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Swinton May Song

[ Roud 305 ; trad.]

The Watersons sang the Swinton May Song in 1975 on their album For Pence and Spicy Ale. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album sleeve notes:

The critical seasons of the year—midwinter, coming of spring, onset of autumn—were times for groups of carollers to go through the villages singing charms for good luck, in hope of a reward of food, drink, money. This one was sung on May Eve or thereabouts in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but it's much like similar songs from any other county. On holidays such as Christmas, May Day, etc., people would dress in what finery they had, hence the airy picture of the master and mistress of the house with their gold chains and brooches, very flattering for poor cottagers. This version is from Chamber's Book of Days (1863-64).

Nearly 30 years later, Martin Carthy did it again with Brass Monkey on their album Flame of Fire. He commented:

Norma [Waterson] and I found The Swinton May Song in Chambers' whopping Book of Days about thirty years ago shortly after which the Watersons recorded it. I thought that it was about time for it to have another airing so, with Norma's permission, here it is. If you hear echoes of the Padstow May Song here then it's because there they are in the song. The “Swinton” referred to is now a part of Manchester. It actually boasted two distinct May songs—both of which are published in the book—and this is listed as the Old May Song. The book itself lists customs and bits and pieces for just about every day of the year. I frequently used to stay in Swinton when touring in the Manchester area in the 1960s and 70s. Never saw any mayers.

This video shows Brass Monkey performing The Swinton May Song at Cheltenham Folk Festival 2008:

Greer Gilman notes:

Swinton is near Eccles [in Greater Manchester]. An account of the Maying, as performed in late April of 1861, with words and music collected from Job Knight, may be found in Chambers's Book of Days: “a party of waits or carollers … had taken their stand on the lawn in my garden … [T]here were four singers, accompanied by a flute and a clarinet; and together they discoursed most simple and rustic music.”

And Bob Hudson notes:

Roy Palmer quotes the passage from Chamber's Book of Days to which A. L. Lloyd alludes in a previous note. A Mr. John Harland in Chamber's writes: “I was on a sudden aware of a party of waits, or carollers, who had taken their stand on the lawn in my garden and were serenading the family with a song. There were four singers, accompanied by a flute and clarinet; and together they discoursed most simple and rustic music. Enquiry resulted in my obtaining from an old 'Mayer' the words of two songs, called by the singer themselves 'May Songs,' though the rule and custom are that they must be sung before the first day of May,” Everyman's Book of English Country Songs, 221. This song is No. 133 in Palmer's collection.

Lyrics

The Watersons sing Swinton May Song

All in this pleasant evening together come as we
For the summer springs so fresh and green and gay
We'll tell you of a blossom and of buds on every tree
Drawing near to the merry month of May

Rise up, the master of this house, all in your chain of gold
For the summer springs so fresh and green and gay
We hope you're not offended With your house we'll make so bold
Drawing near to the merry month of May

Rise up, the mistress of this house, with gold all on your breast
For the summer springs so fresh and green and gay
And if your body is asleep we hope your soul's at rest
Drawing near to the merry month of May

Rise up, the children of this house, all in your rich attire
For the summer springs so fresh and green and gay
And every hair all on your head shines like a silver wire
Drawing near to the merry month of May

God bless this house and harbour, your riches and your store
For the summer springs so fresh and green and gay
We hope that the Lord will prosper you both now and evermore
Drawing near to the merry month of May

So now we're going to leave you in peace and plenty here
For the summer springs so fresh and green and gay
We will not sing you May again until another year
For to drive you these cold winter nights away

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Greer Gilman for the transcription.