Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Wild Mountain Thyme and other beautiful folksongs

....and the wild mountain thyme blows around the blooming heather

What exactly is a 'folk song' ? I teach them all the time, and have a folder bursting at the seams with single copies, hand written copies and compilation volumes of them. I was once told by Middy, my first teacher, that if I/we did not teach them, and keep them going, they would die and be lost to the world of song for ever. I have never forgotten that, and so I always make sure that they figure in every pupil's repertoire at some point in their lessons.

However, I have not yet tried to answer the question. In my A Level teacher mode, a folksong is a song of the people, or of a job of work, usually passed down orally through the generations . Rarely written down, and unfettered by instruments or fancy arrangements.......

In actuality, folk songs come in all shapes, sizes and styles. Some of the most beautiful are memorable and haunting because of the simplicity of the melody, and some are just as memorable and haunting by virtue of what a composer has added, because he/she loved the melody and felt impelled to use it in other ways.

When I first started to bring my students to Paradise in the summer holidays, we gave 2 or 3 concerts of mixed choral pieces, solos, duets and trios etc, and because I had young voices much of the SATB repertoire was outwith the range of a 15 year old tenor, or 17 year old Bass, so what did I do ? I took some of the most beautiful folksongs from this neck of the woods and arranged them myself in a bespoke way for what voices I had at my fingertips. It became something of a tradition in the end, I would arrange a new one for each visit we made, and they were greatly liked by the singers and the audiences.

I loved the melodies, and wanted to try to make them even more beautiful - I was not trying to take away from the simple uncluttered and authentic melody line - I could never have managed that anyway! Just a touch of 'Ann' was thrown in for a moment in time.

The melodies will live on long after I'm gone, so for a brief moment I had the pleasure of making them part of me.

Today I taught a young man who is singing 'The Wild Mountain Thyme' at the prizewinners concert on Sunday. He is singing it in the natural and unaccompanied way it has originally come down to us, yet he sings it with a trained sound, good and clear words, and beautifully in tune. It works very well. Just as it would work by an untrained and ultra natural folk singer with not an atom of vocal technique, and just as well as it works with the Tenor/Baritone duet version which I arranged and the girl's SSA version which once again I arranged at a time in my career when boys voices were as rare as hens teeth!

'I will build my love a bower,
by yon clear crystal fountain'

It is 'The Wild Mountain Thyme' that works, not any particular version, and therein lies what a folk song really is - a Song for all Seasons.

In the Singing Together book, there are some of the loveliest British folk songs from the Welsh 'Ash Grove' through the English 'Oak and the Ash', via the Irish 'Fisherman's Night Song' to the beautiful Scottish 'Ye Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon'. One small purple book travels 1000 musical miles around the British Isles.

The young lad who performs on Sunday will hold the audience in the palm of his hand with his poised and heartfelt performance. The folk song will stand alone, and capture the very essence of singing. L will simply add his own sparkle to it, and make it his own for one passing moment in it's long and glorious history.


  1. I love The Wild Mountian Thyme. My church choir sang it many years ago when I was a teenager at one of our charity concerts. I know The Ash Grove well too. I'd like to get to know more folk songs though. Could you possibly recommend a couple of books that would give me a basic intro.

  2. Ann, your blog about the students you teach and their characteristics reminds me of the piano teacher our two daughters had. She voluntarily began teaching them vocal music and they stayed with her until their high school graduation. She will be 80 in March and we still keep in touch and visit her.

    You have my sympathy in the loss of your dog Ellie. What a touching video about her adoption of the bunnies.

    Your blog is beautiful. I began a Feedjit account today and am looking forward to reading more of your posts.