Archivi categoria: Usanze e tradizioni/ Folklore

Reaphook and Sickle

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The time of the wheat harvest varies according to the latitudes: in the South as for example in southern Italy it starts to harvest already in June, while in Piedmont in July and in the Northern countries as for the Islands of Great Britain, in August.
Once the harvest season could last about a month with the laborers that moved on foot, from farm to farm with tools for their work on their shoulders and a little bundle with their few things: they went in groups for little family, men and women, and for many girls that was the occasion to make new friends and maybe find the lover.

George Hemming Mason - The Harvest Moon

Harvest songs are common throughout Europe and are mostly religious-ritualistic, but the songs have disappeared because with the mechanization (and the chemistry) of agriculture the peasant world has thinned out: today in the countryside it is no longer sung!


The song of the harvest I have chosen today, titled “Reaphook and Sickle“, comes from the English tradition: it is a “jolly” song that paints in exciting tones and describes what was actually a hard work as if it were a dance tour. Other times and resources, other mentality, but in my opinion it is important to restore dignity to the work of the earth, as a true vocation, in which one lives in close contact with nature and its times.

coltivazione sinergicaNo longer isolated and bounded in its own field as in the past, taking advantage of traditional methods or natural “philosophies” such as what is now called synergistic agriculture, that anyone with a little land available can experiment to make a synergetic vegetable garden ( it seems a paradox of terms to talk about natural agriculture but it works great) .. and find a bit of “jollyness” ..

Eliza Carthy from Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man 2007

Come you lads and lasses,
together we will go
All in the golden cornfield
our courage for to show.
With the reaping hook and sickle
so well we clear the land,
And the farmer says,
“Hoorah, me boys,
here’s liquor at your command.”
It’s in the time of haying
our partners we do take,
Along with lads and lasses
the hay timing to make.
There’s joining round in harmony
and roundness to be seen,
And when it’s gone
we’ll take your girls
to dance Jack on the green(1).
It’s in the time of harvest
so cheerfully we’ll go,
Then some we’ll reap
and some we’ll sickle
and some we’ll size to mow.
But now at end
we’re free for home,
we haven’t far to go,
We’re on our way to Robin Hood’s Bay (2) to welcome harvest home.
Now harvest’s done and ended
and the corn all safe from harm,
And all that’s left to do, me boys,
is thresh it in the barn.
Here’s a health to all the farmers, likewise the women and men,
And we wish you health and happiness till harvest comes again.
Jack in the Green was a popular mask of the English May, from the Middle Ages and until the Victorian era, which fell into disuse at the end of the nineteenth century.
2) Robin Hood’s Bay is a county in North Yorkshire, England.


Albion Country Band from Battle of the Field 1976

Now come all you lads and lasses
and together let us go
Into some pleasant cornfield
our courage for to show.
With the good old leathern bottle

and the beer it shall be brown.
We’ll reap and scrape together
until Bright Phoebus does go down.
With the reaphook and the sickle,
oh so well we clear the land,
And the farmer cries,
“Well done, my lads,
here’s liquor at your command.”
Now by daybreak in the morning
when the larks begin to sing
And the echo of the harmony
make all the crows to ring
Then in comes lovely Nancy
the corn all for to lay,
She is a charming creature
and I must begin her praise:
For she gathers it, she binds it,
and she rolls it in her arms,
She carries it to the waggoners
to fill the farmer’s barns.
Well now harvest’s done and ended
and the corn secure from harm,
Before it goes to market, lads,
we must thresh it in the barn.
Now here’s a health to all you farmers
and likewise to all you men,
I wish you health and happiness
till harvest comes again.


Corn Rigs are bonnie

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Corn Rigs  (Rigs o’Barley) was written entirely by Robert Burns in 1782 adapting it to an old Scottish dance air entitled “Corn Rigs are bonnie“. It seems to be particularly dear to the poet: it tells of the night of love with a beautiful girl among the sheaves of wheat, a magical full moon night…

The Annie of the song has been identified in Anne Rankie, the youngest daughter of a tenant farmer, John Rankine of Adamhill, of the farm that was a short distance from the Burns in Lochlea. In 1782, in September, the woman married a innkeeper, John Merry of Cumnock, so some doubt that in August she was among the sheaves of barley with the handsome Robert; others, however, point out that after 4 years (and once again in August) the poet, being in the neighborhood, was staying right at the inn of the two!
Burns gave Anne Rankie a lock of his hair and his portrait, which she kept together with the song.
Very bravely Burns, however, is silent on the identity of the beautiful Annie.

William Adolphe Bouguereau 1865
William Adolphe Bouguereau 1865


rigsThe analysis of the text unravels the dynamics of the relationship between the two lovers (according to my point of view): the night of Lammas, as usual in the Celtic tradition, is the night of August 1, a day of celebration for the farmers of the Scotland, day of rest and party before the beginning of the harvest.
Among the young it was customary to spend the night in the fields of wheat (or barley) but our Robert at first keeps away from such custom, the beautiful Annie is promised to another …
However, the youthful ardor finally wins and even the girl (without even being asked too much, reveals the bard) consents: the two meet in the fields of barley, at dusk, on a warm summer evening with the moon full to illuminate the night, and what a “happy night”!
The final verse takes up a concept dear to the poet: the best time is spent to love! And on that magical night it seems that the young Robert did it three times!

