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The Bonny Bunch of Roses

[ Roud 664 ; Laws J5 ; G/D 1:155 ; Ballad Index LJ05 ; trad.]

This song of history is a dramatic dialogue between Napoleon Bonaparte's son, the Duke of Reichstadt (1811-1832), and his widow, the Empress Mary Louise after Napoleon's death. Don't be like your father, she tells her son.

Harry Cox of Catfield, Norfolk, sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in two BBC recordings made on December 18, 1945 (BBC 17230) and at the Windmill, Sutton, Norfolk, on October 27, 1947 (BBC 13865). One of these recordings was included in 1965 on Cox's eponymous EFDSS album Harry Cox. The second BBC recording was included in 2000 on Cox's Topic anthology The Bonny Labouring Boy and in 2012 on the Snatch'd from Oblivion CD East Anglia Sings.

Phil Tanner sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses on a BBC recording made on April 22, 1949 at Penmaen. It was included in 1968 on his eponymous EFDSS album, Phil Tanner, in 2003 on his Veteran anthology CD The Gower Nightingale, and in 2012 on the Topic anthology Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23).

Louise Holmes of Dinedor, Herefordshire, sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses on October 14, 1952 in a BBC recording made by Peter Kennedy. This recording was included in the anthology A Soldier's Life for Me (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 8; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Hastings fisherman Noah Gillette sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses on November 14, 1954 to Bob Copper for the BBC. This recording was included in Bob Copper's Book (1973) and Topic album (1977) of country singers from Hampshire and Sussex, Songs and Southern Breezes, and in 1998 on the Topic anthology You Never Heard so Sweet (The Voice of the People Volume 21). The latter album's booklet noted:

Noah Gillett, born in September 1885, was yet another Hastings fisherman, and Bob Copper said that it was through Noah that he got to know some of the Old Town fishing fraternity. Noah was 69 years old and illiterate, and Bob felt that Noah's singing of this fine Napoleonic ballad was a remarkable feat of memory. In Songs and Southern Breezes he writes: “Noah Gillette closed his eyes and started to sing The Bonny Bunch of Roses. His voice was clear and slightly wavering and had the elusive quality of natural, unaffected sweetness that lends to a song of this nature the final touch of authenticity. He remembered his grandmother singing it, although he actually learnt it from his parents.”

The song was written by George Brown, a broadside hack writer, in the mid-1830s.

A.L. Lloyd recorded this song in 1956 for his Riverside LP English Street Songs. He commented in the album's sleeve notes:

This ballad was an extremely popular broadside in the earlier days of the 19th century all over England, Scotland and Ireland. Note the unmistakable air of sympathy for the downfall of the “bold Corsican.” Perhaps this ballad began its life in Ireland; be that as it may, it certainly was an important item in the repertoire of native English street singers, and the back-street audiences found nothing amiss in the singers' attitude to the enemy of their country. Perhaps, like Beethoven, the English commoners had once regarded Napoleon as a possible liberator from oppression and misery, and were sad rather than angry when this turned out to be an error. Some say the bunch of roses symbolises England, Scotland and Ireland; others that it is a metaphor for the red-coated British Army.

Sam Larner of Winterton, Norfolk sang Bonny Bunch of Roses on March 7, 1958 to Philip Donnellan (BBC recording 26075). This recording was included in 1974 on Larner's Topic album A Garland for Sam. Another recording made by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1958-60 was included in 2014 on his Musical Traditions anthology Cruising Round Yarmouth.

Stan Steggles of Rattlesden sang Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1958 to Desmond and Shelagh Herring. This recording was included on the 1993 Veteran cassette and 2009 Veteran CD of traditional music making from Mid-Suffolk, Many a Good Horseman.

Bill Porter sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1965 at The Three Cups in Punnets Town. This recording by Brian Matthews was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs from Sussex country pubs, Just Another Saturday Night.

Fairport Convention recorded The Bonny Bunch of Roses for the first time in May 1970 at Gold Star Studios, Hollywood. This recording was published much later on their anthology Meet on the Ledge: The Classic Years (1967-1975). A BBC Radio “Folk on One” broadcast from July 26, 10970 is on Fairport's 4 CD set Live at the BBC. Their best know version is the title track of Fairport Convention's first LP for the Vertigo label, The Bonny Bunch of Roses. Another live version, from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia on June 23, 1977 found its way on the 4 CD anthology Fairport UnConventional.

Bob Davenport sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1971 on the Trailer album Bob Davenport and the Marsden Rattlers.

