I’ve referred on the Home Page to a childhood and adolescence that contained a lot of singing in a wide range of settings and how, upon learning that there were songs called ‘Folk’ songs, I moved away from situations in which singing was an accompaniment to other kinds of activity to one where singing was the only purpose.

“What did we sing before there were folk songs?” was first delivered as a presentation at the Nenagh Singing Circle’s Millenium Festival in 2000. Subsequently, I used part of it in a presentation at a Traditional Song Forum Gathering in London, at Cecil Sharp House. Tom Munnelly also gave a presentation and the similarity between our early experiences of song was so striking that, when asked to contribute to a set of essays in Tom’s honour, it seemed the obvious choice. The volume, edited by Anne Clune and published by the Old KIlfarboy Society, the local history society founded by Tom, was titled, ‘Dear far-voiced veteran’: essays in honour of Tom Munnelly, and was presented to him in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, where he lived, a few months before his death in 2007. Copies of this very valuable book are available from the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

“What did we sing before there were folk songs?”

In September 2006, Tom Munnelly, Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie, and I made our way to London to make presentations at a meeting of ‘The Traditional Song Forum’, a loose association of traditional song researchers from Britain and Ireland. The one instruction we received was that we should begin by outlining the experiences that conditioned our interest in song; a wonderful opportunity for self-indulgence. The most striking feature was that Tom and I, despite our different upbringing, I from Protestant, middle class, east Belfast and he from predictable roots in Dublin, had had very similar early experiences regarding songs; even to both naming a particular Dublin singer, Gerry Cairns, as a significant influence upon us.(1) In this essay, I attempt to set out in detail my own experience, through my childhood and up to the point that, armed with a vague romantic idea of what constituted such things, I began consciously to look for and learn ‘folk songs’.(2)

This is not merely a nostalgic, reminiscent exercise. It arises from a serious concern about the nomenclature and definition of what might be called ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ song, a concern I first expressed publicly in a talk called “Sing us a Folk Song, Mouldy” which was delivered at ‘Crosbhealach an Cheoil: The Crossroads Conference’ in Dublin, eleven years ago, and which has been augmented at intervals since.(3) The present essay is offered here, to Tom, in the knowledge that his memories will be awakened thereby. It is also presented to the community of song researchers in the hope that others may be encouraged to look inside their own experience.

In the ‘Crossroads’ talk, I remarked that singers, whom I, an outsider in their community, might have described as ‘folk singers’, described themselves as ‘singers’, and, when they wanted me to sing, asked for a ‘folk’ song. It appeared that the term ‘folk’ could only be used of something that was different – alien – in some way outside the experience of the user. I began looking for ways of describing singers and songs that did not put distance between me and them. Obviously, if we were all just ‘singers’ and songs were all ‘songs’, the difference between them and me was one of community. I belonged to one community and they to another, our songs came from different communities.

My position is shared with (but not owed to) the American folklorist, Linda Dégh, who said:

[The folk are] a group of people united permanently or temporarily by shared common experiences, attitudes, interests, skills, knowledge and aims. Those shared attitudes are elaborated, sanctioned and stabilized by the group over a period of time. Any such group or group shaped culture trait might be the subject of folklore study.(4)

This is a comforting definition. My experience is that most of the words ‘folk’, or ‘traditional’, or ‘Irish’ tend to be used exclusively. Their usage insists that some people cannot be traditional singers because they come from the city, or that someone like me, born in Ireland of English parents, cannot be an Irish singer. If I’m not an Irish singer, what can I be? I’m surely not an English singer; my accent and repertory rules that out. I’m glad the concept of Limbo is under debate.

I have a second purpose in this paper. “Sing Us a Folksong, Mouldy” introduced the idea that a singing tradition arose naturally if people and their songs were interacting within and between communities. The concept of critical mass was used to imply that, if the number of people singing fell below a certain point, the interaction was jeopardized and the tradition, as an active ‘entity’, threatened. In setting down my own recollection of singing activity in my childhood and youth, I hope to provide a referent whereby to assess other people’s experience and judge whether current activity in traditional singing indicates its health or otherwise. The paper may also serve to focus minds on how the practice of social singing might be preserved.

The discussion that follows concerns the communities to which I did belong and, as far as is possible, attempts to indicate their singing practices and repertories. I’ve chosen to concentrate on a time when the term, ‘folk song’, was unknown to me other than as a designation that was attached to some songs we sang in school.

My experience of music and song began when I was born in 1941 (some people believe it starts sooner). It was then I heard my first songs and began the struggle to communicate. It was in the spring of 1963, in the Wicklow hills, that I heard the singer and the songs that impelled my continuing obsession with songs, confirming all I had felt previously. It was just before the advent of the Clancy Brothers, just at the beginning of the ballad boom in Dublin and a bit before the English and Scottish folk song revival of the early 1960s became known and copied in the north.

Between those times I was a member of about eight groups, communities, in which singing took place. Some of the people I knew belonged to several of them at once, as mostly did I. Many of the songs were used in more than one community. Sometimes songs from a younger time were parodied. Singing experience in one milieu informed all the other experiences. These communities (or those I have identified) were:

  1. Home and family;
  2. The street;
  3. Church and Sunday School;
  4. Schools – these were three in number
    1. Strathearn School that I attended from when I was almost 6 until I was 10;
    2. Cabin Hill School I attended from the ages of 10 to 13 and
    3. Campbell College from 13 to 18;
  1. Scouts (Between the ages of 12 and 21 I was a member of three Scout Groups: the 41st, 61st and 99th East Belfast);
  2. Youth Hostels;
  3. Mountaineering clubs, that of Queen’s University, Belfast and the Belfast Section of The Irish Mountaineering Club;
  4. Lastly there was a group of particular friends from Scouts and School which rented a cottage in the Mourne Mountains and which called itself The Noble Society Of Mountainaceous Congenitals.

Leaving you reeling from that I’ll begin.

I’m able to reconstruct much of the repertory of each of these communities because of memory but also because, from the age of 11 when I swapped a songbook I had for one I coveted, which was owned by the music master at my school, I have hoarded songbooks, I now have over a thousand. I have also written down the texts of songs that interested me. Because of them, I am able to remind myself of what I knew before my ‘records’ start at the age of 11 and what was sung thereafter. I appear, though, to have lost one document that would have been very useful. It was a small red, plastic covered notebook, about pocket diary size, that contained a list of the songs I knew. I think I had it from about the age of 15 – at which stage I knew about five hundred songs – and maintained it until I was about 18 – when the list numbered about a thousand. I can’t find it, though I tried hard about twenty years ago when an article appeared by Jacqueline Simpson: “Songs of a Female Student Group, 1949 – 52”. There was much in that article I would have contradicted had I known precisely what had been sung among my student group and it would have been very useful now. Instead I’ve gone through the books I know I had at each stage, extracting relevant song titles, and even so I keep on being reminded of others. Despite these failings, I have a list of about five hundred song titles. Many will be mentioned or quoted within the text. The others from each period will be appended under the relevant heading.

