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Gallows Ballads Project: sleevenotes

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Elsa Lanchester on Mrs Dyer the Baby Farmer
"This is a cockney ballad, written around the story of a public hanging some time during the last century. The public appetite for violence and horror is probably incurable, so I would call this song almost a folk song. It was printed by a cheap printing press in London for sale on the streets, to be sung on the streets." - From Lanchester's spoken word introduction to the song on her 1960 LP Cockney London.

Nicola Andrew on using Gallows Child in her staging of Oliver Twist.
"Over a hundred children aged between 7 and 18 were condemned to hang during the 19th century, although nearly half of these had their sentences commuted to deportation to Australia.
"The world in which Oliver finds himself is not a kind place for children, or for the poor. His experience in the dingy world of crime in Jacob's Island, one of London's most notorious backstreets, was probably as realistic as Dickens could be allowed to make it, given the sensibilities of his readers. Low life and criminal life exists, he argues, and nothing but a healthier frame of mind can come from the knowledge of them." - From The Hammond School's Oliver Twist programme (December 2011).

Sedayne on The Silent Grove
"When Paul Slade recently asked for singers to take part in his Gallows Ballad Project it seemed like something I might enjoy, so selecting The Silent Grove I set about trying to imagine myself as a 19th-century street-singer, even to the point of considering a field recording singing it along some suitable street, such as The Shambles in York. This is something I might do yet, but for now here's the studio version.
"The tune is my own, though I regard all human creativity as essentially mediumistic and therefore Traditiional after a fashion. I didn't want anything too dark or sombre, asking of my fiddle something that might have been possible by an itinerant British fiddler familiar with a few Scottish, Irish and Northumbrian songs & tunes and able to extemporise a Broadside melody pretty much on the spot; something jaunty by way of a theme, and suitable for occasional snatches of pathos without overdoing it too much.
"Of course there are diversions from the printed version, though I confess these are not so very spontaneous, or Folk Processed, rather to help them fit to a tune which I thought was rather too good; thus are the facts shaped to fit the theory.
"The plot is a rather typical one; as in Life, as in Soap Opera, as in Folk Song - I sing several others, such as the folk-standards Lucy Wan (where the victim is the sister, thus giving the plot a deliciously incestuous turn of the screw) and Hanged I Shall Be (lately subverted by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer as part of their Foster's Lager comedy shorts - check it out: ) where a murderous young man confesses to his crimes when his mother discovers blood stains on his clothing.
"The turn of the screw here is the birth and immediate despatch of the hapless tot - which gives the whole thing a feel of the dark humours of Edward Gorey, who, oddly enough, never once cited Broadside Ballads as an inspiration, though one must wonder!" - From Sedayne's Soundcloud pages (15/2/12).

"Giving it a bit more thought - mostly in order to justify my approach to my wife last night who quizzed me about the ostensible jollity of the thing (though I agree with Paul about the psychotic element) - I was thinking very much of the 19th Century street singer performing to a mixed audience in terms of age / social class so the song is merry enough for the dancing tots (whose concentration spans would have given up on the narrative by verse 4) but it carries the darkness at its core for the attentive adults, perhaps being made all the more appalling to the more sensitive Bourgeoisie by the brightness of the tune; beguiled by so subversive a dichotomy (and thus beguiled does the Dodger dip their pockets).
"You don't have to over egg these things in terms of pathos; the formulaic morphology (both in narrative as well as structure) works as basic reportage in an age when Broadside Ballads were mass media. Of course a more Grand Guignol approach would do just as well, but I've been immersed in Broadsides, Edward Gorey (interviews as well as books) and Poe all year, so maybe that's just where my head is at right now.
"I think one thing we've lost these days is that crimes are reported, but we never get the full story, much less a song about them (though there were at least two going the rounds about Raoul Moat). In folklore, you still get stories, gossip, and jokes (in especially extreme cases). I remember barely legible photocopies doing the rounds in factories and offices, though these days it's more likely to be texts. People love crime drama - they revel in the details by way of a very genuine catharthis - they need the MMO to contextualise the horror - which is something the Gallows Ballads give us in spades." - From the GBP Mudcat thread (16/2/12).

Tim Radford on The Old Baby Farmer
"I have been singing The Old Baby Farmer for years. I learnt it many many years ago from my old late friend Dave Williams, in South Hampshire." - From the GBP Mudcat thread (10/2/12).

