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Off the Beaten Tracks: Tell her to make me a shirt with no seams

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Thanks for last week’s comments re Gillian Welch and a couple of mentions of Mary Gauthier. I’ve always been fond of her alcohol anthem I Drink.

Back to 1970 for this week’s selection: The Rout of the Blues by Robin and Barry Dransfield.

It’s a source of great regret that I came late to this remarkable album; partly because I had laboured for many years under the impression that Scarborough Fair was merely a saccharine ditty as popularised by Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s. Told by the Dransfields, minus the spurious ‘parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme’, it is a powerful, bitter, angry denunciation by a spurned lover who has lost all faith in women.

‘Tell her to make me a cambric shirt; without any seams or needlework; then she’ll be a true love of mine.’ In other words, never.

‘Tell her to wash it in yonder dry well; where water ne’er sprung, nor drop of rain fell; then she’ll be a true love of mine.’ And so it goes on, oozing mistrust.

‘Tell her to dry it upon yonder thorn; which never bore blossom since Adam was born.

‘Tell her to find me an acre of land; between the salt water and the sea strand.

‘And tell her to plough it with a lamb’s horn; and to sow it all over with one peppercorn.

‘And tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather; and tie it all up with one peacock’s feather.’

Granted, the Simon and Garfunkel words are similar but the effect is starkly different.

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
And then she’ll be a true love of mine etc etc

A song of love, rather than hate. And one wonders why Simon kept in an anomaly such as ‘a sickle of leather’ when he was desperately keen to make this cheesy for the sixties bedsit brigade. Perhaps he just didn’t understand the words.

Since a friend introduced me to the album about 15 years ago, I have discovered many versions of this song, unsurprisingly since it is said to date back to the 17th century or even earlier. But I don’t think this one can be beaten.

Scarborough Fair is one of many treasures on the Dransfields’ groundbreaking album, including the title track and especially The Trees They Do Grow High, the tragic tale of a boy married at sixteen, a father at seventeen and dead at eighteen. Robin and Barry, two lads from Harrogate, are in fine voice throughout.

Special mention must be made of the producer, the late Bill Leader. He was a shining example of someone happy to plonk the singer(s) in front of a microphone and tell them to let rip, with minimal accompaniment and no special effects such as echo, double-tracking etc. In my view the Dransfields’ later efforts suffered greatly by having the edge taken off them in such a way.

Another of Bill’s triumphs was 1977’s masterly The Noah’s Ark Trap by Nic Jones, tragically never to be released on CD. More of that in a future column.

Oh for a Leader to handle some of today’s folk acts. Rachel and Becky Unthank spring to mind. Becky, in particular, has a marvellous, expressive, phlegmy voice which is too often submerged in pretentious and fussy production. In folk, simplicity is all, which is why June Tabor’s early albums are so much better than the latter ones.

Rant over, see you next week.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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