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Nottamun Town / Nottamun Fair

[ Roud 1044 ; Ballad Index WB2006 ; Bodleian Roud 1044 ; trad.]

A song from the repertoire of Jean Ritchie of Viper in Perry County, Kentucky, was borrowed by Shirley Collins when Jean was collecting in England, and then recorded with Davey Graham in 1964 for their album Folk Roots, New Routes. Ashley Hutchings commented in his songbook A Little Music:

[Nottamun Town is more than a nonsense song,] probably an old magic song using the device of riddles. The “back-handed awk'ard talk” resembles the language of mummers plays. As an old Kentuckian told Jean Ritchie: “If 'twas understood, then the good luck and the magic be lost.” But who can resist a riddle? So, at the risk of losing good luck and magic, perhaps I could start the ball rolling by suggesting that the part which begins “Sat down on a hard, cold frozen stone” might refer to a cemetery?

Some explicitly sexual references are said to have been self-censored out of the song by the folk.

Bert Jansch sang Nottamun Town in 1966 on his Transatlantic album Jack Orion.

Later, Bob Dylan took the tune for his angry Masters of War and in 1969 Fairport Convention with lead singer Sandy Denny recorded Nottamun Town for their album What We Did on Our Holidays. Their guitar-and-drums duet is reminiscent of the things Davey was doing on Better Git It in Your Soul several years before. There is an interesting instrumental portion in the song, featuring acoustic guitar (Richard Thompson), bongos (Martin Lamble) and violin (Simon Nicol). Fairport Convention's version was also included in 1975 on the anthology The Electric Muse and in 2004 on the 5CD Fledg'ling anthology A Boxful of Treasures.

A BBC radio performance by Fairport Convention was recorded on May 28, 1968 in Studio 1, 201 Piccadilly, for the Top Gear / John Peel radio show and broadcast on June 2, 1968 with a repeat on June 30, 1968. It was produced by Bernie Andrews. The track can be found on the semi-bootleg From Past Archives It was finally released officially in 2002 on the Island CD re-release of Heyday and on the Fairport unConventioNal 4CD set.

Roger McGuinn and Jean Ritchie sang Nottamun Town on Roger McGuinn's CD Treasures from the Folk Den.

Lady Maisery sang Nottamun Fair with Rowan Rheingans playing the bansitar (a cross between a banjo and a musical instrument, as Hannah James noted) in 2011 on their CD Weave & Spin. They commented in their liner notes:

The ultimate surrealist ballad! The topsy-turvy world it depicts is very much like the traditional “world turned upside down” motif found in English culture and Nottamun may be a corruption of Nottingham (much less exotic!). Hazel [Askew] took the words from various sources to make our version and it also features the equally surreal Bansitar, which was made by Rowan's dad Helmut.

This YouTube video shows Lady Maisery singing Nottamun Fair at the Beverley Folk Acoustic Roots Festival in June 2012:

Lyrics

Jean Ritchie sings Nottamun Town

In fair Nottamun Town not a soul would look up
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town.

I rode a grey horse, a mule roany mare
Grey mane and grey tail, a green stripe down her back
Grey mane and grey tail, a green stripe down her back
There wa'nt a hair on her be-what was coal black.

She stood so still, she threw me to the dirt.
She tore my hide and bruised my shirt
From saddle to stirrup I mounted again
And on my ten toes I rode over the plain.

Met the King and the Queen, and a company more
A-Riding behind and a-marching before
Come a stark naked drummer a-beating the drum
With his heels in his bosom come a-marching along.

They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay
They talked all the while, not a word did they say
I bought me a quart to drive gladness away
And to stifle the dust, for it rained the whole day.

Sat down on a hard, hot cold frozen stone,
Ten thousand stood 'round me, yet it's alone
Took my hat in my hands for to keep my head warm,
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born.

Fairport Convention sing Nottamun Town

In Nottamun Town not a soul would look up,
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down,
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down,
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town.

Met the King and the Queen, and a company more
Come a-walking behind and a-riding before
Come a stark naked drummer a-beating the drum
With his hands on his bosom, come marching along.

Sat down on a hard, hot cold frozen stone,
Ten thousand stood 'round me, yet I was alone
Took my hat in my hands for to keep my head warm,
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born.

(repeat first verse)

Lady Maisery sing Nottamun Fair

As I went down to Nottamun Fair
I rode a grey horse they call a grey mare.
White mane, white tail, green stripe down her back,
There's not a hair on her that isn't coal-black.

She stood so still, she threw me to the dirt,
She tore at my skin, she bruised my shirt.
From saddle to stirrup I mounted again
And on my ten toes I rode over the plain.

Met the King and the Queen and a company more
A-riding behind, a-walking before.
The bells did ring and the people did stare
To see a coach and six horses drawn by a grey mare.

But when I got there not a soul could I see
But ten thousand people sat laughing at me.
Sat laughing and chaffing and making their game
To see my feet off and my shoes going lame.

One moonshiny morning, at night when was dark,
It rained and it hailed as I went through the park.
Took my hat in my hand for to keep my head warm,
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born.