The first in our 5-to-Try series seemed to do pretty well indeed, so here we are again with another batch of British folk songs. We’ve lined up a second motley crew of folk-performing luminaries and layabouts, each one eager to tell you which British folk song really makes the hairs on their neck stand up and why they think you ought to add it to your playlist. 

Speaking of which, there are two existing playlists that we’ve pulled together for you so that you can wolf down this music more easily. Subscribe to either of the following to get this music into your lugholes more conveniently.

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And so to the artists. This week’s British folk songs have been chosen by Greg Russell (erstwhile member of the Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar duo, not to mention a cast member of the highly acclaimed Transports production), Iona Fyfe (a wonderful young ballad singer from Aberdeenshire), Jimmy Aldridge (one half of Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith), Laura Smyth (of Laura & Ted, but also head librarian and archivist at Cecil Sharp House) and Ben Nicholls (skipper at Kings of the South Seas, as well as in-demand double bass man for… well, just about everyone on the scene at the moment).

5 to try: Some of the best British folk songs

‘Two Constant Lovers’

Roud number: 466

As chosen by Greg Russell.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“One of the things I sometimes struggle with, regarding traditional song, is that it can be very hard to associate with – and lyrically enjoy – a song that appears to be about the supernatural. But this song, for me, gets around such barriers, firstly because of its delivery and, secondly, because at its root it is an intriguing and strangely beautiful love song.

Lay two constant lovers with each other’s charms
Rolling over and over in each other’s arms

You see? It’s poetry, and the tune is mighty mighty fine also.”

What do we know about ‘Two Constant Lovers’? 

Greg particularly recommends the version by Peter Knight’s Gigspanner – the song can be heard on their live album, Doors at Eight – and he’s right to. It’s an absolutely beautiful rendition of a heartbreaking song that has enchanted any number of singers down the years.

Listed on the Full English website under Roud number 466, the song has almost as many titles as it does documented renditions. You’ll find it variously titled as ‘The Constant Lovers’, ‘Oh My Love’s Dead’, ‘The Drowned Mariner’, ‘I Will Never Marry’, ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’ and ‘Lover’s Lament for Her Sailor’. There are 190 entries related to the song, and while it was a popular broadside ballad, it was also collected from source singers as far afield as Dorset and Arkansas. It’s safe to say that this watery death ballad has been a pretty big hit for the traditional folk canon, having travelled and toured far and wide.

The Mainly Norfolk website lists this song as being from Sussex, noting that it appeared in The Copper Family Songbook, although – as noted above – it seems to have been born on the wind and scattered at birth. Rosie Hood learnt her recently recorded version from an Alfred Williams publication, and he in turn collected two versions from central England: one from a Mrs Phillips (Burton, Wiltshire), who had it down as the rather blunt ‘My Love’s Dead’, and one from a chap called Henry Potter (Standlake, Oxfordshire), who sang it as the slightly more passive, ‘My Love is Gone’.

Notable recordings of this song have been made by Peggy Seeger (who recorded an American reading of it in 1957 under the title ‘The Lady of Carlisle’ – the title and the nationality of her version only adding to the geo-confusion), Waterson:Carthy (but of course), Jon Boden, and Steeleye Span. At least 12 recordings of it have been released so far this century, so it doesn’t look as though it’s going out of fashion any time soon.

‘Bonny Udny’

Roud number: 3450

As chosen by Iona Fyfe.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“I heard this song from the singing of Lizzie Higgins and John MacDonald. It is also found in the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection Volume 6 and John Ord’s Bothy Songs and Ballads. The narrative explains his love for Udny as well as his love for his significant other. Udny Green is situated in Aberdeenshire, southwest of Pitmedden. The parish of Udny is made up of Udny Green and Udny Station, which lies on the old Buchan Rail line.

The song has been sung by source and revivalist singers of the North East of Scotland such as John Strachan, Jane Turriff and John MacDonald. It was also sung by Daisy Chapman, one of the various North East source singers who toured England. Daisy was recorded singing Bonny Udny at the Kings Head Folk Club in London between 1968 and 1970, at the heart of the folksong revival.

John Mearns stated that the song is, “found in various forms in many parts of the country”. Peter Hall comments: “The theme and form of this song facilitate its attachment to any locality, and versions are known under a variety of names: Yarmouth is a Pretty TownBonny PortmoreThe Boys of Kilkenny.”

