Holiday songs in British and Irish folk music

Holly_And_The_Ivy_23aComposing a playlist of “British” holiday folk song is a fascinating task which allows the listener to tap into the dual pagan and Christian roots of the holidays in the British Isles.

Wassail songs

If you’re looking to “paganize” the holidays, you’ll find the rite of “wassailing”. Wassailing per se is the singing and cheering to… the trees of the orchard. Food and drink would be placed a the foot of the trees in the orchard on the twelfth night, to ensure a bountiful harvest in the year to come. The custom changed over the century to encompass friendly (and drunken) visits to your neighbors to toast to their health from door to door.

Here we come a-wassailing  is the staple song for this custom, delivered here by one of England’s finest folk singer, Kate Rusby.

But “wassail songs” have not only appealed to traditionalists, as you can hear in the version by Blur (yes, Blur).

“Wassailing” is not to be confused with the practice of “souling” and the “soul cake” tradition, which is very similar except that it takes place on All Hallow’s Eve. This is mostly and excuse for me to include this song by 1960’s American folk-stars Peter, Paul & Mary, which reprises wholes lines of the traditional wassailing song. (Still, this song has been associated with Christmas since Sting released on a Christmas album in 2009.)

Christmas Carols

More overtly christian, carols are integral to the Christmas celebration of many English-speaking countries.

One of my favorites, which has been done by countless artists (the Canadian Loreena McKennitt, the Irish Chieftains & featuring American singer Nancy Griffith) is the Wexford Carol, straight out of Wexford Country, Ireland.  This carol is distinctly christian in its lyrics: With Mary holy we should pray,/ To God with love this Christmas Day/ In Bethlehem upon that morn,/ There was a blessed Messiah born.

The Holly and the Ivy is a not-so-subtle metaphor for Mary and baby Jesus, whose names are repeated before each refrain “The rising of the sun/ And the running of the deer,/ The playing of the merry organ,/ Sweet singing in the choir.” Interestingly, Nature is once again very present in the carol (remember the wassail songs which were dedicated to trees.) The version below is perhaps less folksy, but who can resist the rich contralto of Scottish singer Annie Lennox? Not this boy!

With a tradition maybe going back all the way to the Middle-Ages, the Board Head’s Carol mixes lyrics in English and Latin, and interestingly makes little mention of religion except in the latin verse Reddens laudes Domino. It follows the procession of a boar’s head being served to a king and queen. The orchestration below is by British folk superstars Steeleye Span.

Good King Wenceslas, a carol following the journey of the eponymous king on his way to feed the peasants on St Stephen day (Dec 26th) is perhaps one the best-known of the bunch.

Caroling without English

Not only anglophones enjoy Christmas songs. Welsh people, for one, enjoy to parade around town carry a horse’s skull (a “Mari Lwyd”) on a pole sing songs from door to door. The idea is that the carolers ask in song to be let in, and the inhabitants of the house sing their refusal to them, and they reply to each other in a similar fashion for several verse.

The origin of the tradition are obscure: the Welsh national Museum suggests two etymologies that link the Mari Lwyd to the “holy Mary” or to a “grey mare”. Once again, you’re left to choose between a christian or a pagan interpretation of the song, although the official website for Wales calls it a “pre-Christian tradition.” Translated lyrics and hsset music are available on the National Museum’s website.

The following carol, in Irish Gaelic, is overtly Christian: its title translates as “The Night in Bethlehem” and is, predictably, about the birth of Jesus. Irish legends Altan performed a superb rendition of this carol in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Concluding words

With all due respect to Burn’s Auld Lang Syne, can we please NOT sing it at New year’s Eve this year. Let us return to the song that was a hit before Burns entered the scene, OK? Happy holidays!


Underwhelming Christmas folk and Americana playlist

Last Valentine’s day, I compiled a little playlist about heartbreak and loneliness to get you into the mood. With the holidays fast approaching, I thought it was high time I dampened your festive spirits. Out with Wham or Mariah Carey, here are your new Christmas fav.

Country artists just LOVE to put out Christmas album. Way back in 1962, the legendary Kitty Wells was a forerunner of the trend. On her album, you’ll fine this heartbreaking gem of a tale of a Christmas spent alone. Thankfully, she added renditions Jingle Bells and Holy Night in the rest of the album to provide a bit more holiday cheer.

This lonely house don’t need no mistletoes for I’m the only one that comes and goes
And since that day you walked out the door well Christmas ain’t like Christmas anymore.