Home and Family (1941-63)

My family was musical but did not sing much informally – I remember no more than (perhaps I was only told) my grandmother, my ‘nanny’, singing me the black-face minstrel hit, ‘Oh Ma Babby, Ma Curly Headed Babby’(5) and the standard English nursery rhymes like ‘Ring-A-Roses’, ‘Three Blind Mice’ (later to be sung as a round in school and Scouts), the seemingly personal, ‘Diddle, Diddle Dumpling, My Son John’, ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’, ‘The Frog and the Mouse’ (‘Heigh Ho Says Rowley’)(6) and others. I remember distinctly looking at an illustration of ‘Mary, Mary Quite Contrary’ (‘How does your garden grow?/With silver bells and cockle shells/ And pretty maids all in a row’.) that showed flowers with female faces, so it may have been a pretty bookish tradition. Otherwise my earliest memory of being struck by a song was when my sister, six years older than I (she was about 14 so I would have been 8), brought home songs from school where she was learning them: ‘Old King Cole’ and ‘John Cook’s Grey Mare’ – I still have the book with her name on it and can still remember parts of the descant for ‘Old King Cole’.(7) She also introduced me to other songs, standard school music songs, such as ‘Cherry Ripe’ and ‘Bobby Shafto’ or ‘Dashing Away with a Smoothing Iron’ (so easy to remember with its verses identified by the days of the week and its progression through the tasks of washing, rinsing, wringing, hanging out, ironing, starching and wearing her clothes) and many others. As well, there were unofficial songs such as ‘John Brown’s baby had a cold upon its chest, so we rubbed it with camphorated oil’. It used the obvious tune and omitted words on successive singings so that the entertainment afforded by something very simple could be stretched for as long as needed. And there was also the risqué, ‘Threshing Machine’, the works of which a young farmer showed to Mary. I doubt that this piece was taught to 14-year-olds in sober East Belfast in 1949 – my sister also had her singing communities and they weren’t all at school.

We used a couple of local rhymes – they weren’t songs but they were Irish:

Where do you come from?
How are the praties?
Very small.
How do you eat them?
Skin and all.
Is that not bad for you?
Not at all!

The nearest my early childhood came to the common culture of East Belfast was provided by the very respectable lady, Mrs Harris, I never knew her first name, who came in once a week to help my mother with cleaning. Picking up on my name, she used to chant, “John, John the grey goose has gone[…]” but I remember no more; she may not have known more but the line is from a version, probably Burl Ives’ version, of ‘The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night’.

During the 1939-1945 war travel between Northern Ireland and England was dangerous and only permitted if absolutely necessary. Hence it was not until 1945 or ‘46 that I was able to go to London to see my English grandfather, his sisters and my auntie Phyllis. My grandfather’s house had a radiogram and two boxes of records (78s), mainly classical. However, my aunt’s taste was less refined than her father’s or her brother’s (my father) so there were highlights from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas – we saw The Mikado and TheYeomen of the Guard by the D’Oyly Carte Company at the Hippodrome, Golder’s Green – the tunes are with me yet. There was a record of Master Ernest Lough (pronounced ‘Luff’) singing the Schubert songs, ‘Hark, Hark the Lark’ and ‘Who is Sylvia?’, and, fascinating to a 7-year-old who had no idea what had happened to the nanny who had vanished and was later said to have died, ‘Ain’t It Grand to be Blooming Well Dead?’ – later to be heard from the Clancy Brothers. And there was Gracie Fields, ‘The Lassie from Lancashire’, singing for children. There was then an expectation that children would sing. Once, after being too painfully shy to sing, I begged to be allowed to stay up for a further five minutes to be told that it would be granted but only if I consented to sing the current hit, ‘Only Five Minutes More’.

The media – that is the ‘wireless’ – provided most of my home musical experiences. I heard programmes like Country Magazine and As I Roved Out in the early fifties – I’m hard set to remember but I know that the former started with a setting of ‘The Painful Plough’ and the second with Sarah Makem’s ‘As I Roved Out’. I know now that she was from Keady in Co. Armagh and that both programmes contained some performances by traditional singers. After 1946 and the inception of the BBC Third Programme, my father listened more and more to it but the BBC had light music programmes and several that were designedly for children: Children’s Hour and, at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, Children’s Favourites, a request programme. The fare varied from Vernon Dalhart’s ‘Runaway Train’, a hearty baritone singing Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, to the wholesome family fare of the ‘hit parade’ before there really was one: ‘The Deadwood Stage’ from the film Calamity Jane and Alma Coogan’s ‘Where Will the Dimple Be?’:

On the baby's knuckle or the baby's knee,
Where will the baby's dimple be?
Baby's cheek or baby's chin?
Seems to me it'll be a sin
If it's always covered by the safety pin!
Where will the dimple be?

In the middle fifties were songs from shows and standards, like ‘Ol’ Man River’, or ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Davy Crockett’, which we parodied in the street:

Born on a table-top in Joe's café
Dirtiest joint in the USA
Fell in love with Doris Day
Tried to sing like Johnny Ray
Davy, Davy Crewcut
King of the Teddy boys.

From 1953 the hit parade became the top twenty and Radio Luxemburg opened. It depended mostly on playing the hits but for a quarter of an hour each week there was If You’re Irish, This is the Programme. I hated its false jollity but was fascinated.

I remember bits of dozens of songs from the period around 1954. ‘The Happy Wanderer’ was later pressed into service with Scouts – nursery rhymes were sung to its tune – but the most significant were those of the skiffle craze, ‘The Rock Island Line’, ‘Worried Man Blues’ and ‘Frankie and Johnnie’. My sister’s boyfriend played banjo with a local amateur jazz band, there were several of them in and around Belfast, so I heard his records of Ottilie Patterson from Newtownards who sang blues and sounded like the great Bessie Smith. There were also Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and others; great blues based music.

The titles that are in the appendix under ‘popular music’ give some idea of the sheer variety of music that was available at the time – it was possible to like the hits and other music too. I heard the light operatic, Mario Lanza,singing ‘Drink, Drink, Drink’ from the musical play, ‘The Student Prince’, Burl Ives singing ‘Lolly Trudum’, Paul Robeson’s incomparable bass voice and the wonderful contralto of Kathleen Ferrier with ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’, intermingled with the latest, in the same request show.

This was typified in Friday night is Music Night, a light music radio show that featured choirs and solo singers. The mix included songs by Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work, by Thomas Moore, songs of the music hall and ‘folk songs’, sanitized shanties and ‘songs of the nations’. I listened avidly because I recognized many of the tunes and, not, at that stage, being able to read music, was able to associate them with the words I had in my songbooks – I was able to sing them.

Last in this section, my sister again, in her early twenties, took up amateur drama. The group put on J.B. Keane’s Sive. For weeks I heard snatches of ‘Many Young Men of Twenty’.

This seems incredible now – the sheer volume and variety of song that entered one middle-class Protestant, household in suburban Belfast – but that is only one of my communities.

The Street (1945-56)

The street was a road, Belmont Church Road, and opposite it was tree-lined Belmont Park; quite a genteel area. Nevertheless we sang (quietly) – to the tune of ‘The Cock of the North’:

My Aunt Mary had a canary
Up the leg of her drawers;
When she was asleep, I had a peep
Up the leg of her drawers.

To ‘The Sash my Father Wore’ (this was the edge of east Belfast):

King James, he had a pimple on his bum
And it nip, nip, nipped so sore;
He called for King Billy
Who rubbed it with a lily
And it nip, nip, nipped no more.

And (very quietly and usually hiding in the garden):

Red, white and blue, the dirty kangaroo
Hid behind the dustbin and did his number two.

 It’s interesting that the ones I most readily remember are of that kind.

We had a few singing games, mostly imported from school, like ‘Luby Loo’ and some that were strictly practical, like the begging rhyme: ‘Christmas is coming the geese are getting fat’, and sometimes we had recourse, again, to nursery rhymes that we sang with a chorus: ‘Star of the evening, pretty little evening star, star of the evening, shining on the harbour bar’.

