A BRIEF HISTORY OF THREE TRADITIONAL ENGLISH BALLADS

I’ve written original musical arrangements of three traditional ballads, “Greensleeves,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” Those scores, if you’re interested, may be found by clicking on the links given below. The arrangements have in common four-part choral harmony and an acoustic guitar accompaniment. “Auld Lang Syne” also has a string quartet, “and “Scarborough Fair” has a string quartet and flute.

All of these songs are in public domain, and so are fair game to anybody who wants to use them. The same cannot be said for my arrangements of them, however. Those are protected by copyright. At some point in my blog I’ll talk about copyright laws, particularly as they pertain to material in the public domain.

Here’s a little history of the three songs.


GREENSLEEVES

Almost everybody has heard the tune to “Greensleeves.” Without taking a scientific survey, I’m guessing most people know it better as the Christmas carol, “What Child Is This.” However, that poem, by William Dix, wasn’t written until 1865, while the melody goes back at least as far as 1580.

Speculation has it that the original song was written by Henry VIII, perhaps for Catherine of Aragon or Ann Boleyn. There is no evidence for this, but it makes for a good story. Henry died in 1547, thirty-three years before “Greensleeves” saw print. While it is true that folk songs often exist for decades or centuries before they’re written down, there just isn’t anything to indicate that Henry composed it. That doesn’t mean he didn’t, just that it can’t be proved.

The original lyrics to “Greensleeves,” printed below, are light years away from “What Child Is This.” While the song is about a spurned lover who wants his lady back, the title—which is used as the lady’s name—is essentially a dirty joke. In Elizabethan England green was symbolic for sexual promiscuity. A lady might have green sleeves or a green gown because she lay down in the grass to, um, shall we say, “engage in the process of procreation.”

Greensleeves

Alas, my love you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously;
And I have loved you oh so long
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves, my heart of gold
Greensleeves was my heart of joy
And who but my lady Greensleeves?

I have been ready at your hand
To grant whatever thou would’st crave;
I have waged both life and land
Your love and goodwill for to have.

Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves, my heart of gold
Greensleeves was my heart of joy
And who but my lady Greensleeves?

Thy petticoat of slender white
With gold embroidered gorgeously;
Thy petticoat of silk and white
And these I bought gladly.

Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves, my heart of gold
Greensleeves was my heart of joy
And who but my lady Greensleeves?

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), a friend/rival/acquaintance of Shakespeare’s, wrote “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” in the late 1580s or early 1590s, although it wasn’t published until 1599. You may find it below. It’s one of the most famous love poems in the English language, and it’s contemporaneous with the printed appearance of “Greensleeves.” For that reason, it seems like a natural that somebody would have set Marlowe’s words to the tune of “Greensleeves,” particularly since there is some similarity in lyrics. Apparently no one has, though.

Well, I’ve filled in that gap.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The shepherd’s swains shall dance and sing,
For they delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

You can find the score by clicking here:

Passionate Shepherd

SCARBOROUGH FAIR

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: Paul Simon did not write “Scarborough Fair.” He and Art Garfunkel did write “Canticle,” the counter-melody in their classic recording. “Canticle,” in turn, was adapted from a Paul Simon poem, “The Side of the Hill.” But the base song, “Scarborough Fair,” had existed for over 250 years before Paul Simon was born. It first appeared in print around 1670, and probably existed for at least a hundred years before that.

The song has a myriad of variants. Oddly, neither “Scarborough Fair,” nor the famous refrain, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” were in the original lyrics. Those both derive from the 19th century. Other place names have been used, such as Wittingham Fair, and some versions don’t mention a place at all. While the herbs parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme have symbolic meaning in matters of love, and so fit the meaning of the song, they were probably a corruption of earlier lyrics, such as “Every rose grows merry with time.”

The plot of “Scarborough Fair”—that of former lovers giving each other impossible tasks before they will reconcile—seems to have been lifted from an old Scottish ballad, “The Elfin King.” That was a common theme in English folk ballads.

The song is often sung as a duet between the two ex-lovers.

Here are the lyrics, circa the 19th century, and their impossible tasks. I’ve left out “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” and “”for s/he once was a true love of mine,” because those are repeated in the second and fourth lines of every verse.

Scarborough Fair

Male part:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Remember me to the one who lives there
.
(Translation: If you see my ex-, say “Hi” for me)

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Without any seam or needlework.

(Make me a seamless shirt without sewing it)

Tell her to wash it in yonder well,
Where never sprung water or rain ever fell.

(Wash the shirt in a dry well)

Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,
Which never bore blossom since Adam was born.

(Then dry it on a branch that never grew)

Female part:

Now he has asked me questions three,
I hope he’ll answer as many for me.

(Oh, Yeah? Well, he needs to do these things for me first)

Tell him to buy me an acre of land,
Between the salt water and the sea strand.

(Buy me land that lies between the ocean and the beach)

Tell him to plough it with a ram’s horn,
And sow it all over with one peppercorn.

(Plow the land with the horn of a ram and plant the entire field using a single seed)

Tell him to sheer it with a sickle of leather,
And bind it up with a peacock’s feather.

(Harvest the crop with the sole of a shoe and bundle it together using a feather)

Tell him to thrash it on yonder wall,
And never let one corn of it fall.

(Thrash it against the wall without breaking the stalks or losing a kernel)

When he has done and finished his work.
Oh, tell him to come and he’ll have his shirt.

(Once he does these things, he can have his damn shirt)

My arrangement of “Scarborough Fair,” just called “Scarborough,” retains the initial verse (“Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” etc.) as the first and last verses, but I wrote my own lyrics for the middle three verses. No impossible tasks in my version, just sad, unrequited love. You may find the score here:

Scarborough

Like “Greensleeves,” the original ballad is in public domain, so I can do anything I want with it—except, of course, copy other modern arrangements, such as Paul Simon’s.

AULD LANG SYNE

The Scotsman Robert Burns is credited with writing the poem “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788. However, at least the first verse and the chorus existed long before Burns. Below are some of the lines a fellow named James Watson wrote in 1711. (And Watson’s version itself was probably “borrowed” from one or more earlier poems.)

Compare those with Burns’ version, which appear below those.

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone.

On old long syne my Jo,
On old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
On old long syne.

The origin of the tune is lost in the mists of antiquity, but it was a traditional melody, well known in England and Scotland for a century or more before Burns’ time.

Here are Burns’ original lyrics in his Scottish dialect.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
and surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

Now, to a lot of folks, the Scottish dialect is, well, gibberish. In my arrangement, I modernized and Americanized the lyrics, giving them a decidedly sadder tone.

The choral arrangement doesn’t do anything terribly unexpected, although there are a couple of spots where I swapped out the expected B flat chord for an E7-9. Sounds pretty cool.

The other thing I did was add quite a bit of original music. There’s some of that in both “Greensleeves” and “Scarborough Fair,” too, but almost half of “Auld Lang Syne” is my own composition. The score is here:

Auld Lang Syne

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