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May songs
Photo credit: Siim Lukka/Unsplash

The best traditional May songs, as chosen by traditional singers

Which are the best traditional May songs to kickstart your summer? We asked some of our favourite singers for their recommendations.

May songs are, in the folk tradition, about as important as Christmas carols… if not more so. If you were to rove out one May morning and set your Google Maps for the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, home of English traditional songs, you’d find 4,799 entries referring to the subject. By comparison, you’d find only 3,752 referring to Christmas. Yes indeedy, folkies love their traditional May songs, and no mistake.

For those new to traditional folk music, we thought we’d continue our own tradition of asking professional folk singers to point us in the direction of their favourite May songs. In the past, we’ve done this with favourite folk songs in general and traditional Christmas songs, and it seems to be a popular way of exploring what is clearly a vast archive.

The list below contains 10 songs, chosen by 10 different musicians, followed by a Spotify playlist. Each musician has gone into depth on why they love their chosen song, and any historical context they might be able to provide for it.

It’s a big one, so make sure you’re prepared. Pull up an armchair, pour yourself a pint of tea, strap on your ear-goggles and let the Maying commence.

Included in this list…

Hal-an-Tow: chosen by Angeline Morrison

Of all the many May songs, I find this one of the most thrilling and magical

Angeline Morrison

Roud number: 1520

What’s interesting about ‘Hal-an-Tow’?

Flora or Furry Day – from the Cornish ‘fer’, meaning feast or festival – is a glorious ancient custom that celebrates the death of winter and the rebirth of spring in the ancient town of Helston, Cornwall. On or around May 8th each year, there is dancing, merrymaking and an abundance of flowers, blossoms and greenery. Floral head-dresses, wreaths and garlands are everywhere, and it’s customary for the dancers, musicians and other Helstonians to wear a lily of the valley, the symbolic flower of of the town. There’s a code to this. Men traditionally wear theirs on the left lapel, with the flowers pointing towards the sky. For women, it’s the right, and the flowers point towards the earth. There is also a children’s dance, where over one thousand local kids dance through the town, all dressed in white and adorned with flowers and greenery. 

Furry Day begins with the early-morning dance, in which dancers weave through the streets and in and out of houses and shops. This is followed by the amazing Hal-an-Tow, a sort of folk play or pageant, featuring characters such as St George, a Dragon, St Michael (May 8th is the Feast of the Apparition of Archangel Michael), Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and a host of others. One of the most renowned features of the Hal-an-Tow is its mysterious, rousing, ancient May song. The song’s exact origins are unknown, but an early written reference to it exists in a 1790 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Local history can be found in the lyrics; the traditional song mentions the 1595 Spanish raid on Newlyn, and in 2005 a verse was added in honour of St Piran, Patron Saint of Cornwall. 

Why have you chosen this song?

The mighty Watersons recorded their version of ‘Hal-an-Tow’ on their 1965 album, Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs. Differing from the version sung in Helston, The Watersons’ Hal-an-Tow is a gorgeous example of the folk process in action. Mike Waterson, with his genius for songmaking, composed an opening verse:

Since man was first created
His works have been debated
We have celebrated
The coming of the spring

The next verse, inspired by a passage in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, is also an addition – though there seems to be some lively debate about exactly who added it, and when. The Watersons’ ‘Hal-an-Tow’ features in Travelling for a Living, the compelling 1966 documentary about their life on the road. Of all the many May songs, I find this one of the most thrilling and magical. 

Suggested recording: The Watersons – Frost and Fire

Listen to our Old Songs Podcast episode on ‘Hal-an-Tow’ here. Find out more about Angeline Morrison on her Bandcamp page.

Lisbon: chosen by Jim Moray

Why wouldn’t you want to be part of traditional music if it could sound like that?

Jim Moray

Roud number: 551

Why did you choose this song?

