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Traditional English Folk Songs

A Collection Of Traditional British Folk Songs Full English - A Collection Of Traditional British Folk Songs features the amazing talents of Mat Williams who did most of the vocals and also played most of the traditional instruments involved in the recordings, such as Guitar, Violin, Viola, Mandolin, Banjo, Banman, Upright Bass, Piano and many more. Mat invited some fellow folk musicians to share him for this album and add more traditional instruments, such as the Irish Whistle, Uilleann Pipes and Bodhran. Enjoy the music and read along as you listen!


Ages Of Man

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In prime of years, when I was young,
I took delight in youthful toys,
Not knowing then what did belong
Unto the pleasure of those days.
At seven years old I was a child
And subject for to be beguiled.

At twice seven, I must needs go learn,
What discipline was taught at school,
What good from evil I could discern,
I thought myself no more a fool.
My parents were contriving then
How I might live when I became a man.

At three times seven, I wexed wild,
And manhood led me to be bold,
I thought myself no more a child,
My own conceit it so me told.
Then I did venture far and near
To buy delight at price full dear.

At four times seven I must take a wife,
And leave off all my wanton ways,
Thinking thereby perhaps to thrive
And save myself from sad disgrace.
So fare ye well, companions all,
For other business doth me call.

At five times seven, I would go prove
What I could gain by art or skill,
But still against the stream I strove,
I bowled stones up against the hill.
The more I laboured with might and main,
The more I strove against the stream.

At six times seven, all covetness
Began to harbour in my breast,
My mind then still contriving was
How I might gain all worldly wealth,
To purchase lands, and live on them,
To make my children mighty men.

At seven times seven, all worldly care
Began to harbour in my brain,
Then I did drink a heavy draught
Of water of experience plain.
Then none so ready was as I,
To purchase, bargain, sell or buy.

At eight times seven, I wexed old,
I took myself unto my rest,
My neighbours then my counsel craved
And I was held in great request.
But age did so abate my strength
That I was forced to yield at length.

At nine times seven, I must take leave
Of all my carnal vain delight
And then full sore it did me grieve,
I fetched up many a bitter sigh,
To rise up early, and sit up late
I was no longer fit, my strength did abate.

At ten times seven, my glass was run,
And I, poor silly man, must die.
I looked up, and saw the sun
Was overcome with crystal sky.
Now I must this world forsake,
Another man my place must take.

Now you see within the glass
The whole estate of mortal man,
How they from seven to seven do pass,
Until they are three score and ten
And when their glass is fully run,
They must leave off where they first begun.

Words & Music: Traditional,
arranged & performed by Mat Williams

Origin and meaning of Ages Of Man

Printed copies of this song exist as far back as the reign of Charles II. One broadsheet called itself “The Seven Ages of Man” which doesn’t get many marks for arithmetic - the song tells of the ten ages of man. Maybe the printer was thinking of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech in “As You Like It” of which more anon.

It is a quiet reflective piece of work, looking back over a lifetime - a longish lifetime too. The biblical span is “three score years and ten” but until the last century there were precious few who lived so long.

In all the rites of passage and milestones that are listed, there is not one mention of God: no church sacraments, no christening, confirmation, marriage ceremony, nothing. It’s a wholly secular world, measured by “the glass” (not the window, the mirror or the beer-mug, but the hour glass, as the sand runs through the life-timer, it diminishes to nothing)

The first line can be a bit misleading. We are used to thinking that “in prime of years” means “in the prime of life.” It doesn’t. Prime here means “first” as in “primary school”, or indeed in these days of D.I.Y. the first coat of paint. “Prime” was the first of the canonical hours of prayer in a monastery and would be understood in this sense when the song was written.

The child takes delight in things without knowing that he is doing so. Self-consciousness has not yet arrived. The next verse considers the necessity of schooling, the acquiring of discipline and the learning of right from wrong. Again, although the biblical vocabulary of “good” and “evil” are used, there is no reference to religious instruction although at the time of writing, schooling would almost certainly be under the church’s control.

When school is over, the parents are sorting out what apprenticeship or trade would follow - not something that could be decided by the young in those days. We never find out what the occupation was: the words are unspecific so that we get the story of everyman rather than an individual, for all that it is written in the first person. We know he gets married but it is merely a statement. We are given no name, no wooing, no hint of happiness or otherwise and no mention of small children.

By the age of thirty-five he is struggling. By forty-two he is scheming for wealth and here we do get a mention of children who need to be set up in life. By forty-nine he has succeeded in business only to find by fifty-six his powers are waning and he becomes known as a wise man and advisor and by sixty-three he is growing old and losing his strength. At seventy he must die, and “silly” means both foolish and innocent. All his experience counts for nothing. It is time to make room for the next generation. After all that striving, he ends where he began.

There seems no sadness in these words - just a rueful acceptance that this is how things are. The tune and the arrangement reinforce this sense of other- worldliness. The tune could almost be a hymn and the backing does give a hint of a bell from time to time but there is also a feeling of the east - this song is not of any particular culture or belief system, and this in turn gives a background shiver reminding us of the eastern cycle of death and rebirth. It is sung gently, wisely and with great compassion.

It is interesting to compare these words with Shakespeare’s in the “Seven Ages of Man” speech (“As You Like It,” Act II, Scene VII spoken by Jacques). This speech, blank verse rather than rhymed, was never intended to be sung. It is complex, dense and specific. The seventy years are divided into seven rather than ten and it is full of vivid imagery, ending not in acceptance but distaste. (The word “sans”, derived from French, means “without”.)

“ .................... Last scene of all
That ends this strange eventful history
Is second childishness and mere oblivion.
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”

The way words can interact with music is fascinating. There is no room here even to scratch the surface of this subject. Someone should explore it more fully. In the meantime, we have a song which quietly accepts the nature of the world - beginning, lifetime, end. Which is also the nature of the whole universe. It is an English folk-song, certainly. It is also Zen.

Commentary written by Gillian Goodman,
© ClassicRocks, Mat Williams 2012


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