> Folk Music > Songs > What a Voice

What a Voice / I Wish, I Wish

[ Roud 495 ; Ballad Index McST055 ; trad.]

Jeannie Robertson sang What a Voice, in a recording made in 1955, on her 1957 Riverside album Songs of a Scots Tinker Lady. Another recording, made by Bill Leader in 1959, was released on her eponymous Topic album Jeannie Robertson. An earlier recording, made by Alan Lomax in London in November 1953, was included in 1998 as When My Apron Hung Low on her Rounder CD The Queen Among the Heather. Hamish Henderson commented in both the Riverside and the Topic album's sleeve notes:

The lament of the forsaken sweetheart whose baby is not yet born is found in various songs throughout the British Isles and America. The Scottish collector Gavin Greig called this song I Wish, I Wish, from the opening line of one of the verses which usually appears in it. The version current in Scotland seems to be descended from The Marchioness of Douglas’ Lament, otherwise known as O, Waly, Waly. Many of the lines are also commonly found in the Appalachian pregnancy ballad Careless Love.

Lizzie Higgins sang What a Voice, What a Voice as the title track of her 1985 Lismor album What a Voice. Another version, recorded by Peter Hall at the Jeannie Robertson Memorial Concert in 1977, was included on her Musical Traditions anthology of 2006, In Memory of Lizzie Higgins. Rod Stradling commented in the booklet:

A song found mostly in England, where it is generally known as I Wish, I Wish. Only Lizzie and her mother Jeannie have been recorded singing it in Scotland, and only they begin the song with the words “What a voice …” This was the first time Lizzie sang this—her mother's song—in public.

Cecilia Costello sang I Wish, I Wish on November 30, 1951 in Birmingham for a BBC recording made by Maria Slocombe and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw. This version was printed in 1959 in Vaughan Williams and Lloyd's The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, and it was include both in 1975 on her eponymous Leader album, Cecilia Costello, and in 2014 on her Musical Traditions anthology Old Fashioned Songs. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

It’s rather surprising that this song, made up of some of the most common floating verses in the canon, should have only 39 Roud entries, and that almost all the named singers are very well known. Most come from England and Scotland, with just a handful from Ireland and North America.

Although seemingly a distinct song in its own right, I Wish, I Wish comprises a number of verses that can also be found in a group of songs which include Since Love Has Brought Me to Despair (Roud 60, Laws P25) and In Sheffield Park (Roud 860). Three American versions from Madison County, NC, can be heard on the CD Dark Holler: Old Love Songs and Ballads (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40159). The songs are When I Wore My Apron Low (sung by Dellie Norton), Love Has Brought Me to Despair (sung by Berzilla Wallin) and I Wish My Baby Was Born (sung by Dillard Chandler). The version of I Wish My Baby Was Born that was heard in the movie Cold Mountain was based on the Chandler set. The Carter Family recorded a version as Carter’s Blues in 1929 (reissued on JSP box set The Carter Family. 1927 – 1934, JSPCD7701).

Sam Larner sang I Wish, I Wish to Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in between 1958 and 1960. This recording was included in 2014 on his Musical Traditions anthology Cruising Round Yarmouth.

George Dunn sang a fragment of I Wish, I Wish to Roy Palmer on September 21, 1971. This recording was included in 2002 on his Musical Traditions anthology Chainmaker.

Walter Pardon sang I Wish, I Wish on June 25, 1978 at his home in Knapton, Norfolk, to Mike Yates. This recording was released in 1982 on his Topic album A Country Life and was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology As Me and My Love Sat Courting (The Voice of the People Volume 15). Mike Yates noted:

Most commentators appear to have linked I Wish, I Wish with the song Died for Love or else have noted that it simply comprises a number of so-called ‘floating’ verses. I would suggest, however, that this is partly incorrect. At least two other English singers had almost identical texts to Walter’s, so that it seems to me that there may, at one time, have been a printed broadside version of the song, which is the indirect source of not only Walter’s song but also of the similar versions sung by Ben Baxter of Norfolk (BBC recording) and Cecilia Costello of Birmingham (BBC recording).

Similar texts have also been recorded in North America and Dillard Chandler of North Carolina sings a particularly fine version on the record High Atmosphere. One possible contender could be based on the song The Effects of Love—A New Song which was issued by an anonymous broadside printer in the 18th century.

Emily Smith sang What a Voice in 2011 on her CD Traiveller's Joy.

The Rails sang I Wish, I Wish in 2015 on their CD Australia.