Later, there were occasional Orange songs like ‘The Sash my Father Wore’, ‘Derry’s Walls’, ‘The Battle of Garvagh’, ‘The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne’ and ‘Dolly’s Brae’ but most of the singing I remember was adolescent smut. Around the ages of 13 to 15, the possession of a ‘dirty’ song meant status. The standards varied from the innocent, ‘Mary had a little lamb, she also had a bear and everywhere that Mary went you saw her bear behind’, to the frankly obscene ‘All the nice girls love a candle’ via the smutty but jolly, ‘Hitler (had only got one ball)’ – it was fairly soon after the war. But Dessie Braden, who lived in Pomona Street, much nearer the city centre, and who was socially acceptable only because his cousins lived in the suburbs, had another song that we thought of as dirty because the girl killed herself because she was going to have a baby:

A workingman came home one night
He found his house without a light.
He went upstairs to go to bed,
When a sudden thought came in his head.

He went into his daughter's room,
He found her hanging from a beam,
He took his knife and cut her down,
And on her breast these words he found

I wish my baby it was born,
And sitting on its Daddy's knee
And I, poor girl, was dead and gone,
The green grass growing over me.

Oh dig my grave both wide and deep,
Put a big stone at my head and feet,
And, in the middle, a turtle dove,
To tell the world I died for love.

In folk song circles this is known as ‘Died for Love’. It’s enormously widespread.

Church and Sunday School (1946-54)

Being Protestant, hymn singing was a large part of services. There were many hymns and a substantial number was reinforced by singing them also in school – some of those named will be familiar to most readers because of their Irish or ‘folk song’ connections – ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’, ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’, ‘Be Thou my Vision’, and the Psalms chanted in the fashion of the Anglican Church (of which the Church of Ireland is part). There were also Christmas carols like: ‘I Saw Three Ships’, ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’, ‘Stille Nacht, ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Good King Wenceslas’. We made some of these our own with parodies: ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out on his cabbage garden, bumped into a Brussels sprout and said, “I beg your pardon”‘. and (stereotyping mad, German professors) ‘God rest you Jerry mentalmen’. We sang that and much else in school.

Schools (1945-59)

My first school (Strathearn) was really for girls – it tolerated boys only until they were 10 and, by the time I was that age, there were only four boys in my class of about twenty. I was there for four years. At first we learned nursery pieces: ‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’ and ‘This Old Man’, for example, but later there were songs such as ‘Golden Slumbers’, which had a fairly wide range and rounds like ‘Fire Down Below’ or ‘London’s Burning’ which necessitated singing in groups and holding our own part. We had dancing – I remember ‘The Dashing White Sergeant’. We had all the staples of a middle class English style school music class: ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’, ‘Come Lasses and Lads’, ‘One Man Went to Mow’ (later this became the tongue-twisting, ‘One man and his pet Pomeranian poodle went to mow a meadow’), ‘Lavender’s Blue, Dilly, Dilly’ and ‘Sweetheart Come Along’ (‘The Sweet Nightingale’).

At my second school, Cabin Hill, that I attended from 1950-54, my interest in song became established. I swapped a songbook (I can’t remember what it was) with George Guyll, the vicious music master. He used to come off our kneecaps (we wore shorts) with a wooden coat hanger – there was rejoicing when someone broke into the music room, purloined it, cut it up and distributed souvenirs. I didn’t mind him, I liked music and didn’t play him up so I gained RS Thatcher’s Centuries of song and have it yet. I own a second-hand paperbacked binding-together of the twelve folk song numbers of Novello’s School Songs(8) that was once ‘Goofy’ Guyll’s and bears his signature – G.F. Guyll.

This was a school that took singing seriously. There were concerts at the end of the Christmas and summer terms in which every form (class) sang at least one song – I loved the songs the other classes sang, my memories are in the Appendix under ‘Cabin Hill’. I remember this was the only school where we were given a voice test on entry; I got nervous and wasn’t as good as Miss Larmour had at first thought I was. The standard was high and I was never given another chance. Hymn singing was taken seriously too, once a week we practised the hymns planned for the next six mornings. (There was school on Saturday.) In use simultaneously were three school hymn books – two editions of The Public School Hymn Book and Songs of Praise, designated ‘Old’, ‘New’, ‘S of P’, on the board that indicated the hymn numbers for the day; no matter what book we owned, there was no excuse for not singing.

And, naturally there were the unofficial songs. In the queue for a film: ‘Why are we waiting?’ to the tune of ‘Come All Ye Faithful’ which, normally, we sang in Latin, ‘Adeste Fideles. It was that sort of school. To the tune of ‘The Ash Grove’ (it was a boarding school with day pupils, of whom I was one):

The Boarders are bunions
With faces like picked onions
And noses like squashed tomatoes
And great big flat feet!

To the expected hymn tune:

There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where we get bread and jam, four times a day

And, chanted at the end of each term:

No more Latin, no more French, No more sitting on the hard old bench.

And, to ‘Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?’ a song about seven old ladies who got locked in the lavatory, ‘They were there from Monday to Saturday, Nobody knew they were there’.

When I went to the senior school, Campbell College, for the five years until 1959 there was more of the same. Everybody sang hymns, to orchestral accompaniment, and we practised them too but, despite singing in unison, from The Penguin Song Book,during music classes in the first couple of years, only a select few were encouraged to sing after that. I was, though, interested and I sang in Scouts. This was an alternative to joining the Cadet Force – every boy was expected to do that except wimps and Quakers. Preferring the Scout troop was not actually disapproved of but didn’t count for much. The Cadet Force had a pipe and drum band and a bugle corps. I loved pipe bands and still do. This one was Scottish in style, the school was Campbell College. And in my final year we were taken to see George Morrison’s film Mise Éire. This was in the calm before the storm, when Northern Ireland suffered creeping liberalism under its second prime minister, Terence O’Neill, and the downtown cinema that usually showed what passed for racy films, was bold enough to portray a mild Republican perspective. I’d heard a bit of Irish music at Scout gatherings and in youth hostels but Seán O’Riada’s music had an extra dimension.

I said that the school only encouraged the best to sing. It was a very competitive place – does that explain anything about me? The school was organized in seven houses. There was a house music competition! My ‘House Captain of Music’ noticed a gap in the rules, there was a mark to be gained if any boy entered a competition. The entire house, there were eighty of us, was set to learn ‘The Road to the Isles’. Most of the efforts were dismal but somehow my performance was said to be that of ‘the first real singer we’ve heard’ and I was passed into the final. I chose to sing unaccompanied – ‘The Star of the County Down’. Untrained, I came third. I could sing. I liked singing and from then songs and singing were the mainspring of my life. Even then, out of all I had heard, I tended towards choosing Irish ones.

Scouts (1953-61)

I mentioned Scouts. There, though we sang the songs we learned elsewhere and used the official, and very British, Hackney Scout Song Book,two tendencies are noticeable. There was the introduction of songs that were specialist to the group – ‘We’re On the Scouting Trail’ and songs from the Scout ‘Gang Shows’. And, as we grew up and began to meet other scouts at the Northern Ireland scout camp centre at Crawfordsburn, Co. Down and elsewhere, there were ‘Irish’ songs like ‘McCarthy’s Party’ with the chorus:

At McCarthy’s party every one was hearty,
Someone hit Maloney on the nose
With the handle of a broom, O’Reilly swept the room,
Then a row arose and it was murder,
Casey and his cousin paralysed a half a dozen
They hit both swift and hard,
And a number of the boys, will never make a noise
‘Cos they’re lying in the old church yard
         (without their boots on)
Lying in the old church yard.

We took that a lot less seriously than those who might condemn it for being anti-Irish. It was fun and fun was the point of singing; we sang in camp, we sang while hiking, we sang at campfires (organized self-entertainments).

