Live performance, Thursday December 12th 2013, Trad. Arr. Sedayne (singing + Fender Telecaster baritone, Boss Looper & harmoniser, Ebow, Line 6 Delay Modeller, EH Duo Muff & Cathedral Reverb.)
This is for the crows that pick at the leavings of the tides on the vast open beaches here at Fleetwood; the music is an echo of the cold bleak beauty of the landscapes they frequent, the song is an old tale which seems timeless in such a landscape...
O there were twa corbies sat on a tree; large & black as black might be;
an' the ane unto the ither gan say: aye, where shall we gan & dine today?
Shall we dine by the wild salt sea? Or shall we dine 'neath the greenwood tree?
As I sat by the deep sea strand, I saw a fair ship nigh at land;
I waved my wings I beat my beak, that ship it sunk & I heard the shriek.
Aye, the drowned ones lie, one, two & tree; I shall dine by the wild salt sea.
Come and I'll show ye a sweeter sight, there's a lonesome glen & a new slain knight;
an' his blood yet on the grass is hot; his sword half drawn, his shafts unshot.
And no one knows that he lies there, but his hawk, & his hound, & his lady fair.
His hound is to the hunting gone; his hawk tae fetch the wild fowl hame;
and his lady's awa' with another man, so we maun make our dinner long:
our dinner's sure, our feasting free, come & dine 'neath the greenwood tree.
Ye shall sit out on his white hause-bane, while I'll pike oot his bonny blue een;
An' ye'll take a tree of his yellow hair to theek wa nest when it grows bare:
the gowlden down on his young chin will do tae row my young ones in.
Aye cold and bare his bed will be when winter storms sing in the tree;
At his head a turf, at his feet a stone; he'll sleep nor hear the maiden's moan
Ower his white bones the birds shall fly, the wild dear bound & foxes cry:
Ower his white bones, when they are bare, the wind shall blaw for ever mair.
Variant of The Three Ravens (Child 26) from The Legendary Ballads of England and Scotland compiled & edited by John S. Roberts, Chandos Classics 1900 (?) from Mr. Motherwell's Collection; possibly written by Allan Cunningham, 1825* - apart from the last line which has been grafted on from the more well known version (set in the 1950s to the melody of the Breton folk song An Arlac'h Ar by Morris Blythman & now accepted as 'traditional'). The melody here, if you can call it such, evolved in free-style ballad singing around the folk-clubs of the North East of England during the late 1980s - I knew the words as a poem, one night when I very drunk I sang it; happily someone was on hand to record me doing so. The next morning I couldn't even remember being at the session, let alone singing the song or the tune I'd made up on the spot, but it stuck pretty much as you have it here.
* As far as The Traditional is concerned, I still prefer George Mackay Brown's John Barleycorn to any of the so-called Traditional versions of the song, and this is certainly the case with respect of Cunningham's Corbies which is a far more toothsome piece than Scott's - and I've never much liked the An Arlac'h setting that many now think of being Traditional in itself. I feel 1825 has a hoary ancientness about it; it is very much Pre-Folk / Pre-Revival and chimes in heartily with the literary Balladry that proliferated at the time. Look at (say) Bell's Rhymes of the Northern Bards, which remains my earliest source for The Collier's Rant, a song I've never seen any 'folk processed' variations of, but was deemed significant enough to be included in that context, as well as in Crawhall's later Buek o' Newcassell Sangs (1888) with other material by known authors working in The Idiom at the time. So... All songs were written by someone, and just because we know who wrote them doesn't make them any less Trad. - it just makes them none-anon.. Think of George Bruce Thompson's epic McGintie's Meal an Ale, the text of which was quickly assimilated into the both Grieg and Duncan Collection and the repertoir of such singers as Davie Stewart; think also of Tommy Armstrong & the other poetic song-makers whose muse is rooted deep in The Tradition, as oppose to the Idea of a Tradition, howe'er sae nebulous that Tradition may be - all the more so for the inclusion of such material.
As for Cunningham's Corbies, I've been singing it (to my own tune) for 25 years now thinking the text was anonymous. After all, all texts are anonymous until we find out who made them, or remade them, so do we think of this text as being folk processed or not? And why not? As I say, it's a vexing question not without easy answer unless one proceeds with the usual lines of Cultural Apartheid on which the Folk Revival is predicated as being a harvesting of the unlettered authentic by the very lettered paternalistic academia. However so quaint that notion may be (and however so sincere its exponents over the past century and more) I can't help but feel that the more one delves, so the more complex it gets, not just in terms of the material, but the philosophical approach of what we can consider as being Traditional and what we can't.
- An Oblique Parallax of Folk Song