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Posts Tagged ‘the Herring song’

As I’m writing this I’m in Kent again, where we’ve come for the Broadstairs folk week. I first came to it four years ago when I was writing Changeling, and was obsessed by ballads and folklore – it was so nice to see the traditions brought to life instead of just in the pages of anthologies: dancers with blackened faces or feathered headdresses; the Hooden horses snapping darkly; tiny pubs crammed with beer-drinkers and men with fiddles and accordions. It always coincides with the Perseid shower, with shooting stars smearing the sky over the chalk cliffs. Our favourite place to listen to music is the Wrotham Arms, where they have afternoon sessions where anyone can join in. People stand and start singing unaccompanied: aching tunes and strange old lyrics that I find inspiring. The first time I heard the ‘Herring Song,‘ which I used as the basis for my poem ‘Broadstairs’, was here:

What’ll we do with the Herring’s tail?
We’ll make it a ship with a beautiful sail
And all sorts of things
Herring’s tails, ships with sails
Herring’s fins, needles and pins
Herring’s backs, laddies and jacks
Herring’s bellies, lassies and nellies
Herring’s heads, loaves of bread
Herring’s eyes, puddings and pies
And all sorts of things

This time there was a wonderful rendition of ‘John Barleycorn’, who is harrowed and martyred to make our ale.

In my search for lullabies for Gruff I’ve also learnt a new one this week, related to two of the Child ballads, which I’ve been rocking him to sleep to in the spirit of the occasion. It’s called ‘The Riddle Song.’ It has taught me a new word – ‘pipping’ means in the egg.

I gave my love a cherry without a stone
I gave my love a chicken without a bone
I gave my love a ring that had no end
I gave my love a baby with no crying

How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a chicken that has no bone?
How can there be a ring that has no end?
How can there be a baby with no crying?

A cherry when it’s blooming it has no stone
A chicken when it’s pipping, it has no bone
A ring while it’s rolling, it has no end
A baby when it’s sleeping, has no crying.

It’s a song that was carried over to America to the Appalachian Mountains and if you’d like to learn it for your own baby, the loveliest version I’ve found on YouTube is by the great Sam Cooke

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