Eight Lost Songs

Iain Biggs


songs CD cover

Click on cover to hear the CD

This project is best described as a celebration but, paradoxically, one that has at its heart a number of absences. It is a response, in words, images and music, to such information we have about a set of eight lost songs, linked as far as we know only by their connection to the parish of Sowdun. We know almost nothing about these songs beyond what is set out in Alison Oliver’s notes, reproduced below.

No attempt has been made to literally ‘reconstruct’ the songs – as figures like Sir Walter Scott might have done in the past – not least because there is simply not the information available to us to do so. Instead, we have simply responded, on the basis of what information we have and empathetic imagination, to the spirit of such sparse facts we do have, particularly to the enigmatic trace of the various individuals whose lives provided the focus around which the original songs appear to have taken shape.

The background

On May 6th, 1969, Alison Oliver, a Canadian singer of Scottish decent, brought a tape to the independent record producer George Canning. On this tape she had recorded herself playing and singing arrangements of what she claimed were eight traditional songs. She also played and sang at least two of these songs ‘live’ to Canning. Oliver was a virtually unknown singer working the folk club circuit and it had taken her almost eight months of persistent letter writing and phone calls to get an appointment with Canning. However, when the meeting did finally take place, Canning was clearly impressed both by her singing and playing and by the material itself. He asked to borrow the tape so that he could play it to associates but, unfortunately for us, she refused, saying she’d rather return and play the material ‘live’. After some discussion, he agreed in principle both to help Oliver cut a demo and look for a recording contract for her if his associates were as impressed with the material as he declared himself to be. The only note of discord in an otherwise positive meeting appeared when he asked Oliver why, if these were indeed traditional songs, he had never heard any of them before? Oliver was clearly uncomfortable with this question and launched into a long, convoluted story about how her family had inadvertently taken a collection of old ballad manuscripts to Canada when they left Scotland, where the songs had subsequently been forgotten.

As Canning later told Sarah Norton, his personal assistant, he didn’t believe this story and had implied as much to Oliver. At this point she had become defensive and insisted that, while the arrangements were hers, both tunes and lyrics were traditional. Canning dropped the issue but, although the two parted on good terms, he immediately told Norton to write to Oliver and tell her that, given her insistence that these were traditional songs, she must bring the original manuscript with her when she returned to London to continue their negotiations.

Ten days later Oliver died in the early hours of the morning when a violent fire raged through the small, isolated cottage she rented. The out of the way location meant that this violent fire was not spotted for some time and, as a result, the cottage and all its contents were burned to the ground. No trace of Oliver’s body was found. Although the coroner finally recorded a verdict of ‘accidental death’ and closed the case, the local paper reported that friends of Oliver almost come to blows with an investigating officer who contested their view that Oliver, claimed to be a heavy and careless smoker, had accidentally started the fire by smoking in bed. The officer, perhaps suspicious because of the total destruction of the cottage and its contents, had produced circumstantial evidence to suggest that deliberate arson could not be ruled out. There was, for example, no evidence that Oliver had ever bought cigarettes locally and it came to light that she was both in arrears with her rent and heavily in debt.

This might have been the end of the matter had A not found some papers and letters tucked into the back of a very battered copy of the first volume of Frances James Child’s English and Scottish Ballads, bought by him for almost nothing at a car boot sale outside Newcastle upon Tyne. The book had ‘Alison Oliver, 1965’ written inside the front cover and, to judge by the writing, the many marginal notes suggested Oliver had made a close reading of the material it contained. A became intrigued by the implicit narrative this collection of documents suggested and decided to find out what he could about the circumstances surrounding the lost of the eight songs to which it referred. The documents included a letter confirming Oliver’s appointment with Canning and another from Norton communicating his request that she bring the manuscript to their next appointment. They also included what he took to be draft ‘sleeve notes’ by Oliver, reproduced below, and two newspaper cuttings from a local Scottish paper. One detailed the circumstances of Oliver’s death and the other the details of the coroner’s hearing.

Like Canning, A’s initial assumption was that Oliver had ‘faked’ a set of tradition ballads, using Child as a basis, and that the notes were intended to lend an air of authenticity to her forgery. However, after corresponding with a friend, an historian living in Harwick and familiar with the Sowdun area, and having done a good deal of specialist reading of his own, it became clear to A that not only had all the figures referred to in the notes actually existed, but that they all had a historical link to Sowdun. In addition, the sleeve note’s references to other ballads, some of which are not found in Child, and Oliver’s knowledge of specific local features, for example the state of the site at Hilly Linn, appeared to be accurate. It became increasingly clear that to dismiss the lost songs out of hand as a straightforward forgery would be too simple. None the less, further investigation confirmed that nothing whatsoever was known of the songs locally and all those consulted were, like Canning, sceptical of Oliver’s claim that a single family would possess the only surviving record of these eight ‘traditional’ songs. However, it also remains the case that this is, in itself, insufficient grounds to dismiss the lost songs as forgeries.