As well as from books we introduced our own songs. Some of the boys were talented mouth organ players, able to play ‘Whistling Rufus’, and anything else on a few hearings. One of them got hold of The Ulster Students’ Song Book; it became my bible.(9) I still sing its version of the ‘Cruise of the Calabar’ a spoof sailors’ song based on the Lagan Canal. The same song, varied, is sung about the Liffey and the river Mourne that flows through Strabane. It also held a song denominated ‘Churchyard Wall’. Sung to a lugubrious, purposely dull, tune it ended with a yell:

A woman sat on a churchyard wall,
Oooooh, Aaaaaah,
She was thin and she was tall,
Oooooh, Aaaaaah,
She saw three corpses carried in,
(Oooooh, Aaaaaah,)
They were tall and they were thin
(Oooooh, Aaaaaah,)
The woman to the corpses said
"Will I be like that when I’m dead?"
The corpses to the woman said

The song imparted, as does the possession of any song that is approved of by the community, power; in this case, the power to frighten, the superiority that comes with knowledge.

The list of the songs we sang at this time (Appendix) reads to me like a spell – it holds the magic of memory – the magic of fun – the magic of discovery. It also connects with my present life – ‘Churchyard Wall’ is a very truncated version of the medieval ‘Death and the Lady’ while:

Sandy’s mill is on the hill
And the mill belongs to Sandy still
Sandy he belongs to the mill
And the mill belongs to Sandy.

is sung to the tune of ‘The Rakes of Mallow’, and

McDonald is dead and his brother don’t know it
His brother is dead and McDonald don’t know it
They’re both of them dead and they’re in the same bed
And they neither of them know that the other is dead

goes to that of ‘The Irish Washerwoman’.

The odd very sectarian item crept in:

Slitter slatter, holy watter,
Scatter the papishes, every one,
If that doesn’t do, we’ll cut them in two
And give them a dose of the orange and blue.
           (to the air of ‘Protestant Boys’ (‘Lillibulero’))

It’s impossible to give more than a flavour of this very eclectic and yet northern, Protestant mix. We had a version of the Child ballad ‘Lord Randal’:

What colour was them snakes, Henry my son?
What colour was them snakes, my beloved one?
Green and Yella, Green and Yella,
Oh Mother be quick, I’m going to be sick,
I’m going to lie down and die.

We had the odd ‘dirty’ song like ‘My Father Was the Keeper of the Eddystone Light’ but these were few because, being scouts, we were ‘Clean in thought, word and deed’.

Youth Hostels (1957-63)

In my last two years at school and later, I was going to youth hostels at weekends. The repertory here was largely as it had been in scouts but with a different set of group-specific songs, like ‘The Mourneland Wanderer’ adapted from a German song about wandering in the mountains. There were slightly more songs of international origin, like that one, but the substantial difference was in the number of Irish songs. I’d bought a couple of Walton’s (the Dublin music publisher) sixpenny paperback song books, Sing an Irish Song Book 6 and Irish Fireside Songs Book 3, and many of the songs in them, like ‘Goodbye, Johnny Dear’ and ‘The Rose of Aranmore’, were readily sung. Hostel sing-songs were held every Saturday night, the main entertainment of the weekend. The real novelty was Irish republican songs – and Catholics – my liberal education was progressing.

Mountaineering Clubs (1959-63)

At University, I joined the Mountaineering Club. There were specialized songbooks, typed and duplicated(10), containing such gems as ‘The Climbers’ Crag’ (is deepest red), ‘The Climber’s Clementine’, ‘The Seven Hundred Foot Vertical Crack’ and a song called ‘The Manchester Climber’, an adaptation of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Manchester Rambler’. I heard an exquisite performance of P.J. MacCall’s ‘Henry Joy McCracken’ (‘It was on the Belfast mountains’) and I heard ‘Eskimo Nell’ and, to keep her company, another of the same kind, ‘The Harlot of Jerusalem’.

I also became involved in the Irish Mountaineering Club, which had a Belfast section, which climbed mainly in the Mournes, and a Dublin section, which had its centre at Glendalough. There were more and different songs, many of which were Irish, this was when I first heard ‘Will You Go, Lassie, Go’ – the tendency was also towards the bawdy; it was the stage we were at.

The Noble Society of Mountainaceous Congenitals (1958-63)

The last of my communities was very small. It comprised six or eight friends, mostly from the Scout troop at my last school but with others whom we had met at the 1958 International Scout Jamboree at Sutton Coldfield. We rented a three-room cottage, with a loft, close to Annalong in the Mourne Mountains. Most of the songs that were introduced here were bawdy too (like ‘Oh, Sir Jasper Do Not Touch Me’ which consisted of those words repeated with one word left out in successive verses until it devolved into what we imagined was an ecstatic ‘Oh!’) and typical student songs such as those of Paddy Roberts and Tom Lehrer, whose attempt at an ‘Irish song’ was:

‘Tis of a maid I’ll sing a song,
Sing ricketty, ticketty, tin
‘Tis of a maid I’ll sing a song,
She did not have her family long,
Not only did she do them wrong,
She did every one of them in, in,
She did every one of them in.

 We also organized dinner parties in our houses and excursions to concerts and plays. One of these was to Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. I bought the record of the songs: ‘Don’t Muck About With the Moon’, ‘I’ll Give to You a Paper of Pins’ and ‘The Laughing Boy’, about Michael Collins:

It was in an August morning all in the morning hours
I went to take the warming air, all in the Mouth of Flowers
And there I spied a maiden and heard her mournful cry
Oh what can mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy.

From here, the story becomes intense. I began to look actively for songs. The house below our ‘shack’ was vacated and lay open. We found some 78s – two of them were by John Joseph Maguire, a Fermanagh singer and fiddler, well represented on such things. The songs were: ‘The Rakes of Paddy Roe’, ‘The Nut Bushes’, ‘Lurgan Stream’ and ‘The Blazing Star of Drum’. I transcribed them and the first two I sing still.

In September 1961 I recorded John McHugh (Seán MacAoidh) at Doochary in Co. Donegal singing various songs including ‘Green Grass it Grows Bonny’ and ‘John McNulty’ (‘The Old Clothes Shop’).

I bought little books, like the Glasgow published Ireland Sings edited by Richard Hayward. I went to libraries and found Colm O’Lochlainn’s Irish Street Ballads and was shown the Belfast Public Library’s set of the Sam Henry collection. At the time, I didn’t recognize the richness it held.

I kept two personal notebooks of song texts. The second was loose leaved and as its contents became more precious to me I substituted aluminium plates for its boards. I carried it for many years and little has been lost. The list of its contents (Appendix) is instructive, a mix of anything that took my fancy, including the ‘Fair of Turloughmore’ that means more to me now that my daughter and her family live nearby.

About 1962, I met my first girl friend. For a time it was a matter of, ‘lips only sing when they cannot kiss’(11) but, in the spring of 1963, I went to the dinner of the Irish Mountaineering Club at the Royal Hotel in Glendalough. On Sunday I went up to the club hut and heard singing like I had never heard it before. Gerry Cairns, with a guitar singing, ‘Skipping Barefoot Through the Heather’, ‘The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvinhaugh’, and ‘The Young Sailor Cut Down in his Prime’. This, I realized was what FOLKSONGS could be. I went home and bought records that contained them.

