Monday 29 April 2013

The Ten Oldest AAA Songs (News, Views and Music Issue 190 Top Five)

A while ago (in News and Views issue 166 in fact) we reviewed Pentangle’s final album ‘Solomon’s Seal’ and commented that the 15th century ‘Cherry Tree Carol’ was probably the oldest song ever covered by an AAA band. At a loss of what else to write about this week, I thought I’d go and look into this deeper and see if I can work out what the oldest 10 AAA songs were. The bad news is that this is more difficult than it sounds – most of these songs changed so much from their original form that it’s hard to pinpoint down which original sources they come from and records of dating are almost invariably out until as recently as Victorian times, when they stopped being ‘oral’ folk tales and started being written down and collected. In short this top 10 is probably not as accurate as we’d like and we’ve had to go for the songs whose dates are specified as good as we can get them (although we’ve had to guess at our top number, because it surely has to be older than when it was first written down –it was noted then that people had been singing it for ‘generations’). The good news is that we were more accurate in our earlier claim for Pentangle than I feared we’d be: ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ is, by my reckoning, the second oldest AAA song ever covered! As with all these things, I may have missed something glaringly obvious so do feel free to write in or leave a comment if something occurs to you that I’ve forgotten! Pentangle, naturally, dominate the list as they made it their speciality to cover olf English folk songs, but the rest of the top ten comes as a bit of a surprise. You might be interested to learn, too, that just missing out on a top 10 placing were ‘Clementine’ (the old folk ballad also covered on Neil Young’s ‘Americana’ album), Pentangle’s ‘The Snows’ and ‘Lord Franklin’, The Who’s cover of ‘Land Of Hope and Glory’ (segues from ‘My Generation’!) which dates from surprisingly modern times, The Beatles’ pre-fame Scottish ballad ‘My Bonnie’ (which is almost certainly old enough to make the list but was only committed to paper in 1881), The Byrds’ ‘Go To Sea Once More’ aka ‘Jack Tarr The Sailor’ and Cat Stevens’ folk cover of the old hymn ‘Morning Has Broken’ (which is old, but not as old as everything else here!)

The Searchers “When The Saints Go Marching In”/”Saints and Searchers” (c.1200?) (‘Sugar and Spice’ 1963)

We start our travels in America, home of a gospel hymn that started out as a declaration of conversion to Christianity and ended up a jazz standard before being picked as a witty choice for a cover on the second Searchers album. Traditionally, this song was played at funerals to commemorate the passing of a spirit to Heaven, played by bands accompanying coffins to their resting place. On the way they played slowly and mournfully and on the way back happily as they celebrated the passing of the spirit. By this reckoning, The Searchers are coming home with a fiery performance that finds Tony Jackson on top form, adding a rock and roll Merseybeat strut and a 4/4 rock tempo to a song traditionally associated with free-form jazz. However it was Fast Domino who first turned the song into a rock standard via an arrangement that he called ‘The Saints Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’!

Pentangle “The Cherry Tree Carol” (c.1400) (‘Solomon’s Seal’ 1972)
Thought to be one of the earliest Christmas carols surviving, this is the tale of the unborn Jesus still in his mother’s womb causing the trees near Bethlehem to reach down and offer his mother Mary their wares. The words are paraphrased from the gospel of Matthew and is listed as no 54 in the ‘Child Ballads’ collection of folk songs, which is more or less the earliest collection of folk songs around. The song was first brought to folk circles in 1960 when Davy Graham (who wrote the Simon and Garfunkel guitar instrumental ‘Anji’) added it to his setlists, although Pentangle’s very traditional version is arguably closer to the way the song would have been played initially.