Regardless of their exact provenance, it seemed to A little short of tragic that the ‘Sowdun parish blues’ – as Norton recalled Oliver laughingly calling them during her meeting with Canning – had not survived. Canning was, by all accounts, a hard-bitten businessman with a very good ear who clearly knew strong material when he heard it. He certainly would not have offered to help a virtually unknown singer like Oliver – albeit one Norton described as ‘a bit of a stunner’ – unless her performance and the quality of the material had been genuinely outstanding. The notes suggest that, whatever their origins, these songs represented a rich and varied set of insights and imaginings about the people and landscape of Sowdun between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.


The Eight Sowdun songs : Alison Oliver’s notes

The Crow Child or Ranting Jamie and the Witch’s daughter

Of the eight Sowdun Parish songs, The Crow Child is the longest and strangely, the closest in style to the old ‘supernatural’ Borders ballads Thomas Rhymer and Tam Lin. However, unlike the generic characters in the ‘supernatural’ ballads, the figure of ‘Ranting Jamie’ Courton appears to be based on an actual historical person. It is recorded that, in 1670, the radical Covenanter James Courton of Sowdun was drowned when The Pride of London sank of Deerness. Courton had been a prisoner on the ship awaiting transportation. Other elements in this song remain, at least in terms of any historical basis, either confused or obscure.

It has been suggested, however, that the first third of The Crow Child refers to the death, in 1615, of a young Shetland woman condemned as a witch for ‘the fostering of ane bairne in the hill of Caldback to the fary folk’. We may assume that she had an illegitimate child by a sailor and tried to hide this from the Kirk. Caught nursing her child, she claimed only to have taken pity on a chance-found fairy child. However, any association with fairies, however charitable, was liable to be treated as a capital crime. She was subsequently executed but the child, a daughter, is believed to have survived, escaped as a young woman to Orkney and subsequently to have become one of the most feared and respected ‘howdies’ in those islands’ history. She is also said to have had a daughter at a time when most women were past such things. The reference to the ‘crow child’ comes from an Orkney story.

This goes as follows. A young girl went out to play one day with her friends. After a while they became bored with all their usual games and wondered what else they might do. The girl child, daughter to the ‘howdie’ Mattie Finn, said: ‘I’ll show you a game my Mam taught me’. She stood on the great stone at the field’s edge, flapped her thin arms and turned into a great black crow that flew low over the heads of the other children, inviting them to catch it. Delighted, they ran laughing and calling after the crow until they were too tired to run another step. The crow returned to the great stone and began to change back into a little girl but then the children realised that something was wrong. What hopped and shook on the stone was a young girl with the head of a great black crow. When they saw this they became frightened and, after whispering together, sent the youngest of the group to find Mattie Finn. Mattie was standing at doorway talking to a sea captain. (On the islands the ‘howdies’ or ‘Finns’, wise women who gain their power from the ‘fary folk’, were believed to be able to summon up fair or foul winds and could be persuaded to sell them for good silver). Mattie gave the poor child a black look when she interrupted the talking but when she heard what had happened, she ran straight out to the pasture. Coming up to her daughter, hopping and crying on the great stone, she called out some words and at once the crow child had a young girl’s head again. Mattie took her by the shoulder and gave her daughter a sharp slap, saying: that’s to teach you not to forget what you’ve been taught’.

How the story of Mattie’s daughter and her grandmother’s terrible death became linked to the loss of The London Pride and the death of a Sowdun Covenanter is not known. It must be assumed that a singer took a muddle of local island tales of ‘howdies’, fairy lovers and cursed sailors and, sensing in them the abiding thread of conflict between the ‘men of God’ and women who followed other paths, gave them a new form and currency through the link to a recent historical event, a typical example of the ‘migration’ of traditional material.

Alsion Oliver’s notes, and the mental landscape they summon up, bring to mind Rebecca Solnit’s recent observations about country and western music. Solnit observes that: ‘the old Scots and Irish ballads were as gory and gloomy, but they are generally heirlooms now, and country and western music is their immigrant bastard grandchild, something that came into its own only half a century ago and hasn’t died out yet… For me country’s definitive song might be ‘Long Black Veil’, whose way with time is straight out of the Bronties. A dead man sings ten years after his hanging for a crime he didn’t commit, but his only alibi is unutterable: ‘I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”, who when he died “stood in the crowd and said not a word”. Now she wanders the hills in a long black veil and, well, visits his grave where the night winds wail. Hills and night winds are still there, are reliable, are what you have in the end’. I would argue, however, that the approach to time she refers to is less that of the Bronties than of traditional Scots and Borders ballads that deal with the dead and with the revenant beings, for example The Unquiet Grave, Clerk Sanders and Sweet William’s Ghost’. See Rebecca Solnit ‘Diary – An account of driving in the Serra Nevada / New Mexico driving east’ (London Review of Books, 9th October 2003).