Ossian from Seal Song 1981 with the traditional Corn Rigs Are Bonnie melody, the video is very well done with the scrolling text, movies and vintage photos as well as “portraits” of the bard, all well structured in the evocation for images of the text

Paul Giovanni from The Wicker Man but with another melody

It was upon a Lammas(1) night,
When the corn rigs(2) were bonnie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
I held awa’ to Annie;
The time flew by wi’ tentless heed,
‘Til ‘tween the late and early,
Wi’ small persuasion she agreed
To see me thro’ the barley.
Corn Rigs and barley rigs,
Corn rigs are bonny:
I’ll ne’eer forget that happy night,
Amang the rigs wi’ Annie.
The sky was blue (3), the wind was still,
The moon was shining clearly;
I set her down wi’ right good will,
Amang the rigs o’ barley:
I ken’t(4) her heart, was a’ my ain(5);
I loved her most sincerely;
I kissed her o’er and o’er again,
Amang the rigs o’ barley.
I locked her in my fond embrace;
Her heart was beatin’ rarely:
My blessing on that happy place,
Amang the rigs o’ barley!
But by the moon and stars so bright,
That shone that hour so clearly!
She aye shall bless that happy night
Amang the rigs of barley.
I hae been blythe(6) wi’ comrades dear;
I hae been merry drinking;
I hae been joyful gath’rin’ gear(7);
I hae been happy thinking:
But a’ the pleasures e’er I saw,
Tho’ three times doubled fairly,
That happy night was worth them a’,
Amang the rigs wi’ Annie.

1) Lammas is the harvest festival that is celebrated on the first of August, whose origins date back to the Celtic festival of Lugnasad, a festival that marks the beginning of the first harvest (wheat and barley). In the Scottish country tradition it is like our day in San Martino, when the land is rented and the contracts are renewed.(see more)
2) The term Rigs describes an old cultivation technique that involves working the land in long and narrow strips of raised land (the traditional drainage system of the past): the fields were divided into earthen banks raised, so that the excess water drained further down the deep side furrows.
3) the indicated hour is that of twilight
4) knew
5) own
6) joyous
7) earning money


Alasdair Fraser · Paul Machlis · Barry Phillips · Martin Hayes


This song is best known with the title of Corn Rigs or Corn Rigs Are Bonnie and it is also a scottish country dance (see more) taken from the old traditions. During the harvest it was customary to dance among the sheaves of wheat, as shown in this vintage movie by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.


All among the barley

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The eternal dance of the seasons, a hymn to party toasting with the “barley juice” !! “All among the barley” is a hymn to agriculture for the processing of a cereal at the base of nutrition, but above all because of its fermentation you get two of the favorite drinks from the Irish: beer and whiskey!

The origin of this song is uncertain, the musical arrangement is by Elizabeth Stirling that on 1849 wins a prize offered by Novello for publication on the Part-Song Book.
Elizabeth Stirling (1819 – 1895) studied music in Oxford at a time when women were not allowed to take a degree and she is famous for having played the ballad in question. The attribution of the composer of the text “Ripe And Bearded Barley” which is referred to as A. T. remains open.


The song is mostly performed by choirs with arrangements for three or four voices
Singing Milkmaids from On the Wash 2005

But there is no shortage of folk versions with vocals and instruments

Helena Ward
2018  ( II and III) for Melissa Harrison‘s book All Among the Barley (see)

Spring Barley 2017

Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts from Shadows & Half Light 2008 (fiddle and voice) 

Solstice Assembly with the title “The Ripe and Bearded Barley” from Some Assembly Required 1992

Paddy Tutty from Prairie Druid 1992


All among the barley,
who would not be blithe?
When the ripe and bearded barley
is smiling on the scythe.
Now is come September,
the hunter’s moon(1) begun,
And through the wheaten stubble
is heard the frequent gun.
The leaves are pale and yellow,
and kindling into red,
And the ripe and bearded barley
is hanging down its head.
The spring is like a young man
who does not know his mind.
The summer is a tyrant
of most ungracious kind.
The autumn’s like an old friend,
who loves one all she can,
And she brings the bearded barley
to glad the heart of man.
The wheat is like a rich man,
it’s sleek and well-to-do.
The oats are like a pack of girls, laughing and dancing, too.
The rye is like a miser,
it’s sulky, lean and small,
And the ripe and bearded barley
is monarch(2) of them all.
IV (additional verse Tinkers Bag)
Now in comes Old Man Winter,
with frost and wind and rain
The snow upon the hanging bough, and ice out in the lane.
And we around the fire sit,
while bitter winds do wail
And drink to old John Barleycorn(3), his own good nut brown ale.

1) In the Anglo-Saxon countries there is the habit of giving a name to every full moon of the month. Generally the full moon of September is called “harvest” (or full moon of wheat or barley) the one closest to the equinox. But here as in Italy too it is called the hunter’s moon. In America, on the other hand, the moon of the hunter or of the blood is the full moon of October.
2) beer and whiskey are made from the barley !!
3) the personification of the spirit of the wheat (see)


Good luck to the barley mow

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A popular drinking song from rural England, Ireland and Scotland (and the Americas) that could not miss after the “crying of the neck” or during a “Harvest supper“; this auspicious song is also a tavern game: the most common form of the game sees only one singer, while the audience lifts the glass to drink twice in the refrain responding to the auspicious verse with a joyful “Good luck!”; in the second version a soloist intones the first stanza and all the participants sing in chorus the progressive refrain, whom that mistakes the words, or takes a breath to sing, must drink. Obviously the goal of the game is to drink more and more, as you make mistakes!

