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The Grand Conversation on Napoleon

[ Roud 1189 ; Ballad Index BrdGCoNa ; VWML RVW1/3/57/1 ; trad.]

A.L. Lloyd recorded The Grand Conversation on Napoleon in 1956 for his Riverside LP English Street Songs. This track was included in 2008 on his 2 CD compilation Ten Thousand Miles Away: English and Australian Folk Songs. He commented in the album's sleeve notes:

This is another of the several ballads concerning Napoleon which were extremely popular at the beginning of the 19th century. It shows peculiarities shared by most ballads about this French emperor: rather grandiloquent words, superb striding tunes, and sympathy for his downfall. (The Bonny Bunch of Roses is of course another ballad on the same theme.)

John Faulkner sang Grand Conversation on Napoleon in 1969 on his and Sandra Kerr's Argo album John & Sandra. The liner notes commented:

Almost without exception, the popular ballads about Napoleon Bonaparte display a marked degree of sympathy towards him. This is particularly significant in view of the fact that the barrage of anti-Bonaparte propaganda had reached an hysterical peak in the period that this song comes from. It is possible however, that the British commoner, shackled with Poor Laws and subjected to the oppressive onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, viewed Old Boney as a potential liberator. The popularity of his image is born out by the fact that this song, and others like it, are still to be found in the country singer's repertoire. Collected by Vaughan Williams [on December 22, 1904] from Mr. Burstow of Horsham, Sussex.

Tony Rose sang Grand Conversation on Napoleon in 1971 on his second LP, Under the Greenwood Tree. He commented in his album sleeve notes:

It is perhaps strange that in their folk song the English have seemed much more interested in their enemies than in their heroes. The victor of Waterloo hardly warrants a mention in the common muse, but the defeated Napoleon seems immediately to have acquired a Hollywood type aura of glamour around him. The song itself says, “his name will never be forgot” and this is certainly true so far among singing people. The text, as with many Napoleonic songs, is a very literary one, but the tune is a fine one and remarkably similar—as was pointed out to me recently—to the Irish Magpie's Nest although of course in a different time.

Tom Costello sang A Grand Conversation on Napoleon at home in Siddal, Co. Galway on December 27, 1972. This recording made by Terry Yarnell, Dave Howes and Jack Warshaw was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology A Story I'm Just About to Tell (The Voice of the People Series Volume 8).

Louis Killen learned A Grand Conversation on Napoleon from the singing of Harry Boardman, and sang it on his 1989 cassette The Rose in June.

Gordon Hall sang The Grand Conversation on Napoleon at Pease Pottage, Sussex, on February 8, 1995. This recording made by John Howson was released in the same year on the Veteran CD of traditional singing from the South East of England, When the May Is All in Bloom. It was also included in 2007 on the CD accompanying The Folk Handbook. John Howson commented in the original album's liner notes:

As the broadside versions mention Napoleon Bonaparte's death, this ballad must date from sometime after 1821. Both Harkness of Preston and Such of London published the song in about 1840 but it was probably based on an earlier broadside ballad called The Grand Conversation under the Rose. Perhaps due to the popularity of the Napoleon ballad, they both, some time later published The Grand Conversation on Nelson.

Surprisingly, many working people in England thought that if Napoleon beat Nelson they would have a better life, and songs about Napoleon were certainly popular in Sussex. Many of the songs in the repertoire of Horsham singer Henry Burstow concerned Napoleon and Vaughan Williams noted down The Grand Conversation from him. Gordon's grandfather sang several, as did his mother Mabs, which is where Gordon learned this version and he says she particularly liked the tune.

This ballad turns up in Ireland where Napoleon was also a popular character: Wolfe Tone wanted him to invade Ireland to defeat the English. It was recorded by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s from Elizabeth Cronin of Cork and a version from Tom Costello of Connemara has been popularised by Frank Harte in recent years.