The recording of ‘Lisbon’ by June Tabor on the album Ashes and Diamonds was an extremely important part of my folk journey in the mid-late 90s. Backed by a droning synth part – keyboard player Dave Bristow was actually a demonstrator for Yamaha and wrote the presets for the DX7, favourite of Brian Eno and possibly the best selling synth of the 80s – June’s highly ornamented early singing style is in full effect. It’s a great example of how to accompany what is effectively an a cappella performance without interfering with the timing or the tonality. But most of all, it’s a use of electronic instruments that avoids being gimmicky – the synth isn’t the focus. It sounds alternately like a hurdy gurdy, bagpipe drones, a harpsichord and a chapel organ but, somehow, better than any of those instruments. It reminds me of the sound on the theme tune to The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. Why wouldn’t you want to be part of traditional music if it could sound like that?

What is interesting about ‘Lisbon’?

‘Lisbon’ is connected to May only by its first line: “It was on one Whitsun Wednesday, the fourteenth day of May”, but it follows the template for the standard “woman says she’ll dress as a sailor to follow her boyfriend on board a ship while he tries to dissuade her” plot. It was collected by both Cecil Sharp in Somerset, and Percy Grainger in Lincolnshire at roughly the same time.

Recommended recording: June Tabor – Ashes and Diamonds

Find out more about Jim Moray on his website.

Padstow May Song: chosen by Debbie Armour (Burd Ellen)

It’s like a worn stone step or the shiny part of a bronze statue rubbed for luck

Debbie Armour

Roud number: 305

Why have you chosen this song?

I’ve chosen the ‘Padstow May Song’ for many reasons. Being Scottish, we do May Day slightly differently, so the adventures of the Obby Oss all the way down at the end of the world in Cornwall have always seemed so exotic and magical to me. I’m fascinated by the part that’s sung as the Oss rests…

Oh, where is Saint George?
Oh, where is he, oh?
He’s out in his long-boat, all on the salt sea, oh.
Up flies the kite, down falls the lark, oh.
Aunt Ursula Birdhood, she has an old ewe,
And she died in her own park, oh.

What’s interesting about the ‘Padstow May Song’?

There is so much shaping by the hands that have touched it over the centuries of repetition, it’s like a worn stone step or the shiny part of a bronze statue rubbed for luck. The 2007 flyer handed out in the village says, “There is reason to believe that the ancient British people had a settlement near the harbour mouth at Padstow and that the Obby Oss is a link with them and their times – four thousand years ago”, which just blows my mind. It’s also a significant part of much newer traditions, being a song that’s closely associated with May Day workers’ rights marches.

Suggested recording: If you want the best version, go to the source! But in case you can’t quite make it to Cornwall, I’d recommend the glorious British Pathe film from 1932 [see above].

Find out more about Debbie Armour and Burd Ellen on their website.

Mae’r Ddaear yn Glasu: chosen by Cynefin

The veneration of spring and the bursting forth of life, seem more relevant than ever

Owen Shiers

Why have you chosen this song?

I’ve chosen ‘Mae’r Ddaear yn Glasu’ (The Earth is Greening) because it’s the first May Carol that I learnt. I also find a lot of resonance in the sentiment of the words, which, with the veneration of spring and the bursting forth of life, seem more relevant than ever. This is particularly the case in the last verse, which basically says that the bountiful earth and its treasure would be more than enough to feed us all if we all got along a bit better and loved each other a bit more.

What’s interesting about ‘Mae’r Ddaear yn Glasu’?

The song was written by Ioan ab Hywel (from Glangwili near Carmarthen) probably around the end of the 18th century. The rhythm is the ancient bardic measure of ‘tri thrawiad’ (three beats, although it’s in 4/4). The same rhythm can be heard in the Mari Lwyd tune around the old New Year and has a real processional feel to it – you can see how it works, particularly if you speed it up a bit. You can certainly imagine people strolling around the village, going door to door, singing it in their bonnets on May Day.