The Righteous Fugitive

This song was very probably inspired by the life and deeds of the Rev. William Veitch, an outlawed Covenanter and outdoor preacher, who became well known in the parish of Sowdun and surrounding area for his ability to escape capture by ‘the persecuting soldiery of the bigoted Stewarts’. A local account alleges that ‘the staunch Covenanter own his immunity from capture to an underground hiding place on a heather-clad knoll, so deftly fashioned and advantageously situated that he could view the landscape and watch the military as they fruitlessly searched the moorlands endeavouring to track the fugitive to his lair’. The description of Veitch’s ‘lair’ in the ballad suggests this may have been the barrow formally known as ‘Carter’s Howe’ that overlooks the Carter Burn and the old road to Otterburn as it runs east across the parish. If this is the case, there is a certain irony in the fact that this most zealous of Covenanters owed his life to the one feature in the local landscape still associated with the pagan (‘fairy’) world remembered in the ‘supernatural’ Borders ballads.

By Katey’s Cross

The character of ‘Auld Peter’ at the centre of this song is said to be Peter Oliver, a Sowdun fiddler and supposedly the last person in the parish to see the ‘good neighbours’, as the fairies were euphemistically known. This same sighting was reported by his son, Robbie Oliver, to a local historian at some point early in the nineteenth century and was described as having taken place somewhere on White Hill, to the north of the old Leatham chapel. The central event of the song is similar to later, better known stories, for example that told by Son House about Robert Johnson, in which Blues musicians were said to have sold their souls to the devil in order to play better. The Queen of Elphane is an appropriate substitute for the devil here, since traditionally the Church linked them, claiming that she paid him a human tithe every seven years. (The original basis for this tradition can be traced back to elements of pagan ritual associated with the sacrifice of the king to the triple Goddess, who became in turn the Queen of Elphane and featured prominently in Scottish witch trials).

The exact location of the cross roads where ‘Auld Peter’ meets the queen, once the site of a local market, is now lost. Circumstantial evidence suggests, however, that it may have been located at the point where the old drove road running up from Leatham crosses the main Otterburn road before fording the Carter Burn.

Wandering Jamie

‘Wandering Jamie’ would appear to record the adventures of a certain James Hume Turnbull ‘of Hyndlee’, who was born 1842, and like many of his generation, left the parish twenty six years later to seek his fortune in the New world. It has been suggested that, having fallen foul of the law in Scotland, the historical James did indeed cross to the New World. (An undated warrant for the arrest of a James Hume Turnbull, a suspected ‘Resurrection Man’ working in Edinburgh, can be found in the Edinburgh Records Office. Apart from the name, however, there is no evidence to link these two men and it is likely that the warrant predates the birth of Turnbull of Hyndlee. From the notes, it appears that this song may have been not dissimilar to the traditional ballad known as Lord Franklin). He is said to have travelled deep into the northwest of Canada where he died of his wounds ‘out on the frozen sea’ following a mortal battle with a ‘great white bear’. Beyond the reference to ‘Hilly Linn above the Jed’ that sits oddly in the second verse and may be a later addition, there is nothing to link the song Wandering Jamie directly to Sowdun. It none the less accurately reflects a major facet of the parish’s history – the exodus from the hill farms to find employment either in the big cities or in the New World. (The former farmstead of Hilly Linn is now no more than a name on the map and a few moss-covered stones beside a recently planted rowan tree in an area of rough ground between rows of recently planted Forestry Commission trees).

Bold Helen

Some circumstantial details in Bold Helen suggest that it may be based, if only in part, on events in the life of Helen Gerdin of Dykraw ‘in Jedburg Forest’ who, on the third of June, 1675, was fined for forestalling the market at Jedburgh by selling meat before ‘the ringing of markitt bell’. While the song may also refer to other actual evens in Helen’s life, it probably draws for the most part on much earlier material, now lost, celebrating the wit and cunning of independently minded countrywomen in their dealings with husbands, neighbours, lovers and the authorities. The vivid account of Helen’s erotic adventure in verses eleven to thirteen, highly unusual in a ballad of this kind, is remarkably similar to the erotic encounter of the Waggoner and Jenny in the English ballad Ge Ho, Dobin. Both songs make evocative use of parallels between the sexual act and the characteristic motions of a form of transport – the bumping wagon in Ge Ho, Dobin and the actions of the vigorous oarsman in Bold Helen.