Harvest Scene, Barrow-on-Trent, Derbyshire, George Turner II 1881


The song is very ancient as the rituals inherent to the harvest of wheat / barley are ancient (see traditional methods); the first known publication dates back to 1609, in the Deuteromelia by Thomas Ravenscroft, with the title “Give Us Once A Drinke” is transcribed as it was sung in the Elizabethan taverns.

The song started with:
“Give us once a drink for and the black bole(1)
Sing gentle Butler(2) “balla moy”(3)
For and the black bole,
Sing gentle Butler balla moy”
and it ended with:
“Give us once a drink for and the tunne
Sing gentle Butler balla moy
The tunne, the butt The pipe, the hogshead The barrel, the kilderkin The verkin, the gallon pot The pottle pot, the quart pot, The pint pot,
for and the black bole
Sing gentle Butler balla moy”

1) What were the beer glass like in medieval taverns? The three most common materials at the time were metal (pewter), glass and ceramics. In Italy in the fourteenth century, for example in the taverns, glass was more common. Here we quote a black bowl that makes one think more properly of a dark bowl or cup, perhaps made of wood? In the wassaling songs, which are also very old, the material of the toast cups carved in the wood is often described. Later, the use of pewter is more likely.
2) bottler
3) the scholars believe it could be for ‘Bell Ami’, only later the song became part of the songs during the Harvest festival and the verse was changed to ‘Barley Mow’, others believe that it is a Mondegreen.


Over time, new strophes have been added and especially in the nineteenth century there are many transcriptions in the collections of old traditional songs such as in “Songs of the Peasantry of England”, by Robert Bell 1857 : This song is sung at country meetings in Devon and Cornwall, particularly on completing the carrying of the barley, when the rick, or mow of barley, is finished. On putting up the last sheaf, which is called the craw (or crow) sheaf, the man who has it cries out ‘I have it, I have it, I have it;’ another demands, ‘What have ’ee, what have ’ee, what have ’ee?’ and the answer is, ‘A craw! a craw! a craw!’ upon which there is some cheering,& c., and a supper afterwards. The effect of the Barley-mow Song cannot be given in words; it should be heard, to be appreciated properly, – particularly with the West-country dialect.
Robert Bell transcribes the widespread version in West England and also the variant sung in Suffolk

Here’s a health to the barley mow!
Here’s a health to the man
Who very well can
Both harrow and plow and sow!
When it is well sown
See it is well mown,
Both raked and gavelled clean,
And a barn to lay it in.
He’s a health to the man
Who very well can
Both thrash (1) and fan it clean!
1) in the Middle Ages there were two ways to separate the wheat grains from the ear: the farmer beat the sheaves with a stick or a whip or they were trampled by the draft animals.
The sifting: wheat and chaff were separated first by placing them in a sieve and then throwing them in the air (it must of course be a breezy day) the chaff flew away and the grain returned to the sieve.


The master of drinking Adriaen Brouwer (1606-1638)

The Barley Mow is one of the best-known cumulative songs from the English folk repertoire and was usually sung at harvest suppers, often as a test of sobriety. Alfred Williams, who noted a splendid set in the Wiltshire village of Inglesham some time prior to the Great War, wrote that he was “unable to fix its age, or even to suggest it, though doubtless the piece has existed for several centuries.” Robert Bell found the song being sung in Devon and Cornwall during the middle part of the 19th century, especially after “completing the carrying of the barley, when the rick, or mow, of barley is finished.” Bell’s comment that “the effect of The Barley Mow cannot be given in words; it should be heard, to be appreciated properly” is certainly true, and most singers who know the song pride themselves on being able to get through it without making a mistake.(Mike Yates)

So we toast to all the dimensions in which beer is marketed (and are indicated in all the existing measures in the past times from the barrel  to the “bowl” and to the health of all those who “manipulate” the beer and of all the “merry brigade” who drinks it!

Arthur Smith in’The Barley Mow’ (1955)  a typical pub in Suffolk in the fifties.See VIDEO: 

Irish Rovers

Here’s good luck to the pint pot,
good luck to the barley mow, (1)
Jolly good luck to the pint pot,
good luck to the barley mow;
Oh, the pint pot, half a pint, gill, (2) half a gill, quarter gill
Nipperkin (3) and a round bowl(4)
Here’s good luck, (5)
good luck, good luck
to the barley mow.
Here’s good luck to the half gallon, good luck to the barley mow,
Jolly good luck to the half gallon,
good luck to the barley mow;
Oh, the half gallon, pint pot, half a pint, gill, half a gill …
Here’s good luck to the gallon,
Here’s good luck to the half barrel,
Here’s good luck to the barrel,
Here’s good luck to the daughter(6),
Here’s good luck to the landlord,
Here’s good luck to the landlady,
Jolly good luck to the landlady,
Jolly good luck to the brewer, (7)
Here’s good luck to the company, good luck to the barley mow,
Jolly good luck to the company,
good luck to the barley mow;
Oh, the company, brewer, landlady, landlord, daughter, barrel,
Half barrel, gallon, half gallon, pint pot, half a pint, gill,
Half a gill, quarter gill, nipperkin and a round bowl,
Here’s good luck, good luck,
good luck to the barley mow.