Suggested recording: Siwsann George – Traditional Songs of Wales

Find out more about Cynefin/Owen Shiers on his website.

As I Roved Out: chosen by Janice Burns & Jon Doran

I was initially put off by the “As I roved out on a bright May morning”, introduction and wrote it off as a pastoral folksong cliché

Janice Burns

Roud number: 3479

Why did you choose this song?

This is one of the songs Jon absorbed throughout his childhood from his dad’s Planxty collection. It was only recently that we’ve traced it back to its roots and began singing our own version of it. I was initially put off by the “As I roved out on a bright May morning”, introduction and wrote it off as a pastoral folksong cliché, but was then won round by the ambiguity of the last verse, which didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the song. Through exploring the song’s various meanings I started to connect with the feelings of unpredictability and regret in the story.

What’s interesting about ‘As I Roved Out’?

The version of the song that we sing was collected by Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle from Paddy Tunney’s mother, Brigid Tunney, in County Fermanagh, 1953. The title of the song even became the name of a 1950s BBC radio production that focused on collecting and broadcasting source recordings from all over Britain and Ireland. In Paddy Tunney’s recording, he describes the state of Ireland at the time to justify the protagonist’s decision of betraying his true love in favour of a more wealthy woman. It’s possible that the song originates from the reign of Queen Anne in the early 18th Century, as the final verse lines up historically with the movements of the British army at the time. It’s likely, however, that this out-of-character verse doesn’t belong to the song at all and is actually a floating verse that at some point has found its way in via the folk process.

This is an immensely popular ballad but before delving into any contemporary arrangements of the song, we’d urge anyone to listen to Paddy Tunney, the man who made it a classic. As well as being a brilliant singer, Tunney was an exceptionally skilled storyteller; the sensitivity and understanding in his delivery without doubt places this recording among the finest performances of Irish traditional song.

Suggested recording: Paddy Tunney – The Man of Songs

Find out more about Janice Burns & Jon Doran on their website.

The Bold Fisherman: chosen by George Sansome

It contains the word, “hangdangling”. Glorious.

George Sansome

Roud number: 291

What’s interesting about ‘The Bold Fisherman’?

Like lots of trad songs, this one starts with the classic “As I walked out one May morning…” line. I first came across it in a book called The Crystal Spring, a selection of songs collected by Cecil Sharp and edited by Maud Karpeles. John Fackrell, aged 75, sang it to Cecil Sharp in Bridgwater, Somerset on 5th April 1907. What particularly drew me in was the song’s lovely flowing 5/4 melody, and I was really taken by the succinct yet moving way the story is told.

Why did you choose this song?

It was a song I’d not heard before so I was really excited to take it off the page and sing it out. When I did, however, about three people came up to me afterwards and said, “ah yes people used to sing that one to death in the seventies. I’ve not heard it for a while but you’ve reminded me how much I hated it back then…”

Regardless, there are dozens of wonderful recordings of this out there (from the seventies too – including Walter Pardon and Shirley Collins), but as a starting point you can’t beat the Young Tradition’s unaccompanied three-part harmony recording. Especially as it contains the word, “hangdangling”. Glorious.

Suggested recording: The Young Tradition – The Young Tradition

Find out more about George Sansome on his website.

May Song: chosen by Nick Hart

Is this a rather heavy-handed attempt to shoe-horn some religion into an otherwise secular tradition? We will never know

Nick Hart

Roud number: 305

Why did you choose this song?

Ever the opportunist, I’m going to select as my offering the first track from my own recently released album, Ten English Folk Songs. I have used the title ‘May Song’ for it, but it goes by many others and might be more usefully referred to as ‘The Cambridgeshire May Carol’.

What’s interesting about ‘May Song’?