Barry Dransfield sang The Grand Conversation on Napoleon on his 2005 CD Unruly. He commented in his liner notes:

I was lucky enough to be involved with Bob Davenport's wonderful club at the Emperor of Russia, Islington, in the early 80s. Among the many performers who were Bob's personal friends was Gordon Hall, who sang this blockbuster. Without great performances like Hall's, songs would be lost forever. I would guess that this was a broadside ballad from the early to mid 19th century.

James Raynard sang The Grand Conversation on Napoleon in 2005 on his One Little Indian CD Strange Histories. He commented in his liner notes:

I found The Grand Conversation on Napoleon on a piece of sheet music when I inherited the contents of my grandfather's piano stool. I was learning to read music at the time and I remember agonising over it. I then lost the sheet music and forgot the song. I've now taken what I can remember of it and reworked some of the words.

Jon Boden sang Grand Conversation on Napoleon as the June 17, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted in his blog:

One of the wordier Napoleon songs but a cracking tune and some really nice details. Interesting that the song’s sympathies seem to shift right at the end of the song—editorial perhaps? Certainly it seems pretty pro-Bonaparte in the opening verses.

Eliza and Martin Carthy sang Grand Conversation on Napoleon in 2014 on their duo album, The Moral of the Elephant. She commented in their album's sleeve notes:

I learned this from the Vaughan Williams collection in order to take part in a RVW festival at Cecil Sharp House, and it's been knocking around in my brain ever since. I think I might have all the words now. The English love for Napoleon, who they thought would come and rescue them from their poverty, has spilled over into hundreds of songs. His desperate last stand before the flames of Moscow and the subsequent fatal retreat throughout the snow has inspired many, including my uncle Mike who wrote the great Jack Frost, about how the weather can level us all. Writing this whilst travelling through this almost mythic rainstorm to be very late for a gig on the South coast, that is somewhat easier to see than usual.

Andy Turner sang The Great Conversion on Napoleon on June 19, 2015 as the 200th entry entry of his project, A Folk Song a Week, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Lyrics

Tony Rose sings Grand Conversation on Napoleon

It was over that wild beaten track 'twas said a friend of Bonaparte's
Did pace the sands and the lofty rocks of St Helena's shore,
And the wind it blew a hurricane, the lightning fierce around did dart,
The seagulls were a-shrieking and the waves around did roar.
Ah hush, rude winds, the stranger cried, while I range the spot
Where alas the gallant hero did his weary eyelids close.
And though at peace his limbs do rest, his name will never be forgot.
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.

Oh alas, he cried, why England did you persecute that hero bold?
Much better had you slain him on the plains of Waterloo.
For Napoleon he was a friend to heroes all, both young and old,
He caused the money for to fly wherever he did go.
When plans were forming night and day, the bold commander to betray,
He said, I'll go to Moscow and there I'll ease my woes.
And if fortune smiles on me that day, then all the world shall me obey,
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.

Oh his men in thousands then did rise to conquer Moscow by surprise,
He led his troops across the Alps oppressed by frost and snow,
And being near the Russian land, he then began to open his eyes,
For Moscow was a-blazing and the men drove to and fro.
Napoleon dauntless viewed the plain and then in anguish at the same,
He cried, Retreat me gallant men, for time so swiftly goes.
Ah what thousands died in that retreat, some forced their horses for to eat.
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.

At Waterloo they bravely fought, commanded by this Bonaparte,
Field Marshall Ney did him betray, but he was bribed by gold.
And when Blucher led the Prussians, it nearly broke Napoleon's heart.
He cried, my thirty thousand men are lost, and I am sold.
He viewed the plain and cried, all's lost, and then his favourite charger crossed,
The plain was in confusion with blood and dying woes.
And the bunch of roses did advance and boldly entered into France.
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.

Oh, this Bonaparte was plann'd to be a prisoner across the sea,
The rocks of St Helena, oh, it was his final spot.
And as a prisoner there to be till death did end his misery.
His son soon followed to the tomb: it was an awful plot.
And long enough have they been dead, the blast of war around us spread,
And may our shipping float again to face the daring foes.
And now my boys when honour calls we'll boldly mount those wooden walls.
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.

Acknowledgements

Garry Gillard transcribed the lyrics based on the text from the Mudcat Café.