THE lover of old
songs need not be versed in the dialect of the locality whence they
originate in order to appreciate their flavour. Any of the
songs in this book may be sung from the proper English versions of
the words printed under the music. But the dialect unlocks the
key to the heart of the native. In these days of travel there
are exiles from home everywhere. I have sung one or two of
these songs in wood and camp in America, and have watched Cumbrian
eyes glistening as youthful days were recalled. And a few days
since, I walked over a Yorkshire moor with a well-known doctor of
music and talked earnestly of masterpieces of music, but the "song
that reached his heart," one that he had not heard for fifty years,
was "Come whoam to thi childer an' me;" it was still fresh in his
memory, and he sang it with the energy that he possessed when he
first heard it in Lancashire. We yearn nowadays for the simple
life, and if we cannot have it in the large cities where most of us
live, we at least have the pleasures of memory if we store up songs
and visions of rustic simplicity. Whenever I hear "Sally Gray"
or "John Peel" the picture is clear before me of the Cumberland
homes where I heard them, and the singers who first sang them in my
hearing. "Dalston parish," where Sally lived, and "Caldbeck
churchyard," where Peel lies, are places that I have visited in the
spirit of the pilgrim. These pretty spots endear these lovely
songs, and the songs justify the pilgrimage. In the same mood,
I have walked the eleven miles from Shap to the inn at Mardale, not
on the great day of the year, but to see the place where the
shepherds sing the old songs and "like them best pure," i.e.,
without accompaniment. I will describe the "meet."
To all appearances Mardale consists of a church, an inn, and
a dwelling-house, nestling in the shelter of several giant hills,
including Harter-fell, High Street, Branstree, and Riggindale.
On the Saturday nearest the l0th of November of each year (I was
told by Miss Mary Wilson) shepherds from the outlying districts come
to Mardale, bringing with them sheep that have strayed into their
flocks on the fells during the past year. Each shepherd, of
course, has some particular mark on his own sheep by which he knows
them. All the shepherds meet at the "Dun Bull," where the
sheep are exchanged and given back to their rightful owners.
It generally happens that Joe Bowman, the huntsman, and his famous
foxhounds come over from Patterdale for a hunt the same week end.
There is also a hound trail arranged. After a day's thorough
sport, huntsmen, shepherds, visitors, sheep-dogs, and terriers
(hounds are not admitted) all turn into the "Dun Bull" for a hearty
meal. In the evening a smoking-concert is held in the
dining-room. A long table on trestles stands in the middle of
the room, and around it sit all those who have gathered during the
day. A chairman is appointed, and sits at the head of the
table, whilst under the table are sheep-dogs and terriers galore.
Toasts are proposed in the usual way; then the chairman calls for a
song, and if there is a chorus so much the better. Everybody
is supposed to sing at least one song. The chairman sends the
hat round, and a collection is made for the next lot of drinks; the
chairman pays all. Sometimes, if a song has a good swing, the
men get particularly enthusiastic. The shepherds beat on the
table with their sticks, and the sheep-dogs and terriers join the
chorus with enthusiasm or execration, no man knows which.
In several cases (those marked *) the tunes are taken from a
very fine MS. collection purchased in 1910 by J. Curwen and
Sons Ltd. from the grand-daughter of Moses Hale, who died in 1875,
aged 101 years, and the versions of the airs here used are therefore
those which were current in the latter part of the eighteenth
century. In his boyhood Moses Hale was apprenticed for seven
years at Bath to the profession of the violin. He was by many
considered to be the best player in the district. Certainly he
had an excellent habit when he noted down every tune that he heard
for the first time, and preserved it in the books already referred
to. The sources of the tunes noted down by me in Lancashire
and Cumberland are given at the head of the music in each case.
I ask singers who are tired of singing the surfeit of songs written
about flowers that grow in the garden of the heart to give these
sincerer old songs a chance of a hearing. The best reward for
my pains is to find that they are appreciated.