Now, we can all agree that Christmas is the best time to talk to you little girl about her own mortality and how she might experience it before the year is over? Well, that’ exactly what Merle Haggard is doing with this story of a laid-off factory worker who wonders aloud if he’s going to be able to keep is girl fed and warm during the holidays.

Now I don’t mean to hate December
It’s meant to be the happy time of year
And why my little girl don’t understand
Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas here
If we make it through December
Everything’s gonna be alright I know

New Year’s resolution sometimes cannot really wait until January, and you start making plans for the next year as a means to survive the holidays. Like Dolly and the girls of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas did.

Fine and dandy
Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow bring me way down

Of course, sometimes Christmas can be so tough it sends you spiraling into downright denial. And who but Tom Waits to better convey the despair of the underdog that has to spend Christmas poor and lonely? Although, Neko Case does a pretty heart-wrenching cover of the same tune.

Hey Charlie I almost went crazy after Mario got busted
I went back to Omaha to live with my folks
But everyone I used to know was either dead or in prison
So I came back to Minneapolis this time I think I’m gonna stay

Reprising the same them as Kitty Wells did some fifty years before, country darling Kacey Musgraves finds Christmas a little depressing after the loss of her true love. As usual, Musgrave’s always apt to throw in a little bittersweet line to make a seemingly clichéd song a little deeper (and here, more depressing – see below.)

Seems like everybody else is having fun
I wonder if I’m the only one
Who’s broken heart still has broken parts just wrapped in pretty paper
And it’s always sad seeing mom and dad getting a little grayer

Let us finish with the most uplifting (or, the least depressing) song of the bunch: Aimee Mann’s self-penned Calling on Mary, extracted from her 2006 Christmas album One More Drifter in the Snow.

And to all the lost souls down below:
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
What’s one more drifter in the snow?
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
Happy holidays!

Songs for the Armistice

Today we remember the end of the first world war. In the folk idiom, war has always been an inspiration for songs of loss, sorrow and disillusion, sometimes veering into the overtly political. I’ve compiled a little playlist to keep you down throughout the day. You’re welcome.

The titular Faded Coat of Blue is that of a Union Soldier during the American Civil war (the Confederates wore gray.) The unidentified narrator, who only speaks of the soldier as “my brave boy”, dwells on his lonely an anonymous death on the battlefield (being buried in a “lonely grave unknown”.) The last words of the dying soldier go to his family:  “And tell my sweet sister, so gentle, good and true,/ That I’ll meet her up in heaven in my faded coat of blue.”

Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier is very probably of English origins, and sounds very similar to Siúil A Rún, an Irish ballad popularized by Clannad. AA Bondy’s version on the album Divided and United, which aims at gathering music from both sides of the Civil War that tore America apart, relies on a spare electric arrangement that strays from the usual traditional approaches. Yet, the minimalist melody and heavy percussive beat give this lament all the emotional force needed to accompany the desperation of a young woman “crying her fill”, facing the double loss of seeing her lover go to war, and having to sell her possessions to help him by equipment “sell you wheel, sell your tin of silver, buy your love a sword of steel”.) From Ireland to England to the young United-States, the adaptations of this song have shown its universal appeal thanks to the narrative voice of a “collateral victim” of war (a them which modern artists will come back to as we’ll see further down.)

The Foggy Dew is much more linked to a particular context: that of the Easter Rising of 1916. With Britain at war on the European front, Irish rebels led an ultimately unsuccessful rising to free Ireland from British rule. Thought the song still extols the value of the rebels and the just cause of war, the narrator cannot help but notice the hefty price to pay to some measure of freedom (“For I parted then with valiant men whom I never shall see more/ But to and fro in my dreams I go and I kneel and pray for you,/ For slavery fled, O glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy dew.”)

While she refers to no precise conflict, the shadow of Vietnam looms over Joni Mitchell’s 1969 a appella dirge. Her addressee, “Johnny” or “America” itself, has betrayed its values, trading the beautiful “fiddle” pour the military “drums”, trading the “handshake” for the “fist”. Not totally disillusioned, she still tries to make overtures, as a Canadian, to “[her] friend” America, proposing to “help [America] find the peace.” In the final line, she highlight the then almighty position of America on global affair: when it goes to war, we “all […] fear the beating of  [its] drum.”

