Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Murrumbateman Mystery Poet

Photo of Ross Memorial at Goulburn

Murrumbateman is a small village about 20 minutes away from where I live on the road south to Canberra. While I have published three albums of material about the history of the Yass Valley, I haven’t set any of those songs in Murrumbateman.

In an attempt to correct this, I went looking for stories about Murrumbateman in the National Library of Australia’s Trove collection. I found this poem and set it to music.

The poem was published in both the Goulburn Herald / County of Argyle Advertiser on 27 September 1856. However, the poet is un-named and is simply titled “Murrumbateman”.  The full poem is included below:


Yes, Nature once again has laid
Her wintry robes aside,
And once again she is array’d
In Spring’s most winning pride;
She seems no longer old and grey,
But youthful, blooming, fresh, and gay,
As if ’twere only yesterday
This lovely world was made.

See! countless multitudes of flowers
Adorn the verdant hills,
And, big with life-promoting showers,
Behold a thousand rills!
Feel! every breeze is loaded with
Perfume’s delicious, scented breath,
And hark! what music sweet from ‘neath
The rich, green forest thrills.

Blythe, snow-white lambs are scattered o’er
Each valley and each plain;
And all are now preparing for
The shearer’s busy reign:
The master makes his shed all right,
And views his press with vast delight;
The shearer whets his shears so bright,
Till both blades shine again.

The shepherd, too, with anxious care
Attends his fleecing flock,
So that they may in order fair
Yield up their annual coat;
And with well-founded expectation,
The publican makes calculation,
That half of all that’s earned this season
Will be his easy lot.

Oh! how I wish, dear Spring, that thou
Could’st stay with us for ever,
For then all things would smile as now,
And gloom return, oh! never;
But ardent Summer soon, alas!
Will snatch thee to his fierce embrace,
When every youthful charm and grace
Will sicken, fade, and wither.


So who is this mystery poet? There are several other poems labelled with this curious ‘Murrumbateman’ label, The Sabbath Day in 1855, Solitude, He is Gone, Australia the Bright! and this poem (Spring) in 1856. Nothing then until a final poem in 1858 called A Dream, where the poet reveals themselves to be from Scotland.

The poem He is Gone likely relates to the death of William Henry Simpson on the 10th of July 1856 in Yass. According to this article on 12 July, William was kicking a fire-ball related to the peace proclamation fireworks (Crimean War) and fell down a bank near the ‘new’ Yass bridge. At the time it seems it was thought he would recover, but his death notice was published on 19 July. In the paper of the 12th, there is also a notice saying that the Scots’ Kirk will not meet on Sunday as the Rev. Mr. Ross  needs to go to Yass to attend to his brother-in-law Mr. Simpson.

Reverends in the Yass Valley have a habit of also being poets (see John O’Brien of Around the Boree Log fame), so it is conceivable that Mr Ross is our nameless author. The full name of Reverend William Ross is given in this January 1856 marriage notice.

A brief summary of the life of Reverend Ross is given in his obituary here from 23 January 1869. It  indicates that William was born in Ross-shire, Scotland in 1815 and may have been an officer in the Royal Navy. Sadly no mention of  a penchant for Poetry.

This source confirms that William Ross was a Freemason and provides some imagery of his grave. The home where William’s wife continued to live after his death, and ran a boarding school is here. This history covers William’s involvement with the building of St Ann’s church in Paterson from 1838-1846.

So William’s connection to the subject of the He is Gone poem is strong evidence that either he, or his wife could well be the author of these poems, but sadly nothing conclusive. Hopefully someone in the region will be able to provide confirmation.

Possibly a red-herring, but this history of the Presbyterians in New South Wales from 1905 suggests there was another Rev. William Ross from South Australia, who was active in Wentworth and returned to Scotland and died in 1899. This Ross is linked to the poet, Dr George Macdonald. This Ross is probably not the one associated with Yass/Goulburn.






Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Who was the hero of Glenlogie?

Sketch of Glenbucket (author unknown)

After hearing Alistair Hulett sing Glenlogie as part of a 1984 concert in Sydney, I made a recording myself. The MainlyNorfolk page for the ballad references the collected singing by John Strachan of Fyvie in 1951 as the earliest version from the living tradition. John was recorded by Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson in Aberdeenshire.

Ewan MacColl makes mention that there was a recording as early as 1768. For my recording I used the words from the 1904 English and Scottish popular ballads, derived from Francis Child’s work. I suspect this book is where MacColl got his information as the introduction to the ballad mentions the 1768 version from the Percy papers, but suggests that it has been modified.

I have used the ‘A’ version for my recording, however, Verse 4 is missing the start to each line, so I have taken a few verses from the ‘B’ version to try and make the story coherent.

Is it based on a true story?

What most interests me for the purpose of this blog post is the suggestion that the ballad might be based on a true story. After my recording I did quick search for John Gordons who married a Jane/Jean around the time this ballad was first recorded.

I found that John Gordon (1599-1634), 1st Viscount of Kenmure, married a Jane Campbell around 1626. Unfortunately a birth date for Jane is not given, so it is hard to verify the ’15 years old’ claim in the ballad. In some versions Jean/Jane is a Gordon, but in most she is not.

Stacking up the evidence

Going back to Francis Child, this ballad appears in Volume 4, from 1860. This versions names Glenlogie and Drumlie as the alternate fiancé for Jean. It doesn’t say which hall/town Glenlogie has come to.

