The Best British Folk Songs as chosen by some of the country's favourite folk singers

The Best British folk songs, as chosen by British folk singers

From Martin Carthy to Laura Smyth, some of Britain's favourite traditional folk singers pick the British folk songs they think you should hear.

When I first came to traditional folk music, I stood at the foot of the mountain and wondered at the sheer size of what loomed ahead. There’s just so much of it – I can fully understand why many people might find it daunting and put it on the bucket list for much later. As many of my readers will have experienced themselves, however, if you can find an initial foothold then you’ve found your way onto a joyful exploration and adventure that will likely last you a lifetime.

Finding that first chink isn’t easy, though. You might find it by chance – a centuries-old song that grabs you and sticks with you and makes you wonder what else might be out there – or you might find that someone offers you a leg-up.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the great fortune to chat and spend time with some of Britain’s better known folk performers. The thing about folk music and its exponents, of course, is that none of these people are necessarily ‘the best’ at what they do. After all, each have tales about some chap in some pub somewhere who can play the hind legs off all the donkeys, but chose not to make a career out of it, or someone legendary who passed away years ago (but, boy, you shoulda heard them play the spoons).

That said, it’s worth noting that the people who helped me with these articles do make their living by singing traditional folk songs, and probably spend most of their waking hours immersed in some part of that world.

A playlist: Some of the best traditional folk songs

This British Folk Songs Playlist series was intended to be a fortnightly collection of snippets and recommendations from various well-known folk singers living and working in Britain today, each talking about the British folk songs that inspired them, offering newcomers to the genre a leg-up so that they can find their way forwards. I hope you find it useful. 

‘Clyde Water’: chosen by Jim Moray

Roud number: 91

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“I’m not sure that you can separate the singer from the song at the level that gets under my skin. Part of things being of ‘the oral tradition’ means it deeply matters to me who is singing or playing, and whether they can communicate stuff.

“So my choice would specifically be Nic Jones’ live version of ‘Clyde Water’. He told me that he felt that he missed the mark on the recorded version (recorded as ‘The Drowned Lovers’ on Penguin Eggs) and the arrangement he was playing live just before his accident is one of the greatest pieces of storytelling that I’ve ever heard. It’s available on the Game Set Match compilation, but my favourite recording comes from an Italian bootleg from the ‘Teatro Bonci’ in Cesena.

“Folk singers sometimes have a habit of thinking that singing something slowly makes it more profound (when, actually, it just makes it take longer to get to the important bit). Nic had skills almost comparable with a great Shakespearean actor of knowing which part of a line contains all the weight, and how to pace it so you get caught up in a tidal wave as the story reaches its conclusion. There are other long ballad performances which do that for me (including things by Martin Carthy and June Tabor) but Nic was the master of it and that song is the peak of his ability.

“It’s not a version that you will find in a book in Cecil Sharp House of course – he made it out of parts from different versions and crafted it to fit in his own vocabulary. And that’s what the best people do – they make the song their own truth instead of someone else’s. And thats what traditional music is about for me – finding your own truth in something that other people owned before you came along, and that other people will pick up when you’re done with it.”

Where can you find out more about ‘Clyde Water’? 

As a Child ballad, ‘Clyde Water’ also takes the name ‘The Mother’s Malison’. Child noted three places of origin, including a collection of it from “Mrs Brown’s recitation, apparently in 1800”. Reinhard Zierke notes at least five sound recordings of it before Nic Jones’ performance was released on Penguin Eggs in 1980, so it’s not surprising to find that – as Jim Moray says above – what may be the best-known version is an amalgamation of several others.

If anything, this wonderful recording points to the danger of assuming that ‘a folk song’ sung by a performer is an accurate representation of how it may have been in the past. As we’ll see in our forthcoming interview with folk song historian, Steve Roud (check back next week) – and to pick up on Jim Moray’s point – a performance of a folk song in modern times can only ever be a snapshot of something organic and transitory. The chances of it sounding very much like the original are slim indeed.

Find out more about Jim Moray: jimmoray.co.uk

‘Adieu, Adieu’: chosen by Jack Rutter

Roud number: 490

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“My choice of song is ‘Adieu, Adieu’. It got to me first through The Watersons’ album For Pence and Spicy Ale and also Martin Simpson’s album, Kind Letters, both of which I took out from Huddersfield Library in my mid-teens and both of which are still in my top 10 favourite albums of all time.

“I love the tune so much, and throughout the song’s many versions, interpretations and performances (it’s also known as ‘Newlyn Town’, ‘The Flash Lad’, ‘Wild and Wicked Youth’) I really like the chap’s forthrightness when faced with his oncoming execution. It’s one hell of a cinematic song.”

Where can you find out more about ‘Adieu, Adieu’? 