Pentangle “Cruel Sister” (1656) (‘Cruel Sister’ 1970)

Another Pentangle song from an earlier LP, this folk tale is based on a popular song of murder known as ‘The Twa Sisters’, when a jealous older sister drowned her sibling. Most versions – though not the original – include the detail that both sisters were going out with a local gentlemen who couldn’t tell them apart and that each sister wanted him for themselves. Worryingly, too, most versions end with the gruesome detail that the dead girl’s body is converted by her sister into a musical instrument (generally a harp) and it’s this instrument that’s the ‘narrator’, of sorts, telling the truth about what really happened. Like many a Pentangle song, their version is as traditional as possible and again their version is closer to the original than most folk versions, although Peggy Seeger seems to have been the first. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia recorded his own version of the story as ‘Dreadful Wind and Rain’ on the duets album with David Grisman, ‘Shady Grove’.

Pentangle “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” (1689) (‘The Pentangle’ 1968)

The opening track of the opening Pentangle album, ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ became one of the band’s best loved re-arrangements of a traditional song, dating from what appears to be their favourite vintage of the 17th century. The carol started life as ‘The Sprig Of Thyme’ and probably pre-dates the date given here by several decades if not centuries, although as ever we’ve gone for the first confirmed date that was written down. A tale of innocence, it’s told from the point of view of a young maiden whose ‘garden’ is ‘attacked’ by the gardener’s son and that her ‘thyme’ can never grow again once plucked (honestly, the censorship boards were much easier to fool back then!) Pentangle add (or at least adopt a later, unusual verse) about the maiden wishing she was in the arms of her true love and vowing never to have anything to do with ‘false’ love interests before then.

Pentangle “Lyke Wake Dirge” (1686) (‘Basket Of Light’ 1969)

My favourite of all of Pentangle’s traditional songs, this one from their third album has a fascinating backstory. The date we have here is clearly well within Christian times but its thought this piece dates back many centuries and is actually a song from Pagan times before being adapted and re-written to suit the new religion of the day (hence why it was never written down in the past 2000 years – it would have been seen as blasphemous). The lyrics deal with the soul’s adventures as it passes through earth to heaven, via a stop-off at purgatory along the way, ending each verse with the narrator calling out ‘Christ receive thy soul’ and enabling it to move further on it’s way. The end of the journey is particularly lovely, ending in a final heavenly flourish of sound. I was obsessed with this song for a time, which helped inform one of my better piece of creative writing I must add on this site as an appendix one day. By the way ‘Lyke’ is an old English term for body, a ‘wake’ is a happier term for a funeral and a ‘dirge’ isn’t what it is today (a slang term for something slow and boring) but a musical term for a composition that expresses grief and regret. Modern listeners know this piece best as a ‘serenade’ by Benjamin Britten and folk fans are split between whether Pentangle or Steeleye Span recorded the best version. Surely there’s no question? Ghostly, haunting and unlike anything else ever committed to tape, the Pentangle version is a masterpiece.

Neil Young “God Save The Queen” (1774) (‘Americana’ 2012)

Goodness only knows why Neil and Crazy Horse thought recording the English national anthem was a good idea for an album about things ‘Americana’ I have no idea. At least it means someone other than Pentangle made the list though! I’m intrigued, too that Neil went for the ‘Queen’ version when, traditionally of course, most English subjects since 1774 have been singing about ‘kings’ (if you’re American and the tune sounds familiar, that’s because you guys get the much superior ‘My Country Tis Of Thee’ as your anthem and the tunes are basically the same). Chances are this piece of music, too, predates the date given here, although it took several centuries of being a hummable tune before the words got added and the meaning of the song got pinned down. Frankly any piece of music that has words that you sing about wishing someone would come in and tell you what to do gives me the creeps – even when Neil Young’s singing them. I doubt I’ll ever say this sentence again in any other context but the Sex Pistols actually wrote a much more mature and well thought out song using the same title which should, of course, been the British number one during the Jubilee weekend of 1977 (only someone fiddled the sales figures so it didn’t look as embarrassing for the tax-payer funded anachronistic blood-sucking monarchy).

