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The Banks of the Nile

[ Roud 950 ; Laws N9 ; G/D 1:99 ; Henry H238a ; Ballad Index LN09 ; Bodleian Roud 950 ; Wiltshire Roud 950 ; trad.]

The oldest recording of The Banks of the Nile that I have is of an unknown singer on a cylinder recording archived at Cecil Sharp House. It was included in 1986 on the Dambuster LP An Hour with Cecil Sharp and Ashley Hutchings and in 1998 on the EFDSS CD A Century of Song. The first album's sleeve notes commented:

Very little is known about the cylinder recordings used on this recording. The original cylinders, from which they were taken, were found mostly unlabelled and in a dilapidated condition at Cecil Sharp House. They were made by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams and date from the very early years of the 20th century.

Sidney Richards of Curry Rivel, Somerset sang The Banks of the Nile recording made by Peter Kennedy on May 2, 1952 (BBC recording 23622). It was included on the anthology A Soldier’s Life for Me (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 8; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Ewan MacColl, accompanied by Peggy Seeger on guitar, sang The Banks of the Nile in 1956 on their Tradition album Classic Scots Ballads. He commented in the album's sleeve notes:

This is one of the best known of the ballads arising out of the campaigns against Napoleon, and it is still sung by country singers in both Scotland and England. It has the mark of the broadside presses which helped to circulate both the hack-scrivener verses with which they are usually associated and traditional material as well. The air is a common one, particularly in Scotland and Ireland, and variants of it are to be found as far away as Australia. I learned this song from my mother and collated her verses with stanzas in John Ord's The Bothy Songs and Ballads (Paisley, 1930).

The Young Tradition sang The Banks of the Nile in 1968 on their last LP, Galleries. They also sang it on November 17, 1968 at their concert at Oberlin College, Ohio, that was published in 2013 on their Fledg'ling CD Oberlin 1968. Heather Wood commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

This is a song that all of us knew, but no specific version was used as the basis for the one recorded here; in fact, much of the arrangement developed as we were in the process of recording it.

And she added in the Mudcat Café thread Origins: Banks of the Nile: “Sandy Denny learned it from us but put her own inimitable stamp on it.”

LaRena Clark sang The Banks of the Nile in 1969 on their Topic LP A Canadian Garland: Folksongs from the Province of Ontario.

Banks of the Nile is the only traditional song on Fotheringay's self-titled album, Fotheringay. It was recorded at Basing Street and Sound Techniques Studios in Spring 1970 and appears also on the Sandy Denny anthologies Who Knows Where the Time Goes?, The Best of Sandy Denny, No More Sad Refrains, and A Boxful of Treasures and on the Island Records anthology Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal. A live version, recorded at the Holland Pop Festival in Rotterdam on June 28, 1970, was added in 2004 to the Fledg'ling CD reissue of Fotheringay.

Sandy Denny's arrangement of Banks of the Nile was covered by Vikki Clayton on It Suits Me Well and by Linde Nijland on her album Linde Nijland sings Sandy Denny (2003).

A.L. Lloyd sang The Banks of the Nile on the 1973 LP, The Valiant Sailor: Songs and Ballads of Nelson's Navy. He was accompanied by Alistair Anderson on concertina and Bobby Campbell on fiddle. This recording was also included in the French compilation album Chants de Marins IV: Ballads, Complaintes et Shanties des Matelots Anglais. Roy Palmer commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

In this song a girl wants to go to sea with her man, who prevents her by taking shelter behind naval regulations. Other sailors must have been less persuasive or less obedient, since women were by no means strangers to navy ships in Nelson's day. At the battle of the Nile itself, women helped with carrying powder to the guns; some were wounded, and one gave birth to a baby. Versions of this song continued popular for a century or more, sometimes being remade to suit other battles and campaigns, or other occupations, including sheep-shearing in Australia, as in the well-known Banks of the Condamine.

Jumbo Brightwell sang The Banks of the Nile between 1975 and 1977 in a recording by Keith Summers that was published in 1978 on the Topic album Sing, Say and Play: Traditional Songs and Music from Suffolk.

Roy Harris sang The Banks of the Nile on his 1979 Fellside LP The Rambling Soldier: Life in the Lower Ranks 1750-1900 Through Soldier Songs which accompanied his book The Rambling Soldier (Penguin 1977).

Maggie Holland sang The Banks of the Nile in 1983 on her first solo LP Still Pause. This track was also included in 2007 on her anthology CD Bones.