If you’ve been following the British folk scene closely over the last two decades, you’ll already know this song well. It’s something of a modern Greatest Hit – Reinhard Zierke lists at least 15 professional recordings of it since the year 2000 alone.

The sleeve notes to The Watersons’ version describe it as, “The ace and deuce of robber songs”, noting that, “English, Irish and American versions of it abound.” However, it’s Eliza Carthy who sums it up in the most pithy manner, writing in her sleeve notes to Fishes & Fine Yellow Sand, that this is:

“…the story of the tragic Good Time Boy from Newry Town who just robbed a few people who had far too much of everything. Did them a favour really. Less for them to worry their pretty little heads about. And one does what one has to for one’s girl friend who so likes shopping. Sooo likes it…

These songs of terminal regret were literally two a penny in the 17th to 19th centuries. The ballad writers of the time would sell the songs under the gallows just as the unfortunate crime was getting his or her desserts – just or otherwise – right there and right then. Here in its cradle is the modern music industry.”

Find out more about Jack Rutter: jackruttermusic.com

‘Georgie’: chosen by Nicola Kearey (Stick in the Wheel)

Roud number: 90

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“It was so vital sounding – about a place in London. The woman saying, ‘yeah, I’ll take you all on’. It just had a fierceness I could get behind. I first heard Martin Carthy playing it in his garden for the BBC Folk Britannia programme. That is the only version you want.”

Where can you find out more about ‘Georgie’? 

‘Georgie’ (also known as ‘Geordie’) has been recorded by a great number of people, with Nicola Kearey’s version (on the Stick In the Wheel From Here field recordings compilation) perhaps being the most recent. As usual, a comprehensive list of recorded performances can be found on the Mainly Norfolk website, but key versions include those sung by Martin Carthy (as mentioned above), Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Peter Bellamy, A. L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl (at least twice).

While Nicola places her version in London (as do many other singers), approximately 360 entries can be found in the Vaughan Williams Library at Cecil Sharp House relating to this song, with versions having turned up everywhere from London Bridge to Aberdeenshire to Nebraska. Cecil Sharp alone seems to have collected over 20 fragments in places as far flung as Cannington, Somerset, to Villamont, Virginia.

While many singers attribute their version to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of it in East Coker, Somerset (sung to him by a chap named Charles Neville on September 3rd, 1908), A. L. Lloyd felt that it owed its existence to, “several different ballad strains. The ballads in question are a traditional Scottish ballad, the earliest known version dating from the end of the 18th century, and two English broadsides, both of which date from the 17th century.”

As great and robust songs go, it doesn’t get much greater than ‘Georgie’. It’s a marvellous example of one of those wonderfully well-travelled folk songs, able to adapt to most surroundings.

Find out more about Stick in the Wheel: stickinthewheel.com

‘Cariad Cyntaf’: chosen by Ffion Mair of The Foxglove Trio.

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“The traditional Welsh love song Cariad Cyntaf is a great song. The lyrics are powerful (lots of hyperbole about how wonderful a woman is – the song title translates into English as ‘First Love’) and the tune has a lot of passion. It’s short and has an irregularly-lengthed last line. These two things mean there’s plenty of scope to play around with timings and arrangements.

It has a special place in my heart because it was when I heard Julie Murphy and Dylan Fowler’s arrangement of this song on their CD Ffawd that I realised how much you can play around with folk songs/tunes. It’s also a special song for the band – we all played versions of it before we formed and our current arrangement came about by playing two previous arrangements on top of each other! It’s one of our most played songs to this day.”

Ffion also keeps a blog focusing on traditional Welsh songs, their origins, their meanings and the performances of them. On the subject of ‘Cariad Cyntaf’ she writes:

“In the song we hear someone telling his lover that he loves her and that he wants to marry her. It’s a monologue so we don’t get to hear her response. I always tell audiences that they have to guess what her answer was to the question about getting married but that the sad melody gives us a clue. But perhaps it’s not a simple matter of unrequited love – perhaps the girl does love him back but something, such as meddling parents, is going to keep them apart which is why the boy is lovesick and the tune is so mournful.”

Where can you find out more about ‘Cariad Cyntaf’?

