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.


Blog Post · Folk Music

The Craic is Back in Yass!

I have greatly missed the sound of forty musicians on bodhrans, fiddles, concertinas, flutes, guitars, mandolins, pipes, harmonicas and banjos belting out hour after hour of Irish tunes. It was fabulous to hear that sound in our small town of Yass again after a three-year absence due to the plague.

As a songwriter, I also love the chance to hear what others from across the country have been writing or adding to their repertoire. While the factory floor of Twitter, Instagram, Zoom, YouTube and Facebook have provided an alternative for artists during these times of isolation, they do not come close to the experience of being in the same room with an audience and other performers.

Dixie Chooks
Dixie Chooks at the Lovat Chapel

Friday night opened at the Lovat Chapel (formerly St. Augustine’s) with the ‘just in time’ Dixie Chooks, having hit petrol trouble at Gundagai. Although I’ve had the chance to hear Wendy and Moira several times before, the superb guitar skills, soaring harmonies and guaranteed humor always make it worthwhile to catch them again.

Songbrother at the Lovat Chapel

As an avid listener of Triantan for many years I was excited to hear the new incarnation of 2/3rds of them (Anthony Woolcott and Miguel Heatwole), with Sophie Moore. Fabulous vocal harmonies and an eclectic mix of material, including Baterz’ Giant Squids, a song from Tolkien and some 80s punk ballads. The addition of Sophie Moore’s beautiful soprano makes for some enchanting listening. However, the group may need to find a new name as ‘Songbrother’ probably doesn’t fit anymore!

Miguel asked me to record the concert for them, the video is available here.

Memorial for Annie Waterhouse
Memorial for Annie Waterhouse

The rest of the Friday evening was a somber occasion, with a memorial concert for Annie Waterhouse, who passed unexpectedly only months before the festival. Annie was a major supporter of the festival and a key member of the committee, her loss was deeply felt. I sang this re-write of the famous poem by George Washington Johnson for Annie at the concert.

Sadly I missed the end of the Friday night Shanty Session run by the Canberra Shanty Club at the Clubhouse Hotel but did catch the song about an exploding pig by Luke Robinson at Trader & Co. before calling it a night.

While there were a few performers that I missed due to scheduling, I was able to hear the angelic voice of Shona Williams at 10 in the morning on Saturday, in a newly flooded (broken dishwasher) Yazzbar. Shona is a joy to listen to as an unaccompanied singer.

Shona Williams
Shona Williams at Yazzbar (10am)

After hearing Shona I was back to the Lovat Chapel to launch my second album of songs about Yass, Peace in the Valley. It was also an opportunity to sing my song about the Sisters of Mercy that came to Yass in 1875 and were responsible for building the Chapel and running the Mt Carmel school. I had been scheduled to sing it there in 2021, to commemorate the last sisters leaving Yass, but the event was covid-delayed.

It is worth a special mention for Keith and Liz Lovell, who run the Lovat Chapel venue as volunteers. Having a great MC can make the experience much fuller for both performer and audience and Liz does a wonderful job (promoted to National Folk Festival MC this year!).

Nerida Cuddy
Nerida Cuddy at Yazzbar

Having missed Nerida Cuddy at previous festivals, it was wonderful to finally hear her in person, with such wholesome and evocative songwriting and a fine voice. One of Nerida’s songs, Virtual Folk Club, closely tracks my own strange experience in 2020/2021 with international Zoom-based concerts and music clubs.

One of the best surprises of the weekend was ducking into Trader &Co. at 8pm on Saturday for some dinner (delicious beef in Guinness). The schedule had ‘Open Mic’, but instead Mad Kelpie Playdate did an impromptu concert of fabulous pipe tunes. A brief snippet up on my Facebook page here. After the set they were joined by others for a session, which Paddy Conner told me went until 1am.

Lugh Damen
Lugh Damen at the Memorial Hall

Sunday afternoon finished up with a local showcase where I got to share the stage again with Lugh Damen and his very fine sounding 150 year old lute, our Irish guest artist, Stephen Murray and honorary locals Phil Lester and Shona Williams.

