This article on traditional folk music is part of an older blog series called Grizzly Folk. Since it was made, we’ve started making a series called The Old Songs Podcast. Click on the link or the drop-down menu above to take a listen.

When we first came to traditional folk music, we stood at the foot of the mountain and wondered at the sheer size of what loomed ahead. There’s just so much of it – we can fully understand why many people might find it daunting and put it on the bucket list for much later. As most of our readers will have experienced themselves, however, if you can find an initial foothold then you’ve found your way onto a joyful exploration and adventure that will likely last you a lifetime.Finding that first chink isn’t easy, though. You might find it by chance – a centuries-old song that grabs you and sticks with you and makes you wonder what else might be out there – or you might find that someone offers you a leg-up.

Over the last few months, we’ve had the great fortune to chat and spend time with some of Britain’s better known folk performers. The thing about folk music and its exponents, of course, is that none of these people are necessarily ‘the best’ at what they do. After all, each have tales about some chap in some pub somewhere who can play the hind legs off all the donkeys, but chose not to make a career out of it, or someone legendary who passed away years ago (but, boy, you shoulda heard them play the spoons).

That said, it’s worth noting that the people who helped us with this series do make their living by singing traditional folk songs, and probably spend most of their waking hours immersed in some part of that world.

So, about our British Folk Songs: 5 to Try series. It’ll be a fortnightly series of snippets and recommendations from various well-known folk singers living and working in Britain today, each talking about the British folk songs that inspired them, offering newcomers to the genre a leg-up so that they can find their way forwards. We hope you find it useful. (To get the latest from the series, make sure you sign up to our mailing list.)

As we interview more and more artists on the blog, we’ll keep adding the songs to the big Spotify playlist above, and for those that don’t do Spotify, there’s also a Youtube version that we’ll keep as close to its aural equivalent as possible. Bookmark it, make a mental note… just remember to pop back from time to time to discover a little more about some of the best folk songs in the British tradition, as dictated by those that play them and keep them alive.

5 to try: Some of the best British folk songs

‘Clyde Water’ 

Roud number: 91

As chosen by Jim Moray.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“I’m not sure that you can separate the singer from the song at the level that gets under my skin. Part of things being of ‘the oral tradition’ means it deeply matters to me who is singing or playing, and whether they can communicate stuff.

So my choice would specifically be Nic Jones’ live version of ‘Clyde Water’. He told me that he felt that he missed the mark on the recorded version (recorded as ‘The Drowned Lovers’ on Penguin Eggs) and the arrangement he was playing live just before his accident is one of the greatest pieces of storytelling that I’ve ever heard. It’s available on the Game Set Match compilation, but my favourite recording comes from an Italian bootleg from the ‘Teatro Bonci’ in Cesena.

Folk singers sometimes have a habit of thinking that singing something slowly makes it more profound (when, actually, it just makes it take longer to get to the important bit). Nic had skills almost comparable with a great Shakespearean actor of knowing which part of a line contains all the weight, and how to pace it so you get caught up in a tidal wave as the story reaches its conclusion. There are other long ballad performances which do that for me (including things by Martin Carthy and June Tabor) but Nic was the master of it and that song is the peak of his ability.

It’s not a version that you will find in a book in Cecil Sharp House of course – he made it out of parts from different versions and crafted it to fit in his own vocabulary. And that’s what the best people do – they make the song their own truth instead of someone else’s. And thats what traditional music is about for me – finding your own truth in something that other people owned before you came along, and that other people will pick up when you’re done with it.”

Where can you find out more about ‘Clyde Water’? 

As a Child ballad, ‘Clyde Water’ also takes the name ‘The Mother’s Malison’. Child noted three places of origin, including a collection of it from “Mrs Brown’s recitation, apparently in 1800”. Reinhard Zierke notes at least five sound recordings of it before Nic Jones’ performance was released on Penguin Eggs in 1980, so it’s not surprising to find that – as Jim Moray says above – what may be the best-known version is an amalgamation of several others.

