Lancashire, Yorkshire & Oxfordshire may day carols

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Manchester May Day.
“One tradition was for girls to don mainly white dresses, made from curtains or whatever, and carry around a broomstick representing a maypole. Another tradition was for boys to dress up in women’s clothing and to colour their faces – they were called molly dancers, ‘molly’ being an old expression for an effeminate man. Dr Cass[Dr Eddie Cass, the Folklore Society] says they went round quoting a verse. One such, from the Salford area, was: I’m a collier from Pendlebury brew. Itch Koo Pushing little wagons up a brew I earn thirty bob a week I’ve a wife and kids to keep I’m a collier from Pendlebury brew Dr Cass himself remembers both traditions. The girls would dance round the maypole and sing other songs, such as: Buttercups and daisies Oh what pretty flowers Coming in spring time To tell of sunny hours We come to greet you on the first of May We hope you will not send us away For we dance and sing our merry song On a maypole day (from here)


The version reproduced by Watersons in 1975 is taken from W & R Chamber “Book of Days” – 1869 – with words and music collected by Mr. Job Knight (1861) –  A.L. Lloyd comments
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.”

This song is  titled “Drawing Near the Merry Month of May” and the text is also reported in Edwin Waugh’s book “Lancashire Sketches” (1869)
The area of reference is Yorkshire and Lancashire and “Swinton” was a small borough, then Salford city now become a part of Manchester (England)

The Watersons from For Pence and Spicy Ale -1975

Brass Monkey from Flame of Fire – 2005

The two melodies are different, the version of the Brass Monkey recalls the Padstow May Song, another song of springtime still popular ritual in the town of Padstow, Cornwall.
As reported in Chambers’ Book of Day (1869), Swinton’s two songs were the Old May song and the New May song. The Old May Song was a so-called Night song that was sung during the night by groups of mayers accompanied with various musical instruments.


All in this pleasant evening together
come has we
for the summer springs so fresh and green and gay.
We’ll tell you of a blossom and a bud 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 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 gresh 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 arbor, 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

Charles Daniel Ward: Processing of Spring -1905
Charles Daniel Ward: Processing of Spring -1905

We heve a direct testimony in the book”Memoirs of Seventy Years of an Eventful Life  from Charles Hulbert (Providence Grove, Near Shrewsbury:1852), pg 107
With feelings of indescribable pleasure, I still call to my remembrance various customs and scenes familiar to my early years. Still present is the delight with which I hailed the approach of May-day morning, when a select company of the musical Rustics of Worsley, Swinton and Eccles, would assemble at midnight to commence the grateful task of saluting their neighbours with the sound of the Clarionet, Hautboy, German Flute, Violin, and the melody of twenty voices. On this occasion the leader of the band would commence his song under the window or before the outer door of the family “he delighted to honour” with
O rise up Master of this House, all in your chain of gold,
For the summer springs so fresh, green and gay;
I hope you’ll not be angry at us for being so bold,
Drawing near to the merry month of May.
In this strain, including some encomiums or happy allusion to the various qualifications of all the other branches of the family the whole were saluted: after which a purse of silver or a few mugs of good ale were distributed among the company; thus they proceeded from house to house, tilling the air with their music and happy voices, till six o’clock in the morning.
Among the drinks with which the singers were refreshing their throat in addition to the inevitable beer there was also the Syllabub prepared with milk cream. see more



CMB-009Here is the transcription of a 19th-century May song sung by Swalcliffe’s children, clearly a Day Song
Swalcliffe (pronounced sway-cliff) is a village near Banbury in North Oxfordshire. The words of this carol were noted by Miss Annie Norris around 1840 from the singing of a group of children in the village. The words were passed onto the collector – and Adderbury resident – Janet Blunt in 1908, and she finally collected a tune for the song from Mrs Woolgrove of Swalcliffe, and Mrs Lynes of Sibford, at Sibford fete, July 1921.” (from here)

Magpie Lane from The Oxford Ramble 1993

Awake! awake! lift up your eyes
And pray to God for grace
Repent! repent! of your former sins
While ye have time and space
I have been wandering all this night
And part of the last day
So now I’ve come for to sing you a song
And to show you a branch of May
A branch of may I have brought you
And at your door it stands
It does spread out, and it spreads all about
By the work of our Lord’s hands
Man is but a man, his life’s but a span
He is much like a flower
He’s here today and he’s gone tomorrow
So he’s all gone down in an hour
So now I have sung you my little short song
I can no longer stay
God bless you all both great and small
And I wish you a happy May

LINK making_history/makhist10_prog5d.shtml swintonmaysong.html oxford_ramble/may_day_carol.htm week-88-swalcliffe-may-day-carol/

Cambridgeshire & Hertfordshire may day carols

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The tune is known as “Arise, arise” and the carols of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire are very similar, even in the lyrics.

