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The King of Rome

[Dave Sudbury]

This is a song Dave Sudbury wrote about Charlie Hudson’s famous racing pigeon, The King of Rome. Dave Sudbury’s song was first published in 1987 on the LP The Rough with the Smooth, and it is the title track of his CD The King of Rome. He noted on the original album:

In a glass case in Derby Museum there’s a pigeon called The King of Rome. In 1913 it flew from Italy back to its home loft in the West End of Derby. The Old West End used to be the rough side of town and Charlie Hudson, the man who bred The King lived there. I wrote the song because it’s about the kind of place I came from and the people I knew there.

June Tabor covered Dave Sudbury’s song on her 1988 album Aqaba. This track was also included in June Tabor’s compilations Anthology and Always, and on the Topic Records anthology The Voice of Folk. She also sang it on Ken Russell’s BBC Channel 4 feature In Search of the English Folk Song and on Stick in the Wheel’s 2019 anthology From Here: English Folk Field Recordings Volume 2. June noted in the Always booklet:

It was—and is—an amazing case of a song finding me. That does happen. It came from the songwriting contest, Songsearch, at Kendal Folk Festival. As did Seven Summers in the year that I was a judge and Where Are You Tonight? from the following year’s competition. The King of Rome should have won and I knew I had to sing it. Rather like The Band Played Waltzing Matilda which also found me. That’s a nice thing that happens: when songs find you and you think, “I’ve just been sitting waiting for you. And now there you are.”

It’s not every modern song that requires accompaniment but they do mostly. The King of Rome was written with a folk background so it was more likely to work being sung unaccompanied, although Dave Sudbury performed it with accompaniment. I was dying to sing it. I sang it to Martin (Simpson) in a car park somewhere in South Yorkshire and said, “What do you think of this?” He said, “Go on! Go back in the second half and do it.” So I did. In live performance I’ve always done it unaccompanied although having said that I really like what Dave Bristow did in terms of putting in the colours behind the song on the album. That’s pure Ridley Scott—remember that Hovis advert?

Denny Bartley sang The King of Rome in 2002 on his album Midnight Feast.

Sarah Matthews sang The King of Rome on her and Doug Eunson’s 2007 CD On Shining Wings. She commented:

Though June Tabor made this song story famous, it came to me from the writer himself: Dave Sudbury, a modest composer of great songs, from Ticknell in Derbyshire:

Jon Boden sang The King of Rome as the 5 September 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

The Jeremiahs sang The King of Rome in 2014 on their eponymous first album, The Jeremiahs. They noted:

A true story concerning a racing pigeon which was entered into a race from Rome to Derby in England (1001 miles) in 1913, only to win against all the odds. Charlie Hudson and his pigeon flew in the face of adversity and came out triumphant. This is his tale. Inspirational.

Danny Spooner sang King of Rome in 2016 on his and Duncan Brown’s CD of songs of the working life, Labour and Toil. The album’s notes commented:

The words of this beautifully evocative song speak for themselves. Amongst all the hardship of the working life, dreams do come true! The race from Rome to Derby in 1913 (1611 km) eclipsed all previous long-distance racing records in the United Kingdom. The King of Rome is preserved in the Derby Museum. It was the subject of this song and a book, both by Dave Sudbury, and a radio play.

Sic Transit sang a parody of The King of Rome in finest Les Barker style on the CD Missing Persians File: Guide Cats for the Blind Vol. 2.

Cupola:Ward sang The King of Rome in 2012 on their EP Four and Lucy Ward sang it unaccompanied at Jurassic Folk, Seaton, East Devon on 4 April 2012:


June Tabor sings The King of Rome

In the West End of Derby lives a working man,
He says, “I can’t fly but my pigeons can.
And when I set them free,
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings.”

Charlie Edson’s pigeon loft was down the yard
Of a rented house in Brook Street where life was hard.
But Charlie had a dream,
And in nineteenthirteen
Charlie bred a pigeon that made his dream come true.

There was gonna be a champions’ race from Italy.
“Look at the maps, all that land and sea,
Charlie, you’ll lose that bird.”
But Charlie never heard,
He put it in a basket and sent it off to Rome.

On the day of the big race a storm blew in,
A thousand birds were swept away and never seen again.
“Charlie, we told you so,
Surely by now you know
When you’re living in the West End there ain’t many dreams come true.”

“Yeah, I know, but I had to try,
A man can crawl around or he can learn to fly.
And if you live round here,
The ground seems awful near;
Sometimes I need a lift from victory.”

I was off with my mates for a pint or two
When I saw a wing flash up in the blue.
“Charlie, it’s the King of Rome
Come back to his West End home,
Come outside quick, he’s perched up on your roof.”

“Come on down, your Majesty,
I knew you’d make it back to me.
Come on down, my lovely one,
You made my dream come true.”

In the West End of Derby lives a working man,
He says, “I can’t fly but my pigeons can.
And when I set them free,
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings.”