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Matt Hyland – Phil Tyler & Sarah Hill

Phil Tyler & Sarah Hill discuss the traditional song, 'Matt Hyland' [Roud 2880], what they know of its history and what it means to them.

‘Matt Hyland’ [Roud 2880] appears 51 times in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library archives, having been collected extensively in Ireland and North America, but only twice in England. It has been recorded by the likes of Martin Carthy, Archie Fisher, Andy Stewart and Kate Rusby.

The most recent recording was made by Phil Tyler and Sarah Hill on their 2022 album, What We Thought Was A Lake Was A Field Of Flax. As they launch a video to accompany the song, we sat down for a few questions on how ‘Matt Hyland’ caught their attention.

About ‘Matt Hyland’

Phil Tyler & Sarah Hill stare into the camera. They are standing in front of green bushes, and they are both smiling. Sarah is wearing a yellow top and Phil is wearing a blue shirt.

How did you come across ‘Matt Hyland’?

Sarah Hill: ‘Matt Hyland’ is a song I first heard on an old vinyl compilation (Selections by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick) I was given by a friend from the Brighton singaround circuit who no longer had a record player. It was the beautiful tune that jumped out to me, and I was excited to have found a song I was drawn to learn that actually has a happy ending! When I looked into it, I discovered that Martin Carthy had learned it from Christine Stewart, who had learned it from Al O’Donnell. I couldn’t find any recordings of Stewart but found one of O’Donnell from 1972 which I loved and listened to loads. That’s the one I ended up learning the words from. I sent Phil a recording of me singing it unaccompanied while I was doing the washing up, along with the Al O’Donnell recording, and he came up with the guitar accompaniment we recorded a few weeks later.

What I discovered online was that the song was first collected by Henry Hudson in 1841 from Paddy Conneely in Galway, and also around 1845 by John and Abraham Hume in Kilwarlin, Co. Down, from an unnamed singer. The earliest recording I could find is Martin Carthy’s in 1968, and then a whole bunch of others in the late 60s, 70s and onwards, with various different sources cited. There’s a particularly lovely recording from the 70s of Liz Jefferies singing it, that was released on one of the Voice of the People compilations in the 90s. 

What does the song mean to you?

SH: I haven’t quite worked out what it is about these kinds of songs that draw me in. I guess I like thinking about people back in the 1800s, acknowledging that of course the ridiculous ‘rules’ of social class could be overturned. For some reason we have three other songs on our record also about parents getting in the way of true love, but this is the only one that ends happily. It’s not something that’s ever happened to me, but I do think most of us can relate to the feelings of grief around not being able to be with someone you love, for whatever reason. It ends well but the song is much more about the parting than it is the coming back. I like the steadfastness the woman shows, but I also find it really jarring when Matt Hyland’s first reaction is “must I go without my wages” rather than “must I go without you?” I hope that was just a narrative tool, rather than what he was actually like!

Phil Tyler: I wonder if the modern romanticised version of ‘true love’ has lost some of the economic realities of past eras? Without his wages, he may well have starved. Or maybe there’s an undercurrent of materialism to his character! 

How did you make the song your own?

SH: I never consciously try to make a song my own. I usually try to stay true to the words and tune that I learn and then sing it as straight as I can, letting the song take the lead. I’ve been really influenced by Shirley Collins in this. I did a really inspiring singing workshop with her the year before we recorded the album, just before she started singing in public again. Cath and Phil‘s singing has also been a big influence – the way they sound so radical by singing things so straight – and many conversations with Richard Dawson over the years, who first introduced me to Cath and Phil back in the 00s. The funny thing is, further down the line when I go back to a source recording, it’s always a surprise how different it actually sounds; you can’t help but bring your own stuff in, and I guess that’s what makes it worth doing. Of course, adding Phil’s instrumentation changes it even more, as I start to fit the song that’s in my head to his interpretation.

PT: I’m a big Martin Carthy fan but I hadn’t heard this song before Sarah suggested we try it. Whenever I’m learning a song or tune I like to stop listening to any other versions as soon as I have an idea of how to sing it. Like Sarah says, you often end up with something a lot further from the original than you thought you had. Sarah only sent a vocal version to me initially, so I had to make the guitar part up from scratch, which was preferable really. Sometimes with a song, I’ll end up making a new tune if the existing one isn’t working as well as it might or I can’t play it well enough, but ‘Matt Hyland’ has a great tune. 

‘Matt Hyland’ can be found on What We Thought Was A Lake Was A Field Of Flax, the album by Phil Tyler & Sarah Hill released in 2022. It can be ordered from their Bandcamp page.