This, then, was my experience before there was a ‘ballad’ or ‘folk song’ ‘revival’. Every community with which I had contact was to a greater or lesser extent, a singing community. Looking back, it seems remarkable – though some of these communities were not that strong on singing – home for example, though it gave me nursery rhymes and a great deal of experience of classical music, gave me no songs apart from those my sister brought in – I must have been highly receptive. But even separating out the ‘popular’ as distinct from the official school and scout singing, there was a great deal of it. A lot of it was bawdy, anti-establishment or comic; some of it was highly sophisticated, the climbing songs, for example; some came from the ‘hit parade’ or shows; some was very old; some of the songs were what scholars would call ‘folk’ songs. And we sang them all, and it was fun. Singing accompanied other activities and was an activity with which the day ended. We sang as we did things, we walked in mountains, we kept camp, we learned and after that we sang. It wasn’t as intense as that but singing was a commonplace, a frequent adjunct to a life full of other activity. At the very least, the communities to which I belonged permitted singing, mostly it was expected, at best, the habit of singing was embedded in them. They nurtured me as a singer and as a student of ‘the songs people sing’. But there’s more to it than that. It will be obvious that these communities behaved, microcosmically, in traditional ways. Many of the songs were heard from oral sources, learned by heart and altered, if only by parody. The repertory, to some extent, reflected the social norms and tensions of each community, it reflected what was important within that community.

But, to concentrate only on the activity of singing, how is it now? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s the same. I don’t think children hear nursery rhymes to the same extent. I don’t think there is a children’s ‘hit parade’ as there once was – instead we have teenyboppers. Radio programmes, indeed radio stations, confine their output to single aspects of music; there’s not the same mix. How many schools have the same music provision? (So far as I know there is little in the Republic and what was available in the north has been depleted by a philistine curriculum.) Is there singing in scouts and guides to the same extent? I know that there was not when I was a Scout leader in the seventies. Are there nightly sing-songs in youth hostels? (I don’t think there are many youth hostels any more – most of those I knew have been sold and I’m told that many of them now have wide-screen television because the clients demanded it.) The only constants seem to be the singing that occurs privately in solely male groups – in rugby clubs and the like – the big bawdy singing; and in the more Spartan climbing club huts, there people probably sing and talk for company, and perhaps in some sailing clubs too. In the Yorkshire and Derbyshire Dales people meet before Christmas, in pubs, to sing carols, and wherever there is a pack of hounds that is followed on foot there is a hunt song and often a hunt songbook.(12) But I don’t know. I think it’s likely that there is less and less singing. This view is supported by a recently announced ‘national campaign to get children singing’ that is being promoted by a group called ‘Music Manifesto’, headed by Marc Jaffrey.(13) It seems probable that we lack the ‘critical mass’ that I spoke of above.

This paper has highlighted the importance of a series of singing communities in my life and in the development of a lifelong interest, becoming an obsession and then a full-time occupation. The repertories of those groups were mixed but interdependent; all supported my interest and eventually coloured my attitude to songs and singing. Those repertories were to an extent supported by media. There was a whole bundle of songbooks, school and community songbooks that arose from a community singing movement of the 1920s, and for one reason or another, much of it patriotic, there was and is a whole raft of ‘Irish songbooks’. There were many of these in print and some, like Irish Street Ballads, were intended to provide songs for singing and also gave some background. Do these exist today? Women’s magazines issued booklets of carols or pop songs as supplements – do they still – what are the modern surrogates?

However, the decline may also have been partly the fault of those who do sing. A lot of people are mad about singing, daft about songs and yet I think that they are all, I perhaps more than anybody else, guilty of forgetting what we sang before there were folksongs. How many of these convinced singers did as I did, and abandoned the singing communities which taught us, rejected the repertory of the ordinary person in order to find more and more esoteric songs? One of my youth hostelling friends of forty years ago said, ‘Ach, Mouldy, you’re always trying to sing something that the rest of us have never heard of and if we have heard it, you’ve always got it a different way’. At the time I had a sneaking suspicion that he was right and I’m now ready to admit it.

In a way, the reduction in the numbers of singing communities is my fault. It may have been a mistake to go after ‘folk’ songs. It may have been a mistake to form ‘folk clubs’. When there were so many singing communities, why should there have been a need to create communities that consisted solely of singers, which is what singing circles, traditional singing clubs and singing festivals are?

However, there’s a difficulty with this confession, and it’s a problem with which others may be able to help me. Was everyone else’s experience of a piece with mine? Did others belong to communities where singing went on? How did that experience differ from mine, a suburban, east Belfast, Protestant of English, middle-class parentage, attending schools that were based on the English public school model? My salvation lay in meeting working people from Protestant and Catholic background in Scouts, youth hostels and mountaineering clubs. Am I projecting from a special experience and blaming myself and others wrongly?

This paper has outlined my experience. My experiences have validity: similarly the experience of every one else has validity and relevance. No one person’s experience is the same as another’s; no one person’s experience should be ignored; no aspect of that experience should be suppressed. It would be of great use if other people could set down their experience and try to describe the communities in which they sang (and now sing) and the nature of the repertory.

It might also be worth considering how singing could be nurtured, especially among children. How can we encourage better musical experience in schools? It is possible – and this is the last of my heresies for today – that traditional ‘folk’ songs are not the best sort of songs to give children if the intention is to encourage them to sing – all the silly songs I’ve quoted above and still delight in are much better. And finally, as well as our own regular singing circle meetings to sing, we should go out and look for singing communities and support them. We may not find them but if we don’t, it’ll mean that there are nothing but folk songs to sing.

Should we not instead sing what comes to hand and has an immediate purpose – for example, to bring a long ‘spake’ to an amusing conclusion? The tune is the Sousa march ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’:

Be kind to your web-footed friends
For a duck may be somebody’s mother
They live in the woods and the swamp
Where the weather is awfully damp
You may think that this is the end;
                       Well it is!

Appendix – The Repertories of my Communities ‘Reconstructed’

Home and Family – 1942-1950

‘Oh Ma Babby, Ma Curly Headed Babby’.

Nursery Rhymes

‘Jack and Jill’; ‘Humpty Dumpty’; ‘Ring a Ring o Rosies’; ‘Mary, Mary Quite Contrary’; ‘I Had a Little Nut Tree’; ‘Three Blind Mice’ (later to be sung as a round in school and scouts); ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’; ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’; ‘Polly Put the Kettle On’; ‘The Frog and the Mouse’ (Heigh Ho Says Rowley); ‘Where Are You Going To, My Pretty Maid?’; ‘Little Bo-Peep’; ‘One, Two, Three, Four, Five’ (once I caught a fish alive); ‘Little Jack Horner’; ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’; ‘London Bridge’; ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’; ‘Tom, Tom the Pipers’ Son’; ‘Ding Dong Bell’; ‘The Man in the Moon’; ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’; ‘Lucy Locket’ (and as a game at school); ‘Wee Willie Winkie’.

From Sister

‘Old King Cole’; ‘John Cooke’s Grey Mare’; ‘Cherry Ripe’; ‘Bobby Shafto’; ‘Dashing Away With the Smoothing Iron’; ‘John Brown’s Baby’ (parody of John Brown’s Body); ‘The Fox’; ‘Soldier Soldier Will You Marry Me?’; ‘The Animals Went in Two by Two’; ‘Bonnie Dundee’; ‘Frère Jacques’; ‘Charlie is My Darling’; ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’; ‘There’s a Hole in the Bucket’; ‘Cock Robin’ (later parodied – ‘Cock Robin Has Kicked the Bucket’); ‘Comin’ Through the Rye’; ‘Come Lasses and Lads’; ‘Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be?’; ‘Tipperary’; ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’; ‘Cockles and Mussels’; ‘Tree in the Wood’; ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’; ‘The Threshing Machine’; ‘Many Young Men of Twenty’.