Christina Green
Christina Green at the Australian Hotel

Other highlights over the weekend included fine songs from Christina Green. I had greatly enjoyed the Irish chant that she sang for Annie’s Memorial Concert, so was happy to be able to catch her set at the Australian Hotel on Saturday night. Despite some competition with the rowdy sports-ball watchers in the bar, Christina shared some fabulous songs. Hearing David Game and Jenny Gall sing and play as a duo was also a pleasure, having previously played with them in the local Céilí band.

Jennifer and David
Jennifer and David at the Australian Hotel

As at any festival, there were many other great acts that I missed this year. Jose Garcia of Tidal Moon did an excellent job getting the best sound out of the Lovat Chapel, but I was sad to only catch him and Tidal Moon singing at partial sounds checks.

Janno Scanes, as festival director and president of the committee did a super-human job putting the festival together this year. The hurdles have not been minor, and it is a significant achievement that the festival went ahead despite weather, sickness, bureaucracy, and great loss. Melita Simmonds also managed to be simultaneously in 4 venues capturing the festival, you can see her fine work on the festival Instagram and Facebook pages.

Stephen Murray
Stephen Murray at the Memorial Hall

Hopefully at the 2023 festival, the plague will be a bad memory, and we will welcome back performers from across the globe, to the finest festival, in the finest little town on earth.








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

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
Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

Filk the World

This week, through a series of seemingly random events I became aware of the work of Leslie Fish. As an Electrical Engineer, Computer Programmer and a Science-Fiction/Fantasy fan I was surprised that the whole phenomena of ‘Filk’ music had largely passed me by.

I suspect it was because most of my Science Fiction/Fantasy reading was done in secret in small-town rural Australia, which wasn’t exactly overflowing with Star Trek conventions. It was probably also because my parents largely viewed that whole ‘dressing up’ scene with Pentecostal Christian fear and loathing. Dungeons and Dragons was, after all, a sure-fire pathway to demon possession.

Whenever I travel for work, my partner writes Facebook posts outlining the mayhem that often ensues with our five children. In the posts, the characters from Star Trek are borrowed as stand-ins for family members. As I am the one staying home this time, I made a few posts in the same theme and a friend mentioned ‘Banned from Argo’ in a comment (I had facetiously mentioned Mos Eisley in the context of Star Trek).

I made a recording of this amusing, raunchy, Star Trek inspired song and was surprised to get a comment back from Leslie. As I do for most of the songs I record, I researched the background. This is how I became immersed in the history of this prolific and rich cultural treasure known as ‘Filk’.

The cynic would pass the genre off as parodies and fan-fiction of little consequence. They would be wrong. Leslie’s 2012 album, Avalon is Risen, is a triumph of thought and expression in so many ways. It goes well beyond ‘space songs’ and covers issues of social commentary, paganism and fundamental questions of humanity. Fortunately, this beautifully produced booklet that goes with the album is available from Prometheus Music.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, as the same things that drive authors and fans to the genre of Science-Fiction and Fantasy are the things that make them question our history, our present society and our future. People who have a subconscious instinct from birth that the religious dogma and history they are presented with in adolescence feels contrived and doesn’t come close to fitting our lived experience find themselves looking for something else.

While Banned From Argo is an amusing romp, I picked The Sun is Also a Warrior to cover for my YouTube Channel. I read this song as a well-written rebuttal to the rose-tinted views of pacifism that often accompany the ‘New Age’ movement. Our race is, by its nature, in violent competition with our environment and each other.

The other serious song of Leslie’s that I am in awe of and wouldn’t attempt to re-record is Hope Eyrie. Set to some appropriate images in this video, the song perfectly captures the momentous nature of our mission to the moon in 1969. The song frames the event as not just a technical flea-hop off our planet, but the momentous start of the journey which will take us to other galaxies and ensure our existence beyond the small window of time in which we will consume this planet’s resources. It has taken some 50 years, but we are now seriously looking at a manned Mars expedition.

