Typical, isn’t it? You sit around months waiting for another selection of traditional British folk songs to try, and then seven turn up at once. Well, that’s what comes of spending a day with Martin Carthy.

During last month’s interview with the great man himself, I casually asked him which song he might choose for such a list, and a look of existential horror passed across his face. He sat silent for so long that I worried I might have caused him a mischief. I imagine his life, given that it has been a life entirely devoted to traditional folk songs, passed very quickly before his eyes. When he eventually came to, he seemed fairly confident in his choice, but then kept on correcting himself for the remainder of the day. You’ll find all of his choices towards the end of this article.


In the meantime, we have selections from three other wonderful singers – David Delarre (Mr Mawkin, as well as being Eliza Carthy’s musical righthand man), Rachael McShane (Bellowhead and The Transports, and currently gearing up for a new solo album release this summer), Geoff Cripps (string plucker and vocalist with Allan Yn Y Fan) and Kerry Andrew (AKA, You Are Wolf).

Let’s get to it then, shall we?

5 to try: Some of the best British folk songs

‘Dominion of the Sword’

Roud number: V3219

As chosen by David Dellare.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

This is one of the those songs that, the more you listen to it, the better it gets. Its originally from a 17th century war propaganda pamphlet and I love how its original message or moral has been subverted.

This’ll master money,
Though money masters all things,
It is not season to talk of reason.
Never call it loyal when the sword says treason.

I think those lines still hold up in the 21st century, and that’s what I love to find in traditional song; a message that can still have modern relevance.

In Martin Carthy’s version it’s paired with a really simple Breton tune. It’s only about fuve notes, and you don’t get to hear if the 6th or 7th degree of the scale is minor or major, so you get this harmonic ambiguity which mirrors the subversion of the original text.

I first heard Martin sing it when I was about 14. I really liked Oasis and Blur around that time and didn’t appreciate Martin’s fingerpicking stuff. Oh, how that’s changed! But this was completely different to a lot of his stuff. It’s mainly a big strum-fest in an open tuning, so this really appealed to my strum-mad 14-year-old Britpop self!

What do we know about ‘Dominion Of the Sword’? 

Surprisingly little, it would seem. Despite being a big number in the Martin Carthy catalogue, it has only seven entries in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (Cecil Sharp House) online archive (The Full English). Carthy’s sleevenotes explain that, “it was written in 1649 by an anonymous pamphleteer”, and this reflects what David tells us above. However, the earliest archived entry has it down as being published in 1691, apparently printed under two different titles in a book called Merry Drollery Compleat. It is offered up as ‘Love Lies a Bleeding’ and ‘The Power of the Sword’, neither of which had tunes.

Oddly enough, a similarly titled song (‘Lay By Your Pleading’) then turns up with the same lines in 1719, still without a tune, before resurfacing as a broadside under the title ‘Law Lies a Bleeding’ – this version noted as having the tune to ‘Love Lies a Bleeding’. Somewhere along the line a tune has attached itself, although it’s apparently not the one that Martin Carthy made use of. The mystery deepens further still when another broadside turns up claiming the tune to both ‘Love Lies a Bleeding’ and ‘Law Lies a Bleeding’, but with the rather excellent title, ‘Ignoramus: A New Excellent Song’.

Would the 14-year-old Britpop David Delarre have delighted in it had Carthy retained that title? We’ll never know, but it seems highly likely…

‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwyr’

As chosen by Geoff Cripps.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

This song comes from the Gwent Heads of the Valleys area – Beaufort, Ebbw Vale in particular. Our singer, Catrin O’Neill, and fiddle player, Alan Cooper, discovered it in a book of old Welsh songs. I have chosen it because, although it may well have been easier to choose one of the great mournful songs for which we Welsh are justly famous, this is an angry workers’ song. In it, the ordinary workers are warning the iron masters that, come judgement day, there will be retribution for their many wrongs against their workforce. In case some of today’s readers think that this may in some way be fanciful, you can still see today in Nantyglo the fortified round tower that the local iron master Crawshay built to protect himself and his family from his own workforce.

What do we know about ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwyr’? 

Unfortunately, despite a wholehearted attempt, it hasn’t been possible to discover anything about this song. An inability to read and understand Welsh may have something to do with that. If any readers can proffer any info, please let me know in the comments section below and I’ll happily add it in.

One possible side story of note is that Crawshay Bailey, the local iron master that Geoff mentions, was himself the subject of another song – ‘Cosher Bailey’, or ‘Cosher Bailey’s Engine’. This, in turn, is thought to have come from the Welsh song, ‘Hob Y Derri Dando’. However, we’re now straying further from ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithwyr’, so let’s move on quickly before we get even more waylaid.

You can find a version of ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwyr’ on Allan Yn Y Fan’s 2016 album, NEWiD.

