Ashley Hutchings noted in his songbook A Little Music:
This song has been sung at the Ebernoe, Sussex, Horn Fair [which is held annually on St. James's Day, July 25] for many years. What went on at the old Horn Fair no-one really knows, but nowadays the festivities are confined to a cricket match and horned-sheep roasting. These two events may at first glance seem unconnected, but what happens, in fact, is that the scorer of the highest number of runs in the match is awarded the sheep's horns!
A live performance of this song by the Etchingham Steam Band (Shirley Collins, vocals; Ashley Hutchings, acoustic bass guitar; Ian Holder, accordion; Terry Potter, mouth-organ) was recorded at the Norwich Folk Festival in 1974. It was published in 1994 on the Ashley Hutchings anthology The Guv'nor Vol. 1, in 1995 on the album The Etchingham Steam Band. in 1998 on the Albion Band compilation The Collection, in 2002 on the Shirley Collins anthology Within Sound, and in 2005 on the Ashley Hutchings anthology Burning Bright.
John Spiers and Jon Boden learnt Horn Fair from Roy Palmer's book Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The song is nearly the same as the one above but Palmer's comment refers to a completely different Horn Fair! They sang it in 2005 on their album Songs, and again in 2010/11 on their CD The Works. Jon Boden also sang it as the March 20, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. They commented in their earlier album's notes citing Palmer:
Vaughan Williams collected this lyric in 1904 from Frederick Teal of Kingsford, Surrey. The fair was held annually on October 18 at Charlton, Kent, until 1874 when it was suppressed for licentious behaviour. The possibly apocryphal story is that King John was discovered in the act of cuckolding a man of modest means. In order to secure his safe exit from the unhappy chap's cottage, the King made him a generous grant of land, on which spot the fair was established in, um, commemoration.
This is a video of Spiers & Boden performing Horn Fair on December 13, 2008 at the Cranleigh Arts Centre:
Joshua Burnell sang Horn Fair on his 2019 album The Road to Horn Fair. He noted:
We have finally arrive! So, there are at least two completely different Horn Fairs that I am aware of, and this song could be about one of both of them. The more innocent of the two is still held each year in Ebernoe on July 25 (St James' Day) and features a cricket match and the roasting of a sheep. The winning team is then presented with the horned skull of the sheep; a stellar prize, I'm sure we all agree.
The other Horn Fair was held in Charlton each year, supposedly marking the date when King John (1166-1216) hopped into bed with a miller's wife. The King then gifted land and permission to host a fair each year—I don't know, as a thank you, I suppose—to the miller. Apparently they first wore horns as a symbol of cuckoldry to mock the farmer and it became the main attraction of the fair.
Well, that and …in fact, I'll just let you read this excerpt from A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain 1724-1727 by Daniel Defoe:
Charlton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz'd well govern'd nation, it may well be said to be insufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justified the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.
Horn Fair was discontinued in 1872 for being too naughty. In the 1970s they revived the fair and I believe it still goes on these days in some form, bur it's nowhere near as filthy. To me personally, although they sing the song at Ebernoe, the lyrics sound more like they're hinting towards the Charlton Horn Fair.
The hauntingly beautiful tune used here is one written by Jon Boden. Accompanying it is a Spanish tune called La Brucha, or The Witch, shown to me by Antonio [Curiale]. It is as equally as haunting as Boden's melody and fits snugly alongside it. I also like the suggestion that perhaps the young man in the story isn't hitching a ride with an innocent young damsel as he supposes, but perhaps someone supernatural…
The Etchingham Steam Band's Horn Fair
As I was a-walking* one mid-summer's morn,
So soft was the wind and the waves on the corn,
I met a pretty fair maid upon a grey mare
And she was a-riding along to Horn Fair.
“Now take me up behind you, fair maid, for to ride.”
“Oh no and then no, for my mummy would chide.
And then my dear old Daddy would beat me full sore,
And never let me ride on his grey mare no more.”
“If you would see Horn Fair then walk on your way
I will not let you ride on my grey mare today.
You'd rumple all my muslin and uncurl my hair
And leave me all distressed to be seen at Horn Fair.”
“Oh fairest of maidens how can you say no?
With you I intend to Horn Fair to go.
We'll join the best of company when we do get there
With horns on our heads, boys, as fine as our hair.”
These were the finest horns as you'd ever behold
These were the finest horns as were gilded with gold
𝄆 So ride merrily, merrily, Horn Fair we did go
Like jolly brisk couples, boys, and all in a row. 𝄇
(* Actually, Shirley sang here “a-riding” which does not fit in the story.)
Spiers & Boden sing Horn Fair
As I was a-walking one morning in spring,
So soft blew the wind through the leaves growing green,
I spied a pretty fair maid all on a grey mare
As she was a-riding on down to Horn Fair.
I asked this pretty fair maid for to let me ride,
“Oh no, oh no, for my mummy would sigh,
And besides my old daddy would beat me for sure
And never let me ride on the grey mare no more.
“I can see by your looks you're for one game of play
But you will not ride me nor my grey mare today.
You would crumple my muslin and uncurl my hair
And I shouldn't be fit to be seen when I get to Horn Fair.”
“Oh no, my pretty fair maid, how can you say so?
For it is my intention Horn Fair for to go.
We will join the best of company when we do get there,
With horns on our heads just as fine as our hair.”
There were the finest of horns that you ever did behold,
The finest of horns, and all gilded with gold,
And so merrily, so merrily to Horn Fair we did go
Like jolly brisk couples and all in one row.
The Etchingham Steam Band's lyrics were copied from the Ashley Hutchings songbook A Little Music.