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Frankie Archer rides a white horse against a backdrop of a blue/grey ocean. A cartoon sun shines down and a cartoon glass of red wine sits on a table in the foreground.

Oxford City [Roud 218] – Frankie Archer

As Frankie Archer prepares her latest release, we take a look at historical background of the traditional song, 'Oxford City'.

Newly-crowned recipient of the Christian Raphael Prize, Frankie Archer continues her fascinating journey into the world of traditional song with a recording of ‘Oxford City’ [Roud 218]. Also known as ‘Worcester City’, ‘Newport Street’, ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Cup of Poison’, the song has been recorded by countless other singers, from Nic Jones to Eliza Carthy to the Dovetail Trio. If there’s one thing you can predict about Frankie Archer’s version, however, it’s that her version is about as unpredictable as the song is likely to get.

Released on September 8th, the recording is a joint production between the artist herself and the celebrated folk singer and producer, Jim Moray – no stranger to the digital approach that Archer has become known for. And this version of ‘Oxford City’ is very much in that style, starting out with samples reminiscent of her debut single, ‘Over the Border‘, itself harking back to the pioneering spirit of Laurie Anderson. The singer harmonises with herself over a simple backing of clicks and sub-bass, interspersed with a plaintive fiddle motif and a bed of tantalisingly almost-audible found sound and studio chatter. For fans of Archer’s unique approach, this ticks all the boxes. For those coming to her via the historical song itself, it’s further demonstration of just how far these traditional songs can be tugged at and stretched, inspiring countless wonderful interpretations along the way.

‘Oxford City’ – a little history

The Bodleian Broadside Ballads collection houses prints of this song from a variety of cities, mostly surfacing in the first part of the 19th century. Newcastle had a version (published by W & T Fordyce in 1840), as did Birmingham (W. Jackson & Son, 1839-1855), while London and Manchester saw multiple versions hawked by the ballad sellers along their streets.

The earliest audio recording of ‘Oxford City’ (under the title, ‘Worcester City’) comes from the singing of Joseph Taylor, recorded in 1908 on the wax cylinder machine currently housed in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (go and have a look – it’s there for all to see). The collector at the cylinder’s controls, Percy Grainger, subsequently invited Taylor to London to record his songs for the Gramophone Company, sessions that resulted in the seven-disc series, Percy Grainger’s Collection of English Folk-Songs sung by Genuine Peasant Performers. The British Library Sound Archive believes this collection to be, “a first in our field, and decades before any other attempt to issue real traditional singing on record for public consumption”, while Taylor is often cited as the first-ever commercially recorded folk singer.

The Vaughan William Memorial Library lists 337 archival entries around this song, most of them collected between the Midlands and the South of England (stretching into East Anglia and the West Country), and then spreading across Nova Scotia and the Appalachians. It also has the distinction of being the only traditional English folk song to have been collected on the island of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, a remote rock in the South Atlantic Ocean. Some 6,168 miles from Oxford itself, Peter Munch took the song down from Lily Green and Alice Swain at Tristan da Cunha sometime between 1937 and 1938.

Scroll forward to 2003 and the song, under the title ‘Worcester City’, found a new audience when Eliza Carthy won ‘Best Traditional Track’ at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. The track opened her seminal album, Anglicana, itself a winner at that year’s event. The song has since gone on to be recorded by Jim Causley, the Askew Sisters, Andy Turner, Sophie Crawford and the aforementioned Dovetail Trio.

Frankie Archer’s approach

Artwork from the artist’s forthcoming release. Image credit: Frankie Archer

Archer has written that, “‘Oxford City’ is a traditional song over a hundred years old, but when I first read the lyrics I was reminded of things happening right now: incel culture and drink spiking. It’s tempting to think about old songs of times gone by, especially of songs dealing with the way women were treated and the awful things they faced, and say ‘wasn’t it awful back in the day, I’m so glad it’s not like that now’. While some things generally have gotten better, women still face male violence – just sometimes in different forms. The poison wine in this song is a man spiking a woman’s drink to do her harm. Murdering her is an expression of rejection and jealousy which manifests as the same hate against women that incel culture feeds on: ‘if you won’t be my true lover, you’ll never be no other man’s bride’.

“This makes me think also of being hit on by guys who would not take no for an answer, and who were only satisfied and would only back off with an explanation (a lie) of ‘I’m taken’. Even then sometimes this can be seen as a challenge: ‘who is he, I’m better than him anyway’. This perception of women and girls as objects, as property, as prizes to be won, is so deep-rooted in our culture. Whether you’re reading lyrics of a 100-year-old song or on a night out and seeing women get unwanted and persistent attention from men, the root is the same. So women have worked very hard to progress towards equality, and there is clearly still a long way to go.

“Although it doesn’t feel like it in the song, the time signature is changing all the time. It feels like it reflects the two steps forward and one step back nature of the fight for equality. We are improving some things and still so far behind on others.”