Category Archives: Housman


If you’ve looked through this site, you may have noticed that I’m quite fond of the poetical works of A.E. Housman, whose remains can be found in St. Laurence’s churchyard in Ludlow, not five minutes walk from where I’m sitting right now.

Which explains why I have a short-ish article in the January-February issue of Ludlow Ledger entitled While Ludlow Tower Shall Stand, about my personal voyage into the Housman’s world. The title of the article comes from A Shropshire Lad III (The Recruit) and while it’s quite suitable for the content of the article, I hadn’t realized at the time I wrote it that Clive Richardson had used a very similar line from the same poem for his book Till Ludlow Tower Shall Fall, or else I’d have used a different title. Sorry, Clive! Still, I don’t suppose my little article is going to affect the sales of your book adversely. ūüôā

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World


Housman in the Salley Gardens

Update: I’m working on an arrangement of the tune for a recording project: here’s a rough (rather busy) but potentially interesting sketch of the arrangement:

After I wrote my earlier review of the CD ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (by Michael Raven and Joan Mills), in which I specifically mentioned¬†that Michael had set¬†When I Was One and Twenty to the tune better known as Brigg Fair, I had a thought. I mentioned in passing in that article¬†that the theme of the poem is not dissimilar to that of the Yeats poem (based on an imperfectly remembered folk song) Down By The Salley Gardens. The Yeats poem was published in 1889, and A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, so it’s very likely that Housman knew the Yeats poem, though for all I know, he may have written his own poem before he came upon Salley Gardens. I’m not sure it matters all that much: I’m not doing a PhD thesis. ūüôā

Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.

In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.

Anyway, a quick turn around the fretboard demonstrates that the melody Maids of Mourne Shore, the one most commonly associated with Down By The Salley Gardens since Hughes used it for his setting in 1909, would also work with When I was One and Twenty. As would any of the other tunes associated with or set to the Yeats poem, I guess. Oddly enough, the melody to The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, usually assumed to be the song that Yeats was trying to recreate, probably wouldn’t work so well, at any rate without some modification to accommodate the length of the lines. According to the music historian A.V. Butcher, Butterworth‘s setting to One and Twenty was related to a folk melody, but which one is unknown. Certainly the setting doesn’t ring any bells with me.

You know, I enjoy writing about this stuff much more than I do writing about security*.¬† It’s a pity no-one is ever likely to pay me to do it. ūüėČ But then, as someone I worked with on a drama project once pointed out, the best way to kill your enthusiasm for a hobby is probably to start doing it for a living.

*Well, I’ve been doing that for about 25 years, so it’s easy to get blas√©.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World

A Shropshire Lad – CD Review

[Added a reference to a more recent blog]

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d come across some Housman settings by the late Michael Raven on a 1994 CD with Joan Mills.

I now have a copy of the CD, and am getting a great deal of listening pleasure from it: beautiful singing from Joan,¬†and super guitar playing from Michael. It’s an object lesson in how good a no-frills, no-overdubs, no-edits recording can be.

The album consists of a generous 33 tracks (a running time of just under 80 minutes): 17 settings of Housman poems are¬†interspersed with 20 Welsh¬†guitar pieces (some of the instrumental tracks consist of two pieces played back to back). All the Housman lyrics are from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, except for The Deserter, In Midnights of November and Half Moon, which are from ‘Last Poems’. The Welsh tunes are all traditional except for¬†Galaru and Rhoslan Reel, which were composed by Michael Raven. (And yes, he was born in Cardiff, so I guess they certainly also qualify as Welsh!) Nearly all the settings use traditional tunes: according to the notes, Michael wrote the tunes to The Deserter and Is My Team Ploughing, though the tune to The Deserter sounds to my ear¬†pretty close to a well-known tune associated with Henry Martin to me.

Setting and singing Housman is harder than you might think. The form of so many of his poems does lend itself to strophic folk-  or folk-like melody, but make no mistake: Housman was a scholar and a very adept craftsman in terms of his writing, and though his style lends itself very well to art song Рhence, the number of settings by Butterworth, Vaughan Williams et al. (there are some links here) it would be easy for some of his lyrics to come over as somewhat stilted and self-conscious if set unsympathetically.