Robyn Stapleton sang What a Voice on her 2015 CD Fickle Fortune. She noted:

The first time I heard this song was from the singing of Lizzie Higgins. I was moved to tears by the emotion of the song and [the] honesty of her singing. Martyn Bennett's powerful interpretation of this song on his album Grit greatly inspired our arrangement of the song.

Lyrics

Jeannie Robertson sings What a Voice

What a voice, what a voice, what a voice I hear,
For it's like the voice of my Willy dear.
But if I had wings like that swallow fly
For I would clasp in the dear arms of my Billy boy.

When my apron it hung low
My true love followed through frost and snow.
But now my apron it is tae my chin
And he passes me by and he oh ne'er spiers in.

It was up and doon yon white hoose brae
That he called a strange girlie to his knee
And he telled her a tale which he once told me.

O, I wish I wish, o, I wish in vain,
O, I wish I was a maid again.
But a maid again I will never be
Till an apple grows on an orange tree.

O, I wish I wish that my babe was born
And smiling on some nurse's knee.
But for myself to be dead and gone
And the long green grass growing over me.

For there is a blackbird sits on yon tree,
Some says it is blind and it cannae see.
Some says it is blind and it cannae see
And so is my true love tae me.

Lizzie Higgins sings What a Voice

What a voice, what a voice, what a voice I hear,
It's like the voice of my Willie dear.
An if I had wings like that swallow high
I would clasp in the arms of my Billy boy.

When my apron it hung low
My true love followed through frost and snow.
But now my apron is tae ma chin;
He passes me by and he'll ne'er speir in.

It's up and doon yon white hoose brae,
He's called a strange girlie to his knee
An he's telt her a tale that he's once told me.

There is a blackbird sits on yon tree,
Some says it is blind and it cannae see.
Some says it is blind and it cannae see
And that's what my true love's tae me.

Oh I wish, I wish, oh I wish in vain,
I wish I was a maid again.
But a maid again I will never be
'Til a apple it grows on a orange tree.

I wish, I wish my babe was born
An smiling on some nurse's knee.
An for myself to be dead and gone
An the long green grass growing over me.

Cecilia Costello sings I Wish, I Wish

I wish, I wish, but it's all in vain,
I wish I were a maid again.
A maid again I never will be
‘Til apple grows on orange tree.

I wish my baby it was born
And smiling on its papa's knee,
And I to be in yon churchyard
With long green grass growing over me.

When my apron strings hung low
He followed me through frost and snow,
But now my apron's to my chin
He passes by and says nothing.

Oh grief, oh grief, I'll tell you why,
That girl has no more gold than I.
More gold than I and beauty, fame,
But she will come like me again.

Sam Larner sings I Wish, I Wish

Oh, I wish, I wish, but it’s all in vain,
I wish I was a maid again.
But a maid again I never shall be,
‘Til apples, they grow on an orange tree.

Now there is a hale-house in this town,
Where my love go and sit himself down.
He takes some other girl on his knee,
And don’t you think it’s a grief to me?

A grief to me, I’ll tell you for why;
That girl, she’s got more gold than I,
But her gold will waste, her beauty will fade,
Poor girl, she’ll become like me, in the shade.

Now, when I was young and in my prime,
My Love would follow me at any time.
But now my apron strings won’t meet,
He’ll pass me by and will not speak.
And now my apron strings won’t meet,
He’ll pass me by and will not speak.

I wish, I wish my baby was born,
And sitting on his Dadda’s knee.
And I, poor girl, dead and gone,
And the green grass growing over me.

George Dunn sings I Wish I Wish

I wish, I wish, but it's all in vain,
I wish I was a maid again.
A maid again I never shall be
Till apples grow on an orange tree.

I grieve, I grieve, I'll tell you why,
Because she's got more gold than I;
But her gold will melt …

Walter Pardon sings I Wish I Wish

I wish, I wish, but ‘tis in vain.
I wish I were a maid again.
A maid again I’ll never be
‘Till the apple grow on the orange tree.

Oh when my apron strings tied low
He’d follow me through frost and snow.
But now my apron’s to my chin
He passes by and says nothing.

Oh grief, oh grief, I’ll tell you why,
That girl has got more gold than I.
More gold than I and wealth and fame
But she’ll become like me again.

I wish, I wish, my child were born,
And seated on her father’s knee;
And I was in the churchyard laid
With a green, green grass growing over me.

Links

See also the Mudcat Café threads Lyr Req: What a Voice (from Lizzie Higgins) and Penguin: I Wish, I Wish .