In Peter Buchan’s 1828 Ancient Ballads and songs of the North of Scotland the title is given as ‘Jean o’ Bethelnie’s Love for Sir G. Gordon’. In this version Bethelnie is mentioned as the place where Jean lives. Bethelnie is not clearly located on Google maps, but seems to be near Oldmeldrum in Aberdeenshire. The group of men rides through Banchory fair (also in Aberdeenshire). In this version Glenlogie is a Gordon named Sir George. The alternate spouse is Dumfedline. There is a verse in this version which strongly reminds me of Child #239 (Lord Saltoun and Auchanachie), which is also about a Jeannie.

Ye’ll show me the chamber. Where Jeannie does lay.

In fact, there are so many similarities in the version that I recorded (e.g. mother and father calling Jeannie a whore), that I suspect maybe a singer (or broadside hack) has mashed these two ballads together at some point.

Buchan gives notes on the Sir George Gordon ballad, saying that the story relates to 1562 when Queen Mary spent time in the North of Scotland with her entourage, which was when Jean (daughter of Baron Meldrum) saw George. The notes also put Jean’s age at the time of marriage as 15. Unfortunately none of the Earl of Huntly Gordons seem to have married a Jean/Jane within the relevant time period for this Queen Mary story to be corroborated. A review of several recent and contemporary biographies of Mary Queen of Scots turned up no references to Meldrum or a Jane Meldrum (or Melville).

Across the variants that Child includes, sometimes Jeanie is ‘Jean Melville, 16 or 17’, sometimes Glenlogie is ‘Earl Ogie’ .

The goings on of the peerage of Scotland are very well documented, as shown in John Spalding’s 1792 volume covering 1624 until 1645. Down to each daughter married and the dowry (toucher) paid; for example:

Upon Wednesday the 28th of November (1632) in the afternoon, the lord of Strathbrane, otherwise called the master of Abercorn, was married with lady Jean Gordon, the marquis’ youngest daughter, within the kirk of Belly, by an Irish minister brought with him of purpose ; they were honourably entertained within the Bog, and within few days departed home. (John Spalding, 1792)

If there was a real ‘Jean’ who married a George/John Gordon, then there would likely be  a record, along with the story if the circumstances were scandalous.

Robert Chambers’ 1829, The Scottish Ballads includes Glenlogie, but while it has much to say about other ballads with an historical connection, it is completely silent on this one. Alexander Whitelaw, in 1875, includes two distinct variants in The Book of Scottish Ballads, dated 1824.

In the more recently published The Glenbuchat Ballads by David Buchan and James Moreira in 2007, it is stated that Alexander Keith links the hero of Glenlogie to a Glenbuchat Gordon.

John Gordon of Glenbucket (1673-1750) is candidate for the ballad, having married a Jean and being famous enough in the Jacobite wars to warrant having a ballad written about him. Being from Aberdeenshire puts him closer to Bethelnie than the Kenmure Gordons.

In another blow to any hopes of confirming an historical basis for this ballad, Rev. John Grant Mitchie gives a comprehensive history of Logie-Coldstone in 1896. There are several John and George Gordon’s and many songs and ballads referenced, but no sign of a Jean or Glenlogie.


The sad conclusion here, pending any further sources, is that this ballad probably does not relate to real events, but does use places and names that would be familiar to the intended audience.

This begs the question, what was the ballad written for and by who? This is not answerable on the evidence that we have, but the ballad is possibly from two times of upheaval in the United Kingdom, the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-1567, and the Jacobite (followers of James II of England and VII of Scotland) uprising in 1689.

Could it have been English propaganda after the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to reclaim the Scottish throne with his flight to France in 1746? Attacks on the Scottish approach to marriage were a part of the material used in England to discredit them (and drum up support for campaigns against them).

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Ossian’s Cave Mystery

Anne Murray Keith

This month I have been digging through the Bodleian Library archive of Broadside ballads. While looking for songs with a Halloween theme, I found this one called Oscar’s Ghost.

This ballad only appears once in the archive, on a sheet of several Scottish songs. The lyrics that appear on the sheet are:


OSCAR'S GHOST A favourite Scottish song.

O see that form that faintly gleams!
Tis  Oscar come to cheer my dreams;
On wings of wind he flies away,
O stay my lovely Oscar, stay!

Wake Ossian, last of Fingal’s line,
And mix thy sighs and tears with mine. 
Awake the Harp to doleful lays, 
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise.

The Shell is ceas'd in Oscar's hall.
Since gloomy Cairbar wrought thy fall:
The roe on Morven lightly bounds,
Nor hears the cry of Oscar's hounds.

The broadsheet gives no author or context to the song.

A google search for parts of the lyrics led to the 1843, slightly pretentiously titled, book, ‘The Book of Scottish Song’ by Alexander Whitelaw. In this book the song is attributed to Anne Murray Keith. And the lyrics are given as:


O, SEE that form that faintly gleams! 
'Tis Oscar come to cheer my dreams! 
On wings of wind he files away;
O stay, my lovely Oscar, stay !

Wake, Ossian, last of Fingal's line. 
And mix thy tears and sighs with mine;
Awake the harp to doleful lays.
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise.

The shell is ceased in Oscar's hall. 
Since gloomy Kerbar wrought his fall; 
The roe on Morven lightly bounds, 
Nor hears the cry of Oscar's hounds.


The only difference from the broadside is the spelling of ‘Kerbar’ and some minor grammatical changes. The description of the song links Anne Keith to Sir Walter Scott and says that she lived from 1736 until 1818.

William Gilpin, a priest, published a tourist guide which included a visit to Dunkeld in Scotland that took place in 1776 (published in 1789). Gilpin describes a visit to Ossian’s cave (which he calls a Hermitage), where he found the following inscription:


Oh! see the form, which faintly gleams:
Tis Oscar, come to cheer my dreams, 
On wreaths of mist it glides away:
Oh! Stay, my lovely Oscar, stay.