1) [shout GOOD LUCK and drink a sip!]
2) they are all units of measure ordered by the largest (barrel) to the smallest (round bowl).
But as for all units of measurement of the peasant tradition there are local differences in the measured quantity
a gill is a half-pint in a northern pub, but a quarter-pint down south“.
3) “The nipperkin is a unit of measurement of volume, equal to one-half of a quarter-gill, one-eighth of a gill, or one thirty-second of an English pint.
In other estimations, one nip (an abbreviation that originated in 1796) is either one-third of a pint, or any amount less than or equal to half a pint
“.[wiki] “A nip was also used by brewers to refer to a small bottle of ale (usually a strong one such as Barley Wine or Russian Stout) which was sold in 1/3 pint bottles“.
4) “The round bowl” sometimes also “hand-around bowl”, “brown bowl” or “bonny bowl” could be the typical cup with which toasted in the wassailing evidently a unit of measure that has been lost over time.
5) [shout GOOD LUCK, drinking is optional!]
6) the daughter of the tavern owner or more generally she is a waitress serving at the tables
7) there are those who add “the slavey” and “the drayer” to the list; “slavery” means a servant and “the draye” is the one who pulls (or guides) the cart that is the man of deliveries that in fact supplies the tavern with beer. The name derives from the fact that once such a cart was wheelless and was dragged like a sled.



The draft beer is marketed in the Anglo-Saxon countries starting from the pint that in England and Ireland corresponds to 20 ounces (568 ml ie roughly 50cl). The American pint instead corresponds to 16 ounces; so the standard glass for beer contains exactly a pint (as we call Italian “big beer”); the shapes vary according to the time and the fashions, but the capacity of the glass is always a pint! A law by the British parliament in 1698 stated that “ale and beer” (ie beer without hops and beer with hops) must be served in public only in “pints, full quarts (two pints) * or multiples thereof”. The rule was further reiterated in 1824 by imposing the imperial unit as a unit of measure for all beverages. * The glass that contains 2 imperial pints (1.14 liters) is the yard or a narrow and long glass just a yard. Today with the adaptation to European regulations the British government has “restricted” the pint to “schooner” (as it is called in Australia, but we are still waiting for the nickname that will be given in England to the new measure!) The glass equal to 2/3 pint (400 ml)


A variant always from Suffolk

Well we ploughed the land and we planted it,
and we watched the barley grow.
We rolled it and we harrowed it
and we cleaned it with a hoe.(1)
Then we waited ‘til the farmer said,
“It’s time for harvest now.
Get out your axes and sharpen, boys,
it’s time for barley mow.”
Well, here’s luck to barley mow
and the land that makes it grow.
We’ll drink to old John Barleycorn(2),
here’s luck to barley mow.
So fill up all the glasses, lads,
and stand them in a row:
A gill, a half a pint, a pint, a pint and a quart and here’s luck to barley mow.
Well we went and mowed the barley
and we left it on the ground.
We left it in the sun and rain ‘til it was nicely brown.
Then one day off to the maltsters,
then John Barleycorn did go.
The day he went away, we all did say,
“Here’s luck to barley mow.”
Have no fear of old John Barleycorn
when he’s as green as grass.
But old John Barleycorn is strong enough
to sit you on your arse.
But there’s nothing better ever brewed
than we are drinking now,
Fill them up: we’ll have another round,
here’s good luck to barley mow.

1) weeding: cutting and shuffling of the ground for the most superficial part
2) John Barleycorn is the spirit of beer 


The Grey Selkie

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The best known of the ballads of the Orkney Islands, also as The Gray Silkie of Sule Skerry, tells of a selkie living on the rocky cliff of Sule. The ballad was collected by professor Child  ( # 113).

The legend says that to reproduce the selkie-male must be in human form and transmit his power to descendants: when his child is weaned on dry land, the selkie will return from the sea.


From Sailormen & Servingmaids 1961, a songs collection on field recordings from England, Scotland and Ireland with John Sinclair of the Fleet island, (melody collected in 1938 by Otto Anderson and transcribed in notation with text by Annie G. Gilchrist.)

John G. Halcro 
in Orkney, Land, Sea & Community, Scottish Tradition vol 21, recordings from the archives of the Scottish School of Studies of the University of Edinburgh (fragment recorded in 1973): “A brief version of it appears as no. 113 in Child without a tune, but this is no match for the variant which old John Sinclair of Flotta in the Orkney Isles turned up with in January 1934. He has since been visited by Swedish folklorists [i.e. Otto Andersson] and recorded for the BBC. Bronson remarks that his tune is a variant of the air often associated with Hind Horn, another ballad of traffic between spirits and mortals. Sinclair (who learned the song from his mother), worked all his life as a seaman, and a farmer-fisherman until his retirement. He now lives in a cottage by the sea where Silkies perhaps may still appear.”

Alison McMorland from Rowan in the Rock 2001

June Tabor from Ashore 2011

In Norway’s Land there lived a maid
“Hush ba-loo-lilly”. this maid began,
“I know not where my babe’s father is
Whether by land or sea does he travel in”
It happened on a certain day
When this fair lady fell fast asleep
That in came a good grey silkie
And set him down at her bed feet
Saying, “Awak’, awak’, my pretty fair maid,
For oh, how sound as thou dost sleep,
And I’ll tell thee where thy babe’s father is,
He’s sitting close at thy bed feet.”
“I pray thee tell to me thy name,
Oh, tell me where does thy dwelling be?”
“My name is good Hill Marliner,
And I earn my living oot o’er the sea.
I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I’m far from every strand
My dwelling it’s in Sule Skerry”
“Alas, alas, that’s woeful fate,
That’s weary fate that’s been laid on me,
That a man should come from the West o’ Hoy
To the Norway Lands to have a bairn wi’ me.”
VII (1)
“My dear, I’ll wed thee with a ring,
With a ring, my dear, will I wed with thee.”
“Thee may go to thee weddings with whom thou wilt,
For I’m sure thou never will wed wi’ me.”
She has nursed his little wee son
For seven long years upon her knee
And at the end of seven long years
He came back with gowd and white monie (2)
For she has got the gunner good
And a gay good gunner it was he,
He gaed oot on a May morning
And he shot the son and the grey silkie.
“Alas, alas, that’s woeful fate,
That’s weary fate that’s been laid on me.”
And eenst or twice she sobbed and sighed
And her tender hairt did break in three.(3)