London Family

‘Hark, Hark the Lark’; ‘Who is Sylvia?’; ‘Ain’t it Grand?’; ‘Tit Willow’(The Mikado); ‘I Have a Song to Sing O!’ (The Yeomen of The Guard); ‘Five Minutes More’.

BBC Children’s Favourites

‘Nellie the Elephant’; ‘Where Will the Baby’s Dimple Be?’; ‘Christopher Robin’ (Buckingham Palace); ‘I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat’; ‘Robin Hood’; ‘The Deadwood Stage’; ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’; ‘Woody Woodpecker’; ‘Lolly Trudum’; ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window?’; ‘Gilly Gilly Osenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea’.

The Hit Parade And Other Popular Music 1950-1955

‘Jingle Bells’; ‘Happy Wanderer’ (with nursery rhymes); ‘Beautiful Dreamer’;

Harry Lauder Songs – ‘Keep Right On’; ‘I Belong tae Glasgow’.

Hit Parade And Shows

‘White Christmas’; ‘Shrimp Boats’; ‘Davy Crockett’; ‘Drink Drink Drink’; ‘Put Your Shoes on Lucy’; ‘Old Man River’; ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’; ‘She Wears Red Feathers and a Hula-Hula Skirt’; ‘The Roving Kind’ (She had a dark and a roving eye and her hair hung down in ringlets, She was a nice girl[…]. but one of the roving kind).

Top Twenty 1953 Etc

‘Wild Goose’ (Brother Goose); ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling’; ‘If You’re Irish Come Into the Parlour’.


Bill Haley ‘Rock Around the Clock’,

Vipers Skiffle Group and Lonnie Donegan –‘Rock Island Line’; ‘Worried Man Blues’; ‘Frankie and Johnny’; ‘Stackolee’,

Ottilie Patterson – ‘St Louis Blues’; ‘Ice Cream’; ‘Maryland’; ‘Whistling Rufus’.

Light Vocal Music 1955-1961

‘I Married a Wife Oh Then’; ‘Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon’; ‘Rose of Tralee’; ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’; ‘Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl’; ‘Camptown Ladies’; ‘Meeting of the Waters’; ‘Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair’; ‘The Lament of the Irish Emigrant’ (I’m sitting on the stile Mary); ‘Billy Boy’; ‘Johnny Come Down to Hilo’; ‘Lillibulero’; ‘Marching Through Georgia’; ‘Massa’s in de Cold Cold Ground’; ‘The Mermaid’; ‘Red River Valley’; ‘The Tailor and the Mouse’; ‘When Johnny Comes Marchin’ Home’; ‘Men of Harlech’; ‘Wee Cooper o’ Fife’; ‘Grandfather’s Clock’; ‘Granny’s Old Armchair’; ‘Home on the Range’; ‘The Kerry Dances’; ‘Polly Perkins of Paddington Green’; ‘Last Rose of Summer’; ‘Oh Suzannah’; ‘Old Folks at Home’; ‘Bonny Earl o’ Murray’; ‘Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! The Boys are Marching’; ‘Blue Tail Fly’.

The Street – 1945-1957


‘My Aunt Mary’; ‘King James’; ‘Red, White and Blue’; ‘Luby Loo’; ‘Christmas is Coming’; ‘Star of the Evening’.


‘The Sash My Father Wore’; ‘Derry’s Walls’; ‘The Battle of Garvagh’; ‘The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne’; ‘Dolly’s Brae’.


‘Roll Me Over in the Clover’; ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’ (Two German Officers Crossed the Rhine); ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Candle’; ‘The Keyhole in the Door’; ‘Oh Ivy’s White Drawers’; ‘If I Were the Marrying Kind’; ‘Hitler’ (had only got one ball) – it was fairly soon after the war; ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb, She Also Had a Bear’; ‘Mary Had a Baby, She Called Him Jungle Jim’; ‘Rip My Knickers Away’; ‘Sweet Violets’; ‘A Working Man Came Home One Night’ (Died for Love).

Church And Sunday School 1945-1956

‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’; ‘Jesus Loves Me’; ‘Jesus Bids Us Shine’; ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’; ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’; ‘Be Thou My Vision’; Anglican Chant.

Christmas Carols

‘I Saw Three Ships’; ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’; ‘Stille Nacht’; ‘Away in a Manger’; ‘Good King Wenceslas’; ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ (or, as we sang, ‘washed their socks’).


Strathearn School 1946-1950

‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’; ‘This Old Man’; ‘Golden Slumbers’; ‘Fire Down Below’; ‘London’s Burning’; ‘The Dashing White Sergeant’; ‘Old Macdonald Had a Farm’; ‘Come Lasses and Lads’; ‘One Man Went to Mow’ (one man and his pet Pomeranian poodle); ‘Lavender’s Blue’ (Dilly Dilly); ‘Sweetheart Come Along’ (The Sweet Nightingale).

Cabin Hill School 1950-1954

‘Marianina’; ‘Watch the Wall My Darling’; ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’; ‘The Mermaid’; ‘Avenging and Bright’; ‘The Minstrel Boy’; ‘Ash Grove’; ‘Wraggle Taggle Gypsies’; ‘Blow the Man Down’; ‘A-Roving’; ‘Hearts of Oak’; ‘Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes’; ‘Early One Morning’; ‘Strawberry Fair’; ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’; ‘Loch Lomond’; ‘John Peel’; ‘British Grenadiers’; ‘Song of the Western Men’ (Shall Trelawney Die?); ‘Shenandoah’; ‘Wassail Song’ (Figgy Pudding); ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’; ‘All Through the Night’; ‘Drunken Sailor’; ‘John Brown’s Body’; ‘The Keel Row’; ‘Il Est Né, Le Divin Enfant’; ‘Cuckoo Carol’; ‘Allouette’; ‘Michael Finnegan’; ‘Widdicombe Fair’; ‘Barbara Allen’; ‘Miller of the Dee’; ‘Farmer’s Boy’; ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’; ‘Skye Boat Song’; ‘Donkey Riding’; ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’.

Unofficial, Learned At Cabin Hill

‘Our Wee School’s a Good Wee School’; ‘The Bear Went Over the Mountain’; ‘Why Are We Waiting?’; ‘The Boarders Are Bunions’; ‘There Is a Happy Land’; ‘No More Latin, No More French’; ‘Three Old Ladies’.

Campbell College 1954-1959

Hymns – Accompanied By Orchestra – Hymn Practice – ‘Tallis’ s Canon’.

Music Lessons In First Couple Of Years

The Penguin Song Book – ‘Early One Morning’; ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’; ‘Sucking Cider/ One Fish Ball’; ‘Riding Down From Bangor’; ‘Villikins and His Dinah’.

Chansons de France (French through songs) – Chevaliers de la Table Ronde’; ‘Il Était une Bergère’.

‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ – the school badge was a boar’s head; ‘The Campbells are Coming’;’The Road to the Isles’; ‘Star of the County Down’.


41st Belfast, Cabin Hill, 1953-54

‘Vive L’amour’; ‘Good Night Ladies’; ‘Ilkley Moor’; ‘Michael Finnegan’; ‘Noah’; ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain’; ‘The Upidee Song’; ‘The Music Man’; ‘Wrap Me Up in My Tarpaulin Jacket’; ‘Waltzing Matilda’; ‘One Finger One Thumb’; ‘Quartermaster’s Stores’; ‘He Ain’t Gonna Jump No More’ (Pound of Strawberry Jam – The Parachute Song); ‘The Preacher Went Down’; ‘Hold Him Down Ye Swazi Warriors’; ‘We’re On the Scouting Trail’;’ We’re Going Down the Valley’.

61st Belfast, Campbell College, 1954-59

Guys Who Could Play Anything On Mouth Organs – ‘Whistling Rufus’.

