late, but lots of links.

Categories: 31-songs-in-may

Tags: music, bad day, Fairport, Martin Carthy

Date: 15 May 2003 01:03:00

Today has not been a good day. Firstly, I tried to type up this wiblog this morning, and after about 2 hours of research and typing, I pressed one wrong button, and erased the lot (don't ask). So I then went over to see Soo for dinner, and locked myself out. Rhys helpfully came back with the key, but it has really not been very useful as far as days go. I have also just counted the number of cherry stones by my side and it appears I am going to marry a sailor, which might be fine, had I not married a computer programmer.

Well the upshot of all this is that I have learned a lesson, and am typing this into Word, so I can save it at intervals, and not delete it all there, no excuse now.

May 14th: Matty Groves.

Right, what was I saying about this this morning? OK, well, it's a traditional ballad, which seems to be found on both sides of the Atlantic in some version or another. In fact there are so may variations, it would be possible (though probably a little tiresome) to spend the whole of May looking at this one song, there's also enough verses in some versions to keep us going on a verse a day well into June. So it is hard to find a definitive version. Here we turn to one of the bibles of folk music, the work of ballad collector extraordinaire, Francis Child, where it is entitled “Mattie Groves (variant of Little Musgrove and Lady Barnard)”, or for folk purists, “Child #81”. (Incidentally any folk purists with a spare £848.77 to spend might want to check out this copy of Child's complete 5 volume set of “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads”.

Really it is just a popular song about a scandalous occurrence (probably fictitious) that has survived through the centuries because it is fun to sing (especially with a few verses getting the chop), and great to listen to, overflowing with theatrical spirit, it is a song that must be performed rather than played. The story goes that the wife of a lord uses her position to entrap ‘little Matty Groves' into spending the night with her while her husband is away. Unfortunately the exchange of words is heard by the lord's servant, who runs to tell his master of his wife's deceit. So it is that the lord rushes home to find Matty asleep in his wife's bed. (Up until this point, I have always been reminded of Joseph and Potiphar's wife (except with a much better tune than Mr Lloyd Webber could ever dream of, no matter what colour coat he wore).) At this sight Matty is challenged to a sword fight, which to cut a long story (and at least 4 verses) short he loses. Being the olden days this means he is now dead. So the lord asks his wife to choose between him and the corpse. Rather irrationally she chooses the lifeless body over the angry guy with the sword in his hand. She doesn't last long after that. The lord then calls for a single grave to be dug for the sorry pair (no expense spared there then), and the last line must be quoted because a paraphrase would lose a lot: “but won't you bury my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin”. There we are then.

I have mentioned the many different versions of this song, and a good way of illustrating this is the number of names given to the ‘lord with the sword':

Child #81 lists alternatives of Barnaby, Barnetts, Bengwill, Barlibas, Barnet and Burnett in England, also Thomas, Danial and Banner in the Appalachians. Other alternatives include; Airlin; Donald; Arnold; Arlen; Darnell and Barnard. The most likely explanation for the lord's name changing so much, and Matty's staying pretty much the same is that the name of the nearest local lord with a name or character that suited the song was added in every location it was sung. The rumour mill still works this way today, adding a well known name to the latest bit of scandal, irrespective of any actual involvement - it's the story that wins out in the end.

I mentioned before that the closest we can get to the definitive version is to look in Child's collected ballads, this was a little misleading, as I believe a definitive version cannot exist on paper, it must be sung, and in the case of Matty Groves in particular, performed. For that, you need these guys. Fairport Convention have been singing this song since almost their beginning, and it's not worn thin yet. The tune they use for it is a combination of an English one also used in Martin Carthy's version of The Famous Flower of Serving Men and an American tune called Shady Grove (which Jerry Garcia used to sing - you can play a clip on that site too.). The two tunes work together wonderfully, and with constant adaptation, like adding some of Sid Kipper's words of wisdom on interior decorating, the song remains fresh.

Incidentally, given the date I was going to write about another trad/Fairport song, but it was too rude: you have been warned.