Collateral damages are put back at the center by Malvina Reynolds when she writes What Have They Done to the Rain? in 1962. When she covered this song, Joan Baez warned her audience: “the gentlest protest song I know: it doesn’t protest gently but it sounds gentle”. And indeed, the end of the first verse sounds gentle enough for one who doesn’t know the message of the song:  “Just a little boy standing in the rain/ The gentle rain that falls for years/ And the grass is gone, the boy disappears/ And rain keeps falling like helpless tears.” However, once you realize that the “rain that falls for year” is the fallout of nuclear testing, the disappearance of the little boy because as gruesome as it is poignant. Without ever mentioning war, Reynolds writes a devastating song about the consequence of arms race and unchecked technological development.

Once again, no specific war is mentioned in the song written by Ochs in 1963 and (hugely) popularized by Baez in 1964. War in itself is not the topic of the song, it is just one element in a list of many social ills. As he mentions crime, alcoholism, or vagrancy, Ochs reminds his listeners of the social realities that lead some to these situations. “Show me the country, where the bombs had to fall/ Show me the ruins of the buildings, once so tall/ And I’ll show you a young land/ With so many reasons why” sings Ochs (or Baez) in his final verse. As long as society doesn’t change, there is no hope to avoid wars. Like the two previous songs, it is hard not to see the influence of the Vietnam war creeping into the lyrics.

I’ve already written about how her anti-Vietnam War positions got Buffy Sainte-Marie blacklisted by the government. Yet, I couldn’t fail to include this song again in such a playlist. Her Universal Soldier is of all nationalities, religions, ages and fights with spears as well as missiles. He will never stop killing, for the sake of ideology as diverse as democracy, communism or fascism, for the fundamental reason that fighter always believe in the righteousness of their cause. The last verse is where the song becomes controversial: “His orders come from far away no more/ They come from him, and you, and me/ and brothers can’t you see/ This is not the way we put an end to war”. She points out our own responsibility in electing warmongers.

In 1985, Suzanne Vega wrote one of the most emotional song about war, The Queen and the Soldier. Reverting the trope of the female voice representing pacifism while the men wage war (as see above in Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier, and below in Travelin’ Soldier), we see this time a male soldier questioning a female ruler about the necessity of war. The Soldier manages to elicit a heartfelt response of the Queen who acknowledges she has no choice but to wage this senseless. However, the Soldier will pay a dear price for this rare moment of earnestness of the Queen when, “ashamed” of having shown her tue feelings, she puts back her iron mask at the expense of the Soldier.

The last song of this playlist is also the most recent one. Release in 2002 by the country-pop outfit Dixie Chicks, the tearjerker would trigger a shitstorm of epic proportions. Seemingly about the Vietnam war, the song follows the exchange between a “pretty little girl with a bow in her hair” and the eponymous travelin’ soldier until [SPOILER] his untimely death on the battlefront. The lyrics send us full-circle back to the oldest song of this playlist: Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier.

Yet, even if we could consider that the narrative isn’t really original, the story of the song itself makes it a powerful antiwar anthem: in 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines introduced the song to a London audience by expressing her shame to share common Texan origins with warmongering president George W. Bush who started a war Iraq that very year. Of course, Southern fans didn’t take it too kindly and went as far as organizing event in which they brought their Dixie Chicks albums to have them rolled over by a bulldozer (!!) Although Maines apologized about attacking the president (still maintaining that “[she] just want[ed] to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost”), and Bush himself spoke up about the singer’s right to her freedom of speech and opinion, the Dixie Chick’s career never quite recovered and they’ve only recently been back in the spotlight.

This playlist can be found here, on my YouTube channel here, with a British bonus, courtesy of Kate Bush (which sadly didn’t fit the specifics of this blog.)


Songbirds/jailbirds: the “tradition” of prison performance

A few days ago, all-around Goddess Rhiannon Giddens performed and gave a workshop in Sing Sing penitentiary, a maximum-security prison. A surprising and yet logical choice for the artiste whose sophomore solo-album was just released on Feb. 24th under the title of Freedom Highway. As explained in a New York Times article, Giddens had previously attended a concert at the facility, which inspired her to write a track that would be feature on her album: Better Get it Right The First Time, which has been presented in most reviews as a “Black Lives Matter Anthem.” The song, about police brutality, is replete with reference to “standing [one’s] ground” the infamous law used as a defense by George Zimmerman after he shot Trayvon Martin in 2012, being “shot anyway”, etc… What drove her to write the piece after this initial visit to Sing Sing is the realization of how skewed the penal system was in the US.  “I was struck by how black the population is. I knew that in my head, but seeing it just kind of hurt.” A perception that is confirmed by most statistics, as those of the NAACP. This disproportionate incarceration rate has far-reaching effects on African-Americans convicts during and after their incarceration, and on the families as well, as described in an analysis by the Washington Post. This issue could only affect Rhiannon Giddens, whose new album centers around self-penned songs based on slave narratives. Ironically, she couldn’t play Better Get it Right The First Time at Sing Sing due to its subject matter.

