> Martin Carthy > Songs > May Song
> Waterson:Carthy > Songs > May Song
> John Kirkpatrick > Songs > The First of May

May Song / Northill May Song / The First of May / Arise, Arise

[ Roud 305 ; Ballad Index JRSF238 ; Wiltshire Roud 305 ; trad.]

Mrs Church and Mrs Hall of Biddenham, Bedfordshire sang the Huntingdonshire May Carol in a recording made by Peter Kennedy on the anthology Songs of Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Martin Carthy sang and played the May Song on his 1979 album Because It's There; John Kirkpatrick played concertina. They also did it with Brass Monkey, e.g. at the 18th Cambridge Folk Festival in 1982. I don't know if this recording is commercially available, and would be very grateful if anyone would let me know the details if so.

Martin Carthy commented in his album's sleeve notes:

May Song came from a Cynthia Gooding record which I lost 16 years ago, words stuck in my head.

Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson sang May Song with some new verses at William Noble's Barn, Denby Dale, Yorkshire on 27 September 1986, too. This recording was included in the EFDSS sponsored cassette, The Holme Valley Tradition: Will's Barn, and in 2004 on the Watersons' 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song. A further recording by Waterson:Carthy is on their 2006 album, Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man. Martin Carthy commented in the liner notes:

There must be dozens of May Day songs from all over the country and the collector Fred Hamer had his own extensive collection, a selection of which was printed in the EFDSS journal of 1961 along with an article on the subject. He says that a part of the ritual saw Mayers making their feelings known about particular individuals while they were doing their rounds. It was important for people to have the branch of May placed at their doors because a lack of it would certainly be seen as more than just a slight: but indeed it went further. A briar might be left to indicate a liar, and either elder or hemlock and stinging nettles for people of bad moral character; in all probability there were other examples as well. There are songs for night and for day, and what we sing here is a mixture. The tune is from Buckworth in North Huntingdonshire and North Bedfordshire and was sung to Fred Hamer by a Mrs Johnstone who lived in Bedford itself.

Mrs Margery ‘Mum’ Johnstone's just mentioned version of the May Song was published in 1971 on the EFDSS album Garners Gay: English Folk Songs recorded by Fred Hamer and in his book of the same title. Album and book also have another May Song from Bedfordshire that Mrs Johnstone learned from her grandmother who came from Carlton.

Pete Coe sang the Northill May Song (Night Song) in 2004 on his CD In Paper Houses. He commented in his liner notes:

Fred Hamer took up a challenge to prove that there were singers and songs to be found nearer his home in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. This was the night song, sung to him by Chris Marsom (and others) and published in Garners Gay.

Kerfuffle recorded the Northill May Song from Bedfordshire with the title Arise, Arise in 2008 for their fourth CD, To the Ground.

John Kirkpatrick sang The First of May on his 2011 CD God Speed the Plough. He referred in his liner notes to Fred Hamer too:

There are many glorious May songs from all round the country, and this one first caught my eye in a selection published in the 1961 Journal of The English Folk Dance & Song Society (EFDSS). Fred Hamer found quite a handful of May songs in Bedfordshire, including this one, in 1956, from Mrs Johnstone, who lived in Bedford, who hat learned it from her grandmother, who had sung it in Carlton in the north of the county. The same tune with similar words crop up all over the south-eastern Midlands.

On the same CD John Kirkpatrick also sang The Sweet Month of May, also known as the Cheshire May-Day Carol. He commented in the liner notes:

Here we have another song celebrating May Day, quite literally full of the joys of spring. The mention of mountains is all rather distracting, but can be explained because this joyous hymn to the glories of nature comes from Cheshire—a county not in itself renowned for its high peaks, but from whence splendid views of those in neighbouring Wales might be obtained if you happen to be facing the right direction.

Dorothy Dearnley published a small book called Seven Cheshire Folk-Songs in 1967, with no background information except the names of the people who had sung the songs to her. This was one of two May Day Carols she had learned from her mother, Alice.

Magpie Lane learned the Northill May Song from Fred Hamer's Garners Gay too and sang it in 1998 on their Beautiful Jo album Jack-in-the-Green. Andy Turner sang it solo as the April 30, 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week. The next year he presented Magpie Lane singing the Swalcliffe May Day Carol as the April 29, 2013 entry of A Folk Song a Week. And another year later, he sang Mrs Johnstone's Bedfordshire May Song as Good Morning Lords and Ladies as the May 1, 2014 entry of A Folk Song a Week.

Shirley Collins sang May Carol on her 2016 album Lodestar. She commented in her album notes:

May carols, a Pagan survival and once widely known throughout the English countryside, were sung from village to village and door to door, to welcome in the Spring, the Mayers bringing branches of hawthorn to the households they visited. Such customs also gave farm labourers, having survived a lean winter, a chance to collect a bit of money: “all we lack is a few small pence…”

Jack Sharp sang the Bedfordshire May Carol on Stick in the Wheel's 2017 anthology of English folk field recordings, From Here.

Lisa Knapp and Mary Hampton sang the Bedfordshire May Carol on Lisa's 2017 CD Till April Is Dead. She commented:

Collected by Lucy Broadwood in 1908 and published in English Traditional Songs and Carols.

I'm a long time admirer of Mary Hampton's singing and songwriting work so it was a real privilege to sing with her. We are joined by Gerry [Diver]'s sensitive an light to the touch banjo and the subtle and beautiful concertina playing of Dave East, also a wonderful singer, who co-runs the Court Session Folk Club where I first started singing and playing traditional folk music in public, many moons ago.