It has been collected many times in Cambridgeshire and neighbouring counties and my recording is a hybrid of two similar versions. The melody and some of the words come from the village of Fowlmere in South Cambridgeshire, where they were collected from a Mr. ‘Hoppy’ Flack by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1907, with additional text coming from the Essex village of Debden, 15 miles to the south east. In both locations the song was used to accompany the charming old May Day tradition of delivering bunches of May (hawthorn) around the locality in expectation of some kind of reward.

I’m normally one to shrink away from any mention of the pagan roots of our folk traditions, largely because of how hard it is to make solid claims about any of it. However, even if you do not believe these customs to be pre-Christian, they are certainly not a part of the liturgical calendar, so it is interesting to note how much stern Christian religiosity there is in the text. Is this an instance of religious syncretism? Is it a rather heavy-handed attempt to shoe-horn some religion into an otherwise secular tradition? We will never know of course, and that may be why I like it so much.

Suggested recording: Nick Hart – Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs

Find out more about Nick Hart on his website.

May Morning Dew: chosen by Johnny Campbell

This is a song about loss, with a healthy tally of deaths. Perfect.

Johnny Campbell

Roud number: 5405

Why have you chosen this song?

I first heard this song sung by Kevin Conneff on The Chieftains album, Water From the Well, which is about as ‘Trad’ as you get from their later records. The Chieftains were famed for a lot of their collaboration albums but this one is about as pure as it can come and I love it. ‘May Morning Dew’ is one of those songs that, when you hear the first notes of the melody, encourages the listener to stop what they’re doing and pay attention. Some songs can do that straight away and I’ve always been drawn to those kinds of songs. I guess most songs about the ‘Month of May’ tend to lean towards rebirth as a theme but this is a song about loss, with a healthy tally of deaths. Perfect.

What’s interesting about ‘May Morning Dew’

A relatively rare song in the Irish canon, with only 15 sightings in the wild, mainly down the West coast of the country. Many modern folk singers cite their source as the singing of Paddy Tunney, recorded in 1965. Paddy also said he’d heard it sung by Mandy Gallagher of Tullagh.

Recommended recording: The Chieftains – Water from the Well

Find out more about Johnny Campbell on his website.

Staines Morris: chosen by Henry Parker

‘Staines Morris’, is a white handkerchief meets valve amp stomp and dance through the English countryside

Henry Parker

Roud number: V18894

Why have you chosen this song?

I would have to pick ‘Staines Morris’, a rousing chorus song to lead you to the merry dance: “Then to the Maypole haste away, for ‘tis now our holiday”. 

I found this song on a recommendation from a friend, someone who shares the same passion for folk traditions and albums recorded for Witchseason Productions. Comedian Matt Berry also has a strong liking for Morris On, where I first heard this song, and you can see why. With an album cover featuring a cross-dressing Barry Dransfield, Ashley Hutchings clutching a Gibson Flying V, and Richard Thompson posing with a crossbow, dressed in tights, the whole package is an essential timepiece from the folk-rock heyday.

What’s interesting about ‘Staines Morris’?

The song came into being as a pairing of separately written words and melody, brought together by William Chappel in his 1855 book, Popular Music of the Olden Time. The tune comes from the well-loved book The English Dancing Master [1651] by John Playford while the words were taken from the play, Actæon and Diana, written in 1656 and containing ‘The Maypole Song’ from which Chappel took the words to create ‘Staines Morris’.

Martin Carthy was perhaps the first (as ever) to bring this song into the 20th Century with a recording on his duo album Prince Heathen with Dave Swarbrick [1969]. He described the song’s resurrection as a collaboration between himself, Cyril Tawny, The Yetties and Frankie Armstrong. 

The definitive version however, as far as I’m concerned, comes from the aforementioned album, Morris On [1972], by the folk-rock super-group of the same name, featuring a lineup of Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Barry Dransfield, John Kirkpatrick and Dave Mattacks, plus Shirley Collins on guest vocals. Recorded for Joe Boyd at Island, the whole album, and in particular ‘Staines Morris’, is a white handkerchief meets valve amp stomp and dance through the English countryside. Put simply, this kind of rock-meets-trad-meets-misguided-pre-industrial-vision-of-Albion couldn’t be more up my street.