Nic Jones sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1971 on his eponymous second album, Nic Jones, just after the track Napoleon's Lamentation. He commented in his album notes:

The text of this ballad appears to have caused some confusion among folk-song enthusiasts, according to Frank Purslow in his note to the song (Marrow Bones, p. 103). He mentions James Reeves particularly as having commented on it. He goes on to say that the song is an imaginary conversation between Napoleon's young son and Marie Louise, second wife of Napoleon. This idea makes the song much clearer. The son threatens to “raise a terrible army” and to assert his power. They talk of Napoleon's Moscow campaign and Marie Louise warns her son that he'll follow Napoleon to the grave. Then, in the last verse, the son states that he is dying. This last verse becomes plainer if we understand that the son died at twenty-one of a weakness in the chest aggravated by severe, self-imposed physical exercise.

The tune in Marrow Bones is a version of The Rose Tree, although I have used the more common tune, a variant of The Bonny Bunch of Roses.

People have suggested that “roses” is a corruption of “rushes”, but either way Cecil Sharp says, “Surely our country has never been called by a prettier name then the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

Bernard Wrigley sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1971 on his Topic album The Phenomenal B. Wrigley.

Ewan MacColl sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1972 on his Argo album Solo Flight.

Cyril Poacher of Blaxhall, Sussex sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses at home in August or September 1974 to Tony Engle and Keith Summers. This recording was included in the following year on Poacher's Topic album The Broomfield Wager and in 1998 on the Topic anthology A Story I'm Just About to Tell (The Voice of the People Volume 8).

Fred Jordan of Aston Munslow, Shropshire, sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1974 to Tony Foxworthy. This recording was included in the same year on his Topic album When the Frost Is on the Pumpkin and in 2003 on his Veteran anthology A Shropshire Lad.

George Ling sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1974 or 1975 to Keith Summers. This recording was included in 1977 on the Ling family's Topic album, Singing Traditions of a Suffolk Family, and in 2005 on the Veteran anthology of traditional folk songs, music hall songs, and tunes from Suffolk collected by Keith Summers, Good Hearted Fellows.

Walter Pardon learnt Bonny Bunch of Roses-O from his uncle Tom Gee. He sang it on June 24, 1978 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in 2000 on his posthumous Musical Traditions anthology, Put a Bit of Powder on It, Father.

Charlotte Renals sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1978 to Pete Coe. This recording was included in 2003 on the Veteran CD of songs from the Cornish travelling family, the Orchards, Catch Me If You Can.

Shirley and Dolly Collins sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses at the Folk Festival Sidmouth 1979. This track was included in 2006 on their compilation of demo and live recordings, Snapshots.

Louis Killen sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses as the title track of his 1993 CD A Bonny Bunch.

Barry Dransfield sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 1994 on his CD Be Your Own Man. He commented in his liner notes:

The most sung folksong in Britain and Ireland. I had given up hope of singing it until after a couple of years doing it with the fiddle in pub sessions I found myself trying it with the Appalachian dulcimer. It is my absolute love for this instrument that encouraged me to try this classic. The title refers to the crowned heads of Europe and the song is an imaginary conversation between Napoleon's son “Little Eagle” and his mother Maria of Austria.

Bob Copper and Martyn Wyndham-Read sang an English and an Australian variant of The Bonny Bunch of Roses-O in 2003 on the Fellside anthology Songlinks. The albums booklet commented:

This is a song which seems to be very often sung to some version of the same fine tune. A.L. Lloyd observes that in the earlier part of the nineteenth century it was popular all over the British Isles. Curiously, in the English tradition Napoleon crops up numerous times, but the victor of the Battle of Waterloo almost never. The Sussex singer, Henry Burstow had several Napoleonic songs in his repertoire. Lloyd also notes that it shows considerable sympathy for Napoleon, and suggests that it may have begun life in Ireland. But most texts, even some Irish texts, suggest that the unity of England, Scotland and Ireland has never been broken, or never will be broken. Perhaps it is, after all, originally an English song, patriotic in its way, but remembering a time when the French Revolution was thought of by many English and Scots to perhaps leading the way to a revolution in the British Isles. Some believe the “bonny bunch of roses” is the British Army (a reference to their red coat uniform); other people disagree.

Bob Copper says that he learnt the song from a neighbour, Noah Gillette, when Gillette was nearly seventy, and that Gillette had learnt the song from his blind grandmother: “it can be said, then, that this is a genuine example of those rare songs that have come down to us purely by the oral tradition.”