‘Broomfield Hill/ The Broomfield Wager’

Roud number: 34

As chosen by Rachael McShane.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

My initial enthusiasm about picking one of my favourite folk songs soon turned to a major bout of indecision and dithering. There are so many that I love for different reasons, some that I love singing and (as Jim Moray mentioned about Nic Jones’ version of ‘Clyde Water’) many that I have a favourite version of by a particular singer. In the end I chose a song that has a great story, I love singing it and there are a bunch of great versions to seek out.

‘Broomfield Hill’ or ‘The Broomfield Wager’ is the story of a man who makes a bet with a young woman that he can meet her and take her virginity, which is pretty dark really. He’s a particularly nasty character but the girl in the song turns out to be a lot cleverer than he is. She puts him to sleep (possibly by drugging him or using some sort of spell), ensures that he knows she’s been there and leaves before he wakes thus winning the bet. In the version I sing he implies he’d have murdered her had she not complied – what a horrible man.

What do we know about ‘Broomfield Hill/ The Broomfield Wager’

How long have you got? With 237 entries referring to Roud 34 in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, there’s quite a lot that can be said for it. A Child Ballad (he printed six versions), the song was thought by Ewan MacColl to have been written as early as 1549 (when a song called Broom, Broom on Hill was published in The Complaynt of Scotland). However, folk historian, Steve Roud, writes that this connection is unreliable, stating in his New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs that the earliest known publication of the piece was in 1679 when it appeared in London on a broadside. Variations have since been collected as far afield as Bodmin, Ipswich, Aberdeenshire and Cade’s Cove, Tennessee.

The story that Rachael tells us above, however, is much, much older. Francis Child wrote that a very similar narrative is present in Icelandic, Danish and Swedish ballads, and Roud suggests that all of these (including the song) may have been derived from a single source published in Gesta Romanorum (a collection of stories written down in 1300).

In terms of recorded versions, there seem to be few contemporary folk singers who haven’t had a crack at it. Just over 20 versions of it have been recorded over the last 100 years, with a good quarter of them taped in the 21st century. Rachael McShane herself has recorded it twice, once on her 2009 album No Man’s Fool, and once with Bellowhead for their 2010 album, Hedonism

‘Molly Bawn’

Roud number: 166

As chosen by Kerry Andew (You Are Wolf).

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

‘Molly Bawn’ has always been a song that’s tugged at my heart. It’s probably of Irish origin from around the 16th/17th century, but there are other versions in Scotland and England, America, Canada and Australia.

In the song, a man mistakes his lover for a swan – she is sheltering from the rain under a bush dressed in white – and so he shoots her. She usually appears to him as a ghost to tell her she forgives him. In some versions, she is mistaken for a deer rather than a swan. Its depiction of grief and forgiveness is painfully beautiful.

The ballad certainly has its roots in more ancient supernatural beliefs, including the Swan Maiden myth, which is found in stories as far apart as Africa, Russia and Korea. It’s also similar to the classical myth of the death of Procris and of Nepheles killing his lover in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.

I came across a lesser-known version of this story when up in the West Highlands. In ‘The Salen Swan’, the mother of the man is so jealous of Molly that she turns her into a swan. As he shoots her, she falls out of her enchantment and he sees that he has killed his lover. He wanders the loch, distraught, and thinks he can hear her calling to him, so throws himself into the water. I weaved this story version into my own arrangement, ‘Swansong’, on my first You Are Wolf album. The song/story stayed with me so much that I ended up developing it into my first novel, also called Swansong. I love how folk songs have many different versions – they live – and so tell the story in two different ways that intertwine.

The song tugs at others’ hearts, too. The singer Sam Lee, when he is on his song-collecting missions, always asks the singer whether they have a version of it. There’s a gorgeous illustrated book of it by Owen Gent that sits on my desk that I sigh at occasionally. And there are plenty of versions to listen to – I first heard Alison Krauss and the Chieftains sing it, and then Alasdair Roberts. Both he and Sam told me to listen to Packie Manus Byrne’s unadorned version of it, and that’s been my favourite ever since.

What do we know about ‘Molly Bawn’

Correction: what do we know about ‘Molly Bawn’ that Kerry hasn’t already told us? Not terribly much (thanks Kerry!) other than that it goes under a good number of names.

As Kerry notes, its popularity means that it has been collected here, there and everywhere – 254 entries appear on the VWML website – and it has been known variously as ‘The Fowler’ (Yarmouth, Norfolk), ‘Polly Vaughan’ (Kentucky, USA), ‘Molly Varden’ (Woodbridge, Suffolk), ‘Molly Whan’ (London broadside), ‘Molly Bawn’ (Tulla, Country Clare), ‘Molly Vaunder’ (Richie Country, West Virginia), ‘Peggy Baun’ (Aberdeenshire) and even ‘Johnnie Randle’ (Poplarville, Mississippi). I could go on…

What interests me about the recorded versions of this song is the fact that we have so many recordings from source singers. Harry Cox, Elizabeth Cronin, Walter Pardon, Phoebe Smith… many of them on The Voice of the People series released by Topic Records. I’ve put them in a Spotify playlist above, along with the Packie Manus Byrne version that Kerry Andrew speaks so highly of, and a handful of more contemporary interpretations.

