Put on your Sunday best, we're going to the fair!
A handsome young man, a moonlight tryst and a young woman is left to bear the consequences. It's an age old tale, but why did it become so popular in the early 19th Century? We might have the answer.
We're also looking more widely at English fairs through the ages; the fun, strange and sometimes scandalous things that happen there, and the songs people sing about them.
This episode features bit of mild swearing thanks to our cheeky friend Samuel Pepys.
Brimbledon Fair is from Folk Songs From Somerset by Cecil Sharp
Selby Fair words are from the Bodleian Library Ballad Index, but I made the tune up
The Ewan MacColl version of Bartholomew Fair can be found here
The full words of Jockey to the Fair can be found at the Bodleian Library here
The tune behind the Thomas Hardy extract is Brigg Fair
The full version of Ramble Away is the one I learned from Shirley Collins' recorded version
You can find the full lyrics of Answer to Young Ramble Away (if you really want to!) here and the tune is a Derrydown Fair variant that I found on Mudcat.
There are some great discussions about Ramble Away on the Mudcat Cafe, and the Mainly Norfolk website has a very informative summary about the song.
The episode features extracts from A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain 1724-1727 by Daniel Defoe (which also features on the Mainly Norfolk website), from the Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and the diaries of Samuel Pepys.
Vic Gammon (1982) Song, Sex and Society in England 1600-1850 Folk Music Journal 4 (3) 208-245 https://www.jstor.org/stable/4522105
The hot summer sun is beating down, the harvest is in, and we’re going to the fair.
[Intro – 1 verse of Brimbledon Fair]
Hello and welcome to Handed Down, a podcast that celebrates traditional songs and the people who sing them. I’m Jenny Shaw and each month I bring you a story about a traditional song, or an interview about a song with a folk musician. Some months you get both!
I’m also doing the first Handed Down live show at St Nicholas Church in the centre of Gloucester on 4th September at 2 o’clock. It’s part of the Folk at the Folk festival, and it’s completely free! Do come along if you can, I can promise you songs, tunes and stories, and a bit of joining in if you want to. I’d love to see you there.
But for today we’re looking at a song that for me was the soundtrack to my early childhood, and goes together in my mind with the long hot summers of the mid 70s. It’s a song of seduction and betrayal. Not very suitable for a young child now I come to think about it, but that’s folk for you, and I always loved the beautiful tune sung by Shirley Collins.
The song is called Ramble Away, but it’s also known as Brimbledown Fair, Derry Down Fair, Brocklesby Fair… lots of different fairs. It’s one of those songs that singers could localise if they wanted, or just come up with a romantic sounding name to set the scene.
As well as looking at the song today, we’re going to take a wander through the British fair in all its forms, and hear about some of the things that could happen there. Because… the fair is a magical place, an escape from the drudgery of everyday life.
Anything can happen at the fair.
Fairs in the British Isles go back almost a thousand years. They could be granted by charter, to provide revenue to a castle or religious house, but in some cases they took place just because they always had, as far as anyone could remember. They were a place for trading and entertainment, and for showing off the latest innovations – whether new fangled agricultural machinery or early photography.
A lot of songs about fairs, especially broadside ballads, sound like adverts or reviews. They could be adapted for any fair in the land and they described what went on there. There’s a group of songs called the humours of the fair which sound like they’ve been written on behalf of Big Fair, so enticing is the vision they present.
One of the earliest and largest English fairs was Bartholomew fair in London. The charter was granted in 1133 by King Henry 1st to help fund the Priory of St Bartholomew, and it took place traditionally on 24th August. It lasted longer than the Priory of St Bartholomew itself, becoming adopted by the growing city of London where it was celebrated until 1855, when it was closed down for encouraging debauchery. In its heyday it would last as long as two weeks, and it was famed as a cloth fair, and for its many different amusements.
In 1667, Samuel Pepys wrote:
and so to Bartholomew fair, and there, it being very dirty, and now night, we saw a poor fellow, whose legs were tied behind his back, dance upon his hands with his arse above his head, and also dance upon his crutches, without any legs upon the ground to help him, which he did with that pain that I was sorry to see it, and did pity him and give him money after he had done. Then we to see a piece of clocke-work made by an Englishman — indeed, very good, wherein all the several states of man’s age, to 100 years old, is shewn very pretty and solemne; and several other things more cheerful.
Bartholomew Fair was such a cultural phenomenon that it provided a backdrop to a play of the same name by Ben Johnson, which Pepys described as admirable and well acted, but too much profane and abusive – which is pretty rich coming from him.
And, as you may guess, there’s also a song about Bartholomew Fair - which is neither profane nor abusive, but it is good fun. I got this version from a Ewan MacColl recording.