I have always appreciated artists who write and perform their songs out of a genuine desire to communicate and change society for the better, as opposed to making money giving comforting narcissistic fluff to wealthy consumers. I would place Leslie in the same league as Pete Seeger, Alistair Hulett and Billy Bragg and it is sad that her influence isn’t wider. Leslie’s song Chickasaw Mountain, on Avalon is Risen, is a tribute / letter to Phil Ochs, one of the great genuine folk writers of the 1960s.

This interview with Leslie, by Aya Katz, gives a good overview of Leslie’s views and some background to her songs and career. You can read more about Leslie in her blog here or her website here. If you want to know more about the Filk scene, this compiled ‘history’ by Gary McGath makes for interesting reading.


Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

The (not so) Old Ways

May in the Southern Hemisphere means Autumn leaves and the first taste of winter in the air. For those in the North it is the traditional beginning of Spring, with all the ritual and ceremony that was part of an agrarian culture for as far back as 10,000 years. That is of course until a small cult from the Near East rose to power and took over most of the world, stamping out ancient traditions with coercion or violence wherever they went.

I have made a recording of Hal An Tow on my You Tube channel. This website, focused on Proto-Indo-European Religion, has an excellent few pages covering May Day celebrations, including the Hal An Tow and other Furry Day activities. Furry, as in the Latin Feria, meaning Faire, rather than the Furry types that identify/dress as animals. Though having said that, I am sure there is some crossover with pre-Christian animal totems and personification of deities as animals.

Most sites indicate that the etymology of the name ‘Hal-An-Tow’ is unclear. Some claim a connection with a ‘Heel and Toe’ dance, others imply that the Cornish words mean Calender (Halan) and Garland (Tow). Most are in agreement that the original nature and true meaning of the festival held annually in early May at Helston in Cornwall are lost. The ceremony claims medieval origins, and includes many staple characters of English folklore, i.e. Robin Hood and Marion, St. George and Mary.

Some verses of the song show up in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It:

What shall he have that killed the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear.
Then sing him home.
(The rest shall bear this burden.)
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn.
It was a crest ere thou wast born.
Thy father’s father wore it,
And thy father bore it.
The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.
Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 2, 1599

Interestingly, the dialogue before this song references the Romans. It is unlikely, after having visited the Roman ruins in Bath and watched my share of Time Team episodes, that many of the Agrarian rituals of the Roman religions did not make their way into the traditions of Great Britain.

This brings me to the crux of my issue, authenticity. Whether it be those attempting to revive the ritual and lore of the Norse, the Greco-Roman mysteries, the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland or any other culture where 1500 years of Christian suppression stands in your way, it is a daunting task.

One the one hand, many of us feel a primal pull to the ceremony and ideology. On the other hand, this innocence lends itself to exploitation by charlatans.


I recently became aware of this book, Thought Vibration by William Walker Atkinson. Atkinson operated in the early 1900s in America and wrote under at least three, possibly four or more, pseudonyms. It is not just that he used an assumed name, but that his pseudonyms were tied to assumed identities, Indian Yogi’s, French Mentalists and others. Atkinson was far from a pioneer in this form of con, with L. Ron Hubbard, Helena Blavatsky and William Westcott (Golden Dawn) being other examples. At the risk of the wrath of some neo-pagans I would also put Gerald Gardner in the same basket.

These people all claimed access to higher knowledge either through ancient races, alien cultures or uncovered texts or artifacts and in most cases used this information to part many a person from their money.

The sad reality is that Christianity did a very good job of stamping out all genuine records of the worship of Isis in ancient Egypt, Herne the Hunter in England or Odin in Scandinavia. In fact, the tradition goes back beyond Christianity, with Greek and Roman gods often swallowing the gods of the conquered.

We see only remnants of these ancient characters, so loved and respected or feared by our ancestors. I loved the way that Marion Zimmer Bradley describes the continuation of the Celtic goddesses in the figure of Mother Mary in her book Mists of Avalon. However, it seems unfair that these entities can only persist into the future while in hiding.

The version of Hal An Tow that I recorded owes a lot to The Waterson’s version, but I have also include a verse that Damh the Bard uses as nod to the undeniably pagan origins of the song.