Fortunately, both the singing and the settings here are very sympathetic. Even where a well-known melody has been used (Brigg Fair, Geordie¬†and¬†Lord Gregory for example) the performers have not been afraid to alter the melody and metre to fit the words if necessary. To the extent that I’ve been getting additional value from the CD playing a little game of ‘Name That Tune’ (“Is that Kate of Coalbrookdale?”) Nevertheless, the poems themselves have also been altered where deemed appropriate. For example:

  • The verses¬†of Bredon Hill (XXI)¬†have each lost a line (I probably wouldn’t have noticed had I not also set that poem to music¬†– the omission doesn’t seem to harm the song)
  • Farewell to¬†Barn and Stack and Tree has acquired a¬†repeat and a half¬†to the last line
  • The fairly lengthy Come Pipe a Tune has been cut down considerably and without disrespect to the full length poem as printed, it probably works better in its abbreviated form as a song.

To paraphrase Phil Ochs* – who is probably remembered¬† nowadays (if at all) as a ‘protest’ singer, though he was much more than that and also composed several excellent settings to poems by Poe, Noyes et al – it’s not unreasonable that ‘the discipline of music’ should sometimes¬†modify and shed a different light on an existing poem as it develops into a song.

*Oddly enough, I was reminded of Ochs by a line in The Deserter – “And, call it truth or call it treason” –¬†which was echoed by Ochs, quite possibly deliberately, in I ain’t marching any more:

“…Call it peace or call it treason, call it love or call it reason, But I ain’t marching any more…”

True Lover, on the other hand, uses the same tune and arrangement as Cold Blows The Wind (a version of The Unquiet Grave) recorded in the 60s on an LP by Jon and Mike Raven with Jean Ward. It’s an inspired choice: there is a distinct echo of the revenant theme of The Unquiet Grave in Housman’s lyric, while a passing resemblance in the phrase “So take me in your arms a space Before the cast is grey”¬†to the refrain of the very different Blow the Candle Out¬†gives it an added edge, though that may purely serendipitous.

All that said, this isn’t the most ‘folkie’ of albums. That’s not a criticism: I’m no purist. ¬†Joan’s singing style sounds well-trained but not operatic, making fluent use of folkie ornamentation. Michael’s guitar¬†style as an accompanist and soloist¬†is eclectic, reflected in his use on various pieces of classical, flamenco and steel-strung acoustic guitars. Not that you’ll find much in the way of flamenco staples like rasgueado or golpe here, but the brighter tone of the Ramirez flamenco guitar gives Come Pipe a Tune in particular an almost Mediterranean flavour. Rather than the open tunings, drone notes¬†and linear melodic lines of, say, Martin Carthy, his approach to the steel-strung guitar is more a matter of rhythmic attack and variations in picking style. Perhaps Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree is the closest to that school of guitar, though I think it’s more a matter of convergent influences than an attempt to emulate that school of guitar playing (of which I remain an aspirant member, by the way). On the left hand,¬†I note¬†some techniques you don’t usually find a classical guitarist using, even the occasional ‘blue-d’ note and some slightly jazzy hard sliding chords in Good Ale. ¬†In general, though, his work here features a complex blend of melody, and countermelody,¬†chords¬†and bass, that sometimes recalls Renaissance lute music, sometimes mediaeval music. If you enjoy John Renbourn’s incursions into those areas, you may well enjoy the solos here.

There is too much here for a track by track description, but here are a couple of tracks I particularly wanted to explore in a little more detail.

