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The Deserter / Ratcliff Highway

[ Roud 493 ; G/D 1:83 ; Ballad Index GrD1083 ; trad.]

The Deserter is sometimes called Ratcliff Highway because in some versions the plot takes place on that notorious road. To confuse matters a bit more, there is another, quite different song called Ratcliffe Highway (Roud 598) in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Anyway, The Young Tradition sang this song as Ratcliff Highway 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:

Peter says that this is a collation (which I always thought was something to eat) of several versions.

Sandy Denny sang The Deserter on Fairport Convention's ground-breaking album Liege and Lief, and she felt that this was the best song on it. According to Dave Swarbrick, the tune in 3/4 time was played by Luke Kelly. He also commented in his songbook A Little Music:

Although we learned this song from a faded Victorian broadside, it is much older in origin. It was the habit of broadside printers to bring older songs up to date—in this case by including the name of Prince Albert.

(Note: The first Island CD issue of Liege and Lief was mastered without a break between this song and the instrumental medley following it.)

A Danish TV broadcast of Fairport Convention singing The Deserter in November 1969 is not available. On a BBC Top Gear session recorded on April 20, 1970 and broadcast on May 2, 1970, Dave Swarbrick took over the vocals from Sandy who had left Fairport by then. This recording was published in 2002 on the Fairport unConventioNal 4CD set. Another live version with Dave Swarbrick singing from February 1971 in Frankfurt, Germany, is a bonus track on the 2002 CD reissue of The Airing Cupboard Tapes. A further version—most likely from a BBC Radio “Sounds on Sunday” session at the Royal Albert Hall early in 1971—is on the compilation The Harvest of Gold.

This song with the original Fairport Convention lineup (except for Vikki Clayton replacing Sandy Denny) also appears on their 25th Anniversary Concert.

A different song with the same title was released on Simon Nicol's ‘Before Your Time …’ and on Fairport Convention's CDs Old New Borrowed Blue and XXXV.

Gorge Ling sang The Deserter in Croydon in 1975. This recording by Keith Summers was published in 1977 on the Ling Family's Topic album Singing Traditions of a Suffolk Family It was included as The Recruiting Sergeant on Musical Traditions' 2007 anthology of recordings by Keith Summers, A Story to Tell. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

Several versions of this song appear in the Greig-Duncan Collection but, beyond that, it appears to be known only in southern England. Apart from Wiggy Smith and Walter Pardon, George is the only other singer of The Deserter, as it’s more usually called, cited in Roud. Not only, that, but he’s the only singer from Suffolk and, as the song is not mentioned in Keith’s Sing, Say, or Pay! text, we may assume that he learned it in his travels outwith the community.

Walter Pardon sang The Deserter in a recording made by Mike Yates in 1975. It was included in 2000 on Pardon's Topic anthology A World Without Horses.

Wiggy Smith sang The Deserter in a recording made by Mike Yates in Gloucestershire in 1975 that was published in the same year on the Topic anthology of gypsies, travellers and country singers, Songs of the Open Road.

Jim Eldon sang The Deserter on his 1984 album I Wish There Was No Prisons.

Martin Carthy sang The Deserter on his 1998 album Signs of Life and live in studio in July 2006 on the DVD Guitar Maestros. A live recording from Norwood Theatre, USA, on June 4, 1996 was included in 2011 on his and Dave Swarbrick's Fellside album Walnut Creek. He commented in the original recording's sleeve notes:

When I first learned The Deserter, from the Penguin Anthology of War Poetry, with a marvellous tune, I had, eventually, to stop singing it because of its last verse, which is dumb enough to rank with the idiotic and totally inappropriate last verse of Prince Heathen as printed in F.J. Child #104. On both occasions one is presented with a happy ending and, while learning the latter in 1969 found me without qualms in changing something I thought daft, 1961 found me utterly reluctant to do the deed and change the former. Wiggy Smith to the rescue. Another of Mike Yates' recordings of English Gypsies reveals a singer (Wiggy himself) of real wit and passion, with a last verse to the song which lifts it way out of the ordinary. I don't know who it is effecting these rewrites of last verses (I suspect church influence somewhere, myself) but I do wish that they wouldn't. It would save the rest of us so much trouble.

