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John Roberts and Tony Barrand - Dark Ships in the

Oak And Ash And Thorn
The Derby Ram
The Two Magicians
Broomfield Wager, The
Derby Ram, The
Dreadful Ghost, The
False Lady, The
Foggy Dew, The
Maid On the Shore, The
Oak and Ash and Thorn
Polly Vaughn
Tom of Bedlam
Two Magicians, The
Wife of Usher's Well, The

Dark Ships in the Forest :
Ballads of the Supernatural
John Roberts & Tony Barrand

Folk Legacy Records, Inc., cassette 1977, CD 1997

As children, we are as familiar with the story-world of elves, giants, witches, and ghosts as we are with the world of the reality around us. This kind of fantasy plays a major role in our growing up, but as we mature it seems to get shuttled further and further into the backs of our minds, closeted up, to be released only for the occasional entertainment of our own children.

But it is precisely this variety of fantasy which provided a major part of the entertainment of days gone by. Songs and tales, carried in a family tradition intermittently refreshed by itinerant musicians and raconteurs, were full of bizarre encounters between young men and water nymphs, knights and dragons, fairy queens and magicians; and many of these same ballads, as song or story, have been carried down to us through the same family traditions.

Why were these themes so popular? In a world of oppression and misery, the adventure world of heroic knights and distressed damsels offered some brief escape. And in the world of the inquisition, of the continuing struggle between God and Satan, the shining white and the murky black, with the might of the church pitted against the insidious powers of witchcraft, it would seem natural to spice these adventures with the incarnations of supra-terrestrial forces.

But changing times lead to changing ballads. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table give way to Robin Hood and his merrie band of outlaws. Regal seductions make room for romps in the hayloft, Contemporary events are celebrated in new ballads, which take pride of place in the family repertoire. Many of the older songs are forgotten, or changed beyond recognition; but they are not all lost.

Old motifs, like old soldiers, seldom die; they live on in the new ballads and in adaptations of the old, altered, perhaps, but never really forgotten. Occasionally they appear in full glory in a miraculously preserved saga of ancient intrigue, perhaps remaining almost unchanged over the centuries. They may just come as fleeting allusions, shadows of the past ill at ease in their new settings. Sometimes (particularly, it seems, in their migration across the Atlantic) they disappear,
leaving stark, grim tales of unexplained death, murder, and tragedy, And at times, it seems, they serve only to muddle an apparently rational sequence of events. But they remain with us, in many cases the same supernatural elements common to our children's fairy tales: the ghosts, wizards, talking birds, shape transformations, and miracles of a magical world of long ago.

The songs we sing here were born of this stock. Because of our biases, they are based on English or English-derived tradition, or are English in style or spirit (as it were). Many of them are filled unashamedly with the fantastical events of the balladry of yesteryear; others carry only faint indications of some long-gone past, of unnatural happenings, of pagan ritual, and of disconcerting power, In the primal forest of folk songs, these are our dark ships.

John Roberts March 1977

Oak, Ash, and Thorn

Rudyard Kipling's "A Tree Song" sets the scene for the stories and poems of Puck of Pook's Hill, This setting of the verses is by the late Peter Bellamy who, after the breakup of the Young Tradition, became one of Britain's best-known exponents of traditional song. He has arranged a considerable number of Kipling's "songs," using original melodies or adapting traditional ones. This tune is his own.

We also use it as a scene-setter, a "calling-on song." The magic of trees lies deep in the roots of Druidic religion and mythology, and the oak, ash, and thorn are central characters of the bardic tree-alphabets; much of this tree lore has survived in folk tales, in English as well as in Celtic tradition.

Of all the trees that grow so fair, old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the sun than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn:

Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs,
(All on a midsummer's morn!)
Surely we sing of no little thing
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Oak of the clay lived many a day
Or ever Aeneas began,
Ash of the loam was a lady at home
When Brut was an outlaw man,
And Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town,
(From which was London born);
Witness hereby the ancientry
Of Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,

Yew that is old, in churchyard mould,
He breedeth a mighty bow,
Alder for shoes do wise men choose,
And Beech for cups also,
But when you have killed, and your bowl it is spilled,
And your shoes are clean outworn,
Back you must speed for all that you need
To Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,

Ellum, she hates mankind, and waits
Till every gust be laid,
To drop a limb on the head of him
That anyway trusts her shade,
But whether a lad be sober or sad,
Or mellow with ale from the horn,
He'll take no wrong when he lyeth along
'Neath Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,

Oh, do not tell the priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin,
But we've been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring summer in,
And we bring you good news by word of mouth,
Good news for cattle and corn:
Now is the sun come up
from the south,
By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,

The Broomfield Wager

Cyril Poacher, our source for this "pub" version of a most venerable ballad, was a regular at the Saturday night sing-songs in The Ship Inn, at Blaxhall in Suffolk, The somewhat garbled nature of the story line is heightened by the mysterious "Hold the wheel" chorus, apparently the result of a misunderstanding of "had his will" by a visiting (and presumably inebriated) yachtsman, It stuck.

O wager, O wager, O wager I'll lay you,
I'll lay you five thousands to your one
That a maiden I will go to the merry broomfield
And a maiden I'm sure I will return.
That a maiden I will go to the merry broomfield
And a maiden I'm sure I will return
Hold the Wheel!

And then did this young maid get on a bay hobby's back,
All for to ride to that green broom (that green broom),
And when she got there, she found her own true love
Lying in that merry green broom fast asleep.

Nine tines did she walk round the crown of his head,
Nine times round the soles of his feet,
Nine times did she say, "Awake, master,
For your own true love is standing nearby.

And when she had done all that she dare do,
She stepped behind that bunch of green broom (that green broom)
All for to hear what her own true love would say
When he awoke out of his domestic sleep.

He said, "If I'd been awake instead of being asleep,
My will I would have done toward thee,
Your blood, it would have been spilled for those small birds to drink,
And your flesh it would have been for their food."

"You hard-hearted young man, how could you say so?
Your heart it must be hard as any stone,
For to murder the one that loved you so well
Far better than the ground that you stand on,

"Nine times of this bell did I ring, master,
Nine times of this whip did I crack,
Nine times did I say, 'Awake, master,
For your own true love is standing nearby."


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Category : English Folk Music

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