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Padstow

Steeleye Span: Padstow (Flutterby FLUT 3)

Padstow / The First House in Connaught / Sailor's Bonnet
Steeleye Span

Flutterby FLUT 3 (single, p/s, UK, April 1989)

[ Roud 305 ; Ballad Index K086 ; trad.]

Steeleye Span recorded the Padstow May Day Song in 1989 for their album Tempted and Tried. It was also released as a single with the reels The First House in Connaught / Sailor's Bonnet. The album sleeve notes commented:

The Cornish village of Padstow celebrates May Day each year with an extraordinary festival. There are two hobby horses (the red or old 'oss and the blue or temperance 'oss) that dance through the streets led by a “teaser” surrounded by the whole village and onlookers. All day they dance with short breaks for refreshments with mesmeric drums beating the winter out and the spring in.

At least three live recordings of Padstow with several Steeleye Span line-ups are or were available:

  1. from the Beck Theatre on 16 September 1989 on the video A 20th Anniversary Celebration,
  2. from Steeleye's 1991 tour on the CD Tonight's the Night... Live,
  3. from St. David's Hall, Cardiff on 6 December 1994 on the video 25 Live: The Classic Twenty Fifth Anniversary Tour Concert.

A further live recording from the Maddy Prior, Family & Friends Christmas tour of 1999 was released on the CD Ballads and Candles.

A 1945 BBC original recording of the Padstow May Day Song sung by a crowd with accordion and drum has been included in the Alan Lomax collection CD World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: England. The liner notes say:

When the town clock of Padstow strikes midnight on April 30th, there begins a ceremony which is one of the most remarkable pagan survivals in England. Between 12 and 2 a.m. the hobby horse committee walk through streets and gardens singing the May Day Song. Then, next day, the hobby horse dancer appears. He wears a six-foot hoop skirt, painted shiny black and reaching to the ground. This hoop rests on his shoulders, and his head is covered in a conical black mask on which a sinister face is painted in black and white.

At about 11 a.m. this rather terrifying creature emerges from the Golden Lion Inn, accompanied by the “Old 'Oss Committee,” generally in sailor costume, an orchestra of drums and accordions, a man with a box for voluntary collections, and the teaser, who dances nimbly in front of the horse, directing his movements with the manipulation of a phallic club. All day this strange procession roves through Padwtow, singing:

Unite and unite, and let us all unite
For summer is a-comin' today.
And whither we are going we all will unite
In the merry morning of May.

The hoss visits the sick. Children come shyly to touch the skirt for luck. Young married women, caught up under the hoss's shirt, will, according to old Padstonians, give birth within the year. And then, every so often, the surging dance rhythm ceases with a sudden bang of the drum. The hoss bows down motionless to the ground, and, while the teaser makes caressing movements with his symbolic club, the crowd sings a solemn dirge, in which some scholars have found a garbled reference to the Norse goddess, Freya, and her long ship.

Oh where is King George? Oh where is he-O?
He's out in the longboat, all on the salt sea-O.
Up flies the kite, down falls the lark-O.
Aunt Ursula Birdwood she has an old ewe,
And she died in her own park-O.

With a thwack of the club and a crash of the drums the hoss suddenly leaps up, revived; and the singing throng moves on beneath the springtime blossoms.

Another recording from the Padstow May festivities by Peter Kennedy can be found on the Saydisc LP All Round England & Back Again. Unfortunately, the sleeve notes don't say when this recording took place. And the Hobby Horse Party sang The Padstow May Song on 4 June 1965 in an EFDSS sponsored concert at the Royal Festival Hall. This was published in the same year on the LP Folksound of Britain.

Lyrics

Unite and unite, and let us all unite
For summer is a-comin' today.
And whither we are going we all will unite,
In the merry morning of May.

The young men of Padstow, they might if they would,
For summer is a-comin' today.
They might have built a ship and gilded it with gold
In the merry morning of May.

The young women of Padstow, they might if they would,
For summer is a-comin' today.
They might have built a garland with the white rose and the red
In the merry morning of May.

Rise up, Mrs Johnson, all in your gown of green
For summer is a-comin' today.
You are as fine a lady as waits upon the Queen
In the merry morning of May.

Oh where is King George? Oh where is he-O?
He's out in his longboat, all on the salt sea-O.
Up flies the kite, down falls the lark-O.
Aunt Ursula Birdhood, she has an old ewe,
And she died in her own park-O.

With the merry ring and with the joyful spring,
For summer is a-comin' today.
How happy are the little birds and the merrier we shall sing
In the merry morning of May.

Oh where are the young men that now do advance
For summer is a-comin' today.
Some they are in England and some they are in France
In the merry morning of May.

[At the end someone yells out “'Oss 'Oss” and the crowd replies “Wee 'Oss”, then the 'Oss comes back to life, jumps up and starts dancing again.]

Acknowledgements and References

Thanks to Patrick Montague for correcting the lyrics and the Digital Tradition for the info about the cheers at the song's end.

Compare to this Tony Deane's song Following the Old 'Oss as sung by e.g. Tony Rose.