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Plains of Waterloo

[ Roud 960 ; Laws N32 ; Ballad Index LN32 ; trad.]

O.J. Abbott from Hull, Quebec, sang The Plains of Waterloo in a field recording made by Edith Fowke in Ontario in August 1957. In was included in 1961 on his Folkways album Irish and British Songs from the Ottawa Valley, was printed in 1973 in Fowke's Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs and was included in 1975 on the accompanying Leader album Far Canadian Fields. Edith Fowke noted on the original album:

This variant on the familiar “Broken Ring” theme is quite rare: in fact, Dr. Roy Mackenzie, who printed a very similar song in his Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia, made this comment: “"The spirited old lady who sang this ballad for me prefaced her performance by assuring me with a sort of demoniacal glee that I had never heard the song before and would never hear it again, for the simple reason that the unique copy of it existed in her own proper brain. Since then I have been inclined more than once to accept her pronouncement as authoritative.” He goes on to suggest that it is a modified version of the early nineteenth-century English ballad, The Mantle So Green, which is in its turn a modified version of the late eighteenth-century English ballad, George Reilly [Roud 267; Laws N37]. Elizabeth Greenleaf also found a version in Newfoundland, but it does not seem to have been found anywhere in the United States.

Both the Mackenzie and Greenleaf versions have missing lines; Mr. Abbott's, which he learned from Mrs,”O'Malley, is not only complete but seems to me to be a finer version than either. The tune too is very beautiful: I will never forget the thrill it gave me when he soared into. the lovely phrase that begins the second half of the melody.

The account of the Waterloo campaign is accurate enough: on 16 June the French defeated the Prussians at Ligny, forcing Wellington to retreat from Quatre Bras; on 18 June Napoleon attacked the British, and after a six-hour battle was defeated when Blucher arrived to reinforce Wellington.

Shirley and Dolly Collins recorded Plains of Waterloo in 1970 for their album Love, Death & the Lady; this track was reissued in 1974 and in 2000 on their anthologies A Favourite Garland and Within Sound. Shirley Collins commented in the Fledg'ling reissue of the original album:

This plaintive song was taught to me by the Devon singer, John Steele. I cannot imagine life without these songs, and I'm grateful that they are still here for us to know. They are, to me, a perfect expression of the human condition, of love, loss and grief. We are all indebted to those working people of time past who left us such a legacy.

and in the booklet of the second anthology:

A perfect heartbreaking song. I think I first heard it sung by Devon singer John Steele in the 1960s, although it was originally collected in Newfoundland. When John Marshall, who was producing the album Love, Death & the Lady, suggested adding drums, I had my doubts, but so spare and restrained was Terry Cox's percussion that I was won over, and I always get goose bumps when I hear it.

The High Level Ranters sang The Plains of Waterloo on their 1971 Trailer album High Level. They noted:

One of the many great songs from the period of the Napoleonic wars. This version was collected in the Ottawa valley by Edith Fowke. Tom [Gilfellon] learned it from Martin Carthy.

June Tabor sang Plains of Waterloo unaccompanied in 1976 on her first solo album Airs and Graces. She commented in the album's sleeve notes:

From Ontario; learned from Martin Clarke of Leeds. The broken token ballad seems to me to have been a necessary piece of wishful thinking, an act of faith on the part of both the faraway soldier and the girl he left behind him. Reality, more often than not, was cruelly otherwise.

and in the 2019 CD reissue:

Collected in Ontario by folklorist Edith Fowke from O.J. Abbott, an Englishman who emigrated to Canada as a young man.

Partings were long and news was scarce. The broken token was an affirmation of faith.

June also sang Les Barker's variant, The Trains of Waterloo, on his 1990 album Oranges and Lemmings.

Jacqui McShee sang The Plains of Waterloo in 1980 on the John Renbourn Group's Transatlantic album The Enchanted Garden. John Renbourn noted:

Here we have the ‘Broken Token’ theme found in so many folksongs. This time the man has returned from the Napoleonic wars, unrecognised by his true love. The song had great success as a broadside and the words and tune, together with another related song, Her Mantle So Green, can be found in Karl Dallas' The Cruel Wars.

Crows sang Plains of Waterloo on their 1985 album No Bones or Grease and Mick Ryan sang The Plains of Waterloo in 1999 on his and Pete Harris' WildGoose CD Hard Season. The latter album's notes commented:

This was previously recorded by Mick on the 1985 Crows album No Bones or Grease. It is, however, one of those songs that has so much in it that you always feel that you could do it better. It was collected in Canada from one O.J. Abbott, though the tune is clearly of Irish origin. The description of the battle is historically accurate; the tune is superb; all in all, a belter!