Karsten Moran for the New York Times

Giddens is not the first roots artist to go down this road. Part of Johnny Cash’s legend is probably due to his 1968 Live At Folsom Prison and 1969 Live At Saint Quentin.

Cash had received letters from inmates after performing Folsom Prison Blues for the first time and decided to stage a concert a prison, bringing along his second wife, June Carter.

A few years later, in 1972, BB King and Joan Baez, among other, would take the stage at Sing Sing, setting a precedent for Giddens’ performance. In the clip below, Baez and her sister Mimi Fariña sing and banter with the inmates, with an interesting choice of songs: Dylan’s I Shall be Released and Viva Mi Patria Bolivia. The Baez sisters being of Mexican heritage on their father’s side, the choice to sing a Latin American song in Spanish could be interpreted along the lines drawn by Rhiannon Giddens in her observation on the make up of the prison’s population.The cheers they draw from the crowd as they begin the song seems to indicate that the latino population is also over-represented at the penitentiary. A problem that still persists into the 21st century.

Prisons and convicts have also often been a source of inspiration for root artists. But that’s another story, and shall be covered in another blog post. Stay tuned!

Rhiannon Giddens performed at Sing Sing thorugh the Musical Connection program of Carnegie Hall:
The late Mimi Fariña started her own foundation to bring music to people in various institutions: prisons, hospitals, nursing homes….

Underwhelming Valentine’s day folk songs

Folk and roots music hasn’t never been the happiest, especially when love is concerned. I won’t even get into the murder ballads… but I couldn’t resist compiling a little playlist of songs of longing, lost love and absence. Enjoy (or not.)

The complaint of the forlorn lover

Once I had a sweetheart, and now I have none
He’s gone he’s left me me, to weep and to mourn.

This classic British folk song has been covered by Joan Baez, Pentangle, or Marianne Faithful, but my favorite version is by newcomer Pippa Day in the finals of Bath Folk Festival New Shoots competition.

My heart is sad I am lonely
For the only one I love
When shall I see him oh no never
‘Til we meet in heaven above

Crossing over the ocean, a classic among classics of American folk, Bury Me Beneath the Willow has been a favorite lament to sing during old-time jams. Simple an evocative, the narrator is penning his/her final words to a spouse-to-be who eloped with another. I may be partial to Rosanne Cash’s version as it was my first introduction to the song, but I find her velvet voice to carry just the right hue of resignation and acceptance, with a tinge of desperation.


Are you lonesome tonight, do you miss me, I say
Are you sorry we drifted apart

From the Carter Family to Elvis, everyone and their broken-hearted dog seems to have covered this song, so I just randomly picked Kacey Musgrave’s version.

Country heartbreak

Love is like a dyin’ ember
Only memories remain
Through the ages I’ll remember
Blue eyes cryin’ in the rain

Country music coming from a rural place, the niceties of love often had to face the hardships of life. Needless to say, happy endings rarely prevail.


“Go”, she said, “And work with haste
And bring the bales into the barn
Else the crop will go to waste
And the babe will wait till the work is done”

Although not country in its style, Anaïs Mitchell’s song Shepherd (adapted from a short story by her father) is definitely about love in rural America. A tragic tale of labor and loss, sung in the ever-delicate voice of Mitchell…

Lover’s blues

The only thing different
The only thing new
I’ve got these little things
She’s got you

So this is cheating as it was first a country song by Patsy Cline, but Giddens’ bluesy version really adds to the feeling of regret and lament of an abandoned woman looking back at her former relationship.

She said I don’t know if I’ll be back
Or if you’ll want me if I come
But if and when that happens, dear
You better let my sweet dream run
Oh, let my sweet dream run

Made famous by Emmylou Harris,  Broken Man’s Lament in its original version by Marc Germino is far bluesier. The lyrics tell of a man whose accepting wife can only be pushed so far before she leaves.