Awake the harp to doleful lays,
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise. 
Wake, Oscian, last of Fingal's line;
And mix thy sighs, and tears with mine.

The shell is ceased in Oscar's hall,
Since gloomy Cairbar saw thee fall.
The roe o'er Morven playful bounds,
Nor fears the cry of Oscar's hounds.

Thy four grey stones the hunter spies, 
Peace to the hero's ghost he cries.


These are the lyrics I used for my recording.

Modern tourist guides to Ossians Cave indicate that the existence of the inscription is known, but that it is no longer there. The addition of a final half-stanza and (to my mind) more poetic language in the inscription may suggest that the version in the 1843 was an attempt to recall something heard or read before and the inscription is the original.

The song is undoubtedly about the Poems of Ossian, by James Macpherson. With the characters of Oscar, Ossian and Fingal all parts of what is now mostly accepted as a work of re-imagined Celtic mythology. The entry at the top of this page clearly inspires the final half-stanza about grey stones and hunters:

If fall I must in the field, raise high my grave, Vinvela. Grey stones, and heaped-up earth,
shall mark me to future times. When the hunter shall sit by the mound, and produce his food at noon,
“Some warrior rests here,” he will say ; and my fame shall live in his praise. Remember me, Vinvela, when low on earth I lie.

– (Fingal, James Macpherson, 1762)

The controversy around Fingal and James Macpherson is a whole different subject, but it appears that he presented the 1762 publication as a work of scholarly translation from Gaelic, rather than a work of pure invention.

There is a tantalizing inference here (no longer online, but cached by Google) in a summary of the Keith ancestry, that Anne had converted much more of Ossian into verse.

Sir Walter Scott told me that Miss Anne Keith amused herself in the latter years of her life by translating Macpherson’s "Ossian" into verse.’ 
She was the authoress also of a song entitled ‘Oscar’s Ghost,’ inserted in Johnson’s ‘Scots’ Musical Museum.’

Anne would have been 40 by 1776 and would have been able to read Fingal when she was 26. Had she began composing poems inspired by Ossian and at some point and graffitied one of them during a pilgrimage to Ossian’s Cave?

The Keith family record also suggests that Walter Scott based his story ‘The Highland Window’ on stories he had been told by Anne and that she was the model for Bethune Baliol.

One of the interesting aspects of these multiple versions is that the spellings of Cairbrie are so different.  Macpherson was clearly using known Gaelic historical/mythical figures, but ‘Kerbar’ suggests an attempt to write an unfamiliar word phonetically and ‘Cairbar’ suggests someone who has read Cairbre in Fingal, but forgotten how to spell it.

Here is a portrait of Anne, etched by Samuel Freeman based on a miniature by Anne Mee.

There is a good chance that other poems and songs by Anne, based on Ossian exist somewhere.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

Hunting the Wren

I had heard the ‘Milder to Molder’ version of the The Cutty Wren within folk circles, but not taken much notice of it. According to MainlyNorfolk, the 1940 version by the Topic Singers was the first of the folk revival recordings. The many that followed (Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, Bert Lloyd) all used largely the same lyrics.

For my own recording, I found this 1857 source in the Cambrian Journal, which seems very close to the Topic Singers version except for some notable differences:

  • It is Milder to Melder (as opposed to Molder)
  • There is a duplication of the first line which ends with ‘the younger to the elder’
  • The verses about portioning out the spoils is not included

The Cambrian version also includes a score, with a melody which isn’t quite the same as the revival version.

After posting my version, someone made a comment criticising Bert Lloyd’s assertion that the song had been used during the Peasants’ Revolt against Richard II in the 1300s, and also generally criticising any assertion of pre-Christian origins of the ‘Hunting the Wren’ custom across Ireland, England and parts of Europe. Here Bert even brings witches into the picture.

This led to more research and the discovery of this digitized copy of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book with a publication date around 1744. The song in this book is called Robbin to Bobbin and is structurally quite different but with the same theme. Here is my recording of these lyrics.

The song has a modern history of being used in protest movements and commentary on class warfare. The play Chips with Everything, 1962 by Arnold Wesker, makes fascinating use of the song as a taunt to Royal Air Force officers by enlisted men, to remind them of the risks associated with high station. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick appear performing this song in one of the TV adaptations (1969). Apparently, this version was aired in serial form, but there is also a full length film from 1975.

Linking the Wren Hunting custom to ritual sacrifice of a king around the winter solstice is probably the fault of Robert Fraser in the Golden Bough. Fraser discusses instances of this wren hunting custom in France, Scotland, England and other parts of Europe. The stories are strange, because on the one hand the Wren is considered sacred, and to harm it or its home during the year a cause for serious bad luck:

                “Malisons, malisons, mair than ten, That harry the Ladye of Heaven’s hen!” (Fraser)

Interestingly, in the 1744 version of the lyrics, the wren is a woman, and in Scotland the wren is called the ‘Lady of Heaven’s Hen’. However, in the 1857 lyrics the wren is a male, and often referred to as the ‘King of Birds’. The idea of killing a divine animal as a mechanism to threaten or get the attention of a god is common throughout Frasers work.

There are several stories which explain how the wren came to be both king and reviled.

Eagle and the Wren

In Plutarch’s Moralia, from around the first century, he refers to Aesop’s story of the wren who wins the contest of who can fly the highest by riding on the back of the eagle. Interestingly, Plutarch uses this proverb in the context of encouraging junior leaders not to get ahead of themselves but to realise that they rise on the achievements of others (and should be humble).