Rob Wahl on Streams of Crimson Blood
"Despite how it may come across, my setting is quite simple - only three musical ideas restated in modest variations. For inspiration, I imagined Peter Bellamy writing a Sweeney Todd-like death march, to be sung in a rich low baritone like Martin Winsor's; this tune emerged in short order and required just a little shaping.
"It wouldn't pass muster as an authentic period tune, but I think it fits the stagey melodrama of the ballad. I wrote the tune specifically to require no accompaniment, in the manner these ballads were typically performed, but in my head I sometimes 'hear' an accompaniment of short, solid chords or bass notes played on the verse downbeats by an instrument like the portative organ or bassoon--certainly not the ubiquitous guitar. I believe the predominant modality is Dorian, and the notation appears to agree.
"The title Streams of Crimson Blood was one Paul smartly extracted from the innards of the ballad text. This delightfully lurid phrase drew me into the story and the ballad, so I wanted to reprise and elaborate upon that phrase, which sadly occurs only once in the original ballad.
"My solution was to add refrains, using this key phrase to lead into a new line with some absurdly gruesome embellishment, before repeating or rephrasing the last lines of the verse. To highlight these lines even more, and particularly to mimic the 'flow' of the streams, I switched meter, tempo, feeling, and manner of melodic movement - this also creates space for the singer to milk the lines and for listeners to respond emotionally (even if that reaction is to stifle a chuckle)." – from Rob's e-mail to PlanetSlade (10/3/2012).

KingBrilliant on The Foreigner's Downfall
"The Foreigner's Downfall is a murder ballad, but it is also a love song, a song of regret, and a song of exile. I like the fact that the song is written from Dedie's perspective and that, rather than focus exclusively on the harsh facts of the murder, it dwells on his love for Caroline and the comfort he got from the drawings he made of the girls during his incarceration.
"It seems that he is resigned to swing on the gallows, and is more sorry for himself than remorseful for his crime. He draws comfort from the pictures, as if he feels that the girls are supporting him through his trials. It fascinates and chills me that he has love but no empathy. But a point in his favour: he has such a wonderfully singable name.
"I chose to set the lyrics to the traditional tune of The Nightingale (ish) because that is also a love song involving a soldier, and because it is likely that the broadsides were sung to familiar traditional tunes." - From the GBP Mudcat thread (9/4/12).

Big Al Whittle on The Life & Trial of Palmer
"I grew up in Lincolnshire where the winters are harsh. Illness, in the form of rich bubbling colds, was a large part of our way of life.
"I suppose I was eight years old, or maybe nine, when my sister Susan brightened my sick room by reading me the Sherlock Holmes story The Speckled Band. The villain of the piece is a doctor. Holmes is at his saturnine best as he says to Watson, 'When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession. This man strikes even deeper!'
"Who were Palmer and Pritchard? I combed the reference library in my hometown, for them, but they were not there. Then again, neither was The Hoxton Creeper - one of Holmes' fearsome opponents in a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film. Perhaps Conan Doyle had invented all these people.
"There was one book that was well-thumbed, a Daily Express publication called Sixty Famous Trials. And there crouched the weasely, bald-headed, sneaky countenance of William Palmer. There he was - pouring a slug of poison for some unsuspecting victim. On another page, one of his victims lay in a bed screaming in agony: 'Keep that devil away from me!' A picture from a nightmare. I fell upon the history of the man I'd heard about from Sherlock Holmes like a botanist who chances on an exotic bloom.
The account of William Palmer was something of a disappointment. Far from being an evil genius Moriarty-type villain, he seemed more like a gibbering idiot. Robert Graves's novel And They Hanged My Saintly Billy pretty much confirmed that view of him. Here was a chap who impregnated the local peasant girls, then poisoned the resulting babies; poisoned people as a sort of party trick down at the local pub; poisoned those he owed money to; poisoned his family, his in-laws and his business partners. The story never sounded right.
"During the 1970s I lived in Birmingham, where the IRA was planting bombs. When they arrested the Birmingham Six, someone came forward and said that the six men had been seen in a local pub, all sat round a table sagely examining alarm clocks - presumably as timing devices for the bombs that would mutilate and murder dozens of ordinary Brummies. I used to drive past this pub every day on the way to work. Sure enough, someone firebombed the place to get even with the bombers! Someone believed the tale.
"I tell this story because it illustrates how people get caught up in the excitement of a big murder case and how all kinds of stories about the accused get told. And I think, as with the alarm clock story, William Palmer had people telling tales about him. The mortality rate among the young babies of the poor was very high back in the 1850s. The medical evidence against him was inconclusive.
"The foreword to Sixty Famous Trials is written by Percy Hoskins, the Daily Express crime reporter. As a kid I used to read Hoskins reports, where he demonised Podola, Derek Bentley, Ronald Marwood and all those other toe-rags whose unprepossessing nature took them to the gallows. One week, there was just this picture of a bloke eating steak and chips in a transport cafe. It was Harry Allen, the public hangman off to hang someone. Probably they all felt like William Palmer - they were in a picture from a nightmare."