[The Australian] version of the song was recorded from the singing of Mrs Catherine Peatey by Bob Mitchell and Norm O'Connor in 1959. Martyn Wyndham-Read learnt the song from a transcription of the song printed in the now defunct folk song journal, Tradition. Mrs Peatey grew up in farming country in southern Victoria, and learnt many of her songs from her father. She was born into a family named Braun, and it is obvious that this family, of German origin, had become thoroughly Australianised.

Brian Peters sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses-O in 2003 on his CD Different Tongues.

Danny Stradling sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses for a recording of songs sung at the Golden Fleece in Stroud in the early 2000s. It was published in 2005 on the Musical Tradition anthology Songs from the Golden Fleece .

Barry Lister sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 2006 on his WildGoose CD Ghosts & Greasepaint. He commented in his liner notes

I learned this for Folk South West’s production of As I Walked Out to celebrate Cecil Sharp’s centenary of collecting his first folk song in Hambridge, Somerset. To sing this in the village and meet some of the descendants of the source singers was very moving.

Jon Boden learnt The Bonny Bunch of Roses from Barry Dransfield's CD and sang it as the May 5, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. This video shows Jon Boden & The Remnant Kings singing Hounds of Love (by Kate Bush) and Bonny Bunch of Roses at Cheltenham Folk Festival on February 11, 2011:

June Tabor and Oysterband sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses in 2011 on their Topic album Ragged Kingdom.

Tom and Barbara Brown sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses O in 2014 on their CD Just Another Day, which comprises songs collected by Cecil Sharp from Captains Lewis and Vickery in Minehead, Somerset, in between August 1904 and May 1909.

Pete Coe and Alice Jones sang The Bonny Bunch of Roses O in 2014 on their album of songs collected by Frank Kidson, The Search for Five Finger Frank.

Sam Lee learnt The Bonny Bunch of Roses from Freda Black and sang it in 2015 on his CD The Fade in Time.

Hannah Sanders sang Bonny Bunch of Roses in 2015 on her CD Charms Against Sorrow.

Andy Turner learnt The Bonny Bunch of Roses from Frank Purslow's book and from Noah Gillette's singing, and sang it as the June 26, 2015 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Lyrics

Noah Gillette sings The Bonny Bunch of Roses

By the dangers of the ocean, one morning in the month of June,
A famous warbling songster there chimed a note sound sweetly tuned.
There I espied a female seemly in grief and woe,
And conversing with young Bonyparte concerning the bonny bunch of roses-o.

Oh, then said young Napoleon, as he shook his mother by the hand,
“Do, mother, pray have patience until I am able to command.
I'll raise a terrible army and through tremendous danger go
And, in spite of all of the universe, I'll conquer the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

It was then he took an army and over the frozen Alps did go,
And he says, “I'll conquer Moscow, then go for the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“For he took three hundred thousand men, and likewise kings for to join his throne.
For he was so well provided, he'd enough to sweep the world around.
But when he came near Moscow he was overpowered by drifting snow,
And all Moscow was a-blazing when he lost all the bonny bunch of roses-o.“

“Oh, son, now speak so venturesome, for England is the hearts of oak.
There is England, Ireland, and Scotland, their unity has never been broke.
And, son, look at your father, for in St Helena, his body lies low,
And you may follow after, so beware of the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“Oh, mother, lay for ever now I am on my dying bed.
If I'd lived I should have been clever, but now I droop my youthful head.”
“But while your bones do moulder and the weeping willow o'er you grow,
For the deeds of bold Napoleon will never conquer the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

Bob Copper sings The Bonny Bunch of Roses

By the margins of the ocean, one mornin' in the month of June,
Those feathered warblin' songsters their notes they chimed out sweetly in tune.
I overheard a female seemingly in grief and woe,
Conversin' with young Bonyparte concernin' the bonny bunch of roses-o.

Then up spake young Napoleon, as he took his mother by the hand,
“Dear mother, pray have patience until I'm able to command.
I'll take a terrible army and through tremendous danger go.
And in spite of all of the universe I'll conquer the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“Oh son, don't speak so venturesome, for England is the hearts of oak.
There's England, Ireland, and Scotland, their unity shall never be broke.
And, son, think of father, in St Helena, his body lies low,
And you might follow after, so beware of the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“He took three hundred thousand men, and likewise kings for to serve his throne.
He was as well provided, he'd enough to sweep the whole world alone.
But when he came to Moscow he was overpowered by drifting snow,
And Moscow was all a-blazing when he lost the bonny bunch of roses-o.“

“Adieu sweet mother forever for I am on my dying bed.
If I'd lived I would've been clever but now I droop my weary head.”
“And when our bones do moulder and the weeping willow over us do grow,
Oh the deeds of young Napoleon will never conquer the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

Nic Jones sings The Bonny Bunch of Roses

By the margin of the ocean, one pleasant evening in the month of June,
The pleasant-singing blackbird his charming notes did tune.
Was there I spied a woman all in great grief and woe,
Conversing with young Bonaparte concerning the bonny bunch of roses-o.

