Wednesday 27 October 2010

Come all you little streamers - a mysteriously garbled folk song


Oh come all you little streamers wherever you may be
These are the finest flowers that ever my eyes did see.
Fine flowery hills and fishing dells and hunting also
At the top of yonder mountain where fine flowers grow.

At the top all of the mountains where my love's castle stands
It's over-decked with ivory to the bottom of the strand.
There's arches and there's parches and a diamond stone so bright;
It's a beacon for a sailor on a dark stormy night

At the bottom of the mountain there runs a river clear.
A ship from the Indies did once anchor there,
With her red flags a-flying and the beating of a drum
Sweet instruments of music and the firing of her gun.

So come all you little streamers that walks the meadows gay
And write unto my own true love wherever he may be
For his sweet lips entice me, but his tongue it tells me “No!”
And an angel might direct us and it's where shall we go?    



These lyrics are found, sung to a lovely tune by Shirley Collins, on an album of the Etchingham Steam Band (album of that name) - which was a small, almost-forgotten folk group who had a big influence on me in mid-teens. 

I was playing the piano accordeon and a bit of mouth organ, and learned all their stuff I could find (not much) and tried to emulate the general sound and musical philosophy in some lunchtime performances at school with my friend Gareth Jones (who played bass guitar and flute). We also did versions of Mike Oldfield's folksy singles of that era (In Dulce Jubilo and Portsmouth). 

Anyway... this particular song and tune, Come all you little streamers, was only issued much later - and I only came across it about 5 years ago. I loved everything about the performance, including the way that after the song they used the tune as a dance, done double speed. 

The lyrics are fascinating. Of course they are more-or-less nonsense, and have been garbled and mis-remembered by the hazards of oral transmission - in a 'Chinese whispers' kind of way - until collected from an old man called Ned Spooner in Sussex.  

There are, in fact, other versions of the same song, which make clear what it was originally about - but I prefer this one, with its weird suggestions at meaning. 


My point? 'Poetry' can be accidental, the product of accident - so long as the intention is pure. 

At least, this can happen by the oral process, when it is not intended to happen but does anyway. 

When hinted meanings etc are artificially contrived by professional intellectual poets, the results are (to my mind) despicable: for example the Waste Land by TS Eliot is a despicable 'poem' (deliberately obscure and fragmentary, full of show-off referencing) which has had an appalling influence. 

Hints at depths: that is what lyric poetry and song can do - and often we never really know whether or not the depths are there, but we need to be fascinated that they might be. 


Recall, the whole of Tolkien's mythology was triggered by a single suggestive and obscure phrase, indeed a single word: Earendel:

''Eala, Earendel engla beorhtost
ofer middangeard monnum sended"

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, above the middle earth sent unto men!

In the mouth of Lowdham, in The Notion Club Papers page 236: "When I came across that citation in the dictionary I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English".



Anonymous said...

While Tolkien may have been inspired by a phrase which had become suggestive and obscure the "natural" way, by historical accident, didn't he go on to create literature in which he deliberately inserted evocative obscurities and hinted meanings -- more akin (in this way only!) to Eliot than to your folk song?

Bruce Charlton said...

You are perfectly right.

It was a crazy idea, and it should never have worked.

But Tolkien was a man of deep moral seriousness, he was a genius - both in philology and writing, and he dedicated his life to the task.

And, amazingly, he succeeded!

Nobody else would have, nobody else ever will.