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Fern Maddie stands in her kitchen with an acoustic guitar, promoting the traditional fold song, 'Hares on the Mountain'

Hares on the Mountain, a version by Fern Maddie

On Friday, Fern Maddie releases her version of 'Hares on the Mountain' [Roud 329] on Friday. We asked her to tell us about her arrangement and her relationship to this traditional folk song.

We first became aware of Fern Maddie in autumn, 2021, when a reader recommended we listen to her North Branch River EP. Struck by the paired-down sound of her banjo and plaintive vocal, we fell in love with the title track, but we were equally intrigued by her Americana arrangements of traditional British ballads – songs that travelled long ago, but now found themselves in the deep, North Vermont woods where her cabin stands. We soon found her on Instagram, and were amazed to see that her living environment – a tiny house, seemingly miles from anywhere, that she shares with goats, dogs and old-timey instruments – was as starkly beautiful as the music she makes in it.

We kept in touch, aware that she had a new album brewing. And then, earlier this week, she dropped us a line saying that her new single – a recording of ‘Hares on the Mountain’ [Roud 329] was ready and coming out on Friday via her Bandcamp page, followed by a video on March 11th, both preceding her album, Ghost Story, which will arrive on May 1st. We’ll be giving that video its debut next Friday on our own Instagram channel, and on this website.

‘Hares on the Mountain’ by Fern Maddie is out now. Follow the link in this Bandcamp widget to get your copy.

We knew from the VWML archive that ‘Hares on the Mountain’ had been collected plenty of times across the South West of England, London, the Midlands, and East Anglia, but only six times in the US (mainly West Virginia), so we asked Fern Maddie to tell us a bit about her relationship with the song, where she first heard it, how she arranged it, and what to expect from the new album. She responded with a wonderful little essay, which you can read below.

Make sure you follow the Fern Maddie Bandcamp page so that you’re notified when the song is released on Friday. You can also find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube.

Fern Maddie explains ‘Hares on the Mountain’

Hares on the Mountain [Roud 329]
Louie Hooper sang 'Hares on the Mountain' to Cecil Sharp in September, 1903, in Hambridge, Somerset. Sharp collected it again twice more in the West Country, and collections were also made in Dorset from Marina Russell by George Gardiner. Maud Karpeles, who had previously accompanied Sharp in the Appalachians, collected a version from Horton Barker in Chilhowie, Virginia, 1950. Shirley Collins brought the song to a wider audience when it appeared on her debut album, Sweet England, in 1959, and again with guitarist Davy Graham on Folk Roots, New Routes in 1964.
My entry point to the traditional song, ‘Hares on the Mountain’, was actually a different song entirely: ‘Rock Salt and Nails’ by Utah Phillips. This is an angry, broken-hearted sort of love song, and it was one of the first songs in my repertoire when I started playing gigs. But some of the lyrics always stuck in my throat when I was performing it.

At the end of the song, he sings, “If the ladies were blackbirds and the ladies were thrushes, I’d lie there for hours in the chilly cold marshes. If the ladies were squirrels with high bushy tails, I’d fill up my shotgun with rock salt and nails.” This always felt very violent and angry to me, as well as being gendered in a hard way, and I’ve since learned that Phillips also didn’t love singing it for that same reason. But it wasn’t until later that I realised this was a motif from an older folk song.

I’m not even sure which version of ‘Hares on the Mountain’ I heard first, but when I discovered that song, I really ran with it and listened to as many different interpretations as I could so as to carve out my own version. I’ve mostly taken the tune from Shirley Collins’ rendition, but I’ve chosen the route of using both the male and female subjects in the lyrics, because that was the story I wanted to tell.

Obviously, ‘Hares on the Mountain’ is often framed as a courtship song, but for me, it’s also a story about violence. Specifically, about the risk of violence that comes with courtship, and the people who bear the greatest burden of that risk. And although the song uses gendered language, it also encompasses so many different images from the natural world, and I think most people can find something to identify with there. I did write one additional verse that’s not in the traditional record, about sheep and burning tallow, so I am hereby at fault for “meddling.” 

I’d been playing the song for over a year or so, arranged on the banjo, but when it came time to record, I re-arranged it with the guitar as the baseline. It was really fun to build a tapestry of instrumentation on top of that with the help of my co-producer, Colin McCaffrey. In the end, it’s become something akin to a dark country murder ballad. 

This is one of the most complete creative projects I’ve managed. From the song itself to the music video to the art, I’ve really tried to bring together a vision of what this song means to me and, ultimately, what folk music means to me and how I relate to it, as a fusion of personal and historical storytelling. 

The rest of the Ghost Story album explores many of the same themes as this single. The traditional ballads, ‘The Maid on the Shore’ and ‘Northlands’, tell stories about women confronted with violence, and many of my original songs are concerned with historical cycles of violence — colonization, capital punishment, etc. I’d say it’s altogether a pretty dark record, but it’s not without its moments of hope and joy. I’ve recorded a version of the Scottish shepherding ballad ‘Ca’ the Yowes’ as a queer love story, and I also offer some personal storytelling about life after loss. All in all, I’d say it’s about our relationships to the dead: what we carry from them, how we make meaning out of it, and how we move on.

I would consider myself a bit of a magpie when it comes to folk music – I’ve spent time exploring a few different traditions, and I rely as much on written sources and the output of the modern folk renaissance as I do on older archival sources in my own discovery work. I focused on the banjo for several years, so there’s always going to be some Americana roots to my sound, but my original entry point to traditional folk was actually Irish fiddle music. Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed a darker trad-rock aesthetic and this album is much more genre-bending than my last record, incorporating more synths and drums, as well as stripped-down live take recordings. I think it offers a diverse and, hopefully, exciting range of themes and sounds.  

Ghost Story by Fern Maddie is out on May 1st. ‘Hares on the Mountain’ comes out on Friday, March 4th, with the video following on March 11th.