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
Such as duck, goose, capon and swan
But when lords and ladies dine, they drink strong beer, ale and wine
That's some diet for a servant man.

Husbandman: Don't you talk about your capons, let's have some rusty bacon
And aye, a good piece of prickled pork
That's always in my house, a crust of bread and cheese
That's some diet for a husband man.

Servant man: When next to church they go with their livery fine and gay
And their cocked hats and gold lace all around
With their shirts as white as milk, and stitched as fine as silk
That's some habit for a servant man.

Husbandman: Don't you talk about your livery nor all your silken garments
That's not fit for to travel the bushes in
Give me a leather coat, aye, and in my purse a groat
That's some habit for a husband man.

Servant man: So me must needs confess that your calling is the best
And will give you the uppermost hand
So now we won't delay but pray both day and night
God bless the honest husband man.


Lines written upon being ambushed by a Wasp

A garden is a frightful place, and full of horrid things

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 
Copyright Isabel Taylor 2006.



Although many English proverbs make eminent good sense, there are legions of others which have dropped out of use simply because they are baffling.  Try this one:
As good be an addled egg as an idle bird.
I suppose this means that they are both equally useless, but what's the point of the observation? And what would be the reaction were one to use it?  ("My son always breaks the dishes when he does them, which isn't often."  "Yes, Mrs Smith--as good be an addled egg as an idle bird."  Doesn't sound right, somehow).
And then there is 

Go abroad, and you'll hear news from home.

 Strike a light.



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