If anything, this wonderful recording points to the danger of assuming that ‘a folk song’ sung by a performer is an accurate representation of how it may have been in the past. As we’ll see in our forthcoming interview with folk song historian, Steve Roud (check back next week) – and to pick up on Jim Moray’s point – a performance of a folk song in modern times can only ever be a snapshot of something organic and transitory. The chances of it sounding very much like the original are slim indeed.

‘Adieu, Adieu’

Roud number: 490

As chosen by Jack Rutter.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“My choice of song is ‘Adieu, Adieu’. It got to me first through The Watersons’ album For Pence and Spicy Ale and also Martin Simpson’s album, Kind Letters, both of which I took out from Huddersfield Library in my mid-teens and both of which are still in my top 10 favourite albums of all time.

I love the tune so much, and throughout the song’s many versions, interpretations and performances (it’s also known as ‘Newlyn Town’, ‘The Flash Lad’, ‘Wild and Wicked Youth’) I really like the chap’s forthrightness when faced with his oncoming execution. It’s one hell of a cinematic song.”

Where can you find out more about ‘Adieu, Adieu’? 

If you’ve been following the British folk scene closely over the last two decades, you’ll already know this song well. It’s something of a modern Greatest Hit – Reinhard Zierke lists at least 15 professional recordings of it since the year 2000 alone.

The sleeve notes to The Watersons’ version describe it as, “The ace and deuce of robber songs”, noting that, “English, Irish and American versions of it abound.” However, it’s Eliza Carthy who sums it up in the most pithy manner, writing in her sleeve notes to Fishes & Fine Yellow Sand, that this is:

“…the story of the tragic Good Time Boy from Newry Town who just robbed a few people who had far too much of everything. Did them a favour really. Less for them to worry their pretty little heads about. And one does what one has to for one’s girl friend who so likes shopping. Sooo likes it…

These songs of terminal regret were literally two a penny in the 17th to 19th centuries. The ballad writers of the time would sell the songs under the gallows just as the unfortunate crime was getting his or her desserts – just or otherwise – right there and right then. Here in its cradle is the modern music industry.”


Roud number: 90

As chosen by Nicola Kearey (Stick in the Wheel)

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“It was so vital sounding – about a place in London. The woman saying, ‘yeah, I’ll take you all on’. It just had a fierceness I could get behind. I first heard Martin Carthy playing it in his garden for the BBC Folk Britannia programme. That is the only version you want.”

Where can you find out more about ‘Georgie’?  

‘Georgie’ (also known as ‘Geordie’) has been recorded by a great number of people, with Nicola Kearey’s version (on the Stick In the Wheel From Here field recordings compilation) perhaps being the most recent. As usual, a comprehensive list of recorded performances can be found on the Mainly Norfolk website, but key versions include those sung by Martin Carthy (as mentioned above), Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Peter Bellamy, A. L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl (at least twice).

While Nicola places her version in London (as do many other singers), approximately 360 entries can be found in the Vaughan Williams Library at Cecil Sharp House relating to this song, with versions having turned up everywhere from London Bridge to Aberdeenshire to Nebraska. Cecil Sharp alone seems to have collected over 20 fragments in places as far flung as Cannington, Somerset, to Villamont, Virginia.

While many singers attribute their version to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of it in East Coker, Somerset (sung to him by a chap named Charles Neville on September 3rd, 1908), A. L. Lloyd felt that it owed its existence to, “several different ballad strains. The ballads in question are a traditional Scottish ballad, the earliest known version dating from the end of the 18th century, and two English broadsides, both of which date from the 17th century.”

As great and robust songs go, it doesn’t get much greater than ‘Georgie’. It’s a marvellous example of one of those wonderfully well-travelled folk songs, able to adapt to most surroundings.

‘Cariad Cyntaf’

As chosen by Ffion Mair of The Foxglove Trio.

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“The traditional Welsh love song Cariad Cyntaf is a great song. The lyrics are powerful (lots of hyperbole about how wonderful a woman is – the song title translates into English as ‘First Love’) and the tune has a lot of passion. It’s short and has an irregularly-lengthed last line. These two things mean there’s plenty of scope to play around with timings and arrangements.