Is My Team Ploughing? is sung unaccompanied, and the tune is credited to Michael Raven. It’s kind of interesting to compare it to the Butterworth setting, Whereas the dialogue between the dead and the living in the Butterworth setting is marked by a change of melodic line from high and ethereal to a vigorously delivered line with a more aggressive piano part, Joan Mills has to use the same tune for both sides of the dialogue. She establishes the contrast by delivering the ‘dead man’ side of the dialogue forcefully whereas the ‘live man’ is gently delivered, suggesting a reluctance to reveal that he has taken his place: “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart – never ask me whose.” Both work equally well: in fact, I’d find it difficult whether I prefer this version or the rendering by Pears and Britten of the Butterworth setting.

When I was one and twenty (A Shropshire Lad XIII), sung (very beautifully and also unaccompanied) to the tune of Brigg Fair, resolves a small problem for me. Some years ago I set A Shropshire Lad XVIII,¬†of which there is no setting here, to a tune you can find here, if you care to:¬†Oh when I was in love with you. More recently, I realized that the same tune would work for When I was one and twenty, and wondered whether to use it for that instead. However, I won’t. Though I can’t sing it as well as Joan, the tune better known as Brigg Fair makes a perfect companion for this lyric, with its hint of young love gone bad reminiscent of Yeats’s Down By The Sally Gardens (itself based on a folk song).

[Added later: I subsequently had some thoughts about the similarity in theme and form Рyou could quite easily use the same tune to carry both lyrics Рbetween Sally Gardens and One and Twenty. This dabble with ethnomusicology is at Housman in the Salley Gardens.]

In case you haven’t noticed, I like this recording a lot, and it’s now sitting comfortably on both my iGadgets. In fact, it’s the first time in over 20 years that I’ve had the urge to review a recording (and it’s probably the first music review I’ve ever done that wasn’t commissioned). There is also a companion book with full staff and tablature notation: I haven’t seen it, as my sightreading and tablature skills are at best minimal.¬† There is more information on the CD and book on the Michael Raven web site¬†– ordering information here.

My own Housman settings (including MP3s – strictly demo versions, not commercial quality) are here, if it’s of any interest. And if it isn’t, that’s still where they are. ūüėČ

And finally, a track listing for the CD.

  • On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble (Shropshire Lad XXX1)
  • Megan’s Daughter (guitar solo)
  • Bredon Hill (Shropshire Lad XXI)
  • Rhoslan Reel (written by Mike Raven)
  • Half Moon¬†(sung unaccompanied: Last Poems XXVI and XXVII)
  • White Rose of Summer (guitar solo)
  • New Mistress (Shropshire Lad XXXIV)
  • Galaru [composed by Michael Raven]/The Blackbird (guitar solos)
  • Along the Fields (Shropshire Lad XXVI)
  • Long Live Mary (guitar solo)
  • Is My Team Ploughing? (Unaccompanied: Shropshire Lad XXVII)
  • Bard’s Dream (guitar solo)
  • Ludlow Recruit (Shropshire Lad III)
  • Megan who lost her garter (guitar solo)
  • Come Pipe a Tune (Shropshire Lad LXII)
  • Lady Mine/Gogerddan (guitar solos)
  • Midnights of November (unaccompanied, Last Poems XIX)
  • Rising of the Lark/Weep not for me (guitar solos)
  • True Lover (Shropshire Lad LIII)
  • Beside the Seashore/Good Ale (guitar solos)
  • Goldcup Flowers (Shropshire Lad V)
  • Where are you going? (guitar solo)
  • The Deserter (unaccompanied, Last Poems VIII)
  • Clover (guitar solo)
  • Loitering with a vacant eye (Shropshire Lad LI)
  • Lady Owen’s Delight (guitar solo)
  • Farewell to barn and stack and tree (Shropshire Lad VIII)
  • My lady is more fair (guitar solo)
  • Wenlock Edge (Shropshire Lad, XXXIX)
  • Snowdon (guitar solo)
  • When I was one and twenty (unaccompanied, Shropshire Lad XIII)
  • Farewell to Llangyfelach (guitar solo)
  • Shrewsbury Jail (Shropshire Lad IX)

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

Mike Raven and A.E. Housman.

A little more Shropshire Laddishness…


(The photograph shows a misericord from St. Laurence’s Church Ludlow (the ‘Cathedral of the Marches’), where Housman’s ashes are buried.)