Bonny Udny, to me, highlights the universalism of folksong; the song, carrying the same message – of love for land and women – can be found in Scotland, England and Ireland, linking the British oral tradition. To me, Bonny Udny has all the properties of a lovely short folksong and would serve as a great place for a beginner of any sorts to start.”

What do we know about ‘Bonny Udny’? 

Firstly, thanks to Iona for doing most of my work for me! So much info in a single enthusiastic email – you can spot the singers who also have the scholarly bug a mile off.

So, what is there left for me to add? Only really that ‘Bonny Udny’ also turns up, under the Roud number 3450, a total of 49 times in the Vaughan Williams online library, and that the central word ‘Udny’ is never very far from the title. It seems to be about as geo-located as any folk song gets.

As beautiful as the song is, however, it has been recorded far fewer times than most of the songs that have been suggested for our British folk songs list so far. First taped in Fyvie, Aberdeenshire on July 16, 1951, less than 10 versions have been recorded in the time separating that initial session and Iona Fyfe’s own gorgeous rendition, released on her East collection in 2016.

‘Rufford Park Poachers’ 

Roud number: 1759 

As chosen by Jimmy Aldridge.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“My choice is ‘Rufford Park Poachers’. I particularly love Nic Jones’ version on the live album Game Set Match.
It’s the perfect song for a newcomer to traditional music because it introduces so many of the themes that (I think) make traditional music engaging.
Firstly, it’s just such a great song to listen to – it’s a well-told tale, it has got a powerful chorus, and the melody has a really arresting, edgy sound to it.
It’s a warning song. In this case it warns would-be poachers of the dangers of their pursuit, but there are countless other examples in the tradition of songs that caution the listener, using someone’s unfortunate fate to illustrate the message. I suspect there are so many of these songs around because they are perfect for the oral retelling that underpins the whole tradition.
As well as being a warning, however, the song is a rallying cry to ‘make a fight for poor men’s rights’. It argues that the buck, doe, pheasant and hare were ‘put on earth for everyone, quite equal for to share.’ For me this is the most engaging aspect of traditional music – it is a people’s history and often an account of the age-old battle against power lying in the hands of the wealthy. At many of the gigs that I play in non-folk venues it is this political messaging that really grabs people, and I think that could be a way for a whole new generation of people to start getting excited about traditional music.
And if none of that works, any newcomer who looks up ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ will soon come across Nic Jones, and once that happens there’s no going back!”

What do we know about ‘Rufford Park Poachers’? 

From the extremely well-known to the surprisingly rare. ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ has a grand total of seven reference points documented and stored under Roud catalogue number 1759. It’s so rare, in fact, that it  seems comparatively easy to say where it came from. Collected on August 4, 1906, by Percy Grainger, the song was sung to him by Joseph Taylor, a retired gamekeeper, in Brigg, Lincolnshire. He sang it again a couple of years later (and plenty of times in between, one would assume) into a cylinder recording device, once again for a presumably smitten Percy Grainger, who arranged for it to be released as part of the album, Unto Brigg Fair (1908)

The song, according to sleeve notes by Martin Carthy (and taken here from Mainly Norfolk), originates from, “Rufford Park… not far from Mansfield [where] in 1850 there was a showdown between local people and gamekeepers in the shape of a vicious and bitter fight, after which ringleaders were selected, tried and transported for up to 14 years.”

As far as professional recordings go, even if we count Grainger’s recording of Taylor, it really is slim pickings. Less than 10, and probably closer to five, recordings of note have been made in the 110 years following the song’s collection. These, of course, include Martin Carthy, who has laid it down for posterity on at least three separate occasions, Nic Jones (we’ve put the version recommended Jimmy Aldridge onto our Spotify playlist at the top of this article) and – most recently – Martin Simpson. The video at the top of this section is the original recording of Joseph Taylor, made by Percy Grainger.

‘Brave Benbow’

Roud number: 227

As chosen by Laura Smyth.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“Sea songs and shanties tend to be a good place to start when learning folk songs – they usually have either great stories or great choruses, or both. And with Britain being an island with a strong naval history, we luckily have a fair few to choose from.

This song came to our attention when it was praised in A.L. Lloyd’s book, Folk Song in England. It describes a naval battle which took place near Santa Marta, Columbia, between the British and the French during the War of the Spanish Succession. It’s delightfully gory, with Admiral Benbow losing his legs by chain shot and landing on his stumps (a slight over-exaggeration). Despite being mortally wounded, Benbow remained determined to lead his fleet.