Tough question, unless you can speak Welsh (drop me a line on Twitter if you can and you have any information). However, a lovely anecdote concerning this song and the Welsh folk song collector, Ruth Lewis, appears in Phyllis Kinney’s book, Welsh Traditional Music

“In 1909, at the National Eisteddfod of Wales held in London, J. Lloyd Williams gave a lecture on collecting Welsh folk songs, which resulted in tremendous enthusiasm for this aspect of Welsh traditional life. Despite this, some highly regarded Welsh musicians still maintained that everything of value had already been published, and any other folk tunes that might be discovered would prove to be worthless…

Wherever possible, Ruth Lewis tried to find someone who knew the area and could locate suitable people willing to sing into the phonograph. Sometimes, to get them started, her daughter Kitty would sing a few Welsh airs and with patience they got songs from farmers and blacksmiths, weavers and housewives, including some country-dwellers who could only speak Welsh. In this way they collected a number of songs, some of which were published, but many more can be found in her unpublished collections in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, and at the Welsh National History Museum in St Fagans…

‘Y-Cariad Cyntaf’, with words and music from an earlier period, was transcribed from her phonograph recording of the singing of an Aberystwyth van driver.”

Since the auspicious singing of said Aberystwyth van driver, several people have recorded ‘Cariad Cyntaf’, including Bryn Terfel (performed on the Last Night of the Proms, 2008), Meredydd Evans (a great, scratchy old recording), 9Bach, Elin Manahan Thomas and Wyn Pearson. The Foxglove Trio’s version of the song can be found on their 2013 EP, Like Diamond Glances

Find out more about The Foxglove Trio: thefoxglovetrio.wordpress.com

‘The Trees They Grow So High’: Chosen by Ange Hardy

Roud number: 31

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“There are many versions of this song and I love it for that reason. You can really play with the melody as the phrasing lends itself to many styles of singing, and it has enough space in the lyric to allow you to play with your vocal delivery, adding inflections. It’s a fantastic song to learn to sing to.

There is also another side to this song, when you really read into the story. As the Wikipedia entry notes, ‘The subject of the song is an arranged marriage of a young girl by her father to a boy who is even younger than she. There are numerous versions of both the tune and lyrics. In one set of lyrics the groom is twelve when he marries and a father at 13.’ I love songs that tell stories and touch on life experience, songs that evoke your feelings and engage you in your opinions, loyalties and morals.”

Where can you find out more about ‘The Trees They Grow So High’?

As with most English folk songs, it would seem, a Martin Carthy recording is in existence. The sleeve notes to his eponymous debut album suggest that the song is of Scottish origin:

“The Trees They Do Grow High first appeared in print in 1792 under the title Lady Mary Ann and the young man is named as Young Charlie Cochran. In 1824 another version was printed as the Young Laird of Craigs Town with a note attached saying he had been married when very young, and had died shortly afterwards in 1634. There is no real evidence to suggest that the many English versions collected date back to this incident; indeed the ballad may well be older as child marriages of convenience were by no means uncommon in Mediaeval times.”

The English versions that Carthy point to make up a good number of the 334 archived pieces relating to this song that live on the Full English website, with versions taken down by notable collectors, including Henry Hammond and Sabine Baring-Gould.

The recording on our playlist is available on Findings, the 2016 album from Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater.

Find out more about Ange Hardy: angehardy.com

‘Two Constant Lovers’: chosen by Greg Russell

Roud number: 466

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“One of the things I sometimes struggle with, regarding traditional song, is that it can be very hard to associate with – and lyrically enjoy – a song that appears to be about the supernatural. But this song, for me, gets around such barriers, firstly because of its delivery and, secondly, because at its root it is an intriguing and strangely beautiful love song.

Lay two constant lovers with each other’s charms
Rolling over and over in each other’s arms

You see? It’s poetry, and the tune is mighty mighty fine also.”

What do we know about ‘Two Constant Lovers’? 

Greg particularly recommends the version by Peter Knight’s Gigspanner – the song can be heard on their live album, Doors at Eight – and he’s right to. It’s an absolutely beautiful rendition of a heartbreaking song that has enchanted any number of singers down the years.

Listed on the Full English website under Roud number 466, the song has almost as many titles as it does documented renditions. You’ll find it variously titled as ‘The Constant Lovers’, ‘Oh My Love’s Dead’, ‘The Drowned Mariner’, ‘I Will Never Marry’, ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’ and ‘Lover’s Lament for Her Sailor’. There are 190 entries related to the song, and while it was a popular broadside ballad, it was also collected from source singers as far afield as Dorset and Arkansas. It’s safe to say that this watery death ballad has been a pretty big hit for the traditional folk canon, having travelled and toured far and wide.

The Mainly Norfolk website lists this song as being from Sussex, noting that it appeared in The Copper Family Songbook, although – as noted above – it seems to have been born on the wind and scattered at birth. Rosie Hood learnt her recently recorded version from an Alfred Williams publication, and he in turn collected two versions from central England: one from a Mrs Phillips (Burton, Wiltshire), who had it down as the rather blunt ‘My Love’s Dead’, and one from a chap called Henry Potter (Standlake, Oxfordshire), who sang it as the slightly more passive, ‘My Love is Gone’.