1) she asks silkie to marry her, but he refuses, telling her that she will marry another.
2) silkie pays the Norse tribute for his child
3) in another version, however, the woman decides to follow selkie and son throwing herself into the sea to prevent the prophecy from coming true

But the most widespread melody that became standard it is that of the American James Waters  (see first part)


The Grey Silkie of Sule Skerry

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5494853578_b8a653b169Selkie / silkie / Selchie are the dialectal terms with which in Scotland and Ireland the shapeshifting creatures of sea are called; derive from selich, the Scottish archaic word for  gray seal of the oceans and the Atlantic seas: they are guardians of the sea, seal in the sea and man on earth.


The power of shapeshifters seems to be contained in their mantle (seal skin), selkies can no longer transform themselves without it and are forced to remain human. This condition is understood in a negative way, a sign of a lack or deprivation, as if the skins of Selkie there were also their soul.
Some researchers wanted to see the origin of the legend in the Finfolk, ( probably the Sami people) Scandinavian men who arrived on the islands and on the coast of Scotland aboard their leather kayaks, while gradually they were advancing at sea their canoe had absorbed water and  sank until only part of their trunk it could be seen.

Both male and female, they are described in their human form as beautiful creatures (long hair and big dark eyes, agile limbs), docile but at the same time endowed with seductive power. The legend says that to reproduce a selkie-male must be in human form and transmit his power to descendants: when his child is weaned on dry land, the selkie will return from the sea. Once when the infant mortality rate was very high, only children over the age of seventh could be considered out of danger and it was at the end of the seventh year that the selkie returned to take his child.
Selkie males were invoked by girls in search of lovers, pouring seven tears in the tide, while sailors were attracted to the female selkie who tried to take as their brides.

Selkie by Maryanne Gobble


The best known of the Orkney ballads, also known as The Gray Silkie of Sule Skerry, it tells of a selkie living on the rocky cliff of Sule. Skerry derives from the Norse “sker” which means rock in the sea .
The ballad was also collected by professor Child ( # 113).

tumblr_loialeB04U1r04h5zo1_500A young girl has a child from an unknown man who turns out to be a selkie: man on earth, seal at sea whose dwelling is the rocks of Sule. After seven years the sea creature returns to claim his son, giving him a chain of gold, and the mother lets him go.
She after some time gets married with a hunter who trades with animal skins. One day he returns home with the skins of two seals he had killed to give them to his wife: one was of an old gray seal, the other of a young seal with a golden chain around his neck! She dies, overwhelmed by the pain of this vision: her heart breaks or she chooses to follow selkie and son throwing herself into the sea to prevent the prophecy from coming true.


The enchantment of the story lies in particular in the narrative choice: the story is often described as in a nocturnal dream in which a man who claims to be silkie and father of the child, appears almost magically and, next to the cradle of the newborn as in fairy godmothers of fairy tales, he traces child’s destiny.


A first melody, which was shot in the folk revival of the 70s, it was written by the American James Waters in 1954 (popularized by Joan Baez); another melody is instead traditional and it was collected in 1938 by Otto Anderson from the voice of John Sinclair of the island of Flotta and transcribed in notation.


A funeral lament in a lullaby form.

Castelbar  (I, II, IV, V, III, VI, VII, I)

Very intense version of Steeleye Span from Cogs, Wheels and Lovers, 2009, Maddy Prior and Peter Knight

Cécile Corbel ( I, II, IV as refrain, III, V, VI)

Seriouskitchen (Nick Hennessey, Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer ) live: magic instruments, beautiful voices, intense expressiveness

An earthly nurse (1) sits and sings,
And aye, she sings by lily wean,
“And little ken (2) I my bairn (3)’s father,
Far less the land where he dwells in.
For he came one night to her bed feet (4),/And a grumbly (5) guest, I’m sure was he,/Saying, “Here am I, thy bairn’s father,/Although I be not comely.”
He had ta’en a purse of gold/And he had placed it upon her knee/ Saying, “Give to me my little young son,/And take thee up thy nurse’s fee.”
“I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie on the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae land,
My home it is in Sule Skerrie.”
“And it shall come to pass on a summer’s day,/When the sun shines bright on every stane,/I’ll come and fetch my little young son,/And teach him how to swim the faem.”
“Ye shall marry a gunner good/And a right fine gunner I’m sure he’ll be,/And the very first shot that e’er he shoots/Will kill both my young son and me.”
“Alas! Alas! this woeful fate!
This weary fate that’s been laid for me!”/And once or twice she sobbed and sighed/and she joint to a sun and grey silkie (6)

