One for sorrow, two for joy… meditations on a very handsome bird with a slightly dubious reputation.
Seeing no less than eight magpies in the garden today – well, I only saw three, but my wife saw five more before I got there – I was trying in vain to remember some of the lines to the nursery rhyme (the Spencer Davies Group version kept getting in the way). I always assumed that the line from that version – ‘ten is a bird you must not miss’ if I remember correctly – was a sneaked-in-novation to hook viewers of the ‘Magpie’ programme into tuning in next week, but it turns out that at least one version from Lancashire has a similar line. ‘Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss’: doesn’t scan very well, but possibly good advice, at least some of the time. That Lancashire version actually goes up to 13: I found it on the British Bird Lovers site, though the RSPB site also refers to it.
Wikipedia tells me that it has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 20096. Magpies are frequent visitors to other songs, though, some of which are included in that Wikipedia article. Then there’s this one from Donovan’s ‘Gift From A Flower To A Garden’, for instance. And even one of mine, though in that instance the reference is a little oblique.
I must admit that despite their slightly dubious reputation, being associated with bad luck and even the devil, they are very handsome birds. Not altogether comfortable neighbours, though: when I lived in North London, I used to visit the Rye Meads Nature Reserve. The first time I took my daughter there, though, I was discomfited to discover that the kingfishers I’d half-promised her had been driven away by egg-stealing magpies. 😦
But here, specially for you, are ‘two for joy’. Though it kind of looks as if they’re not speaking right now.
Most Saturdays – at any rate when I’m at home – I spend the hours between 12 and 2pm listening to Ian Semple’s radio show on Coast FM (Facebook page here). While Ian plays a great deal of local music, his tastes are wide-ranging: today, for instance, his playlist included Pink Floyd, Richard Thompson, Seasick Steve, Wilde Roses, and Ry Cooder, as well as more local names like Baldrick’s Plan and Julie Carter. And this was a track of mine that he played today. 🙂
My friend Vic Cracknell, who among other musical activities runs open mike nights around Surrey, where I lived for several years, often used to introduce me as ‘someone who plays authentic blues.’ As a result of which, I got used to introducing this along the lines of: “This is a traditional blues. However, it differs from most traditional blues in that it was written on the platform at Chalk Farm Tube station after an evening at the Enterprise folk club in 1983.”
In recent years, I’ve usually played this on electric guitar. This version, though, was recorded on domestic equipment (or maybe a Fostex X-15) in the 1980s, with quite a different arrangement (and on acoustic guitar). I think I might try for a better recording using the same(-ish) arrangement in the near future. But in the meantime, this isn’t too bad considering it was taken from a cassette.
There will probably be a more ambitious version of this here at some point, but at the moment I like this one-take version.
Words and music (c) David Harley
Originally published as a poem in Vertical Images 2, 1987. I waited 30+ years for the melody to turn up, and finally did a make-it-up-as-you-go-along job earlier this year. The vocal here needs work – and I need to learn the words – but the arrangement is much better.
And yes, I know that it’s unlikely that M’Lord fought both at Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). While the Black Death subsided in England from about 1350, outbreaks continued beyond the first half of the 15thcentury. I’m not sure how likely it was that M’Lord slept on silk sheets, but it’s a metaphor, not a history lesson…
When M’Lord returned
To his sheets of silk
And his gentle lady
Of musk and milk
The minstrels sang
In the gallery
Their songs of slaughter
The rafters roared
With laughter and boasting
Goblets were raised and drained
The heroes of Crécy
Or the madness
Of some holy war
The hawk is at rest
On the gauntlet once more
Savage of eye
And bloody of claw
Famine and fever
Are all the yield
Of the burnt-out barns
And wasted fields
The sun grins coldly
Through the trees
The children shiver
The widows grieve
And beg their bread
At the monastery door
Tell me then
Who won the war?
A sort of West Midlands train blues. And yes, the title refers to GWR locomotives. How sad is that? I’ve put up versions of this before, but I like the blues-y feel of this dropped-D arrangement. I’ll be redoing the vocal, and probably putting a second (resonator) guitar over the top.
Vestapol isn’t mine, of course. But it seemed a logical place to go when the song finished… The tune is probably distantly related (in name, at least) to a parlour guitar piece published by Henry Worrall in the 1880s which is actually in open D, but the many train blues-y versions of the tune don’t resemble Worrall’s piece. Nevertheless, open D is often referred to as Vestapol tuning. My version is loosely based on an imperfectly remembered version I heard from Stefan Grossman in the 70s.
Words by Thomas Hood, tune a variation on ‘Andrew and his cutty gun’. Oddly, putting the two together was an idea that came out of a security workspace discussion. 🙂
Something rather more whimsical than the last couple of songs posted here. Strictly a demo: when the lightbulb lit up, I just sang it straight into the microphone.
I’m not sure yet how well it works without the printed words: I’ll have to try it live, I suppose, and maybe consider some editing. Might fit as light relief into a press gang set with darker songs like ‘On board of a man of war’ or ‘All things are quite silent’. The lyric is a poem by Thomas Hood (1799–1845). The tune I’ve used is (more or less) the A-tune to ‘Andrew and his Cutty Gun’ with a twist of ‘False Sir John’.
YOUNG BEN he was a nice young man,
A carpenter by trade;
And he fell in love with Sally Brown,
That was a lady’s maid.
But as they fetched a walk one day,
They met a press-gang crew;
And Sally she did faint away,
Whilst Ben he was brought to.
The boatswain swore with wicked words
Enough to shock a saint,
That, though she did seem in a fit,
’T was nothing but a feint.
“Come, girl,” said he, “hold up your head,
He ’ll be as good as me;
For when your swain is in our boat
A boatswain he will be.”
So when they ’d made their game of her,
And taken off her elf,
She roused, and found she only was
A coming to herself.
“And is he gone, and is he gone?”
She cried and wept outright;
“Then I will to the water-side,
And see him out of sight.”
A waterman came up to her;
“Now, young woman,” said he,
“If you weep on so, you will make
Eye-water in the sea.”
“Alas! they ’ve taken my beau, Ben,
To sail with old Benbow;”
And her woe began to run afresh,
As if she ’d said, Gee woe!
Says he, “They ’ve only taken him
To the tender-ship, you see.”
“The tender-ship,” cried Sally Brown,
“What a hard-ship that must be!”
“O, would I were a mermaid now,
For then I ’d follow him!
But O, I ’m not a fish-woman,
And so I cannot swim.
“Alas! I was not born beneath
The Virgin and the Scales,
So I must curse my cruel stars,
And walk about in Wales.”
Now Ben had sailed to many a place
That ’s underneath the world;
But in two years the ship came home,
And all her sails were furled.
But when he called on Sally Brown,
To see how she got on,
He found she ’d got another Ben,
Whose Christian-name was John.
“O Sally Brown! O Sally Brown!
How could you serve me so?
I ’ve met with many a breeze before,
But never such a blow!”
Then, reading on his ’bacco box,
He heaved a heavy sigh,
And then began to eye his pipe,
And then to pipe his eye.
And then he tried to sing, “All ’s Well!”
But could not, though he tried;
His head was turned,—and so he chewed
His pigtail till he died.
His death, which happened in his berth,
At forty-odd befell;
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton tolled the bell.