Opening with four brooding minor chords bearing the distinct sound of Richard Thompson’s Fender Strat, the song then alternates between pastoral verses led by Collins’s sweet voice of the primroses, and a juxtaposing chorus driven by a 4/4 pub rock groove from Mattacks, along with the baritone vocals of the male band members. Nice.

Suggested recording: Morris On – Morris On

Find out more about Henry Parker on his website.

The Queen of May: chosen by Bryony Griffith

You can hear the season in the air and feel that the sun’s out, but it’s too big a risk not to take your big coat

Bryony Griffith

Roud number: 594

Why have you chosen this song?

I love May Day and May songs. The imagery conjured up in them of gallivanting about, bleary-eyed in the May morning dew with a sprig of May blossom stuck behind your ear all seems very ‘Merry England’, but if you celebrate May Day, that’s kind of how it feels. It’s usually one of the first crisp Spring days where you suddenly realise you can hear the season in the air and feel that the sun’s out, but it’s too big a risk not to take your big coat.

I’ve been gathering May Songs for the last 15 years to arrange for Shepley Singers, who always perform at Shepley Spring Festival in May, so it’s been tricky choosing just one. The ‘Mobberley May Song’ from ace Cheshire singer Roy Clinging is a corker, as are the various May Day carols, with ’tis nothing but a sprout, but it’s well budded out’ being a favourite line of mine. But, rather than the rousing choruses, I’ve plumped for the more serene and sentimental Yorkshire version of ‘The Queen of the May’ from the Frank Kidson collection.

I stumbled across it by accident in 2014 while exploring the newly digitised ‘Full English’ collection on the VWML site. I was actually searching for coal mining songs from Yorkshire when this song popped up from a Mr Hargreaves of Pontefract. Not just a Yorkshire May Song, but a really good one. If you share my fascination with local folk songs, you’ll appreciate the spine-tingling elation of finding such a song. There was no recording, but a quick hum through Frank Kidson’s hand-written dots revealed a beautiful tune that I’d never heard before (though I must admit to having made a few adjustments in my own arrangement). It glides through major and minor passages, climaxing with a glorious descending scale of over an octave. The lyrics are poetic but simple – just your average Johnny Ploughboy courting an initially dismissive milkmaid – but a subtle turn after the implicit love-making scene, changes the narrative from ‘I’ to ‘we’, and the two separate characters become united, leading to the archetypal next-day wedding. Not my usual kind of repertoire, but it’s romantically soppy without being too sickly.

What’s interesting about ‘The Queen of the May’?

Frank Kidson collected the song from Mr Hargreaves on May 6th, 1908. Contrary to other collectors at the time, Frank was a stickler for notating the tunes, but as demonstrated in his hand-written notes from the visit, he didn’t always include all the verses and only wrote out the first verse, then “four more very pretty verses”. Thankfully, the rest were available in his Broadside collection, printed by Hodges of London who were active in the 1850s. It also appears in Kidson’s A Garland of English Folk-songs, printed in 1926, with piano arrangements by Alfred Moffat. Oddly, the tune has been ‘majorised’ and has lost much of its charm. I did wonder if I had misread the original tune, with its 6 flats in the key signature, but even if I had, I prefer it that way. I could ramble on all night, but there’s a load more information ​about the various versions on the always-trustworthy Mainly Norfolk website.

Find out more about Bryony Griffith on her website.

The Best Traditional May Songs playlist

We’ve put together a playlist of these songs on Spotify, where possible. A few of them were either not available by the recommended performers, so we’ve offered alternative versions where necessary. Take a listen, though. You might find a few traditional May songs you’ve never heard before. The summer is icumen in and winter’s gone away, oh!