2006 : Straws In The Wind

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick

01 : Death Of Queen Jane
02 : Ship In Distress
03 : Whalecatchers
04 : When I Was A Little Boy
05 : Bride’s March From Unst / True Lover’s Lament / Lord Inchiquin
06 : Royal Oak
07 : Treadmill Song
08 : Unfortunate Tailor
09 : Bold Benjamin
10 : Mrs Marriott
11 : Jacky Tar
12 : Mermaid
13 : Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor
14 : My Heart’s In New South Wales

First released on CD in the UK 2006 by Topic Records TSCD556

Martin Carthy: vocals & guitar
Dave Swarbrick: fiddle
Kevin Dempsey: guitar on My Heart’s In New South Wales

Special thanks to beautiful guitarist Kevin Dempsey who duets with Martin on Track 14 My Heart’s In New South Wales

Recorded at Atrax, Coventry, September 2004 & May 2006
Produced by Kevin Dempsey
Engineered by Kevin Dempsey & Dave Swarbrick
Mixed & edited at S.A.E. Studio, Birmingham by Kevin Dempsey & Joe Broughton

Photos by James Balfour
Design by The Art Surgery

All tracks Traditional, arr. Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick except:
03: Traditional, arr. Martin Carthy
10 & 14: Dave Swarbrick

Sleeve Notes:

Something about Jane Seymour surely got its hooks into the collective imagination because, apart from Death of Queen Jane, there aren’t that many songs this sympathetic to actual (as opposed to storybook) royalty. Neither is there a great deal of good feeling towards Henry VIII: he’s very much on the sidelines. The song has her dying in the immediate aftermath of birth of her son – which of course makes for starkest drama – but in fact she died twelve days afterwards: the idea of the section to assist birth is not, I think, supported by history.

All the songs on this CD bar one come from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. In one case the version sung differs from that in the book. Originally published in 1959, it remains by far the finest book of its kind and its choices to these ears are as challenging as they seemed when the book first appeared. The notes here refer to A.L. Lloyd’s notes in the Penguin book all the time.

On the face of it, it seems clear that Ship in Distress, with its theme of cannibalism narrowly averted, was the model for W.M. Thackeray’s spoof “Little Billie”. However, according to A.L. Lloy,,,,d, both songs have a common root in French song entitled La Courte Paille (The Short Straw) where the prospective dinner/cabin boy sees Babylon and the coast of Barbary at the moment of his deliverance. Dave and I have been doing this song for at least forty years or so and for us it retains its majesty and its horror. And all in just three verses.

Whaling quite rightly has no future nowadays and the spectacle of certain countries pulling strings and twisting arms to get around the current moratorium is infuriating and degrading to behold. That said, it has a past both harrowing and riveting. If the word level could ever apply to any ocean, then surely there was a more level playing field a hundred and more years ago with human beings exploited as much as the whale. Humans were cheated right and left and more or less forced into further trips by horrifying double dealing if not barefaced robbery. Assuming, that is that they had not already paid with their lives. Our own view is that such things should never be forgotten. Hence the presence here of The Whalecatchers. And it also has an extraordinarily beautiful tune collected in Sussex by Mr Henry Hills by the composer W. Percy Merrick. The temptation to talk os “sustainability” in relation to these incredibly courageous men and their wrk should be resisted however: fields of operation were moved around as different fishing grounds were picked systematically as clean as possible. Nothing back then could possible match the sheer scale of modern day hunting, and it’s that industrial scale which so sharpens the focus nowadays. The idea of fingers and toes being frozen off as an occupational hazard was still very much alive among trawler lads working in the North Atlantic Fishing Fleets out of Hull – accompanied by a shrug – right up until the Cod Wars in the mid 1970s saw the beginning of the end of the fishing industry there.

There are the clearest echoes of the beautiful Jeannie Ritchie family song Nottamun Town in When I Was A Little Boy. They’re called “songs of lies” and are a very old idea – an idea assumed with huge effect by Bob Dylan in his epic Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. It’s from just about as far north as you can get in Scotland without drowning and the singer, John Stickle from Baltasound on Unst in the Shetlands, who sang many beautiful and unusual songs for Patrick Shuldham Shaw, was also possessed of a wonderful repertoire of fiddle tunes. Among them was Bride’s March From Unst which Dave learned in Shetland from a mouth organ playing Customs Man at the end of just about the most eventful journey any gigging musician could ever have dreamed of. Ask him sometime. But do make yourself comfy won’t you: it takes a long time to tell. John Sickle actually had two “Bride’s Marches” in his repertoire and he called this one “Da Bride’s a Bonnie Thing”. Here it’s followed by a retreat march The True Lover’s Lament and the O’Carolan tune Lord Inchiquin which is a particular favourite of Dave’s. Mine too.

Not much historical background seems to be known about the Royal Oak if indeed such a background exists. according to A.L. Lloyd there are versions from the english West Country (from the Baring Gould collection) and Aberdeenshire (from Gavin Greig) both of which name the ship as The Marigold, and suggests that the encounter took place at the end of 1669. I wonder myself whether it’s just a great piece of imagination. Just a story with no basis in fact like so many other songs. Great story and great derring-do. Great melody too. The person who wrote Treadmill Song surely had a bleak view of real life. It’s a rare song, as are prison songs in England, and sounds somehow to have derived from someone’s personal experience. If people survived such a term they must have developed huge leg muscles and probably nothing else. I say “if”. The unimaginably dull, repetitive work was expressly (!) designed to destroy the soul and the prison food was rank. Just the sight of the occasional engraving of a treadmill is enough to bring a comfortable 21st century body out in the coldest of sweats.

