly illustrate the nature of folk music not as tradition bound, but as tradition unbound: a living tradition of change, adaptation and personalization that was true centuries before Child published his collection and is still true for 21st Century folksingers like Rusby.

No collection of folksongs unfit for school children would be complete without a love song so miserable that it would immediately send the youngsters scrambling out the schoolhouse door bound for the nearest nunnery or monastery.  This collection contains the Irish song, “I Courted a Wee Girl,” that exists in two main variants, which in turn can be found in many versions.  The second variant is “The Lambs on the Green Hills.”  Both songs tell essentially the same story:  The narrator is a young man who courts a girl but loses her to another and must then play the part of indignant voyeur watching the wedding of his love to his rival.  Clearly variants of the same mother song, the two directly share whole verses such as,

The bride and bride’s party to church they did go;
The bride she rode foremost, she bears the best show.
But I followed after with my heart full of woe
To see my love wed to another.

Both generally end with a goodnight verse (a final verse offered by a dying or defeated protagonist as a warning to others) so sad and hopeless on the subject of love that one variant earned its place in Folksongs You Never Sang in Grade School:

So dig me a grave, and dig it down deep,
And strew it all over with primrose so sweet.
Lay me down in it for no more to weep
For love is the cause of my ruin.

Though closely related, what makes the two songs distinct variants is the vast difference between the two narrators and the cause of their loss.  In “The Lambs on the Green Hills” it is made clear (at the point of a sword, in fact) that the narrator is a weak, reticent lover:

The next place I saw her ’twas on the way home.
I ran on before her, not knowing where to roam.
Says I, “My wee lassie, I’ll be by your side
Although you are wed to another.”

 “Stop stop”, says the groomsman, “till I speak a word.
Will you venture your life on the point of my sword?
For courting so slowly you’ve lost this fair maid,
So, begone, for you’ll never enjoy her.” 4

Is it any wonder, then, that the first verse of this variant is

The lambs on the green hills, they sport and they play,
And many strawberries grow round the salt sea.
How sad is my heart when my love is away.
How many’s the ships sails the ocean?

From the outset, this narrator has other thoughts on his mind besides courting.  He’s a ditherer.

The narrator of “I Courted a Wee Girl,” conversely, is very direct.  The first verse is completely different.  Gone are the lambs and the green hills.  Gone are the strawberries and the salt sea.  Gone, as well, are the uncounted ships on the sea.  This narrator makes it clear in the first verse that his courting is earnest and to the exclusion of all other potential suitors:

I courted a wee girl for many’s the long day
And slighted all others who came in my way.
Now she’s rewarded me to the last day—
She’s gone to be wed to another.

Though both variants include a verse in which the lovers exchange rings in a church ceremony, the narrator of “I Courted a Wee Girl” uses the scene to reveal the cause of his ruin.  He was aced out by a rich guy:

The bride and bride’s party in church they did stand,
Gold rings on their fingers, a love hand in hand.
The man that she’s married has houses and land;
He may have her since I could not gain her.

The hapless ditherer of “The Lambs on the Green Hills,” by contrast, proclaims his love in the church verse, too little, too late: “Says I, ma wee lassie, I will be the man/Altho you are wed to another.”

As he scuttles after the newly wed couple in the subsequent verse, is it any wonder that, with “the point of his sword,” the groomsman warns him to “begone.”  The narrator of “I Courted a Wee Girl” is decidedly more assertive, though no less deserted, as he is the one who bitterly ends the relationship by cursing the couple: “I lifted my hat and I bade her goodnight/Here’s bad luck to all false-hearted lovers.”

Two variants, at least two co-authors over the decades, probably unknown to one another, have as Rusby explained, “…changed it to suit themselves.”  We can only speculate as to the thinking behind the revisions.  My money is on ‘The Lambs on the Green Hills” as the ancestor of “I Courted a Wee Girl.”  It’s brutally honest: a weak kneed suitor confessing his indecisiveness.  I could imagine a later singer loving the song, but in his own performance not wanting to present his protagonist as tentative in the ways of love and consequently inventing a more ardent, more modern lover.

On my Ipod are at least four recordings of the song, “The House Carpenter.”  While driving to a gig one afternoon, I played all four, which are all differently in melodically and lyrically.  My travelling companion mused, “I wonder which one is correct?”  I think that depends on what “correct” means.  If “correct” means original, I say probably none of them.  The song existed in the oral tradition for centuries before recording equipment was invented.  If “correct” means right, I say all of them. To carve a folk song in marble is to drive a stake through the heart of the folk process.

The next essay is based on a true story.

Tradition Unbound

  1.  Nygaard, Scott.  “Trad All Over.” Acoustic Guitar.  Retrieved 1/27/12.
  2. Burgess, John. “Francis James Child: Brief Life of a Victorian Enthusiast.” Harvard Magazine.  Retrieved 1/27/12.
  3. Schneider, Mathew. “Wordsworthian Songcatching in America.”  Anthropoetics.  Retrieved 1/27/12.
  4. “Lambs on the Green Hills.” Traditional and Folk Music with Lyrics and Midi Music. Lambs_on_the_Green_ Hills.htm.  Retrieved 1/27/12.



What’s This?

Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School is one folk musician's effort to document, honor and share a collection of folk songs I love and my personal history with them through research, essays, and performance. Read the essays here and watch this site for future performances.

What’s New?

Tara McGovern and I, joined by uilleann piper Jon Cooper, have completed the album version of Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School. For a taste of the CD listen to "Oh, the Wind and Rain/The Quail It Is a Pretty Bird" and "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme."

Oh, the Wind and Rain/The Quail It Is a Pretty Bird
Let No Man Steal Your Thyme