The Weekly Machen

In the article below, Machen mourns the loss of traditional art-forms, a tragedy which affects every generation. The opening anecdote can be roughly dated several years before publication. In 1907, Machen had been a contributor to The Academy, and during this time, he conducted research into the Grail legends. Subsequently, he produced a series of essays on the subject which were featured in that journal. This labor also fueled his fictional imagination for years to come. The composer in question is Christopher Wilson (1874-1919), who shared cramped lodgings at 5 Cosway Street in London with Machen and his wife during this same period. Wilson, who once served as composer for the Benson Company, had helped introduce Machen to the stage. The following segment from Arthur Machen, A Biography by Reynolds and Charlton is in harmony with the news article anecdote:

Purefoy [Machen’s wife] would be in the kitchen singing comic songs; Christopher Wilson at the piano, trying to compose; and Machen himself reading out his proofs at the top of his voice to see what they sounded like. To this cacophony Cosway Street itself, on summer evenings when the window’s where open, provided raucous continuo.” (Page 94-95).

Wait” is an archaic term for a Christmas caroler.

Holiday Bank Ditties:
The Decline of the Folk Song
Arthur Machen
July 30, 1910

It was really a very busy night.

My friend, the eminent musician, was endeavouring to set some words to music for a great West End production. The words were:—

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass.
In the springtime, the only pretty ringtime
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And I was trying to unravel the twisted and interlaced threads of folk-lore and Church legend and symbolism that are entwined in hopeless confusion in the great Romance of the Sangraal.

And each of us threw down his pen with glances of fury; for clear and distinct in the summer night there sounded the refrain, repeated to infinity and to distraction:—

Bumpity, bumpity, bumpity, bump,
I’m the galloping major.”

And when the Galloping Major at last galloped away a band of children settled down at the opposite corner, as if they had been waits, and sang the song of the Old Bull and Bush. I think that both the musician and myself have had a certain prejudice against popular minstrelsy ever since that busy night.

The Old Songs and the New

I often think of the strange contrast between the popular songs of to-day and the ballads of three hundred years ago. I am not going to sniff at the music-halls; on the contrary, I have often been amazed at the extraordinary abilities and vivacities and genuine comic sense of many music-hall artists. But in nine cases out of ten all the merit is due to the singer; the thing may be—I am afraid is always, or nearly always—contemptible balderdash. The tune is usually better than the words: the pathetic modulations of “’E dunno where’e are’’ and the mad fury of “Tarara-boom-de-ay” had each something in them that was not banal But the words! Well, listen to this:—

A smart lady’s maid was a Miss Mary Brown,
When she was engaged in the West End of town;
She packed up her boxes and with Lady B.,
Off she went to Germany.
And her boy in England when she was away,
Would sigh for his sweetheart by night and by day.

There’s a girl in Berlin,
My little girl in Berlin;
Her name is Mary Brown,
She belongs to London town.
This girl, in Berlin,
Is all the world to me,
And joy-bells will ring in the spring,
When they bring her home from Germany.

Or again:

Smith rolled home one morning as the clock struck three.
Wife was waiting up for him, Explain yourself,” said she.
He said, “Listen darling, I’ve been in a fix;
It isn’t Scotch and Polly, dear, I’m full of politics.
Don’t think that I’ve been in bad company;
I’ll tell the truth, my lovey dove” said he:
I’ve been out with Charlie Brown,
Charlie Brown last night;
You can trust old Charlie Brown,
Charlie Brown’s all right.
We were talking politics, for miles we seemed to roam,
Got wet through, lost my last tram too,
And I walked—walked home!”

Of such a kind is the successful ballad of to-day, and it is interesting to compare these things with the songs that Englishmen once sang. Take “Chevy-Chase,” the favourite ballad of the common people of England, as Addison calls it.

The Persè owt of Northomberlande,
And a vowe to God mayd he,
That he wolde hunte in the mountayns
Off Chyviat within dayes thre,
In the manger of doughtè Doglas,
And all that ever with him be.
The fattiste hartes in all Cheviat
He sayd he wold kill, and cary them .away;
By my feth, sayd the doughtè Doglas agayn,
I wyll let that hontyng yf that I may.

It seems to me evident that a very great gulf yawns between the populace that sang of the “Persè” and the “Doglas,” and the populace that sings of the “Girl in Berlin” and “Charlie Brown.” It would be idle to pretend that in this respect we are better men than our ancestors.

The Infection of the Music-Hall

And the worst of it is, that these imbecile songs are by no means confined to London. The modern facility of communication has gone a vast way towards destroying the bounds of time and space. A village that two hundred years ago was a six days journey from London is now to be reached, perhaps, in six hours. The traditional countryman, no longer attired in the beautiful smock of his fathers, but dressed in all probability in a “sweated” suit, comes up to town by excursion train, hears about the “Galloping Major” or “Charlie Brown,” or “Rolling round the skating rink,” and returns to his pastures or his hills a centre of infection and in a few weeks the shepherd lads and the woodmen and the hedgers and ditchers have caught the poison: farewell forever in that village to the old song.