Woodcut from Tommy Thumb's Nursery Rhymes
Woodcut from Tommy Thumb’s Book

St. Stephen’s Day

St. Stephen’s Day is notionally held to commemorate the stoning of the first Christian Martyr in 36 AD and is held all over Europe. In Ireland the day is called ‘Wren Day’ and coincides with the hunting of the wren, but as far as I can find, there is nothing to connect St Stephen’s story with the killing of a wren.

Robin and the Wren

In some traditions, the Jenny Wren is the wife of Robin Redbreast, which aligns with the wren being female in the 1744 lyrics.

Viking Betrayal, Druids and Cromwell

The statement is made without reference in pages like  this that the wren was responsible for making a noise and betraying Irish soldiers to Norsemen. There is also the suggestion that the Gaelic name for wren, dreoilín, is related to draoi ean (Druid Bird), and somehow connects with Druids. In some instances the accusation of making a noise is linked back to St Stephen, but he was never in hiding before being stoned to death. This blog post at The Wild Geese repeats many of these stories, blaming the wren for disclosing someone’s location both in a 750 CE Viking raid and also during Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1641. I have been unable to find any scholarly references to these stories.

Clíodhna the Seductress

This is a theory I find very interesting. Clíodhna is an Irish goddess and queen of the Banshees. Part of her mythology is that she has three brightly coloured birds that eat otherworldly apples. This page provides a detailed history of Clíodhna, but most importantly that she can transform into a wren, and that she has a habit of seducing and drowning men by the sea. One of the stories from the Isle of Man is that the goddess was cursed to turn into a bird at Christmas and is hunted as revenge for killing sailors. This story, however, is fairly localized in Ireland would struggle to explain the widespread Wren Hunting across the rest of Europe.

My general conclusion here is that no one really knows what  led to such a cruel practice around Christmas, and I am very happy that people no longer harm these beautiful birds. Why people did it, seems to remain a mystery.

The Wren
Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Where are the Watermelons from anyway?

My son came home from school last week singing Down by the Bay, and we made a recording here.

I cannot recall hearing this song while growing up in the 1980s in Australia, but apparently most kids in North America know it thanks to Raffi Cavoukian (his version here).

Sometimes in interview Raffi has mentioned World War I origins for the song, which is supported by the 1968 publication, Sally Go Round the Sun, where the song is credited to Songs and Slang of the British Soldier by John Brophy and Eric Partridge in 1930.

The absence of the song (to my hearing at least) in Australia is unusual, as much of the repertoire of Australian children’s entertainers, like the Wiggles, came from the UK and the US.

Sadly there was no copy of the 1930 text online, so I had to wait until going to the library today to further research its origins. I found the 1930 text, but it had several titles, including The Long Trail (which is online, a 1965 re-print).

The Long Trail – Song Page
The Long Trail – Title Page

One of the reasons I wasn’t having luck with the search is because the song in this book is titled Down by the Sea, and the singer talks about their wife, rather than their mother.

Searching for the 1930 words led me to More Tommy’s Tunes, which is a 1918 sequel to Tommy’s Tunes, published by Frederick Thomas Nettleingham (2nd Lieutenant Royal Flying Corp) in 1917.

The version in this book is titled Way down yonder in the Cornfields and begins with the line “OLD Mother Riley’s got a farm”, but has the familiar call and response structure with the sea and the watermelons.

More Tommy’s Tunes – 1918
More Tommy’s Tunes – Song

No doubt this book was widely printed during the war, but it was special to be able to hold a tattered copy in my hands and think about how much improvised song would have been used by the men and women going through the horrors of Word War I to keep their spirits up.

Unfortunately this is where the trail goes cold. It would seem most likely that this version has it’s origin in pre-war American song, either music-hall or from an African-American song, but I cannot find any reference to this.

I know that there is some association with watermelons and racism, however, none of the versions of this song that I have found indicate that racism is present in this song.


Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Will the real Ned Kelly please stand up?

Ned Kelly

I recently did this recording of a song about Ned Kelly written by Australian singer Trevor Lucas in the 1970s. The song was performed by Fotheringay in the UK (played here without Trevor, who passed in 1989) and later picked up back in Australia by Redgum.

I had heard this song some 25 years ago at a local musical production about Ned Kelly in Queensland. I’m not sure who wrote the musical, or if it was associated with Redgum or Trevor Lucas, but this song featured in it.

Like any folk hero, the stories that sprung up about the bushranger Edward Kelly during his criminal career and soon after his hanging in Melbourne in November 1880 were not always factual. The idea and image of Ned Kelly has continued to be used by various parts of society for all manner of reasons.

Most recently a 2019 film dramatization of Ned’s life, The True History of the Kelly Gang, was aired on Stan and a small cinema release in 2020.

I’m writing this blog post because someone commented on my video upload with this:

“The song is well done, but the words are based on a load of mythological nonsense, that does not reveal the true nature of Ned Kelly.”

And then again on someone else’s comment:

But the words are based on fictitious rubbish.”

I thought it would be instructional to go through the lyrics of the Trevor Lucas songs and have a look for this ‘fictitious rubbish and mythological nonsense’.

I won’t bother with the chorus, as it doesn’t really say anything disputable. But will go through the verses.

Verse 1

Eighteen-hundred and seventy-eight,
Was the year I remember so well.
They put my father in an early grave
And slung my mother in gaol.
Now I don’t know what’s right or wrong
But they hung Christ on nails.
Six kids at home and two on the breast:
They wouldn’t even give her bail.