When I was a young girl
Well I had me a cowboy
It weren’t much to look at
Just a free ramblin’ man
But that was a long time
And no matter how I tried
Those years just flow by
Like a broken down dam

Perhaps even better know than the original by John Prine, Angel From Montgomery by Bonnie Raitt is one of the most heartbreaking songs that illustrates how in love and life, things sometimes don’t go according to plan.

Fantastic Beasts and In Which Songs To Find Them – Part I

Folk music, coming from (you guessed it) folk-lore, is replete with magical creatures. One just has to know where to look for them.

Nicholas Berchem (1620 - 1683) - A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum
Nicholas Berchem (1620 – 1683) – A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum

And it is perhaps easier to start looking for them in European folklore. Local legends and old mythology have peopled  European folk with a wide variety of creatures the tales of which made it into folk songs. Sometimes, these animals are not particularly fantastic, at least not in appearance…

The Darby (Derby) Ram is a fine example of this category. Collected in Roud’s Folk index, it dates back to at least 1867, as it appeared in Llewellynn Jewitt‘s Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire on this year. It tells of a ram so huge that his horns reach up to the moon, and the wool on his back reached so high that eagle made their nest there. Needless to say, the butcher and the tanning boy who tried to slaughter this wonder of nature were punished: one was drowned in blood, and the other one was carried by the flood. The Kossoy Sister (one hit album wonder in 1956) worked their twin-sister harmony magic on this tune while keeping it close to the text reported by Jewitt, with a banjo accompaniment from Erik Darling who would then go on to replace Pete Seeger in the Weavers (yes, I enjoy English tune sung by Americans.) A statue of the ram has actually graced the town of Derby since 1995.

Not all extraordinary animals are as benevolent as the placid ram. We have for instance known since the days of Calydon that having a bloodthirsty boar in the neighborhood isn’t usually a good omen. A similar image is to be found in the opening sequence of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, but that’s not our topic here. The quintessential folk singer Jean Ritchie had a song called Old Bangum about such a wild boar and how it was chased by Bangum (available on streaming services apparently, but I don’t have access to those myself.) The song is based off Sir Lionel, another of the Child Ballads in which the wild boar is a pet either to a not-so-jolly giant or to a hysterical old woman who attacks the knight for killing her “pretty spotted pig.” It has been adapted by several other folk artists, but the most original (meaning “less traditional”) is perhaps Breton harpist Cecil Corbel’s version, in which the boar “will eat you meat and suck your blood.” Charming little critter. (Notice that in both Ritchie’s and Corbel’s version, the boar has no owner.)

One doesn’t have to go too far back in time to hear of such legendary beasts. Cryptozoology (the search for fantastic animals) keeps many of those tales alive, from the Loch Ness Monster to El Chupacabra. The one that interests us here is the beast of Bodmin Moor, a large cat which is say to hunt on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. The region is keen on keeping the legend alive, for obvious touristic reasons. It inspired British folk trio Kadia to write a song about this “demon cat of monstrous scale” and the sad tale of a young couple who were only hoping  for a romantic night on the moor.

For a myriad of wondrous creatures, one has to leave the folk cannon and turn to newer compositions, such as Peter, Paul and Mary’s Autumn to May. Apparently written by the men of the trio, this gentle song takes the listener onto a magical journey to meet a dancing dog with legs fourteen yards long or a swan living on an oyster and hatching snails (not to mention the vest-wearing traveling frog and a flock of flying sheep kept in the music box.) The men’s guitars duet in the background as they take lead, with harmonies from the honey voice that is Mary Travers’ (R.I.P 😥  )

Now, a very similar song, Little Brown Dog, appeared on Judy Collins’ Golden Apples of the Sun, in which she mention is was compiled in Ruth Crawford’s Seeger Animal Folksongs for Children… which was released in 1950, thus 12 years before PPM. The version sung by Collins had already been released in 1957 by Peggy Seeger, Ruth’s daughter. Both PPM and Collins’ tracks were released in 1962. Collins sings what is to me one of the most oddly poetic lines of the folk revival…

I buyed me a little bull he was four inches high
Everybody feared him who ever heard him cry
When he began to bellow he made such melodious sound
That all the walls in London came tumblin’ to the ground

Well, I’m sure these critters have barely whetted you appetite… Perhaps you’d like to hear about shape-shifting animals? Very well then, but in a next article.