Last updated on April 3, 2021
In investigating Birmingham songs, I’ve come to realise that two source singers in particular stand out. Perhaps the most widely known was Cecilia Costello, a Digbeth singer of Irish decent that may have acquired at least some of her repertoire following a spell working (not residing) in a Winson Green workhouse. She was visited twice in the 1950s by Marie Slocombe of the BBC Sound Archive, and again in 1967 by Charles Parker, the resulting recordings being released in 1975.
It is from Cecilia Costello that we get perhaps the only contemporary song relating to the infamous Peaky Blinders gang – a snippet called ‘My Bloke’s a Peaky’. In the interview she gave accompanying her recording, she recalled seeing gang members around Digbeth, and how people would cross the road to avoid having to make eye contact with them in passing. The Costello recordings are well worth digging out. She seems to have been a sprightly character well into old age, and the joy she gets from singing her old songs to the collectors is palpable.
The other Brummie source singer that grabs the attention, although no aural recordings exist, is Mrs Webb of King’s Norton (then Worcestershire, now Birmingham). I’ve written about Mrs Webb already (see my post on ‘Colin’s Ghost’), and the songs collected from her by Henry Hammond on a visit to Bath have since continued to grow on me. Her repertoire, in some ways, reminds me of the Marina Russell collection. While it’s not nearly as broad, it does contain some songs of similar strength and influence, most notably a lengthy version of this stately gem.
‘Adieu Adieu’ – a brief recorded history
To modern audiences, the most well-known version of this song is the recording by The Watersons that appeared on their For Pence and Spicy Ale album in 1975. In the sleevenotes, A. L. Lloyd wrote that this was, “The ace and the deuce of robber songs.” And, indeed, it’s one of those great songs that seems to have caught the imagination wherever it travelled. The folk song historian, Roy Palmer, had the Midlands’ version down as ‘Adieu, Adieu’, but the Full English Collection (which holds the original Hammond/ Webb manuscript) has it down as ‘Willow Day‘.
And that’s not even the half of it. Versions of the song have turned up all over the country under myriad titles. Various members of the Waterson clan have performed it as ‘Adieu, Adieu’ (the mid-70s lineup – see the above video – and Eliza Carthy on her 1998 album, Red), ‘Newlyn Town’ (Martin Carthy), ‘Newry Town’ (Waterson:Carthy) and ‘The Flash Lad’ (Martin Carthy with Brass Monkey). Other takes, with varying titles, have been recorded by Martin Simpson (‘Adieu, Adieu’) Lisa Knapp (‘Wild and Undaunted’), The Furrow Collective (‘Wild and Wicked Youth’) and Stick in the Wheel (‘The Roving Blade’). Walter Pardon performed it as ‘The Rambling Blade’, while Jack Elliot knew it as ‘Rich and Rambling Boys’.
A. L. Lloyd further noted that, “Nearly every surviving traditional singer in England with anything like a decent repertory knows a version of The Flash Lad.” It would seem that almost every 21st century folk performer has had a crack at recording it, too.
‘Adieu, Adieu’ – where it came from
Steve Roud notes in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (in which, incidentally, it appears under the title ‘Wild and Wicked Youth’) that the earliest printed versions of this song date from the 1780s. The song was typical of what were known as ‘goodnight songs’ – songs that bore close resemblance to the ‘Last Dying Speech’ genre favoured by broadside printers. Both the songs and the speeches purported, as the names suggest, to be transcripts of the final words of those going to the gallows. Quite how anyone would manage to summon the wherewithal to make such profound and well-formulated statements at such a pressing time is certainly beyond me. You’d think they’d have other things on their minds.
The character in ‘Adieu, Adieu’ (which is the title I’ve chosen to use simply because I learnt it this way from the Palmer book mentioned above) is a fairly standard example of those that feature in goodnight songs. Having been born into hardship, he marries a woman whose tastes are beyond his means and takes to robbing on the highways to fund her desires. At some point around the third and fourth verses, you get the sense that he’s quite enjoying the highlife, and it is inevitably this freshly acquired taste for gold that proves his downfall.
And it’s at this point that one of those magical folk song moments occur. Despite varying versions of the song featuring myriad towns, from Dublin to Norwich, many of them centre on the moment of capture, nearly always by a rabble called Fielding’s Gang. And who was this Fielding? None other than Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones and the brains behind the Bow Street Runners – an early model for Robert Peel’s force that came into effect in 1829. Far from being another criminal fraternity, as one might easily assume from the lyrics, the Fielding Gang were essentially one of the earliest incarnations of the British police.
You learn something new everyday.
‘Adieu, Adieu’ – lyrics
The lyrics here are taken from Roy Palmer’s Songs of the Midlands. Frank Purslow also offered a version of Mrs Webb’s ‘Willow Day (The Flash Lad)’, although it should be noted that his version was supplemented with verses taken from documents found further afield.
Adieu, adieu hard was my fate
I was brought up in a tender state
Bad company did me entice
I left off work and took bad advice
Which makes me now to lament and say
Pity the fates of young fellows all
Willow day, willow day
At seventeen I took a wife
I loved her dear as I loved my life
To maintain her both fine and gay
I went a robbing on the highway
And when my money it did grow low
Out on the high road I’m forced to go
Where I robbed lords and some ladies bright
Brought home the gold to my heart’s delight
I robbed Lord Goldwyn I do declare
And Lady Mansfield of Grosvenor Square
I shut the shutters and bid them goodnight
Away I went to my heart’s delight
Through Covent Garden I took my way
With my pretty blowyn to see the play
‘Til Fielding’s gang they did me pursue
Taken I was by that cursed crew
Before Judge Hall then I was took
Before Judge Hall then I was tried
Says, “Harry Jones, this will not do
My iron chest you have broken through”
And when I’m dead and going to my grave
A pleasant funeral pray let me have
Six highwaymen to carry me
Give them broad swords and sweet liberty
Six blooming girls to bear up my pall
Give them white gloves and pink ribbons all
And when I’m dead let them tell the truth
There goes a wild and undaunted youth
As always, the research for this article couldn’t have been done without reference to Mainly Norfolk.