English Folk Tunes

My recently recorded album, “Sketches from Memory”, includes arrangements of English folk songs. During my years with the York Guitar Quartet, we played a lot of music that had its origins in the folk music of Eastern Europe – Bulgarian dances, Rumanian carols and arrangements of some of Bela Bartok’s folk derived works.  We were drawn to the hallmark features of this music: unusual/unconventional metres and tonalities, and rhythms and phrases which take interesting twists and turns.  

To a lesser degree, the folk music of the British Isles also exhibits some of these features – often in ways which are more subtle and understated.  The tunes I have chosen to work with all come from “English Folk Songs” – an excellent collection by Vaughan Williams and A. L. Lloyd [Penguin].  My approach has been to leave these melodies relatively unadorned, with some minimal harmonies implied. More abstract, semi-improvised sections have been added which develop further the prevailing moods of the songs.

The songs are as follows:

All Things are Quite Silent– is one of many lamentations of wives bereft of their husbands by ruthless press gangs, who forcibly conscripted men to join the Royal ships of Nelson’s naval forces:

All things are quite silent, each mortal at rest,

When me and my love got snug in one nest,

When a bold set of ruffians they entered our cave,

And they forced my dear jewel to plough the salt wave.

My setting of this richly poetic song is very simple. The melody is supported by just a few notes which set out a harmony and a wistful, reflective interlude tries to capture something of the void the ‘ruffians’ leave behind:

With the birds in the woodland so sweetly did sing,

And the lovely thrushes’ voices made the valleys to ring…

A Sailor’s Life– I first came across this song via Sandy Denny’s excellent version with the other members of Fairport Convention. Denny sings this song quite freely, in the style of an unaccompanied folk singer, leaving the band with no choice but to provide an atmospheric backdrop which keeps the sense of metre quite fluid.  With this track, they have been described as the English Velvet Underground – and it’s easy to understand why. The trade off is that they don’t fall back onto an off the peg folk rock type accompaniment. What they play is much more adventurous and experimental – and all the better for it.  My arrangement does not attempt to copy the wonders achieved by Swarbrick and Thompson, but I do take a similar approach in the interludes. This is one of pieces I really enjoy performing live.

The Royal Oak– tells of an epic battle at sea:

As we was sailing all on the salt seas

We hadn’t sailed months past, but two or three,

Not before we saw ten sail of Turks

All men-o-war, full as big as we.

Typical of many of the more interesting folk songs, the angular melody takes some interesting twists and turns – managing to sound quite ‘normal’ on the surface but taking the fingers on a merry dance around the fingerboard!

The Ship in Distress – tells the story of a ship broken down and stranded at sea…and some of the tough decisions facing the crew. Fortunately, on this occasion, there is a happy ending. The robust tune, in 5/4 time with a Dorian mode tonality, is highly memorable and must be great fun to sing. My arrangement tries to capture the weariness and tension as the story unfolds, followed by the relief as a rescue becomes apparent!

As I reflect back on the making of these pieces, I am finding something of a paradox here. None of these tunes fall easily under the fingers when played on the guitar – whereas much 20thC. popular music does. Perhaps this is because the popular songwriters were either sitting at a piano or plucking a guitar as the tunes formed in their minds and so the instruments were, to a certain extent, perhaps influencing and shaping the way popular melodies were formed. But folk songs from an earlier era were devised for voice alone and so were free to go wherever the human voice chose to take them….

So guitarists working on playing and accompanying these melodies couldn’t fall back on their usual stock in trade licks and musical clichés. We are exploring a less familiar territory which, in turn, encourages us to be more experimental and open minded. And this can lead to some highly interesting and unusual musical outcomes. So by working with highly traditional archaic musical ideas, we are given a freedom to step out of the box and to come up with ideas which are truly contemporary….

You can access these songs using the following links:



Posted in Sketches from Memory, Uncategorized

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