In an article about my own settings of some of Housman’s poems, I mentioned that I hadn’t come across any other folkie settings of his verse, but that it would be surprising if there were none. Apparently I was right.

While looking for something entirely different, I came across this page on the Mike Raven web site: a CD with 20 tunes played on the guitar by Mike (18 are traditional and two are composed by him),¬†and 17 Housman poems set to music by Mike and sung by Joan Mills (with Mike on guitar). Most of the poems are from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ but three are from Last Poems. In most cases Mike has used a traditional tune, but the tunes for The Deserter and Is My Team Ploughing are Mike’s own.

There’s even a short sample: it turns out that for¬†‘True Lover’ he’s used a tune associated with ‘The Unquiet Grave’, as sung by Jean Ward on an LP by Mike and Jon Raven called Songs of the Black Country and the West Midlands.¬†I used to have it on vinyl and perhaps still have, somewhere. A very pretty tune, as it happens, and nicely performed by . Unfortunately, there isn’t a full track listing.

(Personal reminiscence alert.) When I was a teenager in Shrewsbury, I remember frequently seeing the Black Country Three on local television early in the evening, along with others like Lyn and Graham McCarthy, John Renbourn, and even Roger Whittaker before he started having hit singles. Later on, I met Mike Raven at a gig in Berkshire and disgraced myself by asking for a song that was one of Jon’s. Or maybe it was the other way round. Later still, I found myself in a scratch band accompanying Jean Ward on a song at somebody’s farewell gig, though I think I was there to play guitar with Bob and Mary Hands. I have no idea what any of us actually sang: it was a very long time ago. And much later still, I seem to remember that Mike Raven and I both had regular gigs at a wine bar in Kensington, but on different nights, so I never met him there. I believe he was playing flamenco at that venue.

[By another of those flukes and serendipities that sometimes arise from too much time browsing the web, I’ve discovered that the 1960s DJ who also went under the name of Mike Raven at one time also played flamenco guitar in London, so the¬†already inconsequential reference to a¬†Kensington wine bar might be ¬†totally misdirected. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that the guy who played that venue was yet another Mike Raven. For years, various book sites and distributors were convinced that my book ‘Viruses Revealed’ was written by – or, bizarrely, with – a completely different author by the name of C. David Harley. There are very few totally unique names in the world…]

Sadly, it turns out that¬†Mike Raven the Midland musician¬†died in 2008. And the other ‘Mike Raven’ (real name Austin Fairman) died in 1997.

I think I might actually order a copy of that Housman CD. I’ll report back here if I do, though I don’t doubt that it’ll be worth listening to. [In fact, I now have a copy on order.]

Something I didn’t know: apparently Housman wouldn’t let the BBC broadcast his poems unless they were set to music and sung.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

Summertime on Bredon

Summertime on Bredon

It’s quite likely that Housman hadn’t visited Shropshire when he wrote most – if not all – of the poems that make up ‘A Shropshire Lad’ but then, when I set Bredon Hill (A Shropshire Lad XXI)¬†to music in the 1970s, I don’t think I quite knew where Bredon Hill is. It isn’t actually in Shropshire at all, but in Worcestershire – Housman himself was from that country, so was no doubt fully aware of that fact.

So finding myself in the Cotswolds recently, how could I not actually visit Bredon? The photograph above was taken looking approximately South past Kemerton.

The photograph below was taken looking West towards Bredon from Kiftsgate Court.

towards bredonDavid Harley
Small Blue-Green World

Housman – jazzing it up

When I was putting together an article about Betjeman’s not-very-Housman piece ‘A Shropshire Lad’ and the setting by Jim Parker, I came in passing upon a reference to an album by Jacqui Dankworth and New Perspectives that includes five Housman settings.

In Housman¬†Settings, which includes some settings of my own for Housman’s verse, I also referenced some settings by ‘real’ composers like Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, and mentioned that I was unaware of other ‘folkie’ versions. I’m still not, but I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of a jazz setting.