1) nourris = nurse
2) ken = know
3) bairn = child
4) bed fit = foot of the bed
5) grumly = strange, scary but also sad
6) or: And her tender heart did break in three

traditional tune


One May Morning Early

Leggi in italiano

The nightingale is “par eccelance” the bird of May as well as a symbol of poetry.
Saffo recited in one of his famous fragments
Lovable nightingale voice
spring messenger
“The Sweet Nightingale” (The Birds in the Spring), “By the Green Grove” and “One May Morning Early” they are three titles for the same traditional English song whose melody competes with the nightingale chant. Not to be confused with the traditional cornish song always entitled “The Sweet Nightingale“. The song is widespread especially in the south of England in the repertoire of George Maynard and the Copper family.
The text is very simple and serene more a pretext to imitate a nightingale chant than to tell a story, it is more precisely the fleeting and magical moment that marks the dawn on a spring day with the singing of nightingales that greets the rising sun.
In early spring nightingales sing mostly at night or at dusk until dawn, to delimit the territory and attract the female. Late spring nightingales can be heard clearly even during the day.

from Wiki
Chris Moore

Beth Gadbaw, Frederic Pouille, Sandra Wong live

Bellowhead from Burlesque 2006 
Andy Turner from A Song for a Week 

One May morning early I chanced for to roam,
and strolled through the fields by the side of the grove (road).
It was there I did hear the harmless birds sing,
and you never heard so sweet, you never heard so sweet
you never heard so sweet as the birds in the spring(1)
At the end of the grove (road) I sat myself down,
and the song of the nightingale echoed all around.
Their song was so charming, their notes were so clear,
no music no songster, no music no songster,
no music no songster can with them compare.
All you that come here the small birds to hear,
I’ll have you pay attention so pray all draw near.
And when you’re growing old (2) you will have this to say,
that you never heard so sweet, you never heard so sweet,
you never heard so sweet as the birds in the spring (3).

1) or as the nightingale sing
2) In the past the song of the nightingale was considered a painkiller, and even today it is considered a valid sound in the music-therapy
3) or as the birds on the spray

second part


Il canto dell’usignolo al Maggio

Read the post in English

L’usignolo è “par eccelance” l’uccello del mese di Maggio nonchè simbolo della poesia.
Recitava Saffo in uno dei suoi celebri frammenti
Usignolo amabile voce
messaggero di primavera“The Sweet Nightingale” (The Birds in the Spring), “By the Green Grove” e “One May Morning Early” sono tre titoli per la stessa canzone tradizionale inglese la cui melodia gareggia con i gorgheggi dell’usignolo. Da non confondere con il canto tradizionale diffuso in Cornovaglia sempre dal titolo “The Sweet Nightingale” Il brano è diffuso in particolare nel sud dell’Inghilterra nel repertorio di George Maynard e della famiglia Copper.
Il testo è molto semplice e sereno più un pretesto per imitare il canto dell’usignolo che per raccontare una storia, è più precisamente l’attimo fuggente e magico che segna l’alba in un giorno di primavera con il canto degli usignoli che saluta il sole nascente.
All’inizio della primavera gli usignoli cantano prevalentemente di notte o al tramonto fino all’alba, per delimitare il territorio e attrarre la femmina. A primavera inoltrata gli usignoli si possono sentire nitidamente anche durante il giorno.

da Wiki
Chris Moore
Beth Gadbaw, Frederic Pouille, Sandra Wong live

Bellowhead in Burlesque 2006 
Andy Turner in A Song for a Week 

One May morning early I chanced for to roam,
and strolled through the fields by the side of the grove (road).
It was there I did hear the harmless birds sing,
and you never heard so sweet, you never heard so sweet
you never heard so sweet as the birds in the spring(1)
At the end of the grove (road) I sat myself down,
and the song of the nightingale echoed all around.
Their song was so charming, their notes were so clear,
no music no songster, no music no songster,
no music no songster can with them compare.
All you that come here the small birds to hear,
I’ll have you pay attention so pray all draw near.
And when you’re growing old (2) you will have this to say,
that you never heard so sweet, you never heard so sweet,
you never heard so sweet as the birds in the spring (3).
Traduzione italiana Cattia Salto
All’alba di un mattino di Maggio mi sono ritrovato
a passeggiare tra i campi accanto al boschetto (strada)
fu là che ho sentito cantare i miti uccellini e non si è mai sentito un canto tanto dolce, non si è mai sentito un canto tanto dolce, non si è mai sentito un canto tanto dolce come quello degli uccelli in primavera
Alla fine del boschetto (strada) mi sono seduto
e il canto degli usignoli risuonava tutt’intorno.
Il loro canto era così affascinante, con i toni così chiari
che la musica di nessun cantante, la musica di nessun cantante,
la musica di nessun cantante si può paragonare alla loro.
Tutti voi che venite qui ad ascoltare gli uccellini
prestate attenzione, vi prego di avvicinarvi,
quando inizierete a invecchiare dovrete dire questo:
che non avete mai  sentito un canto tanto dolce, non avete mai  sentito un canto tanto dolce, non avete mai  sentito un canto tanto dolce come quello degli uccelli in primavera.

1) as the nightingale sing
2) In passato il canto dell’usignolo veniva considerato un antidolorifico, e ancora oggi è considerasto un suono valido nella musico-terapia
3) as the birds on the spray= come gli uccelli nella foschia: credo che spray traduca quella leggera nebbiolina del mattino che si disperde al primo caldo raggio di sole

seconda parte


Joan to the Maypole

Leggi in italiano

The song “John (Joan) to the Maypole” dates back at least to 1600, we know several text versions with the same title but also with different titles, (to “May-day Country Mirth”, “The Young Lads and Lasses”, ” Innocent Recreation “,” The Disappointment “) the first printed version dates back to 1630 when the melody is attributed to Felix White, and we find it in the collection” The Pills to Purge Melancholy “by Thomas D’Urfey c. 1720.