Notable recordings of this song have been made by Peggy Seeger (who recorded an American reading of it in 1957 under the title ‘The Lady of Carlisle’ – the title and the nationality of her version only adding to the geo-confusion), Waterson:Carthy (but of course), Jon Boden, and Steeleye Span. At least 12 recordings of it have been released so far this century, so it doesn’t look as though it’s going out of fashion any time soon.

Find out more about Greg Russell: gregrussellfolk.co.uk

‘Bonny Udny’: chosen by Iona Fyfe

Roud number: 3450

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“I heard this song from the singing of Lizzie Higgins and John MacDonald. It is also found in the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection Volume 6 and John Ord’s Bothy Songs and Ballads. The narrative explains his love for Udny as well as his love for his significant other. Udny Green is situated in Aberdeenshire, southwest of Pitmedden. The parish of Udny is made up of Udny Green and Udny Station, which lies on the old Buchan Rail line.

“The song has been sung by source and revivalist singers of the North East of Scotland such as John Strachan, Jane Turriff and John MacDonald. It was also sung by Daisy Chapman, one of the various North East source singers who toured England. Daisy was recorded singing Bonny Udny at the Kings Head Folk Club in London between 1968 and 1970, at the heart of the folksong revival.

“John Mearns stated that the song is, “found in various forms in many parts of the country”. Peter Hall comments: “The theme and form of this song facilitate its attachment to any locality, and versions are known under a variety of names: Yarmouth is a Pretty TownBonny PortmoreThe Boys of Kilkenny.”

“Bonny Udny, to me, highlights the universalism of folksong; the song, carrying the same message – of love for land and women – can be found in Scotland, England and Ireland, linking the British oral tradition. To me, Bonny Udny has all the properties of a lovely short folksong and would serve as a great place for a beginner of any sorts to start.”

What do we know about ‘Bonny Udny’? 

Firstly, thanks to Iona for doing most of my work for me! So much info in a single enthusiastic email – you can spot the singers who also have the scholarly bug a mile off.

So, what is there left for me to add? Only really that ‘Bonny Udny’ also turns up, under the Roud number 3450, a total of 49 times in the Vaughan Williams online library, and that the central word ‘Udny’ is never very far from the title. It seems to be about as geo-located as any folk song gets.

As beautiful as the song is, however, it has been recorded far fewer times than most of the songs that have been suggested for our British folk songs list so far. First taped in Fyvie, Aberdeenshire on July 16, 1951, less than 10 versions have been recorded in the time separating that initial session and Iona Fyfe’s own gorgeous rendition, released on her East collection in 2016.

Find out more about Iona Fyfe: ionafyfe.com

Rufford Park Poachers: chosen by Jimmy Aldridge

Roud number: 1759

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“My choice is ‘Rufford Park Poachers’. I particularly love Nic Jones’ version on the live album Game Set Match

“It’s the perfect song for a newcomer to traditional music because it introduces so many of the themes that (I think) make traditional music engaging. 

“Firstly, it’s just such a great song to listen to – it’s a well-told tale, it has got a powerful chorus, and the melody has a really arresting, edgy sound to it. 

“It’s a warning song. In this case it warns would-be poachers of the dangers of their pursuit, but there are countless other examples in the tradition of songs that caution the listener, using someone’s unfortunate fate to illustrate the message. I suspect there are so many of these songs around because they are perfect for the oral retelling that underpins the whole tradition. 

“As well as being a warning, however, the song is a rallying cry to ‘make a fight for poor men’s rights’. It argues that the buck, doe, pheasant and hare were ‘put on earth for everyone, quite equal for to share.’ For me this is the most engaging aspect of traditional music – it is a people’s history and often an account of the age-old battle against power lying in the hands of the wealthy. At many of the gigs that I play in non-folk venues it is this political messaging that really grabs people, and I think that could be a way for a whole new generation of people to start getting excited about traditional music. 

“And if none of that works, any newcomer who looks up ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ will soon come across Nic Jones, and once that happens there’s no going back!”

What do we know about ‘Rufford Park Poachers’? 

From the extremely well-known to the surprisingly rare. ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ has a grand total of seven reference points documented and stored under Roud catalogue number 1759. It’s so rare, in fact, that it  seems comparatively easy to say where it came from. Collected on August 4, 1906, by Percy Grainger, the song was sung to him by Joseph Taylor, a retired gamekeeper, in Brigg, Lincolnshire. He sang it again a couple of years later (and plenty of times in between, one would assume) into a cylinder recording device, once again for a presumably smitten Percy Grainger, who arranged for it to be released as part of the album, Unto Brigg Fair (1908)

The song, according to sleeve notes by Martin Carthy (and taken here from Mainly Norfolk), originates from, “Rufford Park… not far from Mansfield [where] in 1850 there was a showdown between local people and gamekeepers in the shape of a vicious and bitter fight, after which ringleaders were selected, tried and transported for up to 14 years.”