Pentangle “Willy O’Winsbury” (1775) (‘Solomon’s Seal’ 1972)

Or Child Ballad 100, which will give you some idea of how old this song is (only 46 songs gathered between this and ‘Cherry Tree Carol’ above, some 375 years earlier?!) A Scottish folk ballad, the title character is known by all sorts of names and all sorts of spellings, although Pentangle plumped for the most common one. Whoever he is, he’s been having it away with the King’s daughter when he was off to battle and the monarch isn’t too pleased to find the princess pregnant on his return. Before Winsbury can be sentenced to hang, however, the King is touched by how much his daughter loves him and what a fine prince he would make, so pardons him. This is a test, however, which Winsbury soon passes, refusing offer of land and riches because the only thing he wants is the princess’ hand in marriage. All together now: aaaah! As far as I can tell Pentangle’s reading of the song was the first in modern times (or at least guitarist John Renbourn’s original was – this ‘band’ version dates from a few months afterwards) but there’ve been dozens of them since.

The Byrds “Amazing Grace” (1779) (‘Untitled’ bonus track, recorded 1969 released 2000)

Another Christian hymn, it’s actually another AAA band (The Hollies) who spent the most time singing it, ending most of their 1970s live sets wo=ith this song although unfortunately it was never committed to tape (a ‘phantom whistler’ ruined the version intended to be used on ‘Live Hits’ in 1977). Chances are the melody for this song is a lot older than the words, too, which were written by vicar and part time poet John Newton about his own lifestory of redemption once he ‘found’ his calling (while serving in the Navy as part of the slave trade, his boat was blown into rough seas and only a cry for help from God saved him, or so he thought anyway). The song is better known now In America, where it was a big hit in the post-Civil War era and came to prominence again in the 1960s as part of the African-American civil rights movement. That’s probably where The Byrds first heard it, too, recording a lovely a capella version of the song that amazingly went unreleased for 40 odd years, which makes perfect sense in a repertoire that included similar songs about Christianity such as ‘I Am A Pilgrim’ ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ and the traditional-but-later-dated ‘Oil In My Lamp’.

David Crosby “My Country Tis Of Thee” (1831) (‘Oh Yes I Can!’ 1989)

Or ‘God Save The Queen’ repeated, albeit with infinitely better lyrics. Many were surprised when Crosby – the great political rebel of the swinging 60s who openly took drugs, sang songs about three-way relationships and told a nation live on stage that JFK’s death had been covered up and all politicians were a bunch of hooligans – recorded this song. However the concept of the true ‘American Dream’ before it became a capitalist conceit has always appealed to Crosby and this sweet reading actually makes a lot of sense, sung in far more innocent and hopeful tones than many recent post-modern readings of the song. Samuel Francis Smith wrote his new set of words, to better reflect America rather than Britain after the American Civil War, while still a student inside 30 minutes. If that doesn’t seem so impressive to you then keep an ear out for the original which runs to 13 verses, each better than the famous first one which is usually the only one sung.

The Byrds “Oh! Susannah” (1848) (‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ 1965)

Composer Stephen Foster sold his rights to this song for $100 – a fortune at the time, but surely small recompense for one of the most covered and recognised American songs of all time. Historians disagree entirely over what this song is all about: some claim the opening references to ‘banjos’ make this is an African-American song, others that it’s based on the very white middle class dance the polka, others still that it comes from the minstrel song ‘Rose Of Alabama’. More likely, Foster wasn’t thinking about any of those things but about his sister Charlotte (known to her family by her second name Susan) who’d died from a fever not long before. In this light the song becomes another ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’, about the soul’s progress to heaven. Amazingly only three acts in rock and roll history have ever covered this song: James Taylor, Neil Young again (see ‘Americana’ for his rather muddy and unconvincing cover version) and The Byrds, who used it as a ‘shock ending’ to their second album after receiving such good feedback for ending their first one with a tongue-in-cheek cover of the WW2 song ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
And that’s that. Join us next week when we’ll be slightly more up to date with more news, views and especially music!

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