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The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea

[ Roud 987 ; Master title: The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea ; Laws O15 ; Ballad Index LO15 ; VWML GB/7a/4C ; Bodleian Roud 987 ; GlosTrad Roud 987 ; Wiltshire 327 , 1085 ; DT MOSSYLEA ; Mudcat 49741 ; trad.]

The Wanton Seed

Emily Sparkes sang a fragment of Green Mossy Banks of the Lea in a recording made in Rattlesden in 1958/59 on the 1993 Veteran anthology of traditional music making from Mid-Suffolk, Many a Good Horseman. John Howson commented:

Another courting ballad, which seems to have originated in the 1820s and as published by many broadside printers. It was often noted down in England, North America and Ireland but rarely in Scotland. In East Anglia it was collected widely by Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and E.J. Moeran. In Norfolk it was noted from James Landamore at Wroxham (1910), George Locke at Rollesby (1910), Walter Gales at Sutton (1921) and a recording was made of Harry Cox of Catfield singing the song which can be heard on The Bonny Labouring Boy (1967). In Cambridgeshire, Cecil Sharp got it from Tom Ison at Ely (1911) and in Essex a Mr Bloomfield sang it to Vaughan Williams at Herongate (1904) and Fred Hamer recorded it from Harry Green of Tilty (1967). The latter featured on the cassette VT135, which will eventually be re-released on CD. In Suffolk the only other recording is that of Jumbo Brightwell on the now deleted LP Songs From the Eel’s Foot (1975).

Tom Willett sang another fragment of Green Mossy Banks of the Lee to Ken Stubbs in ca. 1960. This recording was included in 2013 on the Willett Family’s Forest Tracks anthology, A-Swinging Down the Lane, and on their Musical Traditions anthology Adieu to Old England. Rod Stradling commented in the latter’s booklet:

Except for two Irish and a handful of North American sightings, this is an English song with 153 Roud entries, including 30 sound recordings. There seems to be a difference of opinion among scholars as to whether the song is Irish or English in origin, and to whether the river is the Lea or Lee. It has certainly been sung in both countries; Lucy Broadwood described it as “astonishingly popular among country singers”. One Canadian version titles it The American Stranger, from its first line—but that’s a different song (Roud 1081).

Harry Brazil sang The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea in his caravan in Gloucester to Peter Shepheard on 1 October 1967. And Danny Brazil sang it Staverton, Gloucestershire to Gwilym Davies on 30 September 1977. Both recordings were included in 2007 on the Brazil Family’s Musical Tradition anthology Down By the Old Riverside.

Harry Cox sang The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea in a recording made by Sheila Park in 1967 that was included in 2000 on his Topic anthology of traditional songs and tunes from a Norfolk farm worker, The Bonny Labouring Boy. Steve Roud commented in the CD’s booklet:

A popular song with English singers, where over thirty traditional versions are known to have been collected, and also in Canada, but few in the United States. Many of the 19th century broadsides produced printed versions, and it would seem to have originated in the 1820s. It has a rather uneventful story-line, in which the lover has plenty of money so the parent does not object, and texts do not vary a great deal from version to version.

A third Harry, Harry Green of Tilty, sang Green Mossy Banks of the Lea in a 1967 Fred Hamer recording that was included in 2010 on the Veteran CD of traditional singers from Essex, The Fox & the Hare. John Howson commented:

This is a fragment of a ballad Harry remembered being sung in the Bell at Great Easton, by visiting steam engine drivers who were working on the harvest. It seems to date back to the 1820s and became popular in England, North America and Ireland where it is suggested that it originated. In the eastern counties, during the early twentieth century, collectors such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, E.J Moeran and Cecil Sharp found it widely sung. In Essex a Mr Broomfield of Herongate, near East Horndon, sang it to Vaughan Williams in 1904. Other recordings from East Anglia include Harry Cox of Catfield, Norfolk, with a much fuller version, and a two verse fragment from Emily Sparkes of Rattlesden, Suffolk.

Jumbo Brightwell sang The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea in 1975 on his Topic LP of traditional songs and ballads from Suffolk, Songs From the Eel’s Foot.

Vin Garbutt sang Green Mossy Banks of the Lea on his 1976 Trailer album King Gooden.

Frank Hinchliffe sang The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea at his home in July 1976 in a recording by Mike Yates and Ruairidh & Alvina Greig. This was issued in 1977 on his Topic LP In Sheffield Park: Traditional Songs From South Yorkshire and in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of song and music from the Mike Yates Collection, Up in the North and Down in the South.

Nic Jones sang The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea on his 1978 Transatlantic album From the Devil to a Stranger.

Mick Bisiker sang Mossy Green Banks of the Lea in 1991 on his Fellside CD Home Again.

Steve Turner sang The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea on his 2016 Tradition Bearers CD Spirit of the Game. He noted:

I took a liking to the blissful and idyllic sentiments expressed in this song. It just about sums up what would happen in an ideal world. The initial courtship goes perfectly to plan, however then comes the logistical problem of deciding to build a mansion to accommodate the happy couple, which might have been the done thing in those days, and it is accomplished without any hitches or cowboy builders or further comment and does not seem to be in any way out of the ordinary! The song has travelled across the Atlantic and back and is sung to several different tunes. This one is another variant, and a cousin of the Banks of the Bann.

