A lot of people -- well, several anyway -- have asked what songs I like to play. Actually, only a few people have asked. All right, look, nobody's asked me.

Anyway, in response to -- or in spite of -- this lack of curiosity, here's a sampling of my basic repertoire. It's the stuff which most readily springs to mind when I sit down with instrument in hand, or just feel like giving the voice a workout.

Of course, there may be any number of instances when I suddenly realize I've forgotten to list a song I've been singing for years. So you'll just have to check back here occasionally. Tough luck, pal.

(Words and music traditional unless noted, and credited to best of knowledge or recollection)

The Bonny Laboring Boy: From a recording of Roscommon's Paddy Beades. For everyone who dated someone their parents didn't like.

The Maisters: Written by Scottish poet and playwright Harold Purdie. He compresses a few centuries worth of Scottish history into about seven verses, telling the story of "The Borderers" -- people who lived along the border of England and Scotland -- and their plight: enduring the savagery of the clan wars, and then that of the social and economic circumstances courtesy of "the Maisters," the people at the top of the pyramid.

My Lady of Autumn (David Webber): Evocative, poignant and much too damn good a song only to be confined to one time of the year.

Farewell to the Gold (Paul Metzers): From the singing of Nic Jones. Certainly convinced me never to try my hand at prospecting.

Bonnie Jean Cameron: A song about a supposed paramour of Prince Charles Stuart AKA Bonnie Prince Charlie AKA The Young (not "Great") Pretender who, in fact, had little or nothing to do with him. Pretty though -- at least the song is, dunno about Jean.

Mr. Fox's Garden (John Pole): From the singing of Frankie Armstrong. Chilling, and awash in all kinds of symbology, not all of which I necessarily understand.

To the Begging I Will Go: An amalgam of Scottish and English versions of this commentary on the virtues of begging, full of the usual sardonic, sarcastic wit one rightly associates with British Isles traditional song.

Old Daddy Fox: Like many Americans of my generation (not to mention others), I was quite well-acquainted with "The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night" by the time I reached adolescence, and more than happy to move on. Then I heard this "British version," rendered unforgettably by The Young Tradition, and reintroduced it into my repertoire.

Welcome Royal Charlie: First heard this done by Archie Fisher yonks ago, learned it (with additional and different lyrics) via Hogg's Jacobite Relics, played it pretty regularly, then pretty much forgot about it until fairly recently. Ridicule or scorn Bonnie Prince Charlie if you will, but he had some good songwriters working for him -- the chorus, for me, is what makes this song worth doing.

No Telling (What a Love Song Will Do) (Linda Thompson): Unabashedly sentimental yet heartfelt and well-written ballad about redemption and love-at-first-sight in the roadhouse. It fits in equally well at an Irish pub or an old-timey singaround.

Jackson and Atkinson (tune adapted by Sean Smith): Found these words in a book of Victorian-era street ballads. Rather straightforward reporting of (one assumes) a noteworthy wrestling match held in the north of England -- "Some thousands came to see the match...From Whitehaven, Penrith and Carlisle, too, likewise..." The song praises the gallant loser, but given that the winner outweighed him by more than five stones (70 lbs.) -- as we learn in the third verse -- one can't be too surprised at the outcome.

Green Mossy Banks of the Lea: Fairly popular English-Irish traditional song I learned from the singing of Nic Jones some years ago and eventually adapted for bouzouki. A reverse immigration song, if you will, in that the protagonist is from Philadelphia but winds up on the other side of the Atlantic. Nominally a love song, but rather perfunctory -- boy meets girl, but doesn't so much as court her as offer her father an apparently compelling financial portfolio, and so in the end, gets girl. Still, the melody's interaction with the lyrics (my favorite couplet: "As she rose from the reeds by the water/by the green mossy banks of the lea") make up for whatever narrative shortcomings there might be.

Poverty Knock: Found in A.L. Lloyd's Folk Songs of England, with inspiration from the singing of Roy Bailey. Collected from the mills of Lancashire a couple of centuries ago, when workers found their industrial looms did seem to make a noise that sounded like "poverty poverty knock" -- providing an irresistible basis for a sardonic worksong. A good crowd-pleaser with easy chorus and cue for rhythmic hand-clap and/or foot-stomp.

The Great Footrace: Words from an old broadsheet (probably originating in Lancashire or thereabouts) set to music by Jon Raven, and included as part of the wonderful "Sporting Ballads of England" album and book. Most folk songs about athletic competition I've heard tend to describe wrestling or boxing matches rather than footraces, so this seemed a good one to learn.

Sweet Lisbweemore: Learned from the singing of the popular group Patrick Street, but credit must go to Cork's own Mrs. Elizabeth Cronin, who all but introduced the song to the Irish traditional music revival. Plot is the basic boy meets, is smitten by, unwisely chats up and loses girl; it's enlivened by a Pirandelloesque twist in one verse, where the girl worries that the object of her affections will write a song revealing her temptation to stray. Then there's the shifting chorus and its references to "the turberie," which is apparently a designated area where Irish villagers could dig for turf.