It has a special place in my heart because it was when I heard Julie Murphy and Dylan Fowler’s arrangement of this song on their CD Ffawd that I realised how much you can play around with folk songs/tunes. It’s also a special song for the band – we all played versions of it before we formed and our current arrangement came about by playing two previous arrangements on top of each other! It’s one of our most played songs to this day.”

Ffion also keeps a blog focusing on traditional Welsh songs, their origins, their meanings and the performances of them. On the subject of ‘Cariad Cyntaf’ she writes:

“In the song we hear someone telling his lover that he loves her and that he wants to marry her. It’s a monologue so we don’t get to hear her response. I always tell audiences that they have to guess what her answer was to the question about getting married but that the sad melody gives us a clue. But perhaps it’s not a simple matter of unrequited love – perhaps the girl does love him back but something, such as meddling parents, is going to keep them apart which is why the boy is lovesick and the tune is so mournful.”

Where can you find out more about ‘Cariad Cyntaf’?

Tough question, unless you can speak Welsh (drop me a line on Twitter if you can and you have any information). However, a lovely anecdote concerning this song and the Welsh folk song collector, Ruth Lewis, appears in Phyllis Kinney’s book, Welsh Traditional Music

“In 1909, at the National Eisteddfod of Wales held in London, J. Lloyd Williams gave a lecture on collecting Welsh folk songs, which resulted in tremendous enthusiasm for this aspect of Welsh traditional life. Despite this, some highly regarded Welsh musicians still maintained that everything of value had already been published, and any other folk tunes that might be discovered would prove to be worthless…

Wherever possible, Ruth Lewis tried to find someone who knew the area and could locate suitable people willing to sing into the phonograph. Sometimes, to get them started, her daughter Kitty would sing a few Welsh airs and with patience they got songs from farmers and blacksmiths, weavers and housewives, including some country-dwellers who could only speak Welsh. In this way they collected a number of songs, some of which were published, but many more can be found in her unpublished collections in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, and at the Welsh National History Museum in St Fagans…

‘Y-Cariad Cyntaf’, with words and music from an earlier period, was transcribed from her phonograph recording of the singing of an Aberystwyth van driver.”

Since the auspicious singing of said Aberystwyth van driver, several people have recorded ‘Cariad Cyntaf’, including Bryn Terfel (performed on the Last Night of the Proms, 2008), Meredydd Evans (a great, scratchy old recording), 9Bach, Elin Manahan Thomas and Wyn Pearson. The Foxglove Trio’s version of the song can be found on their 2013 EP, Like Diamond Glances

‘The Trees They Grow So High’ 

As chosen by Ange Hardy.

Roud number: 31

What makes this one of the best British folk songs?

“There are many versions of this song and I love it for that reason. You can really play with the melody as the phrasing lends itself to many styles of singing, and it has enough space in the lyric to allow you to play with your vocal delivery, adding inflections. It’s a fantastic song to learn to sing to.

There is also another side to this song, when you really read into the story. As the Wikipedia entry notes, ‘The subject of the song is an arranged marriage of a young girl by her father to a boy who is even younger than she. There are numerous versions of both the tune and lyrics. In one set of lyrics the groom is twelve when he marries and a father at 13.’ I love songs that tell stories and touch on life experience, songs that evoke your feelings and engage you in your opinions, loyalties and morals.”

Where can you find out more about ‘The Trees They Grow So High’?

As with most English folk songs, it would seem, a Martin Carthy recording is in existence. The sleeve notes to his eponymous debut album suggest that the song is of Scottish origin:

The Trees They Do Grow High first appeared in print in 1792 under the title Lady Mary Ann and the young man is named as Young Charlie Cochran. In 1824 another version was printed as the Young Laird of Craigs Town with a note attached saying he had been married when very young, and had died shortly afterwards in 1634. There is no real evidence to suggest that the many English versions collected date back to this incident; indeed the ballad may well be older as child marriages of convenience were by no means uncommon in Mediaeval times.”

The English versions that Carthy point to make up a good number of the 334 archived pieces relating to this song that live on the Full English website, with versions taken down by notable collectors, including Henry Hammond and Sabine Baring-Gould.

The recording on our playlist is available on Findings, the 2016 album from Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater.

Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for further editions of our British folk songs: 5 to try series.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *