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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!


John Peel

Sound Sample:
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Do ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay?
Do ye ken John Peel at the break of day?
Do ye ken John Peel when he’s far away
With his hounds and his horn in the morning?

Twas the sound of his horn brought me from my bed
And the cry of his hounds has me oftimes led,
For Peel’s view holloa would wake the dead
Or a fox from his lair in the morning.

Do ye ken that hound whose voice is death?
Do ye ken her sons of peerless faith?
Do ye ken that a fox with his last breath,
Cursed them all as he died in the morning?

Yes, I ken John Peel and auld Ruby too,
Ranter and Royal and Bellman so true,
From the drag to the chase, from the chase to the view,
From the view to the death in the morning.

Music: Traditional (Bonnie Annie),
words: John Woodcock Graves,

arranged & performed by Mat Williams

And I’ve followed John Peel both often and far,
Over the rasper fence and the gate and the bar,
From Low Denton Holme to the Scratchmere Scar
When we vied for the brush in the morning.

Then here’s to John Peel with my heart and soul
Come fill, fill to him a brimming bowl,
For we’ll follow John Peel thro’ fair or thro’ foul
While we’re waked by his horn in the morning.

Do ye ken John Peel?

Do ye ken John Peel when he’s far away
With his hounds and his horn in the morning?

Origin and meaning of John Peel

This is another song that is “authored,” in spite of being considered a folk song. John Peel was a real person who hunted his pack in Cumbria - the location given away by the repeated word “ken,” the Scottish and Border word for “know” - and the words were written by a friend of his, John Woodcock Graves, to the old tune “Bonnie Annie.” There is no doubt that Peel was a highly skilled huntsman whether mounted or on foot and this rollicking song is his memorial.

As with any group of people with a common interest, hunting has its own customs and jargon and is full of traps for the socially unwary. Hounds must be hounds, NEVER dogs and those riders allowed to wear red coats are in “hunting pink” in defiance of all common sense as the colour is patently scarlet. Different boots must be worn - “mahogany tops” with pink, plain black with a black or tweed jacket. Nobody seems to know why. It is just “done.”

The words of the song can be a little confusing - “Peel’s view holloa would wake the dead or a fox from his lair in the morning.” If “view holloa” means the fox has been sighted, he wouldn’t still be in his lair. There is a lovely litany of hound names: Ruby, Ranter, Royal, Bellman. Names do not change much down the centuries.

The word “drag” is an oddity. In the shires, hounds would “draw” a covert. Drag hunting is a completely different matter with an artificial scent laid down and no fox involved at all. Perhaps Cumbrian hunts used different terms.

The “brush” referred to is the fox’s tail, cut off and presented to someone who had ridden particularly well - a great honour. Any small children on small ponies who were in at the death for the first time would be “blooded”, their faces smeared with the fox’s foot dipped in the fox’s blood. Again, a great honour.

It can feel a little uncomfortable nowadays, singing a song that is so casually brutal with such a cheerful tune, considering the modern day opposition to fox hunting. There have always been some people who regarded it as barbaric. Many were turned against it after reading John Masefield’s 1919 narrative poem “Reynard the Fox.”

Nowadays hunting carries with it a whole load of baggage - social, financial and ethical. There are arguments on both sides, from the sensible to the downright silly, but it is always important to remember the attitudes of the society in which the song was written. A mind-set that accepted bull-baiting, bear-baiting, otter-hunting and considered watching a public hanging to be a fun day out for all the family, would not feel squeamish about the death of a dog-sized piece of rust-coloured vermin.

There is no doubt that a pack of hounds in full cry, followed by the huntsmen and the “field” streaming across a winter countryside is a glorious sight whatever your feelings about the fox. “John Peel” is a grand song: best sing it and enjoy it as it was meant to be enjoyed.

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


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