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(It Was in) The Month of January / Cruel Was My Father

[ Roud 175 ; Laws P20 ; G/D 6:1176 ; Ballad Index LP20 ; trad.]

Paddie Bell sang It Was in the Month of January in 1965 on her LP Paddie—Herself.

Paddy Tunney sang The Month of January on his 1966 Topic album recorded by Bill Leader, The Irish Edge. This track was also included in 1998 on the Topic anthology Tonight I'll Make You My Bride (The Voice of the People Series Volume 6).

Sarah Makem sang It Was in the Month of January at home in Keady, Co. Armagh, in 1967 in a recording made by Bill Leader. This recording was published a year later on her Topic LP Ulster Ballad Singer. Sean O'Boyle commented in the album's liner notes:

This is Sarah Makem's greatest contribution to the annals of folksong. Here she treats with great sincerity of feeling one of the oldest themes in traditional song—the story of a young girl betrayed and abandoned by her wealthy lover and cast by cruel parents into the snow. It concludes with the usual warning: (See Joyce, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs [1909], p. 210):

Come all you pretty fair maids, a warning take by me
And never try to build your nest on top of a high tree;
For the leaves they will all wither and the branches all decay
And the beauties of a false young man will all soon fade away.

Herbert Hughes prints a fragmentary version of this song, called The Fanaid Grove, in Irish Country Songs, Vol. I [1909]. I know of no other folk song composed to the same melody—a beautiful example of a modified Soh Mode.

An earlier recording made by Diane Hamilton in 1955 was included in 2011 on Sarah Makem's Musical Traditions anthology As I Roved Out. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

This is considered by many to be Sarah Makem's greatest contribution to the annals of folksong. In a way, it's surprising that it should be so revered, since it's only really two verses followed by two floaters. But Sarah's emotional yet controlled singing of a truly glorious tune ensures that it will be long remembered.

It treats one of the oldest themes in traditional song—the story of a young girl betrayed and abandoned by her lover and cast by cruel parents into the snow. Herbert Hughes prints a fragmentary version of this song, called The Fanaid Grove, in Irish Country Songs. Vol. 1. For an augmented text see Kennedy, Folksongs of Britain and Ireland.

It's not a particularly well-known song, with only 33 Roud entries; it goes by many titles, but none is more prevalent than the others. It has been sung all over these islands, and North America, but is most common in Ireland, with singers Geordie Hanna, Paddy Tunney, Tom Lenihan, and Dan MacGinty being named as well as Sarah. Although 15 sound recordings are listed, only those by Geordie Hanna (The Fisher's Cot CD) and Paddy Tunney (TSCD656) are still available on CD.

Another 1967 recording, made by Peter Kennedy and Sean Boyle was included in 2012 on Sarah Makem's Topic anthology The Heart Is True (The Voice of the People Series Volume 24).

Frankie Armstrong sang The Month of January on her 1976 Topic LP Songs and Ballads. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album's liner notes:

Frankie finds this “one of the most beautiful of many songs of this kind, where the woman is left literally holding the baby while the errant father has gone off in search of fortune elsewhere.” Her version reproduces that of Sarah Makem, the fine Ulster Ballad Singer. There's a nice Donegal version called The Fanaid Grove, in Herbert Hughes's Irish Country Songs, Vol. 1, and in Joyce's Old Irish Folk Music and Songs is a fragmentary set sung by a reaper in a harvest field, containing the aromatic line: “My love is as sweet as the cinnamon tree.”

Tom Lenihan sang this song as A Wintry Evening on his 1978 Topic album of songs traditional in West Clare, Paddy's Panacea.

Sara Grey and Ellie Ellis sang this song as Wintry Winds on their 1982 Fellside album of songs and tunes from North America, A Breath of Fresh Air.

June Tabor sang The Month of January on her 1983 Topic LP Abyssinians and on her 1993 compilation Anthology. She cites Sarah Makem as her source.

Bob Fox sang In the Month of January in 2000 on his CD Dreams Never Leave You. He commented in his album notes:

One of the most beautiful melodies I've ever come across. The story is age old—the daughter of wealthy parents becomes pregnant to her poor lover who accepts a large bribe to disappear without trace!

I first heard Fiona Simpson of “Therapy” sing this; I believe it comes from the singing of Sarah Makem.

Tim Radford sang The Month of January on his 2005 CD Home from Home. He noted:

Being born in January, I have always had a great affection for this song. The way the story is told as a third party means it can be sung by a man or a woman and still make sense, and this is a common device in traditional songs that makes them more accessible. Learned originally from the singing of Sarah Makem, I recently augmented it with a verse from Peter Kennedy's Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland, where it is called The Forsaken Mother and Child.

The Albion Christmas Band sang The Month of January in 2008 on their CD Snow on Snow.

