Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

David Morrissey and Robert Glenister star in the BBC's Sherwood, which used traditional mining songs as a soundtrack

Which traditional songs were used in the BBC’s Sherwood?

As the BBC drama, Sherwood, comes to an end, we investigate the old songs -sometimes traditional - that peppered the soundtrack.

Sherwood has been the talk of the town these past three weeks. The BBC’s crime drama, set in a former mining community in the leafy outer glades of Sherwood Forest, has been a regular Twitter trend, and we’ve spotted questions (however fleeting) concerning the programme’s soundtrack. Each week, the final credits rolled over a different folk song, most of which appeared – on the briefest of listens – to be traditional.

So we thought we’d take a closer look. Rest assured, we’ve tried very hard to keep the spoilers at bay.

Episode 1

You’ll have heard the decidedly non-trad strains of Nik Kershaw and Franz Ferdinand during this episode, but as Adam Hugill fired another arrow in anger and the screen faded to black, it was the Ian Campbell Folk Group’s version of ‘Blackleg Miners’ [Roud 3193] that played us out.

Despite being a very well-known traditional song, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library only has four records of the song in their archives, three of which are to do with Bert Lloyd’s book, Come All Ye Bold Miners: Ballads & Songs of the Coalfields (1952). Indeed, a thread on the Mudcat website discusses the notion that songs such as this one may have owed more to Lloyd himself than to tradition.

A ‘blackleg miner’ was Victorian slang for the labourers who were brought into mining communities as strikebreakers or ‘scabs’ (a term familiar to Sherwood viewers). According to the sleevenotes for The Iron Muse (1963 – also written by Lloyd), “When caught, the blacklegs might be stripped and the clothes and tools thrown down the pit shaft. In the dark, a rope might be stretched across the way to catch the non-union man by the throat and fling him down.”

The Ian Campbell group recorded their version for their 1965 album, Coaldust Ballads, noting that, “No collection of miners’ songs would be complete without this song, which was so typical of the militant miners’ attitude to the non-union man.”

Episode 2

Episode 2 of Sherwood came to a dramatic end with Adeel Akhtar’s Andy standing trembling in the kitchen, and it was the Ian Campbell Folk Group that arrived, once again, to tuck you in for the night.

While not strictly a traditional song, ‘Drunken Bella Roy’ dates back to the first half of the 19th century. The words were written by the legendary blind fiddler, Robert Nunn (1808-1853), a man who was said to have lost his sight and some of his fingers in a roofing accident. Despite his misfortunes, he was known for his camaraderie – contemporary accounts say that, “No party of the kind was considered complete without ‘Bobby’ and his fiddle.” Not that his lyrics suggest a merry temperament. He was also responsible for ‘The Sandgate Dandling’, a dark and sinister song that Cilla Black later made popular as ‘The Liverpool Lullaby’.

The tune to the version of ‘Drunken Bella Roy’ sung by the Ian Campbell Group was not the original. According to the sleevenotes for Coaldust Ballads, Campbell himself composed this ditty.

Episode 3

As Andy hightails it into the woods, the Ian Campbell Folk Group cranks up again with another Coalside Ballads number, ‘Geordie Black’ [Roud 3507]. Again, Bert Lloyd’s influence can be felt, although the song is registered three times in the VWML archive – once as having been collected by Lloyd himself from the singing of Peter Elliott in Birley, County Durham, on July 31st, 1963, and once as part of a book called Allan’s Tyneside Songs (1891).

Writing in the album sleevenotes, Campbell stated that the lyrics were by, “the Gateshead comedian, Rowland Harrison, in 1872”. This song also lacked a tune, the original melody having been lost to the mists of time, so the band had to provide their own. “Dave Swarbrick came to our aid with a fragment of a half-remembered strathspey, of which he was unable to recall the name, and I played around with it until it fitted the words. On this track, Dave is playing the twelve-stringed guitar. He is a useful lad to have around.”

Episode 4

As David Morrissey stares from his patio doors, his brow furrowed in lovelorn confusion, Ian Campbell and his merry band sneak around the back of Dickie Valentine’s ‘The Finger of Suspicion’ and break out their recording of ‘The Apprentice’s Song’.

Again, not a traditional song (although the tune has a hymnal quality), this was written by Campbell himself in the early 1960s and was a popular singalong at his Jug O’Punch folk club in Birmingham around the same time. Rather than being about miners, this song is about gas workers.

Episode 5

Onscreen, a Sherwood love story plays out across the decades and Irma Thomas brings things to a shocking climax with her soul classic, ‘I Need Your Love So Bad’. As the tension reaches a crescendo – you guessed it – the Ian Campbell Folk Group make their presence known. We’re back on familiar ground with another song from Coalside Ballads, but this one has a considerably larger footprint down at the VWML.

‘Down in the Coalmine’ [Roud 3502] has 83 entries, many associated with publications from the early 1870s, one or two connected with the song collectors Frank Kidson and Sabine Baring-Gould. Interestingly, the song seems to have lived a more vibrant life in the United States. Only four locations in the UK match up with the song – Doncaster, Neath, Copthorne, and Hambridge – it was one of the first songs that Cecil Sharp collected from Louie Hooper and Lucy White in 1903. The remainder spread from Nova Scotia to Salt Lake City, never dipping any further south than Tennessee.

However, the sleevenotes to Coalside Ballads have Joseph Bryan Geoghegan as the composer of ‘Down in the Coalmine’. Geoghegan (1816-1889) was a music hall singer and entertainer from Salford, known mainly for the creation of children (he reportedly fathered 21) and songs. Whether he composed these songs or performed them regularly is not entirely clear. A list of his ‘compositions’ on the Mudcast website suggest that he was known for a number of songs which are fairly standard in folk club repertoires. It’s possible that he was responsible for some of them, though ‘John Barleycorn’ – associated with Geoghegan – was certainly older.

Episode 6 of Sherwood ended without a performance from Ian Campbell’s Folk Group, opting instead for dramatic soundtrack music.