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Frankie Armstrong: Till the Grass O’ergrew the Corn
Till the Grass O’ergrew the Corn
Fellside Recordings FECD116 (CD, UK, 1997)
Recorded by Paul Adams
except tracks2, 6, 8, 10 recorded by David Wood, Sound Services, Monmouth, 1996
Produced by Paul Adams & Frankie Armstrong
Booklet text by Brian Pearson
Frankie Armstrong: vocals;
John Kirkpatrick: accordion, melodeon [1, 4-5, 7, 9, 12];
Maddy Prior: vocals [3, 11]
- The Broomfield Hill (Roud 34; Child 43; G/D 2:322; Henry H135) (4.22)
- Lady Diamond (Roud 112; Child 269; G/D 6:1224) (5.27)
- Hares on the Mountain (Roud 329) (1.33)
- Fair Lizzie (Roud 234; Child 51) (5.08)
- Young Orphy (Roud 136; Child 19) (9.10)
- The Proud Girl (Roud 47; Child 68) (5.49)
- The Lover’s Ghost (Roud 179; Child 248) (4.23)
- The Wife of Usher’s Well (Roud 196; Child 79) (8.13)
- John Blunt (Roud 115; Child 275; G/D 2:321) (2.00)
- Child Waters (Roud 43; Child 63; G/D 6:1229) (11.18)
- The Well Below the Valley (Roud 2335; Child 21) (3.32)
- Clerk Colven (Roud 147; Child 42) (8.06)
All tracks trad. arr. Frankie Armstrong
The concept of the “traditional ballad” is largely a literary invention, a product of the Romantic movement and the taxonomic zeal of nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship. From one point of view, then, a ballad is easiest defined as the sort of song which Francis James Child hunted down so industriously for The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, or—better, because the tunes are there as well, Bertram Bronson included in his monumental Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads.
Scholars of the old school have usually regarded the ballads as the aristocrats of folk song, a view not necessarily shared by their singers, who often make little or no distinction between them and the other, less “literary” songs in their repertoires. We can readily admit this, without accepting, as some more recent folklorists would have us do, that it is therefore illegitimate for anyone to make such a distinction. The sociological approach, although proper and a valuable corrective to previous tendencies to more or less ignore the perspective of “source singers” and the social circumstances in which they sang, is not the only game in town. Musical and poetic criteria also have their claims. But whatever the status of the concept, the songs themselves remain and often have a particular power and dignity about them which it itself goes far to justify the retention of the category.
Among the meticulously ordered rag-bag of Child’s collection there are ballads with supernatural themes, tales of Robin Hood, stories of Border reivers, humorous squibs, tattered survivals of Arthurian romance, historical narratives and accounts of love, usually tragic, sometimes blessed. Time and taste have not been equally kind to all of these sub-genres. To survive in the tradition (another tricky concept), a ballad must in some way serve the interests and resonate with the concerns of its community. As these change, so songs are discarded, surviving, if at all, only on the shelves of libraries or sound archives. Each age reinvents the idea of ballads to suit its own predilections—few today would share Sir Philip Sidney’s enthusiasm for Chevy Chase (perhaps he’d heard a better version?) and most Robin Hood ballads long ago hung up their interminable stanzas and retired from active duty. Not surprisingly, it is the tales of love and romance—Barbara Allen, Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor, The House Carpenter, Lord Bateman, for example—which have fared best in the struggle for popular affection. Conversely, what seem to many people nowadays the most alluring, must truly “balladic” of ballads—those with a high magical or folkloric content, such as Tamlin or Thomas the Rhymer—have either disappeared entirely from tradition or have been hung on in severely battered form just long enough to be collected by the second wave of the folk revival.
One of Walter Scott’s informants, the Ettrick Shepherd’s mother, berated him for printing her ballads. “There was never ane o’ my songs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel’, and ye hae spoilt them a’togither. They were never made for singin’ an’ no for readin’, but ye hae broken the charm now, an’ they’ll never be sung mair.” Here forebodings were understandable, but wrong. It was not collectors but social change that doomed the communities that created and sustained her beloved songs. And thanks to Scott and his successors, her ballads are still being sung, albeit in a world she could scarcely have imagined (there is one, The Proud Girl, on this disc).
So here’s to the scholars and collectors, ancient and modern, who have brought home so rich a haul from libraries and archives, berry fields and kitchens: paradoxically, we probably now have access to more ballads in more versions than at any time since the form was invented. And thanks above all to the singers, known and unknown, who have carried and shaped these songs for no other reward than delight in the stories and joy in the singing of them.
Frankie Armstrong was born in Cumbria and brought up in Hertfordshire. Early on she became involved with the folk revival, quickly developing a reputation as one of its leading women singers. She has recorded and toured extensively in Europe, North America and Australia. She is internationally renowned for her voice workshops and has worked with several theatres, including the National Theatre, Theatre de Complicite and Trickster. Although primarily known as an unaccompanied singer, she has sung with Roy Bailey and Leon Rosselson, with jazz composer Mike Westbrook’s band and the avant-garde rock group Henry Cow and has recorded an album of Brecht songs with Dave van Ronk. But ballads are her first love. Frankie has been singing them for all her adult life and has a deserved reputation as a fine interpreter. Some of the songs here have been in her repertoire for many years; others were learnt specially for the recording. The selection is not meant to be representative of anything except the kind of songs she likes to sing. The protagonists naturally enough, are usually women—variously strong, tricky, tragic, vengeful, dangerous, lovesick, doomed, sometimes daft and occasionally dead.