Ruth Barrett & Cyntia Smith from  “Music of the Rolling World” (1982) I really like the processional gait cadenced by the drum

Arise, arise, you pretty fair maids
And take your May Bush in
For if it is gone before tomorrow morn
You would say we have brought you none.
All through the night before daylight
There fell the dew and rain.
It sparkles bright on the May Bush white;
It glistens on the plain.
Oh, the hedges and fields are growing so green,
as green as grass can be.
Our Heavenly Mother watereth them
With her heavenly dew so sweet (1).
A branch of May we’ll bring to you
As at your door we stand.
It’s not but a sprout, but ‘tis well budded out,
The work of Our Lady’s hand.
Our song is done,
it’s time we were gone
We can no longer stay.
We bless you all, both great and small
And we send you a joyful May.

1) This carol lets us glimpse, among the tributes paid to the Virgin Mary, some pre-Christian rituals practiced in May Day: in addition to the May branch also the bath in the dew and in the wild waters rich in rain. The night is the magic of April 30 and the dew collected was a real panacea able to awaken the beauty of women!

Shirley Collins, Cambridgeshire May Carol

Arise, arise, you pretty fair maids,
And take your May bush in,
For if that is gone before tomorrow morn/ You would say we had brought you none.
Oh, the hedges and fields are growing so green,
As green as grass can be;
Our heavenly father watereth them/With his heavenly dew so sweet..
I have got a little purse in my pocket
That’s tied with a silken string;
And all that it lacks is a little of your gold
To line it well within.
Now the clock strikes one,
it’s time we are gone,
We can no longer stay;
So please to remember our money, money box
And God send you a joyful May.



Collected in 1900 in the Peterborough area
Mary Humphreys

Good  morning, lords and ladies,
It is the first of May;
I hope you’ll view the garland,
For it looks so very gay.
To the greenwood we will go.
I’m  very glad to spring as come
The sun is shine so bright
The little birds upon the threes
Are singing with delight
The  cuckoo(1) sings in April,
The cuckoo sings in May,
The cuckoo sings in June,
In July she flies away.
The  roads are very dusty
The shoes are very thin
We have a little money-box
To put a money in

SOURCE: Fred Hamer: Garners Gay (1967)
“Mrs. Johnstone [Margery” Mum “Johnstone] learned this carol from her grandmother who came from Carlton and seems to have been popular in some villages close to the Northamptonshire border.The same melody with similar words is spread throughout the south-east of the Midlands ”

Lorraine Nelson Wolf (Bedford carol) 

Good   morning lords and ladies
it is the first of May,
We hope you’ll view our garland
it is so bright and gay
For it is the first of May,
oh it is the first of May,
Remember lords and ladies
it is the first of May.
We gathered them this morning
all in the early dew,
And now we bring their beauty
and fragrance all for you
The cuckoo comes in April,
it sings its song in May,
In June it changes tune,
in July it flies away
And now you’ve seen our garland
we must be on our way,
So remember lords and ladies
it is the first of May


Also known under the title “The Sweet Month of May” is a popular song in Cheshire. The text presents many similarities with the Swinton May song to which reference is made for comparison see more

The Wilson Family

All on this pleasant morning, together come are we,
To tell you of a blossom that hangs on every tree.
We have stayed up all evening to welcome in the day,
Good people all, both great and small, it is the first of May.
Rise up the master of this house, put on your chain of gold,
And turn unto your mistress, so comely to behold.
Rise up the mistress of this house, with gold upon your breast,
And if your body be asleep, we hope your souls are dressed.
Oh rise up Mister Wilbraham, all joys to you betide.
Your horse is ready saddled, a-hunting for to ride.
Your saddle is of silver, your bridle of the gold,
Your wife shall ride beside you, so lovely to behold.
Oh rise up Mister Edgerton and take your pen in hand,
For you’re a learned scholar, as we do understand.
Oh rise up Mrs. Stoughton, put on your rich attire,
For every hair upon your head shines like the silver wire.
Oh rise up the good housekeeper, put on your gown of silk,
And may you have a husband good, with twenty cows to milk.
And where are all the pretty maids that live next door to you,
Oh they have gone to bathe themselves, all in the morning dew.
God bless your house and arbour, your riches and your store.
We hope the Lord will prosper you, both now and ever more.
So now we’re going to leave you, in peace and plenty here,
We shall not sing this song again, until another year.
Good people all, both great and small, it is the first of May.