‘Lofty Tall Ship’

Roud number: 104

As chosen by Martin Carthy.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

Gosh, this question’s hard. [Thinks in silence for about five minutes.]

I’ll have to think about this one. [Thinks in silence for another five minutes. ‘Brothers In Arms’ by Dire Straits rumbles onto the pub stereo, plods about a bit, and then rumbles off into the distance.]

[Suddenly, decisively] ‘Lofty Tall Ship’. I like the Waterson:Carthy version. It’s personal to me. It told me that I wasn’t ready to sing that song until I was a guitarist first, and then also a singer. Swarb didn’t record this song, but he really knew it, and one of the things that Swarb really did was turn fiddlers onto songs. Eliza has done the same, and Chris Wood (although he plays the guitar these days), and Nancy Kerr. The idea that you can sing to the fiddle, that’s a wonderful thing and it really sets us [folkies] apart from the rest of the music scene.

In my previous interview with Martin Carthy, he says the following about this song:

Here’s something I hear all the time: “What 17-year-old is going to be excited by folk music?” Well, hello! This fucking 17-year-old was blown away by Sam Larner. He wasn’t a pretty singer, but his passion was something else. And the melodies he sang… This has become like a beacon for me, but he sang ‘Lofty Tall Ship’. Ewan made sure it was the last song that he sang. It was theatrically brilliant – a masterstroke.

I’ve said this a million times, but I walked away from that place with that tune in my head, and I just thought, “You can’t sing a tune like that. That’s nonsense, that tune.” So I sang it a bit more, asking myself, “What kind of a tune is that?!” I recognised that he always landed [smacks hands together] on doh. Now, if the only tunes you were used to were [sings], “Oh, no John, no John…” – one of those very simple, very easy tunes – and that’s your experience of folk song and that’s what you think it is, then, oh boy, are you in for a surprise!

What do we know about ‘Lofty Tall Ship’

There are just over 300 references to the song on the VWML website, with many versions collected under the name ‘Henry Martin’ and a few under the name ‘Sir Andrew Barton’. (Interestingly, while Steve Roud assigned all of these versions the same number, Roud 104, legendary folksong collector, Cecil Sharp, felt that ‘Henry Barton’ and ‘Sir Andrew Barton’ were actually unrelated.)

Just to add to the confusion, the story refers to a merchant called John Barton, whose ship was attacked and plundered by a Portuguese vessel. Barton’s sons (Andrew, Robert and John) were given ‘letters of reprisal’, which Andrew reacted to creatively (shall we say) and took as an excuse to turn reprisal into all-out piracy, taking on many other ships from the Portuguese fleet as well as pretty much anyone who got in his way. In notes put together for a Ewan MacColl album, we’re told that, “Sir Andrew was a fierce man, who sent three barrels of salted Flemish pirates’ heads as a present to King James IV in 1506.” Eventually, Andrew was caught and beheaded himself, and his bonce was displayed back in London as a warning to anyone else who suddenly found themselves similarly power-crazed.

MacColl wrote that the inevitable ballad that grew out of this tale was a full 82 verses long (if there’s any folk singer to take on that particular challenge, it’s surely Martin Carthy), but this trimmed itself down as it travelled from singer to singer, from town to town, in the way that so many folk songs had a tendency to do.

Later versions of the song were collected by Henry Hammond (Dorset, 1906), Lucy Broadwood (Sussex, 1894), Percy Grainger (Lincolnshire, 1908) and Cecil Sharp (Somerset, 1906). Martin Carthy heard Sam Larner singing it at Ewan MacColl’s club in 1958, which is around the time that Philip Donnellan visited the old fisherman at his home in Winterton, Norfolk, to record it. It can be heard on the 1974 album, A Garland for Sam

For the record, Martin then spent another 10 minutes wondering whether he should have included ”The Cruel Ships Carpenter” (specifically the version sung by Mike Waterson), ‘Byker Hill‘ and ‘A Sailor’s Life‘, before returning to ‘Lofty Tall Ship’. I’ve added each of them to the Spotify playlist at the top of this page.

As always, this article couldn’t have been written without extensive research from the ever-wonderful Mainly Norfolk website

3 Replies to “5 to try: British folk songs chosen by British folk singers (plus extras from Martin Carthy) – pt 3

  1. ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwyr’ is a terrific song, sung passionately. But I could not guess the subject matter from hearing the song.
    I can imagine the workers taking it up – as Joe Hill wrote –
    “If you write a pamplet, people will read it once. If you write a song, people will keep on singing it.”

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