17th-century woodblock from the ballad sheet ‘The May Day Country Mirth’

The song describes a typical May Day on the lawn: couples dance around the May Pole to contend for the coveted award, the May garland. The winning couple will become King and Queen of May.
To organize May Day feast we need just a green, that is an open space outside the village, a well planted pole in the middle of the lawn, decorated with flower garlands, some “summer houses” where to sit in the shade and refresh with drinks.
In the painting by Charles Robert Leslie we see a scene celebrating the May with Queen Elizabeth depicted on the right in the foreground while being entertained by a jester. On the expanse of the second floor stands the May pole decorated with green garlands; around the pole the dances are taking place and the characters dressed by Robin Hood, Lady Marian, Fra Tack, but also a seahorse, a dragon and a buffoon (the classic characters of mummers and Morris) are well distinguishable.

Charles Robert Leslie – May Day in the reign of Queen Elizabeth

In the Victorian painting by William Powell Frith we find again the same situation described in the late medieval period: in the distance on the left stands out the profile of a church, not by chance: it was in fact the church that financed the May celebrations; with the beer sold, the parish church was maintained or the alms were distributed to the poor.

William Powell Frith (1819-1909) A May Day Celebration Oil on canvas 40 x 56 inches (101.6 x 142.3 cm) Private collection
William Powell Frith (1819-1909) A May Day Celebration

It is not even so strange that Beltane feast has merged under the control of the Catholic Church, but the Puritans were horrified by all May customs, thus May Pole and related celebrations see moments of obscurantism alternated with moments of tolerance (see more)

The tune is from “Margaret Board Lute Book” (here) the manuscript in the private collection of Robert Spencer, has been dated c1620 up to 1636 (it seems that lady Margaret took lessons from John Dowland).

Toronto Consort  from O Lusty May 1996 
in “The new standard song book”- (J.E.Carpenter) – 1866 with the title: “very popular at the time of Charles I”. A version of nine verses is featured in the broadside titled “The May-Day Country Mirth Or, The Young Lads and Lasses’ Innocent Recreation, Which is to be priz’d before Courtly Pomp and Pastime.” Bodleian collection, Douce Ballads 2 (152a ) and The Roxburghe Ballads: Illustrating the Last Years of the Stuarts Vol. 7, Part 1, edited by J. Woodfall Ebsworth (Hertford: Ballad Society, 1890) (see)

Joan to the Maypole away, let us on,
The time is swift and will be gone;
There go the lasses away to the green,
Where their beauties may be seen
Bess, Moll, Kate, Doll,
All the gay lasses
have lads to attend them,
Hodge, Nick, Tom, Dick,
Jolly brave dancers,
and who can mend them?
Did you not see the Lord of the May
Walk along in his rich array?
There goes the lass that is only his,
See how they meet and how they kiss.
Come Will, run Gill,
Or dost thou list to lose thy labour(1);
Kit Crowd scrape loud,
Tickle her, Tom, with a pipe and tabor!(2).
There is not any that shall out-vie
My little pretty Joan and I,
For I’m sure I can dance as well
As Robin, Jenny, Tom, or Nell.
Last year, we were here,
When Ruff Ralph he played us a bourée,
And we, merrily
Thumped it about and gained the glory.
Now, if we hold out
as we do begin,
Joan and I the prize shall win(3);
Nay, if we live till another day (4),
I’ll make thee lady of the May.
Dance round, skip, bound,
Turn and kiss, and then for a greeting.
Now, Joan, we’ve done,
Fare thee well
till the next merry meeting.

1) the exhortation refers to the musicians who are not yet ready with their instruments to kick off the dance.
2) Pipe and tabor or tabor-pipe is the three-hole flute associated with the tambourine, the flute is played with one hand and with the other one it is accompanied by a tambourine  (see more)
3) the May garland at stake
4) it is not clear whether the election dethroned the previous couple immediately or is the title valid for the following year.

second part


Jack In The Green: Chimney Sweeps’ Day

Leggi in italiano
Green Jack ” (the Green Man) was a popular mask of the English May, from the Middle Ages and until the Victorian era, fallen into disuse at the end of the nineteenth century, it returned to show itself and spread to starting from the 1970s in May Day parades.

In the nineteenth century the first of May was the feast of the chimney sweeps and so the nursery rhyme “The first of May” says
Chimney Sweeps’ Day, Blackbird is gay,
Here he is singing, you see, in the “May”.
He has feathers as black as a chimney sweep’s coat.
So on Chimney Sweeps’ Day he must pipe a glad note.
Jack-in-the-Green from door to door
capers along with the followers four.
As May Day mummers are seldom seen,
let us all give a copper to Jack-in-the-Green.
(from here)

A chimney sweep maskered himself as “Jack in the Green”  slipping inside a pyramid-shaped wicker structure, covered with ivy and foliage, surmounted by a wreath of flowers. He went out into the streets with his other friends to dance and collect offers in money: they are a King and Queen (or a Lord and Lady), jesters, clowns, chimney sweeps and musicians.


