Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Whose Thyme is it Anyway?

I have been singing the song commonly known as ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’ or ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ or ‘Purple Heather’ for many years as it was one of my favourite songs on an Irish Music compilation that I picked up back in 2001 (The Ultimate Irish Ballads, here on ebay for $50!). When I went to make this recording for my YouTube channel, I found out some interesting and annoying things.

This song was first published as a poem by Robert Tannahill, The Braes of Balquither (also Balquidder), in Henry Longfellow’s Poems of Place in 1876. Robert’s life fitted the tragic archetype of the poet, just without all the women and drinking. He gave up his working life as a traveling weaver to care for his elderly parents while all six of his siblings departed. He burned a large portion of his work before drowning himself in 1810.

Thanks to the wonders of copyright lapses, the full text of The Poems and Songs of Robert Tannahill, published in 1874 with notes by David Semple, is available here. Including the Braes of Balquither. In the notes by the editor, it is mentioned that Robert probably grew up hearing this song sung by his nurse, Mary McIntyre, who had been born in the parish of Balquither. Balquither is around 60 miles from Paisley (yes, where the pattern comes from), near Glasgow, where Robert spent most of his life. So it isn’t really clear whether Robert just heard this song and wrote it down, or whether he developed it from what Mary had sung to him.

The discussion at Mainly Norfolk talks about the fact that when the industrial revolution started to destroy the towns, it was common for lovers to flee the cities to the cleaner air and prettier skylines of the highland heather in the Summer.

So this is a beautiful song that has been popular for over 200 years at least. Here is a rare version by the Dubliners.

Now to why I am annoyed.

Wikipedia says that Wild Mountain Thyme is “a Scottish folk song that was collected by Francis McPeake the First, who wrote the song himself for his wife”. If I was Francis’ wife I would be asking for my money back.

Some would say, “but if I take someone’s idea and put it to my own tune, then it is a new song”. I say rubbish. I couldn’t find a YouTube recording that claimed to be the original, but fortunately this book (Songs of Scotland, 1854) is available and I transcribed the tune into MuseScore to confirm the direct similarity between the original tune and the new tune claimed by the McPeakes. While it isn’t 100% the same, the McPeake’s wouldn’t be winning any lawsuits.

There is a Bob Dylan connection in all of this, as he recorded the song himself. Here are Bob and Joan Baez playing to a rowdy crowd using a melody which relates to neither song. This book, discussing the copyright of Dylan’s songs, notes the McPeake family (Francis McPeake the Third) claimed copyright under all three song names in 1996. It also suggests that there are versions as early as 1742. As the industrial revolution didn’t really kick off in Scotland until 1790, this date would question the whole basis of the song.

I have to say that this makes me very annoyed, when people three generations on are claiming money for work that their great grandfather borrowed (or if you are less generous, plagiarised) from a poet from the 1800s, who himself was probably only writing down what he had heard.

Bodleian also comes to the rescue with this broadsheet from the early 1800s with the Braes o’ Birniebouzle suggesting that at least the theme and some of the lyrics were in common circulation as a song when Robert was writing his poem.

I guess that back in the 1950’s, before the advent of the internet, instantly searchable databases of 1700-1800’s broadsheets and freely available copies of tunes, poems and songs from the 1800s were not a thing. It was much easier to find a copy of a rare old book, steal a few lines, match them up with an equally obscure tune and pass the whole lot off to your wife as your own song. Then your nephew can record it and start charging copyright royalties for the next 60 years.

To be honest, I like my recording of Tannahill’s original words much better. And don’t even get me started on people who misplace ‘tower’ for ‘bower’. Who has time to build a tower in the summer?

Errata: Thanks to Jack Campin for pointing me to this mudcat post where it is mentioned that a shorter version was published by John Hamilton in 1792. To be honest, I don’t think the Hamilton song resembles the Tannahill song enough to claim direct decent via the folk-process, but the subject matter is the same. 1876 was not the first published version of Tannahill’s song, just the one I referenced.



Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

Faery Exodus in 1530

I have been reading Rudyard Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill, after being prompted to look at his poetry after hearing some of Leslie Fish’s recordings (Oak and Ash and Thorn in particular). Earlier in the book I read Sir Richard’s Song and this melody immediately sprung into my mind while reading.

I am usually sceptical by nature, but it felt like some hidden magic in Kipling’s words carried inherit music that was just waiting to be sung. I had sadly assumed that the Disney version of Jungle Book and a ‘mildly offensive in current times’ poem about Mandalay was the extent of his work.

How mistaken I was. The story of Dymchurch Flit appears at the end of the book and tells the tale of how the Faery Folk departed England for France in the 1530’s. The story largely stands on its own, but this guide from the Kipling Society provides some useful context. I had always assumed that Henry VIII’s fight was with the Catholic Church over his penchant for new wives. After seeing the ruins of the Glastonbury Abbey firsthand, it seemed clear that he was also after some of the wealth that the Monasteries had amassed. Kipling’s story implies that a big part of Henry’s purge was actually against the remnants of the Old Religion (Druidry?) in England. This article goes into some detail on the scale of the vandalism of Henry.

I have written a song to summarise the story of how the Widow Whitgift is approached by Robin (a spokesperson for the Faery Folk, Robin Goodfellow or Puck) to ask if her mute and blind sons will take the Faery Folk who have gathered in Romney Marsh across to France, where the old religion is still tolerated. As the sons are blind and mute they can either not speak of what they have seen or not see at all. The sons return safely, but the family is blessed (?) in future generations with second-sight. I have read enough fairy-tale allegory to know that pairs of sons with unusual disabilities is archetype territory, and Kipling is most likely drawing on, or implying a deeper meeting here.

The connection with bees in the story, and in the song which precedes the story, is telling. Bees have significant meaning in Occult traditions, this blog provides a good summary. This idea is far more clumsily included in the terrible Nicholas Cage remake of The Wicker Man.

So how is it that Kipling slipped this monumental revelation into his collection of stories and songs roughly framed around the history of England? I can find no other references to a Faery exodus in 1530, or any other information about Widow Whitgift. Whit or hwita is Old English for white, but that doesn’t help much.

Kipling was clearly trying to draw attention to the terrible way in which Christianity, especially the new Protestant Christianity, dealt with those who followed the old ways. The references in the story to the Canterbury Bells related to the fact that they would ring at the burning of ‘heretics’, mostly common folk or monks who had fallen foul of Henry.

Kipling was writing around 1906, the Catholic Church had only been reinstated in England in 1850, and even then it met with much hostility. I hope this story isn’t just a thinly veiled political statement about Catholics going back to France with their paganism (where they belong).

I am baffled that the pagan revival community has not picked up on this story, or sought to find its origins, or at least write about it in detail. Maybe this post will prompt some consideration. If the Faery Folk are living happily in France, I would be interested to know where.

I have included a picture by Arthur Rackham, included in the 1906 US edition of Puck, who I discovered has drawn/painted some of my favourite illustrations for stories of English mythology.

Dymchurch Flit by Arthur Rackham, 1908