Kathryn Roberts sang Plains of Waterloo in 1995 on her and Kate Rusby's eponymous CD, Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts.

The New Scorpion Band sang The Plains of Waterloo in 2000 on their CD The Plains of Waterloo. They noted:

Tim [Laycock] learnt this song from Molly Nudds in Norwich in 1973. It recounts the common theme of the soldier returning home from battle unrecognised by his true love, but after “testing” her reveals his true identity—and yes, there is a divided ring as well! Most versions of this song can be traced to the Canadian singer O.J. Abbott.

Frank Harte sang Plains of Waterloo in 2001 on his album My Name Is Napoleon Bonaparte.

Martin Carthy sang Plains of Waterloo unaccompanied at the Sunflower Folk Club, Belfast, on 20 October 1978. A recording of this concert was published in 2011 on the CD The January Man.

Martin Simpson sang Plains of Waterloo in 2015 on Simpson·Cutting·Kerr's Topic album Murmurs, and he played the song's tune in 2020 on his Topic album Home Recordings where he noted:

In 19761 heard June Tabor sing The Plains of Waterloo for the first time and a year later I started to work with her in one of the most fruitful and enjoyable collaborations of my life. June’s singing was incomprehensibly skilful and it took me years to be able to contemplate singing songs I had learned from her. I learned to play the air of The Plains of Waterloo, and have recorded it as an air and also with Andy and Nancy on Murmurs. It appears I learned it “wrong”. The tune is magnificent and complex. The first phrase is Major, the second Mixolydian, and the third line goes into the minor. In the key of D I would play that line in D minor whereas June would modulate it to A minor. Ian Robb the excellent Ottawa based English singer played me the most cited source singer for the song when I was staying with him in October 2019. O.J. Abbott, himself an English immigrant to the Ottawa valley appeared to sing the 3rd line as a major modulation… folk music is a shifting thing.

The song has many variants and is a member of the group of songs known as Broken Token Ballads. I have recorded it here to explore the emotional impact of the two minor variations.

VWML librarian and archives director Laura Smyth sang Plains of Waterloo to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 2015:

Karina Knight sang The Plains of Waterloo on her 2020 album of songs learned from her parents, From the Knee.

See also the same-titled but different song The 18th Day of June (Plains of Waterloo) (Roud 1132).

Lyrics

O.J. Abbott sings The Plains of Waterloo

As I roved out on a fine summer's morning,
Down by the gay banks of a clear purling stream,
I espied a lovely maid making sad lamentation;
I threw myself in ambush to hear her sad strain.
Through the grove she marched along, caused the valleys to ring-O,
The fine feathered songsters all round her they flew,
Saying, “The war is all over and peace it is restored again,
But my Willie is not returning from the plains of Waterloo.”

I stepped up to this fair one and says, “My fond creature,
Dare I make so bold as to ask your lover' s name?
For I have been in battle where cannons around do rattle,
And by your descriptions I might have known the same.”
“Willie Smith's my true love's name; he's a hero of great fame;
He has gone and he's left me in sorrow, it is true.
No one shall me enjoy but my own darling boy,
And yet he's not returning from the plains of Waterloo.”

“If Willie Smith's your true love's name, he's a hero of great fame.
He and I have been in battle through many's the long campaign.
Through Italy and Russia, through Germany and Prussia,
He was my loyal comrade through France and through Spain.
Until at length by the French, oh that's we were surrounded;
Like the heroes of old we did them subdue.
We fought for three days till at length we did defeat him,
That brave Napoleon Boney on the plains of Waterloo.

“Oh the eighteenth day of June, it ended the battle,
And left many a fine hero to sigh and to moan;
The war drums did beat and the cannons around did rattle;
'Twas by a French soldier your Willie he was slain.
And as I passed by, oh ,where he lay a-bleeding,
I scarcely had time to bid him adieu.
With a faltering voice those words he was repeating,
“Farewell, my lovely Annie, you are far from Waterloo.”

Oh when this lovely maid heard this sad acclamation,
Her two rosy cheeks they grew pale into one.
When I saw this handsome maid in such sad lamentation,
I says, “My lovely Annie, I am the very one,
And here is the ring which between us was broken,
In the midst of all dangers to remind me of you,”
And when she saw the token she flew into my arms,
Saying, “You're welcome, dearest Willie, from the plains of Waterloo.”