Debra Cowan sang Cruel Was My Father on her 2009 CD Fond Desire Farewell. She noted:

I had learned a version of this called In the Month of January that was collected by Peter Kennedy from Sarah Makem. To me, Makem’s tune was always hauntingly beautiful, but the story never quite made sense. Many years later I found another version of the song in the Helen Hartness Flanders Collection, sung by Mrs. Christine Henry of Providence, RI. We decided to put Mrs. Henry's lyrics to Mrs. Makem’s tune to give this sad tale a setting that befits it.

Niamh Boadle sang The Month of January in 2010 on her CD Wild Rose.

Jon Boden sang In the Month of January as the 10 January 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Josienne Clarke sang The Month of January in 2012 on her and Ben Walker's CD Fire and Fortune.

Siobhan Miller sang The Month of January on her 2017 album Strata.

Lyrics

June Tabor sings The Month of January

It was in the month of January, the hills all clad with snow,
It was over hills and valleys my true love he did go.
It was there I met a pretty young girl with a salt tear in her eye,
She had a baby in her arms and bitter she did cry.

“Oh, cruel was my father that he barred the door to me,
And cruel was my mother, that dreadful crime to see.
Cruel was my own true love that he changed his mind for gold,
And cruel was that winter's night that pierced my heart with cold.”

For the taller that the palm tree grows, oh, the sweeter is the bark,
And the fairer that a young man speaks, oh, the falser is his heart.
Oh, he'll kiss you and embrace you till he thinks he has you won;
Then he'll go away and leave you all for some other one.

So come all you pretty fair maids, and warning take by me,
Never try and build your nest at the top of a high tree,
For the green leaves they will wither and the branches all decay
And the beauty of a young man it soon will fade away.

Tim Radford sings The Month of January

It was in the month of January, the hills were clad with snow,
And over hills and valleys I carelessly did go.
It was there I spied a fair pretty maid with a salt tear in her eye,
She had a baby in her arms, and bitter she did cry.

“O cruel was my father who barred to door on me,
And cruel was my mother this dreadful crime to see,
But cruel was my own true love to change his mind for gold,
And cruel was the bitter wind that pierced my heart with cold.

“For the taller that the palm tree grows the sweeter is the bark,
And the fairer that a young man speaks, the falser is his heart,
He will kiss you and embrace you 'til he thinks he has you won,
Then he'll go away and leave you all for some other one.

“O hush my little baby boy and lay closer to my breast,
How little does your father know this night we're in distress.”
He kissed me and embraced me till he had my favor gained,
Then he went away and left me in sorrow grief and shame.

So come all you pretty fair young maids a warning take by me,
And never try to build your nest on top of a high tree,
For the leaves they will all wither and the branches will decay,
And the beauties of a false young man will all soon fade away.

Debra Cowan sings Cruel Was My Father

'Twas on a frosty morning, the snow lay on the ground,
A fair maid was walking a few miles out of town.
A few miles out of town against the winter's frost and snow
She had a baby in her arms, she had nowhere to go.

“O cruel was my mother she barred the door to me,
And cruel was my father for I know he kept the key.
Cruel was that winter’s night that pierced my heart with cold,
But crueler was the false young man who sold his love for gold.”

She came unto to a lonely grove and there she did kneel down,
She prayed unto her Saviour dear for mercy on her soul.
She kissed her little baby’s lips and laid it by her side,
She raised her eyes to heaven above and then laid down and died.

Early the next morning this fair maid was found,
Her little baby's fingers were frozen to the ground.
When her mother heard of this, she wrung her hands and she cried,
It was for her father's cruelty that caused them both to die.

So come all ye pretty fair maids, a warning take by me,
Never try to build your nest at the top of any tree.
For the leaves they will wither and the roots they will decay,
And the beauty of a fair young maid it soon will fade away.

Jon Boden sings In the Month of January

It was in the month of January, the hills all covered in snow,
It was over hills and valleys my true love he did go.
It was there I beheld a pretty fair maid with a salt tear in her eye,
She had a baby in her arms and bitterly she did cry.

“Oh, cruel was my father who he barred the door from me,
And cruel was my mother, that dreadful crime to see.
And cruel was my own true love to change his mind for gold,
And cruel was that winter's night that pierced my heart with cold.”

For the taller that the palm tree grows, the sweeter is the bark,
And the fairer that a young man speaks, the falser is his heart.
For, he'll kiss you and embrace you till he thinks he has you won;
Then he'll go away and leave you all for another one.

So come all fair and tender maids, and a warning take by me,
And never try and build your nest at the top of a tall tree,
For the green leaves they will wither and the branches seen decay
And the beauty of a fine young man will surely fade away.

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr/Chords Req: Month of January.