English Folk Songs Explain'd
This is a new series in which we explain (so far as is possible) some favourite folk-songs. First up is the grandly-titled Singing the Travels, which is actually not so much about travelling as the merits of different occupations. It is supposed to be a duet between two brothers. One is a "servant man" and one is a "husbandman," and they have a friendly argument to decide whose is the better occupation. The husbandman wins out in the end, in spite of having none of the servant-man's material advantages. Why? Probably because he is a Free-Born Englishman; although he is poor, with only a groat, he takes his orders from nobody, unlike the obsequious servant-man. Note his bluff scorn ("Don't you talk about your capons," etc.) The reference to "cocked hats" makes me suspect a late eighteenth-century/early nineteenth-century origin for the song's words. There is a rollicking tune that goes with this; a slight variation on it can be found in Michael Raven's One Thousand English Country Dance Tunes. Maddy Prior and June Tabor give a rousing version of this song on their album Silly Sisters, proving that it's not just for blokes.
Servant man: Well met, my brother dear, all along the highway riding
So solemn I was walking along
So pray come tell to me what calling yours may be
And I'll have you for a servant man.
Some serving men do eat the very best of meat
Husbandman: Don't you talk about your capons, let's have some rusty bacon
Servant man: When next to church they go with their livery fine and gay
Husbandman: Don't you talk about your livery nor all your silken garments
Servant man: So me must needs confess that your calling is the best
With yellow stripes around their chests and flutt'ring shiny wings
And at the other end of them, a needle thing that STINGS!
I do not care for nature much; would rather stay indoors
Where there's nothing to hurt you, and no worms upon the floors
And one can curl up with a book of eighteenth-century Bores.
(Although sometimes it's nice to sit beneath a willow tree
And watch the bobbing on the breeze of sun-drunk bumble-bee
And from a distance hear the roar and clinking of the sea.) --Isabel Taylor