So many carols have been Christianized, shifting the homage to the ancient deities to God and Our Lady, as in the next examples. These verses were also documented in the newspapers of the time, for example in the parish of Debden and in the village of Saffron Walden in Essex it was sung:
‘I been a rambling all this night,
And sometime of this day;
And now returning back again,
I brought you a garland gay.
A garland gay I brought you here,
And at your door I stand;
‘Tis nothing but a sprout, but ‘tis well budded out,
The works of our Lord’s hand.
So dear, so dear as Christ loved us,
And for our sins was slain,
Christ bids us turn from wickedness,
And turn to the Lord again.’

Each verse was sometimes also interspersed with a refrain::
‘Why don’t you do as we have done,
The very first day of May;
And from my parents I have come,
And would no longer stay.’

Jean Ritchie

I’ve been a-wandering all the night
And the best part of the day
Now I’m returning home again
I bring you a branch of May
A branch of May,
I’ll bring you my love,
Here at your door I stand
It’s nothing but a sprout, but it’s well budded out
By the work of the Lord’s own hand
In my pocket I’ve got a purse
Tied up with a silver string
All that I do need is a bit of silver
To line it well within
My song is done
and I must be gone
I can no longer stay
God bless you all both great and small
And send you a joyful May

1) la strofa è a volte preceduta da questa
Take a bible in your hand
And read a chapter through
And when the day of judgment comes
The Lord will think of you

In the “Nooks and Corners of English Life, Past and Present”, John Timbs, 1867: “At Saffron Walden, and in the village of Debden, an old  May-day song is still sung by the little girls, who go about in parties carrying garlands from door to door. The garlands which the girls carry are sometimes large and  handsome, and a doll is usually placed in the middle, dressed  in white, according to certain traditional regulations : this doll represents the Virgin Mary, and is a relic of the ages of Romanism.”


William Hone in his “The Every Day Book”, describes in a letter dated May 1, 1823 the mummers of May Day to Hitchin who cheer the passers-by with their dances: they are “Moll the crazy” and her husband (with the face blackened by smoke and clothes of rags, “she” holding a big ladle and he a broom), “the Lord and the Lady” (dressed in white and decorated with ribbons and gaudy handkerchiefs, with the gentleman holding a sword) and five/six others  couples of dancers and some musicians- they are all men because the ladies were not allowed to mummers mix: they dance grimaces, chase people with the broom and make the audience laugh.

Always William Hone tells us that the Mayers went from house to house to bring May already at the first light of the day (starting at 3 am) singing “Mayer’s Song” and William Chappell in The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time, 1859 also transcribes the melody, more or less the same as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.”

Hitchin May Day Song

‘Remember us poor Mayers all,
And thus we do begin
To lead our lives in righteousness,
Or else we die in sin.
We have been rambling all this night,
And almost all this day,
And now returned back again,
We have brought you a branch of May.
A branch of May we have brought you,
And at your door it stands;
It is but a sprout, but it’s well budded out
By the work of our Lord’s hands.
The hedges and trees they are so green,
As green as any leek,
Our Heavenly Father he watered them
With heavenly dew so sweet.
The heavenly gates are open wide,
Our paths are beaten plain,
And, if a man be not too far gone,
He may return again.
The life of man is but a span,
It flourishes like a flower;
We are here to-day, and gone to-morrow,
And we are dead in one hour.
The moon shines bright, and the stars give a light,
A little before it is day;
So God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May!’

Sedayne, live The Heavenly Gates (a may carol)

not exactly the same verses, some stanzas are missing
We’ve been rambling all the night, the best part of this day,
we are returning here back again to bring you a garland gay.
A bunch of May we bare about, before the door it stands;
it is but a sprout but it’s well budded out; it is the work of God’s own hands.
Oh wake up you, wake up pretty maids, and take the may bush in –
for it will be gone e’er tomorrow morn and you will have none within.
The heavenly gates are open wide to let escape the dew;
it makes no delay, it is here today & it forms on me & you.
The life of a man is but a span, he’s cut down like the flower;
he makes no delay, he is here today & he’s vanished all in an hour
And when you are dead & you’re in your grave, all covered with the cold cold clay,
the worms they will eat your flesh good man & your bones they will waste away.
My song is done I must be gone, I can no longer stay;
God bless us all both great & small & wish us a gladsome May.

LINK NonChristmas/bedfordshire_may_day_carol.htm 7/73/1908_32_Bedfordshire_May_Day_Carol.pdf