And then up and spoke the young Napoleon and he took hold of his mother's hand,
“Oh mother dear, be patient and soon I will take command.
I'll raise a terrible army and through tremendous danger go.
And in spite of all of the universe I'll conquer the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“And when first you saw the Great Napoleon, you fell down on your bended knee
And you asked your father's life of him and he's granted it most manfully.
'Twas then he took an army and o'er the frozen alps did go;
And he said, “I'll conquer Moscow and come back for the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“And so he's took three hundred thousand fighting men, and kings likewise for to join his throng.
He was as well provided for enough to take the whole world alone.
But when he came to Moscow all o'erpowered by driving snow
And Moscow was a-blazing, he lost the bonny bunch of roses-o.“

“Oh my son, don't speak so venturesome, for England she has a heart of oak,
And England, and Ireland, and Scotland, their unity has never been broke.
And so my son, think on, your father in St Helena, his body it lies low,
And you will follow after, beware of the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“And it's goodbye to my mother forever, for I am on my dying bed.
Had I lived I might have been clever, but now I bow my youthful head.
And while our bodies do moulder and weeping willows over us do grow,
The deeds of brave Napoleon will sting the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

(repeat first verse)

Barry Dransfield sings The Bonny Bunch of Roses

By the margin of the ocean, one pleasant evening in the month of June,
The sweet pleasant songsters their liquid notes did sing in tune.
It was there I spied a female seemingly in grief and woe,
Conversing with young Bonaparte concerning the bonny bunch of roses-o

“Oh mother,” cried young Napoleon as he gripped her by the hand,
“Oh mother please be patient until I'm able to command.
I'll raise a mighty army and over the frozen waste I'll go,
And in spite of all of the universe I'll bring back the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“Oh son don't be so venturesome, Old England she has a heart of oak,
And England, Ireland, and Scotland, their unity can ne'er be broke.
Oh son think of your father, on St Helena his body lies low,
And you may follow after, so forget about the bonny bunch of roses-o.

“For he took three hundred thousand men, likewise some kings to join his throng.
He was so well provided, enough to drive the world along.
But when he came to Moscow he was overpowered by the driving snow
And Moscow was a-blazing, and they lost the bonny bunch of roses-o.“

“Oh mother, adieu for ever now, for now I'm on my dying bed.
If I'd lived I might have been clever, but now I droop my youthful head.
And when my bones do moulder and weeping willows round me do grow,
The deeds of old Napoleon will sting the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

Martyn Wyndham-Read sings The Bonny Bunch of Roses

By the dangers of the ocean one evening in the month of June,
The feathered warbling songsters their charming notes they sweetly tuned.
I overheard a fair one, she was overpowered with grief and woe,
Conversing with young Bonyparte concerning the bonny bunch of roses-o.

Then up stood the young Napoleon and he took his mother by the hand,
Saying, “Mother dear, have patience till I am able to command.
Then I'll raise a powerful army and through dangers I will go.
And in spite of all the universe I'll gain the bonny bunch of roses-o.

“Had I lived to take command and I'd make St Helen's rock to shake
It's castle walls and battlements all for my poor father's sake.
And with courage all undaunted I would raise him from his daring foe,
And in spite of all the universe I'd gain the bonny bunch of roses-o.

“He had thousands of men and likewise kings to join him in his throng.
He was well enough empowered to sweep the universe along,
Until he went to Russia, he was overpowered with grief and woe
Where Moscow was a-burning and he lost the bonny bunch of roses-o.

“Oh mother, he was always good, he was always kind and true to you
Until that fatal morning all on the plains of Waterloo.
Where thousands there lay dying and the blood in fountains it did flow,
And Grouchy he proves a traitor and lost the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“Oh son, don't talk of Bonyparte, for England is the heart of oak.
England, Ireland and Scotland, their unity was ne'er yet broke.
Then think of your aged father, in St Helena he lies low,
And soon you'll follow after so beware the bonny bunch of roses-o.”

“Then adieu, adieu to one and all upon my dying bed;
Adieu to all that I adore,” and then he dropped his youthful lead.
And when our bones are mouldering and the willow on our graves do grow,
The deeds of famed Napoleon will stain the bonny bunch of roses-o.