Shirley Collins sings Plains of Waterloo

As I was a-walking one midsummer's morning
Down by the gay banks of a clear pearling stream,
There I met a fair maid making sad lamentations,
So I threw myself in ambush to hear her sad refrain.

Through the woods she marched along, caused the valleys to ring-o,
And the fine feathered songsters around her they flew,
Saying, “The war it is now over and peace it is returned again,
Yet my William's not returning from the plains of Waterloo.”

Oh, I stepped up to this fair maid and said, “My fond creature,
Oh, dare I make enquire as to what's your true love's name?
For it's I have been in battle where the cannons loud do rattle
And by your description I might have known the same.”

“Willy Smith me true love's name is, a hero of great fame,
And he's gone and he's left me in sorrow, it's true.
Now no-one shall me enjoy but me own darling boy,
And yet he's not returning from the plains of Waterloo.”

“If Willy Smith's your true love's name, then he's a hero of great fame,
He and I have fought in battle through many's the long campaign.
Through Italy and Russia, through Germany and Prussia,
He was my loyal comrade through France and through Spain.”

“Till at length by the French, oh then we were surrounded,
And like heroes of old then we did them subdue.
We fought for three days till at length we did defeat him,
That bold Napoleon Boney on the plains of Waterloo.”

“And on this sixteenth day of June, it is end of the battle,
Leaving many's the bold hero in sorrow to mourn.
There the war drums they do beat and the cannons loud do rattle,
It was by a French soldier your William was slain.”

“And as I passed by oh to where he lay a-bleeding,
I scarcely had time for to bid him adieu.
With a faint, faltering voice these words he kept repeating:
Fare the well, me lovely Annie, you are far from Waterloo.“

And when that this fair maid heard this sad acclamation
Her two rosy cheeks they turned pale into wan.
And when that his young man saw her sad lamentation,
He cried, “Me lovely Annie, oh I am your very one.”

“And here is the ring that between us was broken,
In the depth of all dangers, love, to remind me of you.”
And when she saw the token, she fell into his arms, saying,
“You're welcome, lovely William, from the plains of Waterloo.”

June Tabor sings Plains of Waterloo

As I rode out one fine summer's morning
Down by the gay banks of a clear pearling stream,
There I spied a handsome fair maid making sad lamentations,
Oh, I threw myself in ambush to hear her sad strains.

Through the woods she marched along, caused the valleys to ring-o,
The fine feathered songsters around her they flew,
Saying, “The wars they are all over and peace it is restored again,
But yet my Willie's not returning from the plains of Waterloo.”

Well, I stepped up to this fair maid and said, “My fond creature,
Oh, may I make so bold as to ask your true love's name?
For it's I've been in battle where the cannons around rattle
And by some strange fortune I might have known the same.”

“Willie Smith me true love's name is, hero of great fame,
He's gone and he's left me in sorrow, it's true.
No-one shall me enjoy but me own darling boy,
But yet he's not returning from the plains of Waterloo.”

“Well, if Willie Smith's your true love's name, he's a hero of great fame,
He and I have been in battle through many's the long campaign.
Through Italy and Russia, through Germany and Prussia,
Oh, he was me loyal comrade through France and through Spain.”

“Until at length by the French we were surrounded,
Like the heroes of old we did them subdue.
We did fight for three days until we did defeat him,
That brave Napoleon Boney on the plains of Waterloo.”

“Now the eighteenth day of June, it is end of that battle,
Leaving many's the bold hero to sigh and to mourn.
Oh, the war drums they did beat and the cannons around did rattle,
It was by a French soldier your Willie he was slain.”

“And as I passed by there where he lay a-bleeding,
Oh, I scarcely had time for to bid him adieu.
In a faltering voice these words he was repeating,
Fare the well, me lovely Annie, you are far from Waterloo.“

Now when this lovely fair maid heard this sad acclamation
Oh, but her rosy cheeks turned pale and wan.
And when I saw this fair maid making sad lamentations,
Oh, I said, “Me lovely Annie, I am that very one.”

“And here is the ring that was broken between us,
In the midst of all danger, love, to remind me of you.”
And when she saw the token, she fell into me arms crying,
“You're welcome, dearest Willie, from the plains of Waterloo.”