The Bedmaking | Folk from the Attic

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As Ian Carter of Stick in the Wheel said in our interview last week, in the hands of Martin Carthy ‘The Bedmaking’ is one of those songs that makes guitarists sit up and wonder what the hell he’s doing. You’ll commonly read of his influence, but his prowess really shows through whenever he sits down to this tune, marking him out as a fingerpicking ninja of sublime syncopation and subtlety.

That may be why I’ve never tried to master it myself before, but sometimes a song just gets under your skin and demands your attention. Like Ian Carter, I first heard Carthy take this on in a Youtube clip some 1o years ago, although it was the version he plays on Stick in the Wheel’s From Here: English Folk Field Recordings that really did the deed on me – something about the gruff and grizzly vocal coupled with that precise fingerpicking, not to mention the narrative of the song itself. I’ve since spent the last month trying to adapt it to my less than articulate style.

Of ‘The Bedmaking’ (Roud 1631), Carthy has said it’s, “a variation on the ‘servant-girl-abused-and-discarded’ theme, but altogether more indignant than most, and it was the redoubtable Mrs Marina Russell of Upwey in Dorset who gave the tune, a version of The Cuckoo’s Nest, to the Hammonds at the turn of the century. However, she did what was apparently her usual trick of not remembering too many of the words, so these were taken from other sources by Frank Purslow in The Wanton Seed, a compilation of songs from the Hammond and Gardiner manuscripts, and slightly stretched by me.”

Indeed, once you head over to the Full English website, you can see that three versions of the song exist in the Vaughan Williams Library at Cecil Sharp House. Two were indeed collected by H. E. D. Hammond (the first performed by George Udal of Halstock, Dorset, in July 1906, and the second by Marina Russell of Upwey, Dorset, December 1907), and the third was collected by George Gardiner (from a performance by George Chatt of Farnham, Surrey, April 24th 1909).

As Carthy notes, Marina Russell’s take on the tune is without any words, and George Chatt only got as far as the first verse. It’s George Udal who seems to have remembered the most, and it’s interesting to note the differences in these when compared to the lyrics that Carthy uses. You get the sense that ‘the bedmaking’ in the modern recording nearly always has a kind of double entendre, while the abused maid in Udal’s version is clearly being scolded for her wandering mind whenever her duties turn to the bedmaking. That said, there’s no shortage of sexual suggestion; while Carthy’s song finds the characters chasing each other through the kitchen and the hall like some kind of Benny Hill sketch, Udal very specifically implies that the master, “took me in the kitchen and took me in the hall”… or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

For the version I’ve uploaded to Youtube, I’ve adapted the lyrics ever so slightly further, but only to fit the more strident rhythm I’ve adopted. For guitarists trying to learn the chords to ‘The Bedmaking’, I’ve used something similar to the tuning that Martin Carthy uses: the tuning of EADEAB. It’s a very minimal sound but it’s great for playing around what is essentially a three-chord tune.

A little addendum: a few hours after I published this post, the great, great, great nephew of Ms Marina Russell tweeted to me to note that her bloodline continues. More to the point, they continue in the folk music tradition – the great, great, great nephew in question is none other than Paul Sartin of Bellowhead and Faustus fame.

@JonWilksMusic Marina’s maiden name was Sartin. My great great etc aunt!

— Paul Sartin (@Patakas1) February 26, 2017

The Bedmaking lyrics

My father, he was a good old man
He put me to service when I was very young
My mistress and me, we never could agree
Because my master he loved me

She called me upstairs to the loft
To make up a bed so neat and very soft
He followed up with a gay gold ring, saying
“Have that for your bedmaking”

All through the kitchen, down through the hall
All through the parlour and through the womens all,
He followed up with a gay gold ring, saying,
“Have that for your bedmaking”

Mistress come upstairs in a haste
She caught him there with his arm around my waist
From the top of the stairs she did him fling, saying,
“Have that for your bedmaking”

All through the kitchen, down through the hall
All through the parlour and through the womens all,
Everybody asked me wherever had I been
And they laughed when I said at the bedmaking

Mistress through me out of the door
She called me a nasty and cheeky little whore
The weather being wet and my clothes being thin
How I wished I was back at the bedmaking

Six months over and seven months passed
The pretty fair maid grew thick around the waist
Her clothes wouldn’t fit nor her pinafore pin
And she cried when she thought of the bedmaking

Eight months over and nine months gone
The pretty fair maid had a pretty little son
She took him to the church and she christened him John
Then she took him back again to the dear old man

She cursed through the kitchen, down through the hall
She cursed through the parlour and through the womens all,
If you won’t pay me, take your little son, John
‘Cause he never cost you nothing but the bedmaking

Spread the word


3 responses to “The Bedmaking | Folk from the Attic”

  1. Alex Turner Avatar
    Alex Turner

    Fascinating read for an incredible song. I keep trying to work out a version that will let me play this in standard tuning but it always evades me, no matter how much I chase it through kitchens, halls or throw it downstairs.

    1. Good luck!

  2. Alan Kearns Avatar
    Alan Kearns

    I think that Betty the Chambermaid in chapters 17 and 18 of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews is a better parallel than Benny Hill!

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