Hackney Scout Song Book (National Songs, Scout Songs)

‘The Tavern in the Town’; ‘Clementine’; ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again’; ‘I’ve Got a Robe’; ‘Swing Low’; ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’; ‘I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More’;’ Just a-Wearying for You’; ‘Green Grow The Rushes’ (Red Fly The Banners Oh); ‘Oh Jemima’; ‘Sandy’s Mill’; ‘Rabbit Ain’t Got’; ‘Churchyard Wall’; ‘Did You Ever See a Hearse go By?’;’ ‘Ot Pitatas and Me Old Fried Fish’ (Killarney);Woad’; ‘Away With Rum’; ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’; ‘Star of the Evening’ (nursery rhymes); ‘Under the Lilac’; ‘Mush, Mush’; ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home/Indicate the Route’; ‘Never Get Up to Cregagh’; ‘Dirty Ol’ Bill’; ‘Algy Met a Bear’; ‘Ping-Pong Ball’; ‘Woodpecker’s Hole’; ‘American Railway’; ‘Sandy’s Mill’; ‘McDougal is Dead’; ‘The Higher Up the Mountain’; ‘Web-Footed Friends’; ‘They Were Only Playing Leapfrog’; ‘We Are Going Down the Valley’; ‘Harry Was a Bolshie’; ‘Ten in the Bed’; ‘Lloyd George Knew My Father’.

Learned At Northern Ireland Scout Centre, Crawfordsburn

‘McCarthy’s Party’; ‘Calabar’; ‘Green Grassy Slopes’; ‘Derry’s Walls’; ‘Magheralin’; ‘A Sailor Courted’; ‘Darkie Sunday School’; ‘King Of Caractacus’; ‘Kerry Recruit’.

Ulster Students’ Song Book

‘Six Miles from Bangor’; ‘Navvy Boots’; ‘Mrs McGrath’; ‘Your Baby Has Gone Down the Plug’ole’; ‘My God How the Money Rolls In’;’ After the Ball Is Over’.

Songs From Scouting Friends

‘One Bottle Beer’; ‘Cigareets and Whiskey’; ‘Do You Think That I Would Let’ (a dirty fenian cat, Destroy the lily Of King Billy-0); ‘Spaniard Who Blighted My Life’; ‘Steady Eddy’; ‘Slitter Slatter’; ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’; ‘Cosher Bailey’s Engine’; ‘There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons’ (and these two sons were brothers, John Adolphus was the one, Adolphus John, he was the other (Bohunkus) (Kafoozalum); ‘Green and Yella’; ‘Down in the Cane Brake’.

99th Belfast, Belmont Presbyterian Church

Songs From Gang Shows And Some Politically Left Leaning

‘Crest of a Wave’; ‘These Are the Times’; ‘Little Jimmy Brown’ (The Newsboy); ‘Eddystone Light’; ‘The Worker’s Beer’; ‘The Soldier and the Sailor’.

Youth Hostels (1957-1963)

National Songs

‘Ash Grove’; ‘Little Brown Jug’; ‘Rio Grande’; ‘Westering Home’; ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’ (Vair me o); ‘Mairi’s Wedding’; ‘Funiculì, Funiculà’.

Songs From Abroad – Translated

‘Hol-La-Hi! Hol-La-Ho!’; ‘Holdera Hirira – Cuckoo,

Irish Songs And Some Others

‘Killyburn Brae’; ‘Mountain Dew’; ‘Next Market Day’; ‘Bold Thady Quill’; ‘The Bright Silvery Light of the Moon’; ‘Courting in the Kitchen’; ‘Let Him Go Let Him Tarry’; ‘Eileen O’Grady’; ‘Father O’Flynn’; ‘Foggy Foggy Dew’; ‘Little Old Mud Cabin on the Hill’; ‘Boys From the County Armagh’; ‘Maire My Girl’; ‘Spinning Wheel’; ‘Holy Ground’; ‘Old Orange Flute’ (and other orange songs previously mentioned); ‘On Top of Old Smokey’; ‘Shoo, Fly’ (don’t bother me).

Irish Nationalist Songs

‘Kevin Barry’; ‘Kelly, The Boy from Killanne’; ‘Johnston’s Motor Car’; ‘Sean South’; ‘Roddy MacCorley’; ‘Men of the West’; ‘Mountains of Pomeroy’; ‘All Round My Hat’.

Local Songs from a Friend

‘Star Of The Eglantine’ (parody of Star of County Down); ‘All Down the Loney, Oh’ (children’s version of ‘Cruel Mother’, located at ‘The Loney’ in Belfast)

Mountaineering Clubs (Duplicated Song Books)


Songs About Walking

‘Westering Home’ (with ‘Road to the Isles’); ‘Uist Tramping Song’; ‘Skye Boat Song’.

Songs About Climbing (some adaptations)

‘Mourneland Wanderer’ (parody – Bloathouse); ‘Mourne Song’; ‘The FM Song’; ‘The Climber’s Crag’; ‘The Climber’s Clementine’; ‘Climbing’; ‘The Manchester Climber’ (Rambler); ‘The Seven Hundred Foot Vertical Crack’; ‘Baile Atha Cliath’ (parody of Welsh, ‘Cosher Bailey’); ‘Pound of Strawberry Jam’(climbers’ adaptation of ‘Parachute Song’); ‘Climb On Little Bignian’ (climbers’ parody of ‘She Wears Her Silk Pyjamas’).

Percy French Songs

‘Abdul Abulbul Amir’; ‘Little Brigid Flynn’; ‘Paddy Reilly’; ‘Slattery’s Mounted Foot’; ‘Eileen Oge’; ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball’.

Irish Songs

‘Will You Go, Lassie Go?’; ‘Master McGrath’; ‘Green Bushes’; ‘Spanish Lady’; ‘I Know Where I’m Going’; ‘Castle Of Dromore’; ‘Bard of Armagh’; ‘The Famine Song’ (‘Praties they grow small’); ‘Reilly’s Daughter’.

Irish Nationalist Songs

‘Down by the Glenside’; ‘Clare’s Dragoons’; ‘Off to Dublin in the Green’; ‘Step Together’.

Odd Things

‘Gendarme’s Song’; ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’, ‘Beecham’s Pills Are Just The Thing’.

Leeds University Union Mountaineering Club Song Book

(Northern English Songs)

‘Cushy Butterfield’; ‘Blaydon Races’; ‘Lambton Worm’ (heard in scouts in Lake District).


‘McCafferty’; ‘Old Grandpa’ (Ain’t It Grand); ‘Rocking the Cradle’.

Student Songs

‘Gaudeamus Igitur’;’ And When I Die’; ‘Our Family’; ‘I Wanna Beer’.

Irish Mountaineering Club

Dirty Songs (also sang many of the above)

‘Mobile’; ‘The Harlot of Jerusalem’; ‘Eskimo Nell’; ‘William Bloat’; ‘Ball of Kirriemuir’; ‘Caviar’; ‘Boys of Kilmichael’; ‘Sexual Life of the Camel’; ‘Hedgehog’; Limericks; ‘Rule Britannia’; ‘Sing Marmalade and Jam’.


‘Henry Joy McCracken’; ‘Bonny Boy’ (Mary O’Hara); ‘She Moved Through the Fair’; ‘My Lagan Love’.

The Shack (Noble Society Of Mountainaceous Congenitals


‘Foggy, Foggy Dew’; ‘She Wears Her Silk Pyjamas In The Summer’ and ‘Oh Sir Jasper’; ‘Ring The Bell Verger Ring The Bell, Ring’; ‘Whoredeane School’; ‘Lady Jane’ (It Grieved the Family More and More); ‘The Hedgehog’; ‘The Brian Boru Song’; ‘Why Was He Born So Beautiful?’; ‘Wild West Show’.

Songs from The Hostage

‘My Laughing Boy’; ‘The Bells of Hell’.

From Friends

‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’.

Tom Lehrer‘Ricketty Ticketty Tin’,

Paddy Roberts –‘ Poisoning Pigeons’; ‘I Tell a Tale of a Jealous Male’.

Heard At Ballyedmund House Hotel, Rostrevor –‘ Whack Fol The Diddle’ (Peadar Kearney).

John Joseph Maguire Recordings – ‘Nutty Bushes’ ’Lurgan Stream’; ‘Blazing Star of Drum’; ‘Rakes of Paddy Roe’.

Song Books And Records Bought Around This Time and Notable Events and Influences

Llangollen July 1961 Bought W.S. Gwynn Williams Welsh National Music and Dance

Wednesday September 6 1961 – John McHugh, Doochary, Co. Donegal (had a portable tape recorder – Grundig cub – later stolen, Glasgow)

Bought EP Of Eileen Donaghy (‘Slieve Gallon Brae’) (‘Glenswilly’)

Bought or Borrowed LP Of Mary O’Hara

Bought Vol. 2 of Oxford Song Book – Contained ‘The Dumb Wife’; ‘Green Broom’; ‘Johnny Cope’; ‘There Was an Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket’.

International SongBook (Mozart Allen, Glasgow) – reinforced already heard songs.

The Empire Book of Favourite Songs – similar contents buthad ‘Bohunkus’; ‘Auld Lang Syne’; ‘Rule Britannia’; ‘Old Rugged Cross’; ‘Old Zip Coon’.

Library Copy OfColm O’Lochlainn Irish Street Ballads.

Richard Hayward ‘Ireland Calling’ – ‘Yellow Rose Of Texas’ (knew nothing else).

Sheet Music Bought – ‘Homes of Donegal’; ‘Gartan Mother’s Lullaby’.

Walton‘s Song Books

(Sing an Irish Song #6)

‘I Know Where I’m Going’; ‘Goodbye Johnny, Dear’; ‘The Irish Rover’; ‘If You Will Marry Me’; ‘Noreen Bawn’; ‘Garden Where The Praties Grow’; ‘The Rose of Aranmore’.

(Irish Fireside Songs # 3 ‘Patriot’s Treasury’)

‘Boys of Wexford’; ‘The Bold Fenian Men’; ‘O’Donnell Abu’; ‘Wearing of the Green’.

Probably at about the same time bought Songs of The Irish Republic And Songs and Recitations of Ireland

Personal repertory notebook from c 1959 –What Did I Want to Remember?

This now incorporates an early notebook which I entitled ‘Mouldy’s Wee Song Book’ and pages from a loose leaf notebook which I started about 1960.

Early notebook

‘Kitty Magee’; ‘Follow Me Up to Carlow’; ‘Swapping Song’; ‘Fair of Turloughmore’; ‘Aughalee Heroes’; ‘Speak a Little Louder Sir’; ‘The Gentle Maiden’; ‘Scotland the Brave’; ‘Lizzie’; ‘Milord; ‘Mountaineer’s Duet’; ‘Animal Fair’; ‘Presbyterian Cat’; ‘Goliath of Gath’; ‘My Love’s an Arbutus’; ‘I Wish I Had the Shepherd’s Lamb’; ‘Ballinderry’; ‘Your Milkin’ Days are Over’; ‘The Laughin’ Boy’; ‘Slieve Gallon Braes’; ‘The Hiking Song’; ‘Mournland Wanderer’; ‘The Foggy Dew’; ‘Maids When You’re Young’; ‘Cartleton Weaver’; ‘Rothesay O’; ‘Gentler Fair Jenny’; ‘The Cuckoo’; ‘Soldier Soldier’; ‘Bachelor’s Hall’; ‘Single Girl’; ‘John Riley’; ‘Lurgan Stream’; ‘Farmer’s Curst Wife’.

Loose leaf pages compiled between about 1960 and 1963

‘Red Brick in the Suburb’ (May the Lord in his Mercy be Kind to Belfast); ‘Four Marys’; ‘Star of the Eglantine’; ‘Killygrew Soiree’; ‘Must I Go Bound’; ‘Shoo Fly’; ‘All Down the Loney –o’; ‘I’ll Tell My Ma’; ‘As I Walked Out’; ‘I Never Will Marry’; ‘Maid of Mourne Shore’; ‘Rakes of Paddy Roe’; ‘Climbing on the Rannoch Wa’; ‘As I Roved Out’ (Henry O Prey);’ John McNulty’ (Sean MacAoidh),

[More was added to this book in later years]

(1) Gerry now lives in Wells of Ythan, near Montrose in Aberdeenshire.

(2) This paper had its genesis in a decision of the Nenagh Singers’ Circle, a body now defunct, that, as a means of celebrating the Millennium, in 2000 (a year too soon, in my view), they should hold a Festival of Traditional Singing. I was asked to give a talk. Being a cynic, I chose to wonder why we had singing circles at all.

(3) John Moulden, ‘Sing us a Folksong, Mouldy’, The Crossroads Conference (Dublin: CBC, 1999), pp. 135-9; ‘A Very Wise Irishman Responds,’ Living Tradition, No. 11 (June/July 1995), 20-3; in an unpublished seminar paper ‘Irish Traditional Singing: Who Cares’ delivered in October 1996 at the Irish World Music Centre, University of Limerick, and later published as ‘A Future for Irish Traditional Singing’, The Journal of Music in Ireland, vol. 1 No. 6 (September/October 2001), 10-11.  I see that some of the ideas had arisen much earlier in ‘Folksinger at Work’, TheHonest Ulsterman, No. 15 (July 1969), 18-20.

(4) A. Paredes and E.J. Stekert, The Urban Experience and Folk Tradition, Publications of the American Folklore Society (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), pp. 54-5.

(5) Copyright, 1897 by G.H. Clutson.

(6) First published in this shape in Honoria Galwey, Old Irish Croonauns and Other Tunes: Re-Collected and Collected (London: Boosey & Co., 1910).

(7) Thomas Dunhill (ed.), Arnold’s Song Books For Schools: Singing Class Music, Book III, Pupils’ Edition (London: E.J. Arnold, n.d.).

(8) These were booklets of about twenty-four pages containing sets of songs of similar style or origin. There were at least 269 of them but only 201, 202, 212, 213, 222, 232, 245, 261, 262, 263, 268, 269 appear to contain ‘folk songs’. From the advertisements on some of those I have, most of the sets were of composed arts songs, often for part-singing. Each number has its own copyright date.

(9) This was based on an earlier National Union of Students Songbook but was also in line of succession from the ‘Scottish Students’ Song Book’ and a line of school songbooks such as that of Harrow School.

(10) Curiously, in 1976, following the death of Andy Smyth, a singer from near Killyleagh, Co. Down, I was given his collection of songs in books, typescript and manuscripts. Among them was an edition of the QUBMC songbook that preceded my membership of the Club. He had never had any association with the university but, like other singers, he was interested in songs from any source.

(11) James Thomson,  ‘Art’ from The City of the Dreadful Night and Other Poems (London, Reeves and Turner, 1880).

(12) And what will be the effect of the ban on hunting with dogs?

(13) BBC Music, 15:4 (December 2006), 13.

NOTE: August 2020 – This was published in 2007 and has been overtaken by time, for example, Gerry Cairns, (note 1) has returned to Dublin.

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: