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The Lyke Wake Dirge

[ Roud 8194 ; Master title: The Lyke Wake Dirge ; TYG 85 ; Ballad Index OBB033 ; DT LYKEDIRG ; Mudcat 159389 ; trad.]

The Lyke Wake Dirge is probably the Young Tradition’s best-known song. It is from their eponymous debut album of 1966, The Young Tradition. It was also included in quite a lot of anthologies, among them Karl Dallas’ famous anthology The Electric Muse, and The Acoustic Folk Box. They also sang it on 17 November 1968 at their concert at Oberlin College, Ohio, that was published in 2013 on their Fledg’ling CD Oberlin 1968. The original album’s sleeve notes comment:

The dirge as we sing it is an adaptation of [John] Aubrey’s manuscript version of 1686. Descriptions of the song have come from Scotland and from the north of England as far south as Yorkshire, and the idea of the departed soul going on a hazardous journey to Purgatory has its parallels throughout Indo-European lore. Widespread too is the belief that alms given by the living will be given back to the donor at the beginning of the soul’s journey, so that a pair of shoes given away during the subject’s lifetime will enable his soul to cross prickly Whinny Moor without injury. Whether the dirge was sung, chanted or recited over the corpse is not clear; there is no evidence of an air to the dirge in the tradition. The tune used here was given to us by Hans Fried, who heard it long ago from an old Scots lady, Peggy Richards.

And Hans Fried wrote in the comments section of the YouTube page of the Young Tradition’s recording in ca. 2012:

I got this from my stepmother Nan (née Spence) who heard it from an old Scots lady, Peggy Richards. The tune she sang was probably printed in Songs of the North by [Harold] Boulton in [1895] and unconsciously changed by me into a more folk like tune. I taught it to The Young Tradition claiming no copyright. Subsequently sung by Pentangle etc.

Pentangle sang Lyke Wake Dirge in 1969 on their third Transatlantic album, Basket of Light, which reached #5 in the UK album charts.

In the 1970s, Steeleye Span used the Lyke Wake Dirge in their live sets as Maddy Prior reminisced in the Spanning the Years sleeve notes, though they didn’t record it before 2002 for the double CD Present accompanying their Winter 2002 reunion tour:

Five nights at the LA Forum with Jethro Tull, 18,000 seats [18-22 July 1973]. We were opening our set with the Lyke Wake Dirge, a grim piece of music from Yorkshire concerning purgatory and we all dressed in dramatic mummers ribbons with tall hats. The effect was stunning. Five gaunt figures in line across the front of the stage, lit from below casting huge shadows, intoning this insistent dirge alarmed some members of the audience whose reality was already tampered with by 70s substances. It was most satisfying.

Tickawinda sang A Lyke Wake Dirge on their 1979 album Rosemary Lane.

Home Service sang Lyke Wake Dirge in the National Theatre production of Doomsday. They recorded it for their 1985 theatre music album The Mysteries.

Blowzabella played the Lyke Wake Dirge as a funeral march from the Yorkshire Dales in 1986 on their CD The Blowzabella Wall of Sound.

Alasdair Roberts sang A Lyke Wake Dirge in 2005 on his album No Earthly Man. He noted:

From the singing of Peter Bellamy, Heather Wood and Royston Wood, recorded in 1966. The text is based on one in [John] Aubrey’s 1686 manuscript The Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme.

“This is a sort of charm sung by the lower rank of Roman Catholics in the north of England, while watching a dead body, previous to interment.…; the word sleet, in the chorus, seems to be corrupted from seit, or salt; a quantity of which, in compliance with a popular superstition, is frequently placed on the breast of a corpse.” (Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border)

The Jones Boys sang Lyke Wake Dirge on their 2010 album Like the Sun A-Glittering. Gordon Jackson noted on their website:

Lyke—Old (Anglo Saxon) and Middle English (the language of Chaucer): corpse; the word survives in ‘lychgate’.

Wake—Old English: a vigil over a dead person before burial.

Dirge—from Latin: a lament for the dead; a funeral song.

This is an old song, possibly very old: the seventeenth century writer John Aubrey published a version in 1686, claiming a provenance dated to 1620. Chaucer, in The Knight’s Tale, mentions ‘this lyke wake’, but gives nothing more. Its roots seem to go back even further: the mythologies of Scandinavia, Greece and Islam have accounts of the perilous road taken by the dead. If the departed soul has been good or charitable in life they will find traversing this road a bit easier.

If the words are old, and the ideas even older, the tune is surprisingly modern, having been composed, it would seem, by Harold Boulton in Songs of the North, gathered together from the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, A.C. MacLeod and Harold Boulton (1895).

Read more here.

We conceived our version as primarily instrumental, singing and chanting only the first verse. Whatever people may think, there is most definitely no electric guitar (or any other kind of guitar) in our rendition!

Martin Green, Becky Unthank, Inge Thomson and Niklas Roswall performed the Lyke Wake Dirge in 2014 on their album Crows’ Bones. Martin Green commented in his liner notes:

This tune I got from the fiddle playing of David Shepherd of Blowzabella. The song of the same name is a well known; both originate from Yorkshire.

Piers Cawley sang the Lyke Wake Dirge at a Trad Song Tuesday Twitter singaround. He included his recording in 2020 on his download EP Trad Song Tuesdays Volume 0.


The song is written in an old form of the Yorkshire dialect of Northern English.

The Young Tradition sing the Lyke Wake Dirge

This ae nighte, this ae nighte
    Every nighte and alle
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte
    And Christe receive thy saule

When thou from hence away art past
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoen
Sit thee down and put them on.

If hosen and shoen thou ne’er gav’st nane
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane.

From Whinny-muir when thou may’st pass,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink
The fire sall never make thee shrink.

If meat or drink thou gav’st nane
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane.

(repeat first verse)