Martin Carthy sang The Banks of the Nile on his 1988 album Right of Passage; this was re-released in 1993 on The Collection. A previously unreleased instrumental version of The Banks of the Nile, scheduled for a forthcoming Martin Carthy CD, is on the 2003 anthology The Definitive Collection. Martin Carthy commented in his original recording's sleeve notes:

As an avid stamp collector when I was a little boy I was, for some reason, fascinated by the Falkland Islands, and I remember first hearing the name Malvinas during the fifties and then approximately every ten years after that. It still astonishes me that during the 1982 war there was so very little, if any, public questioning of the basic notions which Parliament and the press propagated. The first war that England had watched on TV may have had something to do with it, and certainly I shall not forget the utterly toneless briefings of that MOD official night after night. I'm sure he's always existed and that the armed forces have always made use of him. I'm equally sure that the laughing, cheering and banging of drums that saw off the task force was replaced in fairly short order by the sort of doubt, misery and torture to be found in The Banks of the Nile. This, like Eggs in Her Basket, is a song from the Cardboard Box, but unlike that song there is no clue to the identity of the singer nor the one who recorded him. Whoever he is, he is a fabulously inventive musician and I for one would love to know his name. I'm indebted to Malcolm Taylor at the Vaughan Williams Library for letting me hear it.

Former Witch of Elswick, Fay Hield sang The Banks of the Nile in 2010 on her first solo CD, Looking Glass. Her source is Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roy Palmer (ed.), 1983. This video shows Fay Hield singing The Banks of the Nile at the Bullingdon Arms, Oxford, in January 2011:

Jon Boden sang Banks of the Nile as the January 28, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Andy Turner sang The Banks of the Nile as the November 11, 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week. He commented in his blog:

British forces formed part of a military alliance which drove Napoleon’s French out of Egypt in 1801, and I imagine this song dates from that period. But in fact British soldiers fought many more campaigns in Egypt and Sudan over the next century and a half, so it’s a song which would not have lost its currency. And of course, on Remembrance Sunday, it is worth remarking that British troops continue to fight—and die—in a variety of “sandy desert places” to this day.

I first came across this song in the late seventies, in Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl’s book, The Singing Island, although it was several years before I learned it properly. It’s a version from Betsy Henry, of Auchterarder in Perthshire—actually, MacColl’s mother. I have anglicised it slightly, although that didn’t amount to much more than substituting ‘England’ for ‘Scotland’ in the last verse.

Bryony Holden sang The Banks of the Nile in 2013 on her Sandy Denny tribute album Across the Purple Sky.

Hannah Martin sang The Banks of the Nile at the Gigspanner Big Band's concert at Nettlebed Folk Club in January 2017. This recording was released in the same year on their CD Gigspanner Big Band Live.

Lyrics

Sidney Richards sings The Banks of the Nile

“Farewell, my dearest Nancy, farewell I must away,
I hear the drums a-beating and no longer I can stay.
For we're orders out of Portsmouth Town and for many a long mile
For to fight the blacks and heathens on the banks of the Nile.

“Oh, I'll cut off my curly locks and along with you I'll go;
I'll dress myself in velveteen and go and see Egypt, too.
I'll fight and bear thy banners well, kind fortune upon thee smile
And we'll comfort one another on the banks of the Nile.”

“Oh, your waist it is too slender, love, and your waist it is too small;
I'm afraid that you won't answer me, if l should on you call.
Your delicate constitution will not stand the unwholesome soil
Nor the dark, nor the sandy climate on the banks of the Nile.”

“Oh Willie, dearest William. don't leave me here to mourn,
You'll make me curse and rue the day for whenever I'd been born.
For the parting of my own true love and the parting of my life—
Now stay at home, dear William, and I will be thee wife.”

“Oh now the war is over and back I'll then return
Until my wife and family I've leave behind to mourn.
We'll call them in around, my boys, and there's no end of toil.
And no more we'll go a-roving on the banks of the Nile.”

The Young Tradition sing The Banks of the Nile

“Oh hark! the drums are beating and I must haste away,
The bugles sweetly sound and I can no longer stay.
We are going up to Portsmouth, and it's many a weary mile
To fight the blacks and heathens on the banks of the Nile.”

“Oh Willie, dearest Willie, don't leave me here to mourn,
Don't make me curse and rue the day that ever I was born.
For parting from you, Willie, is like parting from my life.
Oh stay at home, dear William, and I will be thee wife.”

“Oh, I'll cut off my yellow hair and go along with you.
I'll dress myself in velveteen and go and see Egypt too.
I'll fight and hold thee banner, love, and fortune it may smile,
And we'll gather love and honour on the banks of the Nile.”

“Your waist it is too slender, your features are too fine.
Your body is to weak, my love, to spend a long campaign.
The sultry suns of Egypt your precious self may spoil
And the sandy desert wastes on the banks of the Nile.”

“Oh, cursed, cursed be the day that ever wars began,
For they've taken out of England for may a fine young men.
Our lads are going to perish on that unwholesome soil
And they never will return from the banks of the Nile.”

Fotheringay's Banks of the Nile

“Oh hark! the drums do beat, my love, no longer can we stay.
The bugle-horns are sounding clear, and we must march away.
We're ordered down to Portsmouth, and it's many is the weary mile
To join the British Army on the banks of the Nile.”

“Oh Willie, dearest Willie, don't leave me here to mourn,
Don't make me curse and rue the day that ever I was born.
For the parting of our love would be like parting with my life.
So stay at home, my dearest love, and I will be your wife.”

