Last updated on March 8, 2022
‘Colin’s Ghost’, eh? If there’s a more English sounding song title than that, I’ve yet to find it. And I have to say, I’m rather delighted to have found it on my quest through songs from Birmingham and the wider Midlands. I can go even further than that, too, because this song is about as close to home, proximity-wise, as it gets for me. You see, ‘Colin’s Ghost’ [Roud 1600], was collected from a woman who was born and raised in King’s Norton, a mere stone’s throw (providing you can throw stones approximately eight miles) from the area I spent my formative years. I can’t rightly confess to having ever seen Colin’s ghost, but I can certainly imagine the lanes that the narrator speaks of (although she singularly fails to mention the drive-thru McDonalds that shone like beacon in the centre of King’s Norton whenever I passed through it as a child).
‘Colin’s Ghost’, as a song, is somewhat mysterious. I get the feeling it ought to be better know, as it was collected by both Henry Hammond and George Gardiner, and was featured in Frank Purslow’s Marrow Bones collection. As prestigious as all that sounds, you’d be hard pressed to find a recording of it. It’s rare nature perhaps has something to do with the fact that its accompanying history is difficult to pin down. So difficult, in fact, that I had to pester the real experts.
‘Colin’s Ghost’ – a brief history
I first became aware of ‘Colin’s Ghost’ when searching in the Full English online archive, making use of their geotagged map. A number of songs were collected in the King’s Norton vicinity, but this one – the title in particular – leapt out at me. That someone might think to give the romantic lead role (for, as we’ll soon see, he ain’t no ghost) to a chap called Colin appealed to my sense of humour, although I have to say I was slightly bowled over to find that there are no fewer than 759 entries in the Cecil Sharp House online archive relating to that name. He clearly got about a bit.
‘Colin’s Ghost’ was collected by Henry Hammond from a woman called Mrs Webb in February, 1906… but it’s really not as simple as that. As Steve Gardham kindly explained to me, “Mrs Webb was from King’s Norton, then in Worcestershire [subsequent boundary changes mean that it’s now part of Birmingham]. She then moved to Bath later in life, but I don’t know at what stage.”
Bob Askew picks up the tale, graciously taking the time to email me saying, “the Hammonds noted that Mrs Webb was at Bath (almost certainly at the workhouse) when they noted it down.” Given that Frank Purslow’s Marrow Bones dealt largely with the Hammond and Gardiner songs collected in the South, this might explain why a (possibly) Brummie song managed to find its way in. It’s certainly true that Mrs Webb knew only the first and third verses of the song, and the completed version as presented in Marrow Bones will have been supplemented using notes collected elsewhere (Bob Askew notes that it was also collected in the oral tradition from Moses Mills in Preston Candover and David Marlowe in Basingstoke, so Hampshire can also claim some of the authorship).
One other point to make before we leave ‘Colin’s Ghost’ to its own devices: as with the first two songs in my exploration of ye olde Birmingham songs, it’s possible that this is not a folk song in the traditional sense, having been spotted on broadsides at a much earlier date than Hammond’s meeting with Mrs Webb. Steve Gardham was quick to point me towards the Bodleian Broadside Ballads Online website, which places this song somewhere between 1819 and 1844. It appears that at one time it may have been a popular theatre song, much like the other two. Who knew that Brummies were such a cultured mob?
The unanswered question, then, is whether or not Mrs Webb learnt this song back in King’s Norton, or whether she picked it up on her travels South. We’ll probably never know, but I like to imagine she learnt it from a youth working in the aforementioned McDonalds drive-thru.
Colin’s Ghost [Roud 1600] – lyrics
My mummy and daddy they lived in a cot
They bought me a horse that could amble and trot
On each market day, well it fell to my share
To go to the market with eggs and such ware
Scarce seventeen summers were over my head
When over and round the gay village was spread
There was not a lane for a mile at the most
Was haunted by something they said was a ghost
My mummy, she never once scrupled to swear
She’d often seen ghosts and she knew what they were
So she spoke to my father, for he ruled the roost
To go in my stead lest I should meet the ghost
Being baulked of my ride I was vexed in my mind
And being resolved was the secret to find
I looked out of doors and I spied a clear coast
I peeped down the lane to discover the ghost
Then who should I spy come a sauntering along
But Colin the shepherd a-singing a song
He sung it so sweet as he leaned on the post
He beckoned, I went, for I knew him no ghost
With his arm ’round my waste he so eagerly pressed
And I thought my poor heart would leap out of my breast
He kissed my sweet lips ’till as warm as a toast
So eagerly there I was pressed by a ghost
Being pleased with my fancy I got home with speed
My mummy, she never once missed me indeed
So instead of my supper, my tea and my toast
I nightly attend, well pleased, with my ghost
Big thanks to both Bob Askew and Steve Gardham for their help with my research.