As far as professional recordings go, even if we count Grainger’s recording of Taylor, it really is slim pickings. Less than 10, and probably closer to five, recordings of note have been made in the 110 years following the song’s collection. These, of course, include Martin Carthy, who has laid it down for posterity on at least three separate occasions, Nic Jones (we’ve put the version recommended Jimmy Aldridge onto our Spotify playlist at the top of this article) and – most recently – Martin Simpson. The video at the top of this section is the original recording of Joseph Taylor, made by Percy Grainger.

Find out more about Jimmy Aldridge: jimmyandsidduo.com

‘Brave Benbow’: chosen by Laura Smyth

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“Sea songs and shanties tend to be a good place to start when learning folk songs – they usually have either great stories or great choruses, or both. And with Britain being an island with a strong naval history, we luckily have a fair few to choose from.

“This song came to our attention when it was praised in A.L. Lloyd’s book, Folk Song in England. It describes a naval battle which took place near Santa Marta, Columbia, between the British and the French during the War of the Spanish Succession. It’s delightfully gory, with Admiral Benbow losing his legs by chain shot and landing on his stumps (a slight over-exaggeration). Despite being mortally wounded, Benbow remained determined to lead his fleet.

“Besides the rousing and beer-swilling story, the song has a simple yet effective tune which is great for trying out harmonies.”

What do we know about ‘Brave Benbow’?

Not to be confused with a completely different folk song with a very similar title (Roud 3141), Roud 227 is – as Laura states – a far more grizzly affair, more concerned with the gruesome details of the brave admiral’s wounds, his subsequent treatment and agonised cries. So far, so folk song…

Unlike Roud 3151, this song has rarely been recorded. In fact, recordings are so far and few between that the only version Spotify seems to have available at the time of writing comes from the computer game, Assassin’s Creed 4 (Great harmonies, plenty of amateur dramatics, reportedly excellent gameplay).

Of the recordings known to be in existence in the non-digital realm, Bob Copper’s version is perhaps the most famous (the internet doesn’t appear to have a recording for us to share). Also predating mp3s is Tundra’s recording (1981) and Cyril Tawney’s offering (1992).

The song appears in numerous old songbooks, but the earliest collection from a source singer seems to have been made in the 1820s by John Clare. It appears to have been fairly well known when the Edwardian folk collectors were doing their rounds, too: Ann Gilchrist collected it from sailor singer called W. Bolton in December, 1905; Cecil Sharp collected it from a Captain Smith (Minehead, Somerset; Jan 13, 1906) and again from Sam Bennett (Ilmington, Warwickshire; Aug 23, 1909), while George Butterworth encountered it in Filby, Norfolk, in April, 1910, as sung by a man who went by the rather wonderful name, Skinny Crow.

Find out more about Laura Smyth: lauranadted.co.uk

‘Rounding the Horn/ The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite’: chosen by Ben Nicholls

Roud number: 301

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“I first heard this song on the Peter Bellamy album, Both Sides Then (an incredible recording with just Bellamy’s voice supported and countered by Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle), then subsequently became interested in trying to work it up to sing myself, with all its sense of adventure around the other side of the world. As I looked into all the sources I could find, both transcriptions and recordings, it became apparent that there really is no definitive version.

“The story of the song is always the same – sailors get ready and make their way round Cape Horn and visit the ladies of Valparaiso – but it has been adapted by the people who sang it to fit their own experience with many dozens of variations, especially with the name of the ship, the port of sailing and melody.

“It’s a great example of one of the things I love about folk music and it was a lesson that looking into this really taught me as a musician: never be too reverential to the material because people who sang these songs never were. They can be used to sing about your own situation and, in doing so, you become part of the song’s journey as you put a bit of yourself into it. It’s almost like you can see evolution at work.”

What do we know about ‘Rounding the Horn/ The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite’?

It would be remiss of us to begin this section without mentioning that Ben Nicholls himself recorded ‘Rounding the Horn‘ as part of The Full English project band in 2013. As joyous as his version is, however, we agree with his recommendation here: Peter Bellamy’s recording of this song is striking, to say the least – an insistent ghostly apparition, hounding you, unseen, through the mist off the ship’s bow. We’ve included it on our Spotify playlist at the top of this article, but we’ve included Louis Killen’s version on the Youtube list, partly because Bellamy’s version isn’t on that platform and partly because it also deserves a decent airing.

Coincidentally, the earliest source-singer collection of this song came via Ann Gilchrist’s affection for the previously mentioned sailor singer, W. Bolton. According to A L Lloyd, she took it down from him in Southport, Lancashire, in 1907, and Lloyd published it in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs

As Ben points out, the song turns up repeatedly under a number of increasingly hand-wringing names, including ‘Loss of the Amphitrite’, ‘The Melancholy Loss of the Amphitrite’, ‘The Melancholy and Dreadful Loss of the Amphitrite’ – all of which suggest a far more mournful song than it actually is. The tale, however, is a folk music masterclass in epic storytelling constrained. As Martin Simpson put it in his sleevenotes accompanying The Bramble Briar (2001), “it is the brevity of folksong which is so astonishing. In six verses this song conveys a novel’s worth of motion and ideas.”

Find out more about Ben Nicholls: kingsofthesouthseas.net

‘Dominion of the Sword’: chosen by David Delarre

Roud number: V3219

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“This is one of the those songs that, the more you listen to it, the better it gets. Its originally from a 17th century war propaganda pamphlet and I love how its original message or moral has been subverted.

This’ll master money,
Though money masters all things,
It is not season to talk of reason.
Never call it loyal when the sword says treason.

“I think those lines still hold up in the 21st century, and that’s what I love to find in traditional song; a message that can still have modern relevance.

“In Martin Carthy’s version it’s paired with a really simple Breton tune. It’s only about fuve notes, and you don’t get to hear if the 6th or 7th degree of the scale is minor or major, so you get this harmonic ambiguity which mirrors the subversion of the original text.

“I first heard Martin sing it when I was about 14. I really liked Oasis and Blur around that time and didn’t appreciate Martin’s fingerpicking stuff. Oh, how that’s changed! But this was completely different to a lot of his stuff. It’s mainly a big strum-fest in an open tuning, so this really appealed to my strum-mad 14-year-old Britpop self!”

What do we know about ‘Dominion Of the Sword’? 

Surprisingly little, it would seem. Despite being a big number in the Martin Carthy catalogue, it has only seven entries in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (Cecil Sharp House) online archive (The Full English). Carthy’s sleevenotes explain that, “it was written in 1649 by an anonymous pamphleteer”, and this reflects what David tells us above. However, the earliest archived entry has it down as being published in 1691, apparently printed under two different titles in a book called Merry Drollery Compleat. It is offered up as ‘Love Lies a Bleeding’ and ‘The Power of the Sword’, neither of which had tunes.

Oddly enough, a similarly titled song (‘Lay By Your Pleading’) then turns up with the same lines in 1719, still without a tune, before resurfacing as a broadside under the title ‘Law Lies a Bleeding’ – this version noted as having the tune to ‘Love Lies a Bleeding’. Somewhere along the line a tune has attached itself, although it’s apparently not the one that Martin Carthy made use of. The mystery deepens further still when another broadside turns up claiming the tune to both ‘Love Lies a Bleeding’ and ‘Law Lies a Bleeding’, but with the rather excellent title, ‘Ignoramus: A New Excellent Song’.

Would the 14-year-old Britpop David Delarre have delighted in it had Carthy retained that title? We’ll never know, but it seems highly likely…

Find out more about David Delarre: daviddelarre.co.uk

‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwyr’: chosen by Geoff Cripps

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“This song comes from the Gwent Heads of the Valleys area – Beaufort, Ebbw Vale in particular. Our singer, Catrin O’Neill, and fiddle player, Alan Cooper, discovered it in a book of old Welsh songs. I have chosen it because, although it may well have been easier to choose one of the great mournful songs for which we Welsh are justly famous, this is an angry workers’ song. In it, the ordinary workers are warning the iron masters that, come judgement day, there will be retribution for their many wrongs against their workforce. In case some of today’s readers think that this may in some way be fanciful, you can still see today in Nantyglo the fortified round tower that the local iron master Crawshay built to protect himself and his family from his own workforce.”

What do we know about ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwyr’? 

Unfortunately, despite a wholehearted attempt, it hasn’t been possible to discover anything about this song. An inability to read and understand Welsh may have something to do with that. If any readers can proffer any info, please let me know in the comments section below and I’ll happily add it in.

One possible side story of note is that Crawshay Bailey, the local iron master that Geoff mentions, was himself the subject of another song – ‘Cosher Bailey’, or ‘Cosher Bailey’s Engine’. This, in turn, is thought to have come from the Welsh song, ‘Hob Y Derri Dando’. However, we’re now straying further from ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithwyr’, so let’s move on quickly before we get even more waylaid.

You can find a version of ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwyr’ on Allan Yn Y Fan’s 2016 album, NEWiD.