Like many people, I am disillusioned with a belief system that has severed itself from nature. A doctrine of human ‘dominion’ that led to our pollution of the environment, pollution of our bodies and an education system that leans towards facts, impersonal logic and false certainty. I’m not looking back teary eyed at a perfect past, but wishing that there was some way to teach respect for the earth and all its creatures along with the other advances in human knowledge.

So happy May to my northern friends, in the knowledge that the turning of the earth and the movement of the sun still governs our lives, no matter how much we try and distance ourselves from it.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

No Politics Please, We’re Folk Singers

A large number of the folk songs I collect and record for YouTube are political in nature. Whether they are bemoaning the unfair life of a coal miner in the 1800s, a dam builder in Scotland in the 1950’s or a conscripted soldier in the Napoleonic wars, the political theme is clear. There are others that take a more philosophical approach and advocate or denounce a particular political view, Alastair Hulett’s, Dictatorship of Capital is a good example, as was the thieving of My Love’s in Germany by Robert Burns to make a point about Jacobites.

I knew about Bob Dylan from a young age, mostly because my parents followed him into his Pentecostal Christian phase. I think the 2007 biographical movie I’m Not There did a fantastic job of showing Dylan’s immense capacity to change his image to fit the times, and probably fit his interests as an artist. As I looked into Dylan later in life, I noticed his distinct move from folk Messiah to electric narcissist rocker. When I was in New York in 2014, I spent some time walking through Greenwich village pondering what went down there in the 1960’s. I tried to imagine what was going through the minds of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk as they witnessed Dylan’s chameleon act.

Someone who was every bit the 60’s folk musician that Dylan was, but never made it through the 1970’s was Phil Ochs. It took me much longer to learn about Phil as he died the year I was born and his work largely fell from view as Dylan’s flourished. I mention Ochs and Dylan in the context of this article because I wonder whether these two can be looked at in terms of the true believer and the salesman. Was it Ochs’ status as a true believer that caused his breakdown when the perceived wave of socialism, freedom and equality fell flat? And is there an argument to be made about the quality of each as a person? Do we care if our artists genuinely believe what they sing, write or paint?

I write songs about things that I care about. I have written about the treatment of refugees by Australia, the horse racing industry, a local road that claims a few lives each year and the lack gender equality in our society. I have also written a number of songs about the banning and subsequent imprisonment, torture and execution of Falun Gong adherents in China since 1999. This subject is close to me as I learned this peaceful meditation and exercise system myself in 1998. I knew first hand that the global propaganda campaign run by the Chinese Communist Party was a lie. It has taken 16 years, but most governments of the western world have now acknowledged this. My most recently published song, Spring Comes, highlights the stories of a handful of people caught up in this saga.

For me, folk music is a way to share what we have seen and experienced with other humans. In sharing we seek a mirror, a nod of understanding, a smile or even a tear. It is disconcerting to think that some on the other side of the microphone might not necessarily be sincere in their sentiment.

I do know, and have met, many folk musicians who are sincere about what they sing. They sing not just to record, but also to influence. The story of Alistair Hulett’s efforts to keep a local swimming pool in Glasgow open, as documented here by Gavin Livingstone is just one example. I’m sure we have lost many like Phil Ochs when advocacy fails, but I cannot resign myself to the idea that we should stop trying to change the world for the better through song.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Who Gets a Song?

What is the relationship between a folk song and its genesis? How important is it to the worth of a song that there is a personal connection of some sort between the author, subject and audience? It could be argued that ever since the popularisation of the broadsheet, around 1712, this connection has been broken. With songs copied from one region and spread all over the country (and globe) to be sung by singers to audiences, neither of whom have any tangible connection to the subject matter.

Thinking back to the time of the bards, their songs were closely linked to the living memory of a specific region, clan or tribe. The audience could often trace their lineage to the heroes of a song, or even have eyewitnesses to the events amongst the living population.

We could be sceptical and assume that the bard was the equivalent of Fox News or a Murdoch tabloid, with truth in reporting highly dependent on who is paying their salary (or threatening to kill them). A brief research into the Fili of Ireland would suggest otherwise. It is because of the Fili and Bards of Wales and Scotland that such well preserved stories as those retold in Coll the Storyteller’s Tales of Enchantment or in Padrig Colum’s Treasury of Irish Folklore are still available to us, much as they would have been performed and told 500 years ago. Prior to the introduction of Christianity, the storyteller held a very high place in Celtic society, even at the same level as the chief or king.

This ramble was prompted by my reading of a book that details close to 300 years of linen manufacture in Maghera, Ireland. The book, Linen on the Green, was written by Wallace Clark, my great-great uncle. In the book is a story of one Jackson Clark (1762-1788), who had married the daughter of a local General (James Patterson). Jackson dies after falling from a horse while racing back from work to try and catch his young wife in bed with his uncle. To me, this had the makings of a good folk song, so I wrote one.

This got me thinking, why does the story of a young girl pushed into the river by her elder sister (Twa Sisters), or the tale of a young girl dying for her criminal lover (The Highwayman) warrant selection and perpetuation by society through immortalisation in song. Any folk researcher will know the process of evolution these songs go through, where the town, villain, trade or names get changed for whatever will better connect with a local culture, or serve a particular political agenda. A good example being the Recruited Ploughboy who becomes a Recruited Collier in the time when ploughing has been given over to machines. In some cases we know that the song (or poem), as for The Highwayman, has no link to real events and is purely from the imagination of the author.

So why was it that the death of my great-great-great-great-grandfather was never made into a popular song? Someone who died after riding to his love across the river Annan got a song. Could we assume, like Carl Jung, that there are archetypes of human existence that are frames upon which a particular folk song will stick because they align with these sub-conscious memes? Is this why many millions of other stories and the songs written about them fade into oblivion? Or instead, is it the writers of songs and poems that shape new archetypes from human experience which rise of fall on their merits.

This capturing of snapshots of human existence is one of the many reasons why I love folk music. There is a local singer/songwriter here in Australia, John Warner, who wrote about the experience of a group of convicts in Victoria. Anderson’s Coast, performed here by Nancy and James Fagan, captures the story of people that would otherwise never have been told. Hearing John sing the song himself is an experience worth tracking down, unfortunately there isn’t one on YouTube.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

That’s Women’s Work!

I have been listening to Alistair Hulett’s version of The Weaver and the Factory Maid since purchasing the album In Sleepy Scotland from the UK back in 2010. I always thought of it as an upstairs/downstairs style of love story between a wealthy man and the woman forced into his embrace through her station. A bit of knowledge has caused me to re-think the meaning of the song, and wonder about the way that a little bit of context can change the meaning of a folk song so much.

You can listen to my own recording here, or the Steelye Span version here. It is a great disappointment that there is no version of Alistair’s up on YouTube.

Recently I was sent a book about the history of the linen trade in Ireland. I come from a branch of the Clark family that has been manufacturing linen in the Upperlands area of Northern Ireland since the mid 1700s. The book, Linen on the Green, was written by Wallace Clark (my great-great-uncle) and first published in 1983. Reading this book and doing a bit of research on weaving has given me cause to rethink my understanding of the song.

The song is written from the perspective of a hand-weaver and speaks of his love for a factory girl. If you are already familiar with hand weaving and the various technological advances that started in 1733 with the invention (or maybe just patenting of an Asian invention dating back 500 years) of the flying shuttle by John Kay, then these next paragraphs will be a bit dull.

The handloom appeared in Europe in the 11th century and by the likely time of this song (the 1800s), there were around 250,000 hand-weavers in the UK [1], from a population of around 10 million[2]. Hand weaving was a skilled task and a good weaver could make a reasonable living for themselves. These hand-weavers would most likely have been young men (25-35), and the male subject of our song was probably one of them.

Industrialisation of the loom meant that the skills of the hand-weaver were no longer required and a young, unskilled, girl or woman could now do seven times the work for lower pay in a factory with steam driven looms.

One of the perks of being a hand-weaver was that young male weavers would travel from farm to farm with their loom to weave the flax or cotton thread spun by local farmers. This would give the weaver easy access to many a young lass, being the daughters of the farmer or land owner (the Jolly Beggar comes to mind). A young weaver who had a regular seasonal trip between farms could have had the weaver’s equivalent of a sailor’s girl in every port.

With the advent of the factory, these women now went to work early in the morning for their own money and had no time or need of a hand-weaver. This might account for the verse where the protagonist goes to the girl’s bedroom door but cannot find his way into her pleasant bed, without a job he would have had no access to the property.

I should add that it wasn’t all money and status for the women in the factories. With the guaranteed deafness, loss of finger in machinery and eyes from loose shuttles it was a miserable life. Carcinogenic chemicals on the cotton that they would thread after wetting in their mouth meant and early grave for the factory workers.

So is this song really a lament for a firm breasted young girl, or a lament for the job and the status that the hand-weaver had before the arrival of the factory? Or is the author instead longing to be let into the factory and continue to ply his trade, is his actual lament for the loom and her charms?

I may be drawing a long bow with the last suggestion, but I know I will never think of the song in the same way given this small amount of context. I wonder how many other songs are similarly misunderstood for want of a little knowledge?

[1] Guest, R, 1823, A Compendious History of Cotton-Manufacture.


Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Why I hate Barbara Allen

Ever since I bought a five CD compilation set of Irish folk music in 1999, I have loved the themes, stories and passion that is alive in this music. From the revival recordings of Ewan MacColl , the field recordings of Diane Hamilton and Catherine Wright to the more recent beautifully sung renditions by Kate Rusby , I am proud that humanity has chosen to maintain this tradition.

I am not a fan of popular music, I feel that unless a tune or song has managed to survive 100 or 200 years of competition, then it will probably (and appropriately) fade from history. If a succession of generations finds enough worth in a song to repeat it to their children and them to their children’s children, then it must hold some essence of the human condition that warrants further study.

This brings me to the subject of this entry, Barbara Allen. Variously called Barbarous Ellen, Barbara Allen’s Cruelty or the Young-man’s Tragedy, this song tells of a jilted lover who, on his death, causes the death of said lover from guilt. In some versions it is not even clear that the affection was ever requited. The ending of most versions of the song is notable for inclusion of the motif of a rose and briar joining over graves in the churchyard.

This article will not make much sense unless you are familiar with the song, you can listen to my YouTube version here, or read various versions of the tune here.

There are many discussion threads on and a good summary of the earliest known performances and publications of the song provided on The song has its earliest reported performance in 1666 and some indicate that there are close to 200 different variations spread across England, Scotland, Ireland and America.

So why do I hate this song? My main frustration is not that it lacks the key components of a good ballad, such as a murder or two, a returned lover or a dysfunctional love triangle. I am infuriated that as a disparate set of cultures across over 350 years, we have chosen to immortalise this particular piece of misogynist, spiteful, dribble.

While in some versions of the song, the particulars of Barbara’s rejection of the protagonist are fleshed out a little, they never amount to anything warranting a death wish. We can set aside the suggestion that this song may have been a piece of political satire targeting Charles II because by the 1800’s it would have lost any relevance in this respect. The song was perpetuated and re-invented based on its non-satirical merits alone.

Remember that whoever wrote the song was neither of the protagonists, as both are dead by its conclusion. We could surmise then that the author, or at least the audience psyche that identifies with the song, is a jilted male. Many a male has been spurned by a prospective lover, however, the ideology put forward in this song is that the man who dies of un-fulfilled desire should wish a swift death upon the object of his affection.

This is narrow-minded, childish misogyny. The idea that any girl who rejects a suitor should die of guilt is absurd. Yet here we have an example of an author and many millions of enamoured audience members nodding in agreement over three centuries.

The fact that this song is one of the most popular collected by Francis Child is a sad indictment on humanity. I can only assume that it is a mostly male audience that is to blame for this. There are so many other songs about chivalry, constancy and respect that warrant our praise. In the more recent example of ‘On Raglan Road ’ by Patrick Kavanagh we even have a good example describing how to look back with bittersweet reverence on failed romantic engagements.

I think this song is due for a 2016 re-write by a new generation of folk song authors. Maybe Barbara can go on to wed a man who respects her decisions and our spiteful misogynist will see the error of his ways and find someone to court who appreciates his improved character?