The Halliard sang The Deserter in Tasmania in late 2005. This recording was included a year later on their CD The Last Goodnight!.

Faustus (Paul Sartin, Saul Rose and Benji Kirkpatrick) sang The New Deserter in 2008 on their eponymous Navigator CD Faustus.

Andy Turner sang The Deserter as the January 5, 2013 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week. He commented in his blog:

I came across this version in Cecil Sharp’s MSS at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Sharp had it in December 1908 from Jack Barnard at Bridgewater in Somerset.

Mr Barnard started the song with “the first time I deserted…” That’s fair enough, but I thought I’d give the central character a bit of back-story, so I added an initial couple of verses (from an unnamed source) in the Alfred Williams collection.

Lyrics

The Young Tradition sing Ratcliff Highway

As I was a-walking all along Ratcliffe Highway
The recruiting party come a-beating the drum.
I was listed and attested, and before I did know
It's to the King's duty I was forc-ed to go.

Well I quickly escaped and I thought myself free
Till my cruel companions informed against me.
I was quickly followed after and brought back with speed,
In chains I was hung, heavy irons on me.

Court martial, court martial, they held against me
And the sentence they gave me was three-hundred-and-three.
May the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty,
For now the King's duty lies heavy on me.

So again I escaped and I thought myself free
But my cruel sweetheart informed against me.
I was quickly followed after and brought back with speed,
In chains I was hung, heavy irons on me.

Court martial, court martial I very soon got
And they quickly passed sentence that I should be shot.
May the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty,
For now the King's duty lies heavy on me.

So if ever you're a-walking along Ratcliff Highway,
The recruiting party come a-beating the drum:
Don't be listed and attested into the Kings's army
Or else the King's duty will lie heavy on thee.

Fairport Convention sing The Deserter

As I was a-walking along Ratcliffe Highway
A recruiting party came a-beating my way.
They enlisted me and treated me till I did not know
And to the Queen's barracks they forced me to go.

When first I deserted, I thought myself free
Until my cruel comrade informed against me.
I was quickly followed after and brought back with speed,
I was handcuffed and guarded, heavy irons put on me.

Court martial, court martial, they held upon me
And the sentence passed upon me: three-hundred-and-three.
May the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty,
For now the Queen's duty lies heavy on me.

When next I deserted, I thought myself free
Until my cruel sweetheart informed against me.
I was quickly followed after and brought back with speed
I was handcuffed and guarded, heavy irons put on me.

Court martial, court martial then quickly was got
And the sentence passed upon me: that I was to be shot.
May the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty,
For now the Queen's duty lies heavy on me,

Then up rode Prince Albert in his carriage-and-six,
Saying, “Where is that young man whose coffin it is fixed?
Set him free from his irons and let him go free,
For he'll make a good soldier for his Queen and country.”

Martin Carthy sings The Deserter

I was once young and foolish like many lads here
I am fond of my rambling and I am fond of my beer
But if I had my own home and my sweet liberty
I'd do no more soldiering neither by land nor by sea

Now the first time I deserted and I thought myself free
Until my cruel comrade informed against me
I was quickly followed after, I was brought back with speed
Laid in the king's guardroom, heavy irons put on me

Court marshal, court marshal was very soon got
And the sentence passed on me was that I was to be shot
May the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty
For now the king's duty lies heavy on me

You take off those heavy irons and you let him go free
And he'll prove a brave soldier for his queen and country
You take off those heavy irons and you let him go free
And he'll prove a brave soldier for his king and country

But if I had my own home and my sweet liberty
I'd do no more soldiering neither by land nor by sea

Music Transcription

From Ashley Hutchings' songbook A Little Music.

D A G D G C (G)
As I was a-walking along Ratcliffe Highway
A D A G D G A D
A recruit- ing party came a-beating my way.
G D G C
They enlisted me and treated me till I did not know
A D A G D G D A D
And to the Queen's barracks they forced me to go.