Find out more about Geoff Cripps: ayyf.co.uk

‘Broomfield Hill/ The Broomfield Wager’: chosen by Rachael McShane

Roud number: 34

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“My initial enthusiasm about picking one of my favourite folk songs soon turned to a major bout of indecision and dithering. There are so many that I love for different reasons, some that I love singing and (as Jim Moray mentioned about Nic Jones’ version of ‘Clyde Water’) many that I have a favourite version of by a particular singer. In the end I chose a song that has a great story, I love singing it and there are a bunch of great versions to seek out.

“‘Broomfield Hill’ or ‘The Broomfield Wager’ is the story of a man who makes a bet with a young woman that he can meet her and take her virginity, which is pretty dark really. He’s a particularly nasty character but the girl in the song turns out to be a lot cleverer than he is. She puts him to sleep (possibly by drugging him or using some sort of spell), ensures that he knows she’s been there and leaves before he wakes thus winning the bet. In the version I sing he implies he’d have murdered her had she not complied – what a horrible man.”

What do we know about ‘Broomfield Hill/ The Broomfield Wager’

How long have you got? With 237 entries referring to Roud 34 in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, there’s quite a lot that can be said for it. A Child Ballad (he printed six versions), the song was thought by Ewan MacColl to have been written as early as 1549 (when a song called Broom, Broom on Hill was published in The Complaynt of Scotland). However, folk historian, Steve Roud, writes that this connection is unreliable, stating in his New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs that the earliest known publication of the piece was in 1679 when it appeared in London on a broadside. Variations have since been collected as far afield as Bodmin, Ipswich, Aberdeenshire and Cade’s Cove, Tennessee.

The story that Rachael tells us above, however, is much, much older. Francis Child wrote that a very similar narrative is present in Icelandic, Danish and Swedish ballads, and Roud suggests that all of these (including the song) may have been derived from a single source published in Gesta Romanorum (a collection of stories written down in 1300).

In terms of recorded versions, there seem to be few contemporary folk singers who haven’t had a crack at it. Just over 20 versions of it have been recorded over the last 100 years, with a good quarter of them taped in the 21st century. Rachael McShane herself has recorded it twice, once on her 2009 album No Man’s Fool, and once with Bellowhead for their 2010 album, Hedonism

Find out more about Rachael McShane: rachaelmcshane.co.uk

‘Molly Bawn’: chosen by Kerry Andew (You Are Wolf)

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“‘Molly Bawn’ has always been a song that’s tugged at my heart. It’s probably of Irish origin from around the 16th/17th century, but there are other versions in Scotland and England, America, Canada and Australia.

“In the song, a man mistakes his lover for a swan – she is sheltering from the rain under a bush dressed in white – and so he shoots her. She usually appears to him as a ghost to tell her she forgives him. In some versions, she is mistaken for a deer rather than a swan. Its depiction of grief and forgiveness is painfully beautiful.

“The ballad certainly has its roots in more ancient supernatural beliefs, including the Swan Maiden myth, which is found in stories as far apart as Africa, Russia and Korea. It’s also similar to the classical myth of the death of Procris and of Nepheles killing his lover in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.

“I came across a lesser-known version of this story when up in the West Highlands. In ‘The Salen Swan’, the mother of the man is so jealous of Molly that she turns her into a swan. As he shoots her, she falls out of her enchantment and he sees that he has killed his lover. He wanders the loch, distraught, and thinks he can hear her calling to him, so throws himself into the water. I weaved this story version into my own arrangement, ‘Swansong’, on my first You Are Wolf album. The song/story stayed with me so much that I ended up developing it into my first novel, also called Swansong. I love how folk songs have many different versions – they live – and so tell the story in two different ways that intertwine.

“The song tugs at others’ hearts, too. The singer Sam Lee, when he is on his song-collecting missions, always asks the singer whether they have a version of it. There’s a gorgeous illustrated book of it by Owen Gent that sits on my desk that I sigh at occasionally. And there are plenty of versions to listen to – I first heard Alison Krauss and the Chieftains sing it, and then Alasdair Roberts. Both he and Sam told me to listen to Packie Manus Byrne’s unadorned version of it, and that’s been my favourite ever since.”

What do we know about ‘Molly Bawn’

Correction: what do we know about ‘Molly Bawn’ that Kerry hasn’t already told us? Not terribly much (thanks Kerry!) other than that it goes under a good number of names.

As Kerry notes, its popularity means that it has been collected here, there and everywhere – 254 entries appear on the VWML website – and it has been known variously as ‘The Fowler’ (Yarmouth, Norfolk), ‘Polly Vaughan’ (Kentucky, USA), ‘Molly Varden’ (Woodbridge, Suffolk), ‘Molly Whan’ (London broadside), ‘Molly Bawn’ (Tulla, Country Clare), ‘Molly Vaunder’ (Richie Country, West Virginia), ‘Peggy Baun’ (Aberdeenshire) and even ‘Johnnie Randle’ (Poplarville, Mississippi). I could go on…

What interests me about the recorded versions of this song is the fact that we have so many recordings from source singers. Harry Cox, Elizabeth Cronin, Walter Pardon, Phoebe Smith… many of them on The Voice of the People series released by Topic Records. I’ve put them in a Spotify playlist above, along with the Packie Manus Byrne version that Kerry Andrew speaks so highly of, and a handful of more contemporary interpretations.