Besides the rousing and beer-swilling story, the song has a simple yet effective tune which is great for trying out harmonies.”

What do we know about ‘Brave Benbow’?

Not to be confused with a completely different folk song with a very similar title (Roud 3141), Roud 227 is – as Laura states – a far more grizzly affair, more concerned with the gruesome details of the brave admiral’s wounds, his subsequent treatment and agonised cries. So far, so folk song…

Unlike Roud 3151, this song has rarely been recorded. In fact, recordings are so far and few between that the only version Spotify seems to have available comes from the computer game, Assassin’s Creed 4 (great harmonies, plenty of amateur dramatics, reportedly excellent gameplay). The problem (?) is extended to Youtube as well, so until Laura & Ted record a version of their own, we’ll have to make do.

Of the recordings known to be in existence in the non-digital realm, Bob Copper’s version is perhaps the most famous (the internet doesn’t appear to have a recording for us to share). Also predating mp3s is Tundra’s recording (1981) and Cyril Tawney’s offering (1992). If anyone reading knows of a better alternative to Assassin’s Creed 4, do let us know. Please.

The song appears in numerous old songbooks, but the earliest collection from a source singer seems to have been made in the 1820s by John Clare. It appears to have been fairly well known when the Edwardian folk collectors were doing their rounds, too: Ann Gilchrist collected it from sailor singer called W. Bolton in December, 1905; Cecil Sharp collected it from a Captain Smith (Minehead, Somerset; Jan 13, 1906) and again from Sam Bennett (Ilmington, Warwickshire; Aug 23, 1909), while George Butterworth encountered it in Filby, Norfolk, in April, 1910, as sung by a man who went by the rather wonderful name, Skinny Crow.

(Note to self: Skinny Crow sang around eight or nine songs to George Butterworth over the course of about three years, including the intriguingly-titled, ‘Saucy Ward’. Someone needs to record an album entitled The Saucy Songs of Skinny Crow – or maybe they have and I’ve yet to stumble across it.)

‘Rounding the Horn/ The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite’

Roud number: 301

As chosen by Ben Nicholls.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“I first heard this song on the Peter Bellamy album, Both Sides Then (an incredible recording with just Bellamy’s voice supported and countered by Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle), then subsequently became interested in trying to work it up to sing myself, with all its sense of adventure around the other side of the world. As I looked into all the sources I could find, both transcriptions and recordings, it became apparent that there really is no definitive version.

The story of the song is always the same – sailors get ready and make their way round Cape Horn and visit the ladies of Valparaiso – but it has been adapted by the people who sang it to fit their own experience with many dozens of variations, especially with the name of the ship, the port of sailing and melody.

It’s a great example of one of the things I love about folk music and it was a lesson that looking into this really taught me as a musician: never be too reverential to the material because people who sang these songs never were. They can be used to sing about your own situation and, in doing so, you become part of the song’s journey as you put a bit of yourself into it. It’s almost like you can see evolution at work.”

What do we know about ‘Rounding the Horn/ The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite’?

It would be remiss of us to begin this section without mentioning that Ben Nicholls himself recorded ‘Rounding the Horn‘ as part of The Full English project band in 2013. As joyous as his version is, however, we agree with his recommendation here: Peter Bellamy’s recording of this song is striking, to say the least – an insistent ghostly apparition, hounding you, unseen, through the mist off the ship’s bow. We’ve included it on our Spotify playlist at the top of this article, but we’ve included Louis Killen’s version on the Youtube list, partly because Bellamy’s version isn’t on that platform and partly because it also deserves a decent airing.

Coincidentally, the earliest source-singer collection of this song came via Ann Gilchrist’s affection for the previously mentioned sailor singer, W. Bolton. According to A L Lloyd, she took it down from him in Southport, Lancashire, in 1907, and Lloyd published it in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs

As Ben points out, the song turns up repeatedly under a number of increasingly hand-wringing names, including ‘Loss of the Amphitrite’, ‘The Melancholy Loss of the Amphitrite’, ‘The Melancholy and Dreadful Loss of the Amphitrite’ – all of which suggest a far more mournful song than it actually is. The tale, however, is a folk music masterclass in epic storytelling constrained. As Martin Simpson put it in his sleevenotes accompanying The Bramble Briar (2001), “it is the brevity of folksong which is so astonishing. In six verses this song conveys a novel’s worth of motion and ideas.”

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