The ‘mill race’ where Helen half drowns her husband lies to the southeast of the site of the old Sowdun church and its course is still just visible in field behind Sowdun farm. ‘Tam’s Rig’, where Helen hides from the Sheriff’s men, is almost certainly Tamshiel Rig, where the remains of the shielding can still be seen near the site of an Early Iron Age settlement and fort now almost totally destroyed by modern forestry planting.

The Death of the Rev. Thomas Thomson

According to local accounts the death in 1716 of the Rev. Thomas Thomson after a two-day illness was the result of ‘supernatural intervention’. (The exact nature of which is not recorded, although the song itself suggests that it was the result of a ‘fairy’ curse). Like a number of the other ‘Sowdun songs’ collected here, this one hints at an underlying and deeply felt conflict between the ‘rational’ Christianity of men like Thomas Thomson and a much earlier, ultimately pagan, world view that retained much of its power in the remote upland farms into the nineteenth century. Given her sudden appearance and disappearance in the snow-covered landscape ‘beside the Carter Burn’ on a day when a wind is blowing from the north, we can reasonably assume that the ‘fair hunting lady’ who ‘looked at Thomas with a cold eye’ after he had scorned the ‘poor tinker’ is no ordinary woman. She closely resembles the ‘Queen of Elphane’ in the ‘supernatural ballads’ and as she is discussed by Robert Graves in his The White Goddess.

Thomas Thomson’s son James (1700-1748) was born in Sowdun and became one of Britain’s most influential poets of the period, inspiring Turner, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Perhaps the ‘fair lady’ felt some remorse for what she had done to his father?

Black-eyed Border Maid

Oddly, the ‘black-eyed heroine of this relatively recent song remains anonymous, despite making it clear that she is a descendent of ‘Black Jannet’. This is the ‘Black’ Jannet Grieve‘ of Suddonrig’ who married in 1762, one of the many formidable women in a family well represented in the parish. She in turn is probably the granddaughter of the ‘bonny Jannet Grieve’ who hid ‘Bold Helen’ in the song of the same name. While it will appear singularly odd to a modern listener that reference to a ‘green mantle’ should give rise to such consternation in the Grieve family, why it does so will become obvious when we know that ‘greens’ is an ‘archaic’ expression for sexual intercourse, or that a ‘green mantle’ refers to ‘a roll in the grass sometimes, but not always, associated with loss of virginity’. (Editor’s note: interestingly, this expression appears to have crossed the Atlantic intact and to have entered the vocabulary of the working class music more usually referred to as Blues. In 1972 Ron ‘Pig Pen’ McKernan (a member of the Grateful Dead and sometime lover of Janis Joplin) would introduce the aside ‘I don’t want to miss my greens’ into a twenty minute rendering of Clark and Resnick’s ‘Good Loving’, leaving no doubt whatsoever as to the continuation of the traditional meaning of this term. This is the first track on the second of four CDs that make up Steppin’ out with the Grateful Dead, England’72 Astra / GDCD 4084, 2002). The concluding lines of ‘A Ballad of Andrew and Maudlin’, quoted below, make absolutely explicit the reason for the family’s consternation.

They laid the Girls down, and gave each a green mantle
While their Breasts and their Bellies when Pintle a Pantle.

Margaret and Isobell

It is a matter of historical record that Margaret Chisholm, the wife of a traveller named Thomas Olipher (or Oliver) was fined in 1640 for wounding a certain Isobell Leidance in the face. Like the Rev. William Veitch, Thomas and Margaret appear to have used a local barrow for either shelter or, perhaps more likely, storage of dubious goods, which would explain Isobell’s ambiguous taunt about abusing the hospitality of the ‘Elphane Queen’. (Tempting as it would be to suggest that this barrow is the same ‘Veitch’s lair’, otherwise known as ‘Carter’s Howe’ and mentioned in connection with The Righteous Fugitive, there is no real evidence for this). However, it can be noted that that there are a series of long, twisting ‘banks o’ gravel grey’ clearly marked on the first ever Ordinance Survey map as lying along the edge of the ‘haughs’ that border the Black Burn, just as they do in the song. Whether or not these were the location of the epic fight between the two women, or indeed whether that fight inspired the song’s account of the protracted and increasingly surreal battle recorded in the song hardly matters.

Whatever the case, it perfectly represents the particular, often peculiar, black humour so often found in these songs.

Alison Oliver
May, 1969