“Oh my Nancy, dearest Nancy, sure that will never do.
The government has ordered, and we are bound to go.
The government has ordered, and the Queen she gives command.
And I am bound on oath, my love, to serve in a foreign land.”

“Oh, but I'll cut off my yellow hair, and I'll go along with you.
I'll dress myself in uniform, and I'll see Egypt too.
I'll march beneath your banner while fortune it do smile,
And we'll comfort one another on the banks of the Nile.”

“But your waist it is too slender, and your fingers they are too small.
In the sultry suns of Egypt your rosy cheeks would spoil.
Where the cannons they do rattle, when the bullets they do fly,
And the silver trumpets sound so loud to hide the dismal cries.”

“Oh, cursed be those cruel wars, that ever they began,
For they have robbed our country of manys the handsome men.
They've robbed us of our sweethearts while their bodies they feed the lions,
On the dry and sandy deserts which are the banks of the Nile.”

A.L. Lloyd sings The Banks of the Nile

It was on a Monday morning, the twenty-ninth of May,
Our ship she slipped her cable and we were ready for sea.
The wind blew from the South-Sou'-West, to Egypt we were bound,
And the Portsmouth hills were garnished with pretty girls all round.

There I beheld a handsome maid all in her bloom of years,
A-making lamentation and her eyes were full of tears.
“Oh, I'll cut off my yellow hair and sail along with you,
And I'll dress myself in sailor's clothes and I'll see Egypt too.”

“Oh no, my dearest Nancy, sure that will never do.
Lord Nelson have commanded no women there may go.
We must stand to our colours, love, and hope that fortune smiles,
As we fight with bold Lord Nelson on the banks of the Nile.”

“Your waist is too slender and your fingers are too fine,
Your delicate constitution couldn't stand the hot campaign.
And the sultry suns of Egypt your complexion they would spoil,
If you fought with bold Lord Nelson on the banks of the Nile.”

“The cannons they do rattle so and the cannon balls do fly,
And the silver whistles they sound out to drown our dismal cries.
But let a hundred days be brightened, love, and then you'll give a smile
And remember Nelson's victory on the banks of the Nile.”

Martin Carthy sings The Banks of the Nile

“Hark I hear the drum a-beating, no longer can I stay.
I hear the bugle sounding, my love, I must away.
We are called out for orders and it's many's a long mile
To go fight with all those heejuns* on the banks of the Nile.”

“Oh Willy, dearest Willy, don't leave me here to mourn,
You'll make me curse and rue the day that ever I was born.
For the parting of my own true love is the parting of my life,
Stay at home, dear Willy, and I will be your wife.

I will cut off those yellow locks and I'll go along with you,
I'll dress myself in velveteen and go and see Egypt too.
I'll fight and bear your banner while kind fortune upon my smile
And we'll comfort one another on the banks of the Nile.”

“Oh Nancy, dearest Nancy, with me you cannot go.
For our colonel has give orders that no women there can go.
You will forget your own true love when you are on the shore
And you'll think of things that please your mind and new loves will please you more.”

Cursed be those cruel bloody wars that took my love from me,
And cursed be the order that put his boat to sea.
I fear the burning sun will shine his beauty to destroy
And his blood will seep in the grass that's deep on the banks of the Nile.

*=heathens

Fay Hield sings The Banks of the Nile

“Hark, I hear the drums a-beating and love I must away,
I hear the bugles calling me, I can no longer stay.
We are bound down to Portsmouth town, it's many’s a weary mile,
To join the British army on the banks of the Nile.”

“William, dearest William, don’t leave me here to mourn,
You’ll make me curse and rue the day that ever I was born.
I will cut off my curly locks and come along with you,
I’ll dress myself in velveteen and go to Egypt too.”

“Nancy, lovely Nancy, with me you cannot go,
Our colonel’s given orders: no women are to go.
We must forget our own sweethearts all on our native isle
And fight for King and Country on the banks of the Nile.”

“Cursed be the wars, my love, and how they first began,
For they have robbed old Ireland of many’s a brave young man.
They’ve taken our own sweethearts all from our native isle
And their bodies lie a-mouldering on the banks of the Nile.”

“When the wars are over, it's home we will return,
Back to our wives and our sweethearts we left behind at home.
We’ll roll them in our arms all for a little while
And go no more to battle on the banks of the Nile.”

Music Transcription of Fotheringay's Banks of the Nile

Transcribed by No'am Newman

Intro: Am D Am7 D

Am D G Bm Em Am Bm7*
Oh hark! the drums do beat, my love, no longer can we stay.
Am D Am G G D Em
The bugle-horns are sounding clear, and we must march away.
Am D Am G G D Em
We're ordered down to Ports-mouth, and it's many the weary mile
Am7 D Am G Am G Am D Am7 D
To join the British Army on the banks of the Nile.

* one could play the Am shape shifted up two frets (without barre) for variation

Acknowledgements and links

See also the Mudcast Café thread Origins: Banks of the Nile.

Martin Carthy's version transcribed by Garry Gillard.