21 Nov

Young Matt Ilan

There was a lord, lived in the north,
He had one fair and comely daughter,
She fell in love with a young man,
He was a servant to her father.
But when the old man came to know,
He swore that he would quit that island,
The lady cries, “My heart will break,
If I must part with young Matt Ilan.”

One night he discussed his lady fair,
All in her silent, lonely chamber,
Saying, “Matt Ilan I’ll transport,
I fear my child she stands in danger.”
His daughter she in ambush lay,
Oppressed with grief, she went off smiling,
Saying, “My father I’ll deceive,
I will protect my young Matt Ilan.”

Then to his room straightway she went,
Desiring him for to awaken,
Saying, “Rise, my love, and go your way,
Or else I fear you will be taken.
This night I heard my father say,
In spite of fate he would transport you,
So go your way before it is day,
You know, my love, that I do adore you.”

She sat her down on his bedside,
For about the space of half an hour,
And every word her true love spoke,
The tears down from her eyes did pour.
Her arms about his neck she threw,
His arms about her waist he twined them,
“No lord nor duke will e’er I wed,
My heart will go with you, Matt Ilan.”

“And must I go away?” he said,
“Just like some poor, forlorn ranger,
And leave my service in distress,
And must I go without my wages?”
“Oh, here are fifty pounds,” she says,
“’Tis more than all my father owed you,
So now away before it is day,
And I wish, my love, I had gone before you.”

Then after this came many an earl,
And many a lord to court this lady,
‘Twas all in vain, it was all no use,
No lord nor earl could gain her favor.
Her father asked the reason why,
At which his daughter plainly told him,
“No lord nor earl will e’er I wed,
My heart has gone with young Matt Ilan.”

Oh, then up speaks her father dear,
“I did not know how dear you loved him,
Now, I will bring young Ilan home,
Since none there are you adore above him.”
A letter then she wrote straightway,
Her heart to him it was inclining,
So, to church away without delay,
And she made a lord of young Matt Ilan.

This month we have a beautiful, unique version from Maine of a song that is well-known in Irish music circles thanks to its popularization in the 1970s. The great Ulster musician, co-founder of The Boys of the Lough and song collector Robin Morton published “Matt Hyland” in his 1970 book Folksongs Sung in Ulster. (Morton, sadly, passed away last month.)  Morton’s source was Sandy McConnell, the father of his soon-to-be bandmate, Fermanagh musician Cathal McConnell. Sandy got it from another Fermanagh singer, Tommy McDermott. Morton observed that the song seemed to only be found in tradition in south Ulster.

As has often been the case in my research, the north woods of North America turn out to have been a place where Ulster songs migrated and survived. Carrie Grover sang the above version for collector Sydney Robertson-Cowell in 1941. Grover, born in Nova Scotia and based for most of her life in Maine, wrote in her book A Heritage of Songs “I have never heard anyone but my father sing this song, and he said he never heard anyone sing it but the man from whom he learned it. It is so long ago that I can’t be sure, but I think the singer was a man from New Brunswick whose name was Davidson.”

The source for my transcription was the audio recording of Grover made available online through the wonderful work of Julie Mainstone Savas on her Carrie Grover Project site (carriegroverproject.com). I recommend listening to the recording for Grover’s effective use of a sort of “in between” pitch at the peak of the opening phrase.

22 Oct

Lather and Shave

It was down in the city not far from this spot,
Where a barber he set up a snug little shop,
He was silent and sad, but his smile was so sweet,
That he pulled everybody right in from the street.

One horrid bad custom he thought he would stop,
That no one for credit should come to his shop,
So he got him a razor full of notches and rust,
To shave the poor mortals who came there for trust.

Some time after that, Pat was passing that way,
His beard had been growing for many a day,
He looked at the barber and set down his hod,
“Will you trust me a shave for the true love of God?”

“Walk in,” says the barber, “Sit down in that chair,
And I’ll soon mow your beard off right down to a hair.”
The lather he splattered on Paddy’s big chin,
And with his “trust” razor to shave did begin.

“Ach murder!” says Paddy, “Now what are you doin?
Leave off with your tricks or my jaws you will ruin,
By the powers, you will pull every tooth in my jaw,
By jeepers, I’d rather be shaved with a saw.”

“Keep still,” says the barber, “don’t make such a din.
Quit working your jaw or I’ll cut your big chin.”
“It’s not cut, but it’s saw with that razor you’ve got,
For it wouldn’t cut butter unless it was hot.”

“Let up now,” says Paddy, “Don’t shave anymore,”
And the Irishman bolted right straight for the door,
“You can lather and shave all your friends ‘til you’re sick,
But by jeepers, I’d rather be shaved with a brick.”

Not many days later as Pat passed that door,
A jackass he set up a terrible roar,
“Now look at the barber! You may know he’s a knave,
He’s giving some devil a ‘love of God’ shave.”

We have a song this month in honor of everyone whose “pandemic beard” needs a trim! “Lather and Shave” (aka “The Irish Barber” or “The Love of God Shave”) seems to have originated in the early 19th century as a broadside ballad in England. From there it travelled to Ireland and North America where it was sung on the stage and by traditional singers in many regions including the Upper Midwest.

The above text is my own blend of two Midwestern versions: one from Bernadine Christensen of Harlan, Iowa collected by Earl J. Stout and another from Charles C. Talbot of Forbes, North Dakota collected by Franz Rickaby and printed in the collection “Folk Songs Out of Wisconsin.” My melody and chorus come from a third source: Angus “The Ridge” MacDonald of Antigonish County, Nova Scotia as recorded by MacEdward Leach (click to listen online).

21 Jun

The Wind Sou’west

You gentlemen of England far and near,
Who live at ease free from all care,
It’s little do you think and it’s little do you know,
What we poor seamen undergo,

Chorus:

With the wind sou’west and a dismal sky,
And the ruffling seas rolled mountains high.

On the second day of April, ‘twas on that day,
When our captain called us all away,
He took us from our native shore,
While the wind sou’west and loud did roar.

On the fifth day of April, ‘twas on that day,
When we spied land on the lo’ward lay,
We saw three ships to the bottom go,
While we, poor souls, tossed to and fro.

On the sixth day of April, ‘twas on that day,
When our capstan and foremast washed away,
Our mast being gone, the ship sprang a leak,
And we thought we should sink in the watery deep.

The second mate and eighteen more,
Got into the longboat and rowed for shore,
But what must have been for their poor wives,
A-losing their husbands’ precious lives?

On the seventh day of April, ‘twas on that day,
When we arrived in Plymouth Bay,
What a dismal tale had we for to tell,
Of how we acted in the gale.

We return this month to the fantastic repertoire of singer Carrie Grover (1879-1959) who grew up in Nova Scotia and lived her adult life in Maine. “The Wind Sou’west” appears in her published songbook “A Heritage of Songs” where she classifies it as one of her father’s songs. Her father, George Craft Spinney, was born in 1837 and spent many years working on merchant vessels where he learned many sea songs. This song appears to be a variant of an English song dating to the late 18th century often titled “You Gentlemen of England” but Grover’s version is pretty unique with a localized New England reference to Plymouth Bay. No English versions I have seen include a chorus.

Thanks to the incredible work of singer and researcher Julie Mainstone Savas, we now have the website The Carrie Grover Project which includes transcriptions of all the songs in “Heritage of Songs” and more plus some audio recordings of Grover. The site is well worth checking out. There you can hear a recording of Grover singing the above (from which I made my own transcription). In it, Grover makes masterful use of the traditional singer’s trick of singing an “in between” third scale degree – somewhere between major and minor – that, to me, gives the song a perfect haunting quality.