I Courted a Sailor (Kate Rusby): A contemporary song that sounds traditional: simple in structure, yet effectively conveying by turns the fear, steadfast loyalty and relief of a young woman awaiting her love's return.

We'll Sing 'Til the Morning (Kate Rusby): Another great one from Oor Kate, tailor-made for late-night gatherings, especially when everyone's too festive (or festooned) to go to bed.

Trimdon Grange (Tommy Armstrong): Penned by a miner-cum-poet and songwriter to commemorate a terrible pit tragedy in Durham during the winter of 1882, set to a Victorian parlor ballad, and sold on the streets to raise funds for the bereaved families. Journalism, pathos and solidarity, all in four verses. I had this song sitting in my unconscious for the better part of 25 years, having heard it from folks like Martin Carthy and John Roberts and Tony Barrand, but after 9/11 it fought its way to the front of my mind.

The Pride of Glencoe: One of my all-time favorite broken-token/love-glove ballads. I was inspired to learn it from the singing of Ray Fisher (who learned it from Brigid Tunney), and later found the words in a folk music journal somewhere.

Geordie: Child Ballad #209*. There appear to be two threads of this ballad: the well-known lugubrious version as performed by Joan Baez, Martin Carthy and others; and the version I sing, which is far more upbeat and has some different plot details than the former. This particular rendition is a somewhat more elaborate version of one sung by my one-time band members, Alannah Fitzgerald and Marc Cushing, (heard on "Land of My Youth," Front Hall Records).

The Green Shores of Fogo: Canadian-Irish immigration song from the singing of Joe Hickerson. It's found in the Kenneth Peacock collection of Newfoundland songs and ballads, listing a Mrs. John Fogarty as the source.

The Barleygrain for Me: A Canadian-Irish variant of the John Barleycorn legend, taken from the singing of Margaret Christl and Ian Robb. Originally collected by Edith Fowke from O.J. Abbot of Hull, Quebec.

Barrack Street: The "English version" of the popular Irish song "Patrick Street," from the singing of Nic Jones. A rather different take on the "rambling sailor" stereotype.

All Jolly Fellows That Follows the Plough: A bit of agrarian propaganda, taken from the singing of Martyn Windham-Read.

The Bonny Light Horseman: An amalgam of a few versions, primarily those by Dolores Keane and Andy Irvine. One of the more well-known songs in the Sam Henry collection Songs of the People, it's a lament for a soldier killed in the Napoleonic Wars.

Martinmas Time: Taken largely from the singing of Anne Briggs. Can be found in the Gavin Greig collection. Young woman not only outwits randy bunch of soldiers, she makes money off of 'em, too.

The Lakes of Shilin: A tragic ditty on the importance of water safety also known as "The Lakes of Coolfin," this version is taken from the singing of Nic Jones.

The Jolly Soldier: As arranged by Paul Brady and Andy Irvine. Dad doesn't like daughter's girlfriend-cum-husband, but finds that soldiers don't take kindly to Draconian fatherly interventions.

The Border Widow's Lament (tune adapted by Sean Smith): A ballad within a ballad, actually -- the first several verses of Child Ballad #106 ("The Famous Flower of Serving Men") -- that has its own separate history, from the time of the Reivers, when the Anglo-Scottish border was rife with rivalry and raiding. I was inspired to learn this from the singing of Lisa Null and Bill Shute, and found the lyrics in Ballads of Britain, edited by John Goss. Woman mourns for the murder -- or perhaps assassination is the right word -- of her husband, whose corpse she must grieve over and then bury with no one to provide assistance or comfort. Sadly, this ballad rings as true today as most any time in history.

Trubshaw and Green: A sporting ballad taken from the singing of Martyn Windham-Read.

Thornaby Woods: First heard this tribute to poachers and their work done by Roy Bailey, later learned it from the Hammond-Gardiner Marrowbones collection of British Isles folk songs. Originally collected from Mrs. Webb of King's Norton in Worc estershire, 1900.

Songs written by Jez Lowe: Jez is from the Northeast of England, and manages to write songs that, somehow, can sound topical, traditional and entirely relevant all at once.
-Durham Gaol: The first of his songs I ever heard, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek jailhouse lament with an infectious rhythm and chorus.
-Old Bones: Lost youth is persuaded to join the military as the way out of his socioeconomic and moral malaise. But will he take the queen's shilling after all?
-The Bergin: The title is taken from the name of a boat that supposedly was wrecked off the English coast during the 19th century. Sung from the perspective of the wife, or lover, of one of the victims.
-When These Coal Town Days Are Done: A lament that reflects the close, conflicting ties between mining communities and their livelihood.

Doffin' Mistress: From the singing of June Tabor and Maddy Prior. Elsie Thompson sounds like a good person to have 'round the textile mill.