Find out more about Kerry Andrew: kerryandrew.tumblr.com

‘Lofty Tall Ship’: chosen by Martin Carthy

Roud number: 104

What makes this one of the best traditional folk songs?

“Gosh, this question’s hard. [Thinks in silence for about five minutes.]

“I’ll have to think about this one. [Thinks in silence for another five minutes. ‘Brothers In Arms’ by Dire Straits rumbles onto the pub stereo, plods about a bit, and then rumbles off into the distance.]

[Suddenly, decisively] “I like the version I recorded with Waterson:Carthy. It’s personal to me. It told me that I wasn’t ready to sing that song until I was a guitarist first, and then also a singer. Swarb didn’t record this song, but he really knew it, and one of the things that Swarb really did was turn fiddlers onto songs. Eliza has done the same, and Chris Wood (although he plays the guitar these days), and Nancy Kerr. The idea that you can sing to the fiddle, that’s a wonderful thing and it really sets us [folkies] apart from the rest of the music scene.”

In my previous interview with Martin Carthy, he says the following about this song:

“Here’s something I hear all the time: “What 17-year-old is going to be excited by folk music?” Well, hello! This fucking 17-year-old was blown away by Sam Larner. He wasn’t a pretty singer, but his passion was something else. And the melodies he sang… This has become like a beacon for me, but he sang ‘Lofty Tall Ship’. Ewan made sure it was the last song that he sang. It was theatrically brilliant – a masterstroke.

“I’ve said this a million times, but I walked away from that place with that tune in my head, and I just thought, “You can’t sing a tune like that. That’s nonsense, that tune.” So I sang it a bit more, asking myself, “What kind of a tune is that?!” I recognised that he always landed [smacks hands together] on doh. Now, if the only tunes you were used to were [sings], “Oh, no John, no John…” – one of those very simple, very easy tunes – and that’s your experience of folk song and that’s what you think it is, then, oh boy, are you in for a surprise!”

What do we know about ‘Lofty Tall Ship’

There are just over 300 references to the song on the VWML website, with many versions collected under the name ‘Henry Martin’ and a few under the name ‘Sir Andrew Barton’. (Interestingly, while Steve Roud assigned all of these versions the same number, Roud 104, legendary folksong collector, Cecil Sharp, felt that ‘Henry Barton’ and ‘Sir Andrew Barton’ were actually unrelated.)

Just to add to the confusion, the story refers to a merchant called John Barton, whose ship was attacked and plundered by a Portuguese vessel. Barton’s sons (Andrew, Robert and John) were given ‘letters of reprisal’, which Andrew reacted to creatively (shall we say) and took as an excuse to turn reprisal into all-out piracy, taking on many other ships from the Portuguese fleet as well as pretty much anyone who got in his way. In notes put together for a Ewan MacColl album, we’re told that, “Sir Andrew was a fierce man, who sent three barrels of salted Flemish pirates’ heads as a present to King James IV in 1506.” Eventually, Andrew was caught and beheaded himself, and his bonce was displayed back in London as a warning to anyone else who suddenly found themselves similarly power-crazed.

MacColl wrote that the inevitable ballad that grew out of this tale was a full 82 verses long (if there’s any folk singer to take on that particular challenge, it’s surely Martin Carthy), but this trimmed itself down as it travelled from singer to singer, from town to town, in the way that so many folk songs had a tendency to do.

Later versions of the song were collected by Henry Hammond (Dorset, 1906), Lucy Broadwood (Sussex, 1894), Percy Grainger (Lincolnshire, 1908) and Cecil Sharp (Somerset, 1906). Martin Carthy heard Sam Larner singing it at Ewan MacColl’s club in 1958, which is around the time that Philip Donnellan visited the old fisherman at his home in Winterton, Norfolk, to record it. It can be heard on the 1974 album, A Garland for Sam

For the record, Martin then spent another 10 minutes wondering whether he should have included ”The Cruel Ships Carpenter” (specifically the version sung by Mike Waterson), ‘Byker Hill‘ and ‘A Sailor’s Life‘, before returning to ‘Lofty Tall Ship’. I’ve added each of them to the Spotify playlist at the top of this page.

Find out more about Martin Carthy: Wikipedia

As always, this article couldn’t have been written without extensive research from the ever-wonderful Mainly Norfolk website

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