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When Fishes Fly

With Peter Wray and George Chippendale


This is a close relative of Mary Humphreys’ song, “No My Love, Not I”. The story of seduction and betrayal is a common theme in traditional song. To paraphrase the old story: it’s the rich what gets the pleasure; it’s the poor woman what’s left holding the baby. Use of the herb rue can cause miscarriages, but can also lead to the death of the mother. The song is also related to a Newfoundland song, “Oh No Not I” recorded, among others, by Stan Rogers.

The Glasgow Barber

A recently disembarked Irish immigrant refuses to have effete Glasgow hairstyles imposed upon him without consent, and shows his displeasure accordingly.

I learned this fine song from the book “Folk Songs Sung in Ulster” compiled by Robin Morton. I won it for having the best turnip lantern at the Glasgow Traditional Folk Song Club Hallowe’en party in 1970.

Braw Sailing on the Sea

This story of an unsuccessful courtship was learned from the singing of Tony Cuffe. The original version was collected by Gavin Greig in 1904 from the singing of Mr James Greig of New Deer and is found in the Greig Duncan Folk Song collection of songs from Aberdeenshire and the North East of Scotland. This version is in Ord’s Bothy Ballads under the category “Songs of the Forsaken and Jilted”.

Another version of the song has the proud lassie buying the nine shilling ring herself, to replace the flashy three guinea one offered by her suitor.

The Ballad of Lidl and Aldi

The arrival of the German discount supermarkets, Lidl and Aldi with their centre aisles featuring an unlikely cornucopia of hardware, gadgets and boy toys, has led to an upsurge in interest in doing the weekly shop among blokes like myself. Mickey McConnell has captured the essence beautifully in this song.

Who cares if you really need that petrol driven air compressor? At these prices, it would be silly not to have it!

Our Glens

This wonderful bit of faux romanticism by Buff Hardie and James Donald has been sung by a number of singers over the years. I heard it from Robin Laing, a fine singer and songwriter, who has produced  several albums and books devoted to the subject of whisky.

There is always a wonderful moment at the end of the first verse, when the audience first realise that, far from being subjected to a drenching of maudlin nostalgia, they are actually getting a very funny song.

Shining Down on Sennen

As a consequence of the decline of the tin and copper mining industries in Cornwall, it is estimated that 250,000 Cornish migrated abroad between 1861 and 1901. Many ended up in the the Copper Triangle, the area in South Australia called 'Australia's Little Cornwall’, around the towns of Moonta, Kadina and Wallaroo. Mike O’Connor’s song beautifully expresses the nostalgia  for home felt by Cousin Jacks around the world.

Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake

Like many Irish comic songs, this is from the USA, written by C. Frank Horn in1883. He followed up its success with the lesser known Miss Mulligan’s Homemade Pie

In Scotland, it was sung as Miss Hooligan’s Christmas Cake, by Harry Melville (the Irish Daisy) and J. M. Gates-  with success, they claimed. Copies of the song could be had from The Poet's Box, 10 Hunter Street, Dundee, for the small sum of One Penny.

The Close Shave

Written by Bob Bickerton, this is a New Zealander’s take on the classic tale of the country bumpkin being taken advantage of by a lady of the night. In most versions of this song, the naive ploughboy or sailor wakens the next morning minus his clothing and cash. Our hapless gold prospector faces a dilemma of a different sort. But he adapts.

The North Wall

Here’s another song of the passing of a way of life and of the void that is left when everything that gave life purpose disappears for all the wrong reasons. It was written by Dave Evardson, who describes it as follows: “It's based on a short poem by my Dad John (1921-1993), who was a trawler fitter on Grimsby docks. When he retired I took him down dock & he was devastated by the desolation & inactivity there, compared to the hustle & bustle of the 50s & 60s. It was one of the last songs I made for Dad when he was alive, & I know it meant a lot to him.”

The Lass of Patie’s Mill

This is a poem by Allan Ramsay, published in “The Tea Table Miscellany” in 1733. According to Burns, “Allan Ramsay was residing at Loudon Castle, and one afternoon, riding or walking out together, his lordship and Allan passed a sweet romantic spot on Irvine water, still called ' Patie's Mill,' where a bonnie lassie was ' tedding hay bare-headed on the green.' My lord observed to Allan that it would be a fine theme for a song. Ramsay took the hint, and lingering behind he composed the first sketch of it which he produced at dinner."

The tune, described as “Italianate in nature” is attributed to David Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scots’ unfortunate secretary. Sped up, it is a popular dance tune.

Get Up and Bar the Door

A couple risk dire consequences in order to win a stupid argument. The history of the modern world in a few words.

This must be one of the oldest  jokes in folk music. This version comes from Herd’s “The Ancient and Modern Scots Songs”, 1769. It’s number 275 in Child’s collection. I first came across it in Norman Buchan’s “101 Scottish Songs”, a wee green book which every aspiring Scottish folk singer brandished aloft when I was growing up.

The Gallant Soldier

Mary is very impressed by her gallant soldier in his finery. In most songs of this kind, she would be dressing as a drummer boy and marching along with him, blending in unobtrusively, as folklore would have it. However, in this case, he is equally impressed by her loyalty, not least in having fifty guineas to hand, so they get married first before heading off to war. It’s more commonly known as Mary and the Soldier. Sam Henry collected this song in Magilligan, Co. Derry.

Another version, the Highland soldier, is to be found in The Greig Duncan collection.

Mrs MacDonald’s Lament

I first heard this song of Gordon Bok’s on his 1971 Folk Legacy album “Peter Kagan and the Wind” and I’ve been singing it ever since. It is a wonderfully evocative and sympathetic tale of a sailor whose life has always revolved around the sea and fishing, and who refuses to accept that it, and his life, have changed for ever.

The Working Chap

This tribute to the dignity of honest labour is to be found in John Ord’s The Bothy Songs and Ballads of Aberdeen, Banff & Moray, Angus and the Mearns (to give it its full title). It’s a song whose sentiments still resonate and several updated versions are going the rounds today. I first heard it sung by the Scottish band Ossian. Mr Ord was chief of police in my home town of Paisley, and since he plainly had plenty of free time on his hands, the crime rate must have been lower then than I remember it.

Follow the Heron

According to Sangschule, a community project founded by West Lothian Council to promote Scottish song, this lovely song by Karine Polwart was written after she had been a guest at the Shetland Folk Festival. She had been singing at an outlying island event, and as she was being taken home by sea, in the early morning, a heron rose in front of the boat and flew ahead. In the song the heron represents the return of Spring, light after darkness, hope after grief.