First recorded in London in the 700, Jack-in-the-Greens were soon appearing across the country. The documentation collected by Keith Chandler is instead related to the publication in newspapers in the years 1820 and up to 1890 (see more)
A series of anecdotes on how the disguise was born (see more)



Some scholars connect this disguise to the Green Man carved in the stones of medieval churches in Europe that is usually depicted only in the face, a human face metamorphosed in foliage.
“In the tenth century they begin to appear as illustrations on the manuscripts, especially in France, such as Bibles, books of Psalms and Ordals, books of hours, even works by famous theologians such as the” Moralia “of St. Gregory the Great, a exegesis of the book of Job, where they often merge with the intertwined motifs typical of Saxon and Celtic art: they are reminiscent of snakes that bite their tails, decorative motifs of evident stylistic practicality, and can be interpreted as pitfalls and obstacles of the earthly life.Afterwards they appear as architectural elements in the churches of Germanic style.They soon spread everywhere in churches, cathedrals and abbeys, but also in other buildings, ecclesiastical and not, both as architectural friezes, both in wooden furniture (like the benches), and also in the funeral art (on the tombs, in short) Their popularity grows between the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
In the simplest form, the faces are generally masculine, from whose orifices, eyes, nose, mouth and ears, foliage appears, often branches or leaves of vines, or which have leaves and bushes instead of beard and hair; these last ones seem almost versions of the Medusa to the masculine, which they resemble in a disturbing way. But there are also more abstract, where vegetation is predominant and the human features are only hinted at, barely distinguishable: heads made of leaves that would have pleased Arcimboldo. In spite of the name, it is not always human faces: often they are demons, masks (or stereotypes), even animals, in preference felines. Sometimes they are provided with teeth and seem to bite the branches. If in some cases their association with the evil one is evident, in others they seem decorative motives without particular meaning, more than anything else a demonstration of the taste for the absurd and the bizarre typical of the Middle Ages. “(translateb from here)

Dunblane Cathedral, Scotland XV secolo

The green men are not a product of Christianity (or they have been clothed with a new theological role) because we have a lot of sculptural decorations, and paintings dating back to the age of Imperial Rome ( Domus Aurea of Nero). Masquerones with plant decorations also recall sylvan gods like Pan, Bacchus, Dionysus, and so on, thus some scholars see in the symbol of the green man of early Christianity the intent to incorporate myths and practices of the most widespread mystery religions in the countryside. (see more)

Other characters connected to the Green Man are also the Wild Man, Puck and Robin Hood, the Green Knight opponent of Sir Galvano, but also the Christian Saint George. In psychology it is said to be an archetypal figure connected to the arboreal myths, or an example of the divinization of nature. (see first part)

Brian Froud: Green Man


Magpie Lane from “Jack in the Green”  1998: Jack in the green (composeb by Martin Graebe in 1972 ) and Jack’s Alive a traditional and popular dancing tune in England and Scotland.

Martin Graebe notes: “”This song was written when Cherri and I were living to the east of Exeter in the area that is marked on the Ordnance Survey map as “Jack in the Green.” We were also drinking fairly often in the pub of the same name and the connection led to the above bit of fantasy based on traditional themes. A number of people have told me at different times that they have heard “Jack in the Green” described as a traditional song. It was the first of my songs to turn up on the Internet, where it was described on the Digital Tradition database as a traditional song. Most recently, someone told me about an American CD of pagan music that includes Jack as an example of a traditional pagan song from the British Isles.”
in the video  “Hastings Jack in the Green Festival”

by Martin Graebe 1972
Now winter is over,
I’m happy to say,
And we’re all met again
in our ribbons so gay.
And we’re all met again
on the first day of Spring
To go about dancing
with Jack in the Green(1).
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green
And we’ll all dance each springtime
with Jack in the Green

Now Jack in the Green
is a very strange man,
Tho’ he dies every Autumn,
he is born every Spring.
And each year on our birthday,
we will dance through the street,
And in return Jack
he will ripen our wheat.
Now all you young maidens
I’d have you beware
Of touching young Jack,
for there’s strange powers there.
For if you but touch him,
there is many will tell
Like the wheat in our fields
so your belly will swell.
With his mantle
he’ll cover the trees that are bare.
Our gardens he’ll trim
with his jacket so fair.
And our fields he will sow
with the hair of his head.
And our grain it will ripen
‘til Old Jack is dead(3)!
Now the sun is half up
and betokens the hour
That the children arrive
with their garlands of flowers.
So now let the music
and the dancing begin,
And touch the good heart
of young Jack in the Green!

1) Jack is the diminutive of two different names James and John, but more than a name right here is to indicate the Green Man
2) Magpie Lane have skipped this stanza
3) it is the myth of the Spirit of the Wheat: the spirit of the Wheat-Barley never dies because it is reborn the following year with the new harvest, its strength and its ardor are contained in the whiskey that is obtained from the distillation of barley malt!


Two dance tunes which I’d been playing for years, before I realised that they are in fact the same tune played in different time signatures. The first, in 6/8, is from Wilson’s Ballroom Companion, via one of Bert Simon’s Kentish Hops pamphlets. I first heard it played by the Oyster Ceilidh Band. Curiously their first LP was called Jack’s Alive, but this tune was not on it; they finally recorded it on their 20 Golden Tie-Slackeners album. I originally knew the 4/4 tune as an unnamed morris tune from Badby in Northamptonshire. Oyster Morris from Canterbury used it for a dance called ‘The Panic’ – originally ‘Pogle’s Panic’ – which had been written in the early 1980s by Pete Collinson. It was some years later that I found the tune in The Yetties’ The Musical Heritage of Thomas Hardy as ‘Jack’s Alive’.” (from here)

Aly Bain & Tom Anderson 
English country dance

Morris Dance

“The Green Man”  Richard Hayman
“Images of Lust: Sexual carvings on medieval churches”  Anthony Weir and James Jerman.