09 Mar

George Riley

When I arrived in the County Antrim,
To view the banks of sweet harmony,
I espied a damsel so fair and handsome,
You would really have thought she was the queen of May.

I stepped up to her, I did salute her,
I gently asked her to be my wife,
Most modestly she made me an answer,
“Kind sir, I choose a sweet single life.”

“You fair young creature, you pride of nature,
What makes you differ from all female kind?
Your cherry cheeks, your eyes like amber,
It seems to marry you must incline.”

“’Tis youth and folly makes young folks marry,
And when you’re married, then you must obey,
Since what can’t be cured must be endured,
So farewell, Riley, I am going away.”

We have another song this month from the fascinating repertoire of Carrie Grover (1879-1959) of Maine. Grover learned this song from her Irish-Canadian mother while growing up in Nova Scotia. The above transcription is my own based on a recording of Grover made in 1941 by Sidney Robertson-Cowell that is archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Grover’s “George Riley” is a pared down variant of a relatively common Irish song “O’Reilly from the County Leitrim/Kerry/Cavan” (the county changes from version to version just as Grover’s version moves it to County Antrim). Most Irish versions include the man’s wish to have his beloved “in Phoenix Island” or to sail her “over to Pennsylvania.” The only other North American version I have tracked down is one from a remote fishing village in Labrador which is similar to the Irish texts. Grover’s is short and to the point and she uses a melody unique from what I found in Irish collections.

19 Nov

Our Captain Says “Away”

Our captain says “Away, all hands, tomorrow,”
Leaving you girls behind in sad grief and sorrow,
Dry up those briny tears and don’t be a-weeping,
For so happy we will be, my love, at our next meeting.

She threw her arms abroad like one a-dying,
With the wringing of her hands, and a-crying and sighing,
“What makes you roam abroad a-fighting for strangers?
Oh stay at home with me, my love, and be free from dangers.

“When I had gold in store, you seemed to like me,
But now I am growing poor, you seem for to slight me,
You courted me awhile just for to deceive me,
And now my tender heart you have won you are going for to leave me.”

“Oh, fare you well, father, and fare you well, mother,
For I am your daughter dear and you have no other,
For to weep it is all in vain, for I am a-going,
To the lad that I so dearly love, the one who has proved my ruin.”

“There is no believing men, no, not your own brother,
There is no believing men, no, not your true lover,
Your favor they will gain, then turn to some other,
So, young girls, if you can love, be sure to love one another.”

Last month, I had the honor of attending the annual Getaway weekend of the Folksong Society of Greater Washington near Washington, DC as a guest. While there, I got to talk northwoods songs with DC area singers Lisa Null and Steve Woodbury. A couple years ago, Lisa and Steve introduced me to the wonderful repertoire of Maine singer Carrie Grover and gave me a copy of Grover’s “Heritage of Songs” book. Lisa was also partly responsible for Irish singer Paul Brady’s 1973 introduction to the Grover collection from which he adapted his iconic versions of both “Arthur McBride” and “The Jolly Soldier!” (see Northwoods Songs #66). While in DC, I decided to spend some time at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress listening to their large collection of recordings of Carrie Grover singing and playing fiddle.

How wonderful and insightful to hear these recordings! Carrie Grover (1879-1959) turns out to have been a very skilled singer with a store of complex and beautiful melodies and vocal techniques to match her rich repertoire. I fell in love with her singing and transcribed as many songs as I could from her 1941 session with collector Sidney Robertson.

Grover titles the above song “The False Lover” in her book. She learned it from her mother whose grandfather William Long came from Ireland to Nova Scotia where Carrie herself was born. Other than a version collected in Newfoundland by Kenneth Peacock, the song seems to have been found primarily in England where Martin Carthy and others have sourced their renditions of it. Most other versions I found use melodies similar to Grover’s though I find the freedom of her timing and some of her notes to be especially haunting. The above is my transcription of Grover with a few lines borrowed from the Newfoundland version.

19 Nov

The Fair at Bonlaghy

I went to the fair at Bonlaghy,
I bought a little wee pig,
I rolled it up in my pocket,
And it danced a swaggering jig.
Then it’s hi for the top o’ the heather,
And hi for the root of the sprig,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

I went to the fair at Bonlaghy,
I bought a wee slip of a pig,
And as I was passing the poorhouse,
I whistled the Swaggering Jig.
Then it’s hi for the cups and the saucers,
And hi for the butter and bread,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

As I being down by the poorhouse,
I whistled so loud and so shrill,
I made all the fairies to tremble,
That lived near McLoughrim Hill.
Then it’s Hi! for the cups and the saucers,
And hi for the butter and bread,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

As a lover of Irish dance tunes and the Irish song tradition, I have long been on the lookout for jigs, polkas, barn dances and other tunes that have a history of being used both as dance tunes and as the melodies for songs. They are rare birds within the instrumental tradition but these “singable” tunes are some of my favorites.

In the 1930s, the great County Derry song collector Sam Henry collected “Bellaghy Fair” sung to a variant of the slip jig called “The Swaggering Jig” (aka “Give Us a Drink of Water”). Around the same time, Ohio collector Mary Eddy collected a fragment of the same song in Steubenville, Ohio from Mary M. Cox (nee Marion) whose parents were born in Ireland and who learned several songs from an Irish uncle. The Ohio version has Bonlaghy instead of Bellaghy. Bellaghy is a village in Derry. Bonlaghy did not come up in my Google Maps searches of Ireland but Google Books led me to The Gentleman and Citizen’s Almanack for the Year of our Lord, 1732 which lists Bonlaghy, County Longford as the site of one of the “principle fairs of Ireland” happening on July 15th of that year.

The Ohio melody is unique from “The Swaggering Jig” as played by tune players and as sung by Sam Henry’s (unknown) source.  It is also only a fragment—missing the second part. The above melody is my attempt to stretch the Ohio melody out over the two parts.  I also blended the Ohio text with the Sam Henry text.