Roland Kirk gigging at Powis Castle*

The settings on the album are actually each by a different composer: John Williams (the Shropshire saxophonist, not the guitarist or the film composer), John Dankworth (the singer’s father), Patrick Gowers, Andrea Vicari, and Dick Walter. More like the sort of stuff her mother Cleo Laine has done from time to time, listening to some samples. It also includes some more ‘traditional’ jazz fare like On Green Dolphin Street and Creole Love Call, as well as a version of Villa-Lobos’ Bach-ish Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.

I quite like it, but¬†a post on the folkie forum refers to the album as ‘very difficult’ and compares it to the music of a jazz composer ‘who wrote music for T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”‘. I’m not familiar with any such setting, and wonder whether he might actually have been thinking of Stan Tracey’s ‘Under Milk Wood’?¬† But I’m not a jazz buff, and the fact that I can’t find a reference to such an Eliot setting by no means proves that it never existed.

David Harley

*OK. You’re right. It isn’t.

Another Shropshire Lad

[Update: I’ve just come across an article from Elizabeth Dale’s excellent blog¬†The Cornish Bird about someone who survived Niagara falls and rapids, only to die somewhat less dramatically while on tour in New Zealand in 1926. The story of Bobby Leach, possibly from my adopted county of Cornwall, is well worth reading, and even includes a link to a song about him and Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to navigate the falls in a barrel. ūüôā ]

Being in the mood to avoid work – there’s nothing like an imminent deadline to generate distraction activities – I just found among my cassettes ‘Banana Blush’, an album of readings by John Betjeman recorded with Jim Parker’s music in the 70s, and rather enjoyed hearing it again.

¬†I have a vague recollection that there’s a footnote to ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (JB’s, not Housman’s) that says it should be read in a Midlands accent, but his own reading is more reminiscent of The Last of the Summer Wine.

An excellent musical setting, though: I’m not surprised that it sometimes turns up among folkies actually sung to that tune (I believe John Kirkpatrick may have kicked that one off). If I ever have access to a brass band, I might sing it myself.¬†

The Shropshire Lad in this instance is Captain Matthew Webb, born in Dawley, mostly remembered as the first person to swim the English Channel, and according to family legend a distant relation of mine. (Unlikely!) He drowned in 1883 while attempting to swim¬†Whirlpool Rapids, on the Niagara river. He apparently leapt in from a boat near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge. That bridge isn’t there any more, but the Whirling Rapids Bridge in the photo below was built to replace it and built around it so as to minimize disruption. (The bridge behind is the disused Michigan Central Railway Bridge.)

whirlpool rapids bridge lite

Believe it or not,¬†the photo (taken from the Canadian side) doesn’t do justice to how wild that stretch of river actually is (maybe the next two give a slightly better impression), yet apparently¬†Webb made it as far as the entrance to the whirlpool, but was dragged under and hit his head on jagged rocks. Believe it or not, there used to be a trolley line (the Great Gorge¬†Route)¬†that ran along the gorge on the American side. Actually, there were trolley lines both sides of the gorge, but the one on the US came right down to water’s edge for part of the journey, with (reportedly) amazing views of the whirlpool.

niagara2 niagara3

Here are a couple of shots around the whirlpool itself, though again they don’t really do justice to how impressive – and frightening – it is. The first one shows the Aero Car, which would probably have given us a better shot of the whirlpool itself, but we didn’t have time if we were to catch the train back to Toronto!

whirlpool rapids whirlpool rapids 2

Betjeman’s poem suggests that Webb’s ghost visited Dawley ‘while swimming along to heaven’. I don’t know if it was intentional, but¬†there’s an echo there of the story of how after he swam the channel Webb was ceremoniously escorted from Wellington station to Dawley. There is a story of how a pig put its front trotters on the sty wall to watch the procession go by¬†accompanied by the Shifnal Brass Band. It’s hard to imagine that Jim Parker wasn’t aware of the ‘Pig on the Wall’ story when he put together that very brass band-like arrangement for the Banana Blush album.

David Harley