Yet one more link with the past, and that a most precious one, has been hopelessly broken. Here is a passage from “The First Round,” by Mr. St. John Lucas (Methuen), which puts the whole matter in admirable fashion:—

In that particular part of England the blatant masterpiece of the music-hall had not yet dethroned the old songs of the countryside; the shepherd on the down and the hedger in the valley still warbled uncouth strains, and on Saturday evening the village alehouse would echo with ancient choruses. . . . Gradually Denis began to see that those rustic airs really had a rugged beauty, a bare austerity of form which had something of the quality possessed by the great tithe-barns where they had been sung so often in old years.

And I fear that there are very few such corners left in England. The collectors of old songs all report that they have been but just in time; they have came in at the death of ancient English minstrelsy.

From old lips, from quavering old voices, they gather the remnants and relics of quaint ballads, gay and tragical: the gaffers and gammers chant the old staves for the last time. And as the antiquary crosses the fields to catch his train he hears, likely enough, Corydon proclaiming to Phyllis that

This morning, as I’d got some money to spend
And anxious to be up-to-date,
I went to the skating rink in the West End,
Etc., etc.

And the horrid thing is that while the ancient ballad is dying or dead beyond recall, the blatant ditty enjoys the vitality of a cholera bacillus. It was in 1898, I think, that as I walked on the Sussex Downs I heard the cry of “Woa, Emma” resounding to the skies. Arid that particular piece of foolishness was current somewhere about 1877!

Again and again it is a pity! Why have our countrymen forgotten their old music? Why do they not sing, instead of our London nonsense, the old simple rhymes?

Where has thou been to-day,
Jacky, my son?
Where hast thou been to-day,
My honey man?
I have been a-courting, mother,
O make my bed soon;
For that I’m sick to heart, mother,
Fain would lie down.

Where shall I make it to,
Jacky, my son?
Where shall I make it to,
My honey man?
Lowly in the churchyard, mother,
O make my bed soon;
For that I’m sick to heart, mother,
Fain would lie down.

This is “silly sooth”—but it is much more interesting than “Woa, Emma” or “Bumpity bump.” It is a melancholy thing, but the best music that is to be heard in our modern streets comes from the few sellers of lavender who still remember the delightful old melody with which that fragrant herb has been proclaimed since the fifteenth century.

The Reason Why

Why are the old songs dead or dying? That is a question which might be properly answered in a volume, but not in a paragraph. It is one of many questions which are all one question. Why, when we want to build a church, are we compelled to copy a mode of architecture which has been dead for four hundred years?

Why, when we want a handsome jug or a handsome bowl do we have to send somebody to a Museum to pick up ideas from civilisations which have been extinct for thousands of years? Why can’t we employ the village blacksmith to make our “artistic” iron gates? Why has the carpenter on the green no longer a pretty fancy in wood-carving? Why are our modern houses imitations of medieval houses, or Elizabethan houses, or Queen Anne houses? When these questions have been answered satisfactorily the problem of the vanished folk-song will no doubt have become clear.

In the meantime, I suppose, the August Bank Holiday revellers will be singing “Let’s all go down the Strand.”

The Weekly

Previous: Sir George Alexander

Next: The Library Table

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Holiday Bank Ditties

  1. This piece comes in timely wise to me because I have taken home from the library Richard Dorson’s book about the British Folklorists, a hefty volume.

    We might not be able to hear old tales told by people who grew up with them and have been telling them in the chimney corner for years. At least we have many collections of such stories, in the series for which Dorson was the general editor, Folktales of the World from the University of Chicago — and other books not hard to come by.

    I have wondered if an incident in Machen’s “Black Seal” comes from a folktale, “The Changeling Who Stretched” I think it is called, in one of Jacqueline Simpson’s collections.


  2. We are also lucky to have had the “collectors of old songs” – in England and elsewhere (Bartók and Kodály come to mind, and in another context Milman Perry and Albert Lord) – and the generations of performers and recorders (I first encountered a variant of ‘Where has thou been to-day, Jacky, my son?’ – ‘Lord Rendall’ – thanks to an Alfred Deller recording). One wonders about variations of the problem – or ‘matter’ – which Machen describes, and how long they have been around. I recall reading in one of Allan W. Eckert’s book how sheet music of compositions by Beethoven were available on the American frontier not long after they were first published. Then again, there is Goethe’s interesting discussion noted in Conversations with Eckermann about how Robert Burns drew on folk music – to produce songs which effectively became folk music in their turn. And there is the phenomenon of ‘broadside ballads’ – about which Wikipedia notes “The earliest broadsides that survive date from the early sixteenth century, but relatively few survive from before 1550.”


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