Unfortunate Tailor is the one song not from the Penguin collection. I learned it from John Kirkpatrick one day when he wasn’t looking and am very grateful to him for not turning round before the end. Don’t know why it is that tailors are so ridiculed in song and story but they are, and this luckless sod is genuinely pathetic. Can’t imagine why he thinks he’ll have a better time in the navy either.

I think that anyone who has even a passing interest in Sea Shanties would truly bust a gut to know what such songs sounded like before the advent of the Clipper ships and their like – simply because songs were inevitably recycled to suit the new need. I think that it’s true that nothing is much older than perhaps 150 yeas in that most functional of all folk musics. A.L. Lloyd quotes C.H. Firth of the Navy Records Society writing in 1908 wondering aloud whether the form of Bold Benjamin suggested an earlier existence as a shanty. Tantalising. The song itself is one of those small jewels tucked away among the many songs of naval triumph to be found in our traditional song but which instead records one of the utter disasters. According to Lloyd there is apparently no record of the engagement nor of the luckless gent who brought such misfortune upon his men. Whether he was brave Admiral Cole, as in the song, or one Captain Chilvers in an earlier – and in many ways quite different – version from 1670 printed in the Roxburghe Ballads, to have lost 439 out of 500 counts, I think, as a calamity. It’s one clever tune too, in the way it plays with the accents of the repeated lines.

Nobody writes a tune like Dave Swarbrick. There, I’ve said it. The reason lies, of course, in that great care he takes to ensure that a tune of his doesn’t sound like anyone else’s by choosing roads which most others would shun, then noticing, picking up and incorporating little diamonds on the way. Mrs Marriot, written to honour the fabulous piano player and piss-me-off-and-I’ll-clatter-you friend Beryl Marriot, who is one of his long time (and I mean LONG time) and very successful musical collaborators, is just such a tune, filed with little twists, secret corners an surprises. Clever bloke.

On the face of it, there are enough similarities between Jacky Tar and the big ballad “Glasgerion” as far as the basic plot line goes, for it to be thought of as a gutter version of the latter song. Bowing to A.L.Lloyd’s wider knowledge (and he was always clear that in his view it was simply not the case), I retain a feeling that these things cannot be entirely unconnected: I like the idea that people rework such themes over. Cecil Sharp met the singer William Nott in Mershaw in Devon in 1904 and it’s his beautiful tune I sing here. The words came from a friend called Neville – who refused to let me have the song in 1958 but whose entire rendition I remembered at home later that night as I sat furious with my guitar in bed: furious because of his refusal to part with the words.

When I was a child, The Mermaid was a song which we all sang a lot. That we didn’t know all the words didn’t matter. When in the summer of 1961 I met The Charles River Valley Boys all from Harvard University and they sang an Old Timey version of the song with the memorable lines in the chorus “…The landlord lies sleeping down below…”, joy was unconfined. However the version sitting in the Penguin Book learned by E.T. Sweeting from a James Herridge in Twyford in 1906 is an altogether different kettle of fish from those jolly romps and makes for a much much darker journey. Given that, as A.L. Lloyd says, the sight of a mermaid was the worst of omens, you would think that it would be an invitation to all sorts of songs but it’s not so: this one song in it’s various forms and (possibly) the children’s song ‘The Big Ship Sails on the Alley-O’ seem to be it.

Lord Thomas was a twerp whose mother thinks that the sun shines out of his saddle sores. Does a lot of riding does our Thomas, what with all the to-ing and fro-ing between his place, his mother’s place, the penniless but VERY lofty and fragrant (where O where have we heard that word before?) Fair Eleanor in her gaff and his imminent wedding. Seems that Thomas and Eleanor think of the Brown Girl as nothing more than some nouveau riche arriviste unworthy of his attentions – except (as far as he is concerned) for that damnably interesting “riche” part following on from the loathed “nouveau” and preceding the equally contemptible “arriviste” bit. Eleanor’s mother, however, is possessed of at least half a brain and is far from blind to this disaster waiting to happen, but even her focussed warnings fail to stem her daughter’s drive to impale herself on her own spite. The only truly lamented casualty here is the Brown Girl, whose love is thrown back in her face but whose riposte is swift, silent and final. Costs her her own life though. A.L. Lloyd is right when he says that some of the Scots oral versions have small illuminating extras, so while ditching the last two “rose and briar” verses which seem to be out of place, I’ve taken a couple of others from those Scots sets in order to underline the fragrant Eleanor’s real malice aforethought. It’s from Somerset and Cecil Sharp.

The last tune is also written by Dave and the title says it all. He lived in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales just outside Sydney for a few years back in the 1990s and has never got over it. And why indeed would he want to. Australia is a beautiful and optimistic place full of optimistic, garrulous, funny, spunky people. Can’t wait to get back there. He should write a follow up called “Betcha Life”. Bet your life.
Martin Carthy, June 2006

One Response to 2006 : Straws In The Wind

  1. […] of The Unfortunate Tailor, thirty years before Martin would record it officially with Swarb for Straws In The Wind. The remaining songs are from his then current album Crown Of […]

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