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Mary Ashford – as told by Bonfire Radicals

Michelle Holloway of Bonfire Radicals tells us how she turned a broadside ballad into a song of outrage, creating a beautiful video in the process.

Dear reader, my name is Michelle and I am the singer/recorder player in Birmingham’s (un)traditional folk band Bonfire Radicals. We have just released a new album, and on it we have a new version of ‘Mary Ashford’s Tragedy‘ [Roud V9975]. This article is intended to tell you a little about how we approached the song, and our accompanying music video.

Back in March 2021, Jon Wilks appeared on my Twitter feed mentioning Birmingham folk songs. I immediately got in touch as in recent years, we (Bonfire Radicals) have started to embed more Birmingham tales and references into our music, keen to champion our beloved home and take it with us wherever we go. Jon and I met on Zoom on 18th March to chat all things Birmingham, and he introduced me to Mary Ashford. He had recently discovered the song as a broadside ballad without a melody, and created a beautiful version of it with the fabulous Katherine Priddy. I knew immediately that I wanted – no, needed – Bonfires to do a version, and Jon was very supportive of this. You can find out about Jon’s version of Mary and how he found her story on his website.

Enough is enough. I needed to do something, sing something, and let these women’s voices be heard.

Michelle Holloway, Bonfire Radicals

Out of all the folk songs out there, Mary spoke to me on a personal level for several reasons.

Firstly, the female protagonist, Mary Ashford, was a Brummie, living and breathing in this wonderful city I call my home.

Secondly, I am on a mission to sing songs that, no matter how old, are still relevant or poignant today. This song is a murder ballad, telling the true story of Mary’s murder back in 1817 when she was killed on her way home from a dance.

Thirdly, a dark twist of historical fate meant that over one hundred years later, Mary’s story was repeated with chilling parallels in the death of Barbara Forrest.

When I was introduced to this song, Sarah Everard had just been murdered on her way home.

Enough is enough. I needed to do something, sing something, and let these women’s voices be heard.

Approaching the song

Whilst Jon and Katherine left all the original lyrics intact, giving us a brilliant sounding board from which to jump, the first thing that we did was edit them.

We condensed the 13 verses into eight and changed words here and there where I felt the stereotypical image of a weak female protagonist had been reinforced. I knew from my research that Mary was a strong, independent woman, and I wanted the lyrics to reflect this. So, “I was a pure virgin, young blooming and gay” became, “I was a young woman, hardworking and strong”.

Similarly, I couldn’t bring myself to sing lyrics that told women that they needed to stay at home in their “proper employ” in order to stay safe and alive. This attitude from 1817 (that women should or shouldn’t do certain things to not get attacked) has not changed and is still prevalent today with women constantly questioned on how they dress, being unaccompanied, etc. This makes me so furious and sad.

Our version of Mary doesn’t just tell Mary’s story. We wrote a last verse that also adds in Barbara’s. The connection between these two women is unnerving. Not only did they both die in identical circumstances (on their way home from a dance), they died in the same place, their alleged killers had the same surname, they died on the same day, they were the same age, and they shared a birthday.

I liked the idea that these two women didn’t die in vain, but that they now stand strong together, their ghosts keeping a watchful eye on others to help keep them safe.

Making the video

When I sing this song, enveloped in a wash of sound from the rest of the band, I feel empowered. I feel determined that things need to change. I feel a collective strength. The close harmonies make my skin tingle, the scalic runs make me want to scream with anger and the drones give me a sense of calm-nothingness and peace.

Trying to portray this emotion in a video needed something extra special; something much more creative and artistic than purely a live video. But it was important that this video did not act out the story, just enhanced it.

We have wanted to work with Birmingham dancer Rebecca Randall for a long time. Aside from being one of our dear friends, Becca is just the most incredible dancer, specialising in contemporary improvisation. I often struggle to connect with dance, but when I watch Becca, I am transfixed. Even the way she stands and stretches has a special aura. She’s real, connected. She isn’t ‘dancing’. She just ‘is’.

We instantly knew that we needed Becca onboard.

Filming the video was extremely special. It was quite an experience to give Becca a direction and watch her improvise it there and then.

We shot it at Centrala – a former warehouse, now creative gallery and CEE artspace. It has been expertly filmed and edited by Grant Harper Productions, who we have been lucky to work with several times this year.

There are so many things I could say, but none are needed. I’m going to sign off now with a few words from Becca, about how she approached her improvisation.

“I think what I realised was it could have been quite a fight. Michelle said she wanted me to think of being pulled and then I realised that maybe Mary was pulled but she was strong and she fought back.

“So, then Mary’s strength became the part of the story I wanted to tell/embody. Partly perhaps as an opportunity to challenge the innocent victim vs temptress dichotomy that such a tragic story might be reduced to, but also as an offering to young women now. I’m a mother to a daughter. I don’t want history to keep repeating itself in this way.

“In our early conversations, Michelle also gave me the image of ghosts standing together. I started to imagine a real power in those women, in their lives, and somehow wanted to explore and evoke that through movement.”

Mary Ashford lyrics – Bonfire Radicals version

Mary Ashford’s grim ghost proclaims a sad tale
“I’m ravish’d and murdered,” she cries
“It can’t be denied
Tho’ others have tried
Yet will no friend weep
And must justice still sleep
Must my cause then be never more tried?”

“I was a young woman, hard-working and strong,
Went blithely with health to a dance
Where a villain stood by
And on me cast an eye
Resolved to try
To debauch me or die
With flat’ry and smiles did advance”

“To the fields then with him I with innocence went
Where his flat’ry did all prove in vain
While the moon herself shrouds
Behind the black clouds
And the screech-owl did scream
A most ominous theme
But I left him to go home again”

“My path it lay near to an old blasted oak
From when seem’d to issue a groan
When from near the tree
The villain seized me
I struggled with screams
Cold sweat ran in streams
And I made the fields ring with my moan”

“He effected his will while unconscious I lay,
But I arose from the ground
I vowed that he
Should hang on a tree
For ravishing me
To no bribe would agree
So he threw me right into the pond”

“I breathed cold water instead of sweet air
‘Til my soul from my body did part
Now by heaven I’m urged
‘Til my sins are all purged
To hover beside
The pond where I died
Then to glory flew with a pure heart”

“Oh banish the wretch, if the laws won’t revenge
And him from society spurn
May remorse gnaw his soul
And his time quickly roll
‘Til without a reprieve
Hell doth him receive
And no human breast for him mourn”

Two hundred years on and my story repeats,
Another was killed late one night
Two women died here
Our hearts filled with fear,
Now together we stand in this ill-fated land
To guide you with our heavenly light

Mary Ashford features on the Bonfire Radicals album, The Space Between, which can be ordered from the band’s Bandcamp page.