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The Broom of Cowdenknowes / Bonny May

[ Roud 92 ; Child 217 ; G/D 4:838 ; Ballad Index C217 ; Bodleian Roud 92 ; trad.]

The Broom of Cowdenknowes was printed in 1925 in Alexander Keith's book of ballads collected in Aberdeenshire by Gavin Greig, Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs.

Ewan MacColl sang The Broom of Cowdenknowes in 1956 on his and A.L. Lloyd's anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume II

The Watersons sang The Broom of Cowdenknowes in 1965 on New Voices. This track was also included a year later on Folk Songs: An Anthology (Topic Sampler No 2). Like all Watersons tracks from the original album, it was also reissued in 1994 on their CD Early Days. A.L. Lloyd commented in the original sleeve notes:

In the “Symptoms of Love” section of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1652) we read: 'The very rusticks and hog-rubbers have their wakes, Whitsun ales, shepherds' feasts, country dances, roundelays. They have their ballads, country tunes, O the broom, the bonny, bonny broom.' This is the song that the gipsy Alice Boyce is said to have sung before Queen Elizabeth, and it has remained a favourite ever since. It was originally a Scots song though we can't be sure if the old tune to it (the one the Watersons use here) isn't in fact English. It was published in London, in Playford's Dancing Master in 1650, whereas the first Scottish publication of Cowdenknowes (to another, more modern tune) wasn't till 75 years later, in the Tea Table Miscellany. Anyway, English or Scots, it's a good old tune.

According to the liner note of Cherish the Ladies' album The Girls Won't Leave the Boys Alone, “Cowdenknowes was a mansion and estate near Earlston, a small market and woollen mill town halfway between Edinburgh and the English border.”

Jimmy McBeath sang The Broom o' the Cowdenknowes on the 1975 Tangent album The Muckle Sangs (Scottish Tradition 5).

Archie Fisher sang The Broom o' the Cowdenknowes in 1976 on his Topic album Will Ye Gang, Love. Arthur Argo commented in the sleeve notes:

Originally from the Borders—Cowdenknowes mansion and estate is just south of Earlston in Berwickshire—versions of this song were popular in both Scotland and England by the middle of the 17th century. The tune was, in fact, published in London in l651, in John Playford’s The Dancing Master, and was subsequently used in The Beggar’s Opera. Kinloch observes that “each district has its own version”. The Ewe-Buchts was another popular title for songs from the same family tree.

June Tabor sang Bonny May in 1976 on her first solo album Airs and Graces. This recording was also included in her anthologies Aspects and Always and on the Topic compilation The Folk Collection. She commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

Child No. 217, The Broom of Cowdenknowes; a compilation of several texts, anglicized with the aid and inspiration of Maddy Prior. It was with great regret that the following verse had to be abandoned:

Whan twenty weeks war past and gane
Twenty weeks and three
The lassie began to spit and spue
And thought lang for blinkin' ee

June Tabor also sang Broom of Cowdenknowes in 1996 on her CD with Savourna Stevenson and Danny Thompson, Singing the Storm.

Silly Wizard sang The Broom of the Cowden Knowes in 1988 on their live CD Live Wizardry.

Bram Taylor sang The Broom o' the Cowdenknowes in 1989 on his Fellside album Taylor Made.

The Cast sang The Broom of Cowdenknowes in 1996 on their Culburnie CD Colours of Lichen.

Concerto Caledonia performed The Broom of Cowdenknowes in the Winter 2002/3 in Crichton Collegiate Church, Pathhead, Scotland in a programme of songs and tunes from 18th-century Scotland. This concert was released in 2008 on their CD The Red Red Rose.

Damien Barber and Mike Wilson sang Bonny May in 2011 on their CD The Old Songs, commenting in their liner notes:

From the singing of June Tabor. Mike has since had some additional words provided by close family friend, Steve Black, some of which have been used in our version.


The Watersons sing The Broom of Cowdenknowes

Oh the broom, the bonnie, bonnie broom
The broom of Cowdenknowes
Fain would I be in the north country
To milk my daddy's ewes

O the maids that ever were deceived
Bear part of these my woes
For once I was a bonny lass
When I milked my daddy's ewes

Oh the broom, the bonnie, bonnie broom
The broom of Cowdenknowes
Fain would I be in the north country
To milk my daddy's ewes

June Tabor sings Bonny May

Bonny May a-shepherding has gone
To call the sheep to the fold
And as she sang, her bonny voice it rang
Right over the tops of the downs, downs,
Right over the tops of the downs.

There came a troop of gentlemen
As they were riding by
And one of them has lighted down
And he's asked of her the way, way,
And he's asked of her the way.

”Ride on, ride on, you rank riders,
Your steeds are stout and strong,
For it's out of the fold I will not go
For fear you do me wrong, wrong,
For fear you do me wrong.”

Now he's taken her by the middle jimp
And by the green gown sleeve,
And there he's had his will of her
And he's asked of her no leave, leave,
And he's asked of her no leave.

Now he's mounted on his berry brown steed,
He soon o'erta'en his men
And one and all cried out to him,
”Oh, master, you tarried long, long,
Oh, master, you tarried long.”

”Oh, I've ridden East and I've ridden West,
And I've ridden o'er the downs,
But the bonniest lass that ever I saw
She was calling her sheep to the fold, fold.”

She's taken the milk pail on her head
And she's gone lingering home.
And all her father said to her
Was, ”Daughter, you tarried long, long,
Oh, daughter, you tarried long.”

”Oh, woe betide your shepherd, father,
He takes no care of the sheep,
For he's builded the fold at the back of the down
And the fox has frightened me, me,
And the fox has frightened me.”

”Oh, there came a fox to the fold door
With twinkling eye so bold,
And ere he'd taken the lamb that he did
I'd rather he'd taken them all, all.”

Now twenty weeks were gone and past,
Twenty weeks and three,
The lassie began to fret and to frown
And to long for the twinkling eye, bright eye,
And to long for the twinkling eye.

Now it fell on a day, on a bonnie summer's day
That she walked out alone.
That self-same troop of gentlemen
Come a-riding over the down, down,
Come a-riding over the down.

”Who got the babe with thee, Bonny May,
Who got the babe in thy arms?”
For shame, she blushed, and aye, she said,
Was ”I've a good man of my own, own.”

”You lie, you lie, you Bonny, Bonny May,
So loud I hear you lie.
Remember the misty murky night
I lay in the fold with thee, thee,
I lay in the fold with thee.

Now he's mounted off his berry brown steed,
He's sat the fair May on.
”Go call out your kye, father, yourself,
She'll ne'er call them again, again,
She'll ne'er call them again.”

Oh, he's Lord of twenty plough of land,
Twenty plough and three,
And he's taken away the bonniest lass
In all the South country, country,
In all the South country.

Acknowledgements and Links

The Watersons' lyrics were transcribed by Garry Gillard.

See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Req: Bonny May (from June Tabor).