Some fairs took on a theme all of their own and became notorious. In the notes for his album “The Road to Horn Fair” Joshua Burnell gives us a quote from A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain 1724-1727 by Daniel Defoe:
“Charlton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz'd well govern'd nation, it may well be said to be insufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justified the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.”
[Jockey to the Fair]
Twas on the morn of sweet May day
When nature painted all things gay
Taught birds to sing and lambs to play
And gild the meadows fair
Young Jockey early in the morn
Arose and tript it o’er the lawn
His sunder coat the youth put on
For Jenny had vowed away to run
With Jockey to the fair
But one of the strangest occurrences at a fair is presented in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and it was based on a real event. In the story, a peevish young man gets drunk on furmety – a kind of spiced wheat porridge which had been liberally laced with rum. What happened next changed the rest of his life.
[Fair noises behind. Tune – Brigg Fair played simply on a whistle deep in the background]
The auctioneer selling the old horses in the field outside could be heard saying, “Now this is the last lot–now who’ll take the last lot for a song? Shall I say forty shillings?
‘Tis a very promising broodmare, a trifle over five years old, and nothing the matter with the hoss at all, except that she’s a little holler in the back and had her left eye
knocked out by the kick of another, her own sister, coming along the road.”
“For my part I don’t see why men who have got wives and don’t want ’em, shouldn’t get rid of ’em as these gipsy fellows do their old horses,” said the man in the tent.
“Why shouldn’t they put ’em up and sell ’em by auction to men who are in need of such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I’d sell mine this minute if anybody would buy her!”
“I’ll tell ye what–I won’t sell her for less than five,” said the husband, bringing down his fist so that the basins danced. “I’ll sell her for five guineas to any man that will pay me the money, and treat her well; and he shall have her for ever, and never hear aught o’ me. But she shan’t go for less. Now then–five guineas–and she’s yours. Susan, you agree?”
She bowed her head with absolute indifference.
“Five guineas,” said the auctioneer, “or she’ll be withdrawn. Do anybody give it? The last time. Yes or no?”
“Yes,” said a loud voice from the doorway.
[Swell up to a full instrumental verse of Brigg Fair]
But perhaps most of all, going to the fair is an occasion to get dressed up in your finest clothes. It’s a place to meet new people, perhaps those who were travelling with the fair itself, or those who just loved to wander.
Many a love affair has started at the fair, and one such tryst was planned by a calculating young man.
[As I was a walking that night in the dark – Albion Band tune]
Yes we’re back with young Ramble Away as he plans and executes his seduction of lovely Nancy.
Versions of this song have been collected across England and occasionally Ireland, referring to both real and imaginary fairs, but it’s most commonly found in the South of England.
It’s a song that was very popular as a broadside throughout the 19th Century, where it was most often set in Birmingham.
There might be a good reason why it pops up in the early 1800s and remained popular, because it may have come alongside a social change when it came to marriage and illegitimacy. Writing in the Folk Music Journal back in the 80s, Vic Gammon suggested that controlling sex was a matter of survival in 18th Century rural England, where late marriage and abstinence ensured that the population didn’t grow beyond the size that the land could support. And a strong moral code ensured this persisted over the generations. But moving towards the 19th Century, the old order started to break down. In a wage-earning economy, young men could afford to marry, and alongside this loosening of restrictions came a higher rate of illegitimate children.
That being the case, the song Ramble Away both reflects the new reality and cautions against it, especially to young girls who would bear the consequences, and perhaps end up in the workhouse, or worse. It’s Nancy herself that gives the warning in many versions of the song, not in a sensational way, but in a resigned manner. Go out and have a good time, she tells us, but look out for those notorious lads who’ll get you knocked up and then run away. Poor old Nancy.
But did you know there’s a part two of the story? Stay tuned after the song and I’ll tell you all about it.
[Song - Rambleaway]
In a broadside ballad, contemporary with the original song, there’s a song called Answer to Young Ramble Away. It’s kind of a fan fic on Ramble Away, though my daughter tells me it should more accurately be described as fix fic, because it fixes plot points in the original. Here’s a quick verse.
As I was a walking one morning in May,
I thought of my young son call’d Ramble Away
I travelled thro London cities all around
None like my Nancy is there to be found
It sounds as though it’s been written by a clergyman or some other moral guardian, but with little discernible talent in song writing. Nonetheless, for the purposes of closure you might want to know that he falls in love with Nancy and his little son, repents and vows to ramble no more and they all live happily ever after.
Which is nice.
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We’ll be back soon with more stories and songs, until then – you take care.