So was Ned Kelly’s mother made a widow by the police and trying to raise six children and refused bail? The fact that Ned was one of 7 children is not in dispute, and the story of his father John ‘Red’ Kelly being deported from Ireland for stealing pigs is also not up for debate. This excerpt:

“the officer in charge of that district . . . should endeavor, whenever they committed any paltry crime, to bring them to justice and send them to Pentridge even on a paltry sentence, the object being to take prestige away from them, which was as good an effect as being sent to prison with very heavy sentences, because the prestige those men get up there from what is termed their flashness helped them to keep together, and that is a very good way of taking the flashness out of them.”

(Perth Mirror, 11 July 1953)

of direction from the Assistant Chief Commissioner to Police in the area that the Kellys settled in makes it very clear that the effort to keep them and those like them in poverty was carefully thought out. The impact on Ned, his brothers, sisters, father and mother was very real. To be of a convict background, and Irish, in the Australia of the 1870s meant that a peaceful life, surviving off the fruit of honest labour, was near impossible.

Update: Thanks to Sam’s post below, here is a link to an instance of Ellen Kelly being given bail from May 1878. Of course, this doesn’t prove that she was not refused bail on another occasion, given her frequent run-ins with the police.

Verse 2

You know I wrote a letter ’bout Stringy Bark Creek
So they would understand
That I might be a bushranger
But I’m not a murdering man.
I didn’t want to shoot Kennedy
Or that copper Lonigan.
He alone could have saved his life
By throwing down his gun.

There is no debate here, the Jerilderie Letter is real, copies exist and it has been analysed in detail. You can read the full text of the letter here. A brief excerpt below, which confirms that in at least Ned’s own mind, he saw his life played out as part of the ongoing English oppression of the Irish people.

What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishmen that has got command army forts of her batterys, even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish. Would they not slew round and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the color they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and rise old Erin’s isle once more from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke, and which has kept in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy’s coat. What else can England expect, is there not big fat necked unicorns enough paid to torment and drive me to do things which I don’t wish to do without the public assisting them.

(Jerilderie Letter)

Verse 3

You know they took Ned Kelly
And they hung him in the Melbourne Gaol.
He fought so very bravely
Dressed in iron mail.
But no man single-handed
Can hope to break the bars.
It’s a thousand like Ned Kelly
Who’ll hoist the flag of stars.

Or course Ned Kelly was hung at Old Melbourne Jail on 11 November 1880. Saying that he had ‘iron mail’ is a poetic license stretch as his armour was plate metal, most likely ‘bush forged’ from stolen plough mould boards.

Whether Ned Kelly was brave, or fought bravely, is a matter of opinion. It is clear from history that Ned’s life was a result of English power and money seeking to ensure that the children of Irish convicts could never prosper in the country.


I am no historical scholar, or expert on Ned Kelly, but I have read many of the stories, plays and song that appeared in Australian newspapers in the 140 years since his death, and feel I can say with some confidence that the accusation that this particular ballad is ‘fictitious rubbish’ is absolutely false. I am happy to look at any evidence presented to the contrary.


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

Four Treasures of Ireland

I have been working my way through The Secret Rose and Other Stories, which is a compilation of several short stories and essays by William Butler Yeats. As a ballad collector and writer I was very pleased to find many songs within the text.

The full stories of Red Hanrahan are part of the book and are available here. It was the first in this series of stories about a semi-fictional Irish bard that prompted me to write this song.

Incidental to this post, I have been writing a song (almost) every week as part of the Positive Songs Project. It is great motivation as a songwriter and also an opportunity to hear the work that others are doing while we are unable to play live in-person events.

Red Hanrahan is a fictional character but based on the life of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (Owen Roe O’Sullivan) who lived in the 1700s. It is not clear how much is Yeats creation and how much of Hanrahan was Owen’s own alter-ego.

In one of the stories, Yeats attributes one of my favourite Irish songs, Casadh an tSúgáin (Twisting the Rope) to O’Sullivan. A song that I spent some considerable time trying to learn to sing like Michael O’Domhnaill does.

In the first Red Hanrahan story, Yeats tells how Hanrahan was at a barn being used as a pub when he received word that he could marry his true love if he quickly returned to the house of her recently deceased mother. It is Samhain eve and instead of leaving Hanrahan is convinced to play cards with a strange old man and ends up following a magic rabbit out into the night.

Hanrahan ends up in the heart of Slieve (mount) Echtge with a fairy queen/goddess, the mountains namesake (the mountains are also known as Slieve Aughty). Four old women carry the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Hanrahan is deemed unworthy, possibly for refusing the advances of Echthge. There seems to be little written about this goddess Echthge, other than that her name means ‘awful one’ and she eats her children. Elsewhere Echthge is referred to as the daughter of Nuada of the Silver Hand.

It is fitting that Echthge is Nuada’s daughter as he is the owner of the Sword of Light (Claíomh Solais), one of the four treasures.

In the story, Hanrahan returns to the world but his lover is long dead as many years have passed. This incident haunts him throughout the rest of his life.

Yeats (or O’Sullivan) cleverly foreshadowed the appearance of the four treasures by having the old man mutter ‘Spades and Diamonds, Courage and Power; Clubs and Hearts, Knowledge and Pleasure.’ before the card game.

It was the linking of the Playing Card suits that I found most interesting in this story. I love it when we are casually reminded of the pagan origins of the everyday items that people take for granted.

A student of Wicca or Ceremonial Magic (as Yeats was) would immediately recognise the link between the four items and the four elements, Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and the four cardinal points.

The four treasures, brought by the Tuatha Dé Danann from their islands in the north (maybe Atlantis) were the Cauldron of the Dagda, the Sword of Light, the Stone of Destiny and the Spear of Lugh.

The connection between the Cauldron of the Dagda (and Morrigan), the Wiccan Chalice and the Tarot Suit of Cups is clear. The association of the suit for hearts and the cauldron with pleasure makes a lot more sense when you watch this video of how Vikings cooked with a cauldron. In the Bronze Age, the ability to eat and the association of the cauldron with food and the dream of an eternally full cauldron makes a lot of sense for people on a subsistence diet. The Cornucopia is also an interesting counterpart to this cauldron.

The Sword of Light previously mentioned is linked to the suite of Clubs and the Athame (ritual knife) in Wicca. Interesting that in Wicca the knife is associated with fire, but with air for some ceremonial magicians. In the story, the club (sword) is associated with knowledge, possibly with the idea of cutting through illusion. Interesting that the word for fire brand and sword are interchangeable in several languages, originating from Old Norse, brandr.

The Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil) has a clear association with power, as it was used to confirm the kings of Ireland until 500 AD. The association with the suit of diamonds is less clear until you realise the diamonds are stones. The pentacles or coins suit in the Tarot looks exactly like the pentacle used to symbolise earth for Wiccans. In the Waite-Smith tarot, the magician is shown with each of the four magical tools and the pentacle suit symbol on the altar.

The final item, the Spear of Lugh, is easily associated with the suit of spades, which look like a Bronze Age spearhead. I am fascinated by the similarities between Lugh’s spear and the arrow carried by Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy. Lugh’s spear can be directed to hit its target and return on its own. One of the stories suggests that Lugh demanded it from a king of Persia. We know that the Bronze Age was a time when some areas of the world were developing advanced metal working techniques. Some Viking swords came from Afghanistan and the quality of high carbon steel blades and spear heads would have seemed like magic to warriors with bronze weapons. In Wicca and Ceremonial magic the spear has been replaced by a wand or a feather, and is associated with the element of Air. The spear is associated with courage in Hanrahan’s story, which aligns with the idea that the holder of the spear will always succeed in battle. The story of lightening coming from the spear and its ability to return gives it a strong connection to Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. In the Tarot, the suit is various called wands or staves. The spear is said to be made of Yew, which is poisonous and associated with death (something that Harry Potter got right).

The four treasures associated with Ireland also have a parallel in the mythology of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The four elements of the grail mythology are the Cup of Christ, the Spear of Loginus, the sword Excalibur (or another sword) and a dish (possibly mistranslated). Britain, not to be outdone, has thirteen items.







Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Ye Sons of Australia

Ned Kelly was executed at Melbourne gaol on 11 November 1880.

While I don’t consider myself and Australian songwriter (I was born in New Zealand, and am more drawn to the songs of Ireland and Scotland), it was a little odd for me to have recorded and uploaded 700 songs, mostly folk, to YouTube without ever a mention of this Australian folk hero.

Hero only to a small portion of the population, and likely a hero to different parts of that population and for different reasons over the 140 years since his death.

I’m not a Ned Kelly historian, and there are been plenty of recreations and retellings of his life and exploits in film and in song. Most recently The True History of the Kelly Gang aired on Stan earlier this year. It can be called a ‘true history’ in the same way that Trainspotting was a ‘true history’ of drug use and crime in Scotland.

The reason for this post is my recent recording of the ballad Ye Sons of Australia, prompted by the suggestion of Ewan Lawrie from the Canberra Shanty Club. I was intrigued by the fact that you can’t find this song anywhere on Spotify or iTunes and the author is listed as anon. It was recorded by Martyn Wyndham-Read and Danny Spooner in the 60s/70s but very much out of print now. Jason and Chloe Roweth recorded this as ‘Kate Kelly’ on their 2003 album, As Good as New. Some of the very helpful Australian folk community have assisted me in trying to track down the author, but to no avail.

I found this very interesting, for a song with such a famous character as its subject.

John Meredith captured a snippet of the song being sung by Gladys Scrivener around 1953-1961, available at the National Library here. John Meredith went on to publish the song in his book, Songs of the Kelly Country, published in 1955. Gladys was credited with passing on a number of songs to the Bush Music Club in Sydney during the 1950s and says that many of the songs were learnt from her grandfather. This Mudcat thread indicates that Gladys’ Grandfather was J M Power, of West Maitland who learned them while working in Northern New South Wales. No further details of his life are available, but if he was collecting songs as a young man, it would have been around the time of Ned Kelly.

One fascinating aspect of this particular ballad is that it focuses strongly on the exploits of Ned’s sister, Kate Kelly. It seems clear that it was more likely to be Ned’s other sister, Maggie, who was responsible for acts of daring in support of the Kelly Gang. Maggie had especially good reason to be bitter after her husband was falsely imprisoned after the Fitzpatrick incident and never returned to her or his children.

The Kelly Gang - Coming Home for Christmas
The Kelly Gang – Coming Home for Christmas

George Washington Lambert painted The Kelly Gang – Coming Home for Christmas in 1908. George was just seven when the siege at Glenrowan occurred, so the event must have been in the public consciousness in 1908 enough for him to warrant doing this painting.

The feelings that inspired the painting match well with the style and tone of the ballad, suggesting that it could have been in circulation then. Kate painted as a rescuing hero, defying the police and trying to help her brothers to freedom during the siege of Glenrowan is an odd way to represent the fate of violent outlaws.

This article in The Bulletin in 1953 by Douglas Stewart highlights the extreme difficultly that song collectors were having linking songs to authors at the time. This is confusing when the likes of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were having their work published far and wide. This article from the West Australian in 1904 describes a play called the Outlaw Kelly, which seems to incorporate Kate riding bravely on her horse. Maybe this was the inspiration for George Lambert and the author of the ballad?

Another play by E. C. Martin, Ostracized, was reviewed in August 1881, less than a year after the Glenrowan siege.

It is possible that the class warfare between the English and Scottish Protestant power holders and the Irish Catholic ex-convicts and working people meant that authors of songs like this chose to remain anonymous for their own safety.

In 1880, Ned represented a violent response to corrupt police and laws designed to make it difficult for people on the fringes to make a living. The memory of the Castle Hill Rebellion in 1804 and the Eureka Rebellion of 1854 were likely to still be strong in the minds of these people. Much as the singing of Irish rebel songs could lead to death or imprisonment in Ireland, singing the praises of Ned Kelly in the 1880s probably came with the same risks. As stated, I am not a Ned Kelly historians, there are many papers that can be read on that subject.

I would love to hear from anyone who knows something more about the history of authorship of this ballad. I am reasonably sure that the attribution to J. K. Moir here is an erroneous reading of the Douglas Stewart article I quote above.

Update: After publication of this article, Chris David Woodland provided a copy of the song as it was in circulation in the 1960s.

Update 2: Thanks to Sandra from the Bush Music Club for sending me a link to the second page and better quality images from the song as it appears in Bushwhacker Broadsides.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Love in a Tub – Roud#556

I have been listening to Rachel McDonough’s renditions of ballads from the Francis Child collection for about four years. These ballads are mostly of English/Scotts/Irish origin from the 1600-1700s or earlier.

While many of these ballads were revived/re-discovered in the 1960s by the likes of Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy or collectors such as Albert Lloyd they were often truncated or censored to make them suitable for radio. It is usually these truncated versions that end up being endlessly re-recorded by folk/pop musicians.

I think the work of the YouTube community recording and sharing these ballads in their original state is important. Not many artists are going to put the 27-minute-long Will Steward and John on their album, so we are lucky to have Raymond Crooke’s rendition.

I have only recorded 21 of the 305 Child Ballads, but Rachel recently highlighted that beyond the Child collection there are many other ballads catalogued in the Roud index (of 25,000 songs) which do not have published recordings. The index was created and is maintained by Steve Roud.

This post documents my research in putting Roud #556, Love in a Tub, or The Old Miser Outwitted to music. Love in a Tub appears as a broadside around 1764. The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library hosts the Roud index and here is the entry for #556. In some cases the Roud entry is just a reference to an entry in another catalogue document, for example this 1905 catalogue of broadsides and chapbooks at Harvard.

Incidentally, is an absolutely incredible resource for the ballad researcher. With a library of over 2.6 million scanned and indexed (i.e. you can search for words) books it is possible to find an entry in a catalogue and then track down the referenced chapbook or possibly the broadside at the Bodleian Ballad database.

The two references to Love in a Tub in the Bodleian database do not suggest a tune, but do have consistent lyrics apart from the ‘long s’ (which fell out of use by the 1800s) in one of the versions.

I think the woodblock image in the first version is trying to show the process of building the woman into the barrel, which would be quite a time consuming challenge, if you look closely you can see the woman’s head poking out the bottom of the barrel. This video showing the construction of barrel’s shows how challenging this might be.

Another version, found in New York is referenced at the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballad Project.

In the Roxburghe Ballads index there is a reference to Love in a Tub, suggesting that it was a new song in 1684 and that it should be sung to the tune of Daniel Cooper. This means that the song was already almost 100 years old when it was printed in the 1764 broadside.

I did find a very scratchy 1942 recording of Harvey Murchie (from Houlton, Maine), part of the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection, singing the song with lyrics clearly modified from the broadside. The lyrics were most likely modified through the ‘folk process’. It amazes me that this recording is possibly the only time the song had been sung since its popularity in the 1700s, possibly passed down through Harvey’s family and carried with them when they emigrated from Ireland (I am assuming this from the accent, as I can find no biographical details on Harvey).

I did have a go at transcribing the 1700s music notation in this broadside of Daniel Cooper, but couldn’t get the tune to scan with the lyrics. Interestingly, there is a dance called Daniel Cooper  which was popular with the Russian court and even got a mention by Tolstoy in War and Peace.

There are echos of the tune from the Daniel Cooper broadside in the Russian Dance tune, and it is fascinating that a ‘Cooper’ features in the Love in a Tub story. None of the tunes on with names matching the ones referred to in the Daniel Cooper ballad seemed to relate to the annotated melody.

I am not sure what the connection is, but there was a play by Sir George Etherege called Love in a Tub written around 1660. I read through most of the play, but could find no correlation between the story in the ballad and the story in the play.

The idea of hiding a woman in a barrel in order to procure her as a wife seems like a trope that would have captured the popular imagination and founds its way into other poems and songs. Sadly I can find no references to putting people in barrels apart from the brutal execution of St Eulaia of Barcelona 303 C.E.

I ended up setting the ballad to my own melody. The final result is available here. Text of the broadside and chords provided below:

G         C         G            C
Let every one that is to mirth inclin’d
      C            G       Am      C
Come draw near I pray and listen awhile,
G              D        C        D
Tis witty and pretty, diverting new,
C               G        D           G
And tho’it is merry, it is certainly true.

In the City of London there lately did well,
A topping-wine merchant that’s known very well;
He had but one Daughter, a Beauty most bright,
Who was all his Comfort and all his Delight

A handsome young Vintner lived very near,
Who dealt with this Merchant for Thousands a Year;
And being invited to Supper one night,
He happened to see this Beauty so bright.

