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The (Royal) Blackbird

[ Roud 2375 ; Ballad Index R116 ; Bodleian Roud 2375 ; Mudcat 44600 ; trad.]

Norman Buchan and Peter Hall: The Scottish Folksinger

Paddy Tunney sang The Blackbird to Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle at Garrison, Co Fermanagh, on 20 July 1952. This recording was included in 2014 on the Topic anthology of traditional songs, airs and dance tunes in Ulster recorded by Kennedy and O'Boyle, The Flax in Bloom (The Voice of the People Volume 27). He also sang The Blackbird on his 1976 Topic album The Flowery Vale. Cathal Ó Baoill noted:

Both the words and music of this song can be found in P.W. Joyce's Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (1909). The tune is one of those characteristically Irish melodies which includes a changed leading note or fah, whichever way you want to look at it. The changing of the leading note by flattening, or of the fah by sharpening has the same effect as a modulating to the subdominant in the first case, or to the dominant in the second. You will hear this effect in the next two songs as well. The tune is in the Doh mode, though from what I have already said, you could well argue that it is in the Soh mode. However, if you try playing it in the Soh mode you will find that the harmonies grate. The bit of lilting that Paddy introduces at the end of the song is based on the undecorated version of the melody Bunting took down from the harper O'Donnell in County Mayo in 1803. The harper's version is a set dance which can also be found in O'Neill's Music of Ireland (Nos. 199-201).

The ‘blackbird’ in question represents Prince Charles Edward Stewart, the Young Pretender to the English throne, whose father James II was defeated at the Boyne in 1690. Thus the song is a political allegory.

Alison McMorland sang The Blackbird in 1977 on her Tangent album of Scots songs and ballads, Belt wi' Colours Three.

Kevin Mitchell sang The Royal Blackbird on his and Ellen Mitchell's 2001 Musical Traditions anthology Have a Drop Mair. Kevin Mitchell and Rod Stradling noted:

Kevin: Jerry Hicks from Co Armagh heard me singing a version of this song and asked me “Where's the second part?” I had not heard anyone sing the second part, so I went to the set dance tune and worked it out from there.

Of Roud's 52 instances of this song, most refer to broadside printings. Of these, two were from Dublin and two more from Edinburgh—all the rest were English printers. So it's a little surprising that the song has never been collected in England—the 18 places named are about equally distributed between Scotland, Canada, the USA and Ireland (a slight majority).

Only Paddy Tunney (of Belleek, Co Fermanagh) and Richard Hayward have been recorded singing the song.

The Unthanks sang The Royal Blackbird on their 2022 album Sorrows Away. Becky Unthank noted:

Thanks to Jos Collins for suggesting I take a look at the online Scottish audio archive Tobar An Dualchais/Kist of Riches. I came across a recording of Jock Cameron singing The Royal Blackbird and was charmed by his delivery of the song. It appeared to me at first to be a love song, but it's actually an allegorical song from the Jacobite times. After the Jacobite rebellion it was dangerous to sing political songs. ‘The Blackbird’ is Bonny Prince Charlie (Prince Charles Edward Stuart).

Lyrics

Paddy Tunney sings The Blackbird

A fair summer's morning on soft recreation,
I heard a fair lady a-making great moan,
With sighing and sobbing and sad lamentation,
A-saying, “My blackbird most royal has flown.
My thoughts they deceive me; reflections do grieve me,
And I am o'erburdened with sad misery.
Yet if death it should blind me, as true love inclines me,
My blackbird I'll seek out wherever he be.

“Once in fair England my blackbird did flourish,
He was the chief flower that in it did spring.
Prime ladies of honour his person did nourish,
Because that he was the true son of a king.
But this false fortune which still is uncertain
Has caused this parting between him and me.
His name I'll advance in Spain and in France,
And I'll seek out my blackbird wherever he be.

“The birds of the forest they all met together,
The turtle was chosen to dwell with the dove.
And I am resolved in fair or foul weather,
In winter or spring for to seek out my love.
He is all my treasure, my joy and my pleasure,
And justly, my love, sure, my heart follows thee.
He is constant and kind and courageous of mind,
All bliss to my blackbird wherever he be.”

Kevin Mitchell sings The Royal Blackbird

'Twas on a fine morning, for soft recreation,
I overheard a maiden a-making, a-making her moan
With sighing and sobbing and great lamentation,
And saying, “My blackbird most royal, most royal, has flown.
My thoughts they deceive me, reflections do grieve me,
And I am overburdened with sad misery.
Yet ere death shall find me as true love inclines me,
My blackbird I'll seek out wherever he may be.

“The birds of the forest they all met together,
The turtle was chosen to mate, to mate with the dove,
And I am resolved, in fair or fine weather,
Once more in the spring to meet, to meet with my love.
He is my heart's treasure, my joy and my pleasure,
And justly, my love, my heart follows thee
For he's courteous and kind and constant of mind
And my blackbird I'll seek out wherever he may be.

“In England my blackbird and I were together,
Where he was so noble and generous, and generous of heart.
A woe to the time when first he went thither,
Alas he was forced soon from thence, from thence to depart.
In Scotland he is deemed and highly esteemed
But in England a stranger he seemeth to be
But his name I'll advance in Ireland and France
And my blackbird I'll seek out wherever he may be.

“But what if the fowler my blackbird has taken?
Then sighing and sobbing shall all, shall all be my tune.
But if he is safe I'll not be forsaken,
And hope yet to meet him in May, in May or in June.
For him through the mire, through mud and through fire
I'd go, for I love him to such a degree
For he's noble and kind and constant of mind
And my blackbird I'll seek out wherever he may be.”

The Unthanks sing The Royal Blackbird

One fine summers morning of soft recreation
I heard a fair damsel making her sad moan
Sobbing and sighing in sad lamentation
For the loss of her blackbird most royal had flown.

Her reflection does grieve me as cruel love's deceive me
And I am more burdened with sad misery
But if death it does bind me as true love inclines me
My blessings of my blackbird where'er he may be.

Ah it's once in fair England my blackbird did flurry
Just because that he was a true son of a king
And ladies of honour his person did nourish
Just because that he was the a true son of a king.

But if by the power my blackbird is taken
Oh it's offing and sighing shall be my downfall
In France or in Spain my blackbird remains
Here I hoped to be with him in May morning dew.

The birds of the forest they all flock together
But the turtle has chosen to dwell with the dove
And in darkness or light or in fair or foul weather
I'll seek out my blackbird where ever he may be.