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Photo credit: Will Killen

Rosa – performed by George Sansome and Owen Spafford

George Sansome explores the origins of the traditional song, 'Rosa', which he recently released as a single with Owen Spafford.

George Sansome, one-third of Granny’s Attic, released the traditional song, ‘Rosa’ [Roud 17776], as a digital download single via his Bandcamp page on July 22nd. Performed with the fiddle player, Owen Spafford, and filmed in Leeds by Will Killen, the song is relatively rare, with only 28 entries in the VWML archives. As George writes below, it was only collected once in the aural tradition, taken down under the title ‘The Rose of the Vale’ by George Gardiner in 1907 while he was collecting in Hampshire.

A black and white photograph of the folk song collector, George Gardiner
George Gardiner (c.1852-1910) was a collector of traditional songs who focused on Hampshire and the South West of England, where he took down 1,400 songs between 1904 and 1907 alone. A prolific collector, his methods were peculiar, as he would often take down the words and then send a musician to take down the tunes separately.
We asked George (Sansome, because Gardiner is long dead and hasn’t recently released a single) what he knew about ‘Rosa’ and how he came about recording it.

“Like many folk singers,” he tells us, “I love looking through archives and books for traditional songs I’ve not heard before (I call them, “new old songs”), and I find a lot of joy in the process of taking these songs off the page and singing them. ‘Rosa’ is a song that I learned in this way, from a book called Southern Songster: English Folk Songs From The Hammond And Gardiner Manuscripts. It’s a load of songs that one of my favourite traditional singers, Nick Dow, selected from the Hammond and Gardiner collection, with song notes by Steve Gardham and musical notation by Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne.

“‘Rosa’ was sung by Sarah Goodyear (aged 74) of the brilliantly named Gobley Hole in Hampshire, to George Gardiner in 1907. The song really grabbed me, so I did some research and ended up fleshing it out with words from a broadside in the Bodleian Library online collection.

Rosa is sort of a 19th-century song version of the classic Mean Girls line, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die”

George Sansome

“At first ‘Rosa’ reads like a lot of cautionary traditional songs, and appears to be a warning of what will befall you if you go off and get pregnant. Sort of a 19th-century song version of the classic Mean Girls line, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die”. However, while the final two lines of the song can be interpreted in this way, I think they actually work best as a plea for people not to behave as badly as the men in the song:

All you good parents take a warning by this tale,
And remember the fate of the Pride of the Vale

“Rosa doesn’t do anything wrong but suffers the most in the song. The reprehensible behaviour is from her father who forbids her relationship and then shuns her when she returns with a child, as well as her lover who ditches her when he finds out she’s pregnant. So it feels to me the moral of the song is much more about not judging or shaming people, and how we should try to be more accepting, lest the ones we love end up like Rosa.

“I find it quite a dramatic song, and thought Owen Spafford would be perfect to work with as he’s such an expressive and sensitive fiddle player. We met earlier this year on the Leeds folk scene and after a few ceilidhs and tune sessions together I was blown away by Owen’s playing so it made sense to bring him in for this song. He’s full of great ideas and was so good to work with.”

Head to George Sansome’s Bandcamp page to download his performance of ‘Rosa’ with Owen Spafford. For more info on George himself, head to georgesansome.co.uk.