Instead of his stomach he feasted his eyes
On the charms of her beauty which did him surprise
But that very night fortune prov'd so kind,
That he to the lady discover'd his mind.

Young cupid so cunningly acted his part,
That with the same passion he wounded her heart,
So that when he began to discover his mind,
He found that to love she was quickly inclin'd.

Said she, sir, your stock you know is but low,
Some hundreds of pounds to my father you owe,
And I am a lady of noble estate,
How do you presume to talk at this rate?

Dear madam, said he, had I thousands a year,
I'd part with it all for the sake of my dear,
Then let not true love be despised for gold,
For riches can't buy it, 'tis not to be sold.

She granted hm love, and to him she reply'd,
My dear, I would have you be well satisty'd;
'Tis fitting my father consents we should wed,
Not a farthing of portion else is to be had. 
(this line missing from the broadside I sung from)

If you will be true, my dear jewel, he said,
A politic fancy I have in my head, 
And when you do hear it, I fear not, says he,
But unto the project you will quickly agree.

You see in a vault where your father's wine stands
There are some empty casks on the left hand;
The cooper's my friend, I can trust him said he,
I'll give him ten guineas in gold for his fee.

He shall head you up in a hogshead this night, 
Your father will think it is good Lisbon white, 
And I'll come and buy the same as it stands;
And pay him the money down at his demands.

She liked the project and both were agreed,
The cooper was sent for, he came with all speed,
He took the young lady without more delay,
And into the hogshead he put her straitway.

He headed it up all secure and nice,
Then strait came the vintner up in a trice;
And seeing the merchant, said sir at this time
I am in great want of a hogshead of wine.

Then to the wine cellar they both did repair,
To taste of the liquors, but when they came there
He knowing the hogshead did make this reply,
Sir, this for my money, if any, I'll buy.

When I was here last, if the truth I may tell,
I tasted the liquor, and liked it well,
For the same they agreed, the money was paid,
He turned him round to the merchant and said:

Sir, all in the hogshead I've bought, it is mine,
But only the staves and the hoops they are thine:
Yes, yes, said the merchant, and I am content,
Then straitway to taste of the liquor they went.

He then took a piercer, and pierced the fame,
But never a drop from the hogshead there came;
The vintner said what a bargain is this,
For never a drop in the hogshead there is.

Nay, nay, said the merchant,'the bargain is good’,
For you bought the hogshead just as it stood,
Let what will be in it, either beer, ale, or wine,
You've bought it, paid for it, so it shall be thine

They open'd the hogshead, the lady came forth,
The old man he star'd and rap'd out an oath,
If this be your bargain, e'en take her, said he,
Sure never poor old man was bubbl'd like me.

It is but a folly to fly in a rage,
I find that youth is too cunning for age;
You bought her, I sold her, so love her, said he,
Three thousand pounds portion I’ll freely give thee 

The vintner he loves her as dear as his life,
And as 'tis reported, the proves a good wife
He follows his calling of drawing good bub,
By this you may see there is Love in a Tub;



A Factory Lad - Project · Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

A Factory Lad – Part 4

B-250 Tractor

Wherever you go in society, politics are sure to come up. After spending a day listening to the Australian Folklore conference speakers at the National Library on 18 April and speaking with more people who were part of the Australian folk scene in the 60s and 70s, it seems clear that there were circles within circles, which always leaves some folks on the outside.

Whether the lines are drawn around religion, social class, morality and ethics or the ‘right’ way to play the Mudgee Waltz (very enjoyable talk by Dave de Hugard), all communities seem to find ways to divide themselves.

I continue to hear from many new people with re-collections of Colin and some have been kind enough to put their memories in an email or share them over the phone.

I spent a few days listening to four of the songs Colin did on the Mike Eves collection. I decided not to attempt Colin’s version of the Sheffield Grinder because his tempo and guitar skills are beyond me. I hope it gets published soon, as it demonstrates the range of Colin’s talent. This isn’t the ‘music hall’ version of the song, but instead this version from 1847. Here is a 1975 Scottish folk rock group called Finn Mac Cuill doing the song, but to a different melody.

The four songs that I recorded, after listening to Colin’s versions in the car for a week, are nicely mirrored in the songs that he wrote, Sither and Pit Boy. Two of the songs are about weaving, and two about mining. I suspect that Colin would have heard these songs while growing up in Yorkshire.

In each case, Colin sings these songs in a unique way; not like Ewan MacColl, who was recording them in the 1950s, but with a visceral artistry. Colin was able to embody the emotion of the song, rather than just repeat words to a melody.

I have not been able to find anyone else performing these songs quite the way Colin did. I have included detail about each of the songs in the video description.

Four Pence a Day – is a song about young children working in the lead mines of Teesdale prior to 1842.

The Blantyre Explosion – is about an 1877 mining disaster at High Blantyre in Scotland

Poverty Knock – describes that plight of, mostly, women weavers in the 1860s in Yorkshire

Four Loom Weaver – is a re-working of a much earlier ballad (1805) applied to the Cotton Famine in Lancashire in 1861.

Each of these songs are performed in a different style by Colin, but each in a way that would make a room fall silent.

Colin’s connection to working people’s songs was not an affectation, his most well-known song, Factory Lad, was most likely autobiographical. The B-250 tractor was being manufactured in Bradford, Yorkshire when Colin was there. One of the people who knew Colin describes his intense response to seeing one of these tractors on a farm in Australia, saying “this is what we were making”. Here is a site with some history of the International Harvester tractor factory in Bradford, Yorkshire where Colin most likely worked before coming to Australia in 1965.

I only have a few more songs to re-record, and will then be ready to publish my album.

A Factory Lad – Part 5