[This is my edited version of Al's original essay, which was a little too long to run in full on this page. To read the full essay, please visit Al's website here.]

Mary Humphreys on The Sister & The Serpent.
[The 1850 ballad sheet containing these lyrics suggests they be sung to an old tune called The Waggon Train, which I'd never been able to find - but Mary did.]

"I found the Waggon Train tune on the English Folk Dance & Song Society's Take Six website - The Sergeant in the Wagon Train, collected from Mrs Baker, Maidstone, July 1944, by Francis Collinson," she writes. "It fits like a glove - perfectly suited to the doggerel verse of a goodnight ballad. I think the tune is also used for a version of William Taylor (who was shot by his true love for marrying another girl).
"Castle Camps is well known to the folk fraternity of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex. The pub there, The Cock, has been the home of a good many local old boys' sessions, run by Neil Lanham, the well-known song collector and recorder, and later by Colin Cater. They're currently being revived by Terry Mann." - From Mary's e-mail to PlanetSlade (24/6/12).

Gerry Jones on The Liverpool Lodger.
"The text makes it clear that this is a tragic Victorian 'parlour ballad', so a minor key was inevitable and its range would have to be that of an average baritone. From the start I envisaged it sung by a man, although maybe it would 'work' if sung by a lady?
"I wanted to use some low(-ish) notes to help express horror, yet go high enough to allow a resounding climax, so I started playing around in E minor and its related chords. Having some slight knowledge of this style of song, partly from long ago folk-clubs, and more recently from items printed in EDS magazine, I started with these in mind for feel and style. These songs, I believe, would often be sung unaccompanied, with chords implied rather than stated.
"This gives the freedom from having to make each note fit a 'classical harmony' pattern, maybe more modal - except that mine are almost entirely using 'passing notes' rather than using this freedom.
"The rhythm of the words suggests 2/4 or 4/4, with 4/4 being better for flowing, declamatory speech. Giving each syllable one crotchet would work, but would be far too monotonous. In some instances the text required two syllables to share a note, so I made a conscious decision to avoid straight four-crotchet bars wherever possible. (This almost immediately led me to the similar mistake of making it nearly all in 'three crotchets, pair of quavers' bars throughout!)
"How long is each verse? Each couplet seems quite complete in itself, and yet the verses as given to me were in 'two-couplet' form, for no reason apparent to me. To stay with the two-couplet verse meant that I could not simply make a tune for one couplet, and then play it twice for each verse.
"However, this would be straightforward repeating, and the same melody sung/played eighteen times. So I decided to try something different with the second couplet, with some degree of modulation into a related key giving more prominence to chord IV, in this case A minor.
"But then the verse had to be brought to a close by a return to the main chord pattern. The simplest way seemed to repeat the second line of first couplet. I found I could justify this in folk-song terms as written MS was much less likely long ago, and oral transmission would rely more on repetition.
"I think it works as it now is. It does have echoes of old ballads, and slightly 'off' harmonies at times. I think it does allow for a declamatory expressive style, building to that strong climax in line four before fading sadly to a close. My main worry is that it might be too close to Hugh Jones' song Marco Polo, but I think all minor key 4/4 sad folk songs are bound to share some features." - From Gerry's e-mail to PlanetSlade (11/9/12).

[You can find a free PDF of Gerry's sheet music for this ballad here. Please remember to acknowledge him as the music's composer if you plan to use it.]

Adam Donovan of The Jetsonics, on Cruel Lizzie Vickers.
"We've done a demo of Cruel Lizzie Vickers for you, and we're pretty pleased with it. It features our first foray into keyboards with vintage Wasp synth action. We enjoyed the process of writing it a lot. We didn't just want to churn something out. It had to be good enough to play live and record." - extracted from Adam's e-mails to PlanetSlade, 26/9/2012.

Rick Marsland on The Ballad of Jones & Harwood.
"A murder ballad from 1851 narrated by the murderers themselves, James Jones and Levi Harwood. Their bungled burglary of a vicar's house in Frimley, Surrey, ended with them stabbing the vicar to death, but his wife fought them off and survived. A bluesy riff on a plinky 'guitalele' and plaintive echo-y backing vocals seemed to fit the mood. Hope you agree." - from Rick's Soundcloud page (4/10/12). .

Alan Rosevear on The Murdered Maid.
"The story of Tom Johnson, a farmer on Dartmoor, who accidentally murders his own daughter, is printed by Jemmy Catnach, but Paul has not been able to confirm the details or the date (maybe 1832). The tune that I have sacrificed to these words is the one used for Bruton Town (by Tony Rose most famously, but there's also a version by me elsewhere on YouTube). It is obvious that I have not learnt the words and am reading!! Sorry. Sung by Alan Rosevear in Exeter. No Roud Number." - Extract from Alan's YouTube page (25/10/12).

George Gierer on The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs:.
"It's a mix of the Decemberists, Led Zeppelin and Louis Armstrong - I think. That's who I stole from anyway!
"It was hard paring down the original lyrics, the write-up and the original court transcripts into three verses and a chorus. I do like the pre-chorus of "murder me". He murders his wife, and society then murders him (and watches as a a sick form of entertainment).
"I'm thrilled to have been part of this, and can't wait to add Nathaniel Mobbs to our live sets in 2013 - have a body drop from the ceiling and swing from a noose, an angry mob, one of the girls dress like Mrs. Mobbs ... could be really great." - extracted from George's e-mails to PlanetSlade, July-December 2012.

Kim Caudell on The Murdered Maid.
"Over the years I have become quite fond of murder ballads, and I even made a Master's thesis out of the subject. It was just a tiny chip of ice off the berg, though. There's still so much more to learn and I'm always looking for new ballads to study." - extracted from Kim's e-mail to PlanetSlade (28/9/2012).

Fred Smith on The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs.
"I took the liberty of adding a couple of lines to the chorus, But since both the author and the subject of the song are fully dead, I think we will get away with it." - extracted from Fred's e-mail to PlanetSlade (23/12/2012).

Doc Bowling on The Monster.
"I've done something entirely experimental. One of my sons put together a sampled backing track and another laid down some nice saxophone riffs, over which I've rapped the ballad of Mary Arnold. [...] It was a fun afternoon's work, so hope you like it. I think it's not bad, and it was an interesting collaboration with my sons, Samson (on maschine) and Johannes (on alto sax)." - extracted from Doc's e-mails to PlanetSlade, January 2013.

Patrick Rose on Murder at Westmill:.
"A nice family friendly ballad, in so much as it contains a family and some of them are friendly. [.] I have a feeling I should be disturbed by how much of a muse a nine-year-old killing a four-year-old is for me." - extracted from Patrick's YouTube page and his e-mails to PlanetSlade.

C#Merle on Streams of Crimson Blood and The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs.
"Streams of Crimson Blood was recorded using my homemade three-string bass, four-string licence plate guitar and a reggae drum track. The toast in the middle was added by my friend Cris Portillo. My vocal was a one-take effort but it seemed to work OK.
"Nathaniel Mobbs was recorded entirely on the four-string 'lowebo' guitar I built back in 2010, featuring a cone made by Mike Lowe of Texas, and it's tuned G-d-gg. I started by making a loop for the backing then improvising a couple of slide tracks to compliment the lyrics. Both tracks were relatively quickly put together - the reggae one only took about an hour." - From C#Merle's e-mail to PlanetSlade (24/3/2014).

Phil from meh229 on the band's new EP, The Old Baby Farmer.
"This has been a great experience for us to have a go at, and hopefully, pull off. [.] As always the idea was to break free from the traditional and try out a different vibe, while staying true to the written accounts." - extracted from an e-mail to PlanetSlade, December 2015.

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The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If you'd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 ballads' public domain lyrics to your own music and record yourself singing and playing it?
   Any music you write would remain your own property, of course, as would the recording itself, and I'll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   There's no money in this for anyone - least of all me - but I think it's a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and I'll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen song's page here.

2) Post the recording online at your own site or the hosting service of your choice. Let me know where it can be found, and I'll add a link telling people where to go. Please remember that some hosting sites allow access to members only.

3) Film yourself performing the song, and post the video to YouTube. Once again, I'd be delighted to add a link here telling people where to find it.

4) Write your own song from scratch, based on the true story that inspired one of the ballads, then follow whichever of the above options suits you.

   Check PlanetSlade Music for a taste of what I have in mind. I spent all of 2012 recruiting contributors for this little project, and I've now accumulated at least one new recording of each of the 16 original ballads I selected. You can find links to all this audio on the PlanetSlade page above, or hear the whole "album" in the Soundcloud set here.
   The styles people have chosen range all the way from unaccompanied traditional folk singing via acoustic guitar ballads to full-on rock workouts with a whole band.
   Contributors so far include Sean Breadin of Rapunzel & Sedayne, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Fred Smith, Tim Radford, Big Al Whittle and South County.
   Three continents are represented in all, and at least three of the songs have already made it into the contributing band's live set. The Jetsonics gave us our first commercial release by including Cruel Lizzie Vickers on August 2013's EP Four, and I dare say a couple of the other tracks will make that leap in due course.
   We've already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please don't feel you're too late to make your own contribution.
   I'm all for people adding second, third or even fourth interpretations of a single song, using as many different musical genres as we can muster. Many, many thanks to all those who've already taken part.
   You can reach me with any questions here