John Kirkpatrick sang The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea on his 2017 Fledg’ling CD Coat-Tails Flying, where he noted:

George Butterworth noted this down in 1908 from Mr Lockly, the eighty-year-old sexton at High Ercall in Shropshire. I first came across it in a selection of the collector’s songs called The Ploughboy’s Glory, edited by Michael Dawney and published by the EFDSS in 1977. It is also included in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop in 2012.

As a traditional song it has turned up on the lips of no end of singers, as well as frequently appearing on printed ballad sheets. The words don’t vary enormously from singer to singer, but the tunes certainly do and are nearly always different. On referring back to the source material, I see that I have unwittingly pushed the tune some distance away from the way I found it, but the glorious slithering from minor to major and back again is there in the original.

Considering the fact that versions of this song have turned up all over the Southern half of England, it’s interesting to note that the country has only one River Lee. The source is near Luton in Bedfordshire, and it runs south-eastwards through Hertfordshire, Essex and East London till it joins the Thames near the Blackwall Tunnel. By which time, one imagines, green mossy banks are in very short supply. There is a River Lee in County Cork in Ireland, which may well beast greener and mossier banks, but the song is more or less unknown over there.

High Ercall (pronounced Arkle) is seven miles north of Shrewsbury. It was previously known as Ercall Magna, and although there is no equivalent Low Ercall, there is Child’s Ercall, previously known as Ercall Parva, and Little Ercall, six miles away. Both places are mentioned on the Domesday Book. High Ercall is obviously a hotbed of musical activity, as there is an account of the locals dancing very long complicated dances there on the village green in 1686.

Sam Lee sang Green Mossy Banks on his 2024 album Songdreaming. He noted:

When the commission to write songs for the feature film The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry came through, many songs flowed, some making the film and others not. Green Mossy Banks was written distinctly in response to that stunning tale and the oldest practice of all when facing life’s deep questions to make pilgrimage. The story inspired me to reflect on how walking will forever be the greatest form of self-discovery and answer-finding. Despite this song not eventually making it into the film it remains for me a proclamation song that sits within this album’s suite of stories musing upon how the land offers many remedies to our sorrows and ills. Walking is the tonic that heals the heart in the most profound of ways. This song was written out of the many miles made on pilgrimage myself when I’ve partaken in the most intimate and ancestral gesture I know to restore and reinvigorate one’s never-ending search for be-lief and re-lief. As remedies go, intentional walking of the land is the one that works deepest and holds in the body’s memory the longest.

Compare to this Banks of the Bann as sung by A.L. Lloyd on The Best of A.L. Lloyd and by Shirley Collins on No Roses.


Emily Sparkes sings Green Mossy Banks of Lea

When presently up came a farmer,
I plucked up my spirits once more.
Said I, "Sir is this your fair daughter?
This beautiful girl I adore.

“Ten thousand a year is my fortune—
A lady your daughter shall be,
And ride in a carriage and horses,
On the green mossy banks of the lea.”

Harry Green sings Green Mossy Banks of the Lea

It’s first in this country a ranger, (stranger?)
Curiosity caused me for to roam,
And there I beheld a fair damsel,
And I wished in my heart she was mine.

How I waited until up came her father,
Plucked up my spirits once more,
Saying, “If this be your daughter Matilda,
She’s the beautifulest girl I adore.

“Ten thousand a year is my fortune,
And a lady your daughter shall be,
She shall ride on that carriage and horses,
On the Green Mossy Banks of the Lea.”

Nic Jones sings The Green Mossy Banks of the Lea

When first in this country a stranger
Curiosity caused me to roam;
Over Europe I resolved to be a ranger
When I left Philadelphia, my home.

We quickly sailed over to England
Where forms of great beauty do shine;
And there I espied a young woman
And I wished in my heart that she was mine.

Oh it’s there I did spy this young woman,
She appeared like some goddess to me.
As she rose from the reeds by the water
On the green mossy banks of the Lea.

I stepped up and wished her good morning
And her cheeks, well, they did blush like the rose.
Says I, “How the river looks charming
And your guardian I’ll be if you choose.”

Says she, “Sir, I ne’er want a guardian;
Young man, you are a stranger to me.
And yonder’s my father a-coming
O’er the green mossy banks of the Lea.”

Well I waited until up come her father,
Saying, “Your daughter, a lady she’ll be.
She’ll ride in a carriage and horses
O’er the green mossy banks of the Lea.”

They invited me home to their cottage
And soon after this lady she was mine;
And there I built a fine castle
In grandeur and splendour to shine.

So now this American stranger,
All pastime and leisure he can see.
He can live with his gentle young woman
On the green mossy banks of the Lea.

So it’s all you young women, attention,
No matter how poor you may be:
Just you think on that gentle young woman
On the green mossy banks of the Lea.

(repeat first verse)