Lyrics

Martin Carthy sings May Song on
Because It's There
Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson sing May Song at Will's Barn

We have been rambling all of the night,
The best part of this day;
And we are returning here back again
And we've brought you a garland gay.

Now I've been a-rambling all of the night
And the best part of this day;
And now I'm returning here back again
And I've brought you a garland gay.

A bunch of May we bear about
Before the door it stands;
It is but a sprout and it's all budded out
And it's the work of God's own hand.

A bunch of May I bear to you
Here at the door I stand;
It's nothing but a sprout but it's well budded out
By the work of God's own hand.

Oh wake up you, wake up pretty maid,
To take the May bush in.
For it will be gone and tomorrow morn
And you will have none within.

Why don't you do as we have done
On the very first day of May
When from our parents we have come
To run your wood so gay.

The heavenly gates are open wide
To let escape the dew.
It makes no delay it is here today
And it falls on me and you.

For the life of a man is but a span,
He's cut down like the flower;
He makes no delay he is here today
And he's vanished all in an hour.

Today a man is alive, my dear,
With many an hundred pounds.
Tomorrow morning he May be gone
And his body be underground.

And when you are dead and you're in your grave
You're covered in the cold cold clay.
The worms they will eat your flesh good man
And your bones they will waste away.

And when you are dead and in your grave
Covered in the clay so cold,
The worms will eat your flesh, good man,
And your bones turn to good mould.

Why don't you do as we have done
On the very first day of May,
When from our parents we have come
To run your wood so gay.

For the life of a man is but a span,
He's cut down like the grass;
Here's a health unto the green leaf of the tree
For as long as life shall last.

My song is done and I must be gone,
I can no longer stay.
God bless us all both great and small
And wish us a gladsome May.

And now our song is almost done,
We can no longer stay.
God bless us all both great and small
And we wish you a joyful May.

Mrs Johnstone sings May Song—North Bedfordshire Chris Marsom sings Northill May Song (Night Song)

A branch of May it does look gay,
As before your door it stands,
It is but a sprout, but it's well spread about
By the work of our poor hands.

Arise, arise, my pretty fair maid,
And take your May bush in,
For if it is gone by tomorrow morrow morn,
You'll say we have brought you none.

I have a bag upon my arm,
It is drawn with a silken string,
It only wants a few more pence
To line it well within.

We have been wandering all this night
And almost all this day,
And now return-ed back again,
We've brought you a branch of May.

Arise, arise, my pretty fair maids,
And take our May bush in,
For if it is gone before morning comes,
You'll say we have never been.

A branch of May we have brought you,
And at your door it stands,
It's nothing but a sprout but it's well budded out
By the work of Our Lord's own hands.

Come give us a cup of your sweet cream,
Or a jug of your brown beer,
And if we live to tarry the town,
We'll call another year.

The clock strikes one, it's time to be gone,
No longer can we stay.
Heaven bless you all both great and small
And send you a joyful May.

Waterson:Carthy sing May Song on
Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man
Kerfuffle sing Arise, Arise

Arise, arise, you pretty fair maid,
And bring your May bush in,
For if it is gone by tomorrow morrow morn,
You'll say we have brought you none.

We've been a-rambling all of the night
And the rest part of the day,
And now we are returning again,
We've brought you a branch of May.

We have been wandering all this night
And almost all of the day,
And now we're returning back again,
We've brought you a branch of May.

A branch of May so fine and gay,
Up at your door it stands,
It's nothing but a sprout but it's well budded out
By the work of Our Lord's hand.

A branch of May we have brought you,
And at your door it stands,
It's nothing but a sprout but it's well budded out
By the work of Our Lord's hand.

Wake up, wake up, you pretty fair maid,
Wake from your drowsy dream
And step into your dairy house
And fetch us a cup of cream.

Remember us old mayers here,
And now we do begin
To lead a life in righteousness
For fear of death in sin.

Repent, repent you wicked old men,
Don't die before you do.
And when the day of judgement comes
The Lord will think on you.

The hedges and fields are clothed all round
With several sorts of green;
Our heavenly Father waters them
With his heavenly showers of rain.

I have a purse here in my hand
Rolled up with a silken string,
And all that it wants is a coin or two
To line it well within.

The clock strikes one, it's time to be gone,
No longer can we stay.
God bless you all both great and small
And send you a peaceful May.

The clock strikes one, it's time to be gone,
We can no longer stay.
God bless you all both great and small
And send you a joyful May.

Mrs Johnstone sings May Song—Bedfordshire

Good morning lords and ladies, it is the first day of May,
We hope you'll view our garland, it is so bright and gay,
For it is the first of May, oh it is the first of May,
Remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May.

We gathered them this morning all in the early dew,
And now we bring their beauty and fragrance all for you,
For it is the first of May, oh it is the first of May,
Remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May.

The cuckoo comes in April, it sings its song in May,
In June it changes tune, in July it flies away,
For it is the first of May, oh it is the first of May,
Remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May.

And now you've seen our garland we must be on our way,
So remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May,
For it is the first of May, oh it is the first of May,
Remember lords and ladies, it is the first of May.

Acknowledgements

Transcribed by Wolfgang Hell, for the most part; a few changes made by Garry Gillard. Thanks also to Cíarilì O'Brien. Garry Gillard also transcribed the Waterson:Carthy version.