I usually do two sets - one of Child ballads from the CDs with John Leeder on mandolin and banjo, one of other folksongs (and sometimes the odd ballad) from a wide range of sources in Britain and, North America. Recently my partner Dave has been contributing clarinet accompaniment as well.
This year we were privileged to perform the ballads set in Water Valley Church, which has wonderful acoustics. This venue is much in demand! The ballads I chose this time were “The Lass of Lochroyan” and “Lizie Lindsay” from the second CD and “Burning of Auchindoon”, “The Broom of Cowdenknows” and “The Lowlands of Holland” from the first.
“The Lass of Lochroyan” (also known as “Lord Gregory” is about a young woman trying to gain admittance to her lover’s castle. She is turned back into the storm by his evil mother, but when he realizes what has happened he sets off in search of her - and the ending is left undisclosed. I learned this song (and “Burning of Auchindoon”) from the singing of English folk-singers June Tabor and Maddy Prior.
“The Broom of Cowdenknows” is a long tale of seduction set to a jaunty tune, which seems to end happily despite being about rape and a bunch of people who cheerfully lie to each other throughout. I remind my audience that ‘broom’ is a golden-yellow flower growing profusely on the Scottish hills and moors, and that when it is mentioned in Scottish songs sex is usually in the offing.
“The Lowlands of Holland”is an English press-gang song, sung by a woman whose husband has just been dragged off to serve in the British Army (or perhaps Navy) on his wedding night. It has a beautiful tune.
“Lizie Lindsay” is an elopement song where a well-heeled young woman gets more than she bargained for when she follows her truelove into the Highlands of Scotland - her anguished query “Are we near hame now?” after tramping over steep mountains elicits a cheerful “We are no near hame, bonnie Lizie, Nor yet gone the half of the way!”, but eventually she is rewarded by finding that he is not the poor son of a shepherd and a milkmaid that he pretended to be, but the local laird. So she gets love and status after all.
And “Burning of Auchindoon” - which takes less time to sing than to explain - is a revenge ballad against the Earl of Huntly, who owns Auchindoon, by supporters of the Earl of Murray (or Moray), whose murder is the subject of another Border ballad, “The Bonny Earl of Moray”.
Singing this last one is wonderfully exhilarating, but it takes it out of you! Dave and I had to hurry over right away to another location for our folksong set. We started this with a ‘high lonesome’ love lament from the Appalachians, “Pretty Saro”, one of Jean Ritchie’s songs. Our second song was “Linden Lea”, not a folksong but a musical setting by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams of a poem by Dorset poet William Barnes. It has a lovely tune and is basically a hymn to apple-trees, spring and autumn, and the simple life. It became so popular in England that Vaughan Williams said he made more money from it than from all his symphonies put together.
Then we performed “Walsingham”, an Elizabethan lament for lost love sung by a man on his way to the religious shrine at that location, and, after that, an Irish version - “Johnnie of Hazelgreen” - of a better-known Scottish ballad ((yes, it is a Child one) called “Jock o’ Hazeldean”, which ends with wedding bells after some rather unconvincing misunderstandings.
Canadian folksong collector Helen Creighton collected quite a few songs in Southern New Brunswick from an informant of Irish extraction, Angelo Dornan. A few years ago I discovered a song of his called “A New Broom Sweeps Clean”, a conversation between former lovers where the girl announces that she is breaking the relationship off to go with a new love. This unleashes a verse denouncing the fickleness of young women, and the whole song goes to a lovely melody which turns and twists on itself just like the young man’s tortured mind.
We ended our set with Otto P. Kelland’s rousing tribute to Newfoundland, “Let me fish off Cape St. Mary’s”. At Water Valley there are bound to be exiles from that province now living in Calgary, and it is a good audience participation song to end - or begin - a set.
In August Dave and I are off to Princeton, B. C. for the traditional music festival there, which takes place this year from Friday, August 18 to Sunday, August 20th, and is one of the best traditional music fests anywhere. And admission is free!
I’ll be doing a concert with Dave and his clarinet on Sunday and participating in the Ballad Workshop the day before. We haven’t fixed on everything for the concert yet, but I think we’ll start off with “Let me fish off Cape St. Mary’s” and include another English ballad as well as a couple of English and Scottish folksongs. And I know already that my a cappella ballad contributions in the Workshop will be highlighting female resourcefulness (and orneriness (is that a word??)) There is so much talent at Princeton, one cannot help being inspired. Hope to see some of you there!