Sex, Drugs and…Traditional Folk Songs?

 If “I Courted a Wee Girl” is a love song a bit too miserable for grade school, then two other love songs in this collection are a bit too sensual, a bit too hedonistic. “I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose” is a beautiful song about love and fantasy all dressed up with natural and urban imagery and sexual innuendo. But we’re all consenting adults here…right?

The song begins,

I wish my love was a red, red rose growing in yon garden fair,
And I to be the gardener, of her I would take care.
There’s not a month throughout the year but my love I’d renew;
I’d garnish her with flowers fresh, sweet William, thyme and rue.

It is an appealing declaration of love illuminated by the symbolic union of three plants. Sweet William, one of the few flowers symbolically associated with masculinity (particularly gallantry), 1 is juxtaposed with thyme, symbolic of feminine purity. The two together create a lusty sense of male/female, yin/yang completeness. Thyme is also symbolic of hope, but it is in turn juxtaposed with rue, symbolic of regret. This verse is perhaps a perfect piece of folk poetry in its balance and circularity. The union of man and woman is an amalgam holding possibilities for both great joy and great pain. That the verse is so positive until the final word, “rue,” suggests that trouble lies ahead.

I learned this song from the singing of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of the Irish band, Altan. She introduces the selection in concert as “…a very romantic song,” 2 and indeed, the second verse continues with increasing sensuality and natural imagery again tempered in the final line by a suggestion of regret and longing:

I wish I was a butterfly, I’d light on my love’s breast,
And if I was a blue cuckoo, I’d sing my love to rest,
And if I was a nightingale, I’d sing the daylight clear.
I’d sit and sing for you, Molly, for once I loved you dear.

Basically, this is the contemporary version of a very old song, and it has been well recorded and performed over the last three or four decades by such notables as Tommy Makem, David Hammond, Sean Donnelly, Arty McGlynn, The Bothy Band, and Altan. Most attribute their source for the song as traditional Irish singer and song collector Sarah Makem (1900-1983), mother of iconic Irish singer Tommy Makem who is in turn father of Shane, Conor and Rory of the famous Makem Brothers singing group.  With its long and impressive pedigree, as much as any folk song, this version could now be deemed a standard, modern text.

As sensual as the modern text is, older versions are even more so. Although we like to think of ourselves as sexually liberated compared to our forebears, evidence suggests that our folk singing ancestors may have been more comfortable singing about their carnal appetites than their musical progeny who grace contemporary folk festival stages. Poet and lyricist Robert Burns (who has been voted the Greatest Scott of All Time) 3 was also a great collector of folk songs and would revise and adapt them for his own songs. Burns borrowed lyrics from “I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose” for his 1793 composition, “O Were My Love Yon Lilac Fair.” This version (and remember it was probably enjoyed by your great, great, great, great, great grandmother) is much more sexually charged than the standard modern text:

O gin [if] my love were yon red rose,
That grows upon the castle wa’;
And I myself a drap o dew,
Into her bonie [pretty] breast to fa’!
O there, beyond expression blest,
I’d feast on beauty a the night;
Seal’d on her silk-saft faulds to rest,
Till fley’d awa by Phoebus’ light! 4

“Drap o’ dew?” “Bonie breast?” “Feast on beauty a’ the night?” “Seal’d on her silk-saft faulds?” Is it not surprising that Scotland’s Favourite Son was renowned for his sexual proclivity as for his lyrical ability.  Burns probably borrowed from this variant (or one similar), which makes it even older (perhaps 15th Century) and more lusty still:

I wish my love was yon red, red rose
That grows on the garden wall,
And I to be a drop of dew,
Among its leaves I’d fall—
‘Tis in her sacred bosom
All night I’d sport and play,
And pass away the summer night
Until the break of day. 5

Spicy? I’ll share a word about “sport and play” later in this essay.

The third and final verse of the standard modern text shifts from the sensual pleasures of the natural world to hedonistic, urban pleasures: money, liquor and yes, more romance. Once more, united with the natural imagery of the first two verses, the urbanity of the third verse creates a pleasing balance in the song:

I wish I was in Dublin town and seated on the grass,
In my right hand, a jug of punch, and on my knee, a lass.
I’d call for liquor freely and I’d pay before I’d go;
I’d roll my Molly in my arms, let the wind blow high or low.

The song is a fantasy, a wish. The narrator is not in Dublin. He does not possess the liquor, the money or the girl, and apparently he lost her at some point. Yet this is not a sad song; the tone is overwhelmingly positive, and that is remarkable. Staying so positive in spite of lost love is not typical, though. Ní Mhaonaigh, in her in-concert introduction to “I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose,” 2 refers to its floating verses, lyrics that are borrowed to be used in other songs. It is telling to see how other song writers used this pretty poetry in their own, more bitter contexts. “The Irish Girl,” a song collected in 1896, contains the same three lovely verses that exist in the standard, modern version, but takes a sudden turn to this harsh scene:

The very last time I saw my love
She seemed to lie in pain,
With sorrow, grief and anguish
Her heart was broke in twain:
“Oh! There’s many a man that’s worse than he,
Then why should I complain?
Oh! Love is such a killing thing!
Did you ever feel the pain?”

In yet another variant, the poor Irish girl is sad unto death:

Tears came rolling down her cheeks,
How mournful she did cry:
“My love has gone and left me,
And surely I will die.”

Compare these breast-beating scenes of misery to the analogous lyrics of the standard, modern text: “I’d sit and sing for you, Molly, for once I loved you dear.” I love the stripped-down, romantic sincerity of the modern text.

Perhaps it is because we have a hard time expressing simple, honest declarations of love that this song has also become a target for parody. “Bold O’Donahue” is comic Irish novelty song recorded by The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, The Ramblers Two and others during the folk revival. The song is about a particularly potent Irish lad, Bold O’Donahue, who boasts of his many romantic exploits (including the Princess Royale of Great Britain, no mean feat for an Irishman.) The chorus pretty much says it all:

For I’m the boy to please her and I’m the boy to tease her.
I’m the boy can squeeze her, and I’ll tell you what I’ll do:
I’ll court her like an Irishman, and the brogue and blarney, too, is my plan
With my rolligan, swalligan, holligan, wolligan , bold O’Donahue. 8

The second verse, however, is in the voice of O’Donahue’s rival. It borrows from “I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose,” turning its sweet poetry into a comic lament:

I wish my love was a red, red rose growing on yon garden wall
And me to be a dewdrop and upon her brow I’d fall!
Perhaps now she might think of me as a rather heavy dew,
And no more she’d love that handsome lad they call O’Donahue! 8

Another very unpleasant parody, “I Wish My Love Was in a Ditch,” was collected in North Carolina and other locations. It, too, is sung by a narrator who believes his lover was untrue and holds an Irishman responsible:

I wish my love was in a ditch
Without no clothing to her,
With nettles up and down her back,
Because she was not truer.

She kissed me with her red, red lips,
She swore she would be mine O;
But she swore the same to Alan O’Chree,
Who lives way down the line O. 9

This parody is no comic song, though; it is dark, angry, violent. It has been suggested that it may be somehow related to an old Scottish song, “I Wish My Love Was in a Mire.” 9 That song was referred to at least twice by Robert Burns: once in a letter to G. Thompson in which Burns suggested he might borrow the air (melody) of that song for a different song 10, and once in his book, The Works of Robert Burns, in which he only says he knows very little about the song. 11I have not been able to find the lyrics to “I Wish My Love Was in a Mire” though I continue to search.

You can tell a great song by the company it keeps. “Daily Growing,” the second overtly carnal (and in this case, overtly voyeuristic) song in this collection, has been recorded or performed over the last 50 years by Joan Baez, Martin Carthy, Alan Stivell, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Angelo Branduardi, Sarah Brightman, Brenda Wootton, Donovan, BobDylan, and more recently by Altan. 12 It is a brilliant example of the storyteller’s art in folk song. The plot concerns a nobleman who marries his 24 year old daughter to a 14 year old boy. She complains to her father that he is too young, but he counters, “…I’ve done you no harm/I have married you to a brave lord’s son/He will be a man for you when I am dead and gone.” He concludes the verse with the repeated line from which the song takes its title, “He’s young, but he is daily growing.”

Though she complains heartily, she exhibits a voyeuristic fascination with the boy from the song’s outset. The song begins,

The trees they do grow high,
And the leaves they do grow green.
Many is the time my true love I have seen.
Many is the time I’ve watched him all alone.
He’s young, but he is daily growing.

Later in the song, despite her objections, she continues her secret fixation on the boy:

One day I was looking o’re my father’s castle wall,
I spied all the boys playing with a ball,
And my own true love, he was the flower of them all.
He’s young but he is daily growing.

Perhaps, in this case, the lady did complain too much.

 An aside on the subject of “Sport and Play”

What was it Freud supposedly said? “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar?” There is a lot of sporting and playing in English language folk songs. And like Freud’s famous smoke, sometimes “sport and play,” innocently means just “sport and play,” as in “The Lambs on the Green Hills,” discussed at length in the essay “Tradition Unbound,” “The lambs on the green hills, they sport and they play/And many strawberries grow round the salt sea.” 13 But sometimes, “sport and play” means (are the kids out of the room?)…Sex. As in the aforementioned Burns variant of “I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose:”

‘Tis in her sacred bosom
All night I’d sport and play,
And pass away the summer night
Until the break of day. 5

The implication is clear.

For the sake of easy comparison of relative sexual implication, I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a helpful table to present a small sample of songs that share the same floating verse:



Sexual Implication

“Bushes and Briars”

Through bushes and through briars
I lately took my way,
All for to hear the small birds sing
And the lambs to sport and play.

No sex

“The Birks o’ Invermay”

The wanton kids and frisking lambs
Gambol and dance aroond their dams;The busy bee wi’ humming noise
And a’ the reptile kind rejoice.
Let us like them then sport and play
Amang the Birks o’ Invermay

Maybe sex

“Blackwater Side”

They rolled in sport and play;Then this young man arose
and he put on his clothes,
Saying Far – el – dy well to-day.


“Anna Liffey”

‘Twas down by Anna Liffey
My love and I did stray,Where in the good old slushy mud
The seagulls sport and play.

Slushy mud?

No sex

“The Foggy Dew”

All in the first part of that night
We rolled in sport and play,
And in the latter part of that night
She in my arms did lay

Definitely sex

“The Banks of the Roses”

And me and me true love we’ll sit and sport and play
By the lovely sweet banks of the roses.

Hard to say

“Watkins Ale”

‘Tis sweeter far than sugar fine
And pleasanter than Muscadine.
And if you please fair maid to stay
A little while to sport and play
I will give you the same,
Watkins ale called by name

Sex and beer

“A Glee At Christmas”

‘Tis Christmas now! ‘Tis Christmas now!
To dance and sing, to sport and play,
For every hour’s a holiday

No sex

What does all this sporting and playing have to do with “Daily Growing?” In the next verse, after the voyeuristic appreciation of her young man as “the flower of them all,” there comes a turning point for the 24-year-old woman and the 14-year-old boy, and the implication is clear:

And early in the morning at the dawn of the day,
They slipped into the Greenwood for to have some sport and play.
And what they did there she never would declare,
But she never more complained of his growing.

The balladeers could have let it go at that, a sweet song about longing and love with a nice conflict resolution and a happy ending for everyone involved. That may be the way of stories, but it’s rarely the way of life, and it has been theorized that “Daily Growing” may have its origins in real life, specifically “…the 17th century wedding of Lord Craighton to Elizabeth Innes. She was several years older than her and he died in 1634 shortly after the wedding.” 14 After such a happy turn in the plot, the verse is an emotional rollercoaster:

At the age of fourteen he was a married man.
At the age of fifteen, the father of my son.
At the age of sixteen, his grave, it grew green,
And death had put an end to his growing.

The song concludes with a verse so sad that through this powerful folk poetry we are taught again—just as “I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose—that the union of man and woman is an amalgam holding possibilities for both great joy and great pain:

I’ll buy my love some flannel, I’ll make my love a shroud,
And every stitch I put in it, the tears, they will pour down.
And every stitch I put in it, how tears will flow;
Cruel fate has put an end to his growing.

But in this case, the outcome is altogether different.

What time is it?  It’s “Time of Death.

Sex, Drugs and…Traditional Folk Songs?

  1. “Sweet Williams Flowers.” Pictures of Flowers at sweet-williams-flowers. Retrieved 2/12/12.
  2. Ní Mhaonaigh, Mairéad with Altan. “I Wish My Love Was A Red Red Rose.” YouTube. com/watch?v=yG5q7L54BZM. Retrieved 2/12/12.
  3. “Robert Burns—Greatest Scott of All Time…?” Bletherskite  Retrieved 2/12/12.
  4. “Oh, Were My Love Yon Lilac Fair.” Burns Country, Complete Works. http://www. Retrieved 2/12/12.
  5. “The Irish Girl,” (excerpted from Irish Peasant Songs in the English Language, Patrick Weston Joyce, 1906).  Email post by Jim Dixon to email thread, “Lyr/Chords: ‘I wish my Love Was a Red, Red Rose.’” The Mudcat Café. 29537. Retrieved 2/12/12.
  6. Nelson-Burns, Lesley. “The Irish Girl.” Lesley Nelson’s Folk Music of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and America. http://www.contemplator. com/ireland/irishgirl.html . Retrieved 2/16/12.
  7. “The Irish Girl.” TML Traditional Music Library. irish-songs-ballads-lyrics/the_irish_girl.htm. Retrieved 2/16/12.
  8. Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  “Bold O’Donahue.” YouTube. http://www. youtube. com/watch?v=F4LkcqGjGZo.  Retrieved 2/16/12.
  9. “I Wish My Love Was in a Ditch,” (excerpted from the Frank C. Brown collection, Volume II). Posted by Casey Dwyer. Folklorist. My_Love_ Was_In_a_Ditch.  Retrieved 2/16/12.10. Burns, Robert and William Gunnyon. “Correspondence of Burns, No. LXXIV, Burns to G. Thompson.” The Complete Works of Robert Burns Including His Correspondence, etc. p. 378.
  10. Burns, Robert and William Gunnyon. “Remarks on Scottish Song, I Wish My Love Was in a Mire.”  The Complete Works of Robert Burns Including His Correspondence, etc. p. 198.
  11. Altan. “Daily Growing.” The Blue Idol, audio recording. 2002.
  12. “Lambs on the Green Hills.” Traditional and Folk Music with Lyrics and Midi Music. Hills.htm.  Retrieved 1/27/12.
  13. Nelson-Burns, Lesley. “The Trees They do Grow High.” Lesley Nelson’s Folk Music of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and America. treehigh. html. Retrieved 2/17/12.

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