Mr. Dunn: Comical ballad from the singing of Cathal McConnell.

The War-like Lads of Russia: From the singing of Nic Jones (who devised the tune for it), a Napoleonic ballad that is less deferential to Old Boney than most.

Wall of Death (words by Les Barker): Not to be confused with a Richard Thompson song of the same title. Les is an hysterically funny poet from Lancashire who also can write some powerful serious songs, like this one -- a spare, ominous meditation on man's exploitation of the seas.

Slip Jigs and Reels (Steve Tillston): Supposedly, Tillston was inspired to write this after seeing a photo of a young Irishman who had immigrated to the Old West -- and who, shortly after the photo was taken, met an untimely end.

So Far From Home (Tim Brook): This song, which takes aim at the "romanticism" of fighting abroad, is often done a capella to accompany a border morris dance called "Richard's Castle." I saw it performed by Red Stags and MOTley Morris, and eventually got the lyrics from a couple of their members.

Reunion Hill (Richard Shindell): A Civil War widow's memoirs.

Walter Lesley (tune adapted by Sean Smith): Child Ballad #296. Along the same lines as "Martinmas Time," the heroine manages to evade her drunken Northumbrian captor and his minions, apparently through sheer will (she runs "over hill and dale/without stocking or shoon").

The Gael's Farewell (tune adapted by Sean Smith): I found the words to this immigration song in the Edinburgh Public Library, in a volume simply titled Celtic Magazine , and credited to "Fionn."

The Jolly Tinker: From the singing of The Young Tradition. Memo to farmers with nubile daughters: If an old tinker asks to spend the night, check under the hood.

We Shepherds Are The Best of Men (AKA The Brackley Shepherd): Learned, literally, at the feet of Lou Killen at Pinewoods music camp in Massachusetts.

Flash Company: Accumulated from a couple of sources, notably the singing of June Tabor. Fast life, slow degradation.

The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter: Child Ballad #106. Taken largely from the singing of John Roberts and Tony Barrand. Woman pursues and confronts the man who "has his will of her." The climactic dialogue can be a little confusing, but the upshot is that neither of them occupies the station the other imagines.

Polly On The Shore: A tender anti-war ballad from the singing of Martin Carthy. He credits Shirley Collins as his source, who in turn learned it from George Maynard.

To Pad the Road Wi' Me: From the singing of Tony Cuffe. To-the-point courting and marriage song.

Broughty Wa's (tune adapted by Sean Smith): Child Ballad #258. "Wa's" is Scottish for "walls," in case you wondered. Broughty Wa's is the home of Burd Helen, who gets kidnapped by a jealous would-be courter but, fortunately, is a good swimmer.

Dido, Bendigo: Classic hounds-n-hunting song learned from several sources, including the singing of Martyn Windham-Read.

Dido, Fido (words by The Kipper Family): A wicked parody of the above entry.

Ben Kenobi: Speaking of parodies, one of Les Barker's nifty turns on both sea chanteys (it's a goof on "John Kalaka") and pop culture.

Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down: From the singing of Joe Hickerson. A song I usually save for late at night and/or fairly intimate gatherings.

The Pride of the Springfield Row: An all-too-brief industrial love song from Northern Ireland, which I first heard performed at the Fox Hollow Festival by a trio belonging to a larger California-based assemblage known as The Portable Folk Festival.

Bonny Susie Cleland: Child Ballad #65. The tune is largely inspired by a version I heard done by Lisa Null and Bill Shute. Scots lady commits the unthinkable crime of falling in love with an Englishman, for which she is severely punished by father and brother.

Child Owelet (tune adapted by Sean Smith): Child Ballad #291. A ballad to cite for those who consider traditional folk music to be tame. A ballad to cite for those who consider traditional folk music to be tame: adultery, incest, false accusation, dismemberment -- all this and more!

The Wanton Seed: From the singing of A.L. Lloyd. Doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand what the song's really about.

Selected sea chanteys and other maritime songs (for the months with an "ARRRRR!" in them).
*Roll Agamemnon Roll: Cracking good sea chantey, learned from Max Johnson of the Threadbare Consort during my trip to England in '79.
*Doodle Let Me Go: From various sources.
*Donkey-Riding: Various sources.
*The Topman and the Afterguard: From the singing of Lou Killen.

Selected spirituals, hymns and similar songs.
*Palms of Victory: Originally heard performed by Helen Schneyer at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival.
*Down in the Valley to Pray: Various sources.
*What Wondrous Love Is This?: Various sources, but mostly The Young Tradition.
*Sing, John Ball: Written by Sidney Carter to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the 1381 Peasant's Revolt ("Wat Tyler's Rebellion").


*A "Child Ballad" refers to the massive collection of folk songs amassed by Francis J. Child in the late 